How do you write about a character so ingrained in the fabric of society and pop culture as Batman? For 75 years, the Bat has been prowling the rooftops and back alleys of Gotham City. He’s gone up against the most iconic rogues gallery in the DC Comics universe, possibly in comics history. He’s gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Killer Croc and Bane, outsmarted gangsters like Two-Face and the Penguin, and matched wits with the Riddler and the Clown Prince of Crime himself, the Joker.
Batman is a symbol of strength and justice in the DC universe. When the residents of Gotham see the familiar bat-beacon shining up into the night sky, they know their Dark Knight will be there to protect them. For the last 75 years, Batman has shown us that, from tragedy, hope can be born; hope for a brighter tomorrow.
Batman was first introduced in issue #27 of Detective Comics back in May 1939. A creation of artist Bob Kane and the often overlooked writer Bill Finger, Batman, or as he was referred to at the time, “the Bat-Man,” soon rose in popularity. It was back then that he was given his most famous and long-lasting monikers: “the Caped Crusader”, “the Dark Knight”, and “the World’s Greatest Detective”. It would seem, even then, his creators had big plans for Gotham’s masked protector.
Over the years, Batman has been through a lot of changes. He’s been given outrageous gadgets, a fleet of Batmobiles, a flock of Robins, and more costumes than I can count. He’s had a son and he’s had a daughter, though depending on the continuity, he’s had neither (but never both). He was always, however, the same man at his core. For 75 years, he has been Bruce Wayne, a man who, as a boy, watched as his parents were ruthlessly gunned down. He swore vengeance on the criminals of Gotham City, vowing to protect the citizens of Gotham from the same trauma he endured as a boy.
It wasn’t long before the Dark Knight was brought to life on the big screen. But not by who you think. Most people, if put to the task of naming the first actor to portray the Caped Crusader, would quite confidently say Adam West. And they would most assuredly be incorrect. In fact, 23 years before Adam West donned the cape and cowl, there was another Batman. Lewis Wilson was the first man to answer to the name Bruce Wayne in the 15-part 1943 serial Batman, released just four years after the character was introduced.
Like most fans of my generation, my first Batman experience was Tim Burton’s 1989 film, the film that dared to shed the campy, light-hearted image of the 60s and earlier and show us the dark, gritty side of Gotham. Shortly thereafter, Batman the Animated Series, arguably the most loved and absolute best portrayal of the Dark Knight, aired on the WB Network. The art style of Bruce Timm and the voice acting of Kevin Conroy have become synonymous with all things Batman. For many people, the Timm-verse Batman is the Batman outside of the comics. And Conroy will always be the voice of Batman, on or off the page.
Batman was again reinvented in the early 2000s by director Christopher Nolan. His films, starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader, sought to show us the rise and fall of the Batman set in a real-world setting. The success of the Nolan Batman trilogy is up to the viewer to decide (While I personally enjoyed the first two films, I found the third to be an absolute mess and I greatly disliked how Batman was portrayed in all three. Where are his detective skills??), but what can’t be denied is how successfully Batman was reintroduced to the masses. People were excited about Batman again. And people haven’t stopped being excited since.
With the release of the wildly popular and critically acclaimed Arkham video game series, we get to play as Batman, with all the martial arts moves and fancy toys we can beat a thug with. The stories they told were dark and the scale was epic. It was like acting out an arc of the comics. And with a number of well-known voice actors reprising their famous roles, such as Kevin Conroy, Mark Hamill, and Tara Strong as Batman, the Joker, and Harley Quinn, respectively, the games were an instant hit with fans who had grown up watching Batman the Animated Series.
“But what about the comics?” you might be asking. All I’ve covered has been the media. But what about the comics, where Batman is at his strongest? Let’s dive in!
For 75 years, Batman has graced the pages of DC Comics, beating down thugs, stopping the Joker, and saving the day. But what makes him so popular? Of all the DC heroes, he’s one of the few without superpowers, yet he’s regarded as equal to (and often times superior to) the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman. I think it’s because he was designed to be us, the reader. Bruce Wayne is a man shaped by the tragic loss of his parents as a child. He has no powers, to magic ring. He’s a man driven to fight against injustice wherever he sees it, a man who never wants another child to go through what he went through. Bruce Wayne took his grief and his considerable fortune and put it to use crafting himself into Batman. He learned martial arts, studied science and technology, tactics and psychology. His superpower is his unbreakable will and his drive to never give up the fight.
His stories are legendary, from The Long Halloween to Hush, the unforgettable Killing Joke in which Barbara Gordon is brutally shot and paralyzed by the Joker, and the controversial Dark Knight Returns in which an older, retired Bruce Wayne decides to fix Gotham once and for all, no matter the consequences.
In Grant Morrison’s run of the Justice League in the late 90s, it is revealed in the Tower of Babel arc that Bruce has detailed plans to take down every member of the League. In that same series, the arc Rock of Ages shows us just how strong Batman’s will is as it is revealed that his alternate reality version has managed to resist decades of torture at the hands of Desaad. And this is just scratching the surface of the Bat’s comic book exploits.
Batman has bested Superman and Darkseid. He has outwitted the Riddler and the Joker. Batman has overcome impossible odds and shown us just how powerful the human spirit can be. He has taught us that one doesn’t need powers, even in a world of superheroes, to be great. For 75 years, Batman has been fighting alongside the most powerful beings in the universe as an equal, channeling his inner darkness into preserving the light. He’s a symbol of hope and strength, one that tells us that no matter how dark things gets, you don’t have to let it consume you. You can fight it. You can fight evil and injustice, you can turn pain and grief and misery into a force for good. Batman is arguably the darkest hero in the DC pantheon, but he’s also the one whose beacon of hope shines the brightest. He’s the one who will never, ever stop fighting for what’s right, who will never be broken or swayed or waver from his mission. He surrounds himself with gods and stands taller than them all.
Here’s to another 75 years, Batman. May you continue to patrol the rooftops of Gotham for as long as criminals remain a cowardly and superstitious lot. As long as there is injustice in the world, there will be a need for you, for the Batman.