This weekend, the Caped Crusader will turn 80, but much like Tony Marino, he can still very much whup your ass. (What do you mean, you’ve never heard of Tony Marino? You know, the 87-year-old former WWWF wrestler whose gimmick at one time was playing “Battman,” a very much unlicensed knock-off of everyone’s favorite rodent-themed vigilante? That guy? Man, this intro is wasted on you people.)
Anyway, point is, Batman is looking pretty good for a geezer. But then, of course he is: This is comics, so he doesn’t age. As Frank Miller noted of Bats in his introduction to The Dark Knight Returns, “Despite nearly 50 years of continuous publication, there he was, unwrinkled, handsome, perpetually 29,” which is why he felt the need to advance him in years in the first place (more on that later).
Now, Batman lasting this long may, considering his choice of totem, be one of the least fantastical things about him. Bats, after all, are one of the longest-lived mammals, pound for pound, with some wild bats known to still be flying about past the age of 30 — that’s the equivalent of a human still hunting down prey at 100, so an 80-year-old Batman wouldn’t seem entirely out of character. Indeed, as the comics have demonstrated, Batman is still up for dispensing some sweet, sweet justice at just about any age, and why not? He’s died 10 times (or 11, or 15, depending who’s doing the counting), so something as trivial as old age is hardly likely to stop him.
To celebrate the pointy-cowled octogenarian’s birthday — and 1,000 issues of Detective Comics, the book in which he made his first appearance in issue 27 (now worth over a million bucks, go rummage through your grandad’s basement just in case) — we’re going to look at a few of the more prominent occasions where Batman was old enough to finally justify wearing that second pair of underpants.
The Dark Knight Returns
Probably the most well-known and — for better or worse — definitive take on Batsy, this book really only exists due to writer Frank Miller having a mid-life crisis. That’s not just me being uncharitable (believe me, I will say far worse things about Miller later), he says it himself in the same introductory essay I referenced earlier:
“A sudden realization, and not a pleasant one. My 30th birthday is right around the corner. I’m poised to turn one year older than Batman. I’ve come to accept, in recent years, that Spider-Man is younger than my little brother, but Batman? Batman? My favorite childhood hero? That lantern-jawed, ever-wise father figure? I’m actually gonna be older than Batman? This was intolerable. Something had to be done.”
And so Miller moved the character forward a few decades in time. A strapping 55 years old in this take, Batman comes out of retirement in response to the increasingly terrible (read: Liberal) world around him. Despite his advanced age, he bests the brawny Mutant gang leader in single combat; converts the leader’s gang into Bat-disciples; ends the threat of the Joker; saves Gotham from a post-nuclear strike apocalypse; and for a finale, beats the holy crap out of Superman before faking his own death so he can live in a cave with several dozen impressionable minors.
Like Bats himself, not everything about this book has aged well, but it blew people’s freaking minds when it was first published in 1986. Depending on their age, it probably still does so today: It’s macho, bitter, fascistic and occasionally incoherent, but there’s no denying that the story barrels along at a pace that has rarely been matched. For many years following its publication, old Batman seemed, in fact, to be the absolute best Batman.
My personal pick for the absolute best of the old codger Batmans, though, is this cartoon that ran for three seasons starting in 1999. The premise was simple, but genius: Bruce Wayne forces himself to retire after becoming too infirm to keep Batmanning. Decades later, as Bruce is pushing 80, a teenage punk named Terry McGinnis fumbles his way into the Batcave, and one high-tech futuristic Bat-suit later, we have ourselves a brand new Batman.
The joy of this show was in watching a cranky old Bruce reluctantly mentor the brash young Terry. Monitoring Terry’s every move from the cave, permanently frustrated at not being able to be in the action in person, you felt for Bruce — here he was, finally face-to-face with the one foe Batman can’t beat: Time. (I know, Batman has beaten time on many occasions. Shh.)
Three other points in the show’s favor: The repeated use of the word “schway,” which was, in this future reality, the new word for “cool,” and which I still maintain we should all start using; the awesomely 1990s techno-goth opening credits; and the genuinely disturbing spin-off movie, Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, which some children (and perhaps some unsuspecting parents) are probably still having nightmares about.
Mark Waid’s classic “Look, can we all just admit that 1990s comics are awful?” book takes a leap into a future where the children and grandchildren of the original superheroes have run amok, wearing too much chrome and generally not being terribly heroic.
Old Superman comes out of retirement to spank the naughty children down, but old Batman — in this case, wearing a supportive exoskeleton due to the years of abuse his body has taken as Batman — refuses to get involved. At least, overtly: This is Batman, so naturally he has a much more methodical approach, one involving a bad guy team-up, a tank of mind control worms and an army of giant bat-robots.
It can feel a little fusty and get-off-my-lawn at times, but it’s a solid yarn and an exciting, if grim, warning not to put our faith in at-any-cost anti-heroes. It does, however, get a serious demerit for having Bruce Wayne — an aristocrat! — order his steak well done.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again
Look, I said prominent, not good, okay? This book, the belated 2001 sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, is where it became clear to most people that Frank Miller had lost his Goddamn mind.
It was repetitive!
It was sexist!
It was homophobic!
It was racist!
It was… ?????
This was the book that had former Robin Dick Grayson come back as an immortal serial killer (and that was just, like, the utterly irrelevant D-plot, a couple pages’ worth, tops), and a Batman so out of character that he whoops it up upon seeing a fellow superhero cave in Lex Luthor’s skull with a mace.
Look, I don’t care what Zack “I fundamentally misunderstand every book I read” Snyder says, Batman doesn’t kill people. No matter how edgy or cool or even logical you think your dissent in this matter, it’s the very fundamental core of his character. Yes, you may have to suspend your disbelief in order for this to work, but a Batman who kills isn’t Batman, he is just…well, a dude in hockey pads.
Miller actually wrote a third book in this series, but it’s called — I shit you not — The Dark Knight III: The Master Race, and if you think I’ve even considered reading that one, you’re crazy enough for Batman himself to feel justified in punching you right in the dick. This one time, I think we should all feel okay about just letting that old Batman dude die.