American Gothic: The Art of Batman
American Gothic: The Art of Batman by Jerry Whitworth
When I was a kid, comic books were all about the characters to me. If it had Batman or Spider-Man, it was going to be good. When I was a teenager, what I cared about most was the writer: with creators like Roy Thomas, Bill Mantlo, or John Ostrander, I knew I was in for a treat. It was only in the last few years I really came around to the idea that when it comes to comic books, it’s the whole package. Characters need to be unique, having their own personality, voice, and circumstance that defines who they are and the choices they make that mold them into who they will be. It’s the writer’s job to take the character and place them in an environment where they can develop while fleshing out the surrounding elements into a mythology. And, it is the artist’s job to not only bring this vision into reality, a comic book artist breaks their bread in conveying motion and action on a page that is static and still (a seemingly impossible task but comics are very much dealing in making the impossible real). This convergence of elements is perhaps best personified in the history of the character known as Batman.
Orphaned at a young age by a criminal in the shadow of the Monarch Theater in what is today known as Crime Alley, Bruce Wayne took the vast wealth he inherited from his family to become the pinnacle of human potential in a quest for justice for those threatened by the crimes that robbed him of his innocence as the Batman. In 1938, comic book publisher Detective Comics Incorporated decided to take a chance on a pair of young, Jewish, Science Fiction fans named Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and their idea of an alien humanoid rocketed to Earth from the dying planet Krypton to become the champion of justice Superman. The concept was hugely successful, so much so the publisher put out a call for its creators to come up with the next “Superman.” The challenge was met by Bob Kane. Another young Jewish cartoonist, Kane enlisted the aid of young Jewish shoe salesman Bill Finger to flesh out an idea he had for Bird-Man, a crimson, winged-character drawing inspiration from the comic strip Flash Gordon and the pulp magazine character Zorro (by this time transitioning to film). After a great deal of input from Finger (who became Kane’s ongoing collaborator and ghost writer), this idea evolved into the Bat-Man. However, Kane’s career has been marred by allegations of plagiarism and swiping, so far as to pattern his stories after the adventures of pulp hero the Shadow and to trace the drawings of artists like Alex Raymond (Flash Gordon’s creator), Henry E. Vallely, Tom Lovell, and Hal Foster when creating his early Bat-Man stories. Further, despite the addition of inker Jerry Robinson and later artist Dick Sprang (who adopted the books’ art chores), as well as scripts by Gardner Fox, Bob Kane took sole credit for Batman’s adventures in Detective Comics and his self-titled series. As Kane was sure to see his name plastered on the first page of every Batman story, artists like Win Mortimer, Jack Burnley, Jim Mooney, Lew Sayre Schwartz, and Sheldon Moldoff (to name a few) were the men who put the hero and his cast to the page for him.
Following the attack of psychiatrist Frederick Wertham on the American comic book, specifically claiming Batman and Robin as a homoerotic, pedophilic couple, the industry almost collapsed, suffering a loss in circulation they never recouped. The comic book would limp along until science fiction agent turned editor Julius Schwartz came up with a revolutionary idea. Schwartz joined All-American Comics (which would be bought by National Periodical Publications, itself a merger of National Allied Publications and Detective Comics, Inc) during the Golden Age where he used his connections as an agent to bring writers to the publisher. In 1950, Schwartz spearheaded science fiction anthology books at the publisher before coming up with an idea to reinvigorate the company: repackage old superhero properties with a science fiction spin. The concept began with the Flash in the pages of Showcase which led to the re-imagining of Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom. Becoming the man with the Midas touch, Schwartz would be given an assignment he didn’t want but the publisher desperately needed done: repackaging Batman. Once Superman’s rival for attention, Batman had dropped to within a breath of cancellation. Undeterred, Schwartz turned to artist Carmine Infantino for his help. Infantino had redesigned the Flash to have a thinner, runner’s build in a nearly all-red suit adorned with lightning bolts. For Batman, Infantino returned Batman to his base elements: dark, gothic, and mysterious. Gone was the bulky dad next door in a cowl that battled aliens and was replaced with the Dark Knight of Gotham, a scowling gargoyle in the shadows. Infantino’s style was so crisp and unique, he was the first artist to break tradition and not sign his work as being Bob Kane. However, other artists working on Batman did not follow suit. Though artists subscribed to Infantino’s redesign, Sheldon Moldoff (who besides Infantino shared most of the art duties) remained Kane’s ghost artist.
In 1966, Batman received another major shot in the arm with a hit television series (whose opening credits used the artistic designs of Dick Sprang who had retired in 1963 as the primary Batman artist, making way for Moldoff in his wake), though the nature of the program regressed the comic brand backward. As Infantino began a successive series of promotions in editorial roles, Batman’s art went to artists like Gil Kane, Frank Springer, and Chic Stone. By 1968, Bob Kane signed a new contract where he was no longer the “sole creator” for the various Batman titles and his ghosts began receiving actual recognition. Batman’s popularity skyrocketed with the television series, the hero taking the starring role in World’s Finest Comics and Justice League of America as The Brave and the Bold became a team-up book for Batman. It was through Brave and the Bold that the next major milestone in Batman really took shape. While artists like Bob Brown and Irv Novick came on the scene, Schwartz tried to bring Batman back to his serious elements with the death of the TV show, it would be up-and-coming artist Neal Adams that really caught with fans. Wanting to desperately draw Batman only to be rejected, Adams would take on Brave and the Bold where he finally got his shot after proving he could not only bring the Dark Knight back to the Infantino experience, perhaps he could even improve upon it. Alongside writer Dennis O’Neil, the creative pair produced one of the most memorable runs of the Caped Crusader in his history that included the creation of the Fu Manchu-inspired Ra’s al Ghul. Neal Adams would later return to Batman in 2010 with a series of limited series entitled Batman: The Odyssey.
Adams’ run was somewhat brief, however. Batman was fortunate, though, in that he was followed by Jim Aparo on art duties (a man many consider the quintessential Batman artist). Aparo’s work would return to Batman off and on for around three decades. Perhaps his most well known work came in the late 1980s story A Death in the Family featuring the demise of Jason Todd (though, a close second was depicting Bane breaking Batman’s back in the Knightfall story arc). Other notable artists that worked on Batman around this time included Frank Robbins (who was also a writer), Ernie Chan (known back then as Ernie Chua), John Byrne (his first DC work on the first issue of The Untold Legend of the Batman which he was suppose to draw the entire mini-series but couldn’t due to time constraints), Mike Grell, John Calnan, Dick Giordano (who often inked for Neal Adams and José Luis García-López), Klaus Janson (frequent inker for Frank Miller until work on Dark Knight Returns spoiled their relationship), Don Newton, Gene Colan, Tom Mandrake, and Pat Broderick. Walt Simonson drew a back-up story in Detective Comics for Archie Goodwin featuring the character Manhunter that in time would incorporate the Dark Knight for a rather memorable depiction of the hero.
Another brief but highly praised interpretation of Batman during these years came under the pen of Marshall Rogers in Detective Comics written by Steve Englehart featuring the creation of the fiery Doctor Phosphorus, the re-imagining of Deadshot, the return of Hugo Strange, and the memorable “The Laughing Fish” story (the pair would return in a sequel to their run in Batman: Dark Detective in 2005). Another notable turn with the Dark Knight was José Luis García-López’ issue of DC Special Series that saw Batman and Marvel’s Incredible Hulk battle each other leading to a team-up against the Joker and Shaper of Worlds (the artist would also work on Detective Comics, Joker, Batman Family, The Brave and the Bold, and Batman during this period, generally for fill-ins). García-López would pen the 1982 DC Comics Style Guide which was an archive of images for licensing, often his depiction of Batman and his cast the introduction for the characters to new fans, but also helped inspire artists at DC in their portrayal of the publisher’s icons including Batman, Robin, Joker, et al.
In 1986, the image of Batman changed forever. Having made a name for himself re-invigorating the ailing Daredevil title for Marvel, Frank Miller was brought over to DC by Dick Giordano to pen Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Where Daredevil was a fairly run-of-the-mill hero prior, Miller turned it into a dark, gritty, sexual, and violent re-imagining. DC Comics was just entering its British invasion, bringing in Alan Moore to work on Swamp Thing with his Watchmen limited series later in the year after Miller’s Batman series. The world of Dark Knight Returns featured an older Batman coming out of retirement to save a Gotham City significantly worse than the one he left (with his physical appearance throwing back to the bulky shape known to Dick Sprang’s interpretation). Miller’s vision abandoned largely any notion of the big brother Batman forever from comics (going so far as to even paint Superman as the boy scout loyal to the established order that has hung from the character’s neck for quite some time). Its success, as well as that of Moore’s Watchmen, brought about change for virtually the entire industry leading to a darkening of all heroes that persists today. It was also Miller’s vision which prompted director Tim Burton to accept the reins of creating the film Batman for 1989.
A year after Dark Knight Returns, an artist that became identified with Batman for almost a decade began work on the character. Training from the age of twelve in art, Norm Breyfogle teamed with writer Alan Grant on Detective Comics adding a new dimension of gothic design for the mythology, drawing Batman in a more dramatic, elemental fashion with ample use of shadow which heightened its effect (an artistic interpretation part of the age that gave rise to the likes of Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Erik Larsen). Breyfogle would go on to provide art for Batman, Robin (featuring the new version of the character in Tim Drake), and Shadow of the Bat helping co-create characters like the Ventriloquist, Anarky, and Mister Zsasz. Breyfogle would also draw Batman: Holy Terror, the first book to carry the Elseworlds label (though, A Tale of the Batman: Gotham by Gaslight drawn by Mike Mignola is considered the first official book in the imprint). A year after his foray into Batman’s world, Frank Miller would return to pen the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths origin of the Dark Knight in Batman: Year One, but this time as only writer with David Mazzucchelli providing art. The success of the arc led to Batman: Year Two, which featured the art of Alan Davis and Todd McFarlane, and Batman: Year Three with Pat Broderick on art. McFarlane would go on to co-found Image Comics and produced art for the Frank Miller scribed one-shot Spawn/Batman.
1988 would bring what many consider the greatest Batman story ever told by one of the greatest writers in the history of comic books. Alan Moore’s Batman: The Killing Joke chronicles the post-Crisis origin of the Joker as Batman deals with one of the most personal attacks from his nemesis in their history, including the shooting (and subsequent paralysis) of Barbara Gordon and kidnapping and humiliation of her father Commissioner James Gordon. The art was rendered by Brian Bolland is some hybrid of photorealism and deep, dark, moody art heralding back to that of the pulp, comic strip, and early comic book style. The event was a rare one as Bolland’s style of art is so intensive that he rarely has time to draw a story (often working as a much sought-after cover artist). The following year, Grant Morrison would scribe Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth featuring the inmates of Arkham Asylum taking over the facility (loosely adapted for the video game Batman: Arkham Asylum). Painted by Dave McKean, the story was an experimental work by Morrison where the art was dreamlike and expressionistic represented in a style unlike any comic before it.
Already described, that same year saw Tim Burton’s vision of Batman brought to the big screen which saw a sequel in Batman Returns in 1992. To coincide with the sequel’s release, an animated series was produced borrowing elements from the film series and comic books. Batman had already been animated in several periods previously (including character designed by Alex Toth for Super Friends), artist Bruce Timm would model his version around the Fleischer Studios Superman shorts for Batman: The Animated Series (the success of which spawned the DC Animated Universe including Superman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited). The series would be adapted for comics in Batman Adventures (with subsequent series) featuring art of the likes of Bruce Timm, Ty Templeton, Brad Rader, Mike Parobeck, Dev Madan, Rick Burchett, Tim Harkins, Brandon Kruse, Joe Staton, Terry Beatty, Bo Hampton, Craig Rousseau, Tim Levins, Bob Smith, and James Fry. The same year as the cartoon premiered, artist Matt Wagner would tackle the Caped Crusader in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight for the story “Faces” (which saw the artist take on the character several times over the years in stories like Batman: Riddler and the Riddle Factory, which coincided with the film Batman Forever, Batman and the Monster Men, and Batman and the Mad Monk, the latter two retelling early Golden Age Batman stories).
Beginning in the mid-1990s, another artist who became closely associated with Batman was Tim Sale. Painting in a noir style, Sale worked on Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, Batman: The Long Halloween, and Batman: Dark Victory, often with writer Jeph Loeb (a collaboration that would include stories on Catwoman, Superman, Spider-Man, Hulk, Captain America, and Daredevil). While Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle were perhaps the most recognized artists of Batman during the 1990s, another well known artist to work on the character was Graham Nolan, who was a frequent collaborator with Chuck Dixon (likely the writer most associated with Batman during this period). Other artists around this time included Jim Balent (known for his prolific run on Catwoman), Eduardo Barreto, Bret Blevins, Mark Buckingham, Rodolfo Damaggio, Mike DeCarlo, Tommy Lee Edwards, Frank Fosco, Vincent Giarrano, Tom Grummett, Matt Haley, Staz Johnson, Kelley Jones (who provided art for the Batman: Vampire trilogy), Barry Kitson, Alex Maleev, Mike Manley, Marcos Martin, George Pérez (whose work Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying introduced Tim Drake), Chris Renaud, P. Craig Russell, Dave Taylor, Sal Velluto, Mike Vosburg, Ron Wagner, Mike Wieringo, and Berni Wrightson (as can be seen, during this period Batman saw many artists apply their interpretation to him as the number of titles he was in grew and artists became less ongoing on his titles). Alex Ross would produce an oversized graphic novel tabloid on the Caped Crusader with writer Paul Dini in 1999 entitled Batman: War on Crime which won him an Eisner award that year as a painter.
As Graham Nolan transitioned into comic strip work, his frequent collaborator and what continued to be a strong force in the Batman universe in Chuck Dixon began to work with up-and-coming artist Scott McDaniel. In the mid-1990s, they worked on the Nightwing series together before McDaniel took over art chores for Batman in 2000 and would later have a lengthy run on Robin. McDaniel’s art style focused less on the appearance of characters and more on their movement making him perfect for the Batman books under Dixon as they centered on martial art action. Artists like Greg Land, Andy Kuhn, Raymond Bachs, Pete Woods, Yvel Guichet, Dale Eaglesham, Brad Walker, Sean Philips, Doug Mahnke, Frank Teran, Phil Winslade, Damion Scott, Dan Jurgens, Mike Deodato, Giuseppe Camuncoli, Eric Battle, Shane Davis, Michael Lark, Tom Morgan, Mat Broome, Mike Lilly, Jon Proctor, Tom Derenick, Kinsun, Paul Lee, Paul Gulacy, Sean Murphy, Tom Nguyen, Seth Fisher, Al Barrionuevo, Jae Lee, Steve Lieber, Cliff Chiang, Mark McKenna, Roger Robinson, Val Semeiks, Lee Bermejo, Shawn Martinbrough, John Watkiss, William Rosado, Phil Hester, Steve Mitchell, Tom Fowler, Dave Ross, Ryan Sook, Guy Davis, Nathan Massengill, Eduardo Risso, Francisco Rodriguez de la Fuente, Sam Kieth, and Sergio Cariello would begin to emerge across the hero’s various books.
Jeph Loeb would return again to Batman in 2003, but instead of Tim Sale, he would be joined by another acclaimed artist in Jim Lee. Having established himself as a superstar on X-Men, Lee co-founded Image Comics and established the WildStorm imprint. After DC Comics acquired WildStorm in 1999, Lee came to perform work for DC culminating into his collaboration with Loeb which maybe his most memorable work for the company thus far. Telling another mystery as with his previous Sale collaborated stories, Loeb’s year-long storyline Hush introduced the titular character who would become a new, dangerous thorn in the Dark Knight’s side. Over the course of the story, Lee was provided the opportunity to draw virtually every major villain and supporting cast member of Batman. The storyline was a huge success and Lee would go on to draw Frank Miller’s All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder shortly afterward. The All Star line was DC Comics’ response to Marvel Comics’ successful Ultimate line and Miller and Lee’s Batman was a hyper-reality retelling of the hero’s origin (readers would informally register the origin as that of the Dark Knight Returns‘ Batman’s universe, All Star so far as to feature Miller’s fascist Superman). Though swamped with delays (ten issues over three years), All Star Batman would prove to be another hit for the publisher. The series went on hiatus in 2008 and was suppose to return in 2011 as Dark Knight: Boy Wonder but has yet to surface.
In 2005, DC Comics would experience a soft reboot of its properties through the event Infinite Crisis (previously experiencing a major reboot in 1986 with Crisis on Infinite Earths and a soft reboot in 1994 with Zero Hour: Crisis in Time) which led to a shake-up with the Batman books, most notably Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert (son of legendary artist Joe Kubert) on Batman. Andy Kubert (along with brother Adam) was snatched up in an exclusive contract by DC Comics at the time having been away from the publisher for fifteen years working for Marvel Comics, replacing Jim Lee on the X-Men series and achieving critical acclaim on Origin, Ultimate X-Men, and 1602. The post-Infinite Crisis Batman storyline followed a thread left by the graphic novel Batman: Son of the Demon by writer Mike W. Barr and artist Jerry Bingham in 1987 (itself picked up for Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross) of a child Batman sired with Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia. In the initial arc “Batman & Son”, the Dark Knight learns of his son’s existence, raised as Ra’s’ heir and trained by the League of Assassins, and accepts him as his protege. Morrison would continue on the book with Kubert and other artists including John Van Fleet, J.H. Williams III, Ryan Benjamin, and Lee Garbett. Kubert would later provide art for Neil Gaiman’s Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? following the demise of Batman in Final Crisis (the story’s title paying homage to Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s legendary tale Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? which told the final story of Superman before his existence was wiped out by Crisis on Infinite Earths).
Following Kubert’s departure on Batman, artist Tony S. Daniel would largely take over ongoing art duties where today he is arguably the go-to Batman artist. Daniel would join Morrison on the Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul and went on to draw Batman R.I.P. before writing and drawing Battle for the Cowl and Batman. In 2011, DC Comics rebooted their universe again following the events of Flashpoint. During the event, an alternate Batman in Thomas Wayne was introduced written by Brian Azzarello and drawn by Eduardo Risso. Following the event, Daniel would take over writing and art duties on Detective Comics. Some other modern comic artists include Frank Quitely (who gained prestige drawing the adventures of Dick Grayson assuming the Batman mantle and Damian Wayne as Robin), Philip Tan, Patrick Gleason, Chris Burnham, Cameron Stewart, Andy Clarke, Carlos D’Anda, Dustin Nguyen, Mike S. Miller, Walter Flanagan, Don Kramer, Simone Bianchi, Joe Benitez, Marcos Marz, Ed Benes, Leonard Kirk, Javier Pina, Jason Pearson, Kenny Martinez, Alex Sanchez, Guillem March, Denys Cowan, Whilce Portacio, Jock, Francesco Francavilla, Patrick Zircher, Frazer Irving, Yanick Paquette, Chris Sprouse, Georges Jeanty, Pere Perez, Michael Golden, Rags Morales, Jason Fabok, and Paul Pope.
In 2010, DC Comics would sign longtime Marvel Comics artist David Finch to an exclusive contract. At Marvel, Finch would work on many high profile projects including Ultimate X-Men and New Avengers and would come to DC to write and draw the new series Batman: The Dark Knight. When Flashpoint relaunched all titles, Dark Knight, despite being fairly new, was also restarted. Greg Capullo would add a new chilling dimension of darkness in the post-Flashpoint reboot of Batman as part of “The Court of Owls” storyline and reintroduction of the Joker who saw the skin of his face sliced off by new villain the Dollmaker only to retrieve it later and reapply it like a mask. For 2012, writer Geoff Johns and artist Gary Frank produced a new vision of the Caped Crusader in the graphic novel Batman: Earth One. Telling a familiar, but new, tale of the origins of Batman, Frank provided a more realistic vision of Batman in line with the concepts of the Christopher Nolan Batman film trilogy and Batman: Arkham video game series.
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