Dark Knight Discussion: The Evolution of Batman

Batman is now more than 75 years old. While The Dark Knight was originally created with the elements that made him into a character that would be a worldwide smash and inspire legions of adoring fans, he’s also gone through countless iterations.

More than any other comic book character, Batman has undergone an enormous evolution. He not only has been adapted to fit the many generations he has endured, but he has grown through it all. It’s not as if he’s unrecognizable compared to his first appearance, but he’s in a much different place today. While every fan has his or her own favorite version of the character, there are so many incarnations to appreciate.

Whether you are a casual fan or a member of his dedicated legion of followers, the history and evolution of Batman is the key to understanding the character and what has made him so irreplaceable. Come take a trip through time and find out how The World’s Greatest Detective became the man he is today.

A Violent Vigilante

The Batman that first appeared in Detective Comics #27 may have all the hallmarks of the hero that is more popular than ever today, but there are some extreme difference. While many elements that are staples of Batman would soon be added, there were several that were different at the outset. Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger (let’s just say Finger should get a lot more credit than he deserves), Batman was conceived as a dark figure of the night. He was equal parts superhero and detective, with a healthy dose of already-existing heroes The Shadow, Dick Tracy, Zorro, and The Scarlet Pimpernel thrown in for good measure.

Like many pulp heroes of the time, Batman fought many types of crooks, with his more colorful villains slowly seeping into the narrative as time went on. Over his first year, The Batman grew more and more into the incarnation we know today, both in appearance and tone. Most interestingly, it wasn’t until Detective Comics #33 that his tragic origins were detailed, a piece of the character that is now inextricable from his DNA.

As time went on, pieces of the character were dropped. Importantly, Batman at first not only used a gun, but killed criminals with it! Thankfully, he dropped the habit quickly and DC has decided that this is no longer part of the character’s mythos. In 1940, Batman #1 was published, introducing multiple characters and setting forth a much brighter tone for the character in a heightened world.

Bright and Colorful, Not Dark and Brooding

It wasn’t long until Batman got an extra-strength injection of brightness. The character was already strong, but maybe the kids didn’t want their hero shooting crooks and tossing criminals to their deaths. Most important, Bill Finger introduced Robin – The Boy Wonder. Like most heroes of the time, it was decided that the adult hero needed a kid sidekick in order to relate to young male readers. While that may be a poor idea in general, leading to many useless sidekicks, Robin is an irreplaceable part of Batman’s story. A dark and brooding character needs more than just Alfred to play off.

Because of homosexual allegations made by Fredrick Wertham in his book The Seduction of the Innocent and the creation of the strict Comic Code Authority, Batman was forced to be light and innocent. For years afterward, Batman became a bright and smiling superhero. He was given an honorary badge by the Gotham Police Department, would stroll down the sidewalk in broad daylight, and fought many colorful foes that would put even Spider-Man’s rogues gallery to shame. While most modern fans now disregard this period, there are still many vital elements that resulted. Although it may have gone too far in this direction, it has helped make Batman’s stories the ability to widely vary.

Adam West, Camp, and The Fall of Batman

If the ‘50s were an example of the bright aspects of Batman, the ‘60s showed just how blindingly light and campy he could get.

Like comics today, the popularity of the Adam West TV show had a profound effect on the books. What was already bright and cheerful was pushed to the boundaries of possibility. In truth, the series was a parody of Batman, taking the many elements of The Dark Knight and poking fun at them, while still maintaining a tone that enthralled children.

Filled with bams, pows, bangs, and the Batusi, it wasn’t anything like The Dark Knight’s creators once imagined. But it worked for a while, growing to three seasons and a movie and sparking countless fans that still follow the series. Today, it’s given birth to a new view of the series, unburdened by a need for only the darkest of stories.

Adam West’s deadpan delivery of serious camp is giddily enjoyable and a testament to the versatility of the character. But fans were just as fickle back then as today and Batman was not the impervious figure of pop culture that he would become.

O’Neil and Adams to the Rescue

While the Adam West Batman series was popular for a few years, it quickly fell from favor, and The Dark Knight fell with it. In fact, things became so bad for Batman comics that DC was considering cancelling him altogether and putting The Caped Crusader into cold storage. With the character so close to the end, rookie writer Dennis O’Neal was given the keys to Detective Comics with little effort. And along with him came artist Neal Adams.

Together O’Neal and Adams revitalized The Dark Knight. Dark and brooding mysteries combined with realistic yet stylish artwork to create Batman stories that were deeply rooted in the character’s noir roots while going in bold new directions. The strength of their creative abilities made Batman a must-read character once again. Not only that, but they created Ra’s al Ghul, Talia al Ghul, and gave countless classic villains new meaning. In addition, O’Neal brought a new psychological focus to Batman, frequently considering the sanity of not just the villains, but the hero himself. Appropriately, O’Neal created Arkham Asylum, a mainstay of Batman’s world. Because of Adams, Batman was given an athletic and realistic build, leading to new interpretations of superhero physique.

Without O’Neal and Adams, Batman wouldn’t be what he is today. He may not even exist.

A Lightning Bolt in the Dark

While Adams and O’Neil gave Batman the many shades and depth he needed, it wasn’t until the late ‘80s when the character hit his next milestone. More specifically, it was two milestones, both by writer Frank Miller.

First, Miller, coming off much success at Marvel Comics with his lengthy run on Daredevil, was given the opportunity to write a future-set tale with The Dark Knight Returns. The end of the decade was all about the grim and gritty, so the tale was a smash hit. Envisioning a future where Batman has retired and the world has fallen apart, Miller created a tale considering what future could await such an obsessed vigilante. While Miller has since spoken of his regrets concerning reshaping the character so much, there’s no denying that many of Batman’s stories in the decades since owe a hefty amount to The Dark Knight Returns.

Second, after DC’s Crisis on Infinite Thoughtsmega-event reset the entire universe, the company decided that Batman’s origin could use revisiting. Who better than the red-hot Miller to inject the origin with new style and substance? But this wasn’t as dark and dim as his dystopian future story. Instead, Batman: Year One firmly set both feet in the real world. With David Mazzuchelli’s gorgeous artwork, it instantly became a tale that redefined Batman and has become an irreplaceable part of the character’s mythos.

Combined, Miller’s Batman tales hit a reset button on the character. The new life they gave The Caped Crusader propelled him through the many highs and lows of the 1990’s and early 2000’s, an era of vast storylines such as Knightfall and No Man’s Land, as well as countless stories that were quickly forgotten.

More Bat-God Than Bat-Man

By the time the 2000’s had hit, Batman had been through, and triumphed over, more obstacles than any normal man ever could. And with any well-worn character come more outrageous stories than ever. Thankfully, many of them were in the best way possible.

Enter Grant Morrison, a writer who had previously dabbled in The Dark Knight during the ‘80s with his insta-classic “Arkham Asylum.” The beginning of the century brought about his seminal run on Justice League, where storylines such as “Tower of Babel” should just how powerful one man could be among a team full of gods. But it was his run on the solo Batman titles, spanning nearly a decade, that left a lasting impression.

Starting with “Batman and Son,” Miller took a tale from the ‘80s that many considered false and gave Batman a son – Damian Wayne – whose mother was Talia al Ghul. Morrison’s take on the character was that every story ever written about Batman was part of his history. From silly space-set tales in the ‘60s to shockingly dark stories from the ‘90s, The Dark Knight had lived a life that spanned the strangest corners of the universe. With such a wide breadth, anything was possible in a Batman story.

That included hallucinations, time travel, a league of worldwide heroes modeled after Batman, and an apocalyptic future with Damian as the new Batman. It all led to the apparent death of Batman. Actually, The Dark Knight had been displaced in time by the villain Darkseid, and was replaced by Dick Grayson and Damian becoming Robin. Of course, this is a Batman that could fight his way back across the ages. Morrison also had Batman create the worldwide organization Batman, Inc. Only to have it all come crashing down in battle with Talia.

With DC’s rebooting of the universe once again, writers like Scott Snyder have been given a new chance to tell the tales of The Dark Knight. These are comics that are already held on the same level as the classics that once established the character. After 75 years, The Dark Knight has shown himself to have more life than ever.

The Batman on the Silver Screen

While The Dark Knight has been ever popular on the multi-colored printed page, it’s film that turned him into a worldwide icon.

From Adam West’s Batman: The Movie to Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s Dark Knight Trilogy, each incarnation has turned in a different take on The Caped Crusader. Smiling hero? Semi-murderous creature of the night? Neon-tinted nippled fighter? Brooding detective? He’s been all of them. Throw in his many animated incarnations and there has been a version of Batman that’s suited for everybody.

The films and comics feed one another. Movies take inspiration from stories across the decades while comics adjust themselves to appeal to new fans brought in from the cinema. Tim Burton’s Batman was darkened to match the ideas set forth by The Dark Knight Returns. Nolan’s Batman Begins cribbed from Batman: Year One. The Dark Knight Rises used many different sources, including Knightfall. The upcoming Batman V Superman looks to take inspiration from The Dark Knight Returns. When elements of the movies, like a realistic tone or the all-black suit, become synonymous with the character in the mainstream, the comics incarnation adopts them.

And so the cycle continues. Just like Batman himself, it will never end.


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