A child of the prominent Wayne family, which helped found much of Gotham City and its industry, Bruce Wayne was raised never to think his wealth and status made him better than others. When he was ten years old, Bruce went to the movies with his parents Thomas and Martha. After seeing the re-release of The Mark of Zorro, the family was accosted by a mugger named Joe Chill. The encounter ended with Thomas and Martha shot dead, their son Bruce witness to the whole event as Chill fled the scene.
Following the burial of his parents, Bruce vowed to avenge their deaths and prevent others from suffering a loss as he had suffered. He promised to make the city his parents loved into a place where such crimes would be unthinkable and to help bring its criminals to justice. After training for over a decade, honing his body and his mind, he returned to Gotham and pondered what guise he would wear as he waged his war. Having heard “criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot,” Bruce pondered creating a symbol that would make him seem more than a man, closer to a primal force that would inspire fear. And at that moment, a bat flew through his window.
Inspired by the bat, and recalling his own fear of the creatures due to a childhood discovery of the vast cavern beneath his home, Bruce gathered his resources and began his crusade. By day, he was seemingly a bored playboy, barely interested in the workings of his own company, often not even rising from bed until noon. By night, he was a Dark Knight, a fearsome predator who seemed supernatural to his enemies: the Batman.
Over the decades, Batman has fought for justice both alone, with his different apprentices, and as a member of different super-hero organizations. Now let’s take a look at how the famous “bat-suit” has evolved over the past 73 years.
THE GOLDEN AGE
In 1939, National Comics (which would later be renamed DC Comics) told artist Bob Kane to make a new superhero, one who would be a basic opposite to the colorful and powerful Superman. Recalling a film entitled The Bat Whispers (a remake of The Bat), Kane was inspired by the titular villain who wore a bat-like mask and occasionally announced his presence by shining the beam of a bat-signal flashlight onto a wall. Kane also enjoyed Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches of flying machines and decided his character would have stiff glide wings attached to his costume.
Bob Kane’s original design was a red-clad hero with bat-wings and a simple domino mask. He then showed the design to Bill Finger, who often worked as Kane’s ghost writer. Finger thought it would be better to give the character gloves and to switch the red with gray. He also suggested drawing a bat silhouette to the shirt and replacing the mask with a horned cowl that would give Batman a demonic appearance. Adding to this, Finger suggested that the hero’s cowl would give him blank eyes, similar to the newspaper strip hero the Phantom.
Along with these cosmetic changes, Finger suggested that this character would not be simply a vigilante but would also be the world’s greatest detective. Finger also named the character’s alter ego “Bruce Wayne,” a reference to Robert the Bruce and Mad Anthony Wayne.
This gave us “the Bat-Man” (as he was originally called). Debuting in Detective Comics #27, this masked manhunter terrified criminals with his demonic appearance and took readers by storm. Batman’s wing-cloak seemed quite stiff, becoming a short-range glider when he leapt from rooftop to rooftop. His original chest symbol is missing its bat ears. And his gloves are noticeably a purple shade that clashes with the rest of the suit.
The Batman uniform got a couple tweaks starting over the next few issues. The gloves were replaced with larger models that matched the color of Batman’s boots. The stiff, sometimes separate wings became an operatic cloak. The silhouette on the shirt gained bat ears. And the disc belt buckle was replaced with a square-shaped one.
One feature that was inconsistent was a gun holster strapped to his belt. Sometimes it was there, sometimes it wasn’t. When DC made the decision that Batman was definitely a hero who did not believe in killing or using guns, the holster was removed for good (with the occasional exception now and again over the decades).
Months later, Batman also added scallops to his gloves. Around this time, his costume went from being a gray and black suit with blue highlights for texture to being a dark blue and gray suit. And the ears were shortened, giving him a less demonic look. This helped soften his image a bit, which was important since less than a year after his debut he became the legal guardian of a young circus acrobat named Dick Grayson. Dick became the Batman’s first apprentice, modeling himself as a modern-day Robin Hood, fighting crime in a bright circus-style outfit.
THE NEW LOOK BATMAN
Batman maintained this basic look for over 20 years. During one adventure to the planet Zur-En-Arrh, he met an alien named Tlano who had become the Batman of his own world. Tlano’s costume was an outlandish take on the bat-suit, but did have one striking feature: his bat-symbol was printed on a yellow disc. In 1964, Batman himself adopted this new yellow-disc bat-symbol.
There is an often-told story that the reason Batman’s symbol changed was to make it easier to trademark. Others have claimed it was in reaction to the live-action TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Both of these claims are incorrect. The costume change was made before the live-action 1960s Batman series started filming and it had nothing to do with marketing.
The fact was, editor Julius Schwartz decided to take Batman back to his detective roots and move him away from the past decade or so of stories that involved strange aliens, mischievous elves, and prankster (rather than truly dangerous) villains. And to alert readers that Batman was moving into a new direction, he was given a new look. As time went on, artists also began making him look more serious and increased the size of his cowl’s ears again. This wasn’t just a “caped crusader” but, as Bob Kane had occasionally called him, a “dark knight.”
The “new look Batman” is often considered the classic version of Batman. With the yellow bat-symbol, it was this version that was used as the model for the 1960s live-action show and for many cartoons to follow over the next few decades.
RETROACTIVE ORIGINAL LOOK
In 1986, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson brought us The Dark Knight Returns, a mini-series wherein an older version of Bruce Wayne returned to his double-life after having left his Batman identity behind a decade before. In the mini-series, Miller gave a story reason for why Batman would have a bright yellow target on his chest. It turned out that the bat-symbol was painted over a metal plate and was intentionally drawing enemy gunfire away from the hero’s head, luring criminals to instead target the better armored chest area of the suit. Later comics would say this was carbon plating.
In the same mini-series, Batman adopts new version of his costume. The first seemed to be the classic New Look style, but the utility belt was now decorated with bulky pouches. Later on, Batman dons a dark gray/black version of his suit, similar to the original style and once again with a bat-silhouette that isn’t stylized in a yellow circle. This suit also included a bulky utility belt.
1986 was also the year that DC Comics underwent another company wide reboot of much of its superhero universe. Frank Miller revised Bruce Wayne’s early days as a vigilante in the story Batman: Year One. In this story, Batman’s “original” suit was now retroactively made to be very similar to the second suit he wore in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. It was said that he adopted the blue/gray, yellow-symbol suit soon after he recruited Robin.
And that brings us to a close for now. Join us again soon as we explore the suits Batman (and his successors) have worn since the 1980s. This is Alan Kistler, Agent of S.T.Y.L.E., signing off!