In his early days, Batman was very much a loner. Batman’s solitary nature was accentuated by his tragic and brutal origin sequence, a mere two pages in DETECTIVE COMICS #33 (November 1939) which 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.
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. Batman had gone from a loner to a family man, and the family would keep growing in the years to come…