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75 Years of Batman

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An in-depth celebration of the 75-year history of the greatest superhero ever...

May 2014 marks the 75th anniversary of Batman

"The "Bat-Man", a mysterious and adventurous figure, fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong doer, in his lone battle against the evil forces of society... His identity remains unknown."

Those exciting words started off a story in Detective Comics Issue number 27 in May of 1939, and the world was introduced to one of the most well-known and most recognized superheroes - The Bat-Man, as he was first called. National Comics (now DC Comics) was enjoying comic sales due to Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel's latest creation, Superman, and they were in the market for another caped crusader. Created by Bob Kane, he was little more than crude sketches until Bill Finger gave some suggestions that would make him iconic: The bat cowl, the color of the costume (Kane originally planned on having Batman wear a red union suit with black trunks and cape), and putting gloves on the hero.

The man behind the mask would become Bruce Wayne, a wealthy playboy who pretended to have no ambition in life, living vicariously through his friend Commissioner James Gordon. Eventually Wayne's back story would be fleshed out to the origin story we all know and love. An orphan whose parents were killed in front of him, he would dedicate his life to crime fighting, becoming a chemist, a gymnast and martial artist, a master detective and even a gunslinger. Batman had no qualms about roughing up criminals or even taking a life when necessary. By 1940, Batman writers attempted to lighten up the character for younger audiences, and by the time Batman number 1 came out, he would trade the gun in for a gas-propelled grappling hook, gain a sidekick in the form of Dick Grayson, or Robin, the Boy Wonder, a teenage trapeze artist who witnessed his parents' death at the hands of an unscrupulous gangster trying to extort payment from the circus owner, and he would meet his greatest foe: The Joker. (Piece of Trivia: The Joker was only meant to be a one time villain, and was to die. The reasoning was that the writers felt that it would make Batman seem like an ineffective hero if his villains kept coming back. Editor Whitney Ellsworth overruled them, and The Joker has become the most famous of Batman's Rogue Gallery).

The template for Batman came from many different inspirations, from The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro (both being examples of the aristocratic crime fighter), The Shadow, Dick Tracy, Sherlock Holmes (the master detective) and The Phantom. Over the years, different writers played on varying aspects of the character, giving him an uneven history. While some writers wanted to display his mastery of detection, others only worked with his physical capabilities. And depending upon the era, Batman's psychological profile has changed. While he started out very much a dark character, even going to the extreme of killing if it were called for, during the forties he was lightened up greatly to appeal to a younger audience. For years, many knew a Batman who was generally a happy crime fighter, even smiling as he fought his opponents. Columbia Pictures also released two serials based on the character: Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949). Then during the fifties, as science fiction took hold over the nation, then-Editor Julius Schwartz worked with writers to infuse those elements into their titles. Suddenly the Caped Crusader was traveling to other dimensions, meeting aliens, battling robots and villains with numerous death rays (and some ray guns that did really stupid things, like rainbows) and the introduction of Bat-Mite, an imp from another dimension much like Mister Mxyzptlk from Superman.

Due to the crackdown on comic books due in large part to Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent (for further proof that Wertham was a terrible person, remember that he was on the defense team for Albert Fish), the allegation of a homoerotic subtext in Batman comics led to the addition of more female characters in the fifties. First was Kathy Kane, the first Batwoman, who was meant to be a love interest for Bats. Eventually they introduced her niece Betty, who became Bat-Girl. The sixties saw the addition of the new Batgirl, who was in reality Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Commissioner Gordon, who was a full-time librarian. However, interest in Batman declined to the point that DC nearly cancelled the title. However, it was the campy television program Batman that brought him back into pop culture. Adam West played the title character for three seasons in what is now both cherished and admonished by fans. While the show revitalized the character, it also nearly destroyed him, with many comic fans thinking that Batman had strayed too far from his roots.

To reverse the damage done by the swinging sixties, DC brought in writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams in 1971. The pair brought Batman back to his Dark Knight roots, creating darker story lines and creating what is generally accepted as the best era of Batman writing. They also created Ra's al Ghul, one of Batman's most formidable foes, and who's daughter, Talia, who would eventually become a sometime lover for the hero. Eventually Dick Grayson would move on, first working with the New Teen Titans (not that abomination shown on Cartoon Network) and then moving to neighboring Blüdhaven and becoming the hero Nightwing named after a hero he met during an adventure in the bottled city of Kandor. In the eighties Batman would then take in Jason Todd as Robin, who would eventually be killed by The Joker in a controversial story line titled "A Death in the Family", where the fate of Todd was decided by DC readers voting via phone.

ThMichael Keaton as Batman and Jack Nicholson as The Joker in Tim Burton's 'Batman' (1989)e eighties also saw the critically-acclaimed mini-series "Year One" by Frank Miller, which fleshed out the early years of Batman's career and the arrival of James Gordon to Gotham. Miller also wrote the Elseworlds graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns", which told the story of a fifty-year-old Bruce Wayne, who has long since retired from crime fighting. Gotham has deteriorated to a gang land, and Batman is called out of retirement to clean up the city with the help of a new Robin, Carrie, whose parents care more about getting high than dealing with their child. Aspects of this book were inspirational to Tim Burton when he made his 1989 feature film.

In 1988, Alan Moore wrote The Killing Joke, a book where Batman has to deal with the fact that he and The Joker are constantly going to be battling each other. The Joker also shoots and paralyzes Barbara Gordon - who would continue fighting crime as Oracle - and kidnapping James Gordon, trying to force him into the insanity that he suffers. It also gives an interesting back story to The Joker, where he was an unnamed struggling comic who was trying to support a wife and child. After their deaths, he agrees to work with some gangsters as "The Red Hood", a disguise used by various people who are hired by the crew to pose as the head of their organization.

During the heist, Batman stops them, but drops the comic into a vat of chemicals. When he appears, he is transformed into The Joker. However, he is an unreliable narrator, who even makes the comment later on in the book that he remembers it differently at different times, and that if he had a past, he would prefer it to be multiple choice. The Joker makes the point that it's usually one moment or chance happening that can cause the average man to snap, and the book shows that Batman and The Joker are, indeed, two sides of the same coin. The book was a major inspiration for the character in Nolan's The Dark Knight.

The nineties saw the much beloved Batman: The Animated Series, which ran for several seasons and jump-started the DC Animated Universe (which continued with Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond - which told the story of a retired Bruce Wayne who passes on the mantle to Terry McGuinness, a young man whose father is killed - Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, several animated Batman films and more animated films dealing with Batman, Superman and other members of the Justice League). Writers continued taking Batman down his dark path, with some incredible series and graphic novels being written. Writer Jeph Loeb wrote several storylines - "Haunted Knight", "Dark Victory" and "The Long Halloween", which were all inspirations for Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy.

But the biggest story of the nineties was the "Knightfall" story line, where a new villain named Bane, a man who was born into a South American prison system and who was created to be a statistical genius and a nearly indestructible fighter. In the story, Bane comes to Gotham and takes on Batman, breaking his back and taking over the city's criminal elements. In Bruce's absence, the mantle of the Bat is taken up by Jean-Paul Valley, who was Azrael, an assassin from the Order of St. Dumas. Unfortunately, Valley became increasingly violent, changing the classic costume into battle armor, and eventually defeating Bane. Wayne, meanwhile, had gone abroad to have his back healed, and came back to Gotham to take back back his cowl, only to have to fight Valley for it. This story line was loosely adapted for The Dark Knight Rises.

However, the nineties saw three more Batman films, each worse than the last. Burton would take the helm for his sequel Batman Returns, which was darker in tone to the first film, but was too stylized and changed the character of The Penguin into a deformed monster. Burton handed over the reigns to director Joel Schumacher, who went on to make Batman Forever and Batman & Robin, which traded gothic overtones and dark storytelling for neon colors, glow-in-the-dark fight scenes, and bat nipples. While Batman Forever isn't entirely terrible, it was too comedic in tone compared to the first two films, and introduced a Robin who was 10 years too old compared to the comic books. Batman & Robin is still touted as the worst comic book movie of all time, placing nipples on the bat suits and bringing on Alicia Silverstone as Barbara/Batgirl (here, not Gordon's daughter, but Alfred's niece) and Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze, a huge misstep. It also brought in Uma Thurman, who did a pretty good job playing Poison Ivy, and used the character of Bane, changing him from the calculating strategist he was in the books to a grunting muscle man who was a slave to Poison Ivy. The movies all but killed Batman in the cinema.

Since the turn of the century, we have seen Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy in theatres, a slew of animated projects, including several failed series - The Batman, Batman: The Brave and the Bold and Beware the Batman, the death of Bruce Wayne, the battle for the Cowl, the re-emergence of Bruce, and the introduction of Damien Wayne, the child of Bruce and Talia al Ghul, who is now living with his father and is the newest Robin. We also saw the return of Jason Todd in "Under the Hood" (the inspiration for the animated film Under the Red Hood), where it's revealed that Jason had been resurrected by Ra's al Ghul in his Lazarus Pits, and he has become a murdering vigilante calling himself Red Hood. In 75 years, Batman has changed more times than a pop singer in concert, from Dark Knight to kid-friendly purveyor of justice, campy to psychotic, detective to ultimate fighter. There is no one Batman, and perhaps that's why the character has endured for this long. Everyone has their Batman that they can love, and that makes him universal. And as long as they're still writing stories for him, I'll keep buying them.

See also:

Who played the best Superman?: Ranking the Supermen

Why Joss Whedon should reboot Batman

Auteur theory, fandom, and reboots: Why there can (and maybe should) be more than one take on a franchise


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