The dark art of Batman
The Dark Knight may be 75 this year, but Gotham’s vigilante remains an enigma. Here are the art styles and storylines that made him a comic book legend
We take a look at the art history of Gotham’s Dark Knight as he turns 75, and speak to the artists who have drawn him.
The 27th issue of Detective Comics appeared on America’s newsstands during May 1939. Its bright yellow and red cover featured a caped figure swinging into view and two gangsters in the foreground. For 10 cents, American kids could forget the Depression and the war brewing in Europe, and enjoy 64 pages of hand-drawn action.
Eye-catching? Certainly. But who could have predicted that this oddly dressed character would become an icon of the modern age. For 75 years he’s entertained millions of fans in print, on the radio, on TV, in cinema and in video games. He’s been drawn in countless styles and survived thousands of strange perils. Yet he remains at once an inspiration and an enigma.
The main Batman series today, drawn by Greg Capullo and written by Scott Snyder, still harks back to the original character of the late 1930s and early 40s. Two years ago, DC rebooted Batman as part of its New 52 scheme and Batman faced a cult of assassins in the Court of Owls storyline. There in the artwork he’s got that square-ish face, gritted teeth, an expansive cowl and shadows all around – just like back in the day.
Of course, square faces were the only kind the original Batman creator Bob Kane could really draw. And those shadows
concealed his draughting deficiencies along with baddies such as Doctor Death, Hugo Strange, The Joker and The Cat. Yet Bill Finger’s writing gave Batman and his alter ego Bruce Wayne humanity. He hones his intelligence to become a great scientist and detective, and develops the physique of an Olympian. They’re attributes needed to protect Gotham’s backstreets from the kind of scum who killed his parents.
This vision of Batman resonates strongly with today’s artists. “The darker, bigger and grittier he is, the better for me,” says Tony S Daniel, who first worked on the Batman series in 2007. “I think Batman has a lot of anger within. The murder of his parents shaped Bruce Wayne into the man he became, and created Batman. Batman shouldn’t smile. Bruce Wayne can. And when he does, that’s his real mask, to me.”
Juxtaposed with Superman – a benevolent alien with supernatural powers
The darker, bigger and grittier he is, the better. Batman has a lot of anger
beyond our world – Batman is human and his strength comes from within. “I think readers identify with Batman because he’s a regular man – he isn’t an alien, a god or a mutated superhuman,” says Jonathan Duran, who’s the founder of Comicsastonish.com. “When faced with devastation and loss, he focused on a single goal, and through his own willpower and determination was able to build himself to the peak of human potential. That’s an obvious draw for people, because we would all love to see this discipline and these grandly altruistic qualities in ourselves.”
Yet not long after his inception, the tougher face of Batman was put to one side. In those early stories, Batman shot and killed people – strong stuff for 10-year-olds. Under scrutiny from US censors, there was pressure across publishing to tone down the sex and violence in titles aimed at children. Batman and his sidekick Robin – created by Kane’s assistant Jerry Robinson – became wholesome and heroic.
They were made honorary members of the Gotham Police Department. They supported campaigns to sell war bonds during World War II. The dynamic duo foiled the plans of The Joker, Two-Face and The Penguin, but the villains became clown-like and their schemes were just bizarre. Artist Dick Sprang had Batman duelling with knights and teaming up with the Three Musketeers. His bright panels thrived on cinematic angles and set pieces. He introduced a surreal, almost Alice in Wonderland-like feel with giant clocks, typewriters and playing cards.
By the late 50s, there had been an alien alter-Batman, Zebra Batman, Negative Batman and even Rainbow Batman, with a different coloured costume every day. Questions were raised about his sexuality, and so Batwoman was introduced in 1956 as a possible love interest. Yet Batman just couldn’t find a mate, not even the knockout kisser Poison Ivy, an ecoterrorist who arrived in 1966.
That year saw the height of camp Batman with the TV series starring Adam West. Eartha Kitt, Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith played Catwoman, The Joker and The Penguin, respectively, with ‘BIFF!’ and ‘POW!’ comic-type overlaid on the fight scenes. “It was a satire, it was funny, it was a take-off of the campy side of comic books, and it was successful for what it did,” says Neal Adams,
You could see the writing on the wall. This was not going to be a serious Batman
who started drawing Batman for DC during the mid-60s.
He continues: “But at the end of the first show when Jill St John leapt into the cyclotron in her go-go outfit, and Batman said, ‘ What a way to go-go,’ you could pretty much see the writing on the wall. This was not going to be a serious Batman.”
However, the series did spell serious money for DC. Issue 183 of Batman came out in August 1966 to coincide with the broadcast of the first episode, with artwork by Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella. It sold 1,134,000 copies, compared to 351,000 in August 1965. Revenue poured in from
countless items of merchandise, too – costumes, figurines, Batmobile toys, sunglasses, lunchboxes…
While DC counted its money, Neal pondered Batman’s troubled soul. He pushed to work on the Batman and Detective Comics titles, but was constantly rebuffed. Then editor Murray Boltinoff offered him The Brave and The Bold, which featured Batman alongside various other DC characters such as Aquaman, Sgt. Rock and Deadman.
“Murray said: ‘Shall we change the scripts?’ So I said: ‘No, don’t change the scripts, but I just want to tell you this: don’t have anything happening in the daytime because Batman doesn’t go around in the daytime. And Batman doesn’t walk through doors. He can come out of a closet, he can come through a window, but he doesn’t walk through doors because that’s just not Batman,’” explains Neal.
welcome to the darkness
Fan letters arrived saying that the only real Batman was the one in The Brave and The Bold, so editor Julius Schwartz soon moved Neal on to the key Batman titles. The
Neal Adams was drawing superheroes who looked like real people
character was gradually steered back towards the darkness.
“Neal Adams was drawing superheroes who looked like real people,” states Jerry Bingham, artist on the 1987 graphic novel Batman: Son of the Demon. “The Joker handed someone a cigar and the explosion killed people. His cinematic style seemed
perfect for the time, and his 1970s comics will always be the definitive Batman for me. No one has improved on the character, visually, since.”
Neal managed a gradual shift towards realism, tinged with horror, in the 1970s. But the real revolution took place in February 1986 when Frank Miller delivered the first of six comics entitled The Dark Knight Returns.
Each issue was 48 pages – 20 more than an average comic – with a proper spine. Frank was thinking like a novelist, not a comic book writer. A 55-year-old Batman comes out of retirement with shadow, fear and human frailty placed at the
fore of the story, not to mention the character’s moral code.
“I wanted to create things that would last,” Frank says in a Goodreads interview. “They were still stuck on the yellow circle on his chest and then I came up with an excuse for him, dramatically, to lose his costume, so that he showed up with just a big old bat on his chest, which he’s worn ever since.
“Somehow I’d internalised the idea that you can throw the pamphlet over your shoulder and say goodbye. If your story’s 28 pages long, that’s great. If it’s 148 pages long, that’s great,” he adds.
Batman became a craggy, cynical, bulky redeemer of Gotham. “When Frank drew Batman, he made him this big, bulky tank,” says Canada’s Jason Fabok, who’s drawn a whole range of recent Batman titles. “His fists look like they would smash your face in with one punch. He doesn’t need super powers in order to hurt you. But at the same time, you know he’s on your side. He’s fighting for the good guys. He has a high moral code, and sticks to it.”
Neal also loves Frank’s Batman. “He pushed even more grit into it and I really appreciated what he did. To a certain extent he took what I did and pushed it further,” he says. “I think that was very classical. I’m surprised that more people haven’t done older Batman stories after Frank did it because I think it’s a great character.”
Single issues of The Dark Knight Returns were reprinted time and again, as was the graphic novel that combined them, and soon other artists were exploring Batman in new ways. Jerry Bingham and Mike Barr’s Batman: Son of the Demon was the first graphic novel to appear that wasn’t a compilation of prior comics. In it, Batman’s liaison with Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter results in a son. In 1988,
When Frank Miller drew Batman, he made him this big, bulky tank
The Joker was explored in The Killing Joke by Brian Bolland and Alan Moore.
1989 was dubbed The Year of the Bat, with Tim Burton’s Batman hitting the big screen. Gothic and mysterious, Burton’s film starred Michael Keaton and flirted with the campness of the TV series. However, Anton Furst’s concept artwork brought a vision of Gotham that would inspire future comics.
“Recently I sat down and watched the original Tim Burton Batman film and realised just how much that movie
influenced not only my approach to drawing Batman, but also my life,” says Jason. ”It made me a lifelong Batman fan and introduced me to the comics. This vision of Batman has influenced my work most. I still love that costume, how the character moves, and the world that Tim Burton built.”
Three further films were made with Keaton reprising the role again in Batman Returns, followed by Val Kilmer in Batman Forever and George Clooney in Batman & Robin. Together, the pictures grossed over $1 billion. Meanwhile, on television, Batman: The Animated Series reprised comic book stories, in the bold graphical style of Bruce Timm, between 1992 and 1995. A new generation was introduced to Batman. In comic shops, Batman Black and White appeared in 1996. In each issue, different artists drew Batman in their own styles, from Moebius to Frank Miller, Walt Simonson to Simon Bisley.
What Batman really needed was cohesion. With thousands of storylines behind him, how could fans make sense of Batman? Scottish writer Grant Morrison took on the challenge. With stories such as RIP, in 2008, Morrison mixed the ridiculous Silver Age concepts in with the more serious realism that followed.
“I really enjoyed working with Grant,” says Tony S Daniel. “He would take these old, sort of psychedelic ideas and
I base Gotham on the way Christopher Nolan presented it in the newer films, to give it a modern feel
modernise them. It made me go back and find them, to try and figure out what he was up to in RIP. There was a lot of background to research for the fans and that is partly what made it so special. It was such a layered story.”
Batman continues to be one of the richest franchises in any medium. Based mainly on the work of Julius Schwartz, Neal Adams and writer Denny O’Neil in the 1970s, Christopher Nolan’s films Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises
have been hugely successful, netting over $2.3 billion at the box office. The Dark Knight won two Oscars. Meanwhile, there are 12 Batman and Batman-related titles on the newsstand. Nolan’s rendition of Gotham resonates with current artists.
“I base Gotham on the way Christopher Nolan presented it in the newer films, to give it a modern feel,” says Jason, who’s working on the new series Batman: Eternal. “For Batman: Eternal, I hope to pull some more gothic elements into the visuals and to take things to another level again. I always try to push myself with every issue I draw and change things I don’t like. This is the biggest project I’ve done and I want it to be the best. This is going to be one epic story, and I feel fans will really dig into it and love it.”
GOTHIC LEGEND An internal panel by Edward Hannigan from Legends of the Dark Knight, which became the third ongoing Batman title following the success of Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989. SOUTHERN NOIR Batman headed south to Florida to bust up a gang of gunrunners in the Haunted Lighthouse of Death story.
RA ’S AL GHUL Reducing the number of clown villains in the comics, Neal Adams helped create the assassin chief Ra’s al Ghul.
HA UNTIN G In August 1971, Irv Novick and Dick Giordano mixed pencil shading with more classic line art for this spooky Detective Comics cover.
WATCHIN G THE DETEC TIVE Artists like (left to right) Joe Orlando, Irv Novick and Norm Breyfogle created striking covers during the 70s and 80s. AC TION PACKED Internal panels from Legends of the Dark Knight issue 2, drawn by
Edward Hannigan. RO BIN ’S DEAD ? Just as with Paul McCartney in The Beatles, rumours of Robin’s impending death have flourished in many of Batman’s storylines.
son of the demon In 1987, Mike Barr and Jerry Bingham produced the first Batman story that went straight to graphic novel format, skipping release as comic episodes.
hush The flirtatious relationship
between Batman and Catwoman comes to the fore in the 2002 storyline Hush, drawn by Jim Lee.
SILKEN SPIDER Batman learns of the return of Ra’s al Ghul from the Silken Spider in Grant Morrison’s Batman number 670
THE NE W 52
The new issue 27 of Batman, with artwork by Greg Capullo, explodes with colour as Batman tries to solve a mystery dating back to World War II.
NE W SKILL S Up and coming Batman artist Dustin Nguyen’s work in Batman 28, under the New 52 banner.
dawn archer In Greg Capullo’s cover art for Savage City, the second chapter of Batman: Zero Year, the Dark Knight adds a bow and arrow to his personal arsenal.
BATMAN 66 The nostalgia around the 1960s TV series is so strong that there’s a monthly comic done in that camp style.
DE TEC TIVE COMIC S The New 52 issue 1 of Detective Comics – a new beginning with this striking Joker cover by Tony S Daniel.
MODERN BATMAN Some recent covers by Tony S Daniel, who’s one of today’s top
BATMAN BEGIN S AGAIN The Batman comic was reset in 2011, with Greg Capullo drawing a storyline called the Court of Owls, written by Scott Snyder.