Grim avenger of the night? The return of the not-so-serious Batman, part 1

Comic fans know Batman as a dark, moody character, a brooding avenger who haunts the rooftops of Gotham City and periodically swings down to punch clowns in the face. That’s the Batman who’s been the more-or-less standard comics version of the character since the 1980s, when works like Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s The Dark Knight Returns and Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One put a definitive dark twist on a character who had been trending in that direction for most of the decade.

The dark Batman spun off into other media from the late 80s onward: although they were pretty goofy (an army of penguins with candy-cane rockets?), Tim Burton’s Batman films featured a dark colour palette and a brooding noir aesthetic, while Christopher Nolan’s 21st-century efforts were unrelentingly grim. And as for the recent Batman vs Superman? Not a splash of color or humor to be seen. The Arkham video games depict much the same character.

There are a lot of fans, then, for whom Batman has always been a dark character, starring in noir-infused crime stories with bleak endings, ambiguous morality and a serious tone. There are even some who’ll tell you that this is the way the character originally was. And that’s true … sort of.

By now, everyone knows that early Batman was a violent figure who threatened his enemies with death, sometimes carried a gun and had a pretty cavalier attitude about human life.

Strong stuff from a mainstream superhero, no doubt. But this trigger-happy incarnation of the character didn’t last long; within a few years, he was evolving into the more kid-friendly hero that most of us think of when we think of the Batman of the 1950s.

A big part of that is, of course, the addition of Robin to the Batman mythos, but it’s part of a general trend in comics of the era, and it sticks around for decades. Batman was sometimes played straight as an adventure hero and more rarely played for laughs, but his adventures were typically fast-paced, action-packed and pretty light, with none of the gritty mood or dark themes later fans would come to love. The apex of this is undoubtedly the campy 1966 Batman TV show.

When I was a kid, the conventional wisdom among comic fans was that the 1966 TV show was a mean-spirited mockery of the comics, and perhaps it was in a way (although I’m not sure about “mean-spirited”). But it wasn’t as different from its source material as many fans suppose — it just tended to approach its source material with an ironic detachment while the comics told similar stories more or less straight. After the 60s, though, a new generation of writers and artists tried to take the character in a new direction, creating a more grounded, realistic image that would eventually grow into the grim detective we all know and love.

But the last few decades have seen a little bit of a revival of the old, more light-hearted Batman. He never quite went away, and gradually he’s started to show up in more and more places.

Exhibit A: Grant Morrison’s Batman. Now, Grant Morrison has written a lot of dark and bloody Batman stories, most notably Arkham Asylum. But from the 90s on, his Batman often appeared with an element of whimsy. Nowhere is that more evident than in Morrison and Ed McGuinness’ story in JLA Classified 1-3, in which we learn that Batman owns a flying saucer, an army of Justice League robots and a Dalek.

Or how about the 2008-11 Batman: The Brave and the Bold animated series, which brought a modern sensibility to the 60s Batman and actually succeeded in making Aquaman a fun character? Bear in mind that this is a show that came out in the same year as Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

And finally, what are we to make of the critical and fan reaction to Jeff Parker’s revival of the 1966 Batman in comic form? Batman ’66 was cancelled in early 2016, but it’s hard to argue it wasn’t a success — and an unexpected success given the general tenor of other DC titles of the era.

It seems that underneath all the noir bonecrunching, there’s an undercurrent of demand for a more whimsical Batman — proof if proof were needed that this is a robust character that works equally well in a range of different stories. But why am I bringing this up now?

I’ll tell you all about that in Part 2.

About James Holloway

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