Batman Through the Years: the Changing Look of Batman
It’s the rare comic book superhero who doesn’t undergo the occasional change in appearance now and then. Costumes are altered, hairstyles are updated; it’s usually about keeping up with the times, or an attempt to boost sales. Batman through the years has certainly had a changing look, and few superheroes have undergone the numerous and varied changes experienced by Batman over his 80-year history.
Who’s Really Behind Batman?
The creation of Batman has long been attributed to cartoonist Bob Kane. However, historians now know that Kane employed numerous “ghosts” to write and draw the Dark Knight over the years – including during the character’s initial development.
“It was his uncredited writing collaborator, Bill Finger, who suggested flourishes like a bat-eared cowl and a scalloped bat-winged cape that we think of as Batman,” observes Michael Eury, co-author (with Michael Kronenberg) of The Batcave Companion (TwoMorrows Publishing) and editor of Back Issue! and RetroFan magazines. “Finger also claimed to have created Commissioner Gordon, Robin, Alfred, and several major villains, including the Joker.” Eury notes that Jerry Robinson, a long-time Bob Kane “ghost” artist, also claimed to have created the Joker, as did Kane himself.
Michael Eury, Michael Kronenberg, and TwoMorrows Publishing. TM & (c) DC Comics
Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) and, like Superman the year before, was an immediate hit. In his first story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” Batman (then called The Bat-Man) wore a gray union suit with a black bat on his chest, black shorts and boots, a black cape that on the cover looks more like wings, a yellow utility belt, and a cowl mask with short-ish ears. All of the components that would come to define Batman were there, just a little primitive in appearance.
Detective Comics #27, May 1939. Artist: Bob Kane. This was the first appearance of Batman. TM & (c) DC Comics
As Batman’s popularity grew, so did the number of “ghosts” illustrating him. Over the ensuing decade, Kane, Jerry Robinson, George Roussos, Jack Burnley, Win Mortimer, Charles Paris and Jim Mooney all worked on the character, either as a penciler or inker. Each artist, while striving to mimic Kane’s style, also put their own mark on the character to varying degrees. In the early ‘40s, as the character became more defined, the ears on his cowl grew a little longer, and Batman himself became more muscular. But all of that could change, depending on the artist. Some drew him with the original short-eared cowl, others with longer ears. It would take a few years before the character’s look became firmly established as canon.
Detective Comics #38, April 1940. Artists: Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson. This issue was the first appearance of Robin the Boy Wonder. TM & (c) DC Comics
From Fearsome to Wholesome
“Bill Finger made significant changes to Batman during his early days,” Eury reports. “The first change in Batman’s appearance took place during his first year, as he slowly transformed from a foreboding ‘creature of the night’ to a friendlier, fatherly look, with the addition of Robin at his side.”
Batman #121, February 1959. Artists: Curt Swan and Stan Kaye. TM & (c) DC Comics
Batman enjoyed a solid run through the ‘40s and into the ‘50s, when the number of artists on the various Batman titles grew to include Lew Sayre Schwartz, Stan Kaye, Dick Sprang, and Sheldon Moldoff. The latter two quickly became the artists most closely associated with Batman through the years, and they helped develop the square-jawed, boxy-muscular look that came to define Batman throughout the decade.
“There were a host of ‘ghosts’ drawing Batman stories during the 1940s, ‘50s and early ‘60s, all silently drawing under the stylized ‘Bob Kane’ boxed signature,” Eury notes. “Funny thing is, each of these artists, and Kane’s other ghosts artists, had their own styles. Readers back then, mostly children, apparently lacked the discernment to notice the differences.”
Batman in the ‘50s was decidedly different from Batman in the ‘40s. Fearful of the Comics Code Authority’s directive forbidding the portrayal of crime or violent vengeance, Batman turned silly under the editorship of Jack Schiff. More and more stories featured a goofy science fiction gimmick, and the Dynamic Duo were given a number of ridiculous sidekicks, including Bat-Mite and Ace, the Bat Hound. Throughout it all, Batman’s physical appearance remained pretty consistent.
Batman #128, December 1959. Artist: Sheldon Moldoff. TM & (c) DC Comics
Batman Turns Silver
The 1960s, however, saw dramatic changes in the hero’s look, though it took a few years. The silliness of the 1950s continued into the early ‘60s, with many of the same artists illustrating Batman’s adventures. In 1964, Batman was turned over to editor Julius Schwartz, commonly credited with kickstarting the Silver Age of Comic Books with a redesigned Flash in 1956. Schwartz immediately made significant changes to the character, both in story and appearance, which were first revealed in Detective Comics #327. Campy stories fell by the wayside as Schwartz encouraged his writers to emphasize Batman’s skill as a detective.
Detective Comics #327, May 1964. Artists: Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella. It was in this issue that new Batman editor Julius Schwartz introduced Batman’s “new look.” TM & (c) DC Comics
As for Batman’s new look, Eury reports in The Batcave Companion: “His chest insignia, formerly a bold, black bat shape, was now encircled by a bright yellow oval, resembling the iconic (and licensable) Bat-Signal, a revision [artist Carmine] Infantino made under Schwartz’ direction. Additionally, Batman was no longer the blocky, square-jawed caricature he had become over the years; Infantino’s Batman was strong, sinewy, and realistically rendered, and his Bat-cowl’s ears were slightly elongated. Contemporary comic-book readers may regard a costuming change as no big deal, but this was a revolutionary step for the time.”
In With the New / Into the Night
Batman through the years in the 1970s saw his style in transition. New writers, most significantly Dennis O’Neil, were brought in to write his adventures, which were illustrated by a new generation of comic book artists, each eager to make his mark. Foremost among them was Neal Adams, who is perhaps most associated with Batman’s upgraded “creature of the night” persona.
Detective Comics #415, September 1971. Artist: Neal Adams. TM & (c) DC Comics
“Neal Adams’ impact on Batman was huge,” says Eury. “Adams actually made subtle changes to help nudge Batman back toward his original gothic look. It began as Adams took over art chores on the Batman team-up book, The Brave and the Bold, with issue #79, a Batman/Deadman team-up. Adams drew sequences at night – even if they were scripted as day scenes – to make Batman more mysterious. He also took dramatic license with Batman’s cape, increasing its bat-wing look, and over time elongated the pointed ears on the Bat-cowl and often cast shadows over the character.”
Adams’ influence on the look of Batman would last for many years, Eury adds. But other artists were able to add their own flourishes. “Artists like Bernie Wrightson and Michael Kaluta made Batman even eerier,” Eury notes. “Wrightson, in particular, drew Batman’s cape almost as if it had a life of its own.” This trend continued into the ‘80s.
The comic book industry may currently be in a state of flux, but Batman remains an extremely popular character among readers. Batman through the years has undergone some changes to his look – and, invariably, more are to come in a graphics-driven medium like comic books – but as long as there is a cape, cowl and a bat on his chest, he’ll always be The World’s Greatest Detective in the eyes of die-hard fans.
Detective Comics #719, March 1998. Artist: Bill Sienkiewicz. TM & (c) DC Comics