From gloomy beginnings in a six-page comic to the transmedia anchor of Time Warner, he has cast his shadow across many forms. Moody, innovative and mysterious...what’s NOT to love about the king of all superheroes: the Dark Knight?
|Ben Affleck in the upcoming Superman vs. Batman Flick|
This year Batman, i.e. the Dark Knight, celebrates his 75th birthday and truly rules the media. Using Google Analytics, YouTube says he's the most popular superhero in the world, registering a mere three billion plus views from over 70,000 available hours of video. "Big deal" you say? How about this?: He's a billion views ahead Mr. Second Place, Thor (are you kidding me? Thor!) By the way, Superman is third with about 1.7 billion views and counting. (Iron Man, the Avengers, and Wolverine round out the top six.)
Plus he has the best sidekick ever! Holy Billion Views Batman!
But let's take a deeper look into the stranglehold the Caped Crusader has on all things media...
When Superman lifted a carload of criminals above his head on the cover of Action Comics #1 in 1938, the nascent American comic book industry found its defining genre. Young artist Bob Kane hoped to create the next soaring star – with the red unitard and domino mask-wearing Bird-Man. Once his color scheme shifted to black and his domino mask morphed into a cowl with pointed ears in 1939, he never looked back.
But consistent publication does not mean consistent quality. To compete with new comic book genres following the second world war, Batman comics became an increasingly surreal mix of sensational covers, sci-fi cliché and imaginary tales. There were lurid storylines, such as The Rainbow Batman (Detective Comics #241, March 1953), in which the once Dark Knight donned a series of multi-color costumes.
Nonetheless, Batman enjoyed more creative peaks than other long-standing comic characters, with some of the best standalone stories reflecting on the character’s rich legacy.
In The Batman Nobody Knows! (Batman #250, July 1973) Bruce Wayne takes some “ghetto hardened kids” on a camping trip. While swapping campfire stories each child offers their own interpretation of the “real” Batman, ranging from a ten-foot monster to a “down to Earth hip-dude”. Despite its dated dialogue, The Batman Nobody Knows! is one of the first stories to recognize that this mythic hero defies any fixed identity, and is always open to reinterpretation.
The term “graphic novel” emerged in the late 1970s to describe comics with complete stories, quality printing, and high-minded intentions. Although these books sought to distinguish themselves from serialized power fantasies, mainstream publishers soon gravitated to this bookstore friendly format.
While other heroes enjoyed a smattering of graphic novel success, Batman flourished, with early hits including writer/artist Frank Miller’s dystrophic Dark Knight Returns, in which a middle-aged Batman slips back on the cowl. Miller also revisited the hero’s origin in Batman: Year One, establishing the template for future interpretations, including Batman Begins.
With high production values, committed leads and A-list villains, Batman, the television series, was a sensation when it premiered in 1966.
Although the series brought the hero unprecedented popularity, comic fans were quick to dismiss it as Technicolor prevision of the Dark Knight. Strident fans often fail to recognise that without Adam West’s deadpan delivery, Burt Ward’s spirited puns, and the show’s mantra-like theme song, Batman would not be the potent pop culture force he is today.
For cultural impact it is hard to dispute the legacy of West’s Batman, but as perhaps the purest distillation of the Dark Knight in any form, Batman: The Animated Series remains a towering achievement. First airing in 1992, the series’ complex storylines, Art Deco style, and reverence for the source material set a new standard for television animation and Batman’s screen adventures.
This year will see the launch of Gotham, a new television series in which Bruce Wayne is a recently orphaned teen. It remains to be seen if Gotham can match the success of similar young superhero series Smallville and Arrow, but should it survive the competitive primetime TV schedule it will still be measured against the two most successful Dark Knight series: the camp classic starring Adam West, and the noir-fuelled triumph of Batman: The Animated Series.
In the 1960s, pop art aficionados began hosting ironic screenings of this early adaptation, inspiring the development of the Batman television series. While the show enjoyed a spin-off feature, Batman was curiously absent from cinema screens until 1989, when Beetlejuice director Tim Burton brought his gothic sensibility to Batman and its superior sequel Batman Returns.
These blockbusters ushered in a wave of Batmania, and a darker knight managed to banish memories of Adam West’s Technicolor pratfalls. But this work was undone with director Joel Schumacher’s follow-ups. In particular the pun-laden dialogue and day-glo aesthetic of Batman & Robin (1997) was seen by many as a return to the camp crusader, and fans, recently empowered by the web, vilified the film and its director.
It took director Christopher Nolan’s realist approach to wake Batman from a eight-year cinematic hibernation. Batman Begins (2005) inaugurated a blockbusting trilogy that closed with the satisfying The Dark Knight Rises in 2012. But the crowning achievement of this series and Batman’s cinematic career is undoubtedly The Dark Knight. Brimming with post-9/11 anxiety the film reintroduces the Joker as a scarred anarchist played to baroque perfection by Heath Ledger in his last major role. More restrained, but no less impressive, is Christian Bale’s compromised Batman who frequently questions the morality of his actions. Filled with now iconic moments, the film raised the bar for the entire comic-book movie genre.
With their recognizable imagery and built-in fan base, superheroes have long been used to distinguish consumer products, and Batman, with his logo/brand emblazoned across his chest, is no exception. Not long
Most agree that Batman’s appeal stems from his mortal status. He has no alien ancestry, magic rings, or radioactive gifts, he is an ordinary man committed to a single goal. Thus, the gap between fan and hero seems more surmountable. Accordingly, many tie-in products play on this wish fulfilment, whether it is navigating the Dark Knight through the immersive world of the best-selling Arkham videogames, or a Lego Batman scaling the heights of a miniature Gotham.
Nonetheless, the most potent piece of Bat-merchandise is the costume. As early as 1943 the Philadelphia Record gave away a flimsy Batman mask – and today fans can get detailed costumes that would not look out of place on a Hollywood soundstage.
Happy 75th Batman!