Eighty years. Eighty continuous years of fighting crime across every medium you can think of. Eighty years of thrilling readers, audiences, and gamers. Eighty years as a cornerstone of American pop culture and a multi-billion-dollar merchandising juggernaut.
How did he do it? What does Batman have that so many of his Golden Age comrades in arms didn’t? How did he reach the iconic status that so many of his contemporaries could only dream of?
Was it the dark tone? Pop culture historians like Rick Marschall seem to think so. The first few Batman stories created a grim, ominous atmosphere enhanced by a cinematic approach to panel sequencing, lighting, and shadow. It helped his stories stand out from those of his contemporaries, and gave them a level of quality and atmosphere other Golden Age comics simply didn’t have. I’ve read a ton of Golden Age comics over the years, thanks to reprints, and Batman’s Golden Age stories really do stand above most of them from a quality and style perspective. Not that there weren’t gems to be found from non-Batman comics (I have a whole series on this site dedicated to highlighting those). But as a whole, Batman’s creative team always seemed to go above and beyond when it came to the writing and artwork, and a lot of that went into the tone they injected into the comics. Batman’s freakish gallery of villains, wisely kept alive to menace Gotham again and again instead of being killed off, undoubtedly played a critical role in shaping the bizarre world of Batman, becoming as iconic as the Dark Knight himself.
But Batman’s origins stem not from a dream, but a nightmare scenario. Losing a loved one to violence is something that can happen to anyone, any time. It’s a terrifyingly realistic origin that people can relate to. In fact, many superheroes created at the same time as Batman lost loved ones to motivate them to fight crime, so Batman’s not unique in that regard. Still, with most other characters, this is treated as a minor detail that doesn’t really impact them that much. Dan Garrett, the first Blue Beetle, lost his father to organized crime, but he was already a top athlete at the time his father was killed – and he was already determined to be a cop like his dad anyway. Joe Higgins, the Shield, had already discovered the secret to his powers before his father was framed for being a traitor and spy.
Bruce Wayne, however, was just a little boy when he watched his parents die, and it’s unlikely he would have lived anything but a life of privilege and comfort if his parents hadn’t been killed. Not that he would have turned out to be a bad or selfish person - he likely would have followed the same philanthropic example set by his parents. Their murders scarred him in a way it didn’t really seem to mark so many of his short-lived contemporaries. We may imagine ourselves as Batman because of his wealth, his looks, his gadgets, and badass costume...but would we really want to live Bruce Wayne's life? Lonely, isolated, unable to fully love or trust because the crusade against crime always comes first, or we're afraid to lose someone close to us to violence? For many readers, that's the tragic nobility and the heroism that makes us look up to Batman in the first place - his choice to sacrifice personal happiness to make sure no child endures the same tragedy he did.
However he’s done it, he’s more than earned his long-term success. Here’s to the next 80 years and beyond!