Without doubt, Batman is one of the most beloved and popular comic book characters of all time. Sure, he may not always be a happy soul, but this grizzled protector of Gotham City has still managed to win a whole host of admirers over the years.
Having been around for nearly 80 years, the Caped Crusader has changed quite a bit from his first appearance back in 1939. The character himself has progressed and evolved, as has his outfits, his weapons. and toys, the company that he keeps, and the villains that he faces. Like all good characters, evolution is good, and change can be key to keeping a hero or villain fresh and interesting.
What’s even more appealing about the Dark Knight, though, is that his popularity has transcended comic books and reached out to various other mediums. In fact, not only is Batman an icon of comic books and superheroes, but he’s an icon of pop culture as a whole.
So, with so much history to pull from for this fan-favorite figure, here’s our attempt to hit the 25 most vital and influential points of Batman’s evolution throughout the decades.
Where else could you really begin than with the first ever appearance from the Caped Crusader? That happened way back in 1939’s Detective Comics #27 — a comic book that would’ve cost you 10 cents back then but that has been valued as high as $4.2 million recently!
Dubbed as “The Amazing and Unique Adventures of the Batman,” this first appearance saw the character intermittently referred to as both Batman and Bat-Man, with him taking down your average thugs and street-level goons.
With an outfit that was more angular and rigid than what we’d come to see in later years, this debut for the World’s Greatest Detective also saw him with a cape that had a far more striking resemblance to a bat and its wings.
24. The Origin
Everyone knows Batman’s origin story, even those without any interest in comic books. Where we first learned of Bruce Wayne’s tragic backstory, though, was in November 1939’s Detective Comics #33. As has been revisited and showcased a host of times in a host of various mediums over the last 80 years, 1939 revealed how Bruce’s parents, Martha and Thomas, were gunned down by a mugger.
Over time, this event has been elaborated on further, such as how Zorro was playing at the movie theater that night, and how the double murder took place in Crime Alley, but this fateful night is still held in the highest regard by Batman and Batman fans to this day. Well, unless you decide to do some hodgepodge twist where it was actually the Joker who pulled the trigger all of those years ago, as per Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie.
23. First Major Costume Change
Batman has seen his Batsuit tweaked a tad since his debut in Detective Comics #27, but it wasn’t until February 1940’s Detective Comics #36 that the Caped Crusader was given his first major change-up when it came to his superhero getup. In this issue, Bats showcased a Batsuit that was made up of more blues and grays, with a clearer yellow present on his utility belt. In addition to this, the Dark Knight’s gloves were made far longer than what they were previously, plus his boots were jazzed up a little, too.
22. The Boy Wonder
To those of us who grew up at a certain point in time, wherever there was Batman, there was always his trusty sidekick, the Boy Wonder himself, Robin. Granted, the Caped Crusader has gone it alone over the years, too. Not to mention, he’s had several different people take on the Robin mantle… but the “classic” take on Batman sees him paired with Dick Grayson as Robin.
Affectionately known as the Dynamic Duo, the pair first came together when Robin was introduced in 1940’s Detective Comics #38. A circus performer whose parents were murdered before his eyes, Dick was taken under the wing of Bruce Wayne and soon became an integral part of the picture, both as Bruce’s ward and as Batman’s sidekick.
The introduction of Robin was a key moment for Batman, for the grim, gritty, and violent Bats was given a softer, more humourous side with the addition of the Boy Wonder. And such an impressive impact Robin made; his debut saw sales figures actually double!
21. Own Title
As a comic book character, you know you’ve really made it — especially back in the Golden Age of comics — when you get trusted with your own title. And thus, in Spring of 1940 came Batman #1. Not only was this book important for fully branching the Caped Crusader out on his own (well, not counting Robin!), but it also introduced the Joker and Catwoman, who was then simply known as the Cat. Talk about “Holy first issue, Batman!” This is a comic book that is revered as a must-have of any comic book obsessive, and it marked a major moment in the evolution of the Batman for a wide variety of reasons.
Fancy grabbing yourself a copy of this iconic issue? If you head on over to eBay, copies of this rare 1940’s read are going for the small change price of approximately $70,000 right now. In fact, pick me up two!
20. The Serials
1943 was a huge year for Batman, with it marking his live-action debut. With 1943’s Batman serial, Lewis Wilson donned the cape and cowl to play the Dark Knight in black-and-white action alongside Douglas Croft’s Robin. Following that, 1949 gave audiences a follow-up serial in the shape of Batman and Robin. This time out, Robert Lowery took on the role of the Caped Crusader, and he was joined by Johnny Duncan’s Boy Wonder.
19. The Bizarre Outfits Of The ‘50s
As the 1950s came around, so did some of Batman’s most bizarre and odd costume changes. With the Bat-tales of the day taking a more science fiction and/or exotic slant, the Caped Crusader’s outfits were just as unusual as some of the stories he found himself in. For example, 1952’s Batman #72 featured “The Jungle Batman” decked out with a loincloth and cowl, while later in the decade, we saw “The Rainbow Batman” taking center stage. In case you’re not familiar with the latter of those two, that was at a time when Robin was injured, and so Batman took to wearing different coloured Batsuits each night. Yeah, it still doesn’t really make all that much sense to this day, does it?
18. Batman ‘66
While the 1960s saw a vast array of odd and obscure Batsuits for our Caped Crusader, one thing that the second half of the decade gave us was the first example of a Batsuit with the yellow/gold oval behind the Bat logo on the Dark Knight’s chest as part of a Julie Schwartz-led revamp for the character.
Oh, and it always gave us Adam freakin’ West!
Making the foray into his own full live-action TV series, the World’s Greatest Detective saw the simply-titled Batman hitting the small screen in 1966. With West as Bruce Wayne/Batman, the rest of the primary cast saw Burt Ward as Robin, Yvonne Craig as Batgirl, Alan Napier as Alfred, Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as Penguin, Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, and Julie Newmar as Catwoman.
17. Back To Basics
Following the cancellation of the Batman TV show in 1968, comic book sales promptly took a major hit. To stop the slump of the Caped Crusader, DC turned to Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams.
With a back-to-basics approach, Dick Grayson was sent off to college and Bruce Wayne was left on his lonesome to take part in stripped-back, darker, street-level tales that soon struck a chord with comic book readers. Taking residence in a penthouse apartment instead of Wayne Manor and the Batcave, this was an all-new, fresh Bats.
As part of this revamp, Batman was also physically altered a little, with his costume tweaked as more focus was put on his swirling, engulfing cape. In addition to this, his physique was changed, as this was a Dark Knight who was leaner than previous incarnations.
16. The New Animated Adventures
In February 1971, audiences were treated to the premiere of the New Adventures of Batman animated series. Taking their inspiration stylistically from the Adam West and Burt Ward-starring Batman live-action show of the ‘60s, this animated affair would even bring in West and Ward to voice the Dynamic Duo.
The show itself would technically exist until 1977, although it would essentially continue in one form or another until 1981. The only problem here, though, is that the campy, lighthearted adventures seen in The New Adventures of Batman served as a vast contrast to the serious nature and tone that the Batman comic book tales of the day were trying to achieve.
15. Robin #2
As any longtime Bat-fan will know, the Caped Crusader has had several different Robins by this side over the decades. The first of these changes happened during 1983 and 1984. In ’83, a street kid by the name of Jason Todd was introduced… just about the same time as Dick Grayson was questioning his own place as a sidekick.
To cut a long story short, Dick, then also a member of the Teen Titans, wanted to step out of Batman’s shadow and fully become his own hero. His issue, though, was that he felt that the Robin mantle was always meant to be attached to the Dark Knight. Additionally, in other tellings of the tale (gotta love jumbled and reset continuity!), Bruce didn’t want Dick fighting crime anymore.
So, Dick would branch out and become his own man, taking on the moniker of Nightwing and finding a home in Bludhaven, while Bruce would eventually take the troubled Jason under his wing and decide to make him the second Robin.
14. The Dark Knight Returns
Simply put, Frank Miller’s legendary The Dark Knight Returns is often thought of as the single greatest graphic novel/comic book story of all time. Released as a four-issue tale back in 1986, this story sees an older, grizzled Bruce Wayne coming out of retirement as the Batman following a decade-long absence. Battling Gotham’s new brutal threat — the Mutants — the Dark Knight has never been Darker, partaking in bloody, clinical battles as he steps out of the shadows to generate hysteria amongst an America that had long thought the Batman gone.
Having an epic showdown to the death with Superman, not to mention the same with the Joker, Batman was positioned in a more grim and dour mindset than we’d ever seen before. Frank Miller had wowed readers with an arc that put a whole new grounded-in-reality, gritty spin on this most beloved of characters, and Miller’s work with the World’s Greatest Detective cannot be underestimated when it came to boosting Batman’s popularity once again.
13. Batman: Year One
If you’re Frank Miller, how do you possibly top The Dark Knight Returns? You don’t. But with Batman: Year One, Miller got pretty damn close. This 1987 arc went back and looked at Bruce Wayne’s transformation into becoming the Batman, and this has since gone down as the definitive origin story of the Dark Knight.
More importantly, though, as well as revisiting Bruce becoming Batman and looking at the early days of his crime fighting career, Year One was a vital story for the fact that it breathed new life into Jim Gordon and made him into an important character in his own right. Year One, in general, flits between Bruce becoming the Caped Crusader and Gordon arriving in Gotham and attempting to clean up the streets and the corrupt police force, and the way that the story equally splits its focus between both of these characters saw Jim elevated to a whole new level as a character.
12. The Joker Ups The Stakes
With Cesar Romero’s live-action take on the character and the effect of that in the comic book world, Mr. J had become a villain who really wasn’t all that villainous for a particular time period. Sure, his plans would always be to take down the world and Batman with it, but he’d always be scuppered and soon became a — no pun intended — joke figure of sorts.
That all changed in the ‘80s, though — in 1988, to be precise — with Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s iconic The Killing Joke seeing the Joker shoot and paralyze Barbara Gordon, and that was soon followed by Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo’s A Death in the Family in which the Jester of Genocide brutally murdered the second Robin, Jason Todd.
11. Robin #3
1989 saw yet another Robin introduced to accompany Batman in his quest to protect Gotham City and beyond. At this time, the Caped Crusader had become far more aggressive and brutal in his methods following the death of Jason Todd. In fact, Bruce would actually reject the notion of having another Robin for fear of the same fate befalling them as Jason.
It took some major persuasive work from both Dick Grayson and Alfred — not to mention him saving Batman from the clutches of Scarecrow — before Bruce finally agreed to bring Tim into the fold and hand him the Robin moniker. As all around him could see, Batman needed a Robin to make him a better hero, and Tim would prove to be the most Batman-like of all the Robins before and since.
10. The Movies
To many, Michael Keaton is their Batman. When the Caped Crusader was brought to the big screen with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, Keaton — despite initially getting a whole lot of hate when first cast — was a mesmerising presence as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. In fact, part of the love for Keaton’s turn as the Dark Knight was in how he never really stops being Batman; even as plain old Bruce, you can still see the cogs of the World’s Greatest Detective turning.
That movie would prove hugely popular and firmly throw Batman back into the public consciousness and spotlight. Toys and plenty of various and random merchandise would follow, and in turn, the Batman comic book titles would see a surge in popularity, too.
After that came a 1992 return for Keaton in Batman Returns, with Val Kilmer donning the cape and cowl for 1995’s disappointing Batman Forever before George Clooney took over the utility belt for 1997’s stinkathon Batman & Robin. In those latter two pictures, Bats was joined by Chris O’Donnell as Robin.
9. Batman: The Animated Series
I think we can all agree, Warner Brother’s Batman: The Animated Series was and is a total masterpiece.
With Kevin Conroy as the Dark Knight, this animated effort pulled inspiration from what Tim Burton had done with Batman and Batman Returns and then took the ball and ran with it. Not only did the show feature Mark Hamill as the Joker, but it also featured rogues such as Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, Bane, Killer Croc, Man-Bat, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Ra’s al Ghul, Hugo Strange, Mad Hatter, Mister Freeze, and Clayface, not to mention introducing us all to Harley Quinn. Added to that, there was also Alfred, Robin, Batgirl, Nightwing, and so many others accounted for in this hugely popular series.
To this day, many comic book readers hear the voice of Kevin Conroy when reading the current and past adventures of the Caped Crusader, which is a huge testament to B:TAS and Conroy himself. The series, in one shape or another, would run from 1992 until 1999, plus there’d be several animated movies to accompany it, too.
You may not know the Knightfall comic book arc (and its prequels/sequels) by name, but many people know the basic events of that famed 1993 story. Yes, this is the tale of how Bane “broke” the Bat.
But while Bruce Wayne would have his back broken by the hulking Luchador, Knightfall would also introduce readers to a new Batman. After Bruce was left out of action, he would ultimately settle on newcomer Jean-Paul Valley, aka Azrael, as taking over the cape and cowl. Well, the ideal of the cape and cowl, for Valley would have his own bizarre and ludicrous take on the Batsuit.
One big problem here, though, was that Azrael was a brutal Batman — as in way, way more brutal than anything we’d seen before. As such, a lot of the public — including even Jim Gordon — lost their faith and trust in Batman.
7. Batman Beyond
Following The New Batman Adventures coming to an end in 1999, later that year saw the launch of a new animated series: Batman Beyond. Set in the future, this fan-favorite show saw teenager Terry McGinnis take on the role of Batman under the tutelage of an old, reclusive Bruce Wayne. Playing with elements of sci-fi, technology, and even horror, this series became a cult favorite of many during its sadly-too-short 2-year lifespan.
Even better, it was this series that saw the jaw-dropping spinoff movie, Return of the Joker, come to be. Seeing the Clown Prince of Crime seemingly resurface in Terry’s present day, that film would go back to show how the Joker was killed… and how poor Tim Drake was brutally tortured by Mr. J and Harley Quinn.
Following Knightfall, the rest of the ‘90s and even early 2000s saw Batman largely going through the motions with tales like Cataclysm and No Man’s Land, but 2003 saw a whole host of plaudits thrown at Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s Hush story. A 12-part effort that brought together a whole host of Batman’s most famous friends and foes, this whodunit mystery unraveled beautifully before readers’ eyes as it introduced a new major villain in the shape of Hush, aka Bruce’s childhood pal Tommy Elliot. Not only that, but the conclusion of Hush shocked us all by seemingly bringing back Jason Todd from the dead! However, that would later be revealed to be merely Clayface in disguise rather than Jason, but the seed had firmly been planted for “what if…?” where this deceased Robin was concerned. All in all, Hush was a huge success and brought plenty of old fans back to the Bat books.
5. The Dark Knight Trilogy
In 2005, Christian Bale took on the live-action mantle of the Bat as he headlined Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Pulling plenty from Frank Miller’s iconic Batman: Year One, the movie saw how Bruce Wayne had trained to become Batman in the aftermath of his parents’ death. Bringing Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul into the frame as the villains of the piece, the film was a massive hit, in turn thrusting the Caped Crusader back into the public spotlight.
Bale and Nolan would return for two further outings: 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises.
The ’08 movie saw Heath Ledger grab a posthumous Oscar for his maniacal performance as the Joker, while Aaron Eckhart would also see his Harvey Dent spiral into the crazed Two-Face in that film. Anne Hathaway as Catwoman and Tom Hardy as Bane would follow in the final leg of this trilogy.
4. Batman and Son
The 1987 Son of the Demon arc saw Batman having a son with Talia al Ghul. Of course, this was all largely deemed non-canon and forgotten about… until 2006. With Grant Morrison on writing duties, Batman #655 saw Batman’s son, now called Damian, brought into the fold. Raised by the League of Assassins, Damian was a violent, clinical, sarcastic, and arrogant sort who forced Bruce to develop parenting skills!
In fairness, when Damian was introduced, it rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way. Fear not, for the cocksure youngster soon won us all over as he sought out fights with previous Robins, had to be talked out of slaying the bad guys, and petted his beloved Bat-Cow.
Taking on the Robin moniker (the fifth person to do so after Stephanie Brown’s brief run under the mantle) alongside Dick Grayson’s Batman after Bruce was believed dead following Final Crisis, Damian would eventually be killed by Heretic in 2013 before being resurrected in 2014.
3. Arkham Begins
Arkham Asylum had long been a mainstay of DC Comics and the Batman tales over the previous couple of decades, but 2009 saw the crammed loony bin become the focus of a video game. From Rocksteady Studios came Batman: Arkham Asylum.
It wasn’t the first Batman-based game (anyone remember the awesome Commodore Amiga efforts?), but it was the first Bat-game to really stand apart as a true work of art. Winning countless awards, the game saw Batman battling his way out of Arkham as he had to take down various familiar foes before finally getting his hands of the Joker. The huge success and critical acclaim of the game saw it followed up in 2011 by Arkham City, in 2012 by Arkham Origins, and then 2015 saw us get Arkham Knight — all of which look absolutely phenomenal and largely play exceptionally.
2. Death Of The Family
From crazed Batmen of other worlds and teams like Batman Incorporated playing out from the late 2000s and beyond, 2011 saw our Caped Crusader follow the rest of his DC heroes and villains in getting a reboot as part of the so-so-at-best New 52 relaunch.
Hands-down the greatest tale to be released since then is the 23-issue Death of the Family arc that began in 2012. In this, the Joker was again thrust into the spotlight in a major way, returning from the wilderness intent on destroying Batman’s family. Wanting Batman all to himself, the Clown Prince of Crime targeted all of those whom the Dark Knight held dear, culminating in a tense, messed-up finale that saw the Joker having apparently cut off the faces of the likes of Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Damian Wayne. Batman would ultimately save the day, but the damage had already been done, and this arc would cause the Bat family to splinter.
And so here we are, with the most recent evolution of note for the Batman. Yes, it’s Ben Affleck as the latest live-action cinematic incarnation of this most beloved of heroes. Affleck, of course, took on the role for 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, with him squaring off against Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel. As well as putting together the titular team in this November’s Justice League, Affleck’s Bats also has his own movie lined up for down the line.
With no confirmed release date for that film at this stage, the movie — tentatively titled The Batman — will see Batfleck butting heads with Joe Manganiello’s Deathstroke. It’s also recently been confirmed that The LEGO Movie’s Chris McKay is directing a Nightwing movie, while uber-geek Joss Whedon will be tackling a Batgirl picture — all of which will exist in the same DCEU as Affleck’s World’s Greatest Detective.