Batman, BatGod, Batinstitution: How and Why Batman Changes
If we take care of ourselves, get our steps in, maybe eat the occasional vegetable, we might live to see Batman’s 100th birthday in a decade or so.
The Batman we celebrate in 2039 might not look anything like the Batman we know today, though. Because the Batman we know today isn’t a whole lot like the Batman of 1939.
You knew that already, but what you might not know is that today’s Batman is REALLY different from the Batman of the 80s, who is different from the Batman of the 90s, who is different from the Batman of the 2000s.
How does Batman change? And, better question: Why does Batman change?
You Might Be Saying…
Of course Batman changes with the times! Any character will change over enough time!
This is true, but Batman is special.
Captain America went from flag-waving WWII hero cheeseball to an unfrozen cheeseball out of time. Cap’s whole thing is that the world has changed around him while he’s stayed the same.
Spider-Man has been comics’ lovable loser since the 1960s. Every time Peter Parker gets out of high school, he’s dragged back in what I can only describe as an endless, hellish, cyclical nightmare.
Wonder Woman is still screwing around with ancient mythology.
Superman has died, come back, gotten weird electric powers, and even been gritted-up quite a bit for the DC cinematic universe. Superman is elastic, though. He changes, but he always bounces back to form (or, wait, am I thinking of Plastic Man?).
Batman, though, Batman changes.
In 1985, DC Comics ran its Crisis on Infinite Earths series, which cleaned up a lot of DC continuity.
Look, I don’t really fuck with pre-Crisis Batman comics, and you shouldn’t either.
I know, lots of folks want to start an analysis from the beginning. Trust me, and trust Marv Wolfman: the whole point of Crisis was to spare you that slog.
Hey, it's my personal bias, and I'm writing the column, so here you go: Up to the mid-80s, Batman doesn't really function as a mirror held up to the world.
Besides, what little meat might be on that bone has been picked clean. Let's move on.
Post-Crisis and Finding a Footing
Post-Crisis Batman is a Batman that I HATED when I was 17, and he's a Batman I LOVE as a middle-aged guy.
In one issue, you’d get a cartoon-y, smiley Batman calling Robin "old chum," and in another issue, a noir detective story with junkies and pimps.
Sometimes, these two aesthetics were in the same comic, and the push/pull of it is oddly satisfying to read.
This is a time when Joker was a legitimate threat, occasionally offing people, but also had a secret hideout with a Joker-themed fireplace, Joker-face desk, and a rocket car with a Joker face on the front.
Batman is a dark avenger of the night, but he’s also interacting with Ronald Regan as though they’re old friends.
It’s like the characters were these new, more frightening people, but they were plopped into the world of the 1960s Batman TV series.
Comic book shops really hit their stride around this same time. Before the mid-80s, you’d usually go to a newsstand or hobby shop for comics. Now, you could find a ton of shops that sold exclusively comics. This was a HUGE step in the creation of the comics subculture.
The audience for comics, instead of being a bunch of kids, was a mix. It was becoming a lot more common for readers hooked in the 60s to keep reading and collecting into adulthood.
All of this meant comics fandom and Batman were both going through this weird adolescence, like that person who goes to college and tries to construct a new identity, but really all he came up with was an alternate version of his name (shorter or longer, depending on the original name), and maybe a pair of boots.
That kind of adolescence isn't enjoyable for the teenager going through it. But as an adult looking back at it, those teenage years are pretty hilarious.
Dark Knight Returns, Year One, The Cult, A Death in the Family, Tim Burton’s Batman.
The late 80s saw Batman take a turn for the dark, and these books took away Batman’s youth, his experience, his sidekick, his sanity, and just about any bright spots in Bruce Wayne’s life.
This is probably the era of Batman people think of when they picture him skulking in alleys, beating up homeless dudes for information.
This is the era of grittiness, of stories that seemed to be trying to out-dark each other. Batman’s smile was wiped right off his face. But there’s something more interesting going on here under the grime.
Batman was very human for this period, and the big Batman stories from the era were all about Batman going through human experiences.
In Year One, we saw Batman as an amateur. We can relate to a guy starting a new job, bumbling his way through.
In A Death in the Family, we saw Batman lose a loved one and vow to never make himself vulnerable by loving again, something the unfortunate among us understand completely.
In Dark Knight Returns, we saw an aging Batman, living in a world he no longer recognized or understood.
Batman books leaned hard into the thing that separated Batman from every other hero: He's human.
And, like any savvy creator would, the writers turned Batman's weakness into a strength, and they ran with it.
JLA and Bat-God
In Grant Morrison’s JLA, a group of new superheroes shows up on the scene, and they start methodically taking out The League.
Batman was left for last because he was completely underestimated by these villains-in-disguise. They figured they could just sweep him up when they got around to it, and that mistake was their undoing.
In one of Batman’s greatest moments, the villain group comes upon one of their own, beaten, tied up, with a note pinned to him with a Batarang that says, “I know your secret.”
One of the bad guys: "I thought you said Batman had no super powers."
This was the beginning of BatGod.
There was also a story that was popularized, if not originated, in Morrison’s JLA run: The idea that Batman has created elaborate plans to kill every member of the Justice League. Just in case.
Over the intervening 30 years, this idea has been used so often that I have to roll my eyes when Green Lantern is like, “Wait, Batman had plans to exterminate us if need-be?” Yeah, duh.
This Batman is very much a product of the 90s.
The 90s were a good time for a lot of people in a lot of ways. Crime fell at a HUGE rate in the 90s. The economy was pretty good. America didn't spend a whole lot of time at war in the 90s.
We didn't need a Batman to solve street-level problems, it seemed like we were managing that okay.
We needed a Batman beating up Martians, taking on Darkseid, and fighting a dude who could put fighting styles into his body via a CD-ROM player in his head (I TOLD you, it was the 90s).
The Batman from Year One couldn't do any of those things. But a BatGod could. And did.
Batman Steps Back
I would say that the late 90s/early 2000s was another period where Batman was mostly lost in his own books.
Or, maybe he wasn’t lost. Maybe he was being pushed out of the spotlight.
In The Long Halloween, there’s a lot of emphasis on characters other than Batman, and the opening of No Man’s Land is mostly about Batman’s absence.
Gotham Central (2005) really cemented this as a book from the perspective of Gotham P.D., who work in a city that has its share of crime, plus you might show up to a robbery in progress and discover the robber has a freeze ray or some shit.
My theory on this trend is that it had a lot to do with the Christopher Nolan movies hitting the scene.
Blockbuster movies make it difficult to do a lot with a character. You don’t want everyone who loves Dark Knight to show up at a comics shop and find out Batman is in the midst of some years-long interdimensional team-up with Zatanna, Etrigan, and...how about Detective Chimp?
Pushing Batman back and focusing on side characters is a creative way to solve the problem. You can still tell engaging, interesting stories under the Batman label, and you can do it with the same, sometimes stale, Batman.
Batman was a little stagnant, but it was okay because this moment was all about side characters.
Time Travel Batman and Batdad
Batman dies, kind of, he becomes a dad, he time travels, he’s maybe some kind of ancient totemic figure or something, he's one of a few survivors of an apocalypse, he fights weird "metal" versions of himself. There’s…a lot.
The best I can give this era: they needed to do something with Batman, and going abstract, while not my jam, opens up some new territory.
But it's just not my thing. When comic book threats and enemies are very ethereal and ill-defined, the solutions tend to be EVEN MORE out-there, so you end up reading a book that makes less sense the more you read. That doesn't make for a great reading experience.
This is a Batman who is confronted with often strange worlds that make no sense, and he adapts. I think this is a familiar feeling for a lot of us, and I will say this is a rare, optimistic Batman who overcomes threats of a type that might shake most characters to pieces.
A character like Batman has to be pushed just beyond the logical limit before he can be reigned in and made whole again. This era was a hard shove off the cliff.
Recently, Batman has been very hard to nail down. Tom King’s Batman, Chip Zdarsky’s Batman, Brian Azzarello’s Batman, James Tynion IV's Batman, Sean Murphy’s Batman, and Tom Taylor's Batman all feel pretty different.
I do think that the variety of superhero movies and shows has gotten people used to the idea that you can read two different Bat books and experience two different Batmen. I mean, it’s only in the last couple of years that the term “multiverse” is one you can kind of assume most people understand, at least in a comic book context.
Instead of stories serving to build up the character of Batman, the character of Batman is now flexing a bit to fit the stories creators want to tell. And it works. Chip Zdarsky's Batman is wonderful. DC Vs. Vampires is so much better than it has any business being.
This newer, less static idea of Batman-ness opens up the opportunities for new stories, different nuances, and turns comics into the playground for ideas they always should be.
And we need new stories. Readers are in the mood for comics that take some risks that wouldn't be reasonable for a big budget movie.
A more fluid Batman makes that possible. You won't ruin all of Batman's continuity if you show him in a bad light in White Knight. Hell, you couldn't even tarnish his reputation by showing his crank in Batman Damned (let's see that Dick, and I don't mean Grayson).
Batman might be more scattered as a character than he's ever been. It's good for comics readers, and it's good for Batman.
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