The Many Masks of Batman

On 31 August 1989 the most popular movie to date, Batman, opened in Australia. The film revolves around two individuals. The first is the title character who, as a result of witnessing the murder of his parents as a small boy, decides to spend his adult life dressed up as a giant flying mammal chasing criminals across the rooftops. The second is the Joker, a gangster who takes an unplanned chemical bath, and decides that his resultant fluorescent features should be used to add a more theatrical touch to his activities.

The makers of Batman have thrown enormous sums of money about making certain the movie is talked about in every medium the developed world has to offer. Aside from this what good reasons are there to explain its enormous success?

The Batman character comes from the comics. Since the Second World War ended, comics have, in the English-speaking world, been considered fit only to entertain children. So why does a movie based on the character Batman have a PG rating? Why do reviews of the movie judge the film on its ability to entertain adults?

Any attempt to explain either the change in the Batman’s image or its financial success first needs to recognise the commercial nature of the character. Whatever else the Batman may be he is first and foremost a product of popular culture. His success or failure is judged primarily on economic grounds, rather like soap or chocolate. Unlike soap or chocolate, however, it is not just a matter of convincing people that the product cleans whiter or tastes better. The Batman, like all popular culture, is consumed as leisure or entertainment. To have enough people spending both their leisure time and money on a particular example of popular culture relies on the example having broad appeal. Knowing what will or will not appeal to a large percentage of the paying audience is not easy. The thousands of failed television shows and films are testimony to that. Broadly speaking, however, popular culture normally reflects the fears and desires of those who consume it.

In order to understand properly the popular appeal of the Batman, therefore, one must go back to 20 years before the character’s first appearance.

In 1919 the Volstead act, based upon the 21st amendment to the Constitution of the United States, was passed into law. The Volstead act brought in what we now know as prohibition. It became unlawful to manufacture, transport or sell alcoholic beverages. The act could do nothing, however, about people’s desire for the demon drink. Since the American public could no longer imbibe legally, it did so illegally. A huge underground industry sprang up to supply this public with the alcohol it desired.

Small criminal gangs, taking a lesson from legal free enterprise, began to organise on a large scale in order to properly control the manufacture and distribution of the now banned substance. The enormous revenue this ‘bootlegging’ earned for the gangs enabled them to establish themselves in a variety of legitimate and semi-legitimate businesses. When prohibition was finally repealed in 1933 it was too late. The few organisations that had survived the intense inter-gang warfare of the past decade had grown so strong and were so firmly entrenched in the mainstream of American life that it was impossible to remove them.

With time these criminal gangs were to learn the virtue of subtlety and the value of keeping a low profile. In the early 1930s, however, they had just established themselves and were inclined to declare their existence publicly and to flaunt their power deliberately. The public perception was one of complete chaos. The gangs had taken over. Civilisation had given way to a savage law of the jungle in which only the strongest survived. Marketplace competition was expressed in the most brutal terms imaginable with rivals literally killing each other on the streets.

The police forces and other law-enforcement bodies seemed unable to cope with these ‘new’ criminals. What was needed was some sort of super policeman who would meet these gangsters on their own terms. A hard and efficient lawman who could clean up the cities and keep them clean. The real world failed to provide any such figures but popular fiction abounded with them. Dick Tracy began his career in the comic strips; The Shadow started in one of the most popular pulp magazines. Books, film, comics and radio abounded with tough private eyes and square-jawed G-Man. The fear these times generated made these super crime-fighters and tough detectives enormously popular. None of these figures offered realistic solutions to the problem. What they did offer was a temporary feeling that the chaos, and therefore the fear, could be dealt with.

Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27, cover-dated May of 1939. The very first Batman story, ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,’ establishes the tone and style of the series. Alfred Stryker murders two of his three partners in an attempt to gain control of the chemical company managed by all four. In his attempts to murder the third he is thwarted by the Batman and finally dies after accidentally falling into a vat of acid. “A fitting end for his kind,” remarks the grim-faced Batman at the story’s end.

The Batman of this tale is less super hero than detective, very much in the tradition of The Shadow, Dick Tracy, Phillip Marlowe and even Sherlock Holmes.

The Joker of this era (he first appeared in Batman #1 cover-dated Spring 1940) was, likewise, instantly recognisable as the pulp villain he was. His peculiar visage and colourful name had recognisable antecedents in other detective fiction of the time. His bizarre, seemingly pointless murders and robberies would today be described as psychopathic. To the audience of the day they were simply the sorts of things ‘the bad guys’ did.

The story itself, “a takeoff on a Shadow story” according to the author, is nothing more than ordinary. It points quite clearly to the character’s intended audience, however. The motivations are economic and spiteful, not just evil and rotten. The methods are sly and nasty, not just dastardly. This is not a character aimed at children. In fact the audience to whom comic books sold was, at the time, largely adult. Quite specifically it was white, male and increasingly made up of servicemen looking for light, quick reading.

The Batman stories of the next 15 years involved the character in adventures that were to differ in little more than details. They took place at night, in an almost surreal world of enormous shadows and impossibly angled buildings. The villains were all straight out of the pulp-detective tradition, wearing wide-brimmed hats and double-breasted suits with padded shoulders. Like the detective fiction it came from, all this appealed to those who felt powerless in the face of organised crime seemingly run rampant. The Batman’s peculiar motivations, his obsession with crime — a result of witnessing his parents’ murders as a boy — and his disavowal of guns and deadly force gave him an individual appeal. This formula was very successful.

The only relief from the grim and bitter texture of the stories of this period is Robin, the Boy Wonder. Robin first appeared in Detective Comics #38, cover-dated April 1940.

The introduction of Robin didn’t change the sales of Batman comics significantly. Nonetheless the character was very popular with Batman’s then-current audience. A popularity reflected in the emergence of the ‘kid sidekick’ as a standard part of the superhero genre of the day.

In order to come to some understanding of that popularity we need to more fully examine the character’s origins.

Like Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson (Robin) is left an orphan when his parents are murdered by criminals. Grayson is the only son of John and Mary Grayson. The three of them make up the trapeze act known as The Flying Graysons. The casual and easy-going life of the circus is shattered for Dick when the owner of the circus the Flying Graysons appear with refuses to pay protection money to a gang led by local crime boss, Zucco. In order to press their point further the gangsters arrange for an accident to occur. They cut through the trapeze ropes and John and Mary Grayson fall to their deaths while performing their act.

When Dick, by sheer chance, learns that the apparently accidental death of his parents is in fact murder, his only thought is to bring the killers to justice, and thus restore some little balance to his shattered life. About to go to the police he is stopped by a grey and menacing figure, the Batman. The Batman warns him the police are unable to help as Zucco “owns” the town. If Dick wants his parents’ killers caught he will need the Batman’s help.

When the Batman reveals that he too is an orphan as the result of murder, Dick pleads to be allowed to join the Batman in his crusade. Seeing more than a little of his own anguish in Dick Grayson, the Batman agrees to take the boy under his wing. After many months of intensive training the Batman assents to allowing Dick, now costumed and christened Robin, to take on a case. In their first adventure together they bring Zucco’s gang to justice.

The most important factor in the above story is the bringing of Zucco’s gang to rights. Within the framework of the Batman stories it explains much of the difference between Batman and Robin.

Both Batman and Robin experienced the trauma of seeing their parents murdered before their eyes. Both responded to the trauma with an overwhelming sense that justice has been destroyed. In Robin’s case, however, he was able to see some of the balance restored relatively quickly — “many months later” according to the story. This relief from the trauma was never available to the young Bruce Wayne who, as a result, internalised the anguish until it became the grand obsession that now drives him.

For Robin the motivation was always very different. Relieved of some of the anguish by seeing his parents’ killer brought in, he escaped from the horror relatively unscathed. Rather than being driven by an obsession he is motivated by a sense of duty, that justice be served, coupled with a strong sense of adventure. He was a trapeze artist and lived the life of a circus performer before his personal tragedy. The appearance of a legitimate father figure, and the relatively quick resolution of his feelings of helplessness at seeing his parents die meant the happy-go-lucky spirit he had acquired as a result of circus life was never completely crushed.

From the point of view of the reader, Robin represented someone almost all could identify with. For the younger readers (the material may have been slanted at adults but its very low price guaranteed it an audience of children as well) there was out-and-out identification. Gosh, may I could be Robin. For the adult reader Robin was an element of normality, a balance, rather like the various companions who have travelled with the Doctor in the Doctor Who television series. That Robin did not increase sales dramatically suggest that, for the most part, the readership simply accepted him as another character. An adjunct to the Batman rather like Commissioner Gordon or Alfred: not essential to the central premise but a nice touch all the same.

With the end of the war things began to change. The huge audience of servicemen stopped reading comics at about the same rate they stopped wearing uniforms. The comic-book was now seen as fit only for children.

American foreign policy became firmly rooted in the idea that the United States was the ‘guardian of the free world.’ Paranoia became almost respectable. Anything deemed a threat or potential threat to the American Dream weathered the full force of America’s growing sense of self-righteousness.

The Second World War had wiped away the old, dark world of the Depression and optimism was the new creed. Science was going to solve all our problems and technology was going to satisfy all our wants and needs. The only shadows spoiling the view of white America during this decade were the twin ones of the bomb and the Cold War.

The comic-book industry reacted to the changes in popular feeling in two ways. Adventure strips began to emphasise communist and communism as the villains rather than criminals and fascism. Horror and seamy detective fiction were out and science fiction was in, not only because it reflected the new dominance of technology, but because it was also believed to be more suitable for the children now seen as the comic industry’s major consumers.

Very few of of the strips and characters which came from the pulp traditions survived these changing times. Characters such as Superman, which drew their inspiration from science fiction, thrived in this environment. The Batman, however, was deprived of the very elements which were the character’s lifeblood.

Rather than fighting criminals Batman began encountering mad scientists, aliens and robots. Instead of appearing only in the shadowy streets of night-time Gotham he began visiting lost worlds and other dimensions. Deprived of both locale (Gotham City) and time (the night) his black and grey costume lost its menacing touch and became plain silliness.

Robin, on the other hand, remained largely unaffected. Throughout the ’50s he was the life-loving, risk-taking, pre-adolescent boy wonder he had always been. Not being intrinsically tied to the night or crime, Robin was able to go off to fight marauding monsters and aggressive aliens without losing credibility.

The Joker, like the Batman, was changed by this new and better world. No longer a homicidal maniac he became “the clown prince of crime.” His activities, although ostensibly criminal, seems more concerned with providing the Batman with an adversary than illegally acquiring wealth.

The changes were not successful, either aesthetically or financially. By the early 1960s, the sales of Batman comics were so low they faced the prospect of being cancelled. In Detective Comics #327, cover-dated May 1964, the Batman was again changed. He was returned to his natural locale (Gotham City) and was once more fighting crime. His audience was still considered to be children however, so dark and violent streets were considered out of bounds. There was no return to the vengeful character of the ’40s, and the Batman still went out during the day. The plots became concerned with classic detective work, full of clues and puzzles. Robin added to the general pre-occupation with word games and clues by becoming a wise-cracking teenager with an over-fondness for bad puns. The Joker was largely forgotten. The character who had once been the Batman’s nemesis was reduced to occasional appearances as a comic relief criminal. Batman and Robin became a sort of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson in leotards. More explicitly the pair became something of a self-parody.

The change was successful. The sheer absurdity of running around city streets in skin-tight pants solving crime had an appeal which fitted perfectly the mood of the mid-1960s. How well this ‘camp’ approach slotted in to the times was to be seen with the success of the television series.

Television producer WIlliam Dozier picked up a copy of Batman #171 (cover-dated May 1965). The plot, featuring an abundance of he afore-mentioned puzzles, puns and self-parody, immediately appealed to Dozier. The Batman televisions series premiered on American television in January of 1966 and was an instant hit.

Comic-book camp became a national sensation. Comic-book heroes became the subject of magazine articles and fixtures on prime-time television. The proliferation of super-heroes on Saturday morning cartoon shows began.

The enormous success of the series was also its failing. The swiftness of national acclaim made most people’s interest no deeper than that of any fad. In its second season the TV series was already losing ratings. The re-vamping of the show, with the inclusion or a new character, Batgirl, bought the series a third chance. It fared no better and the show as cancelled at the end of the 1968 season.

Nonetheless, the television series reached much further and lasted much longer than three seasons in America’s living rooms. Success of this magnitude had the inevitable spillover into the rest of the English-speaking world and the Batman TV series was exported to Canada, England and Australia. In all of these countries, as in the United States, the show was screened just before the evening news, a time slot generally considered to straddle the afternoon children’s programming and the evening’s adult fare. The audiences both in the US and elsewhere were made up of the same mix of children and adults. For the first time since the 1940s substantial numbers of adults were including the Batman in their leisure time. Although not as successful outside the US, the show did make the Batman a universally recognised symbol of the camp ’60s. The show became a repeat stable on children’s television for the next 20 years. Only those who continued or began reading comics saw any change in the Batman’s image. For most people the Batman remained one of the quintessential images of the ’60s. Kind of goofy, lots of fun and rather naive.

The impact of all this on the comics industry was dramatic. In the first year of the television series Batman titles became the biggest sellers on the market. Comic-book companies everywhere were jumping on the bandwagon. By the end of the fad’s life several comic publishers had experienced their last fling before going out of business. As the Batman craze died, adults once more stopped buying comics. Many companies found the pre-existent children’s market was no longer enough to sustain business. Either a new approach, one which appealed more strongly to adults, or a new market would have to be found. One company had weathered the camp fad by assiduously cultivating a new market: the teenager.

The emergence of the teenager as an economic force in the late 1950s was to change the face of popular culture. As a group they had more income than children, and, unlike adults, almost all of it was disposable. Aside from rock ’n’ roll, teen movies and fashion, the teenage market was also to change the nature of comics publishing. DC Comics, the publisher of Batman, were not the first to recognise the possible benefits of slanting their products towards the adolescent market. With sales down by 10 to 15 percent across the board, they were not long in exploring the idea.

The Batman was included in this experiment with the release of Batman #217 (cover-dated December 1969). The changes wrought were in many ways a return to the character’s original conception. Once again he came out only at night. His motivation was once more an obsessive drive originating in his witnessing of the murder of his parents as a child.

It was not a complete return to the image of the 1940s, however. The audience this change in the Batman was trying to cultivate had grown up during the ’60s. People were increasingly prepared to blame the ‘system’ for the world’s ills and not just individual politicians or bosses. It was no longer enough for the Batman to simply assault and apprehend the bad guy. The Batman of the 1970s became a force for an admittedly abstract justice, rather than just a vengeful misanthrope.

Robin had been made into a teenager back in the early ’60s in an earlier attempt to cultivate the emerging teenager market. The understanding of teenagers demonstrated by DC Comics at the time, however, was laughable, and for several years the once popular boy wonder became the unpopular teen wonder. This unpopularity was largely due to his boyish enthusiasm being replaced with a ‘hipness’ that even the most willing suspender of disbelief was hard pressed to accept. With the return of the Batman to his dark night detective image this ‘hip’ Robin had to go. The new creative team did more than just change his image, however: they sent him off to college. Although Robin would occasionally drop in on a term break to share an adventure, the Batman of the ’70s was, by and large, once more a loner.

The Joker, however, was turned back into something more closely resembling his original conception. In line with the changing times, though, his rationale was, in effect, removed. No longer the consciously evil villain of the ’40s, the new Joker was murderously psychotic. In those uncertain times the almost arbitrary terror of the Joker’s schemes made him all the more frightening. The Batman and the Joker, once more transmuted, attempted to reflect contemporary desires and fears.

The changes to Batman did increase the teenage (and college aged) audience substantially. No individual comic, however, showed any return to the sales vigour of the middle ’60s. Comic books were competing with an ever-broadening array of material from the various popular culture outlets. In addition popular culture itself seemed to have real trouble in the 1970s providing a product any large proportion of the market would readily buy. The changes to the image of both the Batman and the Joker reflected that problem. To be sure, the Batman always won, the good guys always triumphed. But the victories were less satisfying. With the Joker no longer so resolutely evil, nor the Batman so self-righteously correct, their battles may have been more ‘realistic’ but they were less immediately gratifying. The Batman, comics and popular culture in general seemed to have lost the ability to personify the fears and desires of the public. Without that personification popular culture could not provide that temporary feeling that whatever might be wrong could be quickly righted.

The image of the Batman survived none the less. Sales stabilised and the only real change in the series was the eventual re-introduction of Robin. Dick Grayson had, since the early ’70s send-off to college, stopped cavaliering about as Robin and started cavaliering about as Nightwing. The re-introduction of Robin, in a series of stories running from May 1983 through to February 1984, was therefore accomplished by the introduction of Jason Todd. Jason Todd might best be described as a re-creation of the Robin of 1940. Although this did allow for the re-emergence of an interactive and teacherly Batman it could not hide the only other noticeable change in the stories: the emergence of a sense of malaise as the various writers and artists began simply putting the character through the motions.

Discussions towards making making a Batman movie began as early as 1977. It was not until the mid-1980s, however, that Warner Brothers began to pursue the idea seriously. The Superman movies had done quite well and, other than Superman himself, the Batman was the most recognisable costumed character around. The original intention was to do the movie in much the same spirit as the television series of 20 years before. Changes in the marketplace and within the comic-book industry were soon to kill that idea.

Unlike the English-speaking world, Europe had for many years accepted the fact that the comic was a story-telling medium just as suitable for adults as for children. Just as significantly they held the medium was capable of both serious and light material. In the middle 1980s this idea began to take hold in the book publishing spheres of both England and America. In 1985, Art Spiegleman’s Maus was published in book form by Pantheon. The story of Spiegleman’s father’s experience during the Holocaust gained widespread critical acclaim. THe book was nominated for an American Book Award and was praised widely as a significant contribution to the canon of Holocaust literature. All this came for a comic book. All for a story told with allegorical animals taking the place of humans in a consciously cartoony style. In 1982, British author Raymond Briggs, previously known for his delightful Father Christmas series of comic books, published When The Wind Blows, a disturbing and harrowing account of what happens to two very ordinary people when the Bomb goes off. It too received widespread acclaim.

The major American publishers reacted to this largely through a change in production values. They continued to publish stories revolving around the exploits of costumed heroes saving the world from costumed villains. Instead of publishing nothing but slim monthly magazines on newsprint, however, they began producing comics printed on heavy stock with proper binding. Although not about to publish something like Maus or When The Wind Blows, they also began experimenting with more ambitious projects, designed and packaged to appeal to an adult market.

In 1986, DC Comics began publishing a new and rather different Batman story. Published in four installments, each installment was square bound on heavy stock paper. It looked rather like a tall, thin paperback. Called The Dark Knight Returns, the story begins with a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne, retired and embittered, his crusade having made no difference. He has not been Batman for 10 years, but the old ghosts still gnaw and bite at his soul. Accidentally catching a reply of Zorro, the movie he saw on the night his parents were murdered, he re-lives his childhood trauma. The old ghosts become too much and, driven almost beyond the edge, he once more dons the suit and begins stalking the night.

The Joker also re-emerges in this story, after many years locked away in Arkam Asylum, an institute for the criminally insane. The Joker of this story is still psychotic and homicidal. More than a decade in Arkam has, however, taught him to play the psychiatric game. Having convinced his keepers of his sanity he uses his celebrity status to wrangle a spot on a a TV talk show. Taking full opportunity of his freedom, the Joker proceeds to do what the Joker does best and murders the entire studio audience as part of his escape. His next move is to set up his final confrontation with the Batman. The Joker of this story may still be psychotic but his obsession with wealth and power and his sense of theatre have been totally overwhelmed by his struggle to outwit his old enemy. He has come to be so obsessed, in the end his every action is directed towards and centred upon the Batman.

The Dark Knight Returns also introduces a new Robin, this time in the shape of a young girl called Carrie Kelly. If Dick Grayson was the typical kid of the 1940s then Carrie Kelly is the typical kid of the 1980s. She is streetwise, sassy and prematurely cynical. Unlike Dick Grayson she takes on Robin’s mantle completely independent of the Batman, convincing him of her worth as a student by simply showing up and doing the right thing.

In a story that ends with a nuclear bomb designed specifically to bring on the nuclear winter being detonated, Batman is back to his most vengeful and obsessed since the character first appeared.

The peculiar and particular appeal the Batman had in the 1940s was once again in vogue. The story did very well. When the four chapters were gathered together into a trade paperback it sold several hundred thousand copies and brought comics into the bookstore with a vengeance.

The plans for the Batman movie were changed. No longer the camp Batman of the ’60s, the Batman of the movie was going to reflect the new-found popularity of the comic book character.

It was not just The Dark Knight Returns. Also appearing on the bookshelves during this time were The Killing Joke, seen by many as the definitive statement on the nature of the Batman/Joker relationship, and an acknowledged influence on the Batman movie’s director, and Batman Year One, a gritty and modernistic retelling of the Batman’s first year of operations. All of these works re-confirmed Batman as a dark and vengeful figure of the night, an object almost as much of terror as of justice. The Dark Knight Returns earned the largest amount of money of any single comic book story in history. The Killing Joke and Batman Year One also did very well, clearly demonstrating that the darker and more sinister Batman was very much in tune with the spirit of the ’80s.

When the movie was released in America on 23 June 1989 it broke the box office record for any movie’s opening weekend, taking US$43.6 million. The latest figures to hand [as of September 1989 — BF] have the film grossing over US$250 million, well past the previous box office record of US$228 million set by E.T. in 1982. Even allowing for increases in ticket prices this represents many millions of people seeing the movie.

The Batman movie is set in a city where fear rules the average citizen’s life. Criminals and gangsters run the city with the help of crooked cops and corrupt city officials. Just as in the crime fiction of the 1930s chaos rules supreme. The ordinary citizen has no recourse to the protection of the law or the prospect of due process.

If popular culture is a reflection of the fear and desire of the public, this re-emergence of the Batman as a figure of mass popularity tells us much about the pre-occupations of the Western world. We have, it seems, returned to the 1930s. People everywhere are less and less confident the forces designed to protect them from harm and fear are able to do so.

Running around in a costume assaulting criminals is no longer funny, it seems almost necessary. Nothing else provides any sense that what appears to be wrong with the world is being put right.

The 1980s are very different from the 1930s. But the fears of both times seem to be the same. The implications this has for those who would say the world is, today, a better place than it was 50 years ago are enormous.

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