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book review

This undated film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from the action thriller "The Dark Knight Rises."Ron Phillips/The Associated Press

In May, 1939, a character known as "the Bat-Man" appeared in Detective Comics #27. "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate" introduced readers to "a mysterious and adventurous figure" who moonlighted as a clandestine sleuth-ninja in jack boots, a spiky-eared mask and a scalloped cape. Within the year, the character had his own series. Three-quarters of a century later, through multiple TV shows, movies, video games and product tie-ins (ceiling fans! rubber duckies! golf club covers!), Bruce Wayne's alter ego might have surpassed even Clark Kent's as the world's most iconic comic-book figure.

With that in mind, there's an inevitability to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, one of two DC extended-universe films featuring the Caped Crusader coming out this year (Suicide Squad being the other; a new feature-length cartoon, Batman: Bad Blood, was just released direct-to-video). And Batman isn't just enjoying an extended cultural moment on the silver screen; he's making real-world news as well. Last July, Ontario motorists were baffled by a vintage Batmobile pulled over on Highway 401 with a uniformed Batman tinkering under the hood; a month later, another Batman was killed while attending to his own broken-down Batmobile outside Baltimore, Md.

And then there are the comic books, which are legion. More than a dozen official series currently feature or have splintered from the central Batman narrative; these include a manga version, another co-starring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the throwback Batman '66 books (recently: "Meets the Man from U.N.C.L.E."), Grayson, in which the original Robin plays a slick, bespoke-suited spy, and a conspicuously Hogwarts-inspired take called Gotham Academy. Add to that ballooning bibliography the trade paperback re-release of Ed Brubaker's run at the character, beginning with Issue #582 in this initial volume, and extending into a second edition later this year.

Batman is something of a mongrel, blending elements of Zorro, Tarzan, the Phantom and the Shadow; creator Bob Kane's original sketches were actually superimposed over a Superman outline. And so, fittingly enough, Brubaker's Batman is a hybrid affair, merging those old gumshoe plot lines with 1960s camp and the gritty noir of the Dark Knight Returns. Scott McDaniel's and Karl Story's artwork, too, combines Neal Adams's seminal chiaroscuro with the eight-bit palettes of the Nintendo era. The result is a vastly different Gotham City than that of the recent Christopher Nolan movies, perhaps one that seeks more to honour Batman's legacy than reinvent it.

Ed Brubaker, after all, is a proven nostalgic. Post-Batman, he went on to helm the terrific Gotham Central, a 1980s-style police procedural in which preteen Bruce Wayne is still years from donning the cape, and much of his best work recalls the hardboiled pulp of the 1930s. Here, he casts Batman in his old, investigative role – he's often referred to, sometimes sneeringly, as "detective" – and incorporates many of the story's classic tropes: body-altered mad villains, multiple intersecting story lines, corporate corruption and an expendable romantic interest, all while the demons of the past haunt Wayne Manor and beyond. And while the inclusion of crash-landed aliens might seem to herald Brubaker's personal taste for sci-fi, DC attempted to bolster the comic's flagging readership in the 1960s with similar, and often ludicrous, forays into the supernatural.

A more modern touch, here, is one of perspective. As per early-20th-century comic-book conventions, Batman readers were guided from one panel to the next by an awestruck narrator to whom our hero remained mostly a mystery. As Frank Miller did in his 1986 reboot, Brubaker adopts Bruce Wayne's point-of-view: "People always say that you don't hear a bullet until it hits you," begins Issue #582. "But the truth isn't quite that simple. I should know, I've been shot often enough."

That Batman has gone from a spectre flitting on the periphery of our understanding to someone with whom readers are meant to identify might be symptomatic of a broader culture that feels more aligned, now, with his narrative of trauma and redemption. The Caped Crusader used to be an outlier, an urban Id whose extra-judicial vigilantism happened quite literally in the shadows. But these days, elements of his story have become familiar, if not accepted, and those nefarious means of preserving the status quo aren't simply acts of heroism, but also reveal the inherent fragility of that same social order.

Beyond comics, Batman's cinematic iterations have long spoken to and from their respective times. The character made his first appearance on film in 1943, in a 15-part serial in which Batman and Robin squared off against a despicable Japanese spy named Dr. Daka – the same year, incidentally, that Ayn Rand published The Fountainhead. I'd be hard pressed to think of a pop-culture figure who embodies the ideals of Objectivism more acutely than Bruce Wayne, that tower of personal wealth and individualism, whose crime-fighting is even based in a childhood vendetta rather than some altruistic social project.

Anyway, soon enough we'll have another movie, this one featuring our chiropteran hero doing battle with Superman. While the specifics of the plot have remained under wraps, it seems things are shifting from the anti-anarchic Dark Knight trilogy alongside a new, perhaps even more insidious contemporary mythology. Kal-El was innocuous enough until he inadvertently summoned his fellow Kryptonians to Earth to destroy us. And even though he's saved the planet as Superman, can he really be trusted? He is, after all, a refugee.

Editor's note: Gotham Academy was misidentified in the original version of this article. This version has been corrected.