The Dark Knight Returns 1 - Close up
The Dark Knight Returns #1

Batman is turning 80 on March 30, and it’s time we celebrate the man, the bat, the legend.

Welcome to day six of this series as we tackle Batman in the 1980s. We will break it down by comics, TV, films, and general culture. Because of the breadth of his impact on the world, there is no way we can hit every landmark moment, but we’re going to try our best to bring you an overall history of the infamous Batman.

Batman in the 1980s

Comics

This decade may have been the hardest to decide which medium to begin with. Events happened in the comics, unlike anything that had been seen before, while almost the exact same thing happened in the movies. But, in the end, everything comes from the comics, so that is where we begin.

Things kicked off almost immediately with Jason Todd making his first appearance in Batman #357 in 1983. He made his first full appearance in Detective Comics #525 and became a part of the Bat-Family. By the end of the year, following a conflict between Batman and the original Robin, Dick Grayson, Todd became the second Robin. This angered Dick who decided to take on a new identity and was introduced as Nightwing in Tales of the Teen Titans #44.

Jason Todd would then lead into one of the most shocking events in the history of Batman. In 1988 DC decided to conduct a phone-in poll about whether or not Jason Todd should live through the current storyline. With a 72-vote margin, it was decided that Jason Todd would die at the end of the “A Death in the Family” storyline at the hands of the Joker. And kill him did. Violently and gruesomely. Jason Todd was indeed killed off… for now.

The 1980s also saw  some significant villains introduced:

  • Killer Croc – Detective Comics #523 – 1983
  • Black Mask – Batman #386 – 1985
  • Ventriloquist I (Arnold Wesker) –  Detective Comics #583 – 1988
  • KGBeast Batman #417 – 1988

An ally of Batman was also introduced in 1989, but over in The Question #33. That was where Harold Allnut, the mute who would go on to work on projects in the Batcave, was introduced.

But it wasn’t just the usual Batman comics that shaped the 1980s for the caped crusader. In 1986 The Dark Knight Returns hit the shelves from Frank Miller. The comics industry as a whole was starting to rebel against the Comics Code Authority. Creators wanted to tell more mature stories, and it was decided that comics sold through specialty shops – also known as ‘the direct market’ – didn’t have to comply with the CCA. If the book wasn’t going to your traditional newsstands, then you could be a bit more free with what you did – Miller did just this.

Miller worked with editor Dick Giordano through the first half of the series until the editor left due to disagreements over deadlines. The two of them shaped a story that, while not canon, had lasting impacts on everyone’s perceptions of the character and how he should be handled. Imagery from the comic still appears on a regular basis in comics, on TV, and in film.

As part of Miller’s contract for The Dark Knight Returns, he was also tasked with writing a revamped origin story for Batman. It was decided that Miller would handle the writing only on this particular project to help with deadlines, and art duties went to David Mazzucchelli. It was originally envisioned as a graphic novel, but as work continued the story expanded and it was decided the story would be told over four issues of the Batman comic. “Batman: Year One” then ran across Batman #404 – #407.

In the 1987 graphic novel Son of the Demon, we learn that Talia al Ghul is pregnant with Batman’s child. Following overly protective behavior that Talia worries will cost him his life, she lies to him that she has miscarried. With Batman assuming the child died, he is none the wiser when she gives the child up for adoption. Of course, we’ll revisit this child in the 2000s…

A Robin being killed off, a genre changing mini-series, and a revamped origin story would be enough for most characters in a decade, but Batman wasn’t done messing with the comics industry quite yet. In March 1988 DC released Batman: The Killing Joke written by Alan Moore with art by Brian Bolland. This comic, unlike The Dark Knight Returns, did fit in Batman canon (at times) and changed the Bat-Family for decades to come. This is where the Joker shot Barbara Gordon, severing her spine and ending her career as Batgirl, turning her into Oracle.

The 1980s were a huge decade for Batman in the comics, but that was only the half of it.

Movies

Batman hadn’t been on the big screen in live-action since the 1960s. A movie based on a comic at this point was something you celebrated. It didn’t matter what the movie was, if it was based on a comic, and you were a comic fan you went and saw it.

Howard the Duck movie - 01

Yes… I mean we would see anything based on a comic book.

Then the rumblings started. A Batman movie was in the works from… the director of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure? Okay, sure. And then he cast Michael Keaton… the guy from Mr. Mom? No one was quite sure what to think about what was happening. And then Jack Nicholson was cast as the Joker and everyone started to feel a bit more at ease.

And then something the likes of which I’m not sure had ever happened before for any movie. Batmania hit and it hit hard. To say people were amped for this movie would be an understatement. Anything that could have a bat logo slapped on it, did. People were getting it shaved into their hair. It was on magazine covers. There was an avalanche of t-shirt designs that just didn’t seem to stop. Everyone and their brother was ready for some Batman.

The film finally released on June 23, 1989, to tremendous results. It was sold out showings everywhere for days, and in 1989 that meant waiting in lines at theaters as opposed to just ordering tickets on your phone.

The release of Tim Burton’s Batman movie wasn’t your typical film release, it was a cultural event. There have been other movies that built anticipation such as Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but no other film has ever again seemed to permeate the very nature of society. Even after the film left theaters, there was still anticipation for the home video release. Affordable VHS copies of films were still a novelty at that point, and so there was another wave of excitement as people were able to take this film home with them.

While people may get pumped for a movie such as Avengers: Endgame, it’s still nothing compared to the insanity of the original Batman.

Jay Yaws contributed research to this post.

Check out the other installments in this series:

Be sure to enter our Batman 80th Anniversary giveaway!

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