DC Comics have successfully built up Batman to perhaps the single most successful superhero ever created. Alongside Spider-Man, Superman and Wolverine, he has become a king of sales and merchandise. Much of his modern success can be attributed to Frank Miller, whose darker spin on the hero caught fire with readers. However, many of the writers to come after the comics legend have taken the worst lessons away from his writing.
The path of Batman’s modern success has been paved by many influential writers and artists, whose collaborations on the hero established the dark detective many readers know and love. In 1986, Frank Miller teamed up with Klaus Janson on a miniseries that changed the trajectory of the hero’s success. The Dark Knight Returns completely reframed what it means to be Batman, and readers loved it. However, like so many comics of that era, it also produced a new generation of writers who took some good lessons from it, but also leaned into its excesses. As a result of this, readers of the Modern Age of Batman have witnessed a version of the hero who has become increasingly cold and alienating – and it shows.
The Revitalization Of Batman
Batman has had an interesting history in DC Comics. Despite currently being arguably the best-selling, most successful character in fiction, the hero began as a smaller title for DC, and even faced cancelation at one point. He began his life in comics as a pulp-inspired vigilante, a wealthy businessman by day and dark avenger by night. From almost the start, he was tinged with tragedy as an orphan who had witnessed his parents’ murder as a child and resolved to wage a one-man war on crime. However, the late Golden Age and early Silver Age were both an uninspired time for the hero, where his main rogues gallery were used sparingly and his stories felt dull and gimmick-heavy. This wasn’t helped by allegations that DC’s comics contributed to child delinquency.
Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams helped bring this era of dull, safe stories to a close when they partnered up on Batman at the start of the Bronze Age. Although the huge success of the Adam West Batman TV series saved the hero in sales, it was O’Neil and Adams who made the book great. Through introducing Ra’s al Ghul and exploring a more Gothic tone and light horror, the series leaned more into the dark detective take on Batman. This intelligent but flawed take, a hero who could stand on the Justice League but represented a regular man capable of great things, made the title interesting. It continued on, albeit with some changes, under creators like Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon and Doug Moench.
In 1986, Frank Miller penned his iconic Dark Knight Returns miniseries, that explored a retired Bruce Wayne forced back into action against Gotham’s Mutant crime gang. This story became the definitive take on the hero, seeing a seasoned, past his prime Batman prove that he was still Gotham’s protector and had what it takes to deliver justice. Concluding with his triumph over Superman and faking his death, it seeped its way into the public consciousness. However, it also led to some writers adopting things like defeating Superman as just another day at the office for the hero, and it wasn’t long before it seemed he could defeat just about anyone. This wasn’t really the intent of the story, but rather one last hurrah for an old superhero to show what he could be capable of if driven to extremes.
The 2000s Broke Batman
Batman has always been one of DC’s darker heroes. In fact, from his Golden Age debut — which borrowed heavily from the dark pulp hero Shadow — the Caped Crusader was established as a creature of the night. In the 1930s and ’40s, he was even willing to kill his worst enemies. That said, the daily life of Bruce Wayne was one of an otherwise well-adjusted wealthy businessman who could maintain healthy relationships. The Golden and Silver Age versions of Batman cared for Robin, despite placing him in harm’s way on their missions. It never felt as though Dick Grayson was a burden to this version of Batman. That was until Frank Miller returned to his vision of Batman following the seemingly never-ending success of The Dark Knight Returns.
In 2001, Frank Miller made his long-awaited return to his vision for Batman through the divisive Dark Knight Strikes Again. The sequel has been remembered by many as a forced and strange story that served no real purpose beyond cashing in on the success of the original series. However, it was in 2005’s All-Star Batman & Robin the Boy Wonder that the real damage was done. The All-Star imprint was supposed to be a small line of prestige comics intended to serve as the definitive take on their respective heroes. Where Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely found success in their All-Star Superman series, Frank Miller and Jim Lee turned in what would become an almost universally hated take. Despite the controversy, this take on Batman has become a common way of writing him.
In Miller and Lee’s All-Star Batman series, the hero was reimagined to be an abusive, cold, conniving version of himself who gave little thought to anything until it was too late. This could be seen in his misguided decision to basically “draft” Dick Grayson as his Robin and promptly throw him into a fight against Green Lantern – who the sidekick almost murdered. The series was full of the Dark Knight basically just abusing Robin in what is now seen as the “edge-lord Batman,” a hero known for offensive actions and even worse dialog. This cast the hero as an abusive, cold, and abrasive father who only cared about what other people could offer him, never seeing anyone as a genuine friend or loved one. This is perhaps the single biggest problem in how the hero is written today.
The Deconstruction Of Batman
The road to a more broken Batman had already been taken up well before Miller and Lee joined forces for All-Star Batman. While some might say it was O’Neil and Adams’ run on the hero that did it, even this depiction of the hero made for a relatively normal and likable Caped Crusader. The slow deconstruction of the Batman mythos started to really creep in when Alan Moore and Brian Bolland released Batman: The Killing Joke. The story can best be described as the worst day in Batman’s life, as Joker destroyed the lives of those around him and terrorized Gotham. Known for its shock and awe approach to storytelling, the story caught on with readers and writers for its darker take on the hero. However, as gritty and dark as The Killing Joke was, it wasn’t responsible for the excesses of how the hero himself has since been written.
Batman was already on course in the 2000s for adopting the darker, scheming personality he’s known for today. In Mark Waid’s “Tower of Babel” story, it was revealed that the hero kept secret contingency plans on all of his fellow Leaguers, which he could deploy if needed. Once these plans fell into Ra’s al Ghul’s hands, they were used to destabilize the League. The story would later be echoed in Injustice: Gods Among Us, where it was shown the hero had uploaded a virus to Cyborg the day they met. Likewise, both Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin, and the “Tower of Babel” scheme inspired Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Robin and Batman. Here, the idea of the cold father was further demonstrated when it was revealed Batman only let Robin join the Teen Titans and make friends, so he could collect information on the heroes. As bad as “Tower of Babel” was, using Dick to collect information on child heroes was worse.
Frank Miller’s Batman Could Be Great
If more writers opted to copy the Dark Knight Returns’ vision rather than the All-Star Batman & Robin version, the hero could be great. This Dark Knight wasn’t the endlessly brooding, manipulative, and scheming character he has since become. Miller’s aged, seasoned Batman loved his job, and he had shed the inhibitions and denial of his youth. This version of Bruce Wayne, fresh from retirement, found new life in his return to the cape and cowl, and nothing made him happier. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that, in the Modern Age of DC, no Robin was treated as well as Carrie Kelly in the original miniseries. Since then, various stories — including from Miller himself — have seen Bruce treat his Robins as anything from disposable spies to burdens. It’s hard to root for a hero who treats his own adoptive children like pawns on a chessboard.
The view of Batman as a neglectful, egotistical father stemmed from how Miller wrote his Batman’s view of his wards. In the line “I will never forget Jason. He was a good soldier. He honored me,” Miller reimagined Wayne’s view of himself and his war as one where the deaths of Robins were acceptable casualties in a necessary war. This completely changed the mentality of the hero and, unfortunately, it seems to have stuck in many modern versions of Batman and Robin’s relationship, regardless of which sidekick it is. Writers who follow a more respectable and caring relationship between the father and his kids turn in more enjoyable stories. By no means should Batman adopt the wholesome, chipper personality of Clark Kent, but his current attitude just doesn’t work.
Previous versions of Batman had been cold at times, but they were nowhere near the level of the abusive and heartless Dark Knight who has come to dominate DC. Not every writer falls into this trap, but it can be jarring in some stories to see Batman go from treating his wards like garbage, only for the writer to expect readers to sympathize with Bruce when he loses someone. The only character Bruce maintained a mostly consistently healthy relationship with was Alfred, but even with his faithful butler the hero could be overly cold or curt. The original Miller Batman was certainly abrasive, but there was a sense of enjoyment and comradery behind it. He felt less like a cold father and more like a fun boss, albeit with some personality issues. He was a hero readers could root for. Perhaps the best modern writing of the hero wasn’t in comics at all, but rather his DCAU version, who combined the O’Neil hero with elements of Miller.
Batman Writing Feels More Like Thomas Than Bruce Wayne
One of the interesting things to come from the creation of Flashpoint Batman was the revelation that a grim dark Batman wasn’t all that dissimilar from the regular one. Aside from the lethality, there wasn’t that much to distinguish Thomas Wayne’s version of Batman from the Bruce Wayne of All-Star Batman or 2022’s Robin and Batman. That should be a sign that Prime Earth Bruce could use a lighter touch. Writers would do much better to parse the difference between Batman being a strategic genius, which works well, and him being a dispassionate plotter, which alienates both characters and many readers. The hero should retain his dark detective style, but he shouldn’t let his tragic and dark past dominate who he is. All else aside, letting him crack a smile now and then could remind people that he’s only human.
Batman, like any superhero, should be a generally decent person. He doesn’t have to match the boy scout energy of Superman or the friendly-neighborhood style of Spider-Man, but knowing Bruce is a good person can change a lot. Instead, writers often paint him into a corner as the cold exaggeration he’s become, and rooting for him can feel more like a chore than anything else. Many readers could do well to look to stories like Mark Waid’s World’s Finest or even “A Death In the Family.” Here, Bruce is stern and tough, but fair and caring. Even if he has a hard time showing affection, readers know he feels it, and his actions speak for themselves. Miller’s version of Batman was great, but it seems to be a style that only Miller could pull off – and it only worked in a single miniseries.
Since the Golden Age, Batman has been one of DC’s darker heroes. However, after the success of Frank Miller, many writers took away the wrong lessons. Read More