Is it just a coincidence that the new Batman film was released right at the same time as the 20th anniversary of the explosion of ‘Batman’ magazine, or is there more to it than meets the eye?

Many people believed that the upcoming Batman film was somehow linked to the resurgence of the comic book series in recent years, which was in part fuelled by the success of the Batman franchise. But what is the connection between the two?

Before the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a number of fans were wondering if Ben Affleck, the actor playing Batman in the upcoming film, was perhaps wearing the cape and cowl because he felt that it was his biological destiny to follow in the footsteps of his famous fictional counterpart. He even went so far as to change his Twitter profile picture to that of Batman. But was it just a stunt, or was there more behind the scene? Was he truly inspired by the legendary character?

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the comic book series and the upcoming 20th anniversary of the Batman franchise, we take a look at the origins and cultural significance of Batman, the Dark Knight.

The Creators Of The Batman Stereotype

The year 1989 was momentous for the world of comics. Two iconic characters would make history as Marvel and DC Comics came together to form a lasting union, a union that would change the industry forever. As a result of the merger, all comics published by either company would be officially dubbed as “superhero comics”, severing the previous association between comics and “graphic novels”. This new status quo would drastically alter the public perception of comics as a medium and the characters that dominated the industry.

One of the first major characters to embody this new status quo was Batman. The Dark Knight would quickly become the poster boy for the superhero comic book industry, and the creators of Batman would not rest on their laurels. They would go on to create one of the most iconic images in the history of comics, the image of Batman standing in front of a giant wall of arcade games, surrounded by children, all of them staring in awe at the Dark Knight, whose real name is Bob. This iconic image, which was first introduced to the public in the pages of Batman: Vengeance, was followed by other similar images depicting the Caped Crusader saving Gotham from peril, defeating the enemies of the city, and generally carrying on a heroic lifestyle. Every detail down to the tiniest costume adjustment was carefully considered by the creators of the character, who wanted to project an authentic image of an adult man in his late forties, with a passion for games and a taste for gadgets and action-adventure movies. This was the Batman stereotype that would come to define the 80s and beyond.

Comic Books: From Scrapped To Hot Topic

It wasn’t just about standing in front of a giant wall of arcade games though. The rise of the superhero comic book coincided with a period of considerable change in the world of comics, as well. The first issue of Tim Burton’s Batman was published in June 1989, and it was enthusiastically received by both critics and fans. The character’s popularity prompted the expansion of the Burton’s Batman universe, with more comics, games, and TV series being produced and published. Most importantly, perhaps, this was the beginning of a new era for comics. Instead of being considered a “graphic novel”, books with comic book panels could now be considered “comic books”, and this would open the doors for a wider audience.

This change in public perception was not lost on the creators of the Batman character. In fact, in an interview with Comic Book Resources, Kevin O’Neill, the co-creator of Batman, referenced this when discussing how he and Bruce Timm, his producing partner on the series, felt that comics had evolved over the years and that the character now had a much broader appeal:

“The character always had a bit of a mystique to it, because he was always a character that you either loved or hated,” O’Neill said. “You were never neutral about him. Even when he was being used badly by villains in the ‘70s, people still came back for more. It wasn’t until later that he became this bland, generic superhero. Back in the ‘80s, he was still recognizable as Bruce Wayne’s oddball, caped crusader. When we were developing the show in the ‘90s, it was based on that. We wanted to go back to basics and remind people of what made the character interesting in the first place.”

From Batman To Superman

While Batman would become the poster boy for superhero comics in the early ’90s, it was not long before his popularity began to decline as the “batman” prefix became trendy among young people and celebrity icons began to adopt and promote similar vigilantism and anti-authoritarian leanings. The ‘90s would see the birth of a number of copycats, many of whom were darker and more gruesome in nature than the Caped Crusader, setting off a backlash from many popularly identified as his “traditional” or “classic” audience. This was arguably the last hurrah for Batman as a cultural icon in the ‘90s.

A Whole Different Ballgame

Despite this public perception, Batman had not lost his appeal to creators. Several new takes on the character were released for a new generation of fans in the 2000s, and while many did not match the popularity of the original, many still found resonance in the character, leading to a new age of Batman. Most significantly, perhaps, was the Batman: Gotham Adventures animated series, which ran for two seasons in the late ‘00s and was immensely popular among both children and adults alike, cementing Batman’s place in popular culture as he never had before.

The success of this series was such that it led to the development of a companion comic book series, Batman: Streets Ahead, which was published in 2007. This was the first of several “new” Batman comics to be released in the previous decade, and it was an attempt by DC Comics to once again redefine the image of Batman, this time as a more mature and realistic character, inspired by the Dark Knight’s real world counterpart, Harvey Dent.

From Death To Rebirth

Harvey Dent was the ultimate “Dark Knight”. The villainous millionaire was a twisted, charismatic competitor to the Batman who fell to his death during the infamous “Battle of Gotham”, leading to the formation of Two Face, with Dent’s face on the other side. Two Face went on to become one of the most popular characters in Batman history, inspiring numerous villains and anti-heroes and even becoming the face of “Halloween” locally for many years. The character’s popularity was such that it led to an attempt at revitalizing the Batman franchise. This was evident with the character’s subsequent rebirth in the 2010s, with several new takes on the character being released in the past few years, each one attempting to capture the spirit—and, in some cases, the exact look—of Two Face. This includes the recent Netflix series, Jessica Jones, which is directly inspired by the character.

Looking Back 20 Years Later

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Batman in the history of comics. The Dark Knight was arguably the character that popularized the concept of a superhero comic, and his influence can be seen in every aspect of modern superhero comics. But beyond that, Batman was also one of the most iconic and recognizable figures in comics, and this is still the case today. It would not be an exaggeration to say that if you grew up in the ‘90s, chances are you remember the dark knight, and if you are a true comic book fan, then you know exactly what is meant by the phrase “traditional” or “classic” Batman.

It is clear that Batman remains as relevant today as he was 20 years ago, and this is largely due to his ability to speak to diverse audiences. This is evident even now, as creators and fans alike continue to engage with and celebrate the character’s legacy.