Batman is my favourite superhero. Not an original choice, I know. Batman is probably the most recognised comic book hero out there. People without the slightest inkling about things like Lazarus Pits or the Court of Owls will go around with Batman’s symbol emblazoned on their t-shirts. I suppose that all you really need to know is that Batman is a tireless crusader for justice, and perhaps the definitive badass.
Unusually for such an eminent hero, there is nothing actually superhuman about Batman. If we compare him to DC’s other icon, Superman, the contrast is rather jarring. Bruce Wayne is (oh, spoilers- Bruce Wayne is Batman) an ordinary man. Granted, one who has honed his mind and body to the peak of their powers, but he is bound by physical and technological limitations. Superman is an indestructible alien with so many superpowers that his writers often forget some of them. He has Freeze Breath. He can freeze things. With his breath. He once inhaled a tornado.
Yet Batman remains at the forefront of the public’s consciousness. Maybe this genius billionaire is still relatable, showing us what one man can achieve when he sets out to be the best he can be. A force for good. To stare down evil and say, “Not in my town.” Plus his costume is really damn cool.
The character of Batman has been around for a vast amount of time. His first appearance, in Detective Comics #27, came in May 1939, mere months before the outbreak of World War 2. Created by the team of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, “the Bat-Man” was created in the wake of Superman’s early success. Tasked with creating more superheroes, DC tweaked Batman’s appearance and personality during his early outings. Initially inspired by the pulp fiction heroes of the time, the launch of his own comic came with the order that Batman would no longer kill or use a gun, something the character had no previous compunction about doing.
In the years following World War 2, the character became rather more camp and colourful, inhabiting a Gotham almost unrecognisable from the rather grim one we are familiar with now. The 1960s brought the Adam West-starring TV show, full of glorious cheesiness and high camp. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it’s worth seeking it out on YouTube or on DVD, if only for the contrast between it and the latter-day Batman. However, the show was cancelled after a few seasons after initial popularity, prompting writers to rethink the way they portrayed him.
Our current grim, stoic Batman was shaped a great deal by a couple of Frank Miller-penned comic book arcs in the late 80s, available in trade paperback as The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. Year One retold Batman’s origin, the story of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into his crime fighting alter-ego. Equally bleak is The Dark Knight Returns, with an old Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement, Gotham as full of crime and corruption as it ever was.
A large part of a comic book hero’s success is down to the quality of their rogue’s gallery- the collection of recurring antagonists that they must face down. Gotham’s villains are almost as famous as its heroes. The Joker is one of the most iconic villains in fiction. He’s featured in many of the classic Batman stories over the years, his first appearance about six months after Batman’s debut. His portrayal in film has been equally good, with Jack Nicholson’s excellent portrayal being upstaged by Heath Ledger’s deranged brilliance in The Dark Night. Many fan’s favourite incarnation of the character is former Jedi Mark Hamill’s in Batman: The Animated Series and the videogame Arkham series. The balance between Joker’s insatiable whimsy and homicidal menace is captured perfectly in Hamill’s voice. He considers himself the Yin to Batman’s Yang. He’s said many times that he would never kill Batman, as he enjoys toying with him too much. There’s Bane, The Penguin, The Riddler, Two-Face, Ra’as Al Ghul, Mr Freeze- each are are every bit as memorable. Others, like Man-Bat, maybe a bit less memorable.
Batman doesn’t fight alone, of course. Faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth is always ready to aide Bruce Wayne with a helping hand and a sardonic quip. There have been a number of Robins over the years, teenage sidekicks adding a youthful exuberance to Gotham’s crime-fighting efforts. The latest Boy Wonder being Batman’s own son, Damian. Police Commissioner Gordon has been a great ally over the years, as was DA Harvey Dent (until he lost half his face, went insane and started murdering people).
Hopefully that gives you a little insight into the Batman and how he came to be. I’ll stop myself there, I could write so much more, but if you have any interest at this point I recommend exploring Gotham for yourself.
Recommended media- So, you want some more Batman in your life, but not sure where to start? Here’s a handy list.
Comics- all available as collected trade paperbacks, on download services like ComiXology.
- Batman: Year One
- The Dark Knight Returns
- Hush– a fantastic story with fantastic art
- The Killing Joke– one of the definitive Joker/Batman stories
- The Long Halloween- A mob thriller containing a Two-Face origin story
- Batman: Arkham City (PS3, X360, Wii U)- its predecessor Arkham Asylum proved that licensed franchise games could actually be good, City goes above and beyond.
Film and TV
- The Dark Knight (2008)- earned Heath Ledger a posthumous Oscar. The best of the Nolan trilogy
- Batman (1989, dir. Tim Burton)- Michael Keaton dons the cowl
- Batman Returns (1992)-Burton’s follow up was also excellent. Batman Forever never happened.
- Batman: The Animated Series– ostensibly for kids, but enjoyable for adults too.