Batman has been fighting crime as Gotham's Dark Knight since 1939, spending his nights lurking through the shadows of his home city, serving as its guardian angel (in a bat costume). While he's always been its vigilant protector, he hasn't always been a brutal and intimidating phantom, striking fear into the hearts of criminals--or has he?
Batman has a long history filled with plenty of comedy and drama, horrifying gore as well as rainbow Batsuits and Bat-Bicycles. But when exactly did Batman stop being silly and get so serious? For those that love the sillier stories of Gotham City, there's always been a lighthearted version of the character to enjoy. From the animated Batman: The Brave And the Bold to the classic Adam West-led Batman '66, fans have as much comedic Batman as they could ever want. But that wasn't always the case. In fact, when the character debuted in Detective Comics in 1939, Batman had no problem killing his first foes. Many believe that it was the creation of the Comic Code Authority in 1954 that led to an age of comics geared towards younger readers. But Batman's own slide from grim to kid-friendly isn't so simple.
Robin, The Boy Wonder
Robin was created shortly after Batman himself in 1940. Just why was Gotham's dark vigilante suddenly joined by a young ward by the name of Dick Grayson? To sell more comics! Introducing a younger character was meant to attract a younger audience, and it did exactly that. The Batman series doubled in sales after Dick, the first of many versions of Robin, joined the caped crusader to form the 'dynamic duo.' Having a young character in his immediate family gave a young audience someone to empathize with. Comic book readers could now imagine themselves as the sidekick of their favorite superhero, and the tone changed because of it. A comic publisher couldn't get away with putting a child in harm's way with every comic issue. So instead, the situations became more ridiculous and less violent.
Stories were instead filled with captivating colors and an equally colorful cavalcade of villains. However, time would take its toll on the lighthearted side of Gotham. Fans started to clamor for dark and detective-filled stories once again. In the 1970's the Batman series fell to the legendary team of writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams. While the famous Batman TV series was successful enough, it's campy tone left some fans wishing for a more serious take on their favorite Detective Comics. And boy, did DC respond.
A Dark Turn for The Dark Knight
The 1970's didn't see the Dark Knight return to his past of pistols and killing, but the comic series did start to take dark and twisted turns. With the creation of the mysterious supervillain Ra's al Ghul in 1971, Batman was once again becoming a dark and terrifying superhero, protecting Gotham with his menacing presence. The fun and lighthearted tone didn't exactly disappear, but the Batman series grew out of its colorful adolescence with intriguing villains, and action-packed pages and panels.
The 1980s was an even darker time for the Caped Crusader. Stories like Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore's iconic The Killing Joke, and of course the Jason Todd-killing Death in the Family completely cemented Batman as the most mature superhero in comics. Long gone were the days of bright-colored costumes and "Shark Repellent" Bat Spray. It wasn't just the comics that saw a more mature interpretation of Bruce Wayne's story, either. Tim Burton turned Gotham into a Gothic-Metropolis, and Michael Keaton into a killing Caped Crusader in Batman (1989).
As Batman grew more and more mature, so did his villains. The Killing Joke might remain the most sadistic version of The Joker fans will ever see, but Jack Nicholson more than delivered his own demented version. Todd Phillips and his Joker film created a realistic portrayal of evil, while Scott Snyder's recent comic creation The Batman Who Laughs might be one of DC's most demented villains of all time. Making it that much more difficult for the Batman who opposes them to take things less than seriously.
Whether he's saving the universe or just Gotham City, Batman's most likely going to stay the gloomy and brooding superhero he's been for the last few decades. There will always be some lighthearted stories to be found, but comic book fans can always take solace in the fact that as the world grows darker, Batman will always be darker. For the right reasons, we mean.