Even the most loyal advocates of the Last Son Of Krypton (ie: SUPERMAN!), are forced to admit that it is Batman who is clearly DC’s most popular and visible character. (Sorry GL but that’s the way it is!). However, it may surprise you to learn that this was not always so. In fact there was a time that DC seriously considered canceling Batman and Detective altogether.
Batman’s early characterization as a creature of the night, a dark avenger had already been eroded by the introduction of Robin The Boy Wonder in Detective Comics #38 (1940).
It was thought that Batman needed something to make him more accessible to children (the core audience of comics at the time) and also give the writers someone that batman could talk to. In short order the covers depicting a grim and frightening Batman were replaced by a cheerful and swashbuckling character who more resembled Douglas Fairbanks’ Zorro than the Dark Knight. This was a radical departure from the core of the character but, despite this change, Batman remained extremely popular during the war years (1941-1945).
Batman would see his popularity erode in part as a result of the overall waning interest in Superhero characters after WWII. However he was almost destroyed by an enemy more dangerous than The Joker…Dr. Fredric Wertham.
Batman comics were among those criticized when the comic book industry came under scrutiny with the publication of psychologist Fredric Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. Wertham suggested that Batman comics contained homosexual overtones and argued that Batman and Robin were portrayed as lovers. (it is hard to believe in these more enlightened times when Batwoman, a proud gay woman stars in her own popular book, that homosexuality was seen as a threat!)
Wertham's criticisms raised a public outcry during the 1950s. DC’s response was to create a light hearted fantasy based Batman in the postwar years intensified after the introduction of the Comics Code. Batwoman (in 1956) and the Bat-Girl (in 1961) were introduced in part to refute the allegation that Batman and Robin were gay. Add Batmite, Ace the Bathound (I kid you not!), Vicky Vale and the stories were more of a copy of “The Superman Family” which had revitalized DC’s other franchise character. Batman spent more time in Sci-fi adventures than in Gotham. Obviously this break with the core character did not have the desired result and his popularity continued to decline.
By 1964 Batman had hit his low point and DC was left with a choice bring Batman up to date with the rest of the line or cancel the books entirely.
Editor Julius Schwartz was assigned to the Batman titles. He presided over drastic changes, beginning with 1964's Detective Comics #327 (May 1964), which was cover-billed as the "New Look". Schwartz introduced changes designed to make Batman more contemporary, and to return him to more detective-oriented stories. He brought in artist Carmine Infantino to help overhaul the character. The Batmobile was redesigned, and Batman's costume was modified to incorporate a yellow ellipse behind the bat-insignia. The space aliens and characters of the 1950s were set aside. Batman's butler Alfred was killed off and a new female relative for the Wayne family, Aunt Harriet, came to live with Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson.
This new sleeker Batman, more grounded in a “real” world along with the runaway success of the Batman TV series gave Batman a short term spike in popularity which saw circulation of Batman and Detective peak at 900,000 copies a month. Once the Batcraze of the 1960’s subsided, so did the sales of the books. However Swartz and Infantino laid the groundwork that would lead to a gradual move back to the core “Dark Knight” of the 1940’s that began with the wok of Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil, through Marshal Rogers and Steve Engelhart in the 1970’s. Batman was returning to his roots...but...
Sales would continue to decline until a young Frank Miller dropped a bombshell on the comic book world. The Dark Knight Returns (1986) catapulted Batman into a popularity he has never relinquished. This portrayal of a 50 year old retired Batman in a dystopian Gotham City completed the full circle journey of the character back to his 1939 genesis. Miller would later re-imagine Batman’s origins along with David Mazzuchelli in Batman year One (Batman 404-407) and Brian Bolland along with Alan Moore would cement the slightly skewed reality of the character with 1988’s “The Killing Joke”.
These works would form the foundation of the modern Batman’s character and the world in which he moves. But those works might never have come to be if not for the efforts of Swartz and Infantino and the “New Look” Batman.