When I was a child, for some inexplicable reason I couldn't pick up Batman on television, but my neighbors, Steve & Greg Sparks, just one street over, could. Relations with the Sparks kids were always a bit tricky, as the younger was a bit of a baby at times and the older had a mean streak, but I managed, as often as I could, to trek through the ravine behind our houses and a couple backyards to be in front of their television in the afternoon in time for the adventures of the Caped Crusaders. The uncertainty of this situation meant that my viewing was sporadic, and I saw plenty of Part One's without a Part Two and vice-versa. I faired better with The New Adventures of Batman, the animated series with the voices of Adam West and Burt Ward (and Lou Scheimer as Bat-Mite). I grew up hanging upside down on the swing set in a cape my mother sewed for me, passing the Bat Anti-Shark Spray down to my Robin (a Radar O'Reilly look-alike named Alan Eskew). And when I was the first in line at the World of Wheels, and Adam West called me a fellow crime-fighter, well, I was just too proud for words.
I still remember my first comic. It was a Batman Family, and it contained a story by Denny O'Neil that explained the Batman's abstinence from guns as a phobia resulting from a childhood encounter with the Shadow. (Sidenote: Since the Shadow was only temporarily licensed to DC, the brilliant Batman: the Animated Series replaces Wayne's childhood inspiration with the Grey Ghost, voiced, appropriately enough, by Adam West.) I misplaced the comic book at a young age, and it became my "long lost comic book" until I unearthed another copy at a flea market as a pre-teen.
But even as a small child, I was aware of the evolution of the Batman character. My parents had given me a nice hardcover volume called Batman: From the 30s to the 70s (Crown Publishers, 1971). It reprinted choice selections from the Darknight Detective's career, from his very first appearance (Detective Comics #27, "The Case of Bat-Man & the Chemical Syndicate"), to the first appearances of the Joker and Robin, and continuing through important moments such as Dick Grayson's departure for Hudson University and beyond. Pouring through this volume, my childhood self was exposed to the entire progression of the superhero genre in microcosm. I was able to track as both art and story grew in depth and sophistication, and though I lacked the vocabulary to describe it, I could sense how Bob Kane's genius lay in creating a character who was so visually memorable as to lend himself to a myriad interpretations across decades of writers and artists' work.
Introduced in 1939, the Batman was a noir vigilante, very much in the vein of the Shadow. In fact, he executed criminals without compunction with twin-six guns in a manner that would have made Lamont Cranston proud. But within a year, the Boy Wonder was introduced, WWII was looming large in the American consciousness, and dark-toned stories fell out of favor in lieu of more lighthearted fair. Batman and Robin soon revealed they had a code against killing, the guns were gone (in part to play down the inevitable Shadow comparisons), and their mythos rewritten such that the Batman had never killed. The Joker, first introduced as a somber serial killer who's death-pale visage inspired utter terror, quickly became a cavorting buffoon. In fact, he wasn't even officially crazy. (There was actually a comic whose resolution involved Batman and Robin convincing the Joker that he was going mad.)
Truth be told, through much of the 40s and 50s, Batman's comic book exploits were pretty much inline in tone and temperament with those of his camp 60s television show counterpart. In fact, Batman comic book scribe Bill Finger penned several episodes. To this day, you'll never find a better Penguin than Burgess Meredith or a truer rendition of the Riddler than that offered by Frank Gorshin. (Oddly, the only major Bat-villain to be absent from the television show was Two-Face, perhaps because his scarred countenance was too horrific. However, of all the stories from that era, it's interesting to note that the Two-Face encounters are the least camp, most poignant - drenched as they are in the character's guilt and steadfast refusal to believe in the possibility of redemption. As such, they hold up the best in light of today's more sophisticated readers' standards.
Appropriately, it was as the camp television show was in its final days that a writer named Denny O'Neil (born the same month and year as the Batman himself, May 1939) took over the reigns of the comic book and changed everything. Partnering with the soon-to-be-legendary artist, Neal Adams, who brought a hitherto unseen level of realism to the depiction of superheroes, O'Neil revamped the Batman legend, either reinventing the character or returning it to its 1939 roots, depending on your perspective. Robin (who was previously presumed to be thirteen) was swiftly aged and sent off to college. Gone mostly were the costumed villains, replaced by international terrorists, corrupt politicians, mafia bosses. O'Neil's Batman was a Darknight Detective, akin to Sherlock Holmes, who employed his wits and credible criminology methods in the apprehension of evil doers. Bruce Wayne moved out of Wayne Manor into a penthouse apartment atop the Wayne Foundation in the heart of Gotham, and the Batmobile itself was often depicted as little more than an unmarked dark blue sports car, not dissimilar from a Corvette of the era. Occasionally, it would have the suggestion of the Batman's cowl in the lines of its hood, but gone were the fins, bubble domes, rocket engines, and Bat-insignias of previous models. It was during this period that the Joker was reverted to the murderous maniac of his original appearance. When he was captured, it was not Gotham Penitentiary to which he was returned, but Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane (the name a nod to the horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft). The mysterious Ras al Ghul was introduced at this time as well, his daughter & Batman-love interest Talia and his Himalayan headquarters both directly inspired by the James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. O'Neil's era established the Batman (not Batman, but "the Batman" as he has originally been called) as a serious comic book icon, and remained for many years the quintessential depiction of the character.
But a three-decades long back-story weighs heavy, and in the wake of O'Neil's departure from DC Comics, the costumed villains, one by one, came marching back in. The late 70s and early 80s were a schizophrenic time for the character, with writers and fans maintaining the "seriousness" of Batman while parading out an assortment of costumed crazies, with everything from dueling versions of the Mad Hatter to the Calendar Man making an appearance. Slowly, the legend of the Batman began to ebb, if not back towards camp, towards a muddle from which little work of lasting significance emerged. (An exception to this is a brief but significant run in Detective Comics by Steve Englehart & Marshall Rogers, Detective Comics #471-476, August 1977 to March-April 1978, which revived the 1939 villain Professor Hugo Strange and mirrored the Joker's original killing spree from his first appearance.)
Then, in 1986, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns burst on the scene. The tale of an aging Bruce Wayne emerging from retirement for one last showdown against crime and corruption, Miller chose to play up the "dark" in Dark Knight. His Batman was obsessed, seething with a barely contained rage that forced out any chance at companionship or peace and overwhelmed Wayne. To recount The Dark Knight Returns' influence and importance on the entire comics industry would take another essay entirely. The prestige format was created for its release, and it almost single handed launched the "graphic novel" format as well - to say nothing of the emphasis it caused to be placed on adult storytelling, nor the respect for comic books it engendered in the mainstream. But suffice to say that The Dark Knight Returns, along with Miller's later Batman: Year One soon became the definitive rendition of the character, and remain so to this day.
Ironically, it was the initial success of The Dark Knight Returns that prompted Warner Bros. to put forth a darker, "serious" cinematic version of the character - a comedy staring Bill Murray had previously been in development - that resulted in the 1989 Tim Burton film, Batman. Praised at the time for being the most serious depiction the Batman had yet received in film or television, and impressive in its striking visual surrealism, it nonetheless wasn't right in the eyes of many fans, prompting Frank Miller himself to say that there were many versions of the Batman character, and obviously he and Tim Burton were depicting different ones.
Truthfully, there are many different versions of the Batman, and the camp version portrayed by Adam West is no less valid than that of the frustrated Billionaire lashing out through his arsenal of "wonderful toys" as depicted by Michael Keaton. Right is and will always be subjective, and I wouldn't begrudge the six year old that I was, sneaking through the woods to the Sparks' house to watch the Dynamic Duo, one iota of his enjoyment. But we can speak in terms of levels of sophistication of various Batman interpretations, as well as pinpoint key works as having had the most profound and lasting influences on the canon, as determined by readers and writers. To do so means that something resembling a "more correct" version of the Masked Manhunter can emerge as a dialogue within the canon between the most significant and enduring works. To date these include O'Neil and Adams' original run, the aforementioned Englehart & Rogers collaboration, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Year One, Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, the Batman: the Animated Series and related animated movies and spin-offs (Mask of the Phantasm, Batman Beyond, Justice League, etc...), and Jeff Loeb & Tim Sale's The Long Halloween and Dark Victory.
So it was with profound excitement that I learned that Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer took as their inspiration these seminal works, relying heavily on O'Neil's original stories of Ras al Ghul, Frank Miller's Batman: Year One, and Loeb & Sale's The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. Star Christian Bale even kept copies of the latter works on set with him for reference when he needed help maintaining his focus on the character. By crafting what is the most faithful-to-the-comics adaptation of Batman to date on film, Nolan and Goyer have created in Batman Begins what very well may emerge as the new definitive rendition of the Batman, as well as raised the bar for comic book adaptations henceforth. (And here is a good time to give fair "spoiler warning".)
With allowances to the character's variegated history, and apologies to Adam West, a definitive portrayal of the Dark Knight must include:
1. A depiction of the extreme force of will of the character. Michael Keaton's Batman was a frustrated and confused little guy who suited up in stiff armor and used an arsenal of impossible gadgets to vent his frustration, then came home and had trouble sleeping. He was dark alright, but his anger was unfocused, his motivation unclear, his methods unrefined. The Batman of the comics, as he is portrayed today, is a "normal" human being who can enter a room full of super-powered beings and command their attention and send a chill down every spine there - despite having no powers of his own - by his mere presence and force of personality. As Ducard says to Bruce Wayne, "Your training is nothing. The will to act is everything." Neitchzean overtones intentional. This is a man who believes, as he says in The Dark Knight Returns, that "the world only makes sense when you force it to."
2. The Batman has something to prove. Legendary artist Dick Giordano once said of the Batman, "The Batman does what he does for himself, for his needs. That society gains from his actions is incidental, an added value...but not the primary reason for his activities." Young Bruce Wayne was the "prince of Gotham City," a billionaire's son living a life only the top one percent of the world could enjoy. Then, in an instant, his happiness and security was yanked away from him. That realization, the realization of the inevitability of death as the great equalizer, that no matter who you are, you can step outside and be hit by a bus, struck by lightening, choke on an olive pit, be shot by a petty thief, and it can all end - struck the young Wayne at an age way earlier than most of us ever encounter it. (I still remember being 17 and seeing how close I could drive my car to a retaining wall on a curving mountain road. And the exact moment, a year later, when I realized with stunning certainty that I was not immortal.) This knowledge (and fear) of death at such an impressionable age terrified him. Like Captain Ahab, who lost his leg (and more if you read between the lines) to the White Whale, Wayne set out to prove to the universe that death could not catch him unawares again. He chose as his territory Gotham City, and as his target the criminal underworld (as Ahab chose the whale), but his real target (and intended audience) was the cosmos itself. In a Batman story from the early 70s, a trained martial artist studies Batman in combat and then attempts to take him down. Later, looking out the window of Commissioner Gordon's office, Batman muses that somewhere out there, some other punk is readying himself to take his shot. "And that makes you depressed?" Gordon asks. "No," the Batman replies, "I can hardly wait!" In "Ghost of the Killer Skies," (Detective Comics #404, 1970), he even challenges a cornered opponent to a duel in the air in biplanes, a rather pointlessly bit of theatrics when a simple punch would suffice, until we remember his motivation - proving to himself and the universe that no matter what form death takes, it will find him ready. This theme plays out in full in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, in which every possible death is evaluated by the Batman until he settles on one grand enough to lay his spirit to rest - that of beating the Man of Steel, here very deliberately a stand-in for God, in a fist fight. (Note to criminals: If Batman is ever about to beat the tar out of you, challenge him to a game of Yatze. If he's never played before, you've just saved yourself a whoopin'.)
3. A refusal to kill and an aversion to guns in particular. Not to pick on him excessively, but in the second Burton film, Batman Returns, Michael Keaton's Batman sat inside the protection of his armored Batmobile and burned alive an unprotected man with a flame from his rocket engine, after the other ineffectually menaced him by breathing fire in a cheap circus stunt. This dick-wagging scene, which drew a chuckle from the audience I saw it with, not only flew in the face of 70 years of continuity, but was the most cowardly act the Batman has ever been seen to enact on film. By contrast, the Batman of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns shuts off his weaponry and emerges from his Batmobile to take on a younger, stronger, seemingly superior foe bare-handed because, "I honestly don't know if I could beat him." (See point #2 above.) The Batman absolutely cannot kill, even in self defense. In fact, especially not in self defense. Since he is acting out of selfish motivation, as Giordano notes above, and placing himself into situations in which he must prove his superiority over death on a nightly basis, he would be a monster if he condoned killing in self-defense. His entire perception of his own sanity, and his ability to circumnavigate Gotham's laws in favor of a higher, personal justice, rests on this razor thin line. (Note: The one character in the Batman mythos who understands this as well as Batman himself is the Joker, who knowingly pours as much pressure on this line as he can in both The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke.)
4. The understanding that, unlike the vast majority of costumed crime fighters, Batman's secret identity is not the core persona. Bruce Wayne, the millionaire playboy, is the disguise, whereas "the Batman" is his true nature. In Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum, when asked by a henchman if they can unmask the captive Batman to see his true face, the Joker snaps, "That is his true face." In the animated spin-off series Batman Beyond, when criminals use a chip implanted in his skull to try to drive the elder Bruce Wayne insane by making him hear voices in his head, he confesses that he maintained his grip thusly: "The voices kept calling me Bruce. In my mind, that's not the name I call myself." Wayne is a prop, a place for Batman to hide during the day. Unlike other heroes, who fear exposure of their private lives, if Bruce Wayne were ever revealed to be the Batman, Wayne would merely disappear, and six months later another alter-ego would emerge to serve a similar function, but the Batman would continue unaffected. Rachel Dawes had it right when she said the face the criminals see was the real one.
So did they get it right with Batman Begins? In framing their film's theme in terms of fear vs. will, in maintaining Batman's compunction against killing, in recognizing the danger of becoming "lost inside the monster," in the acknowledgement that Batman was the true persona and Wayne the mask, in drawing on the seminal texts from O'Neil's late 60s work to Frank Miller's late 80s revision to the recent additions of Loeb & Sales, and , in stripping the franchise of its overblown sets and surrealistic excesses, and giving us a real Batman in a real city with a real motivation that matched and even in places exceeded the groundwork laid by the best of the comic books, Nolan and Goyer have given us the film that I for one have waited for half my life. Finally, the Batman has been presented on screen in a manner in accord with the best of his comic book representations. Did they get it right? Hell, yes they did! Forget Adam West, forget the Tim Burton films. Batman indeed begins here. Many happy returns!