I was 16 when the Tim Burton Batman film came out. At the time it was the most-hyped movie I could remember for several years. It was the first major comic-book film to come out for a while, and the first since the new wave of comics – and specifically, superhero – respectability had hit in the mid-80s. That respectability had been kickstarted by a Batman yarn, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and word was that this new, big-budget Batflick would cement the new, slick, media-literate, violent and intelligent take on superheroics that Miller had helped pioneer. The NME, which had a fair few comics nerds hidden on-staff, used the (sizeable) figleaf of Prince’s soundtrack to run a bundle of coverage. The serious papers nodded in approval at Jack Nicholson’s vicious, charismatic, Joker. In retrospect, it was probably the high watermark of “WHAM! POW! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore!”.

And I honestly can’t remember anyone who saw the film being disappointed. I went with my Dad, who’d been impressed by my Miller Year One comics, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. In Burton’s hands the film lived up to the hype, Nicholson was generally considered a triumph, the caped crusader monstered the box office and dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight seemed to sum up pop culture in 1989 quite admirably.

The film’s tone and mood was, to be honest, nothing much to do with the Frank Miller Batman, which was becoming the grim template for the character in the comics. Burton’s Gotham was colourful, queasy, and dangerous, and the film enjoyed its aura of curdled, menacing camp. It was a necessary step away from the version of Batman laid down in the 60s – the full-on kitsch crusader, fighting the Riddler and rubber sharks – but it wasn’t a complete break from it, and nor was its sequel, with the Catwoman and Penguin, which I enjoyed even more. Later films slipped back into the family-fun mode, only without the “fun”. But the sensibilities of the two Burton Batman films, despite a few concessions to modern viciousness, are closer to the twisted comedy of Batman in the 1970s comics – stories like “The Laughing Fish”, where the Joker gives every fish in Gotham his rictus grin, and then murders people who won’t pay him a royalty for it.

What’s intrigued me most about the build-up to the enormously successful The Dark Knight is how similar it is to the hype for Burton’s Batman – visionary director, true to the comics, dude you gotta see this Joker – and how much fan reputation of the Burton movies is now tinged with retconned disappointment, as if Arnie and his Freeze Gun were always implicit, hidden in the frames of the 1989 film just waiting for Joel Schumacher to free them. But it goes deeper than a tarnished franchise – Burton’s efforts are judged wanting compared to the new Nolan films because they present an inferior version of the Proper Batman.

The Proper Batman is, in essence, what happened when Frank Miller’s Batman vison took over the character. The Proper Batman is hard, dedicated, driven and ruthlessly efficient, but still heroic. His war on crime is unending, his character is defined by his parents’ murder rather than by his friendships or status as a superhero. He is not, absolutely not, in NO WAY “camp”. His stories are dark. His enemies are psychopaths. He isn’t an asshole, though it’s easy to write him like one. His adventures are – “realistic” isn’t quite the right word, dude’s still a multimillionnaire who dresses like a bat, but they have a patina of “realism”: people get hurt and killed in them, if not killed by him.

The Proper Batman doesn’t really exist in the comics – in some senses he hasn’t since 1940’s BATMAN#1, which introduced Robin (who Nolan refuses to use in the films, probably rightly). Attempts to write him have foundered, partly beause you need to be a very good writer indeed to catalogue the adventures of such a monomaniac on a monthly basis, and partly because Batman in the comics lives in a shared universe where not only Robin exists, but where Superman is his mate.* Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Year One reinvention of Batman, in fact, is simultaneously the most effective superhero reimagination of modern times and the most unworkable. It only really works in one-off stories in which Batman’s war on crime is a genuinely lonely one. Enter Nolan and his movies, which can realise the Proper Batman in spectacularly intense fashion.

So The Dark Knight is a “comic book” film at one remove – a film based on idealised, not real, comics. The current comic adventures of Batman, ironically, are closer in feel to the surreal, blackly funny dreamscape of the Burton Gotham than anything DC Comics has published since the late 80s, and are also the first time in years and years I’ve regularly enjoyed reading the character. As one outraged blog comment asked, what are DC thinking if a new fan, enthused by the stark realism of The Dark Knight, walks into a shop looking for Batman comics and finds the current issue? Which features Bruce Wayne high on meth, convinced he’s a Batman from an alien world and sewing himself a gaudy new yellow-and-purple costume, with his pal from the fifth dimension, Bat-Mite, looking mockingly on.

The concept behind the current Batman storyline, by Freaky Trigger favourite Grant Morrison, is in its way as radical as Miller’s tight focus on Batman the obsessive noir vigilante. Faced with stories dating from the 30s to now, with Batman and Robin fighting freakish gangsters in the 40s, meeting aliens and mermen in the 50s, palling about with Superman in the 70s and 80s, and undergoing trial after sales-chasing trial in the 90s, he’s simply asked the question: “What if all this stuff happened to the same guy?” He hasn’t picked and chosen to make a Proper Batman, he’s just assumed that every Batman story is in some way ‘valid’, and then tried to work out what all that would do to Bruce Wayne. The answer being, obviously, that it would drive him completely mental. The storyline is called “Batman RIP”.

Morrison’s Batman, haunted by crazy adventures and higher-dimensional imps that may or may not be in his head, is as unfilmable now as a Miller version would have seemed in the 60s, Adam West era. In spirit, though, as a patchwork of compromised visions, he’s close to the Tim Burton vision of the Dark Knight, whose balancing of camp memory and strident new realism was so loved at the time and has ended up so curiously unthanked.

*This puts a serious spoke in the wheels of Proper Batman, as outlined by Al in an ILC post of yesteryear: “Hey wow, Bruce, how’s that neverending quest to clean up Gotham working out? You know the one, the one I COMPLETED IN 8 SECONDS with SUPER SPEED. Yeah the Joker put up a hell of a fight for an ORDINARY MAN WITH A DEFORMED FACE. Also I don’t know how you slept at night when there was a man dressed as a penguin roaming your town…”