It's easy to understand why Superman and Wonder Woman are two of the three comic book heroes that have been continuously published, more or less, since the early days of the medium. Both characters are ultimate power fantasies, one designed to appeal to young boys and the other for little girls, with the respective added attractions of Boy Scout virtue and being a princess.
That other guy who has kept it going in comics since before World War II, however, is different.
Batman was always the odd one.
Most obviously, because he didn't have superpowers; he was just as smart and rich and physically formidable as a human being could be. His costume wasn't colorful, either, which actually made him stand out in a medium that was defined by the vibrant, four-color printing process, and consequently flooded with flamboyantly hued costumed characters by the early 1940s.
Mainly, though, unlike boringly upright Superman and goddess Wonder Woman and their hundreds of lesser-powered imitations, Batman was kind of a psycho.
Batman's 75th anniversary is being celebrated Wednesday by publisher DC Entertainment with the release of several commemorative collectibles, including a free, reworked special edition of Detective Comics No. 27, the magazine in which the character first appeared.
He's always been my guy. And, I think, the most resonant of all comics heroes, because of both his physical and mental vulnerability. Equally compelling comics characters have been drawn in his wake. But the ones that have stuck were definitely modeled on Batman. He was the original misunderstood vigilante and obsessed avenger, and the first one you knew could easily be harmed or, just as easily, go off the deep end.
I wasn't thinking of any of this when I bought my first comic book as a kid. It was an early 1960s issue of Batman or Detective Comics. He was fighting some gross-looking thing called Clayface on the cover, and it probably just appeared neat to my 8-year-old eyes.
Visual storytelling quickly intrigued me, and soon I was checking out the Caped Crusader's Justice League colleagues: Superman, unavoidably, the Flash, Green Lantern, etc. Many of them were drawn better and had (relatively) more sophisticated storylines. But they didn't have a Batcave (with a dinosaur in it!), or Batmobiles, or utility belts or really freaky villains. Back then, Batman was the most fun, and what else would a kid be reading comics for?
It was considered an exclusively children's medium at the time, and Batman had everything to capture a boy's imagination. Besides all the toys and that underground play space, there was sidekick Robin to identify with, Batwoman and Batgirl and, a few years later, the revived Catwoman to inspire early impure thoughts in ways Supergirl and Wonder Woman could not, and aliens and robots who didn't demand to be taken as seriously as those in DC's other comics did.
The Batman of that era was a friendly, fatherly figure who actually smiled a lot. If, at that tender age, I'd known what a lunatic he was capable of being, I probably would have been scared off.
“That stuff was just candy for little kids,” says Jim Lee, who drew the acclaimed “Hush” Batman storyline and is now DC's co-publisher, regarding the 1950s and early '60s books. “You'd just look at it and crave it. You wanted to live it. You wanted to design your own Batcave.”
I know I did. But then things changed.
I discovered DC's rival Marvel Comics just as its revolution of the superhero business was taking off (although the similarities between their hot new property Spider-Man and Batman did not escape me). By mid-decade, the campy “Batman” TV show was exerting a direly dumbing influence on DC, just as Marvel's psychologically richer, socially relevant modern mythmaking hit its zenith.
Collecting old comics became a thing around that time, too. Guys like me discovered that the EC Comics of the early 1950s were real works of art, if often childishly grotesque (which, of course, delighted us even more). We learned how they were destroyed by censorship, and how the self-policing Comics Code Authority that saved the industry was also responsible for turning Batman into the child-friendly, but toothless, figure that first attracted me.
Then I discovered the early Batman. The “hero” created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 was a grim, frightening, sometimes even murderous figure. The somewhat softened version, drawn by the likes of Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang that emerged in the 1940s following Robin's introduction, still got into dark situations with the likes of a Joker, Two-Face, Penguin and (yes, way sexy) Catwoman, et al, who seemed far more dangerous than their '60s incarnations.
These discoveries made the camping up of Batman in the mid-'60s look like a betrayal of what tweens such as myself were convinced was an art form.
And then something wonderful happened. The TV show passed like the fad it was, Batman comics sales plummeted, and someone at DC said, “What's Marvel doing right that we're doing wrong?” The '70s dawned, I was a rebellious teenager, and my childhood friend Batman became the best comic book ever.
A young writer, Dennis O'Neil, and artist, Neal Adams, simultaneously took Batman back to his noirish roots and brought out a new kind of traumatized crazy. Scary new villains such as Ra's al Ghul were introduced, and the Joker reverted from years as a clown back to the ruthless sadist he was meant to be.
All while Adams explored new ways to present sequential storytelling.
“He made the world look so real,” Lee observes. “This was an era before there were digital effects in movies, so this was as close as you could get to seeing these fantastic characters come to life in a way that felt very photo-realistic.
“But Neal was also very experimental. If you pulled back from some pages, you'd see a giant Batman head, even though each area of the cowl was actually a different panel. He really kind of broke the mold and did a lot of experimental storytelling. It reflected what was going on in '60s and '70s pop culture and counterculture movements, when people questioned all conventions that had existed before then.”
“They pushed the limits of what could be accomplished with words and pictures on paper that hadn't been done before,” Lee continues. “It was really a high point for the medium/art form.”
That early '70s cycle has influenced the best Batman runs over the 40-some years that have followed. Or so I've been told; except for Frank Miller's ballyhooed “Dark Knight Returns” series from the mid-1980s, I haven't read many Batmans, or comics in general, since sometime in college.
My interest in visual storytelling shifted to cinema, and I've spent most of my professional (and too much of my remaining) adult life parsing movie aesthetics. I've loved it, and I'm fairly convinced that it all might never have happened had I not been intrigued by that creepy Clayface cover.
And when I watch a movie as great as “The Dark Knight,” I get the feeling that my caped crusading, kinda crazy buddy may have been one of the best teachers I ever had.