Batman was first created in 1939, and has meant something different to each generation. He’s also the most-analyzed character in comic book fiction. Nothing you can write about him can be arguably wrong.
Look, I have a whole essay on Batman ahead of me, where I can pretty much say anything I want to say about him. What is anybody going to do about it? It’s like a grade school essay; as long as I present a thesis and defend it, I get an A, even if it’s loony guano.
I could argue that the Batman universe is defined entirely by psychology. Bruce Wayne’s mental state alone is responsible for his double-ego, and for that matter his villains tend to be psychological archetypes themselves. The Riddler, obsessive-compulsive; the Joker, manic-depressive; the Penguin, Narcissistic. But oops, somebody else already said that.
I could dig deep into pop politics and point out that Bruce Wayne, as a billionaire who indulges the ultimate anarcho-capitalist vigilante fantasy, is the purest realization of the Nietzschean Übermensch. His popularity stems from the escapist fantasy of being a wealthy Libertarian man-child with a convenient lack of parental supervision, able to rule as a minor god over his fiefdom because he just has that much money. But oops, somebody else already said that.
I could point out the pansexual liberating aspects of Batman. As a man who dresses in leather by night and hangs out with other men a lot, including the “Boy Wonder,” he gets free reign to indulge his darkest fetishes while still enjoying the Apollonian daylight persona of Bruce Wayne, upstanding and unimpeachable member of mainstream society. Thank heavens somebody else already went there.
But instead – because I’m a history buff – we’re going to look at the far-back roots of the character. This is important, because – dayum – a whole lotta ya’all been doomed to repeat history, because nobody taught it to you.
By the way: In your daily media diet, get used to analysis of history and comparisons with the past in the 2020s, because film technology came into its own in the 1920s, when soundtracks were invented. We have a handy comparison from a century ago with recordings in video and audio, something that has never happened before.
Meet Lewis Wilson and Robert Lowery
The banner image up above works as a Buzzfeed-style age test: name the actors from right to left and we’ll tell you how old you are! You of course recognize Christian Bale, George Clooney, Val Kilmer, and Michael Keaton. Even if you weren’t around for the first run, you’ve likely heard of Adam West too. But who’s the black-and-white guy?
Why, it’s Lewis G. Wilson, the very first person to portray Batman in film! Here’s the first episode:
You can find the entire Batman (1943) first serial as public domain on YouTube, in this handy playlist.
Already in the very first episode, we see recognizable tropes that would become staples of the character: The bat-wing logo, the Gothic music, the barking narrator, the batcave, and “his two-fisted assistant,” Robin the Boy Wonder. And look, the very first episode is called “The Electric Brain,” told you it was all about the psychology!
Now the production values on that serial draw some derision today. Batman hadn’t got much for equipment in his batcave yet, and drives what looks like a regular old car instead of a proper batmobile. Not to mention, Lewis Wilson doesn’t exactly suit the role with his fluffy Boston accent. But give them it break, it was 1943, there was a war on.
The 1949 sequel serial, Batman and Robin, saw the Batman role taken over by Robert Lowery. Might as well see the first installment of that:
And pursue the entire serial, likewise public domain, on the YouTube playlist.
Lowery was much better in the role and the serial shows some evolution from the previous installment. For one thing, Lowery had a filled-out acting career and had played a part in many franchises, including: Charlie Chan, Mr. Moto, Zorro, and Tarzan, all of which we will revisit shortly because they share DNA with Batman to varying degrees.
While we’re at it, re-meet Adam West!
Turn-of-the-century fans were unanimous in demonizing the 1960s Batman. It stands in contrast to the Randian Frank Miller Dark Knight, the age when all comics suddenly had to be Serious Drama For Grown-Ups™.
Joel Schumacher, likewise, burns in effigy to this day for “ruining” the Batman franchise (what a shame it never recovered /s) by daring to recast Batman from Tim Burton’s darker-but-still-lively take to the 1960s call-back. More recent fans have eased up a bit, allowing each generation of Batman its space in the collective mythos.
Never in the history of fiction has any character been so put-upon to be the avatar of their generation. Fans take Batman personally in a way they don’t take Superman or Spider-Man. They riot in the streets when they don’t get the Batman they want.
But folks, you have to sit down and absorb this amazing truth: In the 1960s, this was the Batman that fans wanted!
Cowabunga, indeed. Suck it, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
The 1960s Batman was up against some challenging rivalry from other TV series for viewer attention. Most prominently, of all shows, Lost in Space, which also ramped up the camp factor. Batman, the TV series, managed to rank supreme, being one of the most popular shows on TV.
In the 1960s, camp was huge. Social change was the hallmark of the decade; only up until then had radical ideas like equal rights been introduced, ideas which had a bloody fight to gain every inch of ground. During such a turbulent time, people needed their entertainment to be self-consciously fun. Modern audiences dismiss camp as “ironic entertainment,” but if we do that, we miss a huge point. Camp is a challenging aesthetic to pull off. It’s not just being ironic, it’s moving past irony to be modern as well. It’s dropping the illusion of suspension of disbelief to say “we all know this is fiction, so kick back and have a good time.” It allows the creator to have as much fun as the spectator.
Lest you think Adam West Batman died with the ’60s, reruns of that TV show carried the character entirely through the Batman-desert of the ’70s and early ’80s, until Tim Burton’s 1989 feature film caused such a backlash that music group Wally Wingert and the Caped Club cut this novelty song, “Adam West,” Weird-Al-style to the music of the pop song “Wild Wild West.”
It’s getting late in the essay to soapbox about camp though. I’ll just leave this prediction here: Camp will have a big resurgence in the 2020s. I won’t explain how I knew that until after it happens and you all come back asking.
It’s not like ironic humor has gone away or anything. We just quarantine it off from the rest of culture and call it “memes” now. Like a little kid who won’t eat his french fries if they’re touching the burger.
Cartoon series on streaming and TV are nearly nothing but fourth-wall breaking irony, but then they’re not allowed to be anything else. I prophesy that we will once again allow media to exist in more than two genres at the same time. For example, gosh, just look at this essay! Why, I might even just be messing with you at this point.
Moving right along…
Batman, the Detective
Alternately, here’s another take from a fan who makes a deep analysis of the shifting nature of Batman:
See, Batman means something completely different for this person. And their fan-love is just as relevant as everyone else’s.
I mentioned back there that Batman shares common DNA with the likes of many other classic hero franchises of the time. From Tarzan, Batman gets the primal force behind the outsider, who is fascinating for their different view of our society. From Zorro, Batman gets the mask (duh) and the general swashbuckling hero type. Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto may seem a bit of a stretch to compare to Batman, but they are each detective characters.
The aspect of a hero being a crime detective was once the standard. It stems all the way from the obvious Sherlock Holmes to The Shadow and The Phantom. Come to that, if you smoosh the Shadow and Phantom together, you kind of get Batman, at least in theme. The Phantom was published in 1936, three years prior. The Shadow already had a pulp magazine and radio drama franchise rolling throughout the 1930s. Then Bob Kane and Bill Finger sat down to draw Batman.
Introduced as a detective figure in Detective Comics. Hence the comic name “D.C.”
The world of pulp fiction novels, hero adventures, and radio dramas borrowed a lot more from the film noir style than we appreciate today. Going back to that Lewis Wilson serial, we see a Batman who fights crime with his brains. This was born of the culture of that time, when mainstream fiction stayed more grounded in reality. All of the heroes were plain ordinary folks who took it upon themselves to be gallant do-goods. They either had no superpowers, or only had mildly enhanced versions of everyday human skills.
The many masks of Batman
It’s almost time for me to finish writing about Batman. As if that were possible.
By now, we’ve visited around many takes on Batman. He really seems to mean something different to everyone. He’s a fun campy underwear goofball, a dark and brooding Jungian specter, a poster-boy for diversity, a conservative crusader for the status quo, a walking political critique of late-stage capitalism, a vigilante in a rotting world of Gothic horror, a macho action man of adventure, and yes, a classical detective too.
Batman is enduringly popular because he has no superpowers; he is an every-man whose main superpower is wads of cash and a pathological level of dedication to honing his skills. It has been said that Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves as millionaires temporarily exiled. Batman doubles down on that mindset, telling us that any of us can be inspired to do good with our power. We may never afford a batmobile, but we can throw a couple dollars to charity and feel like a hero too.
But Batman originates, at his root, from a culture when every hero was just like that. That time is long-gone. This is one reason why we keep changing Batman, and why fans are so provoked to fight over their treasured, personal Batman. We used to have a hundred Batmans! Now we have just one. Once we each had our choice of attainable role model archetypes. We could be tricksters or swashbucklers or tycoons or yes, witty detectives too. Nothing but resources and talent stops us from being a Sherlock Holmes, a Columbo, a Lone Ranger, a Sam Spade.
It might be time to bring that idea back. In the big debate we’re always having about comics culture, everybody overlooks how most of our heroes now are these impossible mutants with reality-warping powers, aliens or freaks who decide to fight crime. This removes the commoner aspect from the appeal. Maybe if more of our heroes were mere mortals, a larger number of the rest of us mortals would behave more like heroes.