What a hero: Batman’s in great nick for a 75-year-old
The superhero first appeared in 1939, and has since become a phenomenon. Fans, from the DC Comics president to the producer of the 1989 blockbuster film, explore his appeal
The many faces of Batman
Detail from the cover of the first comic to feature Batman, Detective Comics from May 1939
On July 20th, 2012, the world awoke to reports of another mass shooting in the US. This all-too-familiar headline was distinguished by the location – a cinema screening of the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises – and the gunman’s reported inspiration, costumed villain the Joker. In November last year, five-year-old cancer survivor Miles Scott adopted the identity of Batkid for a Make-a-Wish event that turned San Francisco into Gotham City. And recently the internet almost ground to a halt, as fans vented their outrage following the announcement that Ben Affleck would play the caped crusader in the upcoming Batman vs Superman film.
This month marks Batman’s 75th anniversary, with the hero having first appeared in a six-page comic in 1939. So who better than the Dark Knight’s most steadfast companion, the fans, to explain his cultural impact and unique appeal?
While Batman may have got his start on the page, comic books have become an increasingly rarefied pastime. Unsurprisingly, many fans’ earliest recollection of Batman is not from the comics, but the hero’s appearance in other entertainments. For instance, E Paul Zehr, a professor of neuroscience whose book Becoming Batman explores the science behind the superhero, says: “The first thing I can remember is actually watching the original Adam West show – reruns of it – [but] it was only when I started to read Batman comic books that I really got interested.”
“I think that’s the strength of Batman as a character,” says Batman fan and film reviewer Kim Newman. “It used to be said that every generation had its Hamlet, and now I think every generation has its Batman.”
Just as there is no one Batman, there is no one way that fans display their enthusiasm. Newman describes “buying back all the comics I had as a kid”, while Galway-based comic store worker and artist Seamus Keane had a Batman-themed wedding in Las Vegas where his fiancee dressed as Catwoman and he dressed as the hero.
Guardians of Gotham
A number of fans have used their enthusiasm to move into the industry. In the 1980s a single-minded fan, Michael E Uslan, secured the rights to Batman to realise a childhood vow, “that someday, some way, I would show the world the true Batman”.
Uslan’s 10-year odyssey culminated in the 1989 blockbuster film, with the producer attributing his success, and the film’s, to his fan background. “DC Comics sold me the rights to Batman because they trusted me. They knew the fan and comic-book historian that I was, and that I would do all I could to protect Batman.”
While not every fan will produce a blockbuster film, many endeavour to shape their hero’s adventures by narrowing the boundaries between producer and consumer. Publishers have facilitated this participation. For instance, in 1988, DC Comics allowed readers to decide via a phone vote whether Robin would live following a vicious beating by the Joker.
Film-makers rarely treated fans as collaborators, with director Tim Burton commenting during the production of Batman that “there might be something that’s sacrilege in the movie . . . [but] this is too big a budget movie to worry about what a fan of a comic would say”.
The internet shifts the balance of power
However, with the emergence of the internet, fans began to exert their influence, crippling Joel Schumacher’s Day-Glo spectacle Batman & Robin.
Paul Levitz was at the vanguard of this transition, first as a fan and later as a publisher. Levitz started out working on a fanzine, The Comic Reader, before using his contacts to enter the industry. By 2002 the Batman fan had become president of DC Comics. Levitz explains that when he began his fanzine, publishers such as Marvel Comics were reluctant to deal with fans, but now “all forms of entertainment and marketing traipse down to places like Comic-Con in San Diego. That’s a massive shift in the attitudes towards fan culture.”
Uslan makes a similar observation. “Today, comic books and superheroes are impacting the culture, and so what I say to all of my fellow fanboys and comic-book geeks is, ‘We win.’ ”
While Levitz and Uslan have clearly benefited from their avocation, does this devotion mask any dangers? Zehr describes cosplay, in which fans dress up as costumed characters, as a “game that’s a bit misplaced. You see real people now who try and act as vigilante crime-fighters.”
However, despite a few misguided enthusiasts, most are fully aware of the pantomime. Professor of psychology Travis Langley, who describes Batman as his hero, argues, “somebody who is delusional about Batman would probably get delusional about something else”.
Langley, an expert in aggressive behaviour and mass media, is quick to point out the positives of the character. “Heroes inspire people. Heroes give people hope. Heroes can model behaviour that other people might copy.”
Indeed, following the Aurora tragedy, victims wore Batman T-shirts as a sign of solidarity when attending a court hearing for the perpetrator.
A real human being, and a real hero
While fans may not agree on the best Batman, they are mostly united in identifying the hero’s mortal status as his most admirable trait, with Paul Levitz explaining that, in its research, DC Comics found that Batman was “the most aspirational of the superheroes. People would say, ‘I could be Batman.’ ”
Zehr understands how potent this human element can be: “People still admire the work ethic and the idea that, if you’re willing to put in the effort, you can achieve things.”
Perhaps no fan exemplifies this more than Uslan, who scaled the walls of Hollywood to bring Batman to the screen. He describes how, when he was a child, “Batman was a character I could identify with, because he was human, and in my heart of hearts, I truly believed that if I worked out real hard, and studied real hard, and if my dad bought me a cool car, I could become this guy”.
Although Uslan had to make do with producing movies about his icon rather than becoming him, his achievement is a testament to the ingenuity and determination of fandom. With allies such as this, Batman can look forward to another 75 years.
Dr Liam Burke is a media studies lecturer at Swinburne University, Melbourne. His latest book Fan Phenomena: Batman is out now
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