When Bob Kane and Bill Finger created the character of “The Batman” in 1939 to capitalize on the success of DC’s foray into superheroes with Superman, they probably had no idea they were creating one of the most enduring characters of the 20th century, not just in comic books, but in popular culture at large. At first a character modeled on hard-boiled pulp detective fiction, remorseless and ruthless when dealing with criminals, over time Batman came to be one of the most justice-oriented and ethical of all superheroes, refusing to kill even his worst enemies. Led by a need to avenge his parents’ death, Bruce Wayne, devoid of superpowers, leveraged his intellect, his wealth, and his indomitable will to protect the citizens of Gotham City against the kind of senseless crimes, both petty and grandiose, that had taken his parents from him.
In the post-war years, Batman’s image shifted from a noirish denizen of the night to a brighter figure; a respected individual rather than a vigilante in the shadows, and by the 1950s he was dabbling in the science fiction plots that had taken over pulps and comics in general. Though the comic series was pulling back into more serious detective stories by the 1960s, the colorful, campy Batman burst onto TV screens in 1966 with Adam West as the caped hero. In response to the success of the show, the comics turned back to campy, and predictably, when the show’s success waned, so did the popularity of the comics. The bright and colorful take on Batman was over (and DC worked for decades to shake the campy image), and it was time for Batman to return to the shadows. Under Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, he did so, becoming once again a grim avenger, but it would take Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) to fully bring to life the Batman that most of us are familiar with today.
Miller’s dark and complicated take on Batman popularized the character once again, and along with books by Alan Moore (The Killing Joke) and others led to the noirish Batman films of Tim Burton. Joel Schumacher’s return to the campy style of the ’60s TV show didn’t fare as well with ’90s audiences already acclimated to a more sinister Bat-style, but Christopher Nolan’s Miller-inspired Batman series was exactly what the modern generation wanted. Nolan’s Batman is complicated, dark, morally ambiguous, and a far cry from either the pulpy crime-fighter of the 1940s or the campy do-gooder of the 1960s. Yet they are all Batman, and the fact that the character has managed to sustain such a wide variety of approaches over the past 80 years without his backstory undergoing many significant changes is pretty amazing. Superman may be the hero who stands up for truth, justice, and the American way, but Batman reminds us of the seedier side of American life, the darkness that is inherent in our grandest cities, and in our most upstanding citizens. He is also that most American of things, the self-made hero – he is heroic because he chooses to be, because he chooses to fight for a better world, even though he knows such a world may not, and may never exist.
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