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.
Batman, on the other hand, has not only endured, but his world and history have remained largely intact in the process. Yeah, his mythology has expanded, but at his core, he’s still the same character that first appeared in the comics in 1939.
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 this, becoming as iconic as Batman himself.
Maybe it was the concept of Batman himself. It helps that it’s easy to explain, and sounds more plausible than other origin stories. A kid watches his parents die and vows to grow up to fight crime as a result, dressed like a bat to intimidate his enemies. Boom. Simple. Done. It’s simple to execute whether you’re talking about comics, movies, or TV shows. That simplicity also makes it very easy for future writers to build on it.
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 typical life of privilege if his parents hadn’t been killed. Their murders scarred him in a way it didn’t really seem to mark so many of his short-lived contemporaries.
However he’s done it, he’s more than earned his long-term success. Here’s to the next 80 years and beyond!