It's interesting to me that this is a debate. No, I'm not saying that I think this debate isn't without merit, because it certainly is. I just find it interesting that this is the debate, that when it's all said and done, it comes down to these two characters. Superman may have been the first, but when the votes are tallied, it's Batman and Spider-man who show up in the run off election.
A while back, Chris Sims over at Comics Alliance wrote about how, even though Batman is his favorite comic book character, Spider-man is the best comic book character. And while I appreciate the fact that he's able to make that distinction, I respectfully disagree (on that last part -- can't disagree on the first part, obviously, as it's a matter of personal taste).
I would also take issue with Joss Whedon's comment that Batman is a Marvel character in the DC universe. Sorry, Whedon, I love your work, but that's a statement made by someone who hasn't read enough DC comics.
Here are a few of the reasons why I think Batman is the greatest superhero character ever:
He's a Reflection of Society
I talk about this a lot, I think, but one of the things I love about Batman -- and one of the things the character does better than any other comic book character -- is that he changes with the times. He's a reflection of what our culture is like at any given point. Each decade of Batman is different and the fact that one character can have so many different interpretations and still have a solid core is fantastic. It makes his 76 year history wonderful to dig into.
You don't get that to the same extent with any other character, not even Spider-man. While Spider-man stories dabbled in issues of the day, the character has been portrayed in roughly the same way his entire history. Maybe he got a little groovy in the 70's, maybe the black costume reflects a darker time in the 80's, and maybe the Clone Saga reflected the trend in comics in the 90's. But the depth of the social reflection has never been as great as with Batman. There's a very good reason for that.
At his core, Spider-man is about angst. He is the ultimate Marvel character. And, to refute Whedon's claim, Batman is not. The amount that Batman's angst matters has fluctuated over the past 7 decades. At times it is essential to every story being told; at other times it's an afterthought. The Batman of the 50's treated his parents' deaths as just another plot point that got him to where he was, and now it was time to put on silly costumes and exchange jokes with a teenage sidekick. Spider-man has never fluctuated like that.
Which is fine. It speaks to how powerful Spider-man's core concept is that he has ostensibly been the same character for over 50 years. But it doesn't make him the reflection of society that Batman is.
I love fictional cities. I love the hell out of them. Part of the reason why I love them is because, even though they're fictional, they make the suspension of disbelief much easier. Putting all of your superheroes in New York City is kind of a hard pill to swallow when you've got thousands of characters. The ratio of people to superheroes in NYC has got to be crazy by now.
Not that Gotham doesn't have it's problems. At this point, you'd have to assume that the damn place would be cleaned up. Why would any criminal work in Gotham? And after all this time, why hasn't Batman's war produced any real change?
Still, placing Batman in a fictional city allows the city to become its own character without concern for stepping on the toes of reality. Writers don't have to worry about parts of the city changing in the real world and upending their stories. Crime Alley can always be ground zero for crime and poverty as long as the writers want that to be the case.
Gotham also allows creators to fill in a fictional history complete with its own bizarre stories. There's no limit to the world of Batman.
His Villains Are Awesome
Let's just be clear on this: Batman has the best villains of any comic book character. With each new Spider-man movie, fans argue over which villain is iconic enough to oppose him. That's never an issue with Batman. The latest trilogy of movies never gave us the Penguin or the Riddler, two well known Bat-villains, and that was after something like 8 hours worth of movies, all of which had multiple bad guys.
The Green Goblin just doesn't have the same status as the Joker. There's no competition. Even Batman's second tier guys are better. They're scary and interesting and, after up to 76 years of storytelling, complex characters.
They're also diverse. Batman's villains aren't always an extension of him; sometimes they're just really cool characters with specific motivations that don't relate to Batman. Even those villains who are a reflection of Batman reflect different facets of his character. If Batman is order and the Joker is chaos, then Two-Face is half of each. The Penguin is old Gotham money gone bad vs. Bruce Wayne's old Gotham money gone good. The Riddler is the opposite to the Dark Knight Detective. Catwoman is the criminal who crosses the line into heroics, just as Batman is the hero who sometimes blurs the lines into villainy.
Even after that impressive list, how do you define Mister Freeze or Poison Ivy or Clayface or Killer Croc? They're not extensions of Batman or Bruce Wayne. They're simply really cool characters.
(And I haven't even mention Ra's al Ghul, Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, Dr. Hurt, Mr Zsasz, Black Mask, Hugo Strange...)
The Bat Family
Even if you want to make the argument that post-50's Batman became a Marvel character in the DC universe because of the emphasis on his own psychological and emotional issues, you'd still be ignoring one of the most entertaining aspects of the character, one shared by other DC superheroes but hardly any Marvel characters: family.
Family has played a big enough role in the DC universe that they even published comics around them, like Superman Family and Batman Family. Sure, these characters are now basically ways of expanding a brand, but they started off innocently enough. Robin wasn't created to expand the Batman line and cash in on the Batman brand -- if he had been, they'd have called him Batboy (Kid Batman?).
While the New 52 has screwed the pooch on families, I'm going to pretend it never happened.
Batman has had 5 Robins now, 4 of whom have gone on to expand the family as Nightwing, Red Hood, Red Robin, and Batgirl. There have been 3 Batgirls, two of which went on to become Black Bat and Oracle. There have been two people calling themselves Batwoman. Heck, there have been 3 people calling themselves Batman.
I love the fact that Bruce Wayne has created a family to replace the one that was taken from him at a young age. I love how each character has a complex relationship with each of the others. This large Bat-family creates a wonderful dynamic that's not present for any other character, even those that have their own families (sorry, Superman). It also emphasizes how Bruce Wayne has changed over the years, from young, solo vigilante, to father figure to a group of superheroes.
I love the hell out of Spider-man (although my favorite period is the end of his college days to the first few years out of school, and those years seem to ignored by most fans and creators). He was my favorite character when I was younger (Wolverine was #1 for a while, but Spidey eventually unseated him). But if forced to choose, I'm going with Batman every time.