River Geek: Batman Gets His Mojo Back in the 80s

As I talked about last week, from the time the Batman television show was cancelled until the 1980s, DC Comics saw a steady decrease in the popularity of Batman. Sales were sluggish and the idea of a Batman movie was seen as a money losing, non-starter.

But in 1980, DC, who itself had struggled for more than a decade to match the sales success of rival Marvel Comics, launched The New Teen Titans (TNTT) monthly series. The book was an instant hit and made Robin, Batman’s former sidekick, one of the most popular characters in comics.

In TNTT, DC saw a formula for success. Take a well known but less than popular character (Robin) and make him the leader of a team (the Teen Titans). Fill that team with B and C level existing characters (Wonder Girl, Changeling, Kid Flash),new characters (Raven, Cyborg, Starfire) and mix in some soap opera elements (personal problems, family issues, relationship issues, sexual tension, hook-ups, etc).

DC decided to apply this formula to Batman. They tapped writer Mike W. Barr and long-time Batman artist Jim Aparo to create a new team, lead by Batman using the same basic formula as TNTT.

The result was Batman and the Outsiders (BATO). The title replaced The Brave and the Bold in 1983 and was a big gamble on DC’s part.

First off, they took Batman out of the JLA. And he didn’t just quit, he did so in memorable fashion. Batman told off Superman and the rest of the JLA members and walked out. Batman teams up with existing heroes Black Lightning and Metamorpho plus new characters Halo, Katana and Geo-Force to for mthe Outsiders.

The title was an instant best seller. Part of the attraction was Geo-Force. The character was the half-brother of Terra, a new character in TNTT. But it was also fans taking a chance on DC’s new, modern style.

(It should be noted DC tried this formula with other titles. Some were successful while others, like the JLA Detroit era, were not so much, but that’s a story for another day)

A Dark Knight Again

The Batman of BATO was very much in the vein of the O’Neil/Adams version. Batman was a dark, driven avenger of justice. His dedication to fighting crime bordered on obsession. To his team he was a jerk. He treated them like employees and didn’t care nor seek their approval or admiration. He once described them as a weapon for him to yield.

This hard edged, driven version of Batman proved popular and that same edge began to bleed into the Batman monthly title and Detective Comics.

It also paved the way for DC to allow more risks with the character opening the door for one of the great books in comic history.

Frank Miller made his name at Marvel. He started as an artist and gained immediate fame on Daredevil. But it was after he took over as writer that Miller really found his calling. Always a second stringer, Miller made Daredevil a must read title. He introduced a level of sophistication and violence to the title that pushed boundaries but won over fans and critics alike.

In 1986 DC released Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (TDKR). Written and drawn by Miller the four-issue limited series featured a 55-year-old Bruce Wayne coming out of a 10 year retirement. TDKR takes place in a dystopian future where all heroes have been forced into retirement and Superman remains active by working as a tool of the federal government.

Well written, dark and violent, the series garnered widespread mainstream attention. The level of
violence and mature themes in a book starring what the general public saw as a “kids” character shocked some. Miller has said former Batman writers gave him hell over the story and some fans and critics accused him of turning Batman into a fascist.

Regardless of the reaction, TDKR changed the game for Batman. The new direction for the character was dark, driven and violent. The change was felt up and down the Batman line of books. TDKR served as the new template for Batman’s stories and his personality. It should also be noted that TDKR and Watchmen were largely considered responsible for the “grim and gritty” era of mature titles that followed in comics.

Miller was tasked with rewriting Batman’s origin. That happened in Batman: Year One. In typical Miller fashion he went too far for some, especially when he implied Selina Kyle, Catwoman, was working as a prostitute.

Regardless of some negative reaction from that time on Batman was “cool” once again. His books began to sell and the once dead Batman movie was fast tracked and released in 1989, becoming a box office hit.

Batman’s popularity has never fallen since. Even though all comics suffered a drop in sales in the mid-90s, Batman has remained a top selling comic book character, spawning movies, cartoon series, toys and mother merchandise. The latest movie trilogy has been a box office and critical smash and comics featuring Batman are almost universally best sellers.

Zip. Pow. Cha-Ching.