The Evolution of the Batman: From 1930’s Comic Books to Pop Culture Icon

In 1939 – a whole seventy-six years ago, just think about that – comic book artist Bob Kane had an idea for a masked vigilante; a hard-as-nails detective, who would ruthlessly crack down on crime just like The Shadow and The Phantom had been doing for years in pulp stories of their own. That masked vigilante was called Batman. Seventy-six years later, that character has become as recognizable as any in pop culture, and has become one of the most influential fictional characters of all time. But how did it happen? How did a crime-fighting, bat-costume wearing, pulp comic book character stand the test of time?  Well, I’ll tell you how.

After the success of the character’s debut in Detective Comics, Batman received his own title in 1940, and with Bill Finger – who co-created the character with Kane – writing the character at Detective and at the character’s eponymous solo title, the Batman mythos began to form. Batman’s sidekick and ward Robin was introduced, as was Alfred Pennyworth, Catwoman, the Joker, and slowly but surely the rest of the Gotham universe began to flourish and take shape.

By the mid-sixties, though, things had begun to drastically change in terms of the direction of the character and of Gotham in general. The world was introduced to the Batman television series. Now, if you haven’t seen it, see it. It’s masterfully funny, and subversive, and ridiculous, and excellent. It’s one of the great cult shows ever. But while it was on, people took it very seriously. As seriously as it seemed the actors were all taking it. Because apparently no one at the time knew any better. The television show’s legacy has definitely been built and appreciated over time, and finally got a DVD release in November 2014. Get it, people. If you have any interest in Batman at all, you’ve got to see what he gets up to in that show. It’s just so great.

Adam West’s Batman was supported superbly by a cast that pushed the show’s camp qualities and over-the-top action and hysterics. The best of the bunch, for me, has to be Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, who was as slimy a villain as any. Cesar Romero, who played the Joker, couldn’t even be bothered to shave his moustache. Just imagine the Joker, as we know him today, with a thick moustache that’s been covered in white. Hilarious. Unintentional, but hilarious nonetheless. 

Credit also has to go to Julie Newmar for her Catwoman, because, well, because just look at her. Just appreciate it. Just take it in. Burgess Meredith’s Penguin was masterful, and of course Burt Ward as Robin was such an excellent foil for Adam West to play off of. 

But this was a far-cry from the Batman we know today, so what happened? How did we leave Adam West behind and go back to black? How did we find our Caped Crusader again? Through the comic books, that’s how.

Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams – both now legends in their own right – began to pull Batman away from the campy tropes that made up the television series. They wrote some classic books, and began to re-establish the Batman as a brooding antihero, a force to be reckoned with, a dark side to the superhero genre. They also introduced us to Ra’s al Ghul, who’s gone on to appear in Batman Begins, most notably.

And then Steve Englehart and his partnership with Marshall Rogers captured the old Kane-Finger feel of Batman through the mid-seventies, but… things still weren’t quite right. Even though Englehart and O’Neil gave us classic stories, and Adams and Rogers are absolute legends in terms of their art and their take on the Batman, there was still another step to be taken to bring the character full circle. There was still a missing link. And then, Frank Miller came along and changed the game forever. Frank Miller’s take on the character established Batman as not only comic book fare, but as a truly literary character. 

Frank Miller’s famous interpretations of the character came in ‘Batman: The Dark Knight Returns’ – which has since its debut been heralded as the greatest Batman story ever told – and ‘Batman: Year One’, where Batman’s origin story is revisited. Both works of proper excellence, and it was here, in Frank Miller’s work, where we find our Dark Knight; where Christopher Nolan must have found his inspiration for his trilogy, and where Tim Burton would have seen the dark side, too, to put his own twist on the Batman.

It wasn’t just Frank Miller, though. Alan Moore’s ‘The Killing Joke’ is as influential a Batman story in its own right. Years later, Grant Morrison’s ‘A Serious House on a Serious Earth,’ or, simply, ‘Arkham Asylum,’ would become the best-selling graphic novel of all time. Miller, Moore and Morrison would each complete their Batman stories within three years of each other, so we were definitely seeing a huge change in the direction of the character there. Batman, and Gotham in general, was becoming increasingly dark, increasingly hopeless. Increasing literary, too. And at the same time, the world was given their first major Batman film. Tim Burton’s 1989 film, ‘Batman,’ which blew people away. Jack Nicholson in a Batman movie? What? Michael Keaton as The Batman? Huh? It was a huge success, though, and finally all those kids reading Frank Miller and Alan Moore and Grant Morrison could look forward to more just like it. And with that movie, Batman entered pop culture proper.

Christopher Nolan’s films, though, have to be credited for the majority of Bat-mania in the world today. His second film, in particular, which pitted Batman against his antithesis, the Joker, is not only the greatest Batman movie ever made, but one of the great movies ever made in general. Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight’ is quintessential Batman. It picks up where Frank Miller left off, where Alan Moore’s Killing Joke left off. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, and it is the eighteenth-highest grossing movie of all time, with a worldwide box office of just over a billion dollars. Madness. If that isn’t societal acceptance, then I don’t know what is. Batman had well and truly made it.

And if that wasn’t enough, the success of the video games, and the merchandise… it boggles the mind. I mean, just think about that. What other character in fiction not only has a seventy-six year history, but also continues to grow in popularity every year? What other character has captivated and thrilled and grown like Batman has?

But, besides all that, I think special focus has to be given to the animated series, as well. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s involvement on that show was as influential, to me, as any other iteration of the Batman we’ve ever seen. Kevin Conroy’s voice acting as Batman was absolutely superb, and when I read Batman comics it’s his voice that I hear in my head. He wasn’t the only standout of that cast, though. Mark Hamill’s Joker is, by miles, the greatest Joker of all time. I don’t know how he did it, although I’ve listened to him talk about it a dozen or so times now on Kevin Smith’s podcast ‘Fatman on Batman.’ I just can’t shake Conroy and Hamill. For me, they are that double-act. They are the quintessential Batman and Joker. And they were accessible, too. They were dark, but they weren’t Christopher Nolan dark. They were a child’s introduction to the Batman as he should be seen, and they were completely masterful in their performances.

So now here we are, today. Today, where comic book conventions in San Diego and New York City and beyond are meccas that attract hundreds of thousands each year, where ‘nerd-culture’ is no longer a secret society but a near-on majority, and where we celebrate, as a society, the characters that find their origins in 1930’s funny books like they are proper idols. All this, all this pop culture, all this news, all this television, and media, and literature, and film, it’s all thanks to those original concepts, those original images, those original ideas. It’s all thanks to characters like Batman. So here’s to you, Batman. And to all of you good people, nowadays, who continue to bring us stories from Gotham. Scott Snyder’s Batman books have been fantastic, so if you haven’t checked those out, definitely do that. And of course all eyes look ahead to Zack Snyder and Ben Affleck in 2016. 

Long live the Bat.

About author

Dylan is a writer from Toronto who enjoys rock and roll and comic books, and who is currently working on his debut graphic novel, The Star Child. You can catch him on Twitter @dylthewriter.