Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon
These are Batman’s real clothes. Everything else is just something he wore that one time
To say that Batman has one of the most iconic costumes in all of superhero comics — or in any fiction that has a visual component at all, really — is underselling things by a pretty significant amount.
He’s up there with Robin Hood, so recognizable that you don’t even need the symbol on his chest or the scalloped edges of the cape to tell who you’re looking at. All you need is those pointy ears, and whether it’s the solid black, cape-free costume of Terry McGinnis, the technicolor nightmare of the Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, or the shiny blue and grey that Adam West wore in the ‘60s, there’s never any doubt about who this is. The guy with the ears? That’s Batman.
The costume is so iconic and effective that, like the hero who wears it, it’s had countless variations over the years, with 11 distinct, defined looks in the mainstream DC Comics. That leaves the question, though: They might all draw from the same iconic well, but while all of them are Batman, only one of them can be The Most Batman. To find out which, let’s take a stroll through the Dark Knight’s sartorial history and see what sticks out from one era to the next.
11: The original Batman costume (1939-1940)
The original Batman costume didn’t last long — it had its first significant redesign within a year — but the look that shows up in Detective Comics #27 is notable for a few reasons. First, a lot of the costume’s most iconic elements are there from the beginning. The pointy ears, the scalloped cape, the emblem and the basic color scheme that Batman would be working with for the next 80 years are all here, albeit in some pretty strange forms. The purple gloves, for instance, are a weird pop of color that became strongly identified with the Batman of 1939, largely because they were one of the first things to change. And of course, there’s the holster on the utility belt, for the gun that was ditched even earlier.
The other important factor here is that the costume could’ve been very different. It’s become increasingly well known that Bob Kane’s major contribution to Batman’s creation was coming up with the name, and his original costume design was somewhere between generic and flat-out bad: Red pajamas with a domino mask and some Da Vincian bat wings for a cape, capped off with a hairstyle that can best be described as “Blonde Superman.” Everything that’s good and lasting about the suit was suggested by Bill Finger, even if those suggestions boiled down to “the Shadow is popular, let’s just do that.”
10: The New 52 Batman costume (2011-016)
Every complaint about the armor costumes of the ‘90s can and should be leveled squarely at the terrible redesigns that flooded the DC Universe after the New 52 relaunch. Batman got off lightly compared to a few of his coworkers, but his look was still rough, and is aging about as well as a ripe avocado. It was somehow both drab and needlessly detailed, and reducing it almost entirely to black and grey made Batman the least interesting thing to look at on any given page. That in itself is a pretty impressive feat, because he’s Batman, and being a billionaire science ninja with a rocket car is usually pretty interesting.
A few artists did good work with this suit — notably Chris Burnham on Batman Inc. and Greg Capullo on Batman — but it was an uphill climb. Could be worse, though. The New 52 Robin suit was basically a crime.
9: The Batman Inc. costume (2011-2012)
Grant Morrison has a lot of interesting ideas for how things work. Case in point, the revamped Batman costume in Batman Inc. designed with David Finch, which Bruce Wayne adopted after he returned from being trapped in caveman days by a space god. You know. Superhero stuff.
Dick Grayson — who was also Batman at the time (superhero stuff) — stuck with the “New Gotham” suit, with Frank Quitely’s added stylistic touch of giving him a bat-shaped utility belt, Bruce, however, distinguished his look with a brief return to the oval. It became a symbol both for Batman himself and for Batman Incorporated, reflecting Morrison’s ideas about corporate logos as memetic sigils. This time, though, the oval was itself a light, making Bruce a personified Bat-Signal around which the other worldwide Batmen could rally. It’s a really neat idea that plays with symbolism in a very cool way, but the rest of the costume is… not so great. It’s got the needless piping and stitching of a lot of “realistic” post-Ultimates designs, and mostly looks like a set of coveralls with a surprisingly prominent codpiece. If your vision of Batman includes the phrase “glow-in-the-dark sex janitor,” it’s the suit for you.
8: The Golden Age Batman costume (1940-1964)
In The Caped Crusade, Glen Weldon makes the compelling argument that Batman isn’t really Batman until Robin shows up in Detective Comics #38, completing the arc from ripping off the Shadow into becoming his own character. If that’s the case, it’s pretty appropriate that the cover introducing the Boy Wonder also marks the first cover appearance of a Batman costume that feels like it’s not just a prototype.
The changes had been coming in bits and pieces over the previous year, but this is where it all comes together. The ears on the cowl were raised up and made pointer, the colors got a little brighter, and those purple gloves were swapped out for the familiar blue ones with the fins. Notably, Detective #36 marked the last time the Golden Age Batman used his pistol, which is indicative of the entire aesthetic. With Robin’s introduction, he’s not a gun-toting pulp vigilante anymore. He’s a superhero, firmly rooted as one of the pillars of a brand new genre.
7: The All Black Everything Batman costume (1995-2000)
When Bruce Wayne finally made his way back after Knightfall, he brought a new costume, and the only thing that’s surprising is that it took almost six years after the first Tim Burton movie to try that look out in the comics.
This marked the first time that the Batman costume ditched the trunks, instead relying solely on the utility belt and the yellow oval around the logo to break up the black-on-black look. While the exterior of the cape was black, though, the interior of the cape was a dark blue. That meant that he could always be a dark figure against a lighter background when he was in action, and considering that it’s nice to be able to tell what’s going on in a comic book, that’s a big plus.
In retrospect, it seems weird that this version of the Batman costume only lasted about five years. It feels like it was around a lot longer, probably because it was the look the movies were doing since 1989, and because Batman was appearing in a lot of comics in the late ‘90s. This is the costume he wore in JLA, for instance, where Howard Porter added the nice, slightly demonic touch of giving the cape curved points at Batman’s shoulders.
6: The AzBats Batman costume (1993)
A lot of people like to talk some trash about the prominence of over-the-top armor costumes in the ‘90s, and look: Nostalgia aside, I get it. Booster Gold did not need to be a walking tank. When they turn those complaints to the armor that Jean-Paul Valley wore in his brief tenure as Batman after Bruce Wayne was sidelined in Knightfall, however, that’s where they’re wrong.
Designed by Joe Quesada, the AzBats suit was short-lived, but definitely underscores one of the most underrated aspects of Knightfall, in that it’s directly confrontational to the readers. Jean-Paul Valley suiting up in armor and beating bad guys half to death with a hammer is the response to fans who wanted an edgier, more extreme Batman, someone more like Wolverine or the Punisher. It’s not subtle, either. The armor has claws, y’all.
The whole point of the story is that a guy like that does not actually make a good Batman, and the over-the-top armor with all its spikes and pouches helps to make that abundantly clear. It’s not a good look for Bruce, but for Azrael cosplaying as Batman? This costume rules, actually.
5: The New Gotham Batman costume (2000-2011)
If you’re a true “Bat-head” who knows all the obscure deep cut comics, then I guess there’s a slight chance you’ve heard of Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. In addition to their other lasting influences, those comics prominently featured Batman in costumes that didn’t have the yellow oval, which apparently made everyone think that this was a superior costuming choice. That’s debatable, but DC embraced it when the Batman titles underwent a soft relaunch after the year-long No Man’s Land crossover, with a redesign from Dave Johnson. It wasn’t just the costume, either. Johhnson also redesigned the GCPD uniforms with a really good retro style and even offered up a new design for the batarang, clearly going for a stripped-down approach that evoked The Animated Series.
It’s a good-looking suit, and since printing had come quite a long way since 1964, the logo never blended into the costume the way it did back then. Plus, the treads on the boots are actually a good use of a seemingly inconsequential detail, in that they’re a subtle reminder of Batman’s lack of super-powers. The cape and cowl tell you he’s a superhero, but he’s also a guy who needs shoes with a little grip to them when he’s climbing up walls and chasing down crooks.
4: The Bat-chelor Party Batman costume (2018-Present)
As you might’ve heard, Batman was supposed to get married in 2018, and then he didn’t. Then he got sad and decided that he was so sad that he could no longer wear purple and yellow, the colors of happiness. And so, Batman did what so many of us do when we’re depressed: He went back to whatever he was doing twenty years ago.
In his case, that was a return of David Mazzucchelli’s Year One costume. It’s functionally the same as the “New Gotham” suit — including the boot treads — but the cape, cowl, trunks, and boots are all black instead of dark blue, which is weird. You’d think a guy that sad would be… feeling blue.
It’s fine, but it definitely feels like a skittish step backwards after the Rebirth suit that it replaced.
3: The Zero Year Batman costume (2013-2014)
When Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo got the job of giving Batman an updated origin story, they decided to pre-emptively counter the comparisons to Year One by just going in the opposite direction. Year One is a gritty, violent story set against the backdrop of the ‘80s crime wave. Zero Year is a neon-pink nightmare where Batman has to wrestle a lion because of the Riddler.
It also features the return of the purple gloves which, like the lion-wrestling, is a bit of the Golden Age updated with a modern take. This suit is a weird one, but it’s a good take on mashing up the over-detailing of the New 52 with signature elements of Batmans’ past. Plus, the story also features Batman wearing a short-sleeved shirt and wrestler boots while doing dirtbike stunts, which doesn’t stick around long enough to be an official costume, but would make a solid runner-up for Best Batman.
2: The Rebirth Batman costume (2016 – 2018)
After years of tooth-gritting seriousness, it was inevitable that the pendulum would swing back to embracing the bizarre, and the past ten years have been the weirdest Batman has seen since the ‘50s. Remember when Batman was Jim Gordon in a giant blue robot for a minute? Or when he died and came back to life because of magic metal and then got his memories back from a clone machine he keeps in his basement? Or when he had to fight his interdimensional murder-dad? That was last year.
Greg Capullo’s Rebirth-era design reflects that. It has the heavy gauntlets and boots of the hilariously self-serious Arkham games, but they’re thrown in there with a bunch of delightfully weird touches. The utility belt is designed to look like fangs, the interior of the cape is a purple gradient for dramatic (and colorful) backdrops, and while it lacks the oval, the bat-symbol has a bright yellow outline to make it pop. It’s great. Batman is a person who does karate at homicidal clowns on a regular basis. He should look a little weird.
1: The “New Look” Batman costume (1964 – 1993)
After it was refined a few times in the early years, Batman’s costume, much like Superman’s, would remain largely unchanged for the next 50 years. The keyword there, though, is “largely.” In 1964, Detective Comics #237 announced the “New Look” Batman, which basically amounted to exactly one change: Batman’s logo got a yellow oval around it.
According to Michael Uslan, the producer of every modern Batman film, this was done to make the logo easier to trademark in advance of the Batman TV show, but there’s also a very practical artistic concern. Unlike Superman’s striking, immediately recognizable S — and the big blue 4s and spiders over at the newly minted competition — the black-on-grey logo was pretty easy to miss in the art. The oval made it pop, and tied it to the striking visual of the Bat-Signal, which had been around since 1942. There would be a few minor tweaks over the next couple of decades, but they’re all stylistic. Carmine Infantino, Jim Aparo, Neal Adams, Marshall Rogers and Alan Davis all drew the same suit; the only difference is how long they like their ears.
The result was Batman’s best and most iconic costume, which stuck around for a full 30 years for a very good reason. It’s got a striking color scheme, and once the logo is tweaked to have the curved wings that fit in the oval, it’s one of the best pieces of iconography in comics. It’s also very adaptable to different styles and levels of brightness. The Batman: The Animated Series trick of drawing the cape, cowl, and trunks black and using the traditional blue for highlights, for example, is an extremely good interpretation and the reigning, defending Best Batman. In other words, these are Batman’s real clothes. Everything else is just something he wore that one time.
Chris Sims is a comic book writer, columnist, and podcaster based in Durham, North Carolina, and also an internationally recognized Batmanologist (no, really). He has a new dog and her name is Biscuit.