The 1980s was arguably the most consequential decade for Batman since his debut, with the release of three of his most widely read and influential storylines and the debut of his first modern movie. It was also a time of change for comics in general, which took a turn towards the dark, mature and sophisticated, driven by the work of writers like Frank Miller, Chris Claremont and Alan Moore. The result was a setting in which a hero like Batman, who works in shadows, could thrive.
In 1983, Batman #357 introduced a new orphan, named Jason Todd, whose parents had been eaten by Killer Croc. One year later, in Batman #368, Dick Grayson retired as Robin, and Jason Todd adopted the name.
In 1986, the four-issue series Batman: The Dark Knight, by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, redefined the hero as an older, tougher warrior coming out of retirement to reclaim Gotham City from criminals who had overtaken it. It also introduced the first female Robin. It became the first DC story arc to be collected in book form, as Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and has remained continuously in print.
That same year, Frank Miller also collaborated with artist David Mazzucchelli to update Batman’s origin story in Batman #404–407. The book collecting those stories, Batman: Year One, was another best-selling title.
Tragedy and death touched Batman in 1988. Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman: The Killing Joke was a nightmarish story about the Joker shooting Barbara Gordon and leaving her for dead. That same year, DC allowed readers to vote on the fate of Jason Todd, the second Robin. The readers voted “thumbs-down,” and as a result Todd lost his life in an explosion caused by the Joker.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom in the late eighties. Batmania hit the public again when Tim Burton’s Batman movie premiered in 1989. Starring Michael Keaton in the title role and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, it was the first live action portrayal of Batman to embrace some of the character’s darker moments and was a massive box office success. At the time, Batman broke the opening weekend record and became the fastest movie to gross $100 million.
In the comics, Batman began exhibiting an excessive, reckless approach to fighting crime—a result of the pain of losing Jason Todd. This torment continued and Batman worked solo until the decade’s close, when Tim Drake became the third Robin.
In 1992, Tim Burton’s follow-up Batman movie, Batman Returns, featured the return of Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight, facing off against Danny DeVito and Michelle Pfeiffer as the Penguin and Catwoman. That same year, Batman: The Animated Series made its debut on TV. A critical and popular success that featured Kevin Conroy as the voice of the Dark Knight and the first appearance of the iconic Harley Quinn character, the series continued under a variety of names for most of the decade.
In 1993, DC published the “Knightfall” story line, which culminated when the ruthless and powerful new villain known as Bane broke Batman’s back. An antihero named Azrael became the new Batman, and Catwoman and Robin each received an ongoing series title of their own.
Also that year, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm became the first feature-length Batman animated film. The movie, which was produced by the team behind Batman: The Animated Series and featured the same voice cast, would go on to win acclaim with both fans and critics, and would eventually pave the way for a far-ranging series of animated films from DC featuring both the Dark Knight and other heroes of the DC Universe.
While Batman had faced catastrophe within his own life, in the decade’s closing crossover arcs, his entire city would be treated to much of the same. In the “Cataclysm” story line, Gotham City was devastated by an earthquake and cut off from the United States government. Deprived of many of his technological resources, Batman fought to reclaim the city from gangs of criminals during the 1999 “No Man’s Land” arc, which seriously altered the world and nature of Batman’s comics across the entire line until its conclusion late that year.
Look for more on Batman’s long history of heroics next week as part of DC’s Batman 80th anniversary celebration.