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

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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 Comic­sas­ton­ “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.”

Whole­some stuff

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.”

Money talks

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.

Bat year

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 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 artists.

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.

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