I was listening to Danny Elfman’s opening credits music for the first Tim Burton Batman film, when I came across a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. A man in Oakland had been walking his tiny little eight pound terrier, when he was approached by a couple of thugs. These guys thought the Red Sox cap and red sweater meant this man belonged to a gang, and proceeded to beat the crap out of him. When the little dog, named Shadow, began barking and trying to protect his owner, the thugs stomped the little dog to death. The music swelled in my headphones as a perfect accompaniment to my rage over this gross injustice. A little dog! What threat did he pose? I wanted to kill those thugs with my bare hands. Such is the birth of Batman.
Batman has remained popular since his inception in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, because he is us. A human being outraged by the outrageous evil in our everyday lives. His parents were gunned down senselessly, and so the young Bruce Wayne devised a way to strike fear into the hearts of such thugs. Batman appeals to the vigilante within us, but he has a code of conduct. He does not carry a gun, and avoids killing if at all possible. The genius of Batman lies in the fact that although he’s quite gothic, at least in the beginning, and today, he is a beacon of hope within the darkness in which he dwells. He has been represented in various ways throughout his career, but the dark knight is probably the most resonant, especially in today’s dark times. Batman was born in the Depression, as was Superman, and he fought for the underdog. Of course, Bruce Wayne is a rich playboy, but unlike Donald Trump, Bruce Wayne could be imagined visiting an Occupy Wall Street demonstration to offer his qualified support. The wealth was a device to enable Bruce Wayne to support himself while being Batman, and to have a very expensive Batcave lair, with an undoubtedly expensive Batmobile, Batplane, and even a Batsubmarine.
The early Batman comics, which are among my favorites, are spooky. Shadows loom large, and his cape gave Batman a spectral majesty. He was quite operatic, with the cowl and cape, and connects us with antiheroes in literature and film, such as the Phantom of the Opera. He is not an evil figure, and yet he evokes Dracula. His appearance owes a debt to the German expressionists, and stimulates a complex array of emotions, much of it subconscious. But to me, as a snot-nosed kid, he just looked cool.
Unlike Superman, Batman was vulnerable. You could easily imagine him getting killed or hurt. It wasn’t until recently with his ongoing battle with Bain, that Batman actually gets badly hurt. I had to suspend my disbelief, as a child, when Batman managed to escape from harm with bullets flying all around him. His utility belt also stretched my imagination to the breaking point. Just how much stuff is in there? Why does he always have the most improbable thing in his belt just when he needs it? Of course, I realized that comics are not logical.
Then there is the matter of the eyes. There aren’t any!! I can recall a fairly recent Batman comic which made fun of this fact, with another character commenting on the creepiness of the white space in place of eyes. Actually it just adds to the uncanny quality of Batman. When Bruce dons the costume and cowl, he becomes a magical icon from out of our collective unconscious, and such icons don’t have eyes. All psychologists know this. It was one of the few things that Freud and Jung agreed on.
Because Batman had no special powers, he always represented us. We could put ourselves into the story much more effectively with Batman than Superman, Green Lantern, Flash, or Wonder Woman. With them there was always a gimmick, which was fun, but with Batman you could really imagine how you would fair in that comic book world. I could learn martial arts just like Bruce did. I could manage to keep my massive cape out of the way as I engaged in fisticuffs with a bunch of loons with very poor aim.
With the Silver Age of Batman (the fifties and early sixties) he lost his original mysterious quality and become a much friendlier, but also goofier hero. The stories became much more outlandish, but as a kid I didn’t really care. The Silver Age was packed with all kinds of great characters. Never mind that you see Batman in outer space with no helmet, somehow avoiding death by suffocation. Never mind that he joined the Justice League and spent a lot of the time standing about, listening to the other superheroes discuss strategy.
Undoubtedly one of the best things about Batman was his car. I mean, none of the other heroes had cars, didn’t need them, but Batman had the very cool Batmobile. My favorite has to be the Silver Age Batmobile, I mean the bat fin and the cowl on the front is kitsch paradise as far as I am concerned. It has that Buck Rogers 1930’s chic going for it. Seeing that awesome car barreling through the streets of Gotham is great to recreate in your imagination and I did for many years.
Batman created the car himself in 1950, and the panel above shows Robin’s reaction. Ten years ahead? You bet! Fuel-injected overdrive, bullet resistant glass, state of the art intercom, and whitewalls. It was a heavy vehicle and only someone with Batman’s strength could handle a standard transmission. Power steering? That’s for sissies!
There have been other Batmobiles since (see above) but they don’t compare to the original. In fact, what the heck is that last thing? That isn’t the Batmobile, it’s some kind of Humvee from Hell.
There was a campy mid-sixties Batman tv show, which I didn’t particularly like as a kid. It wasn’t Batman. It was Adam West. I got involved in other things and lost track of Batman until the awesome Batman cartoons of the nineties on Cartoon Network. There had been Batman cartoons before, but Super Friends was not the kind of cartoon I craved. I never watched them. The great film treatment by Tim Burton resparked my interest in the Dark Knight. I did think Michael Keaton was miscast, but Jack Nicholson played a memorable Joker, unmatched until Heath Ledger created an equally memorable Joker. The cartoons of the nineties however managed to capture the hip quality of Batman, and the artwork was superb, matching the look of much of both the Golden and Silver Age. He became a character somewhat removed from the others, unlike the family friendly Batman of the Silver Age. He retained his dark allure, and the voice was perfect.
Batman is still going strong today, although he has become a bit too dark for my taste. I liked the grey outfit with the blue cape and the bat on the chest, both with or without the yellow oval. In the latest movie versions, and even in the comics he is becoming too macho. I don’t like the super buff transformer outfit he wears. I would like to see him become more of a human being once again.
This is not Batman. This is Adam West. This is not Robin. This is Bert Ward.