Time for another time-travel trip in the Wayback Machine. Set the dials for the year 1975. Li’l Scott has been forcibly called inside from playing in the front yard. Visibly miffed at this development (though not really able to verbalize it at age 4), Li’l Scott is plunked down in front of the TV while dinner is prepared. It’s 4:30 in the afternoon, and the dial is turned to Channel 2.
“Here, watch this. You’ll like it.”
On the screen, Adam West and Burt Ward are duking it out with Cesar Romero and his hapless henchmen (probably named “Tee” and “Hee” or something like that), while giant colored graphics fly across the screen – “Pow!” “Thunk!” “Biff!”
Li’l Scott has been introduced to Batman. Things would never be the same.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the BATMAN TV show, and the Batman character in general, is in large part responsible for my lifelong love of the comic-book genre. Although the Adam West TV show was the entry point, my parents encouraged the interest with the excellent 1971 hardcover collection BATMAN: FROM THE ‘30S TO THE ‘70S, which instilled in me an appreciation for and understanding of the history of the character (and the genre as well). The resulting interest in comics and literature wound up leading me to a college scholarship and several related careers. That well-read copy of BATMAN: FROM THE ‘30S TO THE ‘70S is at my right hand even now as I write this (emphasis on well-read — it’s practically a liquid). So thanks to my parents for the book – turns out it was probably ten dollars well spent.
In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, this week begins our long-requested examination of Batman, which will most likely carry us through the holidays. In the weeks to come, we’ll try to cover all things Bat, from the villains to the gimmicks to the sidekicks to the movies. However, our story begins with a familiar image in what would later be called the Golden Age of comics: two young men looking for work.
Artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger had sold a couple of nondescript adventure stories to National Comics by 1939. When Kane was told by National editor Vin Sullivan that he was looking for another costumed hero character (after the unprecedented success of Superman) for his series DETECTIVE COMICS, Kane immediately set to work on his own costumed character.
Using the Superman-style tights as a basis, Kane came up with his new character, “Bat-Man,” with red tights, a black domino mask, and Bat wings inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for the “ornothopter,” a bat-winged flying device. Kane took the designs to Finger, who suggested changing the mask to a full-head cowl with bat ears, changing the wings to a scalloped cape, and changing the red tights to a more moody gray color. Finger also suggested the pointed scallops that would eventually be added to Batman’s gloves.
Finger’s contribution to the character’s inception wasn’t merely limited to costume design. Both Kane and Finger drew on and combined a variety of influences in their creation of the character. According to Les Daniels’ excellent book BATMAN: THE COMPLETE HISTORY, Kane was inspired by the 1926 film THE BAT WHISPERS, about a costumed killer known as The Bat, and by the 1920 Douglas Fairbanks version of THE MARK OF ZORRO, which featured Zorro posing as foppish dilettante Don Diego de la Vega during the day, inspiring the notion of Batman’s wealthy (and wimpy) secret identity. Finger incorporated a dose of swashbuckling derring-do as inspired by D’Artagnan in the 1944 film THE THREE MUSKETEERS, as well as the notion of Batman being a matchless detective in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. The Shadow was another influence of both Kane and Finger, and the pulp hero’s black flowing cloak was surely an inspiration as was his double life, split between the Shadow and socialite Lamont Cranston.
Kane and Finger’s revised Batman character met with approval from Sullivan, and the character made his first appearance in DETECTIVE COMICS #27 (May 1939) in “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” which bears a byline by “Rob’t Kane,” and Kane alone. What’s up with that?
The omission of Bill Finger from much of the public credit for Batman has been a sticking point for comics historians for decades. Essentially, it was Kane who was contracted to provide Batman for National, and Finger was his employee. In Kane’s defense, it was common practice in the early days of newspaper comics and comic books to only credit the artist and not his writers or assistants, but considering how much Finger contributed and would continue to contribute to the Batman mythology, the omission remained galling. Even Kane himself admitted, decades later, that he should have given Finger a byline. Finger, who would go on to co-create Robin, many of Batman’s villains, Gotham City, and much, much more over the course of hundreds of Batman stories over three decades, wouldn’t see any of the fame or riches that Bob Kane would get from Batman, and died relatively unknown and penniless. From all accounts, Finger was notoriously bad about standing up for himself, and was perpetually insecure about his standing and his ability to get work, due in part to his struggles with writer’s block and keeping up with deadlines. Kane, however, had no such insecurities. Unlike Siegel and Shuster, Bob Kane was by all accounts a shrewd businessman, and negotiated himself a deal for Batman that ensured the continued appearance of his byline, as well as a much richer contract to provide Batman stories than Siegel and Shuster ever had.
The first Batman story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” is a fairly standard pulp-style murder mystery, with the Batman investigating a series of murders involving a group of business partners. Mostly, the story is notable for the simple, rough style of Kane’s art and the ruthlessness of Batman himself, as he knocks the murderer into a vat of acid with few compunctions.
While there’s no Batmobile in evidence, Batman does tool around in a large sedan (which, surprisingly, is bright red. So much for stealth). Although the Batman’s later penchant for gadgetry and equipment is absent, he does show what would become his trademark quick thinking in the manner in which he saves one of the partners from a deadly gas chamber.
The Batman costume itself is not much changed, with only the small purple gloves and different-shaped cowl standing out as early variations. Commissioner Gordon also is introduced in this first story, beginning a long career of being one step behind Batman.
A better example of the early Batman story can be found in the 1939 story “The Batman Meets Doctor Death,” from DETECTIVE COMICS #29. Much of what would later be conventions in Batman stories is in evidence here, including a sinister villain-type in Doctor Death (as opposed to the run-of-the-mill hoodlums and thugs in the debut appearance) and the use of the utility belt, although in this early appearance we see Batman loading it up with items for a specific operation, rather than the universally equipped bag of tricks it would become in later decades.
The story also features something that would become a running theme in the Batman comics: an injury.
In sharp contrast to the invulnerability of Superman, Batman takes a bullet in this story, the first of many injuries and wounds that the decidedly mortal Batman would suffer. We also see in this story one of the first uses of the intimidating Bat-shaped silhouette cast by Batman as he approaches his foes.
The early Batman appearances are entertaining if slightly out of character as seen through today’s eyes. In several stories written by Gardner Fox, the Batman is even more vicious than in his first appearance, carrying a sidearm and using a machine gun to gun down innocent people who’ve been turned into zombie creatures, with little more than a “the poor devils are better off this way” as justification for the killings.
However, a mere two pages in DETECTIVE COMICS #33 (November 1939) would alter the character forever, elevating Batman from just another pulp hero to a true piece of modern American mythology. Looking to develop Batman’s character further and give him some motivation, Bill Finger and Bob Kane constructed a masterful origin sequence, both perfectly logical and emotionally devastating.
By now, we all know the story: Thomas Wayne, his wife Martha and their young son Bruce are walking home from a movie when they’re accosted by a mugger.
When the criminal tries to grab Martha’s necklace, Thomas interferes, and the mugger shoots him. When Martha calls out for police, the mugger shoots her as well, then runs away.
Bruce is left alone on the pavement with the bodies of his murdered parents. Young Bruce swears an oath to avenge his parents’ death by devoting his life to “warring on all criminals.”
Jump ahead to an adult Bruce, who has spent the ensuing years in preparation and training, becoming a “master scientist” and training his body “to physical perfection.”
Ready to begin his war on crime, Wayne ponders how exactly to go about his quest: “Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts.” Just then, a huge bat flies in through the open window. “A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen…I shall become a bat!”
The simplicity of Batman’s origin can easily distract the reader from its psychological underpinnings. Sure, it sounds a little too pat and easy if you just blurt it out: “His parents were murdered by criminals, so he fights crime.” It’s a bit of a genre cliché now, but it certainly was not in 1939, which was only beginning to see the urbanization in American society that was leading to more common street crime. Moreover, it keenly taps into the primal fears and insecurities of children. To a child, there’s not much scarier than the idea of abandonment, of your parents leaving you, or worse, being taken from you. The Batman’s origin allowed its readers to directly identify with Bruce Wayne in a very real manner: Bruce Wayne is a frightened child, just as we all have been at one time or another. However, he masters that fear and uses it as a motivation to make his city a safer place, so that more children need not suffer as he did.
Over the years, writers have revisited and revised the origin, but not by much. It’s too primal and effective a motivation to be tinkering with overmuch, and for the most part the writers have properly left it alone, adding only superficial details. The one significant story element added in the 1950s, the identification of the gunman as Joe Chill and his eventual confrontation with an adult Batman, has been wisely edited out of the origin again in recent years, with the realization that Batman’s motivations make much more sense if his own personal tragedy remains unresolved. (However, the 1950s Joe Chill story is quite well done, and it’s one we’ll be looking at in the upcoming weeks.)
This origin was so effective in cultivating an emotional bond between Batman and his young readers, that it was used again in 1940, when Kane and Finger decided to add a new character to the series, one that would alter the character forever, and fundamentally change the nature of the series: Robin, the Boy Wonder.
From all accounts, the idea to introduce Robin into the strip was Kane’s, who was looking to broaden the series’ appeal by lightening it up a bit, and by giving young readers a character to even more directly identify with. (Although I always tended to agree with artist Jules Feiffer’s take on Robin. I could never identify with Robin because Robin was already stronger, faster and smarter than I was. If I started training and put my mind to it, maybe someday I could be Batman, but Robin? Not a chance…) Although National editors were skeptical at first of the idea of having a child in harm’s way fighting alongside Batman, when sales doubled after Robin’s introduction, they soon changed their tune. Reportedly, Finger was all for the idea of giving Batman a partner, for the simple reason that it made his job easier as writer, since Batman now had someone to talk to.
Robin made his debut in DETECTIVE COMICS #38 (April 1940) in “The Sensational Character Find of 1940 … Robin, the Boy Wonder.” The story opens with young circus acrobat Dick Grayson overhearing the circus owner being threatened by local gangsters who are demanding “protection money.”
Later, at that night’s performance, Dick’s parents, “The Flying Graysons,” are performing their trademark trapeze act, “the triple spin,” when suddenly the ropes on the trapeze snap, and John and Mary Grayson fall to their deaths, all before the eyes of their son, in a shocking and deliberate echo of the Bruce Wayne origin sequence from just five months earlier.
Later, Dick overhears the gangsters return, gloating over the “accident,” and is about to go to the police when he’s stopped by an unexpected figure – the Batman. Batman explains that the whole town is run by the organized crime kingpin Boss Zucco, and that if he went to the police with what he knew, “[he’d] be dead in an hour.” When Batman explains that he was the victim of a similar circumstance, Dick insists on joining his crusade.
Eventually Batman acquiesces, and the two swear an oath:
Wayne begins the lengthy process of training Grayson, and after many months of preparation, the two are ready to take on Boss Zucco.
Disguised as a newsboy, Grayson is able to track Zucco to his hideout, and get Batman information on Zucco’s plans to drain the city dry with his extortion rackets. Batman continually busts up Zucco’s operations, infuriating the gangster to the point that he gets personally involved, drawing him out.
Robin goes into action for the first time when he and Batman face off against Zucco and his men at the top of a high-rise construction site. When Batman strongarms a confession out of one of Zucco’s men, an infuriated Zucco pushes the thug off the girder, which Robin catches on film, sealing Zucco’s fate and sending him to the electric chair for murder.
With the addition of Robin, the dynamic was permanently changed, and while the strip’s dark moodiness would continue, it would lessen and lessen over time. The days of Batman as a dark vigilante were essentially over. Batman would further plunge into domesticity in 1943, with the addition of Alfred, Batman’s faithful butler. Alfred first appeared in BATMAN #16 (April-May 1943), in the appropriately named “Here Comes Alfred!”
Les Daniels contends in his book that the character was created by the writers of the 1943 BATMAN Saturday-morning theatrical serial, and that National Comics requested Alfred’s introduction in the comics to assure continuity between comic book and movie screen.
In Alfred’s first appearance, he’s a much portlier, clean-shaven fellow, who fancies himself an amateur detective. He arrives in Gotham determined to take up residence in Wayne Manor as Bruce Wayne’s butler, at the dying request of his father, who served as butler for Bruce Wayne’s father. Bruce and Dick are determined to get rid of Alfred, but when the bumbling servant stumbles across the entrance to the Batcave, he deduces that Bruce and Dick are secretly Batman and Robin.
After helping the Dynamic Duo solve a case involving murderous jewel thieves (without admitting he knows their secret), Alfred is permitted to stay on as the butler, at which point he helpfully brings them their costumes the next time the Bat-Signal goes off, impressing them with his supposed deductive skills.
Over time, Alfred (later given the surname Pennyworth) became less of a stereotype, as well as slimming down considerably and growing the natty mustache readers are accustomed to seeing.
There are many factors that account for the longevity and success of the Batman character (such as the vengeance-based origin and the kid sidekick), innovations that nowadays are cliché within genre fiction, but were created in the 1940s by Kane, Finger and company, and widely copied for years to come. Another example of this can be found in Batman’s marvelous array of equipment and gadgetry, which we’ll begin to look at next week. See you then.