I should love Batman a lot more than I do. Granted, he’s easily one of my favorite characters — if not my actual favorite character — from the DC side of comics. But there are a lot of comic book journalists and creators that adore Batman like Twitter adores Olivia Pope (“Scandal” is on Netflix for you to marathon, by the way). If one were to time travel back in time about twenty-five years, one would assume that I would be one of Batman’s loyal followers. One would also get a lot of side-eye from adult me; why are you using a time machine to spy on me when there are Beatles concerts to see?
For Batman’s birthday, I thought it appropriate to unpack my feelings about the character in this here column. I’ve already done it a few times with Superman, and really, I just don’t know what to get a fictional character for his 75th birthday. That’s a big milestone! And he’s a billionaire, so he already has one of everything in his mansion. But aside from an article about DC’s digital “Batman ’66” comic, I haven’t really gone into my Bat-history.
Because of Batman’s pop culture omnipresence over the course of his lifespan, I can’t really claim that there’s been one period of time more conducive than others to persuading kids over to the Bat side. I will say that, being born in 1984, my limited autonomy as a functional-yet-tiny human being hit as three different iterations of Batman were enjoying popularity. I could not escape him, and because of that, Batman was the first superhero I remember loving.
As I’ve recounted in articles past, “Batman ’66” was being re-run on Nick at Nite in the late ’80s, and five-year-old me watched a lot of Nick at Nite. Batman, with his endless supply of gadgets and cavalcade of colorful villains, captured my imagination. Not long after that, 1989’s “Batman” hit. I feel like I recount seeing Tim Burton’s “Batman” in the theater with the same reverence and half-remembered wonder that my friends use when describing seeing an original “Star Wars.” I remember seeing it with my cousins, and I remember getting the black t-shirt with yellow bat logo emblazoned on it. I was still a fan of Michael Keaton’s Batman, even if that crusader’s cape was relentlessly black instead of a silky navy like the one I watched in hour-long chunks on cable television.
I dressed as Batman for Halloween that year — specifically, the Adam West version, a fact that drove my mom just a little to her edge as she tried to find the right color fabrics knowing that there was an all-black Batman out there. I had the Tim Burton Batmobile, as well as numerous figures from that Toy Biz line. My collection was rounded out by Toy Biz’s repurposed Super Powers figures, dubbed DC Comics Super Heroes and marketed to the Burton Batman fandom. I added Penguin, Robin, Riddler, Wonder Woman, Lex Luthor and Superman to my collection. Two of these figures still sit on my shelf today. I had a Batman beach towel, which in retrospect featured what I think was Neal Adams art, as well as numerous PVC figurines. I’m just trying to get across the point that however X-Men obsessed I am now, I was equally Bat-obsessed as a pre-adolescent.
But something happened in between 1989 and the debut of “Batman: The Animated Series” in 1992. I watched the debut episode, “On Leather Wings,” when it debuted in primetime on a Sunday. To a kid of the early ’90s, nothing heralded a cartoon’s big deal status as it airing in the time period usually reserved for adult people with problems both comical and courtroom-based. Don’t get me wrong, and don’t brand me a comic book traitor, because I loved “Batman: TAS.” I watched it every day. I was excited to see Batman’s rogues gallery make their debut, even if I was consistently bummed that none of the characters looked enough like their ’66 counterparts. But yeah, I still loved Batman, but I had already had a lot of Batman.
Enter: the X-Men.
It’s unfair to constantly compare Fox’s “X-Men” cartoon to “Batman: TAS.” The two shows will forever be tied together because they debuted within sixty days of each other, and they both ushered in a more mature style of storytelling for children. But yeah, whereas “Batman: TAS” had a clear artistic vision with its animation, “X-Men” felt more, “Is this done yet? This is basically finished. Throw it on TV. You guys hungry?” Even as an eight-year-old, I could tell that “X-Men” just looked a little weird compared to “Batman: TAS,” but that didn’t matter. The X-Men pulled me in. I was lured in by the newness; I had never even heard of Marvel Comics or any of their heroes before this cartoon — aside from seeing Spider-Man crouching over Marvel’s production company logo at the end of “Muppet Babies” episodes.
The X-Men comics of the era also ensured the mutants — and Marvel’s — domination over Batman and DC Comics. I had tried to read some Batman comics, but the at the time, they did not seem interested in drawing in new readers. A two-parter starring a creepy black-faced dude (“Batman” #484-485), an adventure maybe against a dragon (“Detective Comics” #650) — it probably would have elicited an eye roll for hardcore Bat-fans in 1992 to hear this, but I wanted to see the Riddler, the Penguin and Mr. Freeze. When I picked up the X-Men comics, I got every character I recognized from the cartoon, in addition to the super scandalous Psylocke. The X-Men locked me in.
Even as I gravitated more towards Marvel and left Bruce and Dick behind — Joel Schumacher’s turn as director and not being able to find the new WB network only hurt my fandom — I still maintained that Batman was my favorite DC character. And that brings me to my main point: even though my Bat-love is mostly nostalgic at this point, I can still acknowledge that Batman is the most important super hero to ever exist.
The assertion that I ignorantly made for a decade or more that Batman was the only DC character I liked is one that I heard — and still hear — to this day. Batman has become the Beatles of super heroes. It’s just assumed that you like Batman, because how could you not like Batman. This works for Batman in a way that doesn’t work for any other hero, even the handful of heroes that have been around for as long as he has. Like the Beatles, Batman’s a super hero of reinvention all built around the same central premise. Some people like the gritty immediacy of his golden years (“Please Please Me”), some like the colorfully cheeky caped crusader of “Batman ’66” (“Sgt. Pepper’s”); there’s Tim Burton’s gothic camp (“Rubber Soul”) and Nolan’s pure, unfiltered vision produced independently from everything else DC was doing at the time (the White Album). If you don’t like one this Batman, there’s another Batman for you.
I’ve come to realize from reading infinitely more thoughtful pieces on Batman than the one I’m currently banging out that within Batman exists the DNA code for pretty much every other comic book hero that exists. Somehow over his many decades, Batman has managed to allow a number of disparate themes to coalesce in his shadow. He’s a ridiculously wealthy hero (Iron Man) that’s burdened by a very personal tragedy (Spider-Man) that also bears the burden of pursuing justice (Captain America) totally alone (Punisher, Daredevil) or with a large, extended family made up of similarly tortured individuals (the X-Men). He has the absolute definitive rogues gallery ever assembled, as well as the definitive sidekick. His logo is more recognizable than McDonald’s, and his overall design is so strong that it remains relatively unchanged after 75 years. The story of his creation sheds light on the worst aspects of the comic book industry, as Bob Kane systematically shoved Bill Finger out of the spotlight and claimed sole credit for work he did not himself accomplish. Batman has it all; he’s everything comics are, have been, and can be contained in one character.
Even though I drifted away from Batman twenty years ago, I still feel his impact with every comic I read. He was the first super hero I loved enough to dress up as for Halloween, and because of that I’ll always have a connection to the character. Happy birthday, Batman. Even at 75-year-olds, you still have a lot of life left in you.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).