Even if you’re not much of a comics person, you probably know Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s seminal Batman: The Long Halloween. Instantly acclaimed when first serialized in 1996, it launched both creators’ careers and influenced a large swath of subsequent Batman media—most notably, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. The 2021 two-part animated adaptation has only cemented The Long Halloween’s preeminent position in the Bat canon, rivalled only by Frank Miller’s Year One and Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. The Batman we find in these iconic works—dark, brooding, violent—has come to dominate depictions of the character since the 80s and 90s, but is this really the only Dark Knight worth exploring? Or are there other Batmen languishing in the crevices, waiting to get their turn in the limelight?

As you’ve probably guessed, the answer is yes.

By now, of course, the standard depiction of the grizzled, Gothic Batman is so entrenched in pop culture that it’s hard even to imagine an alternative. This interpretation is, however, a relatively recent development. From the character’s inception in Detective Comics in 1939, he’s sleuthed, snuck, and fought his way through a startling variety of genres. From the generic inner-city crime of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” his debut story, to the supernatural antics of “Batman Versus the Vampire” and the bizarre acid-trip fantasy of “Book of Enchantment” (all published within a year of each other), the nascent figure of Batman seemed unflappable. No matter the situation or the tone of the story, he remained recognizably himself—a sure sign of a truly flexible character.

The ensuing decades brought even more narrative diversity: the wacky science fiction of 60s Silver Age stories like “The Alien Boss of Gotham City” (just as crazy as it sounds) and “The Rainbow Batman” (even crazier); the psychologically-charged mystery of “The Joker’s Five-Way Revenge” and “Half an Evil”; the swashbuckling adventure of “Daughter of the Demon”—the story that introduced Ra’s al Ghul—and so forth. It wasn’t until the incredible success of Frank Miller’s gritty take on Batman (as well as other equally dark visions like Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: Serious House on Serious Earth) that this form of the character began to dominate. Tim Burton’s blockbuster Batman (1989) probably had something to do with it, too. 

And then we have The Long Halloween.

Tim Sale, DC Comics

Conceived as a follow-up to Year One, which radically retold Batman’s origin by surrounding him with corrupt cops, violent mobsters, and morally ambiguous allies (with no costumed villains or kid sidekicks to be seen), The Long Halloween turned out rather different from its iconic predecessor. The classic rogues’ gallery—Joker, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow—is all there, uneasily sharing the stage with Miller’s Godfather-inspired Falcone family and a newly-relevant GCPD. Overlaid with a serial killer plot that is at once outlandish and unsparing in its brutality, the result is something powerful and unprecedented; a fusion of the subversive 80s style, which was never sustainable, and elements from the character’s preposterous past, now no longer bankable in a comics industry increasingly tailored toward adults. Had Loeb and Sale not pulled this off so well, Batman in the following three decades might have looked very different.

Instead, The Long Halloween (and its sequel, Dark Victory) came to define the basic Batman status quo so completely that the full extent of its influence can hardly be measured. The Dent-Gordon-Batman trio, Catwoman’s relationship with Batman mirroring Selina Kyle’s with Bruce Wayne, Carmine Falcone as Selina’s father, Sal Maroni as Falcone’s Mob rival, Harvey Dent’s downward spiral leading directly to his transformation into Two-Face… these and countless other details taken for granted by most adaptations—including Matt Reeves’ recent The Batman (2022)—originate here. Batman fans owe The Long Halloween much, but it should be said that the enormously compelling formulation of the character’s mythos it offered also proved limiting. The comic deserves some blame for the subsequent sidelining of Robin, the confining of Batman’s stories to a gloomy, crime-infested Gotham City, and the Dark Knight’s own repeated characterization as taciturn, tortured, and emotionally repressed. 

Anyone who has delved into the history of Batman can see that he’s been many things at many times; in fact, his adaptability is one of his key strengths. Batman is still Batman, whether he’s on a mystical quest in the Himalayas, fighting evil gods in outer space, or beating the living daylights out of muggers in scummy alleyways. Why, then, has he been locked firmly in the latter setting since the last century? Because it’s easy. 

Warner Bros Animation

Fans and critics alike have gotten it into their heads that the character doesn’t ‘work’ too far removed from his now-standard milieu, blaming the failures of Tom King’s Rebirth run or Batman: Arkham Knight on their inability to follow the mould. This stock critique ignores highly successful post-90s experiments in freeing Batman from his grimdark shackles like Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin, featuring former Robin Dick Grayson as a more laid-back Batman and Bruce Wayne’s sociopathic son Damian as Robin travelling the globe fighting an array of bizarre original baddies, or Scott Snyder’s Last Knight on Earth, which quickly whipped from standard mystery to post-apocalyptic odyssey with a clone-related twist. By challenging our expectations of the man behind the cowl and his environs, these works (and others like them) add more shades to Batman as a character and cultural icon, further securing his already-proven longevity.

Why are such exhilarating stories always consigned to the margins? The Batman was great, but in retrospect, I’d rather we’d had a big screen Batman who didn’t spend all his time on rainy rooftops or chasing mobsters. Adam West did it, after all. Matt Reeves’ film even sets its opening around Halloween, as if the connection to Loeb and Sale wasn’t clear enough. It’s past time for a mainstream adaptation to take advantage of Batman’s versatility and his rich history of breaking the noir mould. Instead of rereading Year One and The Long Halloween, maybe they should take a look at ignored classics like Chuck Dixon’s The Chalice, Matt Wagner’s Batman and the Monster Men, or Paul Pope’s Year 100. Maybe then the Dark Knight’s long, long Halloween might finally undergo a shift in tone.