Batman originated in 1939 when he first appeared in Detective Comics #27. He is the creation of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger. Published by DC Comics, along with Superman and Wonder Woman, Batman makes up the trinity of comic book superheroes known throughout the world. To define Batman is, in essence, to define superhero comics.
What does Batman mean to you? Going back now over 70 years, every generation has a different take on the character. There is an incredibly wide spectrum to choose from depending upon your focus: artists, writers, directors, actors, comic books, television shows, animation, games, and, of course, movies.
So, what does Batman mean? He epitomizes the ultimate defender, cutting to the chase but playing by the rules. He’s not a vigilante, per se. No guns. No dirty tricks. A true altruist. Depending upon the writer, he can lean more towards being obsessive, even bordering on psychotic, or he can rein in his demons and be more measured and analytical, a la Sherlock Holmes. In the end, he seeks justice and he seeks to go about it the right way. And with all that said, it’s helpful to get specific when discussing Batman. So, where to begin?
There are quite a number of great Batman titles. Let’s take a look at “The Long Halloween” by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. It’s a fine example of a story that defines Batman and solid superhero storytelling. Returning to the characters that Frank Miller created for “Batman: Year One,” we have a gangster feud in Gotham City rivaling “The Godfather.” And, just as tensions couldn’t be higher between The Roman’s gang and The Boss’s gang, a new threat emerges, the Holiday Killer. It creates a panic that includes all of Gotham’s citizens, the underworld, and even Catwoman and The Joker.
With a crisis like this one, District Attorney Harvey Dent and Police Captain Jim Gordon must rely upon Batman who is able to cross a line that will get results. Of course, Batman can be trusted to not abuse his power. That is, until maybe he can’t be trusted. And so there you have your final big chunk of conflict: the hero, already busy enough with being a hero, now needs to prove his innocence.
What “The Long Halloween” does well is bring out various comics and noir tropes and have a good time with them. Often, we’ll read the same lines and see the same images, as humanity has done since the first myths and legends. The essential role of Batman is to be Batman. Just showing up is half the battle, right? We want the comfort and the reliability of that known quantity that is Batman. He is that “relentless force for good” and, just like a cold beer, that can hit the spot. And, among the many tales, told and retold, this one sets the bar high for a solid Batman run. It refers back to Batman’s roots and gives the guy a challenge worthy of his cape and cowl.
This brings me back to thoughts on alternative comics. Ironically, it’s when work is allowed to be in tune with the spirit of “art for art’s sake” that you end up with some of the most daring and entertaining material that, you guessed it, turns a profit. Granted, it is very challenging to set the bar high for superhero characters in perpetual production. Some comic book runs will fall short. But, when you do allow the creative juices to flow, and make that extra effort, everybody wins in the end.