Batman's appearance is intended to provoke superstitious cowardice among the criminal element of Gotham City — but it's also become a part of our culture. The bat-ears, cowl and dark silhouette are instantly recognizable. And when you think "superhero," Bruce Wayne's cape and cowl are among the most likely images to come to mind.
But there's no one style of Batman that dominates our culture — he's changed tremendously over the years, and a handful of artists have put their design stamp on Bruce Wayne. The fact that Batman still rules all our worlds is in large part due to these great artists.
Top image: Tony Daniel.
Thanks to Cyriaque for the suggestions!
Sure, Bob Kane gets all the credit for creating Batman, but other artists did more to define the Caped Crusader for the ages — chief among them Dick Sprang. Sprang, who started working on Batman when he was just in his early 20s, was one of the main Bat-artists for the first 20 years. And he helped create what many of us consider the "classic" look of Batman — beefy and athletic, with a chunky head and a totally square jaw. As Cloud 109 puts it, "Sprang threw... naturalism out the window and dispensed with a waistline altogether. In Sprang's Batman, the chest erupts from the utility belt, figures don't run, they leap and everything seems to inhabit a high octane adrenalin charged world."
When Julius Schwartz created Batman's "New Look" in 1964, he turned to Infantino, who was already celebrated for his work on the Flash. Infantino was instrumental in moving the character away from the goofy 1950s storylines, and helping to create a somewhat more realistic look for Batman. And I'm always kind of blown away by Batman's puffy, expressive lips in Infantino's drawings. Infantino aimed for sleek lines, in which he tried to "take the drawing out," although his inker Murphy Anderson usually wound up putting it back in. Infantino's most famous Batman image shows an intent, muscular Batman, with huge white eyes and noticeable white eyebrows, holding his dark cape over his face, while Robin squats at his feet. Batman is all business, and the slight cartoony touches only accentuate how serious he is about fighting crime.
If Infantino added a bit more realism to Batman as compared to his 1950s camp, then Neal Adams supercharged that realism, adding a lot more sharp edges and a much more dramatic, cinematic style. There's an amazing sense of composition in some of Adams' covers, including Batman #244, "The Demon Lives Again," with a shirtless and apparently impaled Batman lying at Ra's Al Ghul's feet. Adams, in an interview, explains why his Batman was better than some of the earlier artists' attempts: I
t's that-most of those guys couldn't draw that well. But as well as they could draw, they drew this nifty Batman, within the framework of their style and their abilities. I happen to be a slightly better, more accomplished artist. So I would tend to draw a more finished piece. Not because-not because I'm better but because that's what I do. So it's just what they did brought forward, and I just left out the stuff in the middle. The crap.
He's recently returned to Batman with the totally inexplicable Batman: Odyssey, but his classic Batman work remains monumentally awesome.
Rogers was another of the handful of artists who were credited with giving more "realism" and style to the Batman in the 1970s. But his Batman looks a bit different than Adams' — a bit more streamlined and intense. Where Adams' Batman often seems to be freaking out over something, Rogers' Batman has a constant scowl on his face, with his teeth gritted. Rogers only penciled a handful of Batman issues, mostly with Steve Englehart writing, but he placed an indelible mark on the character.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, famed artist Gene Colan came over to DC and brought his horror movie-influenced style, which he'd shown to such great effect on Tomb of Dracula, to Batman. He chafed at the lack of creative freedom at DC, but enjoyed making Batman more of a creature of the night. Also, I have to give some props here to Berni Wrightson, who drew a great, nightmarish Batman in Jim Starlin's The Cult.
Where would Batman be without The Dark Knight Returns? Miller created the "wall of sinew" approach to the Caped Crusader. And he also created a vision of a much older, more ruthless Bruce Wayne, who's willing to do radical surgery with his hands. There's a raw physicality to Miller's Batman in The Dark Knight Returns, a willingness to get his hands dirty commensurate with his vulnerability.
Meanwhile, Miller also recreated the origins of Batman with Batman: Year One, in which strong lines and clear use of shadow to create an image of a young Bruce Wayne who's still learning his chosen trade. In contrast to the hugely popping sinews of Miller's older Batman, this is the most sleek Batman we've ever seen — he's graceful and clean-looking.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were two supreme Bat-artists, for my money: Jim Aparo was doing the same Neal Adams-inspired quasi-realistic Bats he'd been doing, on and off, since the early 1970s. And meanwhile, there was the trippy, insane Norm Breyfogle. In my book, Breyfogle doesn't get the props he deserves. His huge nightmarish faces and exaggerated proportions were just as unrealistic as the cartoony Batman of the 1950s, but they were dramatic rather than just campy. When you paired Breyfogle with a sinister, dark enough writer, like Alan Grant, the mixture of exaggerated art with twisted writing often yielded great results. And he broke Batman out of the trap of excessive realism, once and for all, with some completely demented results.
Here's the other under-appreciated Bat-artist, in my book. The late, great Mike Parobeck was a huge reason why the Batman Adventures comic book was not just a boring kid-friendly tie-in to the amazing Batman: The Animated Series. Along with the TV show's Bruce Timm and superstar artist Ty Templeton, Parobeck helped to create the model of what a modern-day kid-friendly Batman could look like. But more than that, Parobeck created some of the most exciting Batman layouts of all time, and put just amazing amounts life into every scene with Batman. Often, "cartoony" art means just silly and weirdly unexpressive, but Parobeck's Batman bursts with energy and excitement.
For a long time, Jones was just doing the covers for Bat-comics, and it was in that capacity that he made his biggest impression — his version of Batman is like a weird caricature, with huge long ears and an inhuman face. If Breyfogle pushed a more stylized, surreal Batman, Jones took this to the limit with a Batman that could not possibly exist in real life. He's the most Satanic, exaggerated version of Bats, with huge shadows and terrible foes. Just check out Jones' covers for the Knightfall crossover. He also did Red Rain, a great Elseworlds comic where Batman becomes a vampire. Later, Jones became the regular artist for the Batman comic, and it didn't work for some reason — his crazy gothic style started to look too cartoony and silly, and he just couldn't sustain the aura of menace that he'd created on the Bat-covers. But he still created one of the most memorable, monsteriffic versions of Batman.
Jim Lee worked on some of my least favorite Batman comics, including All-Star Batman and Robin, and the "Hush" crossover. But there's no question he created some of the greatest Batman art of the past decade, and I always feel a kind of visceral excitement when I look at Lee's Batman — there's just something about the big solid head and the imposing frame. He fulfills all of the promise that was implied with The Dark Knight Returns, of a more physical, imposing Batman, with a flat head and a powerful body. It's not Rob Liefeld-style pumped-up steroid body, but more like just a powerful figure. Batman's head looks like he could bust through a titanium wall with it — and then use it for heavy-duty deduction immediately afterwards.
With Batman: Year 100 and assorted other comics, Pope created a Batman who's both utterly realistic and utterly cartoony. The tons of lines around Batman's mouth kind of freak me out. You can't really look at Bats the same way after looking at Pope's Batman.
The MVP on Batman in the past few years has been Daniel, both working with Grant Morrison and writing and drawing his own issues. Daniel has talked about wanting to bring a more gritty, noir sensibility to Batman, and where he really shines is in these big splashy images of Dark Gotham. And Batman's enormous scalloped cape, which goes on for ever. Talking to Douglas Wolk, Daniel explained something about his art style:
And since I'm inking myself, I'm going for a darker look–more stark shadows. I'm playing with shading, trying to set the mood and the tone better than I've done before. ... [Batman looks good] just running around with his scalloped cape and cowl and his shadows! Gotham City is like a second character–the film noir style, a little bit of Blade Runner–when you have those elements together, it's easy to be drawn in as a reader... Bruce Wayne is heavier-set–he's bigger, with broader shoulders. He's huge. Dick Grayson is leaner; he's more of an acrobat type.