As it has been a quarter-century since the release of Tim Burton’s Batman film, dysentery the comics internet is all a’buzz with memories and commemorations, here mostly from kids who were still in short pants back in the summer of 1989. I don’t say that to disparage these folks, sickness but there are matters of historical context and so forth that really do require “being there” to fully understand.
I caught Batman at an afternoon matinee a few weeks after it hit theaters. I was 17, on break between my junior and senior years of high school. It was a big deal, big enough for me to tolerate a horde of screaming children let loose by parents who treated the local multiplex as a summer vacation day care center. Circumstances aside, I liked it well enough, even though I was never that much of a Batman fan.
My little brother, on the other hand, was a huge fan of the character, who ran neck and neck with Captain America in his funnybook affections. It was through my brother that I kept up with the Caped Crusader’s comings and goings, by picking up his weekly fixes at the local comic shop and pooling out pennies together for joint order from NEC’s back issue catalog.
Between Frank Miller’s double whammy of Dark Knight Returns and Year One, the character of Batman was undergoing a massive transition from frequently goofy superhero nonsense into the realm of grimmer and grittier. There had been traces of it (beneath the forays into high concept absurdity) under Mike W. Barr’s direction, but it wasn’t until Miller (and after him, Jim Starlin) got a hold of Batman that the character began resembling the one we have today.
This was a pretty radical shift for a generation of kids raised on the Superfriends cartoon and syndicated repeats of the 1966 Batman TV show, and it dropped just as the direct market comics distribution was coming into its own as a venue unbeholden to “kiddie comics” fare.
Where Watchmen explored the horrific ramifications of superheroes in a “realistic” environment, Dark Knight Returns was more ambivalent. Its (fairly superficial) ideology was a narrative exercise in Poe’s Law, yet one that was ballyhooed by folks outside the scene as a sign of the genre-medium’s “maturity.” Is it any wonder it had such an impact among fanboys, especially ones wrapped up in an adolescent geek pathology with a sketchy grasp of what “anti-hero” actually entails?
Most importantly, it was a Batman comic. No need to step outside one’s traditional comfort zone or broaden one’s genre horizons, kids. The childhood icon had become a surly, resentful avatar of manchild misanthropy — and a profitable one, at that. Tramp the dirt down on the Bat Shark Repellent and all ages goofiness, this gritty new Batman proved that one’s childhood obsessions could be theoretically eternal reflections of a different form of developmental stasis.
None of this mattered to my little brother, who simply thrilled by the flood of gimmicky content unleashed to double down on the craze. Was Robin a relic of the silly old days? Then why not call a 1-900 number and vote to have his skull bashed in with a crowbar? Did Batgirl evoke the images of Yvonne Craig and Adam West’s prominent pot belly? Then what better way to refute that than a high-profile prestige project where she gets paralyzed (and has nekkid photos of her taken) by the Joker?
We thought this was daring. We thought this was cool. We thought that we were witnessing the beginning of something dramatic and groundbreaking.
We were dumb kids, wrestling with a notion of maturity that was completely removed from the genuine article.
No one outside the fringes of the extended geek circle was impressed (or more accurately, aware) of these developments. My brother was still “the Batman kid,” to be serenaded during his paper route by classmates shouting the familiar “NA-NA-NA-NA” bits of the old TV theme.
The news that there was going to be a Batman movie was met with excitement and trepidation in equal measure. Superman was a long time ago. Superman IV was not that much of a long time ago. Casting rumors and speculation ran rampant across the lunchroom tables and comic shop counters that served as the geek grapevine in those pre-internet days.
“Oh no! Adam West will be cast and it’s going to be like the stupid BIFF BAM POW shit of the 1960s!”
“Oh no! It’s gonna be directed by the guy from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and star Mr. Mom! It’s going to be terrible! Nicholson as the Joker is perfect, though.”
So of course it turned out to be a huge hit, with that agonizing Prince song going to the top of the charts.
The film itself was pure cheese, Tim Burton striving to accomplish the kind of art-directed drek he’d crank out so effortlessly later in his career. It was summer blockbuster, and thus completely of its historical moment — the same moment that gave us Hypercolor shirts, New Kids on the Block, and the Diceman.
This is where personal experience does turn out to be a liability, because Batman is so rooted in a specific time it becomes difficult to interpret it critically sans any residual emotional baggage I still carry from those days. It’s historical wallpaper, resolved though memories of my pal Damian’s came-with-the-frame print of the movie poster and the neon textured t-shirt with panels from The Killing Joke I wore in my early punk days.
It seemed like everyone became a Batman fan (but didn’t start reading comics, let’s be serious here) in the wake of the movie, from the gay preppie occultist in my journalism class to the heshers and whitebread fly girls I worked with in the hospital kitchen. You might think my little brother would have thrilled by this moment of vindication, but instead his interest in all things Batman dropped to zero by the end of the summer, by which point he’d refocused his interest on Captain America and Silver Age Marvel in general.
I remember the 1989 Batman film the same way I remember Hurricane Gloria or No Name Storm — a force of nature that came and went without leaving anything but some scattered recollections. In terms of personal significance, it was entirely overshadowed by my purchase of the Clash’s first album that very same summer.