DC FLASHBACK: Batman II

Wed, December 10th, 2008 at 6:05pm PST | Updated: December 10th, 2008 at 6:08pm

Comic Books
Brian K. Eason, Guest Contributor

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The political climate of the 1950s prompted a change in Batman's appearance and mood

In the pages of recent issues of the DC Comics series “Batman,” readers saw Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel craft a supposedly final fate of the Batman in the storyline "Batman R.I.P." While his end was left decidedly ambiguous, the story marked a convenient map point in a transition period in the Dark Knight’s 70-year history. With "The Dark Knight" on sale now on Blu-Ray and DVD, new Batman fans are curious to learn more about the iconic character, and CBR is here to help.

In the first installment of DC FLASHBACK: Batman, CBR looked at the early day’s of the Batman’s creation and the artists who shaped him. We continue with this second part, examining the impact of Batman on comic books and culture.

The birth of the Batman and his meteoric rise to success in the 1940s helped put DC Comics at the top of the American comics industry. The Caped Crusader appeared in regularly published titles and had been the subject of two successful movie serials. And while editorial changes made to soften the darker aspects of the stories, the Dark Knight remained the star of the superhero genre.

However, a shakeup in the comic book world was about to change everything, not just for the industry as a whole, but for the Batman in particular. The bat was about to fall under the shadow of Dr. Frederic Wertham.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, crime and horror comics had risen to a level of popularity rival to that of superheroes. The images and subjects depicted in these comics were often disturbing, even by modern sensibilities. Dr. Frederic Wertham, a German-American author and psychiatrist, saw this as a problem. He postulated that much of the mass media, especially comic books, was the primary cause of post-war juvenile delinquency. "Seduction of the Innocent: The Influence of Comic Books on Today's Youth." (1954) was authored by Wertham in an effort to get his theories in front of the American public. Featuring copied images from many of the more popular comics, the book portrayed the medium as rife with gore, violence and sex.

Dr. Fredric Wertham: hater

The Doctor's principal charge was that comics encouraged delinquent behavior and homosexuality among the readership, particularly young boys. Of all of Wertham's assertions, the most damaging was leveled against the Batman, when, in a four-page digression into the sex life of Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder, Wertham stated that "[Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson] live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler. It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together." Wertham had become aware of the Batman comics through homosexual patients that cited the heroes as an example of the perfect "homosexual lifestyle." Furthermore, Dr. Wertham concluded that "the Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies."

Despite the lack of any evidentiary link between reading comics and "deviant behavior," the public response was huge. Parents prevented their children from buying or reading comics and some neighborhoods organized book burnings to destroy the offending materials. No comic book was safe from this backlash, not even the increasingly light-hearted Batman.

The American comic book industry, faced with public outcry and even Senate investigations, was led to an obvious decision—that they must change the way they did business or simply go out of business. The advice from a Senate committee hearing was that "a competent job of self-policing within the industry will achieve much." The result was the Comics Code Authority, a set of strict guidelines to police the industry and prevent the government from interfering and regulating comic book content.

Under editor Julius Schwartz, Batman comics returned to the detective aspect of the character

Horror and crime titles disappeared virtually overnight. Standing in their place of the comic book racks were the far less popular humor and “funny animal” comics. Publishers that could not adapt or had no alternative product to sell eventually failed. DC Comics survived by the sheer weight of their publishing muscle, but even they saw business fall to a trickle. With the implementation of the Comics Code Authority, the Batman, who had already been softened up since his days as a violent avenger, became almost a parody of himself. His rogues’ gallery of villains became a wacky and humorous lot, committing zany crimes that never really hurt anyone. A Bat-Hound and a comedic imp named Bat-Mite were added to the cast of characters, as were Batwoman and Batgirl, whose addition was possibily an attempt to counter-balance claims of homosexuality in Batman comics. In stark contrast to his street-level crimefighting, Batman routinely encountered aliens from other worlds. It was surreal, to say the least.

By 1964, sales for the Batman family of titles had fallen to an all-time low. Batman co-creator Bob Kane claimed DC was determined to kill off the character.

Enter editor Julius Schwartz, who oversaw sweeping changes to the Batman books. In "Detective Comics" #327 (May 1964), under Schwartz’s direction, fans were introduced to Batman's "new look.” Artist Carmine Infantino was tasked with the character's redesign. Included in the overhaul was a change to the bat-insignia seen on Batman’s chest; the bat was made smaller and enclosed in a yellow ellipse. But the changes weren't all about the costuming -- The Joker was all but retired (as Schwartz hated the character); the Batmobile was given a modern look; and Alfred was killed off with Harriet Cooper (Dick Grayson's maternal aunt) brought in as a replacement. Tertiary characters like Batwoman and the regular appearances by aliens came to an end. The books returned their focus to detective work and "Detective Comics" #327 (May 1964) even included a guide to fingerprinting to drive the point home.

The Batman television series exploded the character's popularity

In 1966, Batman returned to live-action, but this time on the small screen. The “Batman” television series ran on the ABC network for two-and-a-half years (January 12, 1966 - March 14, 1968.) The show was presented twice a week in half-hour installments. As a result of this unique format, “Batman” generated an incredible 120 episodes in a short period. The show starred Adam West as Batman, Burt Ward as Robin, Alan Napier as Alfred, and Yvonne Craig as Batgirl. “Batman” was satirical, campy, more than a little bit silly, and a huge hit. A big screen version hit theaters in 1966, and while it was not a box-office success, the film did drive audiences to the television show. So popular was “Batman,” it became a mark of distinction in Hollywood to appear in an episode of the show, even in a cameo role. Stars like Liberace, Milton Berle, Joan Collins and famed film director Otto Preminger appeared as villains.

The television show’s impact on the comics was greater than anyone imagined; sales of Batman titles reached nearly 900,000 copies a month, eclipsing even Superman. To draw readership, concepts from the show were brought into the comics, including the new Batgirl (Barbara Gordon, daughter of the Commissioner) and the campy humor. When the show was cancelled in 1968, the comic book sales dropped as well. What DC felt was needed was needed was a fresh approach.

In 1969, writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams took over "Detective Comics" with the intent of returning Batman to his darker roots. They distanced themselves from the camp of the television show and its influences on the comics. What O’Neil and Adams wanted to depict was a no-nonsense vigilante and the world’s greatest detective. In short, was the **Dark Knight.** The pair delved into the DC Comics library and read the earliest stories of the Batman and tried to emulate what Bob Kane and Bill Finger had pioneered in the nearly three decades earlier.

Comics creators Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams and Frank Miller put the "dark" back in "Dark Knight"

The first O'Neil/Adams story was "Detective Comics #395" (January 1970), "The Secret of the Waiting Graves." In the tale, Pedro Valdez, an agent of the Mexican government, was assigned the responsibility of finding out if Juan and Dolores Muertos were growing an illegal flower called the Sybil, which induced severe hallucinations. Batman became involved, was drugged by the Sybil plant, defeated the Muertos and learned their shocking secret. The story is considered classic today, as is much of O’Neil and Adams’ run, which is collected in numerous archive collections. The Dark Knight was definitely back.

In 1986, a 29-year-old writer and artist named Frank Miller turned his creative energies toward the Batman. Miller came from massive commercial success at Marvel Comics, helming a critically acclaimed run on "Daredevill” and an equally successful "Wolverine" miniseries. Miller's film noir and manga-influenced art style and his hard-boiled writing brought him to the attention of DC Comics. After a six-issue limited series called "Ronin" was published by DC, Miller pitched his idea for Batman.

"The Dark Knight Returns" told the story of an aged Batman at the twilight of his career. While it was meant to put an endnote on the character, it had the exactly opposite effect. Sales on the book were phenomenal and the success of the miniseries drew fans back to the existing Batman titles. Batman was was bigger than ever. Inspired by Miller’s grim and sophisticated approach to the material, the Batman line took on more adult themes. The success encouraged DC parent Warner Bros. to produce a feature film.

Fueled by the success of Tim Burton's "Batman" film, the character became more popular than ever in the 1980s

"Batman," starring Michael Keaton as the titular character and Jack Nicholson as his arch-nemesis The Joker, hit movie theaters on June 23, 1989. The film was directed by Tim Burton and the script was written by Sam Hamm. The film was a box-office smash, earning $411,348,924 in worldwide ticket sales. If "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns" had brought Batman back to the fans, the Batman movie brought the character back to the world.

From the brink of cancellation to global appeal, the Dark Knight rose from the ashes of the turbulent 1950s to unparalleled success in the 1980s.

Come back and visit CBR for the third installment of "DC FLASHBACK: Batman," wherein we examine the death of Robin, the crippling of Batgirl and of Batman himself, and the events that lead to the current fate of the Batman.

TAGS:  dc flashback, batman, batman r.i.p., dc comics, seduction of the innocent

 
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