Now that The Dark Knight has crossed the magic $500 million barrier at the US box office and grossed over $900 million worldwide, Batman is once again a true cultural phenomenon. It is perhaps now relevant and interesting to look at the history of the character to see how the he has had such an enduring appeal over the last 70 years.
Since his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in May of 1939, Batman has become not only an iconic comic book character, but also a major character on television, radio, novels and of course, the big screen.
Created by a young artist named Bob Kane (with a little help from Bill Finger) and following the success of Superman in 1938, Batman was an instant sensation, and although he has remained comparable to the original Batman that solved “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” quite a lot has altered over the last 70 years.
Kane’s genesis of Batman came from an eclectic assortment of sources including heroes such as Zorro; pulp character The Shadow; the work of Leonardo Da Vinci; historical characters such as Robert the Bruce; and even a villain from the 1930’s film The Bat Whispers.
Merely a few months after Batman had achieved his own comic book title, he also gained a sidekick in the form of Robin: The Boy Wonder. It was Robin’s appearance that first softened the edge of The Dark Knight. When he initially burst onto the comic book scene, Batman had no qualms about killing the bad guys. However DC soon acknowledged that it was imperative that he was much more in line with the Truth, Justice and the American way of his comic stablemate Superman.
Furthermore, Batman developed a rouges gallery that has become as illustrious as the Dark Knight himself over the past several decades: The Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, Two-Face and The Riddler are all iconic in their own right and they have helped the Batman mythology to develop and evolve.
The raison d’être for such an extensive and deadly group of villains was that Batman was such a formidable character; it soon became quite problematic to pit him against “normal” criminals from the streets of Gotham City.
As the 1940’s continued, Batman assisted the war effort – selling war bonds and even (in the comic books at least) visiting the US President in Washington DC. From the 1940’s and on into the 1950’s Batman became more of an amiable character, who was gradually moving out of the shadows. This was to become even more pronounced in 1954 with the publication of The Seduction of the Innocent, a book that denounced comic books and lambasted them for corrupting the minds and hearts of American children.
While the comic organizations fought back by forming a self-censoring body: The Comics Code Authority, the damage was already done and a significant proportion of publishers folded. Even though Batman could overthrow the Joker, he couldn’t crush the bad press leveled at him from The Seduction of the Innocent. The book’s author, Frederic Wertham stated that Batman, Robin and their faithful Butler, Alfred, were having an illicit homosexual relationship – it was after all the only logical conclusion as to why three men would be living together in a great mansion.
DC’s knee-jerk reaction was to replace Alfred with the character of Aunt Harriet.
As the 1950’s and 60’s persisted Batman became even more detached from his initial origins and the stories became more and more implausible (even by comic standards) and sales of Batman were in decline. It would appear that the 1960’s might be the one entity to defeat Batman. Consequently Batman effectively became a guest star in his own publication with the introduction of Bat-Girl, Bat-Hound and even the bizarre Scrappy-Do-esque, Bat-Mite.