Somehow I avoided using the expression “going batty” in all this.

§ September 15th, 2017 § Filed under batman, retailing § 13 Comments

I know I already talked about this on my Twitterers, but I wanted to preserve the moment here as well, when I encountered something at the shop that I hadn’t anticipated.

Now, most of us of a certain age who remember, or even some younger folk who are a little more aware of the comic (or even film) industry’s history know what kind of impact the first Tim Burton Batman movie had back in 1989. It. Was. HUGE.

Now, I’m not going to get sidetracked here into a discussion of whether or not it was any good, or whether it’s aged well. That’s beside the point. What I’m talking about here is how it seemed like this new Batfilm just exploded onto the scene, and suddenly there just wasn’t enough Batman stuff in the world for all our customers to buy.

This was just after I began working in comics retail. Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen had just, not too long ago at this point, informed the general public that Comics Aren’t Just for Kids™, so there was still some measure of interest because of that. And the first big hoohar I was directly involved with on the other side of the counter was “A Death in the Family,” the Batman event where readers could call a phone number and vote on whether or not Robin the Second Boy Wonder Oh Goodness Not Dick Grayson We Wouldn’t Risk Him would LIVE or DIEEEEEE.

But it seemed like it was that Batman movie that really kicked off the big Comics Boom of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Well, sure, there were other factors as well (a crashing sports card market seemed to drive a lot of investors into comic shops in the ’90s, buying first issues and asking for “Comic Book Becketts,” but that’s another story), but it seemed like this film was the dividing line between the Comics Market As It Was Before, and the Comics Market As It Was After At Least ‘Til It Crashed Again. Batman comics, Batman books, Batman tchotchkes of all sorts, and Batman clothing…I mentioned on Twitter that we had enormous waiting lists of people special ordering Bat-shirts. I can still vaguely recall the full color flyer that we had with all the available designs our customers could pick from. I even got in on that shirt action, since back then I still wore t-shirts on a semi-regular basis, and acquired one of these snazzy numbers (image totally stolen from an eBay listing);


I think I liked it because Batman wasn’t on it, that it was a tad more evocative of the weirdly mysterious nature of the Caped Crusader…or I just liked bats. Something like that.

Anyway, the Batman movie was big, and had a hugely successful impact on our shop, is what I’m telling you. I’ve been trying to dredge up more specific memories of that particular period, and there are a couple of vague impressions. I remember being slightly frustrated by the parade of people coming through the store declared that they’d seen the film, and I hadn’t had a chance to make it yet. There were the folks, prior to the film’s opening, skeptical of Michael Keaton’s ability to properly represent the Dark Knight. (A common lament, one I can say I witnessed firsthand.) There were those who hoped that the movie would treat Batman with the seriousness he deserved, and that it could escape the long shadow cast by the ’60s TV show. (Again, this was back before we all remembered that Adam West Batman was Good and Perfect.) There was, again as related on my Twitter — y’know, you should just follow me on Twitter already), the young college student who was basically giving me her dissertation on Batman’s influence on modern pop culture…while she was waiting in line to buy a Batman shirt, of course.

Whenever a person drops in nowadays and remarks on their perceived notion that the current onslaught of superhero movies must generate extra business for comic shops, I think back on that first Batman film, probably the one time that a superhero film did directly contribute to an enormous increase in sales. Later movies would sporadically encourage some sales on items, particularly on graphic novels prior to the related film’s release, and then drop like a stone once the movie is out (which happened to me with Sin City, Hellboy, Watchmen, etc. etc.). Or it would sometimes goose some investing (like the guy who bought us out on the 60 or so copies we had of Amazing Spider-Man #252, the first appearance of the black costume, in advance of anticipated demand by that costume’s appearance in the third Spider-Man movie). And then there is just an increase in basic awareness of characters…I wouldn’t be selling Rocket Raccoon or Groot comics to kids if they hadn’t seen those characters in Guardians of the Galaxy movies, for example.

So why am I bringing all this up? Well, I had a young man, probably in his early 20s, come into the store the other day and ask me the very question I was just discussing: do superhero movies boost sales? When asked that, I usually say “yes, a little, not as much as you might think,” and bring up the example that it mostly creates awareness of characters not already familiar to the world at large…you know, like Groot, or Iron Man. But, for whatever reason, I mentioned that one time a movie really boosted the comics marketplace…that first Tim Burton Batman.

An incredulous look crossed this young man’s face. “Really? People got all worked up over that?”

Well, of course he’d think that. He wasn’t even born yet when that happened. It’s hard to explain how everyone lost their minds over what is now just one more piece of background noise in our cultural landscape, when back then it was New and Different and comics fans had pinned their hopes on it, and it turned out other people liked it too. I had just taken for granted that everyone knew what that Bat-film had done to our little industry, but time passes, and people forget, or never knew in the first place.

I still remember, however, at least this little bit, of sitting in the theater, listening to that stirring theme music, watching the Batman logo slowly reveal itself during the opening credits, and thinking “at last, everyone will finally take comics seriously!”

I’m pretty sure I was right about that. Don’t tell me if I wasn’t.

13 Responses to “Somehow I avoided using the expression “going batty” in all this.”

  • Bruce Baugh says:

    Mike: …and that boy grew up to be Joel Schumacher! Or possibly Akiva Goldman. You’re welcome.

  • James G. says:

    I didn’t know about the sports card market crash helping the comic speculation market.

  • Patrick Gaffney says:

    People would be shocked at how Batman and Joker shirts were EVERYWHERE. And so many of them you would see see the same one twice in a day on people. And they were on alot of people.

  • Andrew Davison says:

    For me the defining superhero movie is Superman (1978), and I was trying to remember the cultural response to that. I think it got lost a bit in the aftermath of Star Wars.

    As regards Batman, I always thought it was a response to the eventual awfulness of the bright and breezy Superman movies, as typified by Superman IV

  • Bruce Baugh says:

    Andrew: OK, first, let me position myself. I was born in 1965, so I was thirteen when Superman came out. From that vantage point, it was beautiful, and sometimes really funny, and overall very kind, but it was also thoroughly old-fashioned.

    If there’s one thing that first Batman movie wasn’t, it was old-fashioned. :) Anton Furst’s amazing designs set the stage for this thing that had strange edges and twists and high weirdness. I’m not surprised it grabbed an audience more deeply.

  • Bryan says:

    My recollection is probably skewed because a comic book store opened within a ten minute walk of my house in the spring of 1989, so I could suddenly go all the time, but I certainly remember “The Many Deaths of Batman” (John Byrne and Jim Aparo! Together!) and “Legends of the Dark Knight” (I don’t even want to think about how many different colours of that first issue I bought) and the “Arkham Asylum” graphic novel, and the computer-drawn Batman GN that was heavily promoted, made the summer to late fall of 1989 feel like something huge was happening with the character, and DC was really able to piggyback the success of the movie to make me want to buy anything Batman.

  • Daniel says:

    I was 16-years-old in the summer of 1989. As Mike wrote, you kind of had to be there to understand just how big that movie was that year. It was a legitimate pop cultural phenomenon. I’m trying to think of another movie that had that big of impact on the culture at large since then. Maybe “The Phantom Menace” which, despite a lot of revisionist history in the intervening years, totally dominated late 1998 through to the end of the summer of 1999. Possibly “Titanic,” too, in 1997-98. Other movies may have made more money than those films, but I can’t think of any others that permeated the culture at large as much as they did.

  • Jack says:

    I saw Batman on opening weekend, at the area’s largest movie theater-it was an AMC inside a mall with a whopping seven screens!-as a midnight show, and it was originally scheduled to play in a single theater, while the other six were either dark or played other midnight showings.

    It wound up playing on four screens. So many people showed up that the management were forced to do that. To give you a notion of how big that was: the other AMC theaters in the area, all of them, had only four theaters. It would’ve taken them over completely. Batman in 1989 was huge. It had genuine cultural weight. People were wearing Batman t-shirts a year later, if not longer.

    My local comic shop, which had been doing okay but not world beating business, had a massive uptick in business. So big, in fact, that they moved out of the tiny location they were in to a much bigger one across the street, where they still are to this day. (They survived the 90s crash by pivoting to card games, and were ahead of the curve big time on the Pokemon phenomena.) Saying that the country had Batmania in 1989 is not an exaggeration, if anything it doesn’t do it justice.

  • Casie says:

    I was 11 when the movie came out. Only read a couple Batman comics at that time but only knew the Adam West version which was colorful and fun. Had no idea what to expect from the 1989 movie. The whole dark side of Batman was new to me. After seeing it I was smitten.
    Love reading what ya write. Good stuff, Mike.

  • Dean says:

    From what I remember as a tiny child at the time (I was 12 years old) this ‘dark, serious’ take on Batman was HUGE. This was before we realized that Burton Batman was just as goofy and stylized as Adam West Batman, just with the lights turned down.

  • Chris G says:

    I was 14. I wore a Batman t-shirt on the end-of-year class trip to Hershey Park and kids in my class who I barely knew were asking me where I’d gotten it. I saw it twice on opening day and bought a poster of Jack Nicholson’s Joker sitting on a beach that hung in my room for years. The Prince “Batdance” song was everywhere. And it was a HUGE thing when the movie arrived on VHS less than six months later, priced to sell to consumers rather than to video stores – that had never happened before and was the beginning of a sea change in home video.

  • Adam Farrar says:

    I was almost 7 when the movie came out. It was a revelation. I knew the Adam West show from reruns but this is something else. Everything was so serious, expressive and dramatic, even the silences. There were things that weren’t explained that made it intriguing. I must have seen it five times begging anyone who was will to take me.

    I didn’t start reading the comics at this point. My grandmother volunteered at a library and gave me a copy of “Batman & Other DC Classics” which reprinted excerpts of comics to convince people to try buying collections. And I loved that comic but it didn’t convince me to start picking them up regularly. Instead I was buying toys and stickers and buttons. And then, the VHS tape which I nearly wore through. I still occasionally think “you can’t watch a Warner Bros. movie without a Warner Bros. ballcap.”

    And as huge as Batman was, it’s worth noting there were a lot of big movies in 1989. Consider that Batman came out the same day as Honey, I Shrunk The Kids (5th highest box office of 1989) and a month after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (2nd highest). Every year has it’s share of classic movies but 1989 was stacked. Check out the full list (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=1989&p=.htm) since there’s too many to mention here. All these movies combined to give 1989 had the highest box office ever (without inflation) and wouldn’t be topped until 1993. And Batman was the biggest of them all.

  • Jason says:

    I can only chime in as a film fan, because I don’t remember what I was reading in 1989. (I honestly think it was Captain America and not Batman!)

    When I say Batman was one of the darkest films I ever saw, I mean that quite literally. I saw it at a Drive-in as a kid, and and some scenes were simply too dark to decipher what was happening on screen. That bit where Vikki wakes up and Bruce is hanging upside down like his namesake? I didn’t see/comprehend that until I saw it again on video.

    I can’t think of any other movie that plays so fast and loose with the color black. Are super hero movies lit differently than ‘regular’ movies? Does anyone know offhand? Or are there simply more night scenes in super hero movies?
    Thanks, jason

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