Batman is ridiculously old. Created in 1938 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, he is almost as old as comic books themselves—what we think of as a serialized comic book today began sometime around 1935 and Detective Comics (DC) #1 was published March 1937—but he is still just as popular as he’s ever been. In his comprehensively researched book, Batman: The Complete History, Les Daniels details every aspect of the most ambivalently sinister superhero to wear his underpants outside his trousers while delving into the question of what accounts for this character’s multigenerational appeal.
While this sophisticated book does cover pretty much the entire history of the publication, the text doesn’t offer much insight or go into very much detail in its reporting more or less the bare facts so as to keep the book at a reasonable length. It begins with a time decades before Batman was ever found on the printed page, going through Kane’s various influences (and possible influence)—Zorro, The Phantom, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage—and the lesser-known Finger used to create the Caped Crusader.
We are then taken from the hero’s early all-or-nothing days where he was a grim figure willing to shoot down and kill his enemies, to the diluted 1940-50s version of wholesome family type pulp fiction that literally featured a “Bat-Family”, to the pop-art influenced campy Adam West as Batman television show version, to the Neal Adams years of slick realism where he was a grim detective who relentlessly stalked those who preyed on the innocent that has been widely influential since the early 1970s, and ends with the even more expanded visions of Frank Miller, Denny O’Neil, Alan Moore, as well as Tim Burton’s 1989 film and in 1992 Batman: The Animated Series. Be warned, published in 1999, the Christopher Nolan films are not discussed, though the book is so well done you which it would have been written later.
The most frustrating thing about the book is that it is in no way critical of the film franchise even though things really went to hell with it there in the late 1990s. From this DC copyrighted book (who own the entire franchise, duh) you would think Joel Schumacher was a freaking genius for what he did with Batman and Robin. In other ways too Daniels proves annoyingly uncritical, as Claude Lalumière’s review “A Loving Bat-Tribute” sums up: “[it] flirts (but only flirts) with some controversial issues, such as the attribution of proper credit for the creation of Batman’s classic rogues' gallery and the highly questionable 1988 event ‘A Death in the Family,’ where readers were asked to call a 900 number to cast a vote of life or death for the second Robin, Jason Todd.” But I guess its never rise to bite the hand that feeds you as they say.
Some of the best sections are the ones that detail the effects of the Comic Code that regulated the industry making sure everything was PG-ish and wussified which was put into place following the 1954 publication of Seduction of the Innocent by psychologist Fredric Wertham that claimed “the Batman type of story may stimulate children to homosexual fantasies” after seeing things like the panel at right. This sparked a one-sided debate regarding the morality of comic books and since Batman had such a pivotal role in Wertham’s reasoning, much of the campy ridiculous crap came in an attempt to deflect criticism of angry parents and what have you.
This is all sort of like how people have been all up in arms over violent video games like Grand Theft Auto and such, saying they make kids violent and anti-social which is just insane. Here Daniels does a pretty good job of illustrating how the mindset that brought about the Comic Code was equally as ridiculous and stupid.
Also of note are the three reprinted Batman comics from the various time periods that show the comic’s progression. The stories work very well in context and are all excellent tales.
Perhaps the best thing about the book is its wonderful, aesthetically pleasing design engineered by Chip Kidd. Kidd’s work alone is worth the price of the book. Flipping through the book’s pages reveals its beauty with eye-popping art from cover to cover—its pretty much eye candy.