Bam! We can't resist (sob!) Batman's regret and grief

HOW OLD is Batman? Bruce Wayne (sorry, spoiler) varies in age between 15 and 50, depending on the retelling. But the story of Batman is 68 this month. May 1939: Detective Comics No.27 publishes the first Batman story, and a dark star is born.

It feels about right. Only in the 1920s did the majority of U.S. residents start living in cities. The noir mood and characters of the Batman universe demand a city. If you knew Batman from the campy Adam West TV show, you don't see that urban darkness. I got a glimpse of it, not from the comics, but from "Batman: The Animated Series" back in the '90s. Why not the comic books?

You might remember I'm a comic book fan because of my parents. They gave me Amar Chitra Katha ("immortal picture stories"), English-language comic books retelling Indian mythology and history. But somehow I didn't get into U.S. comics for many years. One older acquaintance of mine reminds me that when he was a child, he could go to the comics store, buy a book for less than a dollar and be assured of getting at least one complete story.

Amar Chitra Katha was that way, but most comics today aren't. The comic books I see depend on the reader knowing lots of background. Forget getting a premise, action and resolution in a single comic book — now you have to read the back issues of other series to fully understand what's happening.

I was an "Arrested Development" fan and I've read some Tolstoy, so I do know the joys of long, complicated plot arcs. But they do make it harder for newbies. Today's comic books are like big, old cities where villains and bystanders vanish down alleys and new visitors need guides.

I wonder what it was like when New York was just a sliver of town south of Wall Street, or when Batman was just another Detective Comics character. Did ordinary people know what they were beholding?

Batman has to live in a city — how else could he fight corrupt mayors and mob bosses? Superman, on the other hand, can fly anywhere and fight aliens. It's day vs. night. Batman's urban life has to be modern, but Superman's timeless. It doesn't matter where or when he lives because he's protecting Earth, not his neighbors. In fact, some "Superboy" stories are basically indistinguishable from unofficial stories of the childhood of Jesus.

But hey, I'm not the first to talk about the similarities of mythical stories. "Swamp Thing" and "Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld" don't seep into our conversations. But I can talk with you about Superman and Spider-Man and Batman. For example: If the point of Spider-Man is "with great power comes great responsibility," and the point of Superman is "the geek saves the world with physical strength," then what is the point of Batman? Is it that only neurotics achieve great (or awful) things? And in fact there is nearly as much critical commentary on Batman as there is on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

And my husband and I are participants in this tradition.

One of the geekier things about my marriage is the amount of time we spend discussing fiction — the webcomics Achewood and Starslip Crisis, the film "Brick," the new "Battlestar Galactica" TV show and Neal Stephenson's novel "The Confusion," for example.

And Batman. I made him watch some of those old "Batman: The Animated Series" episodes on DVD with me a few weeks ago.

We are drawn to Batman's ambiguity, regret, decades-old grief and all those other grown-up situations. Now, those are adult themes, as much as lust is — things kids simply don't get, even if they think they do. Batman, unlike so many other comic book heroes, is only human — physically and psychologically. (That's also true of most Amar Chitra Katha characters; my parents influenced my tastes more than they knew.)

If you think you have the same tastes I do, in this anniversary month you might enjoy these retellings of the Batman tale:

-"Batman: The Animated Series," now out on DVD. This and "Animaniacs" were the most adult of the kids' cartoons when I was in high school.

-Paul Pope's "Batman: Year 100" reimagining (in paperback), the least cartoony Batman ever. Pope's Batman, a dissident in a dystopian future, is so physically present in the art that I can hear him pant as he escapes hoverpods.

-Frank Miller's 1987 "Batman: Year One"(in paperback) is one of those gritty origins retellings that I so adore.

And of course I have to mention my favorite Batman film, whose name brings us back to May 1939: "Batman Begins."

You can write to Sumana Harihareswara at