With Batman Day coming up next month, it might be a good time to take a retrospective look at the character and his many incarnations (comics, film, TV animation). Glen Weldon’s informative & fun The Caped Crusade: Batman And the Rise Of Nerd Culture checks out the 77 year old (!) history of Batman and finds some interesting facts.
According to Weldon, cartoonist Bob Kane’s original concept of the character was fine tuned by writer Bill Finger, who wrote many of the early stories beginning with Batman’s debut in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939), published by DC Comics. Batman’s origin, published a few months later, establishes him as Bruce Wayne, millionaire who saw his parents murdered as a boy and vowed (directly after the horrible crime) to avenge their deaths by “warring on all criminals” and took on the identity of Batman.
Finger came up with the superhero’s young, then pre-teen partner Robin nearly a year later solely as a way of giving Batman somebody to talk to (Alfred the butler wouldn’t arrive until 1943). In the 1950s however, parents and various watchdog groups started questioning whether or not Batman & Robin’s relationship was healthy. (Weldon rightly argues that the characters had a familial, not romantic, bond.)
Weldon really gets rolling once he gets to the infamously “camp” 1966-68 TV series that elevated Batman from a second stringer next to Superman to becoming DC’s most popular hero up into the early 80s. But the camp approach of the show also outraged the fans or “nerds” of the character. When the TV show went off the air and sales of Batman comics plunged, a back-to-basics approach -Batman going solo, no more crazy villains like the Joker & Catwoman showing up (for a while), less “Bat” gadgets- helped extend the character’s survival for a time.
But by the 1980s, things weren’t looking too good for the character. Another new approach, making Batman more “darker” & grimmer (and, maybe, a little psychotic) was undertaken and successfully resonated with the fans, in part due to Frank Miller’s ground braking 1986 Dark Knight Returns graphic novel mini-series and the resultant popular 1989 Tim Burton film with Michael Keaton as the lead character and a over-the-top Jack Nicholson as The Joker.
Today, Weldon notes that the Batman character, personified by recent films like The Dark Knight (2008) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) is “dark, humorless, and hyperrealistic” in the comics and other media, pleasing the fans. Yet “the Idea Batman” he notes, the one universally accepted by the general, non obsessive comics fan public, is a hero who can overcome great odds and tragedy and “rebuild himself into someone useful to others”. That Ideal Batman, Weldon argues, is the one that will always endure throughout the generations. With that optimistic tone, and the author wry and well researched observations, The Caped Crusade is worth reading!
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