Batman at 75: Writers and Artists on the Dark Knight

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“Sometimes you have to embrace the darkness to confront the darkness.”
— Geoff Johns, Batman: Earth One writer, DC Chief Creative Officer

After 75 years of stories, just who is Batman? And which Batman is the best? At Comic-Con, these are questions worth asking as you’re listening to a panel of writers and artists who’ve reinvented the Dark Knight over the last four decades. Considering Batman’s 75th anniversary, the answers shouldn’t come easy — if at all.

In Thursday’s Batman 75: Legends of the Dark Knight panel, creators Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Frank Miller, Jim Lee, Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder and Geoff Johns mused about their ideologies on the iconic superhero. These guys, among others, earned their legendary status for taking Batman to new creative heights and darker territories … well beyond the camp of the 1960s alliteration-spouting Batman. In just one hour, the think tank had created a comprehensive oral history, complete with laughs, digs and lasting observations.

Neal Adams, who illustrated Batman in the ‘70s and collaborated with writer Denny O’Neil, reflected on the character’s origins in the Golden Age of superheroes: “When the comic book business began to do superheroes, even though Bob Kane created Batman and Bill Finger created Batman, they didn’t take the instructions seriously — they made Batman into a human being. Batman doesn’t have any superpowers. He goes and he exercises. He does have super-intelligence. He’s just intelligent and he uses his brain. Batman is what we would rather be.”

Seated next to Adams was writer/artist Frank Miller, the man responsible for such lauded canon titles as The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One. He also grew up reading the Batman of Adams and O’Neil. “I remember, when I was a kid, discovering Neal and Denny’s Batman, and I finally woke up from a fever dream I was in of the Adam West (Batman) show. I realized that what they contributed, even from Neal’s touches of taking scripts to be set in daylight and setting them in nighttime. I couldn’t have done The Dark Knight Returns without them.”

But to Miller, who exactly is Batman? For starters, he’s “sexy.” He’s the good guy who dresses up like a bad guy and throws people through windows. He does strike terror into criminals’ hearts, and his motivation is so simple. What could have been a spoiled rich kid transformed himself into the pinnacle of a human being.”

Batman’s definition expanded once more under psychedelic scribe Grant Morrison, who dreamed up the globe-sprawling Batman Incorporated series and (kind of) killed Batman in the DC crossover series Final Crisis. “Batman is basically a satanic figure who is always on our side,” Morrison said, smiling. “He looks scary, he’s a monster … he’s a good guy, and the fact that he is a rich good guy is very appealing to the capitalist West. He’s very representative of what we like to think we stand for. Batman stands up for something that stands up on two legs and says, ‘No, I won’t have you, darkness, I’m going to kick it.’”

Denny O’Neil, who wrote and edited Batman for more than 15 years, adds that the hero was simple to write. “I’ve written Batman and Superman, and for a stretch simultaneously, and Superman is a bitch to plot for. This guy is a god! How do you put a god against a petty crook? Batman, I’ve always thought of him as the toughest, smartest guy in the city. But he’s really easy to get into trouble. Any death trap will do. You can get him in genuine human situations.”

Batman’s mortality also resonates with writer Scott Snyder, who currently pens Batman in collaboration with artist Greg Capullo. “I think as a kid in New York City, I looked at Batman to be able to say, ‘I’m going to be defiant. I’m going to do the crazy thing that everyone thinks I can’t do.’ That’s, to me, what makes him so endlessly interesting — that bumped up against his mortality and the terrible things that he knows are coming.”

But it wasn’t until the end of the panel that anyone could explain which is the best incarnation of Batman. It started with a question from a young girl, who asked, “What version, through all the comics and all the films … what do you think represents the spirit of Batman most of all?”

It wasn’t an easy answer, but Miller said, “The very best Batman is the one you like the best.”

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