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Batman’s Birthday Begins

Tomorrow, Gotham City’s masked hero Batman turns 80. The superhero made his debut in 1939. Since then, Batman has appeared on comic books pages and the big screen both as a lighthearted hero, and,  a deeply troubled vigilante. But one thing that’s never changed? His status as an American icon. I talked with Travis Langley, a professor at Henderson State University in Arkansas and a self-titled super-hero-ologist, about the legacy of Bat-Man.

GREEN: Good morning, Travis.

LANGLEY: Good morning!

GREEN: So, what was our world like when Batman caught his first perp in 1939?

LANGLEY: So, not too far behind had been Prohibition and Depression and the gangsters in the 1930s seemed to be very successful in making fools of the police. And people had a lot of things they were worried about. In fact, there was a lot of awareness that the world was heading toward a very possible war. It was a time that they saw as crisis and tension. And in this time, this era, you want somebody to be able to step up and do the right thing. We always want somebody to step up and do the right thing. We always need heroes. Fantastic heroes, people who operate outside the limits of the law were something that appealed to people that they have this fascination with rebel heroes. And this is the climate in which, you know, these characters come along. Of course, in 1938, Superman comes along and starts the superhero genre in comics.

GREEN: Since Superman popped up, obviously you know people wanna get their stake in the game. But why was Batman relevant at that time when Superman is the man that can do everything.

LANGLEY: Well, you know, there is a point where we realized nobody with godlike powers is going to fly out of the sky to help us. And we can believe that, you know, maybe somebody in the darkness can step out to help us. We want somebody to step out of the darkness and do the right thing, and that’s believable. Superman–fun Stories, fantastic stories, wonderful stories. Wouldn’t it be great if there were Superman, but we know there’s no Superman. But maybe there can be a Batman.

Detective comics number 1000, it happens to be coming out, uh, right about the time of Batman’s 80th anniversary.

GREEN:   Right. So they’re releasing their thousandth issue, which, you know, Batman showed up in issue 27. How has he evolved over 973 issues?

LANGLEY: The character changes with the times. Obviously there’s the lighter stuff for kids in the 50s. There’s the campier stuff around the time of the Adam West TV show, it gets more serious in the 70s and you know, more violent later in the 80s, and it adapts to the time. It changes with the times. There’s a core to this character. He is this guy who went through some kind of tragedy and he both wants to take out his anger about that. You know, every thug he slugs is as a pitiful substitute for the one who killed his parents. But as most writers write him, he’s driven more to keep others from going through what he went through. If he has a choice between saving that person and stopping that criminal, he’s going to go save that person.

Of course he dresses up like a bat. He decided somehow that’s the logical and reasonable thing to do and that made Batman more believable. You know, throughout history, throughout the world, there are places where people do need to wear a mask to do the right thing, where people do need anonymity. It may be, you know, the handle that you’re using online is your anonymity. It may be, you know, a bandana you’re using it to cover your face so that the corrupt police in your third-world nation won’t know who you are and track you down when you go over to help somebody. You know, there are situations in which people have to anonymously do the right thing.

GREEN: Is that why Batman is relevant today?

LANGLEY: Batman is relevant because we always need heroes.  Post-9/11, there became this increased awareness of, “We want heroes.” People actively using that word so strongly, even as we’re also in the age of the Internet that tears them down rapidly. So, part of the appeal of this fictional hero is that nobody can completely tear the character down. We can have our own personal Batman in a way that we can’t with the real-life heroes and he can stay true for us.

GREEN: So you mention 9/11, which is obviously, you know, always on our mind in New York City where we’re based here. Batman lives in Gotham city. New York has often, has historically been called Gotham. So what would the Batman of New York City look like in 2019?

LANGLEY: Batman of New York City? It gets a little harder to believe a guy is going in and out of New York City and nobody knowing where that fantastic car of his is going.  Batman would still be true to who he is. You definitely would have, uh, you know, make sure he has the bulletproofing in the outfit, but I had long said that if you take the costume, take the toys, all that stuff away, plant him in the middle of nowhere. He is still Batman.

GREEN: Thank you so much Mr. Langley, I really appreciate it. This has been great.

LANGLEY: No thank you!

Happy Birthday to Bruce Wayne and Batman.


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