River Geek: Remembering When Batman Was Uncool

Dark Knight Rises opened to huge ticket sales and closed out Christopher Nolan’s amazing trilogy. To date the movie has made more than half a billion dollars. And that’s in just two weeks.

Today Batman is responsible for billions of dollars in revenue from movies, merchandise, cartoons, home video and, oh yes, comic book sales. Batman is one popular guy.

So it’s probably hard to believe there was a time when Batman was considered uncool and unpopular. And when I say a time, I mean the late 60s, 70s and early 80s..

Batman was one of a slew of new heroes that popped up after the debut of Superman in 1938. National Allied Publication (the company known today as DC) was looking for another hero to compliment Superman, but wanted a different spin.

Bob Kane and Bill Finger (who gets the short shaft to this day and is not credited as a Batman creator) came up with Batman (originally The Bat-Man), a man in a bat costume that patrolled a dark, dingy, crime infested Gotham City. Batman was originally very dark and wasn’t afraid to kill the criminals he hunted. He even used a gun. It wasn’t surprising. Batman was essentially a hybrid of old pulp stories with the new idea of costumed heroes in comic books.

Eventually the darker side of Batman was lightened and killing and gun use went away. Still, the character proved popular. His popular would increase in 1940 when Robin, a kid sidekick was introduced. The character served as a stand in for the young boys who read comics. It was wish fulfillment. The idea of a boy their age being able to fight crime alongside Batman drove sales among young boys.

At the end of the Second World War, the popularity of superheroes faded and most publishers stopped printing superhero stories. Only a handful of characters retained sales strong enough to continue print. Batman was one of those characters. Then in the 1950s, DC tried to bring heroes back into popularity with the introduction of a new Flash, Green Lantern and other heroes.

But before long the self-censoring Comics Code Authority would be brought in. Batman changed from a dark avenger of the night to a special, deputized cop. He fought in daylight, often against silly and stupid criminals who were more annoying than menacing. He smiled, he shook hands. He was, frankly, lame.

Just when it seemed like Batman had hit a low point, ABC decided they wanted to do a Batman television series. But rather than take the source material seriously (or at least the original source material) they decided to do a campy, silly version of the character. We all know the show.

Zip. Bam. Pow.

The whole joke lasted three seasons. The comics reflected the campy style of the show and it helped increase sales of Batman comics. But when the show ended, comic book sales tanked. DC decided they needed to go back to the roots of the character.

What followed was a creative high point for Batman. In 1969, writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neil Adams were brought in to save the character. They immediately took Batman back to a dark avenger of the night, using his wits and training to fight crime. They aged Robin (Dick Grayson) to 18 and shipped him off to university. They introduced the great Ra’s Al Ghul character and other darker villains.

Adams’ art had a particularly last effect on the character. The long flowing cape, tall ears, use of shadow and Batman’s grim expressions are still part of the Batman look to this day.

While fans reading Batman loved it and it garnered great critical praise, the sales didn’t take off.

Eventually other writers and creators took over the character. Despite some valiant efforts, most simply didn’t know how to do justice to the character. Sales slipped again. It was so bad in fact that in the 70s, DC almost cancelled Detective Comics. It was only the idea that cancelling the book the company is named after (if you were ever wondering what DC stood for) probably wouldn’t look good that saved it.

Batman was, essentially, uncool. In fact when the Superman movie was released in 1978, there was immediately talk about a Batman movie, but his popularity was so low, nobody believed it could be a success. Nobody cared about Batman.

The biggest blow to the character probably came in 1980. That year, The New Teen Titans debuted. Popular former Marvel creators Marv Wolfman and George Perez brought the book to life and injected it with a new look and feel, familiar to Marvel fans but not DC fans. The pair introduced dramatic, almost soap opera like qualities to the title, focusing as much on the characters behind the mask as their costumed alter egos.

The lead character was original Robin – Dick Grayson. Now 19 years old, he found himself struggling to figure out his place in the world. He had spent his life in the shadows of his mentor. He was a brilliant detective, skilled fighter and natural leader, but felt almost lost in the world.

Fans related to Grayson and his teammates. The book was an instant hit, rivaling Marvel’s The Uncanny X-Men in sales. DC found itself in a position where Robin was cool and Batman wasn’t.

DC realized that if they could make Robin one of the most popular characters in comic books, they should be able to do something with Batman and began a plan to rehabilitate the character.

That plan began in 1983. That year, with issue No. 200, DC cancelled The Brave & The Bold. The series was a Batman book. Each issue it featured Batman teaming up with a different DC character. Some stories were good, some ok, some terrible. It wasn’t a concept that brought fans back month after month.

DC replaced it with Batman and the Outsiders. Writer Mike W. Barr and long-time Batman artist Jim Aparo were tasked with bringing some of the Titans magic to Batman. They did just that. They removed Batman from the Justice League of America and gave him a team to lead. Made up of existing third string heroes and new creations, the book followed the Titans blueprint to a T.

To everyone’s surprise, the book was a hit. Fans ate it up. Batman was, once again popular, at least in one title. But the resurrection of Batman wasn’t complete. His popularity was about to reach an all time new high thanks to another high profile former Marvel creator named – Frank Miller.

But more on that next week.