Batman made his debut in Detective Comics #27, which collectors believe first appeared on newsstands on this week in 1939. (The Library of Congress lists an earlier copyright date, but that likely was not the day of release.) Since his debut, Batman has undergone many drastic changes, but somehow our collective perception remains pure.

The origins of Batman are complicated. After the massive success of Superman, comic book publishers were hungry for more costumed adventurers, and National Publications (which would become DC) commissioned a superhero from Bob Kane, who had previously been at Fleischer Studios. He made a proposal for a winged, red-suited avenger with blonde hair and a domino mask called Bird-Man. He enlisted the aid of Bill Finger, a writer he had befriended at a cocktail party, and Finger smartly urged Kane in a different, far better direction.

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At Finger’s suggestion, Bird-Man was transformed from something bright, bland, and unremarkable into something dark, vicious, and pulse-quickening: The Bat-Man. Drawing from characters such as The Shadow, The Phantom, and Zorro, the character was clad in grays and blacks, cloaked in a cape, with his face almost completely hidden by a cowl sprouting two devilish horns. Kane made a deal to get the byline and creator credit; Finger got a per-story fee, and the rest is another entry in comics’ sad history of creator ownership. (Finger finally received proper credit in 2015.)

In his first appearances in comics by Finger, Kane, and Kane’s most famous inker/ghost-artist Jerry Robinson, Batman wasn’t fully-formed, but he was dark, unique, and set up with a perfect formula: millionaire Bruce Wayne by day; swashbuckling avenger of macabre crime by night. Batman fought gangsters and science fiction freaks alike; a nightmare that grappled with other nightmares. He carried a gun, and often killed his enemies.

The proto-Batman was given his soul in Detective Comics #33, the death of his parents in Crime Alley at the hands of a random mugger, and it remains the most powerful origin story in superhero comics and a template that many others followed.

The introduction of that motivation eventually led Finger and Kane to remove killing and guns from Batman’s repertoire: if he was avenging his parents’ murder by firearm, it wouldn’t make much sense for the character to be such a fan of murder by firearms. Batman was lightened up a bit, especially after the introduction of teenage sidekick Robin, and in the post-WWII years, ghost artists like Dick Sprang contributed to the new sense of optimism. But Batman’s adventures were still strange detective stories that never lacked an edge of weirdness.

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In the mid-1950s, all the darkness and danger was completely sapped out of the character. Fredric Wertham‘s Seduction of the Innocent altered the comicbook industry as a whole, and his targeting of Batman’s partnership with Robin, which he testified carried undertones of a homosexual relationship, led to massive changes for the character. Female characters were introduced as romantic possibilities, and the comics veered away from odd detective stories into over-the-top, wacky science fiction.

When Julius Schwartz took over as editor of the Batman titles in the mid-’60s, he brought in artist Carmine Infantino to create a new look for the character, including the yellow oval behind the bat insignia. For a few years those stories managed to find a balance between the dark elements that defined the early character, and the lighter elements in the intervening years, and returned Batman to his detective roots with supervillain crime stories and weird mysteries in a purple-skied Gotham; Batman could scowl again.

But the popularity of the Batman TV show — an intentionally campy and ironic take based on the nutty comics of the ‘50s — derailed the character’s more serious rebirth and drained the menace out once again.

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In the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil set about course-correcting, re-injecting Batman with some darkness and reconnecting the character with his swashbuckler roots. Others followed suit, with contributors including Len Wein, Dick Giordano, Jim Aparo, and two who deserve much more than they get: Marshall Rogers and Steve Englehart. In their short but potent run on Detective Comics (with a little early assistance from Walt Simonson), Englehart and Rogers channeled the dark, pulp-influenced stories of the early stories by Finger, Kane, and Robinson, brought the Joker back as a grinning psychopath, and made the Dark Knight vicious once again.

But despite the new life instilled in the character, Batman’s popularity was at an all-time low in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. His great rebirth took place in Frank Miller‘s The Dark Knight Returns in 1986. The title itself seemed almost a statement of Miller’s intent: to bring back the violent avenger that had been watered-down by time, the Comics Code, and camp. The massive success of The Dark Knight Returns inspired a complete resurgence in the character.

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After The Dark Knight Returns and the organization of the post-Crisis DC universe, Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli re-told Batman’s beginning in the spectacular “Year One” storyline in Detective Comics, the official origin of the character for the next three decades. The new heights of popularity led to Tim Burton’s first Batman movie (drawing heavily upon Englehart and Rogers’ run), which led to Batman: The Animated Series. Throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Batman experienced a new level of cultural penetration.

Miller’s vision of Batman was so effective that every other interpretation of the character was influenced by it or created in response to it for nearly twenty years. Through the next couple of decades, most Batman stories were especially hard-edged and cynical, with Barbara Gordon molested and shot, Jason Todd murdered, and Batman paralyzed. The official direction of DC seemed to be to meet the expectations set by Miller’s vision, and some of the best Batman stories of the early 2000s are ones that set Batman to the side, most notably Gotham Central by Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, and Michael Lark.

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In the mid-2000s, Miller’s grip loosened. Christopher Nolan’s 2005 film Batman Begins took its cues from Year One, but it was equally inspired by the Batman stories of the seventies by Adams, O’Neil, Englehart, and Rogers. Grant Morrison began his seven-year run on the character by bringing back the brighter, campier elements of the ‘50s and ‘60s and making them work with the darker aspects of the character, tying together all of Batman’s continuity into something more cohesive and less exclusionary. (Though even he ignored Batman’s early history as a killer.)

When revamped once again for DC’s New 52 launch, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo created an iteration of the Dark Knight that seemed to draw equally from Miller and Mazzuchelli, O’Neal and Adams, Schwartz and his writers and Infantino, and especially from Finger, Kane, and Robinson: a swashbuckling detective waging unending war on the neon-bright nightmares of the 21st century.

Though there have been wildly different variations of the character through the decades, there remains enough room for something from each era to make a mark. It’s arguable that Batman is more culturally relevant today than ever before — he received top-billing in a Superman movie, after all — and despite whatever version is out there in the mass consciousness, outdated interpretations still contribute to the complete picture of the character. The goofy, smiling Batman of the sci-fi era still has a place in our perceptions along with the grim, snarling avenger, the shirtless swashbuckler, and the world’s greatest detective.

Even in the darkest, most cynical Batman stories, there’s usually room enough in the Batcave for a giant penny.

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