The Versatility of Batman

Barnes_tls_376103a Jon Barnes in the TLS:

A year from his seventieth birthday, Batman appears to be perennial – potent, resilient, tirelessly protean. Dreamed up in the Depression by a gang of scribblers and cartoonists led by Bob Kane (who had a germ of an idea about a cloaked avenger and a sketch of a winged man borrowed from Leonardo Da Vinci), Bill Finger (the writer who honed and perfected the concept) and Jerry Robinson (who devised the look of the new hero’s nemesis, the Joker), the character has shifted constantly with the times, regularly transmogrifying to fit the climate of the age.

A violent vigilante from his earliest appearances in May 1939, he subsequently softened with the introduction of a teenaged sidekick, battled against the Axis powers in the comics and in a pair of big-screen serials, became a jovial post-war father figure at the head of an extended family that included a Bat-Woman and a Bat-Hound, encountered primary-coloured robots and aliens at a time when flying saucers were de rigeur at the (B-)movies, and acted as a ninnyishly lantern-jawed straight man to a succession of bad puns and pratfalls in the television series of 1966–68. In the 1970s, under the stewardship of Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, the comics jettisoned the sidekicks and turned their protagonist into a suave, James Bondian globetrotter, while the 1980s and 90s saw the character diversify into a plethora of different versions – the mouthpiece for Frank Miller’s cranky, Reagan-era satire in The Dark Knight Returns, a dreamer lost in a maze of sign and symbol in Grant Morrison’s densely allusive Arkham Asylum and a diminutive yuppie continually overshadowed by the theatrics of his enemies in two successful films by Tim Burton, in which their director perfected his distinctive strain of fairy-tale gothic. Far more versatile than any of his pop-cultural peers – Superman, say, or Wonder Woman, or Captain America – the character is a barometer of his times, a reflection of what any given age expects of its heroes.