Batman Turns 80

Issue #1000 of Detective Comics is hitting the stands.

George Gene Gustines writes for the NYT (“Batman Is Turning 80. Fighting Crime Must Pay.“):

Holy milestones, Batman! Detective Comics, where the caped crusader debuted on March 30, 1939, will reach issue No. 1000 on Wednesday, just days before the hero’s 80th birthday. “It is evidence of the greatness and power of the Batman concept that the character has appeared continuously over eight decades,” Peter Sanderson, a comic book historian, said.

Growing up, I saw versions of Batman in comics and on TV, but one of the great leaps forward was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a four-part story which presented an older version of the hero coming out of retirement to protect Gotham City once more. Miller’s vision of Batman helped pave the way for Tim Burton’s “Batman,” starring Michael Keaton, perhaps the first time my love of comics was less childish and more socially acceptable.

Since then, we’ve had many film Batmen — his onscreen incarnations have oscillated between campy (Joel Schumacher) and dignified (Christopher Nolan) — but his guiding principle has remained the same. “Batman never gives up on his mission to protect the innocent from evil,” Sanderson said.

He takes us through several milestones of the Caped Crusader’s journey starting with the beginning:

Detective Comics was an anthology series that began in 1937 that eventually gave DC Comics its name. The Bat-Man, as he was then called inside the book, premiered in this issue’s six-page “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” (The later cover date — of May, in this instance — was a practice publishers used to keep comics on newsstands longer.) The story introduces Commissioner Gordon, the wealthy Bruce Wayne and his caped alter-ego, who thinks nothing of heaving a criminal off a roof. Batman was created by the artist Bob Kane and the writer Bill Finger, though it took many years for Finger to receive credit for his significant contributions to the canon. Another bat-fact: A copy of Detective No. 27 sold at auction for $1.075 million in 2010.

And ending with what is surely not the end:

This 96-page issue has several stories by a boldface slate of creators. The first, “Batman’s Longest Case,” by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, recalls his first adventure. It also introduces the Detective Guild, some of whose members had extensive solo stories in Detective, including Slam Bradley (12 years), Martian Manhunter (nine years) and Elongated Man (five years). “The richness, variety and popularity of these backups contributed to Detective’s success and longevity,” said Richard Roney, a member of the geek squad I run with, who researched and extolled these supporting characters.

I read the books off and on over the years, beginning in the late 1970s. I very much enjoyed the reboot that followed Crisis on Infinite Earths, including the Frank Miller-written “Batman: Year One” series in 1987. I fell away from reading late the next year, as I shipped off to Fort Sill to begin my Army career and have only read a relative handful since.

FILED UNDER: Comic Books
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    I’d argue it goes even further back, as Bob Kane’s original inspiration was “Zorro set in a modern city”.

  2. Gustopher says:

    I liked the Frank Miller stuff as a young man*, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that the Batman that really speaks to me is the Adam West TV show.

    *: particularly The Dark Knight Strikes Again, which is Frank Miller attempting to come to terms with the 9/11 attacks, and just failing. Rereading that makes me feel like I understand America better, but not in a good way.

  3. Kathy says:

    I don’t read comic books, but I liked the 90s era animated Batman series. there are lots of animated movies, too. I saw the one based on The Dark Knight Returns. But the one I still like best is the first done by the team that did the cartoon series, Batman Mask of the Phantasm.

    It tells of Batman’s beginnings as a vigilante (that’s what he is, really) in flashbacks. In one, no spoilers, he kind of breaks down standing by the grave of his parents and makes a stunning admission: “I didn’t count on being happy.”

  4. Kylopod says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Wasn’t Superman a more immediate inspiration? That more or less launched the superhero genre, and it debuted about a year before Batman.

  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Have always loved the Bat…since childhood.
    The TV series ran when I was 8-10 (66-68) which of course I loved…but soon after I found a graphic novel that was pretty dark…and the deal was sealed.
    Ben Afleck…meh.
    Here’s to another 80 years.

  6. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Kylopod:

    Wasn’t Superman a more immediate inspiration?

    In the “hey superheroes are making money, we need one” perhaps.

    But if you look at Batman and Zorro, they’re essentially the same character: super rich guy with no actual superpowers who pretends to be a useless playboy so that no one suspects they’re spending their nights running around in a disguise beating up bad guys.

    (And Zorro was in turn inspired by the Scarlet Pimpernel, who is also essentially the exact same character, only in the French Revolution)

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher: The Adam West Batman, which was in re-runs when I watched it as a kid, was my introduction to the character. I find it unwatchable now, though.

    @Stormy Dragon: Yes, good point. There’s a long-running debate as to whether Batman is even, strictly speaking, a superhero. He has no actual superpowers, after all.

  8. mattbernius says:

    @Stormy Dragon & @Kylopod: Honestly, The Shadow was probably the most direct thing Kane and Finger’s mind (millionaire playboy with secret identity as a gun slinging detective/vigilante). The first Batman story was lifted, by Finger, from a Shadow story (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shadow#Influence_on_superheroes_and_other_media ).

    Important reminder, most of Batman didn’t really come from Kane. It was Finger who more or less created most of the character we know today.:

    https://io9.gizmodo.com/heres-how-awful-batman-would-be-without-the-existence-1507373880

    The pulpier aspects of Batman (i.e. guns and killing) disappeared within the first year, by the time they realized they had a hit on their hands and made the brilliant decision to introduce Robin as a POV character.

    Apparently Batman’s original costume sketch was largely lifted from Zorro (hence the different style of mask).

  9. An Interested Party says:

    Certainly Batman is a much more interesting character than Superman or even Spider Man…and he has the best rogue’s gallery of any superhero…

  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    @An Interested Party:

    Superman is a terrible character from a writing standpoint. Both physically and personality wise, he’s TOO perfect, which makes it hard to create any sort of dramatic tension without resorting to gimmicks to make superman not superman.

  11. Teve says:

    Having spent most of the last decade drinking and smoking, I’ve been getting back in shape this year and it’s required a lot of persistence and attention to detail. And a huge awareness that I can’t just proceed as heedlessly as I did the last time I got in shape, when I was 29. So I found this article funny:

    Dark Knight Shift: Why Batman Could Exist–But Not for Long

    if you also exercise, and you also have acquired a little bit of age, you might also find this entertaining.

  12. Teve says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    (And Zorro was in turn inspired by the Scarlet Pimpernel, who is also essentially the exact same character, only in the French Revolution)

    who Doesn’t like Daffy Duck????

  13. Michael Reynolds says:

    Batman is a brilliantly designed character, quite the opposite of Superman who is (apologies to Superman superfan Seinfeld) a lousy character. The Marvel counterpart would be Spiderman. Batman/Bruce Wayne the super rich, confident, dark vigilante, and Spiderman/Peter Parker the working class kid who quips his way along.

  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    This is embarrassing but the nearest I get to having memorized poetry:

    They seek him here,
    They seek him there,
    Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
    Is he in heaven?
    Or is he in hell?
    That damned elusive Pimpernel?

    Thank you, thank you. You can just send my prize in the mail.

  15. Kathy says:

    @Teve:

    Hey, he’s been Duck Dodgers in addition to the Scarlet Pumpernickel 🙂

    And Dorlock Holmes, too.

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: “Mask…” is my favorite, too. I didn’t see the swerve coming at all. Great surprise!

  17. Timothy Watson says:

    @Kathy: My very first exposure to Batman was the 1989 Burton film, which was followed by a childhood devotion to Batman: The Animated Series. That ended up growing into being a huge fan of the Batman: Arkham videogame series because of the shared voice actors between the videogame series and the animated series.

    I think the only comic books I ever had were the Mask of the Phantasm comic adaptation (and the Star Wars Dark Empire series). If I remember correctly, I saw the Mask of the Phantasm in the theater as a kid during its limited commercial release.

  18. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    The Adam West Batman, which was in re-runs when I watched it as a kid, was my introduction to the character. I find it unwatchable now, though.

    You know, when I watched the Adam West version at age 8, also in reruns, I thought the characters and the show were serious drama. It wasn’t until I watched a rerun in my late teens, I realized it was more like satire, or, much worse, a serious attempt that wound up feeling like satire.

  19. Grumpy realist says:

    @Stormy Dragon: if you want a real hoot, get a copy of Larry Niven’s essay “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex”…..

    ….at least that’s not a problem Batman will have to worry about!

  20. Kathy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Interesting who figured it out first, before Batman.

  21. Kathy says:

    @Timothy Watson:

    I liked the first Burton film, but the animated series had better actors. To me, the real Joker is Mark Hamill. He plays him completely deranged. He can be kind, cruel, brilliant, bored, and so on, but he’s insane in every scene.

    Did you see the ep “The Man Who Killed Batman”?

  22. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Superman is a terrible character from a writing standpoint. Both physically and personality wise, he’s TOO perfect, which makes it hard to create any sort of dramatic tension without resorting to gimmicks to make superman not superman.

    That’s a lousy, lazy argument, just like the stories where they depower him are generally lousy and lazy stories.

    Most superhero stories focus around “can the hero do this”, but with Superman the answer to that is always “yes”. It’s just not an issue. It’s not really an issue with any other superhero story either, because we know they will win in the end, but Superman puts that front and center.

    The good Superman stories are about whether he should do something, or how he does something. And they are always very hopeful.

    Yes, he’s physically stronger than anyone. But that’s not his character, that’s just some decoration.

    MCU Captain America is Superman without the decorative powers. Doing the right thing because it’s the right thing, and inspiring others to do the same.

    The recent DC movies are not good Superman stories — his parents never would have said “yes, let a bus load of children die”, and Perry White inspired more people than Superman did. “Man Of Steel” still makes me mad.

    Recommended Superman stories:
    Superman For All Seasons
    All Star Superman

  23. Gustopher says:

    @Kathy: its not serious, or satire, or badly done serious that becomes self-satire — it’s earnest camp.

    It reminds me of Dude, Where’s My Car? — no tongue in cheek, just wholeheartedly embracing the ridiculous world and treating it as if it is serious.

    I don’t think the animated movies they made with Adam West a few years back work because they are deliberately tongue in cheek.

    Earnest Camp. Not Ernest Goes To Camp, that’s something very different.

  24. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Gustopher:

    The good Superman stories are about whether he should do something, or how he does something. And they are always very hopeful.

    And Superman is still boring, because he doesn’t face temptation and is incorruptible, so we know he’s going to do the right thing and again there’s no tension.

  25. Gustopher says:

    @Stormy Dragon: He faces temptation. He’s not sure what the right thing is. He gets presented with situations where he can’t save everyone.

    He gets knocked down, and he gets up and continues. And he inspires others to do the same.

    He often wins only a partial victory, but he doesn’t wallow in pity. He does his best, and doesn’t despair when it’s not good enough.

    He consoles his son when the kid accidentally sets the family cat on fire with his heat vision (an eagle grabbed the cat, he was trying to rescue it and mistakes were made… not the best story, actually)

    Both Batman and Superman (and basically every superhero) faces the same problem: their arch rival keeps turning up again and again. Which is more believable, Batman letting the Joker live, or Superman letting Lex Luther live?

    Also, there’s the Superdickery. Like forcing Jimmy Olsen to marry a gorilla. (There was probably a good reason for doing that.)

  26. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    As I said, I don’t read comic books. But a coworker who does, has told me about a series of DC Comics called “Elseworlds,” which are kind of one-off imaginative rule/formula-breaking stories.

    One which sounds interesting is called, I believe, “Red Son of Krypton.” In this story, Superman is exactly the same, except his spaceship landed in Soviet Russia rather than Kansas. IIRC, it takes place in the Stalin era.

  27. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    Both Batman and Superman (and basically every superhero) faces the same problem: their arch rival keeps turning up again and again.

    Well, it helps sell the stories. You can’t make up a new villain every month, develop their character quickly, and then never see them again.

    Besides, often the villains are far more interesting.

    Which is more believable, Batman letting the Joker live, or Superman letting Lex Luther live?

    In an animated movie, “Under the Red Hood,” Batman supplies an explanation, coincidentally about the Joker:

    Jason Todd: What? That your moral code just won’t allow for that? It’s too hard to cross that line?

    Batman: No! God Almighty, no. It’d be too damned easy. All I’ve ever wanted to do is kill him. A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about subjecting him to every horrendous torture he’s dealt out to others, and then… end him. But if I do that, if I allow myself to go down into that place… I’ll never come back.

    On other things, when you think seriously about superheroes, you realize how absurd the whole thing is. Not to say they are not inspiring, they can be and often are. And not to say they aren’t interesting and fun, they often are as well.

    But, think about it. They keep catching these super villains, who keep getting released or escape, and who keep terrorizing the cities the superheroes protect.

    Or, what is Superman’s greatest power? to me, it’s the ability, unspoken and unremarked, to spread pressure over a wide area. When you see him push a big airplane, for instance, or carry a building, as he did in the Justice League movie, he’s applying a tremendous force of thousands of tons, yet his hands, relatively small compared to the object being carried, don’t punch through the object as one would expect, and physics demands, when so much force concentrates in a small surface area.

    Naturally Mr. Kent must be able to spread the pressure invisibly when he’s exerting a tremendous amount of force, thereby leaving 747s and apartment buildings free of Superman’s palm-sized and shaped holes.

    And no one even notices.

  28. mattbernius says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Batman is a brilliantly designed character, quite the opposite of Superman who is (apologies to Superman superfan Seinfeld) a lousy character.

    To the degree that Batman’s one of the most flexible characters out there, he’s brilliantly designed for a multi-author medium. He fits into almost any story: noir, procedural, spy, cerebral detective, 2-fisted pulp, sci-fi, etc. So he allows any writer to write to their strengths. I completely agree he’s absolutely brilliant and from that perspective a better character than Superman.

    However, I don’t think that Superman’s a lousy character — just less flexible. You need to have a particular set of skills to write a good Superman story. But when you have those skills, you get amazing work like Mark Miller’s “Red Son,” Grant Morrison’s seminal “All Star Superman,” and some of Alan Moore’s great work on Superman. The challenge is that with Superman you need to embrace a lot of the weirdness of the character in a way that you don’t necessarily have to do with Batman.

    Morrison’s take is that Batman fights the concept of crime and death (i.e. no one should ever lose their parents to a crime again). Superman, on the other hand, fights the impossible. In other words, he needs to find ways to do something that no one else can possible do. The problem is that most writers are not comfortable going there and so they work to depower Superman versus making him face larger and larger impossible challenges (see, eg, Zack Snyder’s complete misunderstanding of Superman… and for that matter Batman).

  29. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Kathy:

    But, think about it. They keep catching these super villains, who keep getting released or escape, and who keep terrorizing the cities the superheroes protect.

    Of course, then you get into the Watchman argument that superheroes are just a romanticized version of a lynch mob. If the the legal system doesn’t get the “right” response, then an anonymous masked guy will show up in the dead of night to make sure you get what you “deserve”. They have to keep letting the villains escape to keep from drawing too much attention to what is actually being advocated.

  30. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius:

    However, I don’t think that Superman’s a lousy character — just less flexible. You need to have a particular set of skills to write a good Superman story.

    I’m not even sure he’s a less flexible character. There is an absolute need to just accept the goofiness though — that bit of his world is entirely inflexible.

    Kurt Busiek’s Secret Identity is about someone whose parents thought it would be funny to name him Clark Kent, and give him Superman themed birthday parties, and in college people keep trying to introduce him to various women named Lois, and then he develops all the powers of Superman.

    The summary sounds awful, because it really should be awful, but it’s actually a touching and beautiful story.

    On the other hand, a mediocre Superman story somehow seems more mediocre than a mediocre Batman story. You can’t cover it up with angst and brooding and “I am the night”.

    After the New52 reboot of DC Comics, they tried to create a Superman that was a bit more grounded and relatable, a bit less perfect, and he ended up being so boring and awful that they killed him and had the Superman from the previous universe come and take his place.

  31. mattbernius says:

    @Gustopher:
    Secret Identity is great and I should have included Busiek on my list, along with Mark Waid.

    My point is that the people who make Superman work are typically top flight writers. But for each of those folks, there is a lot of other top talent that utterly fails at the character. And a lots of mid-listers have the same problem with Superman.

    As you put it: A mediocre Superman story feels more mediocre than a mediocre Batman story. That’s a sign that the character isn’t as flexible.

    The issue is that there are a narrower range of stories that he works in. Batman works in almost any genre. That just isn’t the case with Superman and it tends to show (which leads to the constant desire to reboot him).

  32. Gustopher says:

    @mattbernius: I’d say it’s more of a sign that Superman doesn’t fit the current set of tropes that mediocre writers use to cover their mediocrity, rather than him being an inflexible character. He doesn’t flex in the current popular way. Cynicism and nihilism doesn’t work for Superman, any more than a healthy relationship would work for Batman.

    Lots of mediocre Superman stories from the 60s through the 80s hold up fine. Even after that, if they hold back the cynicism and the effort to make him cool, the mediocre stories are often fine. Busiek’s “Camelot Falls” run was… mediocre, but fine. Rucka’s run… not terrible. The Lois and Clark tv show was mostly good.

    (I’m still bitter about the end of the New Krypton storyline… they knew they were rebooting everything in a year, so just give him the happy ending and roll with it)