At my day job in December, a philanthropic project was initiated in the marketing department to create coloring kits for underprivileged children in the area. Our creative director instructed us that, depending on our bandwidth, we should create some original artwork for the project. I started thinking about what I liked to draw/color as a kid, and my mind immediately turned to Batman.
As a child of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Tim Burton’s Batman movies were my gateway to the character. I immediately started looking for reference material to create a "throwback" Michael Keaton Batman illustration. But soon I began to doubt myself—kids these days probably don’t even remember Michael Keaton as Batman. Should it be Ben Affleck then? Or perhaps Christian Bale?
Who is your favorite live-action Batman?
This question sparked my creative juices. Do you like your Batman dark and gritty, or bright and campy? Do you prefer your angry eyebrows finely sculpted, or brushed in a thin line? Do you think the bat ears should be long or short? Depending on your age, taste, and tolerance for bat nipples, it could be any of the six actors to don the cape and cowl. (Okay, probably not Clooney.)
Finally it hit me—I should create an illustrated gallery of all the live-action Batmen. The collection should speak to the wildly different takes on the Caped Crusader over the years, but also emphasize their inherent similarities. I gathered reference images of the various actors and started sketching.
As fun as it was to get paid to draw Batman for a few days, the coloring page only had room for Adam West, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale, and Ben Affleck. But I couldn’t stop there. I had to add Val Kilmer and George Clooney. And the illustrations needed to be in color. And they needed a unifying badge design to highlight the actor's names and years in the role. And gosh, wouldn’t these look great as coasters or enamel pins? Rest assured my wheels are still turning on an end use for these, but in the meantime here’s a look at how each illustration came together, and some thoughts on each actor.
Adam West only played Batman for a few short years, but his impact has reverberated for decades. He still the only actor to fully commit to wearing the blue tights in unforgiving live-action. He didn't need molded plastic to improve his physique... Pure. West.
It was a great coming of age moment for me when I revisited this silly "kids" show as a teenager, and I realized that the absurdity on display was completely and utterly intentional. It was as if a whole new world of humor had opened up to me. If you have a soft spot for the '60s TV show, I highly recommend the recent animated feature, Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders.
As a kid I spent countless hours drawing Keaton under the cowl. Capturing his likeness for this project was like riding a bike. I opted for the batsuit from Batman '89, with its thicker cowl and natural musculature, rather than the more stylized version from Batman Returns. Keaton might not have been able to turn his head, but I've always loved the look of his original suit.
After Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders successfully exhumed a bygone Bat era, I'd love to see an animated feature that continues the story of the "Burton-verse." Michelle Pfeiffer returns as Catwoman? Billy Dee Williams' long-awaited transformation into Two-Face? This idea was even explored as a comic book miniseries, but unfortunately was turned down.
Confession: I loved Batman Forever back in the day. The film certainly hasn’t aged well, but disregarding cornball lines like "I'll get drive-thru" and "the bat signal is not a beeper," Kilmer was a solid Batman. And I think his take on Bruce Wayne was better than Michael Keaton's isolated loner.
Kilmer's batsuit stuck pretty closely to the ones Keaton wore, with the notorious exception of adding bat nipples. Batman Forever also started the trend of a mid-movie costume change in the name of selling merchandise (a move Iron Man later perfected), but I never cared for the sonar suit that he wears during the film's climax.
It took me a few years to forgive Clooney for his starring role in the worst Batman movie ever made. O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Ocean's Eleven certainly aided the healing process. I also appreciate that he’s had a good sense of humor about his ill-fated turn as the Caped Crusader ever since then.
Setting aside the train wreck of a movie for a moment, Clooney's blue-tinted batsuit was notable for breaking away from the standard issue black. And if you can take your eyes off the bat nipples, the raised chest emblem with overlaid Batman and Robin logos is actually pretty cool. But the less said about the blue & silver arctic suit worn during the finale, the better.
It was a long 8 years after Batman & Robin nearly put the franchise on ice (badum). Finally, Christian Bale brought the physicality and intensity the character deserved (not to mention a Batman voice for the ages). But in my opinion the real breakout star of the Dark Knight Trilogy was director Christopher Nolan.
While I tend to prefer a sleek, organic look, I recognize that a more utilitarian batsuit made the most sense in the real world context. I also appreciate how Nolan incorporated practical costume updates into the story of The Dark Knight, rather than just "he got a new suit because we wanted to sell more toys."
Just one film into his run, the jury is still out on Batfleck. Batman v Superman wasn't a "battling goons on hockey skates" level disaster or anything, but it was certainly a bit of a mixed bag. Here's hoping that Justice League rights the ship. Maybe start by having Batman not kill people left and right. ("Yeah, but they were all bad.")
I dig that the Batman v Superman suit takes its cues from the classic Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, but in the live-action world Affleck seems comically bulked up (no pun intended)—especially compared to the slight Michael Keaton. He does deserve some props for introducing "angry bat stubble" to the ensemble though.