Batman piloting a plane


Batman may be the most popular comic character of all time. Certainly, he is the character that gets pointed to the most as the epitome of superheroic excitement, and the superhero character most comics fans seem to want to emulate the most.

But the surprising thing is that for a character who is so beloved, about whom literally thousands of comics have been published, there are a relatively small number of actual good Batman comics. Ask even the biggest Batman fan to list the really good stories in which the Caped Crusader has featured, and you’ll get the same few answers — Frank Miller and Lyn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns, Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One, maybe Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum, Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, and John Higgins’ The Killing Joke. After this, things dry up very quickly. There have been a lot of good runs on the various Batman titles, with plenty of enjoyable comics, but there have been few great ones. Even the titles I just listed are among their creators’ weaker work, and tend not to stand up wonderfully in retrospect.

Of course, Batman turns up in other characters’ comics, too, and is often at his best there. But even so, the list of great Batman stories is not hugely expanded even by his appearances with the Justice League, or teaming up with other heroes in The Brave And The Bold.

So why is Batman so beloved? The answer is, at least in part, for his appearances in other media. For some reason, the character Bob Kane and Bill Finger created has been far more malleable than any other superhero, and thus far more adaptable to the changing needs of film and TV. While Superman is always the world’s biggest Boy Scout, and Spider-Man a wisecracking web-slinger who is tormented by responsibility, and any deviation from those templates has caused both artistic and commercial failure, Batman has been, at various times, a secret agent working for the government battling Japanese fifth columnists and in favour of internment, a clean-cut all-American hero who with his ward Robin battles colourful criminals like King Tut and the Clock King, a broody, near-autistic nebbish tormented by the death of his parents at the hands of the man who would become the Joker, a gruff-voiced jut-jawed cartoon in an art deco landscape, a broken near-psychopath driven by loss, and a Lego version of every twenty-one-year-old who ever had a seventeen-year-old girlfriend who was impressed by his having a car and being in a band. And no doubt when the forthcoming Batman vs Superman film featuring Ben Affleck as Batman comes out, we’ll see yet another take on the character.

So if we’re going to look at why Batman is so popular, we really need to look at his career in other media.

Rather surprisingly, it took a long time for Batman to become the phenomenon the character is now. While from early on Superman had his own radio show, a series of absolutely wonderful cartoons made by the Fleischer brothers, and then later the 1950s TV series starring George Reeves, up until 1966 Batman’s appearances in other media were confined to the odd cameo in the Superman radio show, and two film serials in the 1940s.

Since 1966, though, the Batman media juggernaut has made up for lost time, and there’s barely been a year in which Batman hasn’t been appearing in a film, TV series, or cartoon.

In this series of essays, I want to look at those appearances, and see if I can find that they tell us interesting things about the times in which they were created. I rather think they will. My plan is to cover the 1940s film serials, the 1966-68 TV series and its film spin-off, the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher film series, the cartoons Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, The New Batman Adventures, and Batman: The Brave And The Bold, the animated films The Batman Superman Movie, Mask of the Phantasm, and Mystery of the Batwoman, the three Christopher Nolan Batman films, and The Lego Movie.

My initial plan is to cover every episode of these, but given my tendency to create ambitious plans and then fail to complete them, and the fact that not every episode may give me anything of worth to say, I may revise that plan and cover some series in far less detail than others. On the other hand, it’s also possible I’ll revise the plan upwards, and cover the Filmation cartoons or the Justice League cartoon series. And who knows, Gotham may yet get become worth talking about.

Either way, I think this will be an interesting experiment. There are very few characters that have been continuously reinterpreted by different people over a seventy-five year period. We may not learn a lot about Batman from watching these films, but we may get a better understanding of the latter half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first.

So I’ll try to get these posted one a week. I’ll see you back here next week for Batman, the 1943 serial. Same Bat-Time, same Bat-Channel…

[These are being published several weeks in advance on my Patreon, where I’ve just posted the first Batman 66 TV series post, which will not appear here until after Xmas. If you want to read them before they’re posted here, sign up to support my writing at $1 per month or whatever you can afford. If you can’t afford anything or don’t like the idea of me having money, they’ll all turn up here for free eventually anyway.]

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