Batman still thriving after 75 years

Michael Cavna (c) 2014, The Washington Post. In a world filled with seemingly daily disasters and endless turmoil, it’s no wonder that superheroes are as popular as ever, from blockbuster movies all the way to the local toy shop. “When the world gets scary, superheroes’ sales go up,” says Brad Meltzer, the bestselling political-thriller author and comic-book creator. “What resonates today is, as we look around at this scary world, we want someone to come save us.”

And to Meltzer, no superhero resonates quite like Batman. It was May of 1939, during the run-up to World War II, when Batman made his debut in the Detective Comics (later shortened to “DC”) book “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” The Caped Crusader immediately found an eager national audience. Now, so many thousands of crime-fighting adventures later, DC Comics is celebrating the 75th anniversary of the iconic character by declaring July 23 “Batman Day.” Comic-book outlets around the country are partnering with the publisher to offer various Bat-birthday collectibles, as well as a new comic written by Meltzer.

DC is also timing its Batman event to coincide with the Wednesday-night kickoff of San Diego Comic-Con, the granddaddy of American pop-culture conventions and festivals that draws more than 125,000 fans to the San Diego Convention Center over four and a half days. And Batman has had a huge hand in that: Comic-Con — which arose in the wake of the character’s hit 1960s TV show — enjoyed huge growth in the ’90s as Tim Burton’s Batman movies starring Michael Keaton reignited Hollywood’s interest in superheroes.

To help celebrate the Batman anniversary, DC Entertainment will have a sizable presence at this year’s festival, including a “Batman 75: Legends of the Dark Knight” panel. DC says it will continue the anniversary celebration Saturday by teaming with Random House for events at more than 1,000 American libraries.

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And to think this was all spawned by a couple of young creators trying to come up with a character to rival the introduction of Superman — an emergence that sparked the entire multibillion-dollar superhero industry.

In 1938, the world’s first popular superhero was launched by Detective Comics. “As World War II started encroaching on our shores,” Meltzer says, “that’s when Superman took off, selling over a million copies.”

By the next year, the publisher was looking to replicate that success, and an editor tasked Bob Kane with creating another caped crime-fighter. Inspired partly by da Vinci’s drawings of flight, Kane rendered a birdlike bat-man, then took his idea to artist-friend Bill Finger, who sharpened and darkened the look of “the Batman.” In May 1939, in Detective Comics No. 27, Batman was born. (A copy of that issue can now fetch $1.5 million at auction.)

Soon, with help from teenage writer-illustrator Jerry Robinson, Batman had a sidekick (Robin) whose look was drawn from a Wyeth painting; a great villain (the Joker) inspired (according to Robinson) by a playing card; and a moody aesthetic influenced by everything from German expressionist films to Harry Clarke’s illustrations for the books of Edgar Allan Poe.

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Batman has persevered through so many phases, from a film-noir feel to the high camp of the ’60s TV show starring Adam West to the Dark Knight of a shadowy, psychologically tortured figure as popularized by Frank Miller’s graphic novels and Christopher Nolan’s feature films. The character endures by having as many entry points to his story as he has incarnations.

“Through these 75 years, Batman has been fine-tuned by hundreds of writers and artists into honed perfection,” Meltzer says. “He is perfectly defined and, I maintain, the most perfectly defined literary character. The odd part is, although he’s moved from camp, to dark, to self-hating, to self-confidence, you always somehow know exactly what Batman ‘would do.’ There’s a core that never changes.”

For Batman Day, DC co-publisher Dan DiDio asked Meltzer to create a new comic that would rightly celebrate the Caped Crusader’s entire history. “I wanted the story to stay true to that original and honor all the came after,” Meltzer says. “No pressure.”

“Batman has stayed relevant,” DiDio says by phone from DC’s New York offices, “because he is constantly reinvented and reinterpreted by every generation.”

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For the new comic, Meltzer and designer Chip Kidd deconstructed Kane and Finger’s first Batman story, then weaved in a trove of character history. “We took the story apart and then rebuilt it with those original images from the first story,” Meltzer says. “It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle.”

Meltzer and Kidd’s reimagined comic echoes the theme of need for superheroes in a scary world, as it alludes not only to young Bruce Wayne becoming an orphan after a theater performance, but also to the 2012 multiplex shooting in Aurora, Colorado, at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” the final installment of Nolan’s recent “Batman” trilogy.

“First and foremost, that was of course a call to his dead parents,” Meltzer says of a scene in his new Batman story. “But you better believe that those theater shootings were right there, too. For 75 years, Batman has been a cultural shield, protecting us from our deepest fears.”

So beneath the savvy marketing and cool collectibles, why exactly does Batman endure as a pop-cultural force?

“Thanks to Bill Finger, Batman was the first comic-book superhero to have a psychological reason to wage war on crime,” says Marc Tyler Nobleman, the Washington-based author of “Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.” “While he was an original fusion of elements of earlier characters, it was this emotional motive that stood out most. We identify with Batman/Bruce Wayne not only because he has no powers, but also because he has no parents. We empathize with his empathy.”

Glen Weldon, a Washington-based comics contributor for NPR and author of the forthcoming book “The Caped Crusade: The Rise of Batman and the Triumph of Nerd Culture,” believes Batman has remained relevant because of a crucial reinvention: He gained the psychology of obsession, thanks to writer Dennis O’Neil, who was hired to “fix” Batman after the campy TV show’s demise.

“O’Neil’s decision to introduce a note of obsession saved Batman, and indirectly the comics industry, by offering a masculine ideal with whom [capital-N] Nerds could identify, and cherish,” Weldon says.

“Batman was obsessed. Driven. Consumed by his passionate devotion. Nerds read him, and saw themselves — their inner lives — reflected in a dark mirror,” Weldon says.

Meltzer, by contrast, finds value in the constancy within Batman’s creative malleability.

“The ears gets taller, then shorter. The costume will get darker, then lighter. The utility belt will get pouch-y, then sleeker. But Batman’s character is as stubborn as the man beneath the cowl,” Meltzer says. “He is immovable. He projects sheer will, convincing us we have a chance — even when we don’t. And. He. Will. Not. Change. We, as a people, need someone that committed to an ideal.”