Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Following in the Footsteps of Batman


Brandon Engel (@BrandonEngel2 is a big fan of the comic books. He lists Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Batman (particularly the Dennis O'Neil/Neal Addams stuff from the seventies) and Empire of the Dead among his favorite books. Seeing as how Batman is up there, it makes sense that Engel would write about the longevity of a character like Batman.

Ask three different people why they love Batman and you’re likely to get three different responses. That, in and of itself, is a testament to what makes the character great.

The old Bat is 75 now. Let’s think about what this means for a second: in the eighties, when Frank Miller released his Dark Knight Returns series, the character would have been probably in his fifties or sixties. Twenty years prior, the television show featuring Adam West parodied the older comic books and the old Batman film serial from the forties. This means that Batman is so old, that he already felt dated to kids growing up in the sixties and that the notion of Batman being old and returning to his former glory is a concept that has been visited and revisited time and time again over the course of the past thirty years.

My point is that there’s no disputing the staying power of the character. The fact that he’s managed to endure for so long is perhaps largely attributable to his elasticity: he could be used as a vehicle for social commentary, or he could serve as a vehicle for self-referential comic book jokes. Frank Miller himself surmised that with Batman, you’ve got a cool looking character whose life story is fairly easy to summarize: his parents were killed by criminals, and he’s hell bent to avenge their murder.  “There are a very few, maybe only two or three comic book characters that have been created that have stood five decades of time, and have been adapted to different times,” Miller said.

Miller said that because of the inherent simplicity of the design and concept of the character, he’s been open to many interpretations, although Miller’s stance seems to be (and not surprisingly) that the treatment Batman got in the sixties and the seventies softened the character to the point that he was no longer relatable. But, as even Michael Uslan begrudgingly concedes in The Boy Who Loved Batman, campier treatments of Batman (and notably the television show from the sixties) helped to serve as a point-of-entry into the franchise for kids.

And there’s no reason to condemn the campy Batman entirely. After all, the self-parodying treatment helped to keep the character present in popular culture. If he hadn’t been made relevant to contemporary audiences then, might he have fallen off the face of the earth, as so many other heroes have?

Darker Batman comics (not just the Miller ones, but also the ones by Dennis O’Neil and Alan Moore) helped to set the stage for the Tim Burton Batman films, which in turn helped to set the stage for Christopher Nolan’s films. In between Burton and Nolan, things got a little confusing because you had Joel Schumacher once again re-appropriating Batman in campier (and more blatantly gay) narratives with Batman Forever (1993) and Batman and Robin (1998). But there you go once again: it’s the fluidity of the character that has kept him around for so long.

The question now is this: what other newer comic characters might also enjoy this same longevity? Maybe Alan Moore’s <i>The Watchmen</i> because of the increasingly relevant social subtext? Perhaps the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Kids might always be able to relate to the turtles, by virtue of the turtle’s perennial youth (the word “teenage” is, after all, part of the brand). Michael Bay's recent turkey of a TMNT film has, for all its shortcoming, actually done much to engage a younger fanbase.

Perhaps those kids will start streaming the old nineties cartoon off of the websites that host them, and take an interest in vintage TMNT toys. This is, after all, how Tim Burton’s Batman films helped to keep younger viewers interested in the franchise. Batman: The Animated Series definitely helped to prime young kids in the nineties for the Nolan films.


Batman has endured precisely because there isn’t any one Batman. Few contemporary superheroes have a similar depth and flexibility. As such, you can be sure that few contemporary heroes will endure the way that Batman has for so long.

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