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Alex Ross

Batman, 2001

Gouache on paper

Collection of the artist

Alex Ross painted portraits of his favorite DC Comics characters (including the Batman painting shown here), which DC intended to reproduce as life-size posters. The finished paintings were then reproduced into life-size posters sold in comic book stores.


Drawing its inspiration from popular pulp magazine detective stories of the 1930s, Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939). In Detective Comics #33 (November 1939), co-creators artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger explained Batman’s background: while leaving a Gotham City movie theater one night, millionaire Thomas Wayne, his wife, and son were held up at gunpoint. Mr. Wayne fought the thief and was shot and killed, along with his wife. A witness to their brutal murders, young Bruce swore to avenge their deaths. To fulfill this purpose, over the next several years Bruce Wayne trained to become a “master scientist” and conditioned his body “to perform amazing athletic feats.” While ruminating on a disguise he could wear to terrorize criminals, a bat flew through an open window in his study “and thus is born this weird figure of the dark … this avenger of evil. The Batman.”

Though lacking any superpowers, the Batman character achieved immediate success, permanently becoming the feature in the Detective Comics title while also gaining his own Batman title in Spring 1940.

Batman was one of the few superhero characters to be successful during the downturn in superhero comics of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Following the introduction of the restrictive Comics Code in 1954, superhero comic books regained popularity, albeit with watered-down stories that omitted any violence or frights. Accordingly, goofy plots prevailed for the next several years as Batman fought menaces from other worlds and other times, such as "The Phantom of the Library" and "The Jigsaw Creature from Space." He was disguised as "The Armored Batman" and "Rip Van Batman" while fighting alongside new characters like Ace the Bat-Hound and Mogo the Bat-Ape. Batwoman and Batgirl also became fixtures during this period to combat the perception of Batman and Robin as gay lovers.

The preposterous pinnacle of Bat banality was reached with the 1966 Batman television series starring Adam West. The instantly popular series was a hit with children and adults alike, so much so that ABC aired two episodes every week for two years. Audiences quickly tired of the tongue-in-cheek nature of the series, however, and Batman's ratings began plummeting during its second season.

As the number of Batman viewers declined, so did sales of the comic book. Beginning in 1969, with the creative team of artist Neal Adams and writer Dennis O’Neil, DC Comics took Batman back to its roots. Reflecting the turbulent times in America, the stories became darker and more somber. Just as in Batman’s debut in 1939, in which he unapologetically killed a criminal by throwing him into a vat of acid, the Batman of the 1970s also resorted to violence to subdue criminals. The work of Adams and O'Neil set the tone of Batman for the next few decades, as evidenced by artist Frank Miller's beaten-down Caped Crusader in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns from 1986, the crippling of Batgirl and murder of the second Robin in 1988, Batman's near murder by foe Bane in 1993, and Christopher Nolan's gritty The Dark Knight film in 2008.

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Heroes & Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross.  This exhibition has been organized by The Andy Warhol Museum, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.