ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies

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Batman is one of the most popular and important characters created for comic books. In the entire pantheon of comic book superheroes, only Superman and Spiderman rival him in significance. Indeed, Batman has become an American icon and an international marketing industry in and of himself. Batman was created out of DC editor Vincent Sullivan’s desire to exploit the success of DC’s first superhero, Superman. In 1939, a year after the introduction of the Man of Steel, artist Bob Kane, took inspiration from various Hollywood adventure, horror, and gangster movies and prepared a design for a masked crime-fighter in the costume of a bat. Writer Bill Finger contributed the vigilante concept for the hero incorporating ideas from current pulp magazines. The resulting character was unique, a visual and thematic synthesis of the lurid and bizarre representations of popular culture available to a 1930s mass audience.

Like Superman, Batman wore a costume, maintained a secret identity, and battled crime and injustice. Unlike Superman, though, Batman possessed no superhuman powers, relying instead upon his own wits, technical skills, and fighting prowess. He was introduced to readers in Detective Comics (Spring 1939) and has continued in print ever since. Batman’s motives and origins were initially obscure, but readers soon learned that as a child Bruce Wayne had witnessed the brutal murder of his parents. Traumatized by the event, he determined to avenge their deaths by using his inherited fortune to assemble an arsenal of crime fighting gadgets while training his body and mind to the pinnacle of human perfection. He selects a bat as the ideal persona to use in intimidating criminals.

Kane and Finger originally cast Batman as a vigilante pursued by the police even as he preyed upon criminals. Prowling the night, lurking in the shadows, and wearing a frightening costume with a hooded cowl and a flowing Draculalike cape, Batman often looked more like a villain than a hero. In his earliest episodes, he even carried a gun and sometimes killed his opponents. As Batman himself once put it, “If you can’t beat [criminals] ‘inside’ the law, you must beat them ‘outside’ it—and that’s where I come in!” In his early adventures, he waged a grim war against crime in a netherworld of gloomy castles, fog-bound wharves, and the dimly lit alleys of Gotham City—an urban landscape that seemed perpetually enshrouded in a nightscape. Kane was one of the first comic book artists to experiment with unusual angle shots, distorted perspectives, and heavy shadows to create a disturbing mood. The early issues also rank among the most graphically violent of their time. Murder, brutality, and bloodshed were common until 1941 when DC Comics responded to public criticism by “cleaning up” its comic books. As a result, Batman’s adventures gradually moved out of the shadows and became more conventional superhero adventure stories.

A sidekick, Robin, was introduced in the April 1940 issue of Detective and this also served to lighten the mood of the series. Young Dick Grayson, like Bruce Wayne, witnessed the death of his parents and becomes the ward of the older man who trains him in the ways of crime fighting. Although some readers through the years have found the character a hindrance to the solitary image of the original Batman concept, the “Dynamic Duo” was popular nonetheless. In an influential polemic against comics, published in 1954, Frederick Wertham even charged that the relationship between Batman and Robin was rife with homosexual implications, hence posing a danger to young readers. After the introduction of Robin, many other superheroes took on boy sidekicks.

Batman and Robin encountered some of the best and most appealing villains in comic books. They included the Joker (first appearance, Batman #1 early in 1940), the “clown prince of homicide;” the Penguin, an over-stuffed, umbrella-toting snob; Two-Face, an insane former district attorney with a deformed visage; the Riddler, a crazed criminal who gave clues before he attacked; and the Catwoman, a feline-themed villainous who fell in love with Batman.

Batman was given his own magazine in 1940, the second superhero (after Superman) to have his own title. Batman and Robin also showed up in the 1940 edition of New York World’s Fair Comics and thereafter in its successor, World’s Finest Comics. In World’s Finest #71 (July-August 1954), Batman and Robin entered into a partnership with Superman and started working as a trio in that magazine. During the middle 1950s, many of the original creators left the strip and this ushered in a lowpoint in the Batman feature. Saddled with new and outlandish characters like Bathound, Batwoman, Batgirl, and Bat-Mite, and crippled by poor science fiction scripts about monsters, robots, aliens, time travel and crackpots, Batman quickly slumped in sales and popularity. In the mid-1960s, Batman worked without Robin and teamed up with a series of other heroes in The Brave and The Bold, including Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman, and the Green Arrow. Those team-ups continued into the early 1980s.

Although sales of Batman’s comics slipped beginning in the early 1960s due to a drifting presentation of the hero, and the rise of Marvel Comics and its “anti-establishment” anti-heroes (e.g., Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk), the “Caped Crusader” received a boost from a new source in 1966—television. ABC launched a prime-time live action series Batman, a campy program that ridiculed every aspect of the comic book series. For a few years, the show was a phenomenal hit as major stars clamored to appear on it. Sales of comic books increased dramatically for several years, but most believe the overall impact of the television series was negative since the show’s producers seemed to be making fun of the hero’s many fans. The Batman show reinforced the popular perception that comic books were strictly for children and “morons.” Four major motion pictures have worked to overcome that image and introduce Batman and Robin in a more serious way to new generations of fans.

In the 1980s and 1990s new generations of writers and artists sought to rescue Batman from the perils of his own multi-media success by exploring the darker implications of Batman as a vigilante. In a 1986 “graphic novel” titled Bat Man: The Dark Knight Returns, writer Frank Miller cast the hero as a slightly mad middle-aged fascist out to violently purge a dystopian future Gotham City gutted by moral decay. The success of The Dark Knight led to a series of graphic novels and comic book limited series, including Batman: Year One (1987), Batman: the Killing Joke (1988), and Batman: Arkham Asylum (1989) that delved into the most gothic, violent, and disturbing qualities of the Batman mythos. The new Batman industry even killed off a new Robin (who had replaced the grown-up Dick Grayson) and, in Frank Miller’s “Dark Knight” work, Robin was portrayed by a red-haired girl named Carrie Kelly.

Like Superman, Batman has generated popular interest and revenue from exposure in media other than comic books. There were two movie serials in the 1940s, two newspaper strips (1943 and 1966), and a radio program in addition to the “blockbuster” film versions of the late twentieth century. He remains, though, a product of comic books and it is in this medium that he has been most influential. The whole multitude of costumed avengers driven to strike fear into the hearts of evil-doers owe much to Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Batman—an original comic book crusader.


An incomparable athlete, far beyond Olympic level, the Batman is also a master of all known forms of physical combat, an unparalleled strategist and tactician, an expert in the art of disguise, and has been called by some the world’s greatest escape artist. His reasoning and deductive abilities are second to none. The weapons in his arsenal against crime include items in the utility belt he wears around his waist, the sleek Batmobile, the Batplane, and the one-man Whirly-bat.

Comics on Display

“The Negative Batman,” Detective Comics 284 (October 1960)

“The Bronze Menace,” Detective Comics 302 (April 1962)

“The Flame Master,” Detective Comics 308 (October 1962)

“The Joker’s Last Laugh!” Detective Comics 332 (October 1964)

“All My Enemies Against Me!” Detective Comics 500 (May 1983)

“Identity Crisis,” Detective Comics 633 (August 1991) Story by Peter Milligan; art by Tom Mandrake and John Costanza

“Burning Questions,” Detective Comics 662 (June 1993) Story by Chuck Dixon; art by Graham Nolan and Scott Hanna

“Lightning Changes,” Detective Comics 665 (August 1993) Story by Chuck Dixon; art by Graham Nolan and Dick Giordano

“Death Comes Home,” Detective Comics 716 (December 1997) Story by Chuck Dixon; art by Jim Aparo and Stan Woch

“The Riddle-Less Robberies of the Riddler!” Batman 179 (March 1966)

“Beware of Poison Ivy!” Batman 181 (June 1966)

“The Penguin Takes a Flyer Into the Future!” Batman 190 (March 1967)

“Murder Comes in Black Boxes!” Batman 281 (November 1976) Story by David Reed; art by Ernie Chua and Tex Blaisdel

“Batman-Ex—As in Extinct!” Batman 287 (May 1977) Story by David Reed; art by Mike Grell and Bob Wiacek

“Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed?” Batman 291 (September 1977) Story by David Reed; art by John Calnan and Tex Blaisdell

“There’ll be a Cold Time in the Old Town Tonight!” Batman 308 (February 1979) Story by Len Wein; art by John Calnan and Dick Giordano

“Once Beaten, Twice Sly!” Batman 314 (August 1979) Story by Len Wein; art by Irv Novick and Frank McLaughlin

“Crimesmith and Punishment,” Batman 444 (February 1990) Story by Marv Wolfman; art by Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo

“When the Earth Dies: Chapter One, Red Square! Bloody Square!” Batman 445 (March 1990) Story by Marv Wolfman; art by Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo

“When the Earth Dies: Chapter Two, Underworlds” Batman 446 (April 1990) Story by Marv Wolfman; art by Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo

“The Last Arkham: Part One,” Batman: The Shadow of the Bat 1 (June 1992) Story by Alan Grant; art by Norm Breyfogle and Todd Klein

“Wild Knights, Wild City,” Batman: The Shadow of the Bat 30 (August 1994) Story by Alan Grant; art by Bret Blevins and Adrienne Roy

“Marking Time,” Batman: Gotham Nights 1 (March 1995) Story by John Ostrander; art by Mary Mitchell and Dick Giordano

“Tao: Part Two: Dragon,” Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight 53 (October 1993) Story by Alan Grant; art by Arthur Ranson

“Criminals: Part One,” Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight 69 (March 1995) Story by Steven Grant; art by Mike Zeck

“Brothers of the Bop: Part I,” Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight: Jazz 1 (April 1995) By Gerard Jones and Mark Badger

“Playing Changes: Part II,” Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight: Jazz 2 (May 1995) By Gerard Jones and Mark Badger

“Where Blue Byrds Fly: Part III,” Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight: Jazz 3 (June 1995) By Gerard Jones and Mark Badger

“The Sleeping,” Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight 76 (October 1995) Story/art by Scott Hampton

Exhibit 1: Main

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