It's easy to understand why Superman and Wonder Woman are among the three comic book heroes whose stories have been continuously published, more or less, since the early days of the medium. Both characters are the ultimate power fantasies, one designed to appeal to boys, the other to girls.
Batman, the other guy who has maintained a presence in comics since before World War II, is different. He was always the odd man out. He doesn't have superpowers. He's just a human being who's smart, rich and physically formidable.
In the early days, his costume wasn't colorful, either, and that actually made him stand out in a medium that was defined by a vibrant, four-color printing process, and that was flooded with flamboyantly costumed characters by the early 1940s.
Mainly, though, unlike the boringly upright Superman and the goddess Wonder Woman, Batman was kind of a psycho.
His 75th anniversary is being celebrated this summer by publisher DC Entertainment with the release of several commemorative collectibles, including a reworked special edition of Detective Comics No. 27, the magazine in which Batman first appeared.
For me, he's always been the most resonant of all the comics heroes, thanks to his physical and emotional vulnerability.
Equally compelling comics characters have been created in his wake. But the ones with staying power were definitely modeled on Batman. He was the original misunderstood vigilante and obsessed avenger -- the first one you knew could easily be harmed or, just as easily, go off the deep end.
Of course, none of this was obvious to me when I bought my first comic book, an early 1960s issue of Batman or Detective Comics. The cover showed him fighting some gross-looking thing called Clayface, and that seemed really cool to my sensibilities as an 8-year-old.
Visual storytelling immediately intrigued me, and soon I was checking out the Caped Crusader's Justice League colleagues: Superman (unavoidably), the Flash, Green Lantern, etc. Many of them were better drawn and had (relatively) more sophisticated storylines than Batman. But they didn't have a Batcave (with a dinosaur in it!), or Batmobiles, or utility belts or really freaky villains. So Batman was definitely the most fun.
Comics were considered strictly a children's medium in the '60s, and the midcentury Batman was a friendly, almost fatherly figure who actually smiled a lot. If, at my tender age then, I'd known what a lunatic he would become, I probably would have been scared off.
"That stuff was just candy for little kids. You'd just look at it and crave it. You wanted to live it. You wanted to design your own Batcave," says Jim Lee, of the 1950s and early '60s comics. Lee drew the acclaimed "Hush" Batman storyline, and he's now DC's co-publisher.
I certainly wanted my own Batcave. But then things changed. I discovered the DC rival Marvel Comics just as its superhero business was taking off. (The similarities between their then-new property Spider-Man and Batman did not escape me.) And by 1966, the campy "Batman" TV show was exerting a dumbing-down influence on DC at the moment when Marvel's psychologically richer, socially relevant mythmaking was hitting its stride.
It was then that I discovered the early Batman. The "hero" created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 was a grim, frightening, sometimes even murderous figure. The somewhat softened version, drawn by the likes of Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang in the 1940s, after Robin had been introduced to the story, still got into dark situations with the likes of Joker, Two-Face, Penguin and, yes, the way sexy Catwoman, who seemed far more dangerous then than in their '60s incarnations.
These discoveries made the camping up of Batman in the '60s seem a betrayal of what tweens, such as myself, had considered an art form. And then something wonderful happened. The TV show disappeared after just two years. Sales of Batman comics plummeted, and someone at DC said, "What's Marvel doing right that we're doing wrong?"
When the '70s dawned, I was a rebellious teenager, and my childhood friend Batman became the best comic book ever.
Young writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Neal Adams took Batman back to his noirish roots. Scary new villains such as Ra's al Ghul were introduced, and the Joker reverted from years as a clown to the ruthless sadist he was meant to be. Meanwhile, Adams was exploring new ways to present sequential storytelling.
"They pushed the limits of what could be accomplished with words and pictures on paper that hadn't been done before," Lee says. "It was really a high point for the ... art form."
These days, when I watch a movie as smart and compelling as "The Dark Knight," I get the feeling that my caped-crusading, kind of crazy buddy was actually one of the best teachers I've ever had.