Batman at 80: A look back at the making and remaking of the Dark Knight

The Dark Knight
Batman, a pop-culture icon in his own right, turned 80 on March 30 this year. And today, on September 21, DC comics will celebrate its annual Batman Day by lighting up the skies of major cities across the world with the iconic Bat Signal at 8 pm local time. Fans will also be able to follow the progress of the Signal from Tokyo to Los Angeles on the Bat-Tracker that DC has hosted on its website. 

The Bat Signal, which projects the eponymous masked vigilante’s personal sigil into the skies, is only one of the many symbols that represents the iconicity of Batman. Even if you are not invested in superhero movies, web-series or comic books, it is still quite unlikely that you will be unfamiliar with Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s 1939 creation. The Caped Crusader has not only featured in several era-defining movies and TV shows, he is also a frequent presence in jokes, song lyrics, scholarly studies and pop culture references across media. In his eight decades of existence, the billionaire-playboy turned masked vigilante has shed his skin (read: Batsuit) numerous times, remaining a relevant symbol of justice, wisdom and resourcefulness across each new cultural and political era. 

Meet the Bat-fathers

Kane and Finger brought the Bat to our world after the rapid popularity of Batman and Robin Eternal #3 and Batman: Arkham Knight Genesis #3.

Barbara Gordon as Batgirl is an indispensable character in the Batverse
It would, however, be unfair to limit Batman’s parentage only to Kane and Finger. As with any other long-running comic book heroes, Batman’s existence hinges upon how well he is updated to match the changing tastes, anxieties and demands of each new generation of readers. And there are more than a few outstanding comics artists who made Batman’s each new birth relevant for their times. Just after his debut in the 1930s, Batman’s repertoire of advanced tech and weapons was updated by Gardner Fox, who equipped him with his famous utility belt and the Batarang. When Fox returned to writing Batman in the 1960s, he also revitalised several Bat-villains, like the Scarecrow and the Riddler. Fox’s greatest contribution, however, was to introduce Barbara Gordon as Batgirl, now an indispensable character in the Batverse.

Batman: Arkham Knight Genesis #3
Speaking of the ’60s, another of Batman’s creators, who is hated as much as he is loved for his interpretation of the character, is Lorenzo Semple Jr – creator and writer of the 1966 Batman TV series. Semple Jr had aimed to make Gotham’s favourite crime fighter more flamboyant and stylish. Instead, he ended up with a phenomenally campy and colourful Batman, marked by half the fans as a dark age in the history of Gotham’s hero and adored by the other half for its delectably quirky, even queer, iconography. 

It was the pair of Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams who brought the Bat back to his old ways in the ’70s. O’Neil and Adams are celebrated in DC comics lore for turning several of the comic book giant’s prized properties from tired and clichéd narratives to invigorated and updated storylines. But none of their work is as notable as their turn on the Dark Knight. They cut down the sci-fi, trippy trappings of the late ’50s and ’60s, and toned Wayne’s alter ego to a grim, down-to-earth crime-fighter who roughed it out on the unforgiving streets of Gotham, with only his wits and indomitable will as tools against organised crime. They also added Ra’s Al Ghoul, the master assassin and leader of the League of Shadows, to Batman’s rogue gallery.

Bob Kane’s biography, Batman and Me
Of course, O’Neil and Adam’s work on the Batman’s Dark Knight persona would have remained incomplete had it not been for two others of his most renowned “Bat-fathers”: Frank Miller and Christopher Nolan. While Miller is best remembered for The Dark Knight (2005-12) film trilogy produced a Batman narrative, which in many ways was a reduction of some of the best comic book arcs and has come to define the dominant version of Batman for both casual and dedicated fans today. 

Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight
Besides these, other notable comic book/film creators and titles who defined and redefined the way we have come to know the Gotham city universe include Alan Moore and Brian Boland’s seminal graphic novel The Killing Joke (1988), Tim Burton’s The Lego Batman Movie (2017).   

The hero we need and deserve 

Even as we list the numerous creators and re-creators of the Batman persona, one cannot deny that the character itself has proved to be tenacious enough to stand the test of time. It is now a fact most clichéd that from the very beginning Batman has endeared himself as the “Dark” sheep in the superhero universe. While most others rely on their superhuman strengths, ol’ Batsy has remained most steadfastly human – his greatest weapons being his mind and his body. Even when compared with Tony Stark or Steve Rogers, Marvel’s resident billionaire-playboy and hand-to-combat specialists respectively, one realises that Bruce Wayne is neither completely reliant on full-body techno-prosthetics (the Iron Man suit) nor does he derive his strength from power-enhancing chemical concoctions (the Super Soldier serum). When all his gadgets and toys fail, Batman will still have his body to throw at his opponents – a stubbornly human body trained to deadly perfection in myriad martial arts and combat techniques.

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice
However, this is not quite the most endearing aspect of Batman. Ultimately, Batman is not a brawler, but a strategist. And the reason he remains a fan-favourite, as well as a constant butt of jokes, parodies and quips, is the fictional universe he is a part of. And I do not mean the DC universe, but specifically Gotham. The city has remained an extended metaphor for some of the most pressing modern-day problems. From the 1930s, through the 2010s, the city’s infrastructure, and the villains that it produces, have been allegories of pressing real-world issues including depression (Scarecrow, Mad Hatter etc.), animal cruelty (Penguin), schizophrenia (Harvey Dent), technomania (Riddler), corruption and terrorism (Ra’s Al Ghul) and, ultimately, hero worship (the Joker). Up against these villains, Batman is never truly triumphant; his rogues will always break out of Arkham and return to raise fresh hell.

Batman’s brand of justice, too, is flawed and almost constantly under scrutiny from both his aids and adversaries. The triumph of Batman, as a character, therefore, lies in his failures. He repeatedly highlights the ruptures that erupt in seemingly well strategised, rationally driven societal frameworks when they are faced with these daily challenges. The hero is never absolute. He teeters precariously on the border between chaos and order, a situation best summed up by Harvey Dent in Nolan’s The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Debarghya Sanyal is a pursuing a PhD in Global Visual Cultures and Media Studies, from the University of Oregon, US

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