It all began with two shots in the dark, pearls spilling onto the blood-soaked cement. No, it all started when the bat crashed through the window. Actually, it was when the boy fell into the cave. Maybe it was that hostile takeover at Apex Chemicals? Dozens of stories have shaped the legend of the Batman over his 80-year history, tales that have made the Caped Crusader arguably the most iconic character in comic book history, rivaled only by Superman.
When Bill Finger and Bob Kane put pen and pencil to paper for 1939’s Detective Comics #27, they had no way of knowing that they were creating a new American myth that would captivate readers and movie audiences for decades to come. They certainly didn’t expect their first Batman adventure, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” to spawn 973 more issues of Detective Comics, let alone become a blockbuster franchise featuring movies, TV series, video games, and McDonald’s Happy Meals.
But what bigger testament to the long-lasting appeal of Batman than March’s Detective Comics #1000, written and drawn by some of the best creators in the business? The giant-sized, 96-page issue featured stories by legends such as as Dennis O’Neil, Neal Adams, Steve Epting, Christopher Priest, Jim Lee, Kelley Jones, Paul Dini, Brian Michael Bendis, Warren Ellis, and Geoff Johns as well as the current custodians of the Bat-mythos — Tom King, Tony S. Daniel, Peter J. Tomasi, Doug Mahnke, Joelle Jones, Scott Snyder, and Greg Capullo. And that’s not even including the excellent covers by Jim Steranko, Bernie Wrightson, Bruce Timm, Frank Miller, Jock, Tim Sale, and more.
Batman is only the second DC superhero to reach such a massive milestone, the other being the Man of Steel. What is it about this character hellbent on avenging the death of his parents night after night that has kept him at the forefront of our pop culture?
“I think what makes him deeply enduring is that it’s a really primal folk tale,” Scott Snyder, who’s been writing Batman stories since 2011, says. “It’s a story about a boy who loses everything and turns that loss into fuel to make sure that what happened to him never happens to anybody else.”
While most of us aren’t billionaire playboys with the resources to fight crime on a global (and sometimes cosmic) level, we understand pain, both emotional and physical, and a need to rise above it, even if we can’t always do that. We sympathize with Bruce’s biggest regret — if only he hadn’t made his parents take him to see that Zorro movie; if only he hadn’t been frightened by the opera; if only he’d been braver and faster as the thug pulled the trigger. For Bruce, his crusade to stop evildoers comes down to replaying that single fateful moment over and over again and making possible a different outcome.
Yet, Batman perseveres despite all of this pain, which is why people flock to the character, according to Snyder.
“It’s a story of triumph over your worst fears, worst tragedy, and about taking your loss and turning it into a win,” the writer says. “There’s just this kind of power to him that speaks to our own potential, the human potential, even when we’re challenged by things that seem insurmountably horrible.”
Snyder has spent the better part of a decade showcasing Batman as a symbol of hope for the citizens of Gotham, putting him through the ringer, reopening old wounds while also making new ones — the writer even killed the hero off at one point — just so that he can pick himself up again and keep fighting.
But the character isn’t driven solely by tragedy. Who could hang with a downer like that for 80 years?
“There are the fun elements, of course, that are similar to James Bond, like the gadgets, and the cars, and the planes, and just the cool factor of his costume.”
Tom King, who recently wrapped up an 85-issue run on Batman and currently has a Batman/Catwoman miniseries in the works, looks back to the character’s real-life point of origin as the reason he has stood the test of time.
“You have to go back to the moment of creation with him. You’ve got [Bob Kane and Bill Finger], the children of immigrants, so we’re like, what, 1938, ’39, we’re in Manhattan. And at that time, I mean, go back and look at the pictures, Batman was created like 20 blocks from Madison Square Garden where they had a Nazi rally that attracted a hundred thousand people. They were marching in the streets.”
These tumultuous times shaped the fabric of Batman, according to King.
“[Kane and Finger] were living here and their literal cousins and grandparents were getting killed in Europe, right? And they created something uniquely American. Batman succeeds because there’s something genuinely beautifully American about it.”
According to Batman: The Animated Series voice actor Kevin Conroy, Batman’s continued popularity goes back to something primal. To the classically trained actor who was immortalized as the voice of Batman in the ‘90s cartoon, the Caped Crusader is a modern retelling of myths and stories humans have been passing down for thousands of years.
“He’s such a theatrical character,” Conroy says, admitting he was at first hesitant to audition for the role. At the time, he was a theater actor who’d never done an animated role. But when he read the script, the character clicked. Conroy recognized this story. “They were absolutely right to cast a theater actor, especially one with a classical background, because this is Shakespeare. They’re doing high drama. Batman is Achilles. He’s Orestes. He’s Hamlet.”
The tragic Greek character Orestes, in particular, was on Conroy’s mind when playing Batman. By that point, he’d performed several plays as Orestes, a son who avenges his father’s murder and goes mad because of it. By the end of the story, Orestes has gone through hell and back because of his thirst for vengeance. Naturally, Conroy brought that familiarity with Orestes to his portrayal of Batman.
“He’s a Homeric hero,” Conroy says of the Caped Crusader. “I think of it often when I’m doing Batman because Orestes is haunted by the Furies. He descends into hell. He comes back. He’s resurrected at the end, and I think so often, this is a very Orestial-like journey that Bruce Wayne goes on. His Furies are the memory of his parents’ murder. It haunts him through his life. It’s transformed him.”
Conroy calls Batman a “classic character.” Like Orestes before him, Batman has become the protagonist of our very own mythology.
“He’s come out of such a fire and instead of letting life crush him, he turns that metamorphosis into something even greater than himself,” Conroy says. “They’ve been telling that story for thousands of years in different cultures, and this is our culture’s way of telling those stories, and I think they’re just as valid.”
Bruce Timm, who co-created Batman: The Animated Series and designed the show’s iconic Art Deco aesthetic, is unsurprisingly most taken by Batman’s look.
“I just think Batman looks great,” Timm says during our chat at NYCC in 2018. “He’s got the best costume motif in comics. Nothing comes close. He’s dark, sexy, and broody. It’s really intoxicating and compelling in a way that almost no other in comics can come close to it.”
He also admires the durability of the character through the different eras of comics, from the Golden Age, to the sillier ’50s and ’60s stories of the Comics Code era, to the darker takes we’re more accustomed to today.
“It is amazing to me how flexible he is as a character. That you could have something as silly as the Adam West show or the old ’50s comics, and then you have stuff like Neal Adams and Frank Miller and what we did. And you know, even more extreme, [Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s graphic novel] Arkham Asylum and things like that. And yet their all kind of the same character. It’s like that character can encompass all of those different things. He can do space aliens and serial killers, you know? Yet, it kind of works.”
This flexibility has allowed plenty of writers and artists to experiment with the Dark Knight, creating different versions of the character over the years. There really isn’t a definitive take on Batman. You can love the Batusi, Bat-Mite, or Mr. Freeze’s cool party and still be right on the money about the Caped Crusader. You’d be remiss to call the character stale. The guy has done it all.
“It’s almost like he’s a force of nature, in which stories can happen around him, and there’s something primordial, maybe, about the character and the way he looks, as well,” says veteran Batman artist Jock, who most recently worked on a seven-part miniseries with Snyder called The Batman Who Laughs. “You could put Batman in a new pose, and he’d still flourish, and I think those kinds of characters are very rare.”
Peter J. Tomasi, who is currently writing Detective Comics, puts it best:
“He’s a character who can work across all genres. Somehow, someway, he can simply fit into every story, be it a war story, a western, a love story, a comedic angle, sci-fi, horror, fantasy, you name it, and of course any detective story you can possibly imagine.”
Superheroes won’t always be at the top of our pop culture food chain. It’s inevitable that many of the characters we love today will fade with future generations, just as the Shadow, Doc Savage, Zorro, and the Scarlet Pimpernel did. Will we still be talking about Batman in another 80 years? We may eventually embrace new forms of familiar myths, becoming obsessed with new idols. But only a fool would bet against a character who’s survived as long as Batman has. Remember, the Batman always wins.