My initial introduction to the comic book version of Batman is illusory and forgotten to me. I remember vague imagery. I recall being enamored with the fantastic film versions. The first Tim Burton film captured my imagination and nightmares so vividly that it became one of “those” movies. You know the movies I’m talking about, the flicks you watch as a kid so many times that the videotape hisses and sputters along cripplingly at your favorite spots. I remember a playfully colored gas mask with an envelope attached to it. I remember currency raining from the sky, bloodied wind-up teeth chattering away, and a barrage of other details that etched into my mind with clarity the purpose of a man in a bat suit.
Batman is the epitome of any young male child’s empowerment fantasies. He’s one of the richest men in the world, and he uses his wealth and power to turn himself into such a perfect idea of fear that even the world’s most accomplished and despicable dictators would be jealous. It’s no surprise that this fascination led me to the comics.
I owned one issue early on, its pages were filled with the kind of despair and violence that I could actually taste. The Joker’s maniacal laugh lines frightened me. A detailed and ferocious tiger made its appearance as well, an envoy of The Joker’s no doubt, but memory doesn’t serve me so well in that regard. I just know that the whole thing managed to confuse, startle, and scare me to the core. Jason Todd, the second Robin, was shown being beaten to a pulp and the issue had fun with this to an extent that I could never understand at that age. The art popped and exploded with detail, expressively echoing the rage and guilt that Batman felt at his ward’s death. It was so convincing in parts, I couldn’t touch some of the pages for fear of them actually coming to life and dragging me into their desperate world.
This is far from the Batman we all know from the early films, serials, and camp classic television show. The chronological history of Batman’s media portrayals are somewhat on-point when comparing to their source material’s own comic book journeys. The early serials were pulpy and dry, their mysterious adventures and detective hijinks taking precedence over anything else. The comic followed this route early on as well. It read like any other detective stories of its time, but instead of some private eye proxy taking over the proceedings we’re introduced to a man who sports some wild tights. As his character becomes further entrenched into his fictional universe, it starts becoming a bit camp, ridiculous and recurring villains showing up now and again to challenge Batman and Gotham’s local authorities (much like the popular television show.) Then came the 80’s.
The decade was a milestone for the comic book world, and for Batman these would be some trying and interesting times. Before the first film would be released in ’89, it is crucial to realize that within the DC universe something had happened that changed everything for the better. An event called Crisis On Infinite Earths had rocked the DC Universe. It basically collapsed every single book that DC ever created into one manageable and continuity rich community. Its theme also toyed with the idea that because of the sheer immensity of what happened within this Crisis, these characters and their fictional universes were fragile and susceptible to terrible despair and heartache. It suggested that there was more darkness to come because of the growing uncertainty of the universe and its inhabitants. Metaphorically, it’s as if the event foreshadowed the crop of brilliant writers that would go on to transform the DCU into a living, breathing universe filled with characters whose lives actually mean something. For Batman, the times coincided so perfectly that he would go on to face the death of Robin (Jason Todd), a fascist dystopic future (Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns), and a broken back (Knightfall.)
Some of those influential writers would be Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Frank Miller. All of them had a new vision for the Batman that didn’t include the kind of farce, camp, and serialized soap opera dynamic we were so used to with his previous incarnations. With Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke, we were given an intimate look at Batman’s greatest villain. Flashbacks portray Joker (aka The Red Hood) as a failed family man, his foray into criminality brought about by his wife’s pregnancy and their lower class status. Of course, a tragedy befalls this tragic character! He is transformed! He’s a homicidal maniac. His claims and statements cast doubt on the veracity of the accounts. His insanity and illogical nature are the only truths anyone can be sure of. It’s almost as if such a tragic account is so undeniably rote that its truth could never be, so much that it echoes the kind of thing we’d have read pre-Crisis, an origin story pitch perfect for the late 40’s or early 50’s.
Frank Miller injected more testosterone than physically possible when he brought us The Dark Knight Returns. An aging Batman is brought out of retirement by increasingly volatile societal conditions that require him to take his vigilantism to a level he thought he’d never reach. The story is drenched with the same kind of masculinity and violent male values we would later be introduced to with Miller’s Sin City series. The pages stink of the characters’ perpetual pissing contests to the point of an epic Superman/Batman showdown rearing its ugly head amidst all of the socio-political rigmarole. Batman is perfectly distilled into political satire, reminding us of his importance to even our everyday realities.
Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum was the darkest of the Dark Knight’s portrayals. The art and typeset is uncertain, amorphous, and fractious. It’s almost angry, psychotic, and a villain unto itself. The narrative moves as far away from hyper-real tortured masculinity as it can get, becoming allegorical and mythical in its associations. Batman is trapped inside a building with all of his most dangerous foes and their minds and intentions are more open to him than before. They become more real, more intriguing, and much more dangerous. Out of all the books about Batman to come out in the 80’s, this story would define the rest of his fictional career. Its despair and foreboding are all too familiar.
Where one would read a Superman book for the promise of hope and cathartic excitement, the more brooding and cynical set would much rather pick up a Batman title. His decision to become who he is, rooted so deep in a hatred and regret for his murdered parents. His villains’ primary superpowers are their derangement. His city is a pulpy throwback that revels in its crime, corruption, and greed. The cynics would read all of this because more often than not, it’s more real than hope. It’s much more familiar.
It’s this connection as an everyman that makes him so relevant to readers. It empowers them. In Grant Morrison’s own reboot of the team book JLA, Batman stands alongside Gods. Wonder Woman, Aquaman, The Flash, Superman, and Martian Manhunter are all defined by their world-altering powers. Morrison’s first arc has them all brought low by a threat only Batman has the wits to figure out. The villains possess the same powers as his colleagues. Their abilities could crack the Earth in half, explode a universe, and discover new ones. Batman becomes immune to even a God’s power because of the myth that has been built up and created by writers who understands his affect on the world around him.
This is why a shared universe is so important. It brings with it a reflexivity that Batman would lack otherwise. Gotham on its own paints Batman and Bruce Wayne into a dark and dangerous polity. His perspective is cultivated by his cadre of freaks, but occasionally in the comics his views are challenged and his sometimes fascist and arrogant thought processes are questioned. He has transformed his environment into the kind of place he was trying to avoid through his very presence. His power and influence is so massive that he’s a tragic figure, both villain and hero, steeped in mythical traditions that have been cycling for ages. The Dark Knight is poised to remind people of villain and hero’s role in the creation of a city, and the ultimate dangers it poses for its peoples. We’ll sit back and revel in it much like The Joker, the spectacle so wondrous and mythic it’s hard to deny just how beautiful the madness truly is.