For the last 75 years we have watched The Dark Knight defy the law, doling out justice as he sees fit. But every few years Batman crosses a line. Then like Peter Pan, we chase our shadow across town and finally catch him hanging on the walls of our children’s bedrooms. And just like Peter we put out our needle and thread giving him a kid friendly make-over. This is the back and forth, the on again off again relationship America has had with Batman since the very beginning.
1940’s Batman: Rough Justice
The 1930’s saw the decay of American culture. Dust blown farmers working long hours hoping the harvest was enough to feed their families. The cities run by Mafioso’s working hand in hand with corrupt mayors and dirty cops. And as the working class struggled, Robber Barons lined their pockets with new money from child labor, oil, electricity, and railroads. Wealth disparity, the disintegration of the middle class, a country spilt in two.
Enter Batman Issue No. 1. 1940. A millionaire playboy dons a bat mask and takes the law into his own hands. Batman comes out swinging. Tired of being sandwiched between two kinds of crime Bruce Wayne fights to take back his city from the criminals who murdered his parents. Abandoning a court system that everyone knew was bought and sold by the rich and well connected. He decides to hang a deranged scientist from the Batplane, declaring “he’s probably better this way.”
Every week American readers escaped from news headlines featuring corrupt government officials, Al Capone, and the Rockefeller family. Finding solace in a world where Batman acted as judge, jury, and executioner.
1950’s: A Model Citizen
But after a decade of watching Bruce Wayne play fast and loose with the law the public was growing concerned with the Batman. So in 1954 Batman was dragged before the US Congress on charges of corrupting the youth of America. A title reserved for American icons like The Beatles, Malcolm X, and Harvey Milk.
In 1954, popular psychologist Fredric Wertham released Seduction of the Innocent in which he claimed that children glamorized Batman’s lawless version of rough justice. Wertham pointed to a string of violent criminals who had read comics as children (which wasn’t difficult as almost all kids read comics).
It’s the same dance currently being played out between Call of Duty, concerned parents, congress, and school shootings.
On top of the violence Wertham claimed Batman and Robin were like a “wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” Two men, wearing tights, staying out late… you get the idea. And in turn the Comic book industry bowed to government and public pressure. Agreeing to institute a new Comic Code Authority aimed at making sure that comics stayed kid friendly.
DC gave Batman a full make-over turning the Dark Knight into a Friendly Neighborhood Watchman. Batman’s days of hanging criminals from the Batplane were over.
He became a family man, a model citizen, now delivering bad guys in one piece to Commissioner Gordon. Wearing fun, kid friendly costumes, and like the rest of the boys, he even signed up for WWII.
But the reformed Batman didn’t take. He wasn’t a hero, he was propaganda. And by 1960 Batman’s comic book sales were at record lows. A generation was dying in the far-away jungles of Vietnam. College campuses were exploding with protests over the sexual revolution and civil rights.
America needed a more complex hero. They were done with the one dimensional tee-tootling Batman. So DC comics decided to turn Batman into a work of fine art.
DC found inspiration in the work of Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein. Lichtenstein had made a name for himself repainting comic strips in a style he called “Parody.” Taking iconic images like Wham! From the 1962 issue of DC Comics’ All-American Men of War.His work highlighted the absurdity glamorizing a war that was tearing the nation apart. And in a strange move…DC decided to follow Lichtenstein’s lead releasing Batman the TV show in 1966.
A campy art pop comedy show staring the TV commercial actor Adam West. One hour jam packed with fake punches, puns, and the occasional wink at modern political unrest. In one episode, as if the Penguin was talking past Batman and directly to the audience from under his purple top hat: “Plenty of girls and bands and slogans and lots of hoopla, but remember, no politics. Issues confuse people.”
Batman premiered in several Pop Art Houses. And soon college students across turned in across America to escape from and revel in the absurdity of the 1960’s. But the joke was short lived, and after 3 seasons of camp…America moved on.
1970’s: The Two-Faces of Batman
Throughout the 70’s Batman developed a split-personality, a spilt he has never fully recovered from. Batman continued to live on as the model citizen every Saturday Morning, as a member of kid friendly hero team The Justice League of America. Alongside DC comics greatest heroes, Batman helped overcome whatever crime The Legion of Doom had concockted in 20 minutes flat. It was here the wise cracking Batman solidified his place in children’s imagination.
But the rest of the week Batman was reclaiming his identity as The Dark Knight. In 1974 Gotham opened Arkham Asylum for the criminally insane.
The Joker and The Penguin were no longer ham handed crooks. Batman’s archenemies had become psychologically unhinged. And as their crimes became more twisted. Batman became more aggressive in his tactics.
1980’s: The Dark Knight Returns
By the mid 80’s between crack cocaine and Ronald Regan’s War on Drugs inner citieshad turned into war zones reminicent of Prohibition. And America’s Cold War rhetoric was ramping up for a Third World War. In many ways America was returning to the 1940’s.
And America’s shadow returned to rough justice. In 1986 The Return of the Dark Knight was written by Frank Miller (author of 300 and Sin City). Years of fighting insane villians had taken its toll and Batman, now in his fifties, goes rogue. Refusing to turn himself in to Gotham’s Comissioner. Ignoring a public decrying him for crimes against humanity.
Disobeying Ronald Regan and Superman’s demands to retire. Batman becomes a lose canon. Obeying laws as he sees fit. Leading a vigilante army of street thugs on a manhunt for the Joker. Finally beating him within an inch of his life, The Joker resolves to break his own neck with a smile on his face. And in that moment Batman forces us to face our shadow. Asking if America we can live with vigilante justice.
And for the last 30 years we have been wrestling with this question.
As Batman builds an NSA style surveillance system to stop crime before it starts
As he robs criminals of due process
Every time Batman responds to the Bat Signal.
At the end of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Commissioner Gordan and his son stand over the dead body of Harvey Den. “Why is he running, Dad?” His son asks as police dogs chase Batman into the night.. “Because we have to chase him.” Gordon says. “He didn’t do anything wrong” It’s this child’s first time seeing America turn on Batman.
But Gordon’s seen it before. “He’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now. So, we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian. A watchful protector. A Dark Knight.”