Winged Freak Terrorizes: Comics Creators And Entertainment Pros Remember The Summer Of Batman ’89
There had certainly been plenty of heavily-merchandised blockbusters before, but the Batman ’89 phenomenon affected pop culture in so many ways and crept into every dimension of commercial entertainment. Twenty-five years ago, it was just always there; part of the atmosphere of the era, reflected wherever you turned. From candy-filled Keaton heads in supermarket checkout aisles, to endless souvenir magazines on newsstands, to articles in newspapers and magazines, to the packs of trading cards and stickers on countertops, to Batmobile toys in Happy Meals, the entire world had gone Batty.
Even elements as bizarre as Prince’s original soundtrack album were inescapable. I distinctly remember hearing the “THIS TOWN NEEDS AN ENEMA” sample blasting out of stores in the mall; Batdancers and purple smoke were on every display on every TV in K-Mart; and the Scandalous Sex Suite single was shelved behind the counter at my local record store so no Bat-crazed teenagers could purchase it without adult approval. Hell, no less a musical icon than David Byrne took to covering ‘The Future’ on his first solo tour.
No one element defined the summer of 1989 like the Batman t-shirts. There had been Batman t-shirts around for years — pale yellow-and-black symbols on heather grey fabric — but the movie’s black-on-black costume design was a windfall for merchandisers. Cool people dressed in black, and now that black Batman t-shirts were available, everybody had to have one. It didn’t matter who you were, what you looked like, what social group you belonged to – everybody was sporting the visage of the Bat.
Twenty-five years later, we’ve reached out to some of our favorite creators and entertainers to look back on the summer of Batman.
Random AKA Mega Ran
The hype for the 1989 Batman movie was unlike anything I’d ever seen as a 12-year old in Philly. Batman t-shirts, socks, sneakers, posters were everywhere… but the item that eluded me during the Bat-craze of 1989 was the Batman Medallion.
A cheap, leather-woven medallion that hung around your neck by a shoestring-like rope, adorned with a bright sharply carved bat-symbol was the rage of my entire neighborhood. When I finally got my hands on one, I couldn’t be stopped. I wore it to school, to the playground, and even mentioned it in my 2007 song “Bubbleman,” when I reminisced about ’80s fashion trends. I couldn’t wait to see the movie, so I started reading up on comics, most notably Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. I think I carried that to the theater when I saw the flick.
And the movie. Unreal. I learned every word, laugh, pause and breath of that script as a child, and the entire soundtrack — and most of it has stayed with me as an adult. I hope that’ll help me at some point on a game show or something. But that was the first movie of my generation that truly defined us as kids, and as comic book fiends. It set the stage and raised the bar of the comic book movie in popular culture, and it’ll never be forgotten!
– Art by Turner Lange, storyboard artist; author/illustrator of The Adventures of Wally Fresh.
See, the thing about Tim Burton’s Batman is that it’s nearly impossible for me to view the movie critically, because, for myself and hundreds of thousands of other late ’80s children, Batman was much, much more than a movie.
I was a year old when Batman came out, so, by the time I was old enough to perceive and analyze the world around me, the movie had already cemented itself firmly into pop culture. Though, I must add, “cemented in” does about as much justice to describing Batman’s pop cultural impact as “pretty dang big” does justice to describing the expanse of the Milky Way Galaxy. Batman was a hulking pop culture monolith, massive and undeniable. Batman was the Zeitgeist dressed in thick black rubber, unable to turn his neck, but more than able to beat your punk ass down and throw you bodily off of a dark rooftop. Batman was utterly and completely inescapable, and, in the eyes of a child, Tim Burton’s Batman was the coolest thing to exist in the history of time.
I was receiving Batman action figures as Christmas gifts before I understood what either Batman or Christmas were. I was getting Batmobiles with my fast food kids’ meals, while coloring in my Batman coloring book, while listening to the Batman Soundtrack, while daydreaming about becoming, well, an X-Man, but I’d settle for Batman, I guess. Mugs, t-shirts, video games, TV commercials, comic books, tennis shoes, lunch boxes, underwear, theme parks, Batman, Batman, Batman, Batman, BATMAAAAAAN! The marketing and merchandizing juggernaut was boundless, and I loved every second of it. Ever-present and transcendent, Tim Burton’s Batman was Batman. Beyond that, Tim Burton’s Batman simply was.
Kids, when they’re a certain age, simply take things for what they are. Grass is green, the sky is blue, cows say moo, and Michael Keaton in that Bob Ringwood designed Batman suit driving that Batmobile built by Keith Short with that Danny Elfman scored Batman theme playing in that Anton Furst-designed Gotham all brought to life by the visionary Tim Burton… that’s f*cking Batman.
Batman’s look has changed quite a bit since I first saw Adam West portray the caped crusader, but without a doubt Tim Burton’s version of the character is my most favorite. Mostly because as a seven year old, his film introduced me to my now profound and unabashed love for Prince.
–Jeremy Holt, writer of Skinned, Art Monster, and Southern Dog.
Burton’s Batman movie defined my Summer of ’89. Months away from starting high school, I spent June and July sporting the black-and-yellow logo t-shirt and thrilling through repeated viewings of the film. I chewed on scenery and dialogue, and fell hopelessly in love with Kim Basinger. Most of all, though, I fell prey to the merchandising.
To a thirteen-year-old comics nerd from suburban Detroit, Batman ’89 seemed like the biggest thing on the planet. I mean, my first showing at the Americana Theatre on Greenfield and Ten Mile had bat symbols spray-painted all over the pavement. The audience clapped and cheered to every name displayed over the giant, rotating stone logo at the movie’s start (well, except Prince. I never understood that. I mean, it’s Prince, people!). And after it was done we marveled at the sets, quoted notable lines, discussed Nicholson’s performance and then got back in line. And on line for that second viewing, they handed us little catalogs filled with toys.
Now this was back when Warner Bros. still had a catalog from which you could buy cufflinks, shirts, toys, etc. And this specific catalog — maybe one page, folded over — contained Batman action figures, die-cast Batmobiles, and a host of Bat-stamped odds and ends I can’t exactly recall. But those toys — especially the Joker, luridly painted and accessorized with a flower that sprayed water — drew my eye and sucked me in. They had me. They had me. And every penny I made that summer doing odd jobs or what have you went to Batman.
Summer of ’89 had me scouring the racks at TJ Maxx for Joker t-shirts, or digging through Toys ‘R’ Us aisles for the Joker (go away, Bob the Goon! No one wants you!). Mornings began with bat-shaped cereal (tasting oddly similar to my Mr. T cereal…) and afternoon were spent sifting through packs of Batman trading cards, searching for the final few I needed to complete my collection (Heck, I still have a few of those cards today, pinned above my desk here at Topps!). Danny Elfman played on repeat in my Walkman, and I even purchased a tiny, little purple-and-green laughing box which annoyed friends and family to no end.
Batmania gripped the nation, and proudly displaying it’s black-and-gold/purple-and-green colors to the world, I bat-danced with the devil through at least fourteen to sixteen viewings…and a good chunk of my summer earnings.
I have no regrets.
–Neil Kleid, Design Director for Topps Digital apps and Topps BUNT; author of Brownsville, The Big Kahn, and the forthcoming novelization of Spider-Man: Kraven’s Last Hunt.
Batman came out when I was six-years-old. I didn’t get to see it until Christmas, when we got it on VHS. I loved the movie, even though as a six-year-old I couldn’t really comprehend some aspects of it. I thought Michael Keaton was great, and as a Beetlejuice fan I was very psyched to see him as Batman. Michael Keaton may have been my favorite actor when I was six, so it was a big deal. This movie left me primed for Batman: The Animated Series, which was responsible for turning me into a geek and getting me into comics. I consider the 1989 Batman film to be the gateway drug of geekdom, without which I probably never would have made comics and conventions into my livelihood.
–Ben Penrod, President of Washington D.C.’s Awesome Con.
– Art by Marissa Louise, illustrator; colorist of Exit Generation and BOOM! Studios’ Robocop series.
I still love Tim Burton’s Batman. There are some things about it that perhaps don’t stand the test of time, but even watching it now, it still makes me feel like a little kid glued to the TV. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but it was unlike anything I’d ever seen before and it absolutely knocked me on my head.
It had a great cast, jaw-dropping production design and art direction, and one of the most audacious, recognizable scores in the history of film. I’ll never forget ping-ponging between the excitement of seeing Batman in the suit and the horror of Jack Napier falling into the vat at Axis Chemicals, emerging an unsettling but oddly alluring monster. I felt like in the unthinkably huge Gotham City they’d created, anything could happen. But looking back, I love that it’s punctuated throughout with a sense of humor. They had to have known that having the Joker’s thugs all wear matching outfits and drive around in a purple car was pretty goofy, but it kept the affair buoyant. It wasn’t the bloated pop art fiascos that nearly killed the franchise, nor did it suffer from the murky boredom that can come with striving for realism and grittiness.
It was a superhero movie that recognized the inherent ridiculousness of its genesis, but attempted to coax that four color DNA into something new rather than be a botched imitation of its origins or a willfully ignorant whole-cloth reinvention. It’s also kind of amazing to see how a Batman movie turned out when the closest anyone got to leaked set photos was a studio-approved set visit in Starlog.
However the results may age, I’ll always fondly remember pretending my wagon was the Batmobile and wondering what the hell Lando Calrissian was doing in Gotham City.
In 1989, when Batman first came out, I remember being so excited. You need to remember there wasn’t a Spider-Man movie out at that time, there wasn’t a big Hulk movie, so we were all looking forward to Batman.There wasn’t anything like it at the time. This was the first big Batman film, and it had big stars…Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton playing Batman, and you gotta think that it was huge for people because we’d only had the TV version. People were just curious to see how the character would be redone, and I remember feeling almost an anxiety, not knowing how they’d pull it off.
Now, there’ve been lots of superhero movies, and we look back and and go, “Yeah, that one was good,” but in that era…it was ’89, I was on WBLS with Marley Marl, I was one year out of high school, and Batman was the thing. In the Hip-Hop community, we were all very intrigued. I can remember for me and all my friends, that was all we talked about: “We’re going to the movies to see BATMAN!” It was the first big superhero movie like that, after Christopher Reeve as Superman. I was so full of anticipation, going with my older brother and my cousins to see it. Everybody had those shirts, I had a Batman shirt…it was the thing at the time, everybody was bat-crazed. Everyone was just so excited to see it, and see how they’d do it. It felt brand new.
–Pete Rock, legendary Hip-Hop producer and DJ.
–Art by Christy Sawyer, letterer and artist.
It’s hard to describe to someone just exactly how much of a comic-movie desert we’d been living in up until 1989. Sure, there were some old black-and-white movies from the ’40s if you were desperate, and, you know, Flash Gordon (which I loved, but you know…). But finally, a proper comic book movie. Batman. Belfast in 1989 was a dark, grim place, and sitting in that cinema, Batman, the Joker and the-artist-then-known-as-Prince made everything that little brighter. BATDANCE!
–PJ Holden, co-creator, Dept of Monsterology and Numbercruncher; artist of Judge Dredd.