The Passion of the Batman, part 2

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 8, 2005

Please read yesterday’s post first, or you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about.


Batman was created in 1939 by artist
Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, who were influenced by the films The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Bat Whispers (1930).[1] The Batman was forged during a time of
uncertainty and impending war. In the
early days, the Batman was a grim vigilante who terrorized criminals. By the end of the war, however, he was
becoming increasingly adventurous and upbeat. Things continued along this trajectory into the sixties, when the
popular television show introduced elements of “camp” into the Batman and Robin
formula. It wasn?t until the seventies
that the Batman regained his grim demeanor. But by that time, the Batman?s popularity was on a strong decline. A problem that would be remedied in the mid
80s by the release of the Dark Knight

before I move ahead to the Dark Knight
, it is important to outline the common “ingredients” of all Batman
incarnations-whether it is the disturbingly violent Batman of recent years, or
the campy, bright Batman of the 60s. Five key components constitute thecharacter of the Batman.[2]

  1. The Batman has four central traits/attributes. He has great wealth, unmatched physical
         prowess, supreme deductive abilities, and has a singular obsession to fight injustice.
  2. Every incarnation of the Batman shares the same origin event. Richard Reynolds, a popular lecture and writer on comic book culture writes: “Every Batman story is to some extent an extension of the origin story, as Batman?s motivation is wholly derived from the trauma of witnessing his parents shot in cold blood.”[3] The centrality of the Batman?s origin cannot be overstated. Batman?s entire persona and vocation is defined by the death of his parents. DC Comics artist and editor Dick Giordano explains both the centrality and the popularity of the Batman?s origin story when he writes, “The Batman was born in a few, brief, violent moments in which a young Bruce Wayne was forced to watch the brutal murder of his parents at the hands of a street thief…We can all understand Bruce?s grief…and we can all understand his need to do something to avenge the deaths of his parents. The origin of the Batman is grounded, therefore, in emotion. An emotion that is primal and timeless and dark. The Batman does what he does for himself, for his needs. That society gains from his actions is incidental…”[4] But no amount of vigilantism will assuage the guilt and anger that motivate him-in the 50s The Batman successfully tracks down his parents? killer and brings him to justice, but nothing changes; he remains the Dark Knight, perpetually traumatized by his parents? death.
  3. There is a common stock of recurrent characters-Commissioner Gordon, Robin, Alfred, the Joker, etc. Almost every character is a reflection or exaggeration of the Batman?s traits.  For example, the villain Two-Face is identical to Batman in that he?s controlled by dark urges, which he keeps in check, in his case, with the flip of a coin. He?s very much like Batman. Other characters represent the Batman?s lack of emotion (Mr. Freeze), or his obsessiveness (the Joker).[5]
  4. The setting for the Batman?s adventures is primarily Gotham City. Gotham City is a brooding, troubled city, which roughly corresponds to our world?s New York City.
  5. Each Batman employs a common iconography. While certain specifics may change-like
         secondary colors-each Batman has a common bat emblem, drives a batmobile, and bases operations out of a bat-cave. The symbols hardly ever change.

So, no matter which Batman is
being considered, there are certain constants. The fact that the variables mentioned above are fixed makes Frank Millers
accomplishment all the more remarkable. In his introduction to the Dark
Knight Returns
, Alan Moore writes, “[Miller] has taken a character whose
every trivial and incidental detail is graven in stone on the hearts and minds
of comic fans that make up his audience and managed to dramatically redefine
that character without contradicting one jot of the character?s
mythology…Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it?s all
totally different.”[6]

[1] Bill Boichel, “Batman: Commodity as Myth,” in Pearson, Roberta E., and Uricchio,
William, Eds., The Many Lives of the
(New York: Routledge, 1991), 6.

[2] William
Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson, “I?m Not Fooled By That Cheap Disguise,” in
Pearson, Roberta E., and Uricchio, William, Eds., The Many Lives of the Batman (New York: Routledge, 1991), 186-187.

[3] Richard Reynolds, Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology. (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1992) 67.

[4] Dick Giordano, “Growing Up With the Greatest,” The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (New York: DC Comics, 1988), 7-8.

[5] Frank
Miller, quoted in Christoffer Sharrett,
“Batman and the Twilight of the Idols: An Interview with Frank Miller,” in
Pearson, Roberta E., and Uricchio, William, Eds., The Many Lives of the Batman (New York: Routledge, 1991), 36.

[6] Alan
Moore, “Introduction,” The Dark Knight
(New York: DC Comics, 1986).

for further reading . . .

  • None Found