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When the Bat-Man first appeared, he did so from the shadows, clad in a vampiric cowl with slits for eyes, long, sharp ears and a cape with bat-like wings. That was in 1939, in the pages of Detective Comics No. 27. Six months later, when Batman’s creators realized they had a hit on their hands, they revealed his traumatic childhood. As a boy, the story goes, Bruce Wayne watched a criminal gun down his parents in a street robbery. Alone and orphaned, with tears streaming down his pink face, he resolved to spend his life fighting violent crime. “Criminals are a cowardly and superstitious lot,” he famously declared, as he vowed to “strike terror in their hearts.”
It was a time of global unease. The economy had not yet recovered from the Great Depression, and Hitler was amassing power in Germany. Meanwhile, in the comic books, it was the dawn of the Superhero age. In many ways, the shadow Batman emerged from belonged to the enormously powerful Superman. But this was no Superman. Batman had no superpowers, no alien origins and no foster parents who inspired him to use powers for good.
From the beginning, readers loved the pulpy adventures of Gotham City’s masked crimefighter — socialite by day, dark avenger by night. Little did they know, the orphan would outlive his creators, fueling a multi-billion-dollar franchise and inspiring generations of Bat-fans.
In the 75 years since that first issue, comic’s greatest detective has become one of the world’s most popular superheroes. And we wanted to know why. Why is Batman still relevant? What are the qualities that make him so timeless? How has he thrived while so many other pop-culture phenomena faded away?
For an orphan, Batman has many adoptive parents. Originally created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, countless others have kept his character alive in comics, video games, films and television. We reached out to nine of these creators to help us decode the secrets to Batman’s longevity.
Unlike other heroes, who drew superpowers from sunlight, chemical accidents or magic to fight crime on Earth, Batman has always remained human. His power, his creators say, lies in his extraordinary motivation, willpower and focus.
ROBERT GREENBERGER: Largely, Batman has succeeded with readers of all ages because everyone can see themselves becoming Batman. They could train themselves mentally and physically to go out and do the things he did. You didn’t need to come from another planet. You didn’t need a power ring from another galaxy. You just needed to be the very best human being you possibly could be.
SEFTON HILL: I always think of his one superpower as his willpower. It’s that determination to do everything he can to succeed. And there’s something in that which everyone can kind of tap into and believe in, and I think that’s kind of what makes him such an exciting and enticing and long-lasting character.
SCOTT SNYDER: He’s a character who could be any one of us. He suffers this incredible tragedy as a boy, and he takes that traumatic event and turns it into this fuel and becomes determined beyond anything to be a hero who can prevent the same thing from happening to another child. And in doing so, he becomes this hero who can stand shoulder to shoulder with the gods of the Justice League; they look to him for advice half the time. So, in a way, I think there’s just this kind of enduring appeal of that story, of taking something horrible that happens to you and turning it into the engine by which you become your own great hero.
BRUCE TIMM: In a way, I’m sure he goes to bed at night and he’s back in Crime Alley watching his parents get gunned down before him. Any other person would eventually kind of get over that, but he can’t get over it. So, he wakes up and goes, ‘Okay, how am I going to fight crime today?’ That’s what he’s all about.
NEAL ADAMS: You can place the whole superhero genre between Superman, who is the most powerful superhero, and Batman, who is a hero who wears a costume, but is not, in fact, a superhero in any sense of the word. All the other comic book superheroes exist between these two. So Batman represents that opposite end of the scale where you’re not into the unbelievability necessarily, but you’re into the detectiveness and the bodily strength and the physical acumen of a character who you even perhaps want to be like. Batman is your guy. So, he represents that epitome of your own potential. You could never be Superman, because he’s from another planet, but you certainly could be Batman.
Still from “Batman: Arkham Knight.” Image courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment
As he grows into adulthood, Bruce Wayne trains both his body and mind to their absolute peaks, becoming a skilled martial artist, acrobat, detective, chemist and tactician.
Whether striking from the shadows with a ninja’s grace, or clobbering a villain with a bright 1960s “BAM!” “BIFF!” or “POW!” the hero known as the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader and the World’s Greatest Detective, dominates his enemies with extraordinary strength and outwits them with intelligence.
And while in the early issues, he’s not afraid to use a gun or kill criminals, the character evolves to have a “no-gun, no-kill” policy, one that separates him from petty crooks and the tragedy that took his parents’ lives.
JEFF PARKER: As driven as he is to crush crime, he’s not a killer. The notion of him being anti-gun is prevalent, but I think it’s part of a larger priority of not taking life. His origin is focused on his parents’ murder, and opposing fatal action like that is core to who he is.
ROBERT GREENBERGER: It was [Batman editor Whitney] Ellsworth who recognized that young kids were reading this, and so maybe Batman shouldn’t be shooting, maybe he shouldn’t have the gun, maybe there shouldn’t be as much death. So by 1940, Batman was already no longer resembling how he appeared in 1939.
BRUCE TIMM: Every single thing he does in his daily life is about eradicating crime, which he knows he can never ever do, but he’s going to do it anyway. And it’s not something any sane person literally would do, but at the same time, I don’t think of him as being psychotic or a loose cannon. I think he’s very, very controlled, and he’s just very focused.
JIM LEE: I think sometimes when we look at our world and the complexities of it and all the grayness in between the black and the white, a character like Batman — someone that we know is acting on the side of justice — is very appealing and very mythical.
SCOTT SNYDER: Batman is the greatest hero in that he puts his own body on the line every night for his city to prevent these terrible things from happening to other children, other citizens. And yet at the same time, he’s so incredibly driven by that that he forgoes any sense of a normal life, and he tips over into obsession.
And that intersection, I think, of tremendous heroism and self-sacrifice and also a self-destructive pathology, I recognized even as a kid as something that was sort of magnetic. That sense of, this guy is the good guy, he is the hero, but at the same time there’s something dark and sad about him as well, and we’ve tried to explore that as deeply as we can in our Batman writing. On the one hand, there’s that incredible heroism, and on the other, those darker impulses and the tragedy of Batman too, which is that he gives up so much to be Batman. There is that almost American cowboy feel to him that he’s never going to settle down, he’s always going to be alone. There’s a sadness in that, too.
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Graphic by Travis Daub
Batman’s costume, inspired by a bat, is an icon, a character itself. Its creation story dates to Detective Comics No. 33, when a bat startles Bruce Wayne as it soars through his open window. He considers it an omen.
Batman’s cape and cowl brought a noir flavor to early superhero comics, evoking the 1930s pulp radio heroes The Shadow and the Green Hornet. Bat gadgets, such as the Batcave, the Batmobile and the Bat-Signal, became pervasive. The branding was so successful that the bat symbol exploded in popular culture, spawning an industry of clothing, toys and memorabilia.
ROBERT GREENBERGER: Based on the success of Superman and Action Comics No. 1, Vince Sullivan, the editor at the time, said to [Batman co-creator] Kane they were looking for other costumed characters. Kane went home and gave it some thought and with his writing partner, Finger, they brainstormed up what became Batman. Kane’s original sketches were very much in the Superman vein, with a bold costume and bright colors, and it was Finger who was suggesting things like the bat cowl and cape, the dark gloves and the dark color scheme. If this was going to be a guy named Batman, he’s gotta look darker, he’s gotta be a bat, he’s gotta be shadows.
Image courtesy DC Comics
BRUCE TIMM: On a really basic level, it is the absolutely coolest superhero costume ever. He’s a good guy who dresses like a bad guy. He’s like half-Dracula, half-Boy Scout. You can’t go wrong with that. Also, once you start playing with the darker textures of him, there’s the whole mysterious mood, the film noir kind of aspects of it. The crime drama. I think everybody on a basic level can relate to that.
NEAL ADAMS: I like drawing that cape. There’s something about that. I saw a Dracula movie with Christopher Lee once when I was younger. Dracula was standing on a parapet, looking down to a carriage that was riding away. His prey had escaped, and he was pissed off. So, he’s standing there and had this long cape that practically went to the ground, and then he turned away in kind of an anger to screen right, but he didn’t turn to screen right because he had a cape on. What he did was, he slightly turned screen left and then turned screen right. He gave his cape the ability or the flow to move out outward a little bit to the left, so that when he moved right, the cape followed him and flowed with him. And I was like, “Ohhhh, that is so cool.” And it was just this subtle little move.
In the same way, Batman has to probably do the same thing until it becomes second nature because those capes are big. In drawings, I can find that perfect pose. I have it flip up and make it look like bat wings. So it’s a lot of fun to draw.
JEFF PARKER: The key to his appeal is his persona as a creature of the night. From the beginning, he was different from all the other bright heroes with colorful costumes. He’s wearing black and looks much more like a heavy, a villain. Built into that is the idea that he’s a figure who criminals should be scared of. For all the terrifying forces out there, there’s one person on our side that they all fear. That’s enormously empowering to readers.
JIM LEE: He’s a sexy character. Dark, brooding. I think he really was one of the very first superheroes created that had a costume that felt modern and continues to be modern. It’s exciting to be shepherding and publishing a character that’s been around for so long that still feels extremely current and is incredibly popular.
Adam West and Burt Ward in costume as Batman and Robin for the 1966 television version of “Batman.” Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Though he starts out as a lone avenger in 1939, Batman has since collected allies. Police commissioner James Gordon appears alongside Batman in the first issue, eventually becoming one of his most important friends. Bruce’s faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth, acts as a surrogate parent. And the world’s greatest detective needed a sidekick, so in 1940, Batman’s writers introduced Robin, who appealed to younger readers. That “Dynamic Duo” was the beginning of what would come to be known as the Bat-family.
Supervillains, such as the Joker, Hugo Strange and Catwoman, among others, challenged the hero. Before long, the popularity of Batman’s enemies, which would become known as his Rogues Gallery, would rival his own.
Image courtesy of DC Comics
BRUCE TIMM: One of the things that always appealed to me about Batman ever since the first time I saw that Adam West show back in 1966 — that was my first exposure to the character — was not just Batman himself, but the whole world. You know, Gotham City is a cool place, he’s got a cool supporting cast, and, man, he’s got the best Rogues Gallery of any classic superhero. Those are just amazing characters.
SCOTT SNYDER: I think he tries to pretend that he can do it all alone, but at the end of the day, Alfred and Jim Gordon and these characters — there would be no Batman without them, or no Batman series. They’re such vital parts of that same mythology. They’re characters that have become so timeless and important to the legend and to the narrative of Batman that I can’t imagine writing Batman without them there.
ROBERT GREENBERGER: [Co-creators] Kane and Finger immediately figured out that Batman needed someone to talk to, and if he was not hanging out with commissioner Gordon, he needed somebody else, which is kind of what led to Robin being created. So Batman had someone to explain his observations and deductions and someone to crack wise with when fighting the criminals.
SEFTON HILL: [Batman’s allies] give him great power, but there’s also a vulnerability to those characters, because they’re not as strong as Batman. They’re not as well trained as Batman. And he feels deeply responsible for them and putting them in the firing line as well.
FRANCIS MANAPUL: The body count of people he cares for keeps piling up, so his misguided solution is to close himself off emotionally. He has a great support group of people that care for him, especially Alfred. They keep him human.
SCOTT SNYDER: For me, it’s all about Gotham, ultimately. In the way that we try to explore this idea of Gotham City itself as the great antagonist for Batman, and, really, for anybody that lives there. The idea is that the city says, “Come to me,” with the promise of being able to become the hero you always knew you wanted to be, whether that means becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a good parent, any of that. Come to the city and we’ll challenge you, but if you come out that challenge, that trial by fire, you will be transformed into — if you can survive it — the person that you always hoped you could be.
So for Bruce, it’s like Gotham says to him, “I’m going to create villains that get under your skin and basically every aspect of your personality,” whether it’s the duplicity of your life represented in Two-Face; whether it’s the responsibility that you feel to always be the smartest so you can outsmart the villains in the Riddler; whether it’s your worry that deep down what you’re doing might be crazy in the Joker; whether it’s your own feelings about whether you’re too soft because of your background, because of your wealth in the Penguin. All of those characters I see as extensions of psychological elements of Bruce’s profile.
SEFTON HILL: It’s really interesting from a story writing point of view to push those boundaries and really push up against those and see how hard Batman is pushed in order to try and break his moral code. And, obviously, for Joker, that’s the one thing that he wants to do. Joker’s all about the game. It’s all about breaking Batman. Really that’s his sole goal, just to see what he can do with Batman and see how much he can push Batman and how much he enjoys playing the game with Batman.
FRANCIS MANAPUL: Batman’s experience is enough to drive a weaker man over the edge, but he’s able to stay on the line. His intelligence keeps him in check because I can guarantee you that Batman knows exactly what he’d do if he were to cross that line. His inner complexity juxtaposed to a simple mystery to solve is a real treat for us, maybe not so much for Batman.
JIM LEE: Each of [the villains] kind of represent the worst elements of the human psyche. But I think that as you move into the modern age, into the Internet age, into the digital age, creators are going to be adding new villains to that Rogues Gallery. So, I think it will be really interesting to see how our notion of evil and our notion of what a villain is change as technology progresses at this kind of alarmingly quick rate.
As Batman evolves, so does Bruce Wayne. Over the years, Bruce morphs from self-absorbed playboy to billionaire philanthropist. For years, his high-profile persona was a smokescreen for Batman’s prowling in the dark. Bruce was the mask, and Batman, the true face. But as the character developed, the writers increasingly plumbed Batman’s alter ego for storylines.
ROBERT GREENBERGER: Bruce Wayne was pretty much a nondescript character all the way through 1970. He was a rich playboy, he ran Wayne Enterprises. But in 1970, [former Batman editor Julius Schwartz] took him out of the Batcave, took him out of Wayne Manor, brought him into Gotham City proper and made him a proactive member of Gotham’s business world. And that’s when the Bruce Wayne-does-good-by-day, Batman-does-good-by-night dichotomy really got established and took off.
FRANCIS MANAPUL: It’s important to show that Bruce has the ability to create change as well. If he’s dedicated his life to fighting crime and saving the city from the depths of despair, it makes sense for him to take a dual-pronged attack. As Bruce Wayne, he has access to things that Batman wouldn’t be able to reach and vice versa. This way, he can work with the only person he truly trusts: himself.
NEAL ADAMS: If there were a Batman, you would have to ask the very serious question: Who can do more good for the world? Bruce Wayne or Batman? Because Bruce Wayne can feed starving children in Africa, Bruce Wayne can contribute to St. Jude’s. Bruce Wayne can help bolster the city administration by having more honest politicians. Bruce Wayne has abilities far beyond those of Batman who can just catch criminals and throw them in jail. We used to have this thing where criminals would rob banks and cops would go after them — even heroes in comics would do that — but the truth of the matter is, if somebody robs a bank, the Federal Reserve replaces that money immediately, and nobody’s hurt. Tracking down those criminals is something, but why should a superhero do that? So, what do superheroes do? I don’t know. They save the world; that’s pretty much what they’ve been relegated to. But anything real and human, superheroes don’t really get involved. That’s one of the reasons why Batman is such a good character. He’s a very ground-level character and the stories can go from fantasy to total bone-crunching reality with a character like that.
Batman has taken many different forms between 1939 and 2014. He was a pulpy detective in the late 30s and 40s. He turned science fiction adventurer in the 50s. After a detour into camp in the 1960s, and a return to gritty detective tales in the 1970s, he became increasingly darker in the 1980s and beyond.
We know what Batman has been, but what will he become? What shadows does his future hold? What evils will he conquer? Where will we find our Dark Knight in another 75 years?
JIM LEE: I think one of the great strengths about the comic book business is that it is probably the largest, and arguably the greatest, collaborative work of fiction ever. When you look at these mythical universes — and certainly the DC Universe is the longest running one — it’s all about creators building off of the ideas and the concepts of the prior generations.
Both writers and artists are encouraged to add something to the mythology, and it’s not just in print. You see it in the video games and in the movies and in the cartoons. When there’s a cool idea, you see all the Batman creators working in all the different mediums, gravitating toward the best ideas and using them or building off of them. And so, it’s a rolling kind of continuity and canon that basically is created, and it’s sort of a natural selection of the best ideas. And you see that change, but the central core of Batman, this dark vigilante of the night who stands for justice, remains intact.
SEFTON HILL: Because he’s such a deep, complex and interesting character, it means that we can keep coming up with new and interesting storylines for him. There’s lots of potential and different things you can do with the character and with gadgets and the Rogues Gallery. I think there was such a tremendous breadth of opportunity with him.
DAN DIDIO: It seems like so many of these interpretations out there are somebody’s favorite. And the truth be told is that they all feel like it’s the same character. Regardless of how different they might be or how separate they might feel, they all feel like they’re Batman. They all feel true to the core conceit of what that character is.
FRANCIS MANAPUL: At the heart of Batman are stories about mystery and crime fiction, which has such a mass appeal. People from every generation, language or religion crave mysteries, and when you present them with a compelling question, they’ll want an answer. Although that genre has mass appeal, the unique nature of who Batman is allows him to stand above other fictional detectives. Batman is able to transcend not only generations but he’s also able to attract fans from different genres. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s visually one of — if not the best — designed characters in pop culture. He’s a character that can be visually portrayed in a variety of styles and still work.
BRUCE TIMM: If you look at those early Batman comics in the first year, they’re really grim. They’re very, very straight. Batman’s literally carrying a gun and shooting bad guys. And obviously that couldn’t last very long. It didn’t take them long before they started toning all of that down and giving him Robin. And the Joker’s really scary too. In his first couple of appearances he’s pretty psychotic, he’s pretty much kind of like the Heath Ledger Joker. So again, once they realize kids are reading this, and we don’t want to frighten them and give them bad ideas and stuff, they toned everything down. The Joker became more about the silly crimes rather than the killing people because he thinks it’s fun. But again, those early couple of issues of Batman obviously had a big impact on people, because there was really nothing else like that in comics at the time. All the other superheroes were kind of like Superman clones, or they were really happy and really good-natured. And then here comes this guy. You look at those early covers and he’s just like grim and he’s kind of scary and he’s like towering over the city. He’s completely the opposite of all the other superheroes at the time. Clearly, that was part and parcel of his early popularity and of his enduring popularity to this day.
DAN DIDIO: Batman really does reflect a lot of the moods and sensibilities that were in the culture of the time he was being written. If you look at him in the early days during World War II when he was first created, he was a darker, brooding character. During the ’50s, when the Space Race was going on, he becomes a character that can actually wind up on the moon, getting caught up in these science-fiction adventures. You have a little bit more of a pop-culture feel in the early ’60s and then you have a much more relevant character in the late ’60s into the ’70s. Then you get into the ’80s and again, he becomes that strong, muscular, right-or-wrong hero, basically.
ROBERT GREENBERGER: He’s always been a man of his era, and right now, we are as a nation at a time where I think our heroes have to be homegrown, our heroes have to be representative of the American Dream, the self-made man and succeed. And Batman reflects that today in very, very dramatic, larger-than-life terms. Where goes America, goes Batman, I think. And as we move into the next generation, we will see how he adapts.
SCOTT SNYDER: Batman is forever, and so is that idea that every generation should create its own Batman. I love seeing the mythology reborn. Every time it gets rebooted I’m there, first in line. And I think it’s a wonderful thing that these characters can shed their skin and still be the same characters over again, just brand new at the same time. So, I’m sure that whatever the future holds for Batman it will be wonderfully dark and twisted and heroic and exciting.
Justin Scuiletti is the digital video producer at PBS NewsHour.
Joshua Barajas is a senior editor for the PBS NewsHour's Communities Initiative. He also the senior editor and manager of newsletters.
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