The Batman brings the eponymous superhero to the big screen yet again, and this new take wishes to highlight the “World’s Greatest Detective” element of the character. The film is a grab bag of visual and textual influences, mixing classic noir with more contemporary flavors and thrills, especially 2007’s Zodiac. But of course, it’s also colored by many different comic book influences. Director Matt Reeves is keenly interested in comics about the Batman-in-progress, a Bruce Wayne whose persona is unfinished, who’s still discovering the nuances of his mission. Though superhero movies are now Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers, too often we forget their source material. Here are some key graphic texts to understand The Batman.
In 1987, writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli created perhaps the definitive Batman origin story. While Bob Kane and Bill Finger imagined the iconic demise of Thomas and Martha Wayne, the four-issue arc Batman: Year One added nearly everything else, to the point that many other Batman stories continue to reference it today. Set before Gotham City is overrun with costumed criminals, it’s a less fanciful vision, instead featuring a more down-to-earth story about flawed men fighting a broken system. It’s about Batman’s first steps as a crimefighter, an icon still forming, and Reeves frames The Batman as a sort of follow-up to it. The lifts not just narrative elements but also character designs, particularly Catwoman’s look and Bruce Wayne disguising himself as a drifter. A shot of a villain sitting in a bright bar on a dark street conjures Mazzucchelli’s overt Hopper homage in the series’ fourth issue. Mazzucchelli works the ambiguity of Miller’s writing into his simple but rough line work, evoking the noirish overtones through a striking contrast between details and shadows, all housed in pleasingly minimalist page layouts. Meanwhile, Richmond Lewis’s more expressive use of color make the book’s melodramatic moments linger in the memory.
The Long Halloween
This limited series by writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale is perhaps quoted by more Batman movies than any other comic. (Dark Knight Trilogy director Christopher Nolan even wrote the foreword to a recent edition.) Another tale set early in Batman’s career, it’s as much about the evolution of his rogue’s gallery as it is the Caped Crusader, characterized by Sale’s expressionist art style. It unspools over the course of a year, as a serial killer claims a new victim on each holiday. The Batman makes this influence obvious, literally starting on Halloween night, and it too follows Batman through a single mystery over an extended period. The Batman borrows some plot elements, especially when it comes to the villains and the Wayne family’s ties to Gotham’s criminal underworld. In places it also feels in keeping with Sale’s peculiar angles and monstrous, murky take on Gotham, as its denizens uncannily meld and become one with the darkness of its alleys. (Sale draws Batman’s cape extending like tendrils into the shadows.) And like Loeb, Reeves is examining Batman’s role as a catalyst for change — both for better and worse.
Darwyn Cooke left a lasting impact on comics with his incredible style, an enticing retro-futurist throwback to ’50s “Silver Age” design sensibility marked by dynamic action and square-jawed characters. In the late ’90s, he broke into the industry as a storyboard artist on The New Batman Adventures with pitch pages that would eventually be published as the short story Batman: Ego. In it, Cooke explores a monumental Art Deco Gotham City before delving into the nightmarish depths of Bruce Wayne’s troubled mind in bold, blocky colors. Bruce is psychologically tormented by a monstrous, separate Batman figure, who confronts him with his failure to save a man’s life. In the same way that Mazzucchelli looked to naturalism as a contrast to the melodrama of superhero fare in his time, Cooke counteracted the busy detail of ’90s comics with more straightforward visuals. The classical silhouettes that defined his magnum opus The New Frontier were not just empty nostalgia, but a way to explore what these characters mean to different generations, as they often lose the fight to changing times. Ego might be the most confrontational version of this tendency, directly challenging the ethical framework of Batman’s mission — his no-killing rule, his collaboration with the police — through Cooke’s gorgeous art, classical yet forward-thinking.
The 2013-2014 Zero Year crossover arc — a collaboration between writers Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV with artists Greg Capullo, Danny Miki, and Rafael Albuquerque — revises details of Batman’s origin story, part of DC Comics’ broader effort to create fresh spins on its flagship characters. As the title suggests, Snyder remixed elements of Year One into a post-apocalyptic take on Bruce Wayne’s first year as Batman, in which he clashes with the Riddler, who is presented as his ideological opposite, with a fatalistic vision for changing Gotham. The Batman swims in the same waters, positioning the Riddler as a major influence on Batman’s mission as he transforms from a street-level vigilante to a grander, more hopeful symbol. The story’s approach came to define Snyder and Capullo’s subsequent tenure on DC’s bat-books, with their dark and bloody remixes of classic Batman elements presented in psychedelic style by Capullo, who visually embraces the zaniness of the mythos. As well as borrowing plot developments from the Zero Year comics, The Batman embraces its rawer and angrier Bruce Wayne, a man so uninterested in his daytime life or its pleasures that he’s practically the living dead.
The Batman is now playing in theaters.