Ever since Batman took down an evil chemical baron in his very first case 75 years ago, the DC Comics superhero has undergone countless reinterpretations, not only in comic books but in movies, TV shows, games and pop culture on the whole.
All the while, he's remained the same guy who has no superpowers but became something more through fear — his own and what he instills in villains — and an obsessive need to avenge his parents' murders.
"Batman's been very lucky to have a lot of really distinguished stories," says Grant Morrison, who recently wrapped up seven years writing comic-book tales of the Dark Knight.
And it's a character who should be redone and reborn for every generation, says current Batman series scribe Scott Snyder.
"There's such a primal appeal to a hero who's suffered a tremendous trauma and gets up and says, 'I'm going to take this and make it the fuel to become someone who never lets this happen to someone else,'" Snyder says.
That appeal was best displayed in these key stories, which helped make him an American classic:
Detective Comics No. 31 (1939): Batman vs. The Monk
• Bat-plot: Batman keeps Bruce Wayne's former fiancée from murdering a man in Gotham City, sparking an adventure that takes him to Europe to fight gorillas, monsters and the hooded vampire figure known as The Monk.
• Bat-spiration: Just four issues after introducing the character, the comic was already foreshadowing Batman's penchant for darkness and showing how well he worked in a pure gothic horror setting, Morrison says. "It was the start of realizing that the character would be used in a lot of different contexts." He also digs how creepy it was: "Gotham City is like a madhouse. It's all German expressionistic angles and the Batman goes in his gyrocopter to this bizarre European country where vampires seem to be around every corner and in every tavern.''
Instant Freeze (Feb. 2 episode of 1966 Batman TV series): Classic camp
• Bat-plot: Mr. Freeze (George Sanders) had been pelted by "Instant Freeze" during a past skirmish with Batman (Adam West), forcing him to live in a house that is cooled to 50 degrees below zero. A vengeful Freeze breaks into the Gotham City Diamond Exchange, and he and his henchman — Chill, Nippy and Mo — get an icy reception from Batman and Robin (Burt Ward).
• Bat-spiration: The TV show couldn't have come at a better time for Batman, says KROQ radio personality Ralph Garman. Sales of the comics were low in the mid-1960s when DC Comics tried to make him "an ersatz Superman," time traveling and fighting aliens and robots. Having a TV presence boosted and rejuvenated the Caped Crusader in comics and also introduced him to the mainstream. Plus, even though it's considered silly in retrospect, the show brought a lot of elements to the Batman legend we have to today — for example, Garman says, turning the former Mister Zero into Freeze "made him more of a viable villain than he ever was in the comic books."
Batman No. 232 (1971): The rise of Ra's al Ghul
• Bat-plot: A new villain called Ra's al Ghul comes on the scene in a big way, figuring out Batman's secret identity. But Ra's also needs the hero's help, as the same cult of killers that kidnapped his daughter, Talia, also nabbed Robin. They track the bad guys to the Himalayas, betrayal ensues and Ra's surprises Batman by telling him that he would make a great husband for Talia.
• Bat-spiration: Writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams' run in the '70s reestablished Batman as a gritty, realistic detective after the cartoonish version of the '60s. Ra's was introduced as "an adversary worthy of Batman that hadn't really been present since Joker, somebody who was as smart, cunning, clever, devious and as dedicated to his own mission as Batman was," Garman says. The story also influenced David Goyer when writing 2005's Batman Begins, the first of director Christopher Nolan's movie trilogy. O'Neil and Adams were "the first ones to really overhaul Batman," Goyer says, "and a number of people took their cue after that."
The Dark Knight Returns (1986 comic-book miniseries): Batman's cultural game-changer
• Bat-plot: Now in his mid-50s, an aging Bruce Wayne comes out of retirement when crime gets out of control in Gotham. His return brings the Joker out of his catatonic state to once more battle his oldest foe. Also, the government — and Superman — set their sights on Batman.
• Bat-spiration: With his masterwork, writer Frank Miller not only changed the character but changed the entire medium, Garman says. "That's when comics became literature, and it influenced and colored everything that came after it." For Snyder, it spoke to a lot of the fears of the 1980s — the Cold War, nuclear buildup in the USA and Soviet Union, the growing gap between rich and poor, deteriorating cities — all of which became part of "this totally nightmarish vision." Director Tim Burton used it as inspiration for his 1989Batman film, and Miller's idea for an older Batman is one that director Zack Snyder says speaks to his Dark Knight to be played by Ben Affleck in 2016's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
"Batman: Year One" (1987 comic-book story arc): A vigilante emerges
• Bat-plot: Batman's earliest days are chronicled as Bruce Wayne returns home to Gotham after training in martial arts and various sciences for more than 10 years. There, he finds his hometown teeming with violence and corruption so he teams with the newly transferred cop James Gordon to take on the mob and the rest of the criminal element.
• Bat-spiration: Miller's "Year One" run of Batman issues was the starting point for Goyer and Nolan developing Batman Begins. "It was the first work that, in a really grounded naturalistic way, tried to drill down into Bruce Wayne's origins," Goyer says. It also influenced Snyder's own recent Batman tales. "It put Batman in the city I saw around me every day," says the New York native. "It was a different city back (in the mid-1980s), when Times Square was really seedy and intimidating. And to see that city represented on the pages and Batman in that city make him suddenly real and immediate."
The Dark Knight (2008 movie): Hero and villain for the 21st century
• Bat-plot: Batman (Christian Bale) is forced to deal with the Joker (Heath Ledger), a new psychopath on the Gotham scene who is all about turning Gotham into a city of mass chaos and who threatens to kill citizens unless the Dark Knight reveals his identity.
• Bat-spiration: The Dark Knight further cemented comic-book movies as a box-office force — it racked up more than $1 billion worldwide. And it made them artistically relevant — the film scored a posthumous Oscar win for Ledger. "Despite 75 years of history, when you Google 'the Joker' all of the top results are of Heath Ledger," says Mike Sampson of Screencrush.com. "Forget being one of the best on-screen comic-book villains of all-time — Ledger's Joker is one of the best on-screen villains of all-time in any movie."