The Victor Belongs to the Spoils: 75 Summers of the Batman

Just a single thought about what Batman has come to mean over the last 75 years.

People try so hard to believe in leaders now, pitifully hard. But we no sooner get a popular reformer or politician or soldier or writer or philosopher—a Roosevelt, a Tolstoy, a Wood, a Shaw, a Nietzsche, than the cross-currents of criticism wash him away. My Lord, no man can stand prominence these days. It's the surest path to obscurity. People get sick of hearing the same name over and over.

-- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Batman’s for Beginning

It’s the Small Hours before Batman Day.

Of course the opposite is true for our perpetual fictions. No one really tires of them, they’re a part of the social fabric of reality, they’ve been around since before we existed, they’ll more than likely survive us. They hold us to the promise Paul Simon made in “The Boy in the Bubble", (was it a promise?), that “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.” And in exactly the same way, every generation gets that artistic rendering of all perpetual fictions that it deserves. We all always get exactly the Batman we deserve.

I’m flipping through the pages of two Batman books a little while ago now (it’s not yet Batman Day when I’m writing this), and I’m lost in a sense of wonder, although, to be fair, it’s not exactly the same sense of wonder I’ve entered into Batman with (part of the great joy of Batman is that that sense of wonder changes each time). I’m flipping through the pages of two books right now—the very handsome volume that is Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years, and the finale of Batman: Zero Year that concludes in this month’s Batman #33. It’s a good moment, but I’m left pondering.

Later I’ll want to read those five Batman books in the DC Comics Essentials line—five single issues of must-reads that include the first issue of The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, and more recent Batman tomes in the form of Hush, Batman & Son and The Black Mirror. Before closing out the day I’d probably want to get through making my own list. Azzarello and Risso’s Broken City would be on it. So would Year Two. And Batman 465-66 most likely.

But right now, the conclusion to “Savage City", the last arc in Zero Year, feels like a weight in my hand. There’s a moment of relative beauty that seems to have righted the course of Zero Year. Not too long ago, around Thanksgiving last year and with the start of the second arc Zero Year arc “Dark City”, writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo seemed to have fallen into a rhythm that was growing a little too safe and too predictable.

The reliance on reauthorizing iconic Batman imagery seemed to weigh a little too heavily. Like the thematic reworking of the cover to Detective #27, that appears in the early pages of Batman #24. There’s the shock and awe of seeing this iconic moment being reenacted, being acted out for the first time in the post-New 52 reboot of the DC Universe. But there’s also something missing. Some inner magic that sparks with a sense of, “this is the first time we’re taking these steps into the person we’re supposed to be.”

But by the Zero Year finale issue, Snyder and Capullo come shining through. The moment isn’t one of Batman stepping into his true self, but of Commissioner James Gordon (although, he’s not commissioner yet). It’s the moment where Gordon fires off the Bat Signal for the first time—nothing more than a Bat marker-penned onto a tea-tray, but it’s the first time the idea of the Bat Signal is fabricated as a prototype. It’s around then that a single idea springs unbidden into my head. “Where did it begin?” Or more correctly, how could it begin? How could ideas be introduced into the Batman mythos. How could the unique genre that is Batman, be evolved?

Lester Bangs and the Secret Legacy of Akira Kurosawa

A touchstone for me in this regard is something that Michael Caine’s Alfred scrapes the surface of in The Dark Knight—the thought that somehow, Batman himself is “causing” the terrors, “far worse than thieves and murderers" that haunt Gotham now that he’s cleaned up the mob.

For a character like Daredevil, who arguably traces a very similar character arc to Batman, almost all of the drama lies in a hyper-awareness of the impact he’s having on the city (the New York neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen). But for Batman, things are completely different. At his best, Batman is psychologically oblivious to the fact that his rogues gallery are nothing more than intricate perversions of his own tactics. Batman is simply stronger and tougher and smarter, in short, larger than any problem he might encounter. Particularly the ones he could arguably be said to have caused.

It’s in this way that Batman touches base with what Lester Bangs describes as a kind of “cage of fame” in his obit for John Lennon. The idea is simple—will we the fans allow the artist or in this case the art, to evolve beyond the familiar? In other words can the artist or the art in this case, be freed from the constraints of its own history? Or must the thing in question always recurse it’s own history?

Batman it seems, for the largest bulk of the character’s publication history since around 1986 (around the time of The Dark Knight Returns and of Batman: Year One) has been wrestling with ways to escape its own success and offer something entirely unique.

We’ve seen it play out in our own lifetimes. When comics seceded from the popcultural mainstream back in the ‘90s, Batman reclaimed the mainstream with TV’s The Batman Adventures. Call it the Gospel of Metallica’s BlackThe Batman Adventures was both dark and gritty enough to be a regular Batman (arguably even more so than Tim Burton’s original Batman before he completely grasped his own vision in the luxury edition that was Batman Returns), and yet still mainstream enough to have wide crossover appeal. Exactly the same tactic used by Metallica in the release of Black.

But earlier than that even, and by a generation, was Japan’s love affair with the camp Batman immortalized by Adam West—it was a Batman that would thrive in manga format, published by Shonen King, and written by seasoned Japanese TV writer-producer Jiro Kuwata.

What shines through more than anything in such moments—with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, for example, or Kuwata’s “Bat-manga” (rendered beautifully accessible by the diligent work of Chip Kidd and his co-authors), or even Grant Morrison’s hyper-inclusive vision of Batman that included the character’s entire publication history (entire, yes, even Tiny Titans’ “Bat Cow”)—is the idea that rather than limitation or restriction or definition or defeat, the last 75 years have been as much a search for the meaning of the Batman, as it has been about entertaining stories.

Makes you eager to get to the next 75.

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