THE DARK KNIGHT CHANGES1 of 12DC’s animated adaptation of Batman: The Killing Joke had its two-day theatrical run this week, and in addition to adapting the story of Barbara Gordon’s assault and paralysis by the Joker, the narrative was, shall we say, beefed up with an added subplot of a sexual relationship between Barbara Gordon and Batman.
If that idea seems weird, it’s not entirely new. The concept of a romantic relationship between Barbara and Bruce was lightly explored in the Batman Beyond animated series, which, like The Killing Joke, was produced by Bruce Timm, but never in detail or as overt and explicit as is seen in The Killing Joke.
Putting Bruce and Barbara in that context is a major change, but it’s not the biggest change either one of them has gone through. Here are ten of the biggest, most impactful changes to Batman over the years.
HIS ORIGIN2 of 12You think you know Batman? No one knew the truth behind Batman for the first few months of his debut. Although he debuted in 1939’s Detective Comics #27, his origin wasn't revealed until Detective Comics #33, in a brief two-page short at the beginning of the issue. Until then, Batman, or “Bat-Man” as his name was initially written, was known only to be the alter ego of a wealthy Gotham playboy whom James Gordon actually called “boring.”
Although this late introduction of the character’s origin could just be part of the plan for the character since the beginning, for those reading it at the time it might have seemed like an out-of-the-blue revelation similar to the expose of Wolverine’s humble begins in Origin.
BATMAN DOESN'T STICK TO HIS GUNS3 of 121940’s Batman #1 was a pivotal issue for the character and the franchise for many years. The most obvious one is that it’s the first issue of the series that carries Batman’s own name, but it also served as the debut for two of his most popular characters – the Joker and Catwoman. But with those three additions there was one major subtraction that many Bat-fans overlook: DC took away his guns.
Up until that point Batman was a proficient and prolific user of guns, using it to kill enemies and also threaten whoever wasn’t on his side. According to Les Daniels in his book Batman: The Complete History, in late 1939 then-new editorial director Whitney Ellsworth nixed Bob Kane’s depiction of Batman using guns to kill people which soon became an edict for all Batman stories.
There have been some rare instances where Batman has used a gun, but by-and-large this editorial edict has turned into an in-story facet of the character with Batman decrying the use of guns due his parents being killed by one. That facet has been used for and against Batman, both in general with his reluctance to kill villains but also specifically when being pushed to his limits and considering using a gun despite his well-stated aversion.
ALONG CAME ROBIN4 of 12In the cast of superheroes DC was building in the late 1930s, Batman was undeniably one of its darkest – and sometimes you need some light. In 1940’s Detective Comics #38, Bob Kane and Bill Finger created a sidekick in the vein of Sherlock Holmes’ Watson but with a youthful flair with the colorful teen hero Robin. Based visually on N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations of Robin Hood, Robin was created to act as a counter-point to Batman and also serve as someone the Dark Knight could confide in and dialogue with in a way that readers could read without Batman talking to himself.
At first the introduction of a secondary character like Robin might not seem like a dramatic change for Batman, but it opened the doors to many different kinds of stories that could be told – as well as opening the way for Batman’s role as a father figure and respectable adult for this budding youth. Imagine how the introduction of a youthful sidekick to Wolverine in his first year might have changed him, or how the absence of Robin would have colored – or darkened – his adventures, especially in the years of the 1960s Batman television series and on through today and the numerous Robins.
SILVER AGE SCI-FI5 of 12After the commercial tidal wave of comics sales during World War II, the superhero genre experienced a severe downturn that washed away many heroes – many heroes except Batman. With general interest in superheroes waning in the 1950s and the crime genre being effectively blacklisted thanks to Fredric Wertham and the advent of the Comics Code Authority, DC pushed Batman and his various titles away from the noir/crime it had been known for into science fiction elements. New characters that break the bonds of reality like Ace the Bat-Hound and Bat-Mite were introduced, and much like DC’s other primary hero Superman, Batman experienced numerous encounters with aliens, alternate dimensions, and more.
Decades before Chris Claremont and John Byrne would define time-travel superhero stories in Uncanny X-Men’s “Days Of Future Past” storyline, the story “The Batman of Tomorrow” saw a Batman from the future travel back in time to help his 1950s counterpart and also take time to pull one over on his then-current girlfriend Vicki Vale.
BIFF! POW! BATMAN6 of 12The thought of DC killing of the Batman franchise sounds like crazy talk, but according to co-creator Bob Kane that’s what DC was thinking in 1964. As a last-ditch effort to resuscitate the Dark Knight, DC gave over the Bat-titles to editor Julius Schwartz after his success in re-launching the Flash and Green Lantern. Schwartz’ plans were pretty drastic – out were the more children-oriented concepts like Ace the Bat-hound and Bat-Mite, and in comes more contemporary work with a redesigned costume, Batmobile and artist Carmine Infantino. Schwartz wasn’t without some missteps such as the killing of Alfred and his replacement by a heretofore-unknown Wayne relative named Aunt Harriet.
Two years later, ABC launched the fondly-remembered Batman television series which dramatically colored the way the character and his ensemble cast were seen by the comics public and cemented the big shift Schwartz had started. Actor Adam West and staff perpetuated a more campy and gregarious Batman that relied more on the comedic aspects of the comic book hero than the darker roots of his origin. The unbridled success of the Batman television show pushed the comic books to veer even further down the campy route, which ended up causing problems once the television series was cancelled in 1968.
The show and its take have seen a renaissance in the last few years, however, with the launch of the digital-first comic Batman '66, and the release of the entire series on Blu-ray in 2014.
O’NEIL & ADAMS BRING 'DARK' BACK TO THE KNIGHT7 of 12The success of the 1966-8 Batman television series brought Batman and his cast into the hearts and homes of the mainstream public like comic books never could. But in the wake of that show’s demise, the comic books – which had been steered down the campy path as well – were caught on the downward slope. In 1969 artist Neal Adams and writer Dennis O’Neil looked back to the early days of Batman comics for what they saw as Batman’s future. Gone were the colorful aesthetics, and in were the murky blacks, blues and purples as O’Neil and Adams as they debuted their new take in in 1970’s Detective Comics #395. Under their watch and those that came after, Bruce Wayne was a dark and broody figure that was the flipside of the All-American hero in Superman. Although both were heroes, Batman’s stories during this time pushed it towards a more street-level vigilante flavor.
O’Neil and Adams’ take on the character was well-received by fans, and the missing piece the puzzle came in 1973 when the duo revived a rarely used villain from the Dark Knight’s’ rogues gallery named the Joker. Despite being prominently featured in the 1960s Batman television series, the Joker was essentially a shadow of who he would become. In Batman #251, Joker returned to comic books after a four-year hiatus and was quickly turned from a comedic non-threatening foe into a murderous maniac and twisted mirror image of who Batman was. Fans jumped at this new take on the Joker, leading DC to launch a rarely-done solo series for a villain with the Joker series in 1975. Due to constraints placed on DC by the Comics Code Authority, they weren’t able to fully capitalize on a series featuring a villain and ended the series after nine issues.
ZERO HOUR8 of 12After the success of 1985’s Crisis On Infinite Earths in reconciling DC’s parallel universes, the New York-based publisher thought they’d do a second round of spring cleaning; this time with their timelines in the 1994 event series Zero Hour. While the plot of Zero Hour could fill up a whole separate article, what was important in terms of Batman was two major retcons.
The first and most memorable was that the events of Zero Hour made it so the murderer of Bruce Wayne’s parents was not Joe Chill; in fact, their murderer was never captured. While this opened the door to fuel Batman’s eternal quest as a crime-fighter, it was a major change to the bedrock of Batman’s origin that still strikes the older fan to this day. Since then, DC has gone back and forth about naming the Waynes’ murderer and in the New 52 went back to Joe Chill being the killer, with an 18 year-old Bruce tracking him down but ultimately letting him live.
The second radical change coming out of Zero Hour was the dissolution of the long-standing awareness that Gotham City and the world inside DC Comics had for Batman. Up until that point Batman was a known commodity in the DCU – even an honorary member of the Gotham Police Department. After Zero Hour, Batman was changed to be thought of as an urban legend by the world at large and stoked the fires for a more adversarial relationship with the authorities after that.
THE DEATH(s) OF ROBIN(s)9 of 12In DC’s primary continuity there have been five different individuals who have worn the mantle of Robin, sidekick to Batman. And being the younger charge of a highly-competent crime fighter, those Robins are frequently put in peril as the hostage of hero-in-distress for Batman to save. But no matter how good Batman is, he can’t always save the day. In 1988’s A Death In The Family, the second Robin – Jason Todd – was stuck down by the Joker. In 2004, the short-lived female Robin – Stephanie Brown – was stripped of her title and killed by the Black Mask in Batman: War Games. But the most recent – and arguably the most pivotal – has been the death of Damian Wayne, Batman’s own son, as Robin in Batman, Incorporated #8.
Yes, DC brought Damian Wayne back just recently, but the death still hit Batman to his core.
In each case the Robins were accepted by Batman as family, and given the own loss of his parents at a young age Batman feels the deaths of these children under his watch even more radical than under normal circumstances. The introduction of Robin carved a more youthful and exuberant light into the Batman mythos, so the idea of taking that from him could conceivably make the character darker than he was before he ever had a Robin by his side.
KNIGHTFALL10 of 12The early 1990s were an era of big changes in the comics industry; Fans were witnessing the revolt of Marvel’s top artists to start a new company, the death of comics’ biggest hero Superman, and then comes the breaking of Batman. Although a story revolving around the apparent death of Batman wouldn’t come until years later, the career-ending back injury Batman suffers at the hands of the new villain Batman changed the character in numerable ways as Wayne was forced to give up his mantle as Batman and sit on the sidelines while others fight in his stead.
It all started in 1993 with the introduction of a steroid-induced villain named Bane who was out to get Batman. And Wayne, on the verge of a burnout on his own, gets caught by Bane and is turned into a paraplegic on the floor of the Batcave. With Bane running wild in the Gotham underworld, Wayne looks out and picks a relative unknown hero named Azrael to take his place – against the advice of Tim Drake who argues for Dick Grayson to take up the mantle. Azrael takes up the cape and cowl of Batman, but ultimately fails to live up to the legacy Bruce Wayne set outs. After months away, Wayne eventually returns after a grueling rehabilitation and faces down with the new Batman to ultimately reclaim the mantle.
Although the year-long storyline was derided by some as bloated, looking back the core elements remain a sound as the foundation Wayne Manor is built on and continue to play a role in current storylines –if not physically, then thematically and emotionally.
History repeated itself last year when Batman spent an extended period living solely as Bruce Wayne thanks to a climactic battle with the Joker, while Commissioner Gordon served as Batman.
FRANK MILLER RISES11 of 12For most characters, it’s his or her creators that play the biggest part in his history. And while the contributions of Bob Kane and Bill Finger to the Batman mythos can’t be diminished, many would argue that the work of Frank Miller in the 1980s fundamentally changed and honed the way Batman is thought of to this day.
Beginning with 1986’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and going through to Batman: Year One two years later, writer/artist Frank Miller took both the burning fires and embers of all of the creators who did Batman before him to boil him down to his essence. In the former, Miller’s transportation of Batman 30+ years in the future showing a grizzled and greying Bruce Wayne only worked to highlight what made Batman a quintessential character in comics and in fiction. At the same time, incoming Batman editor Dennis O’Neil reached out to Miller to lead off a new era for the Dark Knight in DC’s main continuity, beginning with the bold redefinition in the “Year One” storyline in Batman.
Together, these two works by Miller have served as the proverbial bibles for most all of the Batman adaptations in television and film. Director Christopher Nolan specifically noted these two works by names as influences on his trilogy of Batman films, and the current string of successful Arkham games owe much what Miller laid down in the 1980s. And thinking forward, this year’s Man of Steel sequel pitting Superman against Batman looks to be borrowing straight from those two heroes’ face-off in the final pages of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Director Zack Snyder even had one of his actors quote a paragraph of dialogue from the original series when the movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was announced at Comic-Con International: San Diego in 2013, and the film featured a fight between Batman and Superman very reminiscent of the comic book, right down to Batman's armor.
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