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Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: 9: Batman, Cartoon Hero

GERMANY LOOKED to Hitler, Italy to Mussolini and America to Superman. All three Ubermenschen were conceived in the Great Depression, although DC Comics undoubtedly produced the least lethal saviours from the prevailing chaos and disorder.

A graphic artist for Detective Comics, by the name of Bob Kane, came up with Batman a short while after Superman. The year was 1939, the style was hard-boiled but utterly straight - and a long-running radio series resulted.

Superman, Batman, and Marvel Comics' later invention, Spiderman, are the great triumvirate of superheroes - and the first two lasted in their original, un-ironic form into the Sixties. In the Nineties, only one remains in a way that retains any contemporary resonance, and that's Batman. So what happened?

Spiderman never really made it in the movies. He was too one-dimensional. He could climb up walls and, well, climb up walls. It was not a trick that was ever going to endear him to film-goers, who were likely to end up with cricked necks.

Superman had his day at the fag end of the Seventies. Christopher Reeve played the man from Krypton in four special effects-laden, increasingly camp movies. In the Nineties' TV series, The New Adventures of Superman, our hero had been turned into fodder for a will they/won't they romantic comedy - Moonlighting by other means. Only Batman retained his street cred. For some reason Batman has thrived though every twist and turn of the almost 60 years since his creation. We can only attribute it to that great historical force, the accident.

The first piece of good luck occurred in 1966, when the ABC television network in America bought the Batman concept. "Without," according to executive producer William Dozier, "the slightest idea what to do it with it." Camp solved that problem. "What we had in Batman," says Dozier, "was an exaggerated seriousness that became amusing to adults and provided high adventure for the youngsters."

Adam West as Batman, and Burt Ward as Robin, played it straight against a gaggle of super-villains played by Hollywood old-stagers like Burgess Meredith (The Penguin), Cesar Romero (The Joker), George Sanders (Mr Freeze) and Eartha Kitt, as the leather cat-suited, and erotic, Catwoman.

It was a vibrant menagerie, knocking spots off the virginal romance of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. In two years, 120 episodes were produced, filmed in primal colours and with clever, animated comic book titles - Zap! Pow! Bam! - superimposed over the fight scenes. Batman was a Sixties' pop art masterpiece.

The TV series was cancelled in 1968, but was still playing in 106 countries worldwide, 20 years later. In the meantime, however, a seismic shift in Batman's existence was being plotted by a new generation of cartoonists - or graphic novelists as they now preferred to be called.

Frank Miller's Dark Knight and Alan Moore's Killing Joke went back to the Bob Kane originals and reinvented Batman for the urban jungles of Reaganite America. He was now more vigilante than law enforcer - a deeply troubled man, in a Gotham City gone cyberpunk.

It was a vision that appealed to that most Gothic and imaginative of young American film-makers, Tim Burton, who directed the first two Batman movies - probably the darkest and most disturbing freakshows to draw in young teenagers.

These movies have now become all-star merchandising, Burton's vision diluted by the need for a PG certificate. Batman has waltzed to the fads of the century but has been defeated by capitalism. Marketing and powerful imaginations have allowed him to breathe for so long.