Batman turned 80 in April, and now the character is being celebrated with an exhibition at the Society of Illustrators titled “Illustrating Batman: Eighty Years of Comics and Pop Culture.” Teeming with artwork that shows the hero’s evolution, the exhibition is a visual feast of vintage and modern original comic art, covers and interior pages.
The show also includes “Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan,” a display devoted to a Batman story originally printed in Japan, and “Batman Collected: Chip Kidd’s Batman Obsession,” featuring memorabilia belonging to the graphic designer Chip Kidd, who will give a gallery tour on July 9. (Other events include panel discussions on Sept. 12 and Oct. 3, and a commemoration of Batman Day on Sept. 21.)
“Illustrating Batman,” curated by John Lind and Rob Pistella, who are advisory committee members of the Society, covers a lot of ground. Below is a selection of some of the show’s highlights — one for each decade.
[Read more about Batman’s 80th anniversary.]
Batman debuted in Detective Comics No. 27 on March 30, 1939, and graduated to his self-titled series the following year. This cover, by Fred Ray and Jerry Robinson, is the oldest piece of original Batman art in the show. That’s especially notable because original art was once considered so disposable, it was often given away or destroyed. Another fun fact: The cover sold at auction in 2005 for $195,000.
Detective Comics No. 168
This issue reveals the secret origin of the Joker, who began his criminal career under the name the Red Hood. In an attempt to flee Batman, he jumps into a pool of chemical waste. He survives, but with dramatic changes in his appearance: emerald hair, ruby lips and ghostly skin. The drawing is by Lew Sayre Schwartz and George Roussos.
The campy “Batman” television show, starring Adam West, began in 1966, and soon began influencing the comics. The Dynamic Duo’s punches echo the Pow! Bam! Zonk! motif of the hit show. This issue was written by John Broome and drawn by Sheldon Moldoff and Joe Giella, whose son, Frank, owns this page and lent many others for the show.
Detective Comics No. 479
Clayface is one of Batman’s tragic villains — his very touch can prove lethal. He eventually falls for a mannequin he names Helena, who is immune to him. This cover is by Marshall Rogers and Dick Giordano, and has production notes to the colorist to check with an editor about a request for a “fiery-red background.”
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland analyze the Joker, who tries to prove that one bad day can drive anyone insane. He shoots and tortures Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) in an effort to drive her father, Commissioner Gordon, mad. The high stakes make readers wonder if Batman’s prediction, “We’re going to kill each other, aren’t we?,” will come true.
Batman No. 497
The “Knightfall” story was an all-out assault on Batman, who fought one villain after another until being handed a back-breaking, bone-crushing defeat by the monstrous Bane. The exhibition includes this Kelley Jones cover and interior pages — written by Doug Moench and drawn by Jim Aparo and Dick Giordano — depicting Bane’s victory in the Batcave.
In this issue by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, Dick Grayson, the former circus performer and former Robin, learns that being Batman is not easy. He turns to the trusted aide Alfred who eventually advises him, “Think of Batman as a great role, like a Hamlet or a Willie Loman … or even James Bond. And play it to suit your strengths.”
The artist Steve Rude is one of the latest to draw Batman for Chip Kidd’s growing collection of “Batman: Black and White” sketch covers. The goal is to publish all the covers as a collector’s edition to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. There are more than 100 covers by artists from inside and outside the world of comics.
Illustrating Batman: Eighty Years of Comics and Pop Culture
Through Oct. 12 at the Society of Illustrators, 123 East 63rd Street, Manhattan; 212-838-2560, societyillustrators.org.