In twelve short panels, the world bore witness to the birth of an icon. Who could’ve predicted that 79 years after his birth, Batman would be one of a handful of premiere characters in comics? Could Bob Kane and Bill Finger have possibly known what was to come?
The story is well-known. A young Bruce Wayne goes out on the town with his parents for what should be a normal evening. After they finish at the theatre, the trio is approached by a gunman and held at gun-point. He demands the usual demands and quicker than Bruce can blink, he’s gone.
The damage, however, had been done. In a pool of blood lay his two parents, Martha and Thomas. This short, yet impactful series of events leaves Bruce at home vowing for revenge and to clean up his town.
His words, not mine. “And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”
An icon was born
What Bob Kane and Bill Finger didn’t realize was how much that icon would transcend comics, film, media, and pop culture.
Batman, for all that he is, is merely a man with no superpowers. He isn’t Superman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, The Flash or any other well-known hero. He is a man, who dresses in a costume and parades around Gotham delivering his form of justice. Batman is a vigilante and above the law.
How then, did he become what he is today?
Simple. Hard times make strong people.
Batman, for all the money, resources, and political pull he has, exemplifies a never say die attitude. And it’s this, more than anything else, that’s allowed him to remain relevant through the high and low times.
He wasn’t, however, the same character that we now know him as. In fact, over the years each writer that has taken their turn at bringing him to life, has left some indelible trait behind. And it is these traits that have molded him.
- Neil Adams
- Frank Miller
- Grant Morrison
- Scott Snyder
- Ed Brubaker
- Dennis O’Neil
- Jim Lee
- Greg Capullo
- Tim Sale
And, of course, Bob Kane and Bill Finger.
Batman is more than a comic book character. Batman has allowed his readers to live vicariously though his creators for decades. And with each creator comes a new, almost always, darker, Batman.
Batman isn’t a new idea by any means. If we look back into history, we can see that he was the combination of many of the eras characters. He creeps around in darkness like The Shadow, uses signature weapons like Zorro and is intelligent like The Phantom.
Batman is not one of a kind. And Bob Kane and Bill Finger were ok with that.
What he is, however, is Batman.
In his first popular television appearance, Batman was portrayed as a little goofy and someone not to be taken seriously. It was littered with “pows, zaps, boinks” and every other un-bat like effect imaginable.
To his detriment, the show took off like a wildfire and sparked a Bat-type revolution. For the first time in a long time, he could be seen everywhere. Lunchboxes, belt buckles, t-shirts, stickers, and, of course, action figures.
While the show has lived on in syndication, this Batman wasn’t as true to form as we know he can be. This Batman was made to appeal to the masses and not the fans. It took everyone’s favorite dark detective and turned him into a silly, campy, and mass-appealing goof. Those most loyal to the character, those who had grown up with the dark version, were left wondering where Batman was. I suspect Bob Kane and Bill Finger wondered the same.
Luckily, they’d quickly get their answer.
Dark times ahead
As artists and writers continued to leave their mark on the character, the readers noticed that the character was slowly returning to its roots. Bob Kane and Bill Finger would’ve been proud.
Artists who were raised on the original, non-silly version, began to elevate the character back to the mountaintop from which he fell. His costume and demeanor changed, how he approached his work differed, and the tone of the book grew darker. Batman began to, more so than any time in his history, use fear as a way of handing out justice. And fans ate it up.
But it wasn’t just about the character or the fear. It was about those who he fought. Long forgotten villains started to reappear in his stories. Of these, The Joker, the most widely recognized villain in history, began terrorizing Gotham like only the Joker could. Death and brutality reigned down on the pages that hadn’t been seen in decades. The Joker, like grunge had done to hair metal, ended an era.
Finally, the readers Batman was back.
The writers and artists were churning out some of the best Batman stories ever written. And then, after years of restoring the character to prominence, his popularity exploded in two ways.
First, in print
The unforgettable Dark Knight Returns, Death In The Family, and Killing Joke released to both critical and fan appeal. Suddenly, the world took notice.
- Jim Starlin
- Frank Miller
- Alan Moore
Each story, crafted by masters of the industry, were responsible for causing more pain and heartache than Bruce Wayne had experienced since his parents died. Torture, abuse, punishment, death, and sadistic tendencies filled the books. And Batman was better for it.
Each story was handcrafted with precise accuracy. They dug into his history, took out the best parts of it, and slathered it across every page.
This, these stories were what Batman’s rabid fan base had come to expect. A good vs evil scenario with the reader never truly knowing where the dividing line between the two was.
Second, in cinema
Tim Burton’s Batman Movie may very well go down as one of the best Batman movies of all time. The script was, as many of Burton’s movies, dark. The choice to cast Michael Keaton in the titular role was spot on. And it finally gave the world a perfect adaptation of the Joker.
Sorry Cesar Romero but you have nothing on Jack Nicholson.
The movie changed superheroes movies. It helped usher in a new age for comics and one that hadn’t been seen since the 1940’s. To say Burton’s Batman was favorably received, doesn’t do it the justice that it deserves.
From it, spun off an equally successful Batman Returns. This time, rather than the Joker, the movie focused on two of the most widely respected villains in history, Catwoman and the Penguin. Just as dark as the first, Batman Returns was the first superhero movie I had ever watched.
These two movies gave way to a very profitable age for the caped crusader. Like decades before, his face was everywhere. Companies did everything they could to pump out bat-related merchandise. Like before, toys, lunchboxes, belt buckles, and the like filled the aisles of stores all over the world.
As the Bat-Machine ramped up, so to did the ambition of Warner Bros. Unfortunately, this translated into a return to the 1960’s style. Terrible jokes and Bat-Nipples were on their way. “Batman and Robin” was a critical failure on the highest of levels. Once again in the long history of Batman, those in charge forgot who he was. Warner Bros. did everything they could to save their cash cow but it was to no avail.
While he was doing ok in print, the cinematic Batman was dying.
In what appeared to be a last ditch effort, in 2005, they handed the keys over the Christopher Nolan. His first outing, Batman Begins reimagined the potential of superhero movies.
And it was only beginning.
The follow up to Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, remains as one of, if not the best superhero movies ever made. This was, of course, in large part to Nolan’s vision. However, as responsible as Nolan was for the success, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker was where the movie shined.
His Joker captured everything about the Batman mythology that his readers have come to love and respect. To say he will go down as the defining Joker isn’t quite enough. It was brilliant, methodical, and unrelenting. His performance has caused Ledger to be forever associated with the Clown Prince of Darkness.
So, what is it about Batman that has captivated audiences for nearly a century? Why do we continue to flock to him even after he has fallen out of favor? What did Bob Kane and Bill Finger do so right?
Batman is the average man’s hero. He is proof that any person with the will, can change the world around them. Batman, through all of his adversity, has endured because he needs to. He is as important to New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Winnipeg as he is to Gotham.
He is relatable. Batman is without powers or mutations, and isn’t an alien from another world. He is a man who, with enough training, does what we all wish we could do…rid the world of scum.
Batman taps into the inner darkness that we have. He isn’t afraid to push the limits of right vs wrong and in a sense, allows his readers to live vicariously through him.
These reasons, coupled with his endurance and ability to sell a book or anything for that matter, is the reason he is more prevalent today than he was decades ago.
And best yet…he’s only beginning.
Who could’ve known what would happen to the world as the result of a simple book being sold nearly a century ago? Well done Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Well done.