Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Dark Knight: 75 Years of Batman

"People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can't do that as Bruce Wayne.  As a man, I'm flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol...as a symbol, I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting."
-- Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins

As some of you already know, today is "Batman Day," the official celebration of the 75th anniversary of Batman, even though the anniversary of the DC Comics character's first appearance in Detective Comics #27 actually took place back in May.  Originally created in 1939 by Bill Finger and Bob Kane to take advantage of the superhero craze started by Superman the year before, Batman went on to become one the most iconic superheroes and fictional characters of all time.

The issue also featured the first appearance of regular supporting character Commissioner James Gordon, but more soon followed, including his young partner/sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, and trusted butler/surrogate father Alfred Pennyworth.  And within those first ten years, many of Batman's greatest villains were created -- The Joker, The Penguin, Catwoman, The Riddler, Two-Face, The Scarecrow, The Mad Hatter, Clayface, Professor Hugo Strange, and the man who murdered Bruce Wayne's parents, Joe Chill.

In 1940, Batman became popular enough to receive his own self-titled series, which together with Superman, made National Publications (the future DC Comics) the top-selling and most influential publisher in the comics industryJust three years later, Batman branched into other media with Batman, a 15-part move serial starring Lewis Wilson, and a second movie serial, Batman and Robin, that followed in 1949 which starred Robert Lowery.

Batman continued to grow in popularity but in 1966, he became a pop cultural phenomenon with the campy Batman television series on ABC that starred Adam West and Burt Ward.  The show only ran for two seasons, but generated the first Batman feature film and made 120 episodes by the time the series ended.  The series found additional life in rerun syndication, which is how I was first introduced to the character at the age of three.

In 1973, Olan Soule defined the role for Generation X kids on the various Super Friends Saturday morning cartoons on ABC, while Adam West returned in the animated The New Adventures of Batman in 1977 on CBS.  The reruns of TV series and Saturday morning cartoons fueled my interest in Batman, who was easy to identify with as a kid because he had no superpowers, meaning anyone could be Batman if they wanted to be.  You name it, I managed to get my parents to buy it -- Mego action figures (with the Batcave playset, Batcopter and Batmobile, of course), puzzles, games, that lame '70s Halloween costume, Matchbox cars, etc., etc...

As I grew older, my interest with Batman comics faded somewhat until 1986, when Frank Miller redefined the character forever with his four-issue miniseries The Dark Knight ReturnsThe saga of a future 55-year-old Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement to battle crime once again brought considerable depth and gravitas to the character, which Miller continued to develop in 1987's "Batman: Year One," a four-part updating of Batman's origin that ran in Batman (vol.1) #404-407.  Having recently relaunched their its fictional universe in the limited series Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC Comics has embraced the darker take on Batman ever since.

The darkness carried over to other media as well, with Tim Burton's 1989 film Batman starring Michael Keaton that featured the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents for the first time in live-action.  The film became the top-grossing movie of the year, resulting in a 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, that became rather significant in my life as the first movie my future wife Lori and I ever saw together. 

Later that same year, the now-classic Batman: The Animated Series debuted on Fox, raising for bar for all superhero animated projects with the incredible Kevin Conroy as the definitive voice of Batman.  The series was better than fans could've hoped, with vocal talent including Star Wars' Mark Hamill as The Joker, Smallville's John Glover as The Riddler, Star Trek's Michael Ansara as Mr. Freeze, and sci-fi vets David Warner and Ron Perlman as Ra's al Ghul and Clayface respectively.  Batman: The Animated Series also introduced us to fan-favorite Harley Quinn, voiced so memorably by Arleen Sorkin, who proved so popular that she was brought into the official DC Comics universe and currently has an ongoing series that sells in the top ten.  In addition, the series' success resulted in a theatrical film, 1993's Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, and spawned other series set in the same animated universe, including Superman: The Animated Series, The New Batman Adventures, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited and Batman Beyond.

In 1995, Batman returned to the big screen with the live-action Batman Forever, now starring Val Kilmer as Batman with Chris O'Donnell as Robin.  The movie was well-received enough to earn another sequel, 1997's Batman & Robin, which replaced Kilmer with George Clooney and was so utterly horrible it killed the lucrative Batman film franchise...for a good while, anyway.  Fortunately at the time, I had received free passes from my friendly neighborhood comic shop, so I can take great pride in knowing that I never spent any of my hard-earned money on that movie.

One year after another animated series called The Batman debuted on the WB network, director Christopher Nolan resurrected the Batman film franchise with 2005's Batman Begins, a new origin tale inspired by "Batman: Year One" and the limited series Batman: The Long HalloweenThis time, Christian Bale was the man underneath the cowl, portraying Batman as a much more modern character with realistic gadgets, tools and weaponry.  The film was a successful reboot, paving the way for the 2008 sequel, The Dark Knight, which at the time, became the second-highest domestic grossing film ever and resulted in a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Heath Ledger's portrayal of The Joker.

Later that same year, The Batman was replaced by the Cartoon Network animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold featuring Diedrich Bader as Batman.  That series lasted for three years before being replaced in 2013 with the first CGI animated series, Beware the Batman, which starred Anthony Ruivivar.

2011 saw DC Comics relaunching its fictional universe once again in the five-issue series Flashpoint.  Unlike most DC Comics characters who restarted from scratch, Batman's continuity was mostly carried over into "The New 52" era into a condensed timeline.  In the renumbered Batman, writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo introduced The Court of Owls and are currently completing the year-long story arc "Zero Year," which provides Batman's New 52 origin. The character was made slightly younger, with only four past partners as Robin instead of five, and according to the new timeline, has only been active for five years.

Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan finished his "Dark Knight Trilogy" with 2012's The Dark Knight Rises, a film that received somewhat mixed reviews which still become the tenth-highest-grossing film of all time despite being initially affected by the tragic mass shooting during a midnight screening in Aurora, Colorado.  The movie gave Bale's Batman an actual ending, with the character retiring as Batman to live his life with the former Catwoman, Selina Kyle.

And now in 2014, the big Batman media project is the upcoming Fox series Gotham, the first real attempt to explore young Bruce Wayne's life just after his parents' murder in addition to making Jim Gordon the lead character.  While there's a bit of Smallville in this "Batman Before" series, Gotham also seems to be inspired by the fondly-remembered DC Comics series Gotham Central by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark. 

As if that wasn't enough, we're less than two years from another Batman movie, Zack Snyder's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice starring Ben Affleck as the newest Batman, Henry Cavill as Superman and Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth.  Although originally a sequel to the 2013 Superman reboot Man of Steel, the movie has instead morphed into a prequel for an upcoming Justice League film.  The first live-action meeting of Batman and Superman should prove irresistible to most comics fans, especially considering how Snyder's films will embrace the DC Universe, as opposed to Nolan's.

So here we are -- seventy-five years of Batman, the son of murdered parents who became a creature of the night to strike terror into the hearts of criminals and ended up inspiring generations of fans.

Yes, father.  I shall become a bat...

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