Neverending Batman Obsession
Three key points of his eternal success
I’m not particularly a fan of those classic social-media-generated events and I’m not used to posting fanart pieces on them either, although it’s something that I enjoy a lot in private. But there is one annual exception: #BatmanDay (followed very closely by #Batober). Events that are created primarily so that publishers have an additional opportunity to publish and sell works related to the character, old or new. Reissued or in stock.
And for die-hard fans to revel in their sometimes childish but certainly unbreakable love towards Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego (or is it the other way around?). I am one of those. And every year I try to make a different piece inspired by the character and his universe, mostly as style exercises.
But this year I wanted to do something different: write a short article in which to string together a series of points (3) that seem key to the general success of Batman and, in particular, the origin of my personal fascination with him. Duly illustrated with some of my latest drawings inspired by the Bat, this time unexpectedly casual, almost comical.
It is not intended to be a brainy article about the history of Batman. Rather a series of thoughts out loud, written in a relaxed way. I hope you enjoy it.
1. Bruce Wayne
Undoubtedly, much of the success of Batman has been the exploration of Bruce Wayne. An ordinary man turned a superhero. Yet to achieve such a status they had to make him an Olympic-class athlete, a peerless fighter, a competent scientist, an audacious businessman, a generous philanthropist, an accomplished actor and a Sherlock-level detective. Among other things.
Many of these facets —and some others— have been especially explored in some eras, while others have been more or less ignored depending on who was in charge of the work in question.
I think delving into the psyche of the character under the mask has been one of the greatest successes in the history of Batman. A combined effort of dozens (hundreds?) of writers and artists.
A specific question has raised all kinds of plots and served as a fundamental axis in many works:
The secret identity concept of most superheroes is particularly powerful in Batman since as previously noted, Bruce Wayne could in fact be THE fictional identity and a mask that Batman wears at his convenience.
Personally, I prefer adaptations in which a) Bruce Wayne is clearly relevant and particularly human, rather than simply unflappable (1993’s Batman: Mask of the Phantasm) or b) downright expendable (2008’s Batman: The Brave and the Bold, for example), because they tend to generate much clearer dynamics. Although some versions have done an enviable job balancing both facets.
2. The World
The Batman villains represent one of the most inspired and inspiring collections of characters in comic book history. Many of them were born as rather ridiculous foes to be taken to unexpected heights by talented artists.
Their profiles range from conventional gangsters to mutant creatures, through scientists and all kinds of maniacs with more or less tragic profiles. Any artist, writer or illustrator, could dedicate half their life to endlessly exploring any of them.
It’s hard to pick the ultimate Batman villain. More than preferring specific characters, I prefer particular tones. The more believable they are as human criminals, closer to Bruce Wayne’s reality, the more interesting they seem to me.
Series like Gotham (2014) became more and more interesting the more dangerous everyday life seemed on the city streets, with characters like Carmine Falcone, Maroni, Penguin… and they ended up adrift the moment they got too wild, with an increasingly cartoony Riddler, a histrionic Jerome, or a Solomon Grundy who frankly didn’t fit in at all. I don’t dislike the more light-hearted Batman, as long as the tone stays consistent.
But villains are not everything in Gotham. The city itself has been endlessly reinterpreted in film, animation, and comics. From an almost literal version of modern cities, in which people could find their own reality reflected, often in need of heroes in its streets, to motley micro-worlds of lavish architecture in which to recreate, under almost permanently night skies.
Personally, I have always preferred a Gotham leaning towards a cosmological vision, as a conscious creative framework, with almost unlimited potential, in which practically all possible scenarios had a place.
Although many of the Batman gadgets were created as somewhat improvised resources to solve the impossibility of Bruce Wayne to carry out inhuman tasks or, directly to sell toys and accessories of all kinds, I must admit that, for example, the different Bat-mobiles have become one of my personal interests with each new version of the character. More out of curiosity as a designer than because they are essential in each film:
“Let’s see what they’ve got up their sleeves this time. Will it be a tank to knock down walls and absorb the impact of enemy projectiles or a stylish retro-futuristic racing car with which to silently cruise the streets of Gotham?”
3. Intergenerational icon
One Batman for each person (almost literally)
Every generation has one, maybe two, referential Batmen. 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series may mean little to those born in the early 21st century. However, Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008) could represent their ‘base’ Batman. The one they remember from their childhood and around which others have gravitated. An incomparably more luminous, fun and carefree Batman.
And in this sense, there is a certain cyclical coming and going that in this case would be reflected in Adam West’s Batman, in which the most family-friendly humour and action took themselves little seriously, becoming thanks or despite this a pop icon.
In any case, it is refreshing to rediscover the character over and over again by consulting earlier or later works, creating an almost unlimited mosaic.
My two fundamental Batmen, the ones that made an impression on me, were Tim Burton’s cinematic Batman (1989) and Batman: The Animated Series (1992), with Bruce Timm at the helm. While the first one I read was probably the one from the Neal Adams era (from 1969 onwards), an almost permanently archetypal Batman, albeit one I was certainly too young to properly appreciate.
Someone in their 40s has been able to witness at least seven or eight different interpretations of a certain magnitude, and only considering cinema and TV! So in the third decade of the 21st century, there are many people shouting: Enough! No more Batman, please. No more parents dying in an alley. Understandable. But I’m afraid that Batman will remain in popular culture as long as there are artists capable of reinventing or rediscovering him for new generations.
From the most sympathetic and inoffensive humour to the starkest violence. There is practically no register that has not been considered in the world of batman reinterpretations. This supposes a plethora of works that serve multiple purposes and target audiences.
Side note: For a while I thought it was a little weird that Alfred, sometimes portrayed as that semi-expendable sidekick and sometimes as that brief, to-the-point source of wisdom, struck me as one of the most interesting characters in the Batman universe. I am glad that in recent years he has been given the attention he deserves in series like Beware the Batman (2013), Gotham (2014) and Pennyworth (2019).
Batman is not just a character. If we only observed the Batman phenomenon from it, we would remain just on the surface. The key concept that could define his success is flexibility.
A multi-faceted protagonist, Bruce Wayne, who, like the rest of the components of his personal micro-world, is a malleable element. From the most dedicated, willful and human, to the most silent, inscrutable and violent.
A world that continues to be a framework of infinite possibilities, in which there is room for every quarrel, mystery, conspiracy, experiment or impossible crime.
Batman is also the creative dynamic between him and each of his very different and intriguing enemies. From purely physical/violent relationships (Bane, Killer Croc), through others that move between intellect and viscerality (Joker), between respect and moral rejection (Ra’s Al-Ghul), between a lost friendship and a painful present (Two-Face), between danger and seduction (Catwoman), etc. Batman is the spirit of a city.
And finally, a concept that adapts to all types of audiences, periods, tones and approaches.
Ultimately, Batman is and will be my favourite fictional character. A safe corner to return to and a source of endless entertainment. Also a beloved playground for my artistic self.
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