“I love beauty. I don’t care about pretty.”
— Frank Miller on drawing comicbooks
Previously on To Be Continued… we discussed the full circle of Batman, starting with his debut in 1939 as a violent vigilante with no qualms about killing the bad guys (he was featured with a gun holster on the cover of 1939’s Detective Comics #33). It was not artist Bob Kane or writer Bill Finger who lightened Batman’s violent side or instilled the character with his now-trademark hatred of guns, but editor Whitney Ellsworth who mandated the change. The character devolved from the still very dark Dark Knight (now with a Doctor Watson to explain things to in his sidekick Robin) to a campy parody of himself, no longer inhabiting a bleak and menacing Gotham City, but a bright and colorful world at large. This culminated in the farcical TV show Batman (1966) and its feature film spinoff, but when Batmania wound down, DC Comics was free to re-darken the Detective.
The 1970s were a time of artistic experimentation. Bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin broke new ground in music and films The Godfather and Star Wars revamped old movie genres into critical and commercial successes. Comics were no exception to this innovation, especially at DC Comics where the cultural shifts were written all over every page. Wonder Woman had a wardrobe and attitude change, Superman munched on Kryptonite (while Clark Kent left the Daily Planet for a job on the TV news) and Green Lantern and Green Arrow addressed issues such as racism and drug addiction.
Innovations on Batman and Detective Comics by writers like Dennis O’Neil and Steve Englehart and artists like Marshall Rogers and Neal Adams translated to great critical acclaim and a return to serious story lines, but not to great profits for DC. In fact, as Marvel Comics continued to rise, their Distinguished Competition faded. The Caped Crusader’s numbers continued to fall, even as his stories got better and better, reaching an all-time low in 1985. But then dawned a new era of innovation when the famed Crisis on Infinite Earths shook the DC Multiverse and brought it back to its core.
While John Byrne retold Superman’s origin story in The Man of Steel, Frank Miller reached into the future to tell the story of an aged Bruce Wayne returning to crime fighting when Gotham City needed him most in the classic The Dark Knight Returns. Looking to return Batman to his edge (as he had done with Marvel’s Daredevil), Miller predicted the death of Robin (Jason Todd) and presented a menacing and often grotesque gargoyle of a Batman who used weapons as well as his fists, drove a tank of a Batmobile and went back to breaking necks and beating the hell out of villains.
Like the same year’s Watchmen (by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons), Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns was a huge and reinvigorating success for DC Comics. Miller’s minimalist style (amplified by the inks of Klaus Janson and the colors of Lynn Varley), coupled with his realistic depiction of a flawed (but effective) Dark Knight Detective won over fans and finally overshadowed the feckless pop-art campy Batman that had dominated public perception since the 1960s.
Batman’s popularity skyrocketed again and fans demanded more of this style of darker, more serious and realistic storytelling. Luckily, the man who had redarkened the Bat in the first place, Denny O’Neil had been named the group editor of the Batman titles and was largely responsible for the tone of the era. Miller returned to the Bat books, this time to tell Batman’s origin in the famed Year One storyline (this time with his erstwhile Daredevil collaborator David Mazzucchelli handling art duties). Alan Moore himself teamed up with artist Brian Bolland to create the one-shot The Killing Joke in 1988, which has had equally long-lasting ramifications.
Also in 1988, DC Comics became a media sensation when a 1-900 number was established for fans to vote on whether or not Miller’s prediction of a dead Jason Todd should come to pass. Jason’s death was decreed by a margin of a mere 28 votes and the Dark Knight was never quite the same again. The story A Death in the Family by writer Jim Starlin and artist Jim Aparo showed the Joker beating and bombing Robin to death in broad daylight, followed by Batman’s blocked attempts at revenge.
This success was followed by the launch of the Batman film series in 1989, a huge boon to the comic book industry at large. While these films did restore a certain amount of camp to the Dark Knight Mythos, they also took a great deal of inspiration from the brooding comics from the O’Neil/ Adams era all the way up to The Dark Knight Returns and spawned the more serious television adaptation Batman: The Animated Series (1992).
The rebounded sales have remained strong even as Batman in broad daylight has become less and less of a sight over the years (note, our first vision of the Batman in costume in The Dark Knight Returns is in the light blue costume in the light of day).
Next Week: practice your Batusi moves, because we have more dark detecting to do next week as To Be Continued… is to be continued. ONLY… at PopMatters!