The Bat-man:
Who he is and how he came to be

How have 75 years of social and economic change affected the caped crusader?

The 30s & 40s
America moves to the cities

By 1920, over half the the US population lived in cities. The rural idyll of motherhood and apple pie was being overtaken by the fast-talking, fast-moving world of prohibition-era larger-than-life gangsters, corrupt politicians and the social disasters wrought by the Great Depression.

Following the success of cornfed country boy Superman, Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Bruce Wayne,  the urbanite billionaire detective who fights crime in the guise of: The Bat-Man

Batman brought noir pulp to comics, mixing together elements of noble-in-disguise Zorro, scientist adventurer Doc Savage and urban avenger The Shadow.

Image by "Detective Comics #27" at The Grand Comics Database. Retrieved December 19, 2004., Fair use,

The 50s
America moves to the suburbs

Social inequality was the lowest it has ever been in 1953, as the post-war social reconstruction saw an economic boom, with high employment and the growth of suburban home construction. The new prosperity and egalitarianism became an important factor in the country's self image in the face of the threat of the Cold War and the tensions with communist Eastern Europe.

After the war, comicbook superheroes were edged out by gruesome crime and horror. But in 1954 Frederic Wertham's 'Seduction of the Innocent' accused comics of corrupting youth even alleging homosexuality in Batman and Robin’s relationship.

Batman’s adventures became increasingly child-friendly, with men like Dick Sprang and Sheldon Moldoff ghosting for Bob Kane (though only he was credited), introducing characters like Batwoman, Batgirl and Ace the Bathound.

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The 60s & 70s
Some days you just can't get rid of a baby boom

1969 saw low unemployment and the highest minimum wage of the last sixty years. A sense of stability and prosperity meant that as they reached adulthood, the baby boom generation found themselves in a world secure enough that they could begin to question exactly what that security was based on.

The psychedelic sun rose on the Dark Knight in 1966: Adam West in a brightly coloured leotard, bringing Batman to primetime TV. The show had a camp pop freneticism, but West gave it a splendidly earnest and upright heart.

As the decade soured, Batman began to change too, with Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams bringing him back to his roots as an grim and urban crime fighter.

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The 80s
The US right returns

The 80s were bracketed by peaks in the crime rate in 1980 and 1991. The 70s had seen an economic downturn go hand in hand with increasing social unrest and revolution. A new conservative capitalism in the 1980s and the theory of trickle-down economics saw inequality begin to rise and a consistently high crime rate through the decade.

While Batman had grown increasing dark during the 70s, the dramatic change came with Frank Miller’s hysterically grim Dark Knight Returns in 1986. Depicting an elderly Batman coming out of retirement to wage a violent war on a corrupt society, this book questioned politics, law and justice in 80s America.

A wave of British creators influenced by more confrontational comics like 2000AD brought a fresh 'adult' cynicism and ruthlessness to superheroes and Gotham got grimmer.

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The 90s
America goes to jail

After a record low in the 1960s, the prison population began to grow significantly in the 1980s, a growth that continued in the 1990s. Some of this rise can be attributed the War on Drugs in the 1980s, which also led to a rise in privately, commercially run prisons. The US currently has the largest prison population in the world.

Batman returned to the cinema screen in 1989, as Tim Burton managed to fuse the hallucinatory glee of the 50s and 60s and the grim and gritty renovations of the 80s with his own candy-stripe gothic aesthetic. His vision influenced the Deco styled Animated Adventures of Batman cartoon, but the movie franchise quickly became a tawdry and ham-fisted pantomime.

The attention helped comic sales, though, as the Joker killed Robin and crippled Batgirl while the villain Bane broke Batman's back.

Image: Fan-made by Vleer,
The 00s & beyond
The new millennium of the billionaire

Inequality began to rise again in the late 80s, finally reaching level comparable to the 1920s by the new millennium. The increasing wealth of the top 1% of the population in the face of an economic crisis and global austerity lead to a wave of social unrest.

2005's 'Batman Begins’ re-created the hero for a new, hyper-connected, socially divided world, with British film-maker Christopher Nolan using the films to ask fresh questions of justice, politics and society.

The comics took an altogether more bizarre approach under Scottish writer Grant Morrison as he tried to reconcile the psychedelic world of comics with a hero whose only superpower is extraordinary wealth.

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Batman Beyond

Like many of the characters who influenced his invention - Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Robin Hood - Batman long ago escaped mere fiction to become mythology. These are characters that have become part of our culture.

Such characters are constantly mined for meaning, rediscovered and recreated to meet the demands and concerns of contemporary culture.

It is hard to imagine a future without the Batman, but it is hard to imagine who that Batman might be.