For someone who’s supposed to be a dark, brooding avenger of the night, Batman is actually rather sociable. This wasn’t always the case. Even after the 1940 introduction of Robin, the Dynamic Duo tended to be something of a solo act. Batman made a cameo appearance (along with Superman) in ALL-STAR COMICS #7 as an honorary member of the Justice Society of America, but other than that, Batman and Robin appeared in their own books and by themselves, and that was pretty much it.
That is, until 1954, and Dr. Fredric Wertham’s muckraking book THE SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT. As discussed last week, Wertham’s book pinned all manner of youth-related social ills on comic books, and leveled a charge of homosexuality at Batman and Robin. In the face of the charges, the BATMAN editors of the time began to go out of their way to make Batman even more all-American and clearly heterosexual. At the same time, the steps they took represent a clear attempt to copy the successful Superman formula that Mort Weisinger had developed. The program began with the 1956 introduction of – wait for it — Ace, the Bat-Hound. After all, every red-blooded American male has a dog, right?
I’ll come clean right now and admit that BATMAN #92 (June 1955), “Ace, the Bat-Hound!”, to this day remains one of my favorite comics. Ever. Why? It’s just so damned goofy. Even when I read it as a child in BATMAN: FROM THE ‘30s TO THE ‘70s, I recall thinking, “Wow. Batman puts a mask on his dog. That’s really weird.”
Our story (written by Bill Finger and art by Sheldon Moldoff, the primary ghost-artist for Bob Kane throughout the 40s and 50s) opens with Batman and Robin rescuing a drowning dog. After the pooch recovers, Bruce Wayne puts a “found dog” ad in all the papers, in an attempt to find the dog’s master. The next time Batman and Robin are called to Police Headquarters, the eager dog follows, and the Dynamic Duo are forced to take him along. However, there’s a problem: the dog has distinctive markings on his forehead, which could identify the dog to any sharp-eyed folk who noticed the dog as having been found by Bruce Wayne. Robin takes care of that dilemma, by resourcefully cutting the black cloth tool bag into a mask and bat-collar insignia for the dog.
The dog takes rather well to having a bag over his head, and soon is helping Batman and Robin collar crooks, with techniques that lead them to deduce that their newly dubbed “Bat-Hound” is a trained watchdog.
A phone tip from the want ad identifies the Bat-Hound as “Ace,” owned by engraver John Wilker, who’s been missing for days.
While Ace and Robin busy themselves with finding missing tykes, Batman continues the search for Ace’s owner, leading to a gang of thugs who plan to force Wilker to counterfeit bonds for them. Eventually, Batman and Robin find themselves captured and tied up, but through an execution of moves so odd that one begins to see what Dr. Wertham might have been looking at, they manage to create a makeshift Bat-Signal to call Ace the Bat-Hound to the rescue.
Once freed, Batman, Robin and Ace make short work of the gangsters, and after Ace and his master are reunited, a reporter notes that their Bat-Hound is the same one Bruce Wayne advertised. However, the resourceful and unusually jovial Batman has an answer for that with a photo alibi of Bruce Wayne handing over the dog to the Caped Crusader, who, Robin’s thought balloon notes, was actually Alfred in the Batman costume.
Alfred in the Batman costume? And this is supposed to fool trained reporters? (Although to be fair, from the looks of the snapshot, Alfred hasbeen working out.)
Although Ace was returned to his master at the end of the issue, he would occasionally return to action as the Bat-Hound when Wilker was out of town on business, and eventually came to live at the Manor full-time.
Not long after Bat-Hound’s debut came the first appearance of Batwoman in July 1956, as discussed last week. Bat-Hound and Batwoman were apparently hits with the readers, because the Bat-family kept on expanding. Next to appear in May 1959 was Bat-Mite, in DETECTIVE COMICS #267, “Batman Meets Bat-Mite!”
Bat-Mite appeared unexpectedly in the Batcave one day, described by Robin as “an elf dressed in a crazy-looking Batman costume!” As Bat-Mite explains, he comes from another dimension, and has admired Batman’s exploits for years, and now intends to help Batman “fight crime with [his] unearthly powers!”
Despite Batman’s discouragement, Bat-Mite tags along, and usually winds up making the battles more difficult with his powers, by conjuring giant obstacles or otherwise hampering Batman’s efforts, but only so that he can watch Batman overcome the odds and eventually win out. Unlike Mr. Mxyzptlk, the extradimensional pest from the Superman comics from whom Bat-Mite is clearly derived, there’s no magic formula to make Bat-Mite go away; usually it just takes a guilt trip from Batman, who thanks to his growing family was becoming more and more like a stern parent.
The family expanded once again in April 1961; it was apparently decided that Robin needed a romantic interest as well, and so BATMAN # 139 heralded the arrival of Bat-Girl, the costumed identity of Betty Kane, Kathy Kane’s young niece.
On a visit to her aunt Kathy in Gotham City, Betty wonders why her aunt is out every night with no explanation. Left home alone, Betty watches news coverage of Batwoman capturing thieves robbing a school supplies warehouse (No place is safe from crime in Gotham, it seems. School supplies?), overturning some boxes of gold stars in the battle. When Betty borrows her aunt’s hairbrush and telltale gold stars fall out, she deduces Kathy’s identity as Batwoman and resolves to join her as Bat-Girl!
As you may have noticed, the origins have gone decidedly downhill. The pathos and tragedy of Batman and Robin’s origins have been replaced with empty nobility and lame happenstance. Even much of Batman’s motivation has fallen by the wayside, as the orphaned Batman now has a family again, a sentiment made all too clear by this delightfully silly family portrait by Sheldon Moldoff.
Still, despite being almost entirely different from the original conception of the character, the “Bat-Family” stories aren’t without their charm. For example, the 1961 story “Bat-Mite Meets Bat-Girl” is a hilarious masterwork of chauvinism and repression. With Batman and Batwoman called to Washington, D.C. to testify before a Senate crime committee (why didn’t we get to see that?), Bat-Girl is called in to assist Robin in patrolling Gotham City. Bat-Girl is, shall we say, rather demonstrative in her affections for the Boy Wonder, who’s somewhat reticent about the attention, and lies through his teeth, saying he’s devoted to another woman.
When the Boy Moron rebuffs Bat-Girl’s advances (and by the way, if the whole point was to prove Batman and Robin weren’t gay, maybe having him clawing away from the cute blonde girl’s clutches like the cartoon cat struggling with Pepe Le Pew wasn’t the best way to go about it.), Bat-Girl turns to who else but Bat-Mite, who volunteers to use his magic to help Robin fall in love with Bat-Girl.
Bat-Mite magically makes Bat-Girl look extra-competent in battle, and manipulates things to attempt to make Robin jealous. The third part of his plan is to make Robin worry about her by faking a kidnapping, which unfortunately leads to a real kidnapping instead. With the help of Bat-Mite’s magic, Robin rescues Bat-Girl, and afterwards confesses the identity of the other woman: Justice.
Batman and Batwoman overhear Robin’s line of hooey, and declare that he’s too young to devote his life to crimefighting, which apparently gives Bat-Girl free rein to start pawing at him again, all under the suffocating parental watch of Batman and Batwoman.
Eventually, wiser heads prevailed, and Robin was able to act like a normal teenaged boy, and actually show some interest in the blonde hottie with the short skirt. About damn time.
Another of Batman’s regular teammates in the 1950s was Superman. Although Superman and Batman had appeared together on the covers of WORLD’S FINEST COMICS since the’40s, inside they were featured in solo stories. That is, until 1954, when shrinking page counts did away for solo stories for the two heroes, and began featuring them together in a single adventure. Although the Superman/Batman teamups in World’s Finest were often slanted in favor of Superman (simply due to the imbalance in power between the characters), the best stories would come when other members of their respective families would cross paths, such as this 1960 tale when Bat-Mite and Mr. Mxyzptlk cross paths and begin an all-out magic war, with Superman, Batman, Robin and Gotham City caught in the middle.
Another excellent Superman-Batman teamup featured Lex Luthor and the Joker going into business together to create and sell super-strong, unbreakable mechanical men. Superman and Batman repeatedly interfere with Luthor and Joker’s operations, convinced they’re up to something nefarious. Naturally, they’re right, as it turns out they’re planning to use their “Mechano-Men” to break into the Treasury, which makes no sense, as their “Mechano-Man” business seems to be thriving. Still, the best part of this story are the surreal touches, like Joker showing up at City Hall to sign the business papers with Luthor, or Joker and Luthor meeting clients in their tastefully decorated offices.
Batman also appeared regularly in 1960’s super-team revival, JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. Unlike the earlier JSA pseudo-membership of the ‘40s, Superman and Batman were members in good standing of the JLA and appeared in nearly every issue.
When efforts were made to make Batman a bit more serious in the mid-60s, Batwoman, Bat-Girl, Bat-Mite and Ace the Bat-Hound were whisked to the sidelines, as if they’d never existed. New BATMAN editor Julius Schwartz’s tenure was marked by the addition of a yellow oval around the Bat-insignia, a detail that would remain for some three decades. It was on Schwartz’s watch in 1967 that he was asked to create a new Batgirl, who would also be added to the TV series to hopefully boost the sagging ratings. Schwartz enlisted writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino, and the result was DETECTIVE COMICS #359 (January 1967), “The Million-Dollar Debut of Batgirl!”
As the story opens, we’re introduced to librarian Barbara Gordon, (daughter of Gotham Police Commissioner James Gordon), who, we’re told, holds a Ph. D and graduated summa cum laude, and holds a brown belt in judo. In case you’re missing the subtext here, Babs is ultra-competent, unlike her Bat-predecessor Betty Kane, whose major qualification seemed to be looking good in the skirt. Barbara is headed for the Policeman’s Masquerade Ball, dressed as – what else? – Batgirl.
On her way to the ball, Barbara runs into a kidnapping attempt on none other than millionaire Bruce Wayne by the Killer Moth, admittedly not one of Batman’s more illustrious opponents. Batgirl manages to repel the Killer Moth and his goons, allowing Wayne to get away and change to Batman, but Barbara’s costume is ruined in the process, and she bails on the Policeman’s Ball.
Having had a taste of the excitement of crimefighting, Barbara is sorely tempted to return to action as Batgirl, creating a new costume and redoubling her training. When Barbara, on a business visit to Wayne Manor, discovers Bruce Wayne murdered at the hands of Killer Moth, she immediately leaps into the fray.
Naturally, Wayne isn’t really dead; it’s just a realistic dummy designed to trick Killer Moth into thinking he’d killed the millionaire, so Batman and Robin could follow the villain back to his hideout. The Dynamic Duo (with a defiant Batgirl in pursuit) trace Killer Moth back to his base (the appropriately named Moth Mansion), where Batgirl not only rescues Batman and Robin from Killer Moth’s gravity chamber, but also tracks the supervillain by tracing the scent of her perfume from their previous tussle.
Still a little stereotypical, I’ll grant you, but it’s definitely an improvement over Batwoman and her “utility purse.” By the conclusion of her debut appearance, Batgirl would be fully accepted as an ally of Batman and Robin, and would go on to appear quite regularly in the various BATMAN comics over the next two decades (including, believe it or not, a stint as a United States Congress for Barbara Gordon. But perhaps that’s a story for another column…).
Although the 1970s brought a more serious, moody Batman to the pages of DC Comics, this didn’t preclude the use of Batman in team situations. Along with his continued appearances as a member of the Justice League of America, Batman would team up with a different DC character every month in the pages of THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD. Just about every DC character, popular and obscure, made guest co-starring appearances with Batman in B&B, but sales must have been better for some than others, because certain folks like Green Arrow and Deadman would show up time and time again. (Even Bat-villains like the Joker would occasionally get equal billing as a team-up co-star.)
Primarily the work of writer Bob Haney and Batman artist extraordinaire Jim Aparo, BRAVE AND THE BOLD brought a satisfying dose of superhero action every month, and I for one was sad to see it go.
Looking to shake things up a little, DC Comics had Batman split from the JLA in an ugly tiff in 1983, and start his own superhero team, the Outsiders, who were featured in their own monthly book, BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS, which replaced BRAVE AND THE BOLD on the DC publishing schedule.
Created by writer Mike W. Barr and artist Jim Aparo, the team consisted of Batman and perennial DC second-stringers Metamorpho and Black Lightning, along with new creations Halo, Katana and Geo-Force. While not a groundbreaking series by anyone’s definition, BATO was notable both for Jim Aparo’s outstanding art and for some of the goofiest villains ever created for comics, including the Nuclear Family and the Duke of Oil.
As time moved on, there seemed to be a realization at DC that it was getting harder and harder to have Dick Grayson, now established as a 19-year-old man, continue to run around in green short-shorts and pixie boots and a yellow cape.
In addition, a new sidekick for Batman had been introduced in the pages of DETECTIVE COMICS, a young boy named Jason Todd, whose parents had been killed in a manner strikingly similar to Dick Grayson’s. Accordingly, writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez, in the pages of their top-selling series THE NEW TEEN TITANS, got permission to have Grayson retire his Robin uniform, and not long after introduced Dick Grayson’s new costumed identity – Nightwing.
The name was taken from an obscure Superman character (when Superman and Jimmy Olsen would shrink down and visit the bottled Kryptonian city of Kandor, occasionally circumstances would compel them to take on their own superhero identities: Nightwing and Flamebird), and Grayson attributed the identity as a tribute to his two greatest inspirations: Superman and Batman. Although the costume was a little rough at first, (particularly a gigantic disco collar that made Lex Luthor’s purple ‘70s number look subtle in comparison) the Nightwing identity was an unquestionable success, leading to a long run in TITANS, several miniseries, and eventually a successful solo series of his own, originated by writer Chuck Dixon and artist Scott McDaniel. The Nightwing identity has even made its way into the mainstream media, having been heavily featured and merchandised in THE NEW BATMAN ADVENTURES, the second series of the successful and critically acclaimed Batman cartoons by the award-winning Dini/Timm/Burnett production team.
With the introduction of Nightwing such a breakout hit, what about Grayson’s successor as Robin, the poor, doomed Jason Todd? That, as it turns out, was not so easy a thing to pull off, and seems as good a place as any to pick things up next week.