On Sunday, July 24th, I was honored to sit on a panel at the Comic-Con International Conference to present my teaching perspective on Batman. This presentation was based on a course I teach at the University of Wisconsin Colleges called “Superheroes and Society.” My goal is to use superheroes as a way to show both the importance of the character throughout history as well as its surrounding context over time. Batman narratives, like many superhero stories, mirror the era in which they are created. Therefore, we can teach both cultural history as well as the importance of Batman through the same lens.
Our panel consisted of (moving left to right in above photo) myself, Paul Zehr (Becoming Batman), Hannah Means-Shannon (Dark Horse Comics), Paul Levitz (former president of DC Comics), Michael Uslan (producer of Batman films 1989-present), and Travis Langley (Batman and Psychology). So, what can we learn from Batman? Here is a brief (and certainly not conclusive) overview of what I presented on.
During the 1940s, Batman was seen on the big screen for the first time in the form of weekly serials produced by Columbia Pictures. The first series ran in 1943, during the height of World War II. As expected, Batman and Robin are out to thwart a Japanese villain (Dr. Daka) who is using a mind control device to turn Americans against their own country. Dr. Daka is the usual stereotype from the time (based on the comics where Japanese bad guys had fangs). Each episode was produced on a shoestring budget and plays out as quintessential war propaganda including cringe-worthy lines such as “those shifty-eyed Japs.”
The 1943 episodes, under the simple title Batman, pioneered two key elements that would be seen in later incarnations of the character. First, the Batcave is seen for the first time. Second, the use of the cliffhanger as a narrative device was used to get people back into the theater. This would be seen in the campy 1960s show with lines such as “tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.”
The next serialized Batman adventures would be seen in 1949 with Batman and Robin. These episodes feel more like a crime/thriller B-film. The first scenes show a series of headlines that read “Crime Wave Hits City,” “Police Baffled,” and “Citizens Demand More Police!” This setup resembles the film noir genre that was growing at the time, which was based around the rise of urban crime in postwar America. The villains here are gangsters - the type of urban criminal seen in both films and headlines of the day.
By the 1950s superheroes and comics in general were up against their biggest supervillian – Dr. Frederic Wertham. It was Wertham who penned Seduction of the Innocent in 1954 that argued superheroes were turning children into delinquents. In addition to a series of other attacks, Wertham felt that Batman and Robin were homosexual propaganda aimed at turning young boys gay. In addition, Wertham argued that reading comic books led to illiteracy (because only kids and illiterate adults read them, in his opinion). This simplistic and limited thinking took root as a generation of parents pushed their kids away from comic books.
At a time when respect for comics and superheroes was declining, the 1960s saw a new Batman that better represented the culture of the decade than anything having to do with the character’s own history. With three seasons beginning in 1966 and a feature film, the Batman series successfully lampooned Batman and every character in Gotham City. This is the most light-hearted version of Batman – the hero always wins, no one gets hurt, and the shenanigans are constant.
The 1960s Batman, starring Adam West and Burt Ward, is iconic for its silliness. Fight scenes had printed exclamations on the screen (such as “Pow,” “Bam,” and “Thwaap!” Everything in the Batman universe was exaggerated. All of Batman’s toys had the prefix “Bat” in front of it. The costumes were cheesy, the villains were harmless, and the Technicolor images called for sunglasses. The series aesthetic mirrored the Mod fashion, bright colors, and free-loving attitudes of the time period. However, this Gotham City no longer worked as a metaphor for a realistic large city that may actually need a vigilante hero.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Batman once again took a darker turn in the comics. Artists like Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, and later Frank Miller returned the Dark Knight to his original likeness. It was Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) that truly changed the game and ushered in a new generation of Batman fans (like myself). Miller’s Batman was a response to the rise of crime in New York City and followed a Bruce Wayne who comes out of retirement because his city has gone into disarray. Law enforcement was no longer effective and the disgruntled Wayne whipped Gotham back into shape by battling a complacent Superman and finally killing the Joker. As one would expect, this helped readers take Batman seriously again.
Building off of the renewed popularity of Batman in the comics, Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman ushered in a new DC cinematic universe that could be respected (a great deal of thanks to Michael Uslan for convincing Warner Bros. to make the film). The follow-up, Batman Returns (1992) was also successful and introduced The Penguin and Catwoman. Throughout the 1990s Burton’s films sparked sequels though most people were underwhelmed when Val Kilmer and George Clooney took over as Bruce Wayne, replacing Michael Keaton. The last two, Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997) became more famous for their soundtracks than their storylines. This decade also saw the popularity of the Batman animated series (another can of worms I won’t open here).
The post-9/11 reboot from Christopher Nolan is currently enjoying amazing fanfare as this trilogy is largely accepted as some of the best Batman stories out there (especially in film form). Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) put the Caped Crusader in a contemporary world where terrorism is alive and well and questions about the nature of heroism are regularly asked. These films perfectly represent the first decade or so of the twenty-first century and depict a Batman that struggles with his task of keeping Gotham safe and while staying true to his codes (no guns, no killing, etc.). Batman's most difficult task in these films was unquestionably trying to wrangle Heath Ledger's terrifying Joker. As Alfred wisely noted in the film, "some men just want to watch the world burn," which is a fitting and loaded line applicable during a time when many are trying to make sense of senseless terror attacks around the globe.
Nolan’s trilogy boosted Batman’s popularity to new heights unseen since the 1980s. The reasons for this are myriad, but it’s clear that audiences connect with this darker hero during a time when our own culture appears to be crumbling (thanks to the 24/7 news cycle that sells doom and gloom daily). The cinematic universe of Batman continues with the underappreciated Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which adequately represents contemporary America by depicting two major figures who are essentially on the same team fall to fighting each other instead of battling the true enemies of freedom.
Every decade has another Batman because every decade has a new set of struggles facing our culture. Batman and Gotham City have long been used as a template to project and debate contemporary concerns. As long as we have room to grow and progress as a society, we will have a Batman in popular culture doing his best to fight for what's right.
Chris Yogerst, Ph.D., is assistant professor of communication for the University of Wisconsin Colleges. His new book, From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros., will be out in September.