Writer’s Note: To start with, I want to mention that I began this post the day before the tragic events in Aurora, Colorado. Looking at artistic influences of a genre film seems trivial now. There were real heroes there in Aurora that night. Heroes that look just like you and me, without masks, without hidden lairs, without tragic backstories. I do think we should always remember what heroes stand for, what comics and legends and stories of justice and overcoming stand for. The things they embody are the things that make us better as humans. Remember them, not the perpetrator.
When I was a boy, I discovered that my dad had a musty box of comics from the 60’s. Filled with issues that he had collected over the years, I would gaze in wonder at the treasure trove of fantastic stories that unfolded before me. Green Lantern, Superman, Wonder Woman, and, of course, Batman. They always fought for the right, for the good of their fellow man, sometimes even whole worlds.
I started to pick up issues of Detective Comics on my own, off the old spinner racks that don’t exist anymore, and fell in love with the dark vigilante portrayed in those pages. The Batman there was a tireless vigilante that risked his life, over and over again, sometimes nearly dying. It was often bleak, with many cliffhangers, but he always came out the hero. Batman has always been about standing up to injustice, whether petty criminals or crazed mutated lunatics, and its that spirit that motivates heroes.
It is interesting the different ways the Caped Crusader has been drawn through the decades. He has mirrored everything from the noir thrillers of the 1930’s and 40’s to the campy 60’s and the darker vision of Frank Miller’s dystopia in The Dark Knight Returns, the undoubted inspiration of the recent films. But this idea of a brooding masked vigilante is not a recent invention in the mythos. Batman has been this way from his inception.
Here is a very brief history of the artistic influences that have influenced the look of the Batman as he appears in Christopher Nolan’s films.
In 1939, Bob Kane created Batman as a masked vigilante. This character was dark and more like the film noir of the time. Batman didn’t yet have Robin. There was no Batcave or batarangs. He took down criminals without prejudice and without mercy. He had sworn to avenge his parents death “warring on all criminals”. He was mysterious and terrifying. This is the original Dark Knight.
In the 1940’s, Dick Sprang took over the illustrating job, imitating Bob Kane’s original simple style. Over time though, his style became more cartoonish, matching the colorful escapist flavor that the Dynamic Duo began to have after World Ward II. His costume went from black and grey to blue and grey with a yellow utility belt. Stories became more fantastic, matching the stories of other characters in the DC continuity of the time. In 1964, the bat-symbol was put on a yellow ellipse.
This colorful art style continued to evolve to match the popular TV show of the 60’s that starred Adam West, creating a more plucky and humorous version of the character. These iterations were far less threatening than the original incarnation.
When the popularity of the campy Batman waned, so did the comic. There was an effort to take Batman back to his roots as a dark avanger, and not just a happy-go-lucky product of a kids show. Neal Adams began to pencil Batman in 1969 and changed the way he was portrayed. His cape became more of a cloak again, like the early depictions of Batman and less the fashion accessory of modern heroes. His colors still matched the blue and grey scheme of the 60’s, with the yellow oval bat-symbol, but the original brooding nature of the character is more apparent.
David Mazzucchelli penciled the four-issue series Batman: Year One that came out in 1987. It was written by Frank Miller and details the first year of Batman’s career and his relationship with Jim Gordon. Mazzucchelli’s Batman is similar to Miller’s in The Dark Knight Returns, but is closer in style to Bob Kane’s original simpler design, gritty and dark.
Norm Breyfogle pencilled Detective Comics from the late 80’s and took over general Batman duties through the early 90’s. I include him here as a personal favorite because he drew a cape that seemed to have its own life, filling entire panels. He follows the trend set by Neal Adams of having a cloak, but this one twists and turns in the wind, looks like massive wings as he swings through the sky, or resembles some kind of darkness that follows Batman. The cape by itself has a menacing quality and compounds Batman’s presence on the page.
This is a mere handful of artists out of dozens who have shown their influence on Batman in comics and his depiction over the years. Who else springs to mind that has shaped the modern take, this Dark Knight persona, of Batman?