And by ages, I mean the major comic book ages!
As comics continued from their first major changes in the 30’s and 40’s to the modern day, fans have taken to referring to these as the major Ages of comics. And no character probably showed as much change per Age as Batman did. So let’s take a look at how his character, world, supporting cast, and villains changed over the years since his creation.
The Golden Age
Batman made his debut in the summer of 1939, and was the second major sign of the Golden Age, following Superman’s first appearance. Bob Kane is often credited with the full creation of Batman, but it was the development by writer Bill Finger that gave us the brooding detective we saw when he debuted (I will, one day, go into the saga of Bob and Bill). When Batman started making his rounds in Detective Comics, he was very much a pulp hero. He initially had no problem if his foes died, and often he just seemed to be this grim figure. The only initial main characters were Commissioner Gordon and Bruce Wayne. As Batman continued, he began to dominate the book, and he often faced horrific threats like the Monk (the cover of which is the feature image today) and Hugo Strange and his Monster Men. Eventually Robin was introduced, and even though he was the character to represent kids in the book, there was still a dark, pulpy element to it. Then Alfred was introduced, initially as a comical character that tried to be an amateur detective at times, signifying a shift in future stories to lighter fair. When America got involved in World War II, Batman and Robin started to shift in tone to a more positive spin, as all comics at the time were pushing the idea of supporting the troops and the war effort. Along with the more colorful villains that appeared here, like Joker and Catwoman (initially called the Cat), the two heroes spent as much time fighting spy rings and invading foes from overseas.
The Silver Age
The Silver Age began in the 50’s, after a psychiatrist named Fredic Wertham wrote a book called Seduction of the Innocent. In what was clearly bad science, he saw a rise in juvenile crime and problems not as a sign of America’s population increasing, but because they all happened to read comics, which parents naturally jumped on because it meant they weren’t at fault. In particular, Batman and Robin were pointed at as a cause of homosexuality in young men. This eventually led to the creation of the Comics Authority Code, which had strict guidelines to allow books to be sold to kids. It was this censorship, as well as the debut of the Barry Allen Flash and his sci-fi style stories, that kicked off the Silver Age.
Batman in the Silver Age was…. odd. Due to the accusations of homosexuality between him and a minor, they added more female characters like Batwoman and her niece Bat-Girl (not the one we all know and love). These two not only fought crime, but were obsessed with being with our male leads. Eventually, we ended up with a whole Batman family, including Ace the Bat-Hound (who wore a mask to hide his distinctive birthmark). The tone of Batman’s character changed as well, with him now being deputized by the police, and no longer a vigilante. This was the start of the smiling, friendly Batman who was a role model to the good kids of Gotham, as well as his nearly insane knowledge of all things SCIENCE! This was also the start of Batman’s more sci-fi adventures, facing foes like the second Clayface, who was a shapeshifter (the original was an actor who became a serial killer, and now is also a shapeshifter), and meeting people like Bat-Mite. This was also when Batman’s villains became more goofy, since they couldn’t kill. So Joker went from a murderer to a themed crook, villains got stranger and stranger, and eventually, this all led to the campy Batman of the Adam West series. And that show ended up giving us the Barbara Gordon Batgirl, who then became the main Batgirl. Truly, a strange time.
The Bronze Age
The Bronze age started in the 70’s, when comics started to mature a bit in storytelling. The Comic Authority Code lightened up enough to tell stories with harder edges, like drugs, murder, and the like. A lot of the sillier elements of comics were discarded, choosing to treat these characters with respect and show that they can be smarter than they were in the Silver Age, fun as it had been. For Batman, it was a time of renewal. We saw things like Robin leave for college, Bruce and Alfred moving into a penthouse, and Batman return to his dark roots, still an ally of the police, but also the grim, brooding adventurer who faced threats that the cops wouldn’t handle. And with this, we saw his villains return to something more serious, in particular the Joker, while introducing more new iconic foes like Killer Croc and Ra’s al-Ghul and his daughter Talia. In fact, this age of comics has some of my favorite stories, whether it was The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge, the story arc called Strange Apparitions, or the thrilling All My Enemies Against Me, which featured Batman teaming with Robin, Batgirl, Catwoman (in one of my favorite depictions of her), and Talia to take on a legion of foes assembled by the Joker, while also dealing with the emerging threat of Killer Croc (who was in his first appearances a brilliant crime boss as well as a strong guy). This iteration of Batman has probably had the biggest sway over how he’s characterized when he’s not written as a emotionless dictator. In fact, I see elements of this Batman’s character in both the animated series and most of the live action films, with his wry sense of humor among friends and his grim tactics against foes.
The Dark Age
The Dark Age started in the mid-80’s due to mature, dark stories like Watchmen and even Frank Miller’s Bat-epic The Dark Knight Returns. This led people to realize that Batman could in fact be a dark, mature character, as well as comics in general. Sadly, the Dark Age just kept getting darker and darker, without actually telling smart stories. This was the age of anti-heroes who killed villains like they were the bad guys instead. This was the age where icons suffered horrific events, like the death of Superman, Batman’s back being shattered by Bane, Barbara Gordon being paralyzed by the Joker, and Spider-Man being told he was a clone all along. And it just kept getting so dark that comics just were seen as no longer fun. And while some of Batman’s better stories like Knightfall and No Man’s Land happened during this period, it just seemed unnecessary. Granted, we got some cool new characters like Tim Drake as Robin and Cassandra Cain as Batgirl, but it just was an unnecessary dark time. And while most of Batman’s supporting cast and foes didn’t change too much, Batman himself became the unlikable, distant guy that Frank Miller wrote of in a story where he’s an old bitter man.
The Modern Age
The Modern Age started in the 2000’s and was a shift back towards the ideas in the Silver and Bronze ages, but with modern sensibilities. Batman was once again not just a dark detective, but a full-on superhero who could throw down with the best of them. His supporting cast grew and grew more, and slowly he’s returning to the man that I could believe would command this much respect and loyalty from his allies. His villains’ plans grew larger, while they themselves stayed serious, and new foes came in to attempt to take down the Bat. And I can’t comment further, because we’re still in the Modern Age. And in time, this too will get a title, and a definitive idea of Batman. And I can’t wait to look back and say, “I remember that time.”