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Excerpt: The Caped Crusade
The Caped Crusade
Origin and Growing Pains (1939–1949)
Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible . . . a . . . a . . .
—DETECTIVE COMICS #33 (NOVEMBER 1939)
But out of the sky, spitting death . . . The Batman!
—BATMAN #1 (SPRING 1940)
The very first thing Batman does—and he does it right up at the tippy-top of page 3 of his very first adventure in Detective Comics #27, which was dated May 1939 but actually hit newsstands in late March—is strike a pose.
Even then, as he was first set loose upon the four-color world, striking poses was already his thing.
He stands on a rooftop, behind two burglars. The text floating in the night sky above him offers a luridly gleeful introduction that could have been lifted straight from pulp magazines of the day: “As the two men leer over their conquest, they do not notice a third menacing figure standing behind them . . . It is the ‘BAT-MAN!’ ”
Indeed it is. Instantly recognizable as Batman to our modern eyes, if we allow for nearly a century of iconographic shift, he glowers at the thugs with his feet shoulder-width apart, arms folded across his chest. Despite what those words over his head would have us believe, his carriage does not quite rise to the level of menacing as much as it lends him an air of snitty impatience. He seems a stern and gravely disappointed dad. Standing on a roof. In a Dracula getup.
Said getup seems less familiar to us as we gaze back at it from our contemporary vantage point. His ears are devil’s horns, thick and conical—two large carrots sticking out of a snowman—and the angle’s wrong. They jut from the sides of his head at forty-five-degree angles like the arms of a ref signaling the extra point, or a Village Person doing the “Y.”
The cowl itself is fine, revealing only the nondescript mouth and chin of the man inside it, as we have come to expect. The color scheme checks out, mostly: gray long johns, blue-black trunks, yellow belt—and, bizarrely, purple evening gloves.I The chest insignia is still little more than a black squiggle, but that will change.
The cape is where the real drama of the garment lives: it arcs out and away from his shoulders, hanging above them in vaulting parabolas (clearly there’s some underwire involved) that allow the graceful concavities of its deeply scalloped hemline maximum visual impact.
The cape will prove to be a constant, adding an Expressionist punch, a bolus of gothy showbiz. In the hands of his first artists, like Bob Kane, Sheldon Moldoff, and Jerry Robinson, it’ll take the form of stiff bat wings or flow like silk, depending on a given story’s needs. Later, under Dick Sprang, Win Mortimer, Jim Mooney, and others, it will settle down a bit, save for snapping in the breeze to convey Batman’s speed. By the 1970s, Neal Adams, Jim Aparo, and Dick Giordano will overlay a rigorous and unforgiving photorealism onto Batman’s universe, yet the cape will remain unfettered to such mundane concerns as physics. It will lengthen and shorten at will or swirl around him like tendrils of malevolent smoke. Later still, stylists like Marshall Rogers and Kelley Jones will literally and figuratively stretch the cape and its role in storytelling to dazzling lengths. It will become a major character, a silent but expressive narrator who guides the reader’s eye and infuses the action with layers of meaning, evoking a moldering grave shroud, or the leathery wings of a demon, or the fierce and howling winds of Aeolus.
But back on that rooftop in the spring of 1939, facing down two thugs who have just murdered a wealthy businessman and pilfered his safe, dude was basically wearing an umbrella.
The final visual element that clicks into place has less to do with how he appears and more to do with where he appears. He has carefully interposed himself between the robbers and the full moon, which looms over his right shoulder like it’s trying to steal a peek at them.
This imagery—Batman in silhouette against the round yellow circle of the moon—is deeply embedded in the character’s narrative DNA. We’ll see echoes of it in the Bat-Signal and in the chest insignia that distinguishes the Batman of the sixties. It’s a motif that will occur and recur on all manner of Bat-merchandise, from jigsaw puzzles to bath towels; Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film will stop its third act dead in its tracks to pay it homage. Batman and the full moon are inextricably linked, and they have been ever since this very first adventure.
The building blocks were in place from the start. He was a detective; you couldn’t miss that. The title of the story, not to put too fine a point on it, is “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” deliberately evoking Poe, Conan Doyle, and dime detective novels. The familiar story beats are plain: After dispatching the two goons on the roof,II the Bat-Man reads the contract they lifted from the wealthy man’s safe, pieces together the nefarious plot behind the murder, and makes for the head villain’s lair to confront the mastermind behind this grisly business.
This first outing also establishes the Bat-Man as a skilled martial artist, or at least an effective bruiser. In writer Bill Finger’s prose, as in the pulp magazines he loved, no noun would think to be seen in public without a modifying adjective on its arm; thus we are informed that our hero’s headlocks are “deadly,” his right crosses “terrific,” his heaves “mighty,” his tackles “flying.” We witness him deliver a powerful sock to the jaw of the chief bad guy,III which sends the poor schmuck tumbling backward through a guardrail and into a waiting tank of acid.
Here at the start, this freshly minted, antiheroic hero’s vigilantism takes a particularly ruthless and frequently deadly form. The story’s opening panels reveal that “this fellow they call the ‘Bat-Man’ ” has been active in his as-yet-unnamed city long enough to attract the ire of Police Commissioner Gordon.
As for the Bat-Man’s attitude toward his own violent actions, or any hint of what first set him down this grim road, this first adventure offers no clue. Old-School Bat-Man is a laconic cuss, a creature of action, not words. It’ll take a few more issues for us to earn even a glimpse of our hero in repose. It will take even longer for the advent of thought balloons to make us privy to his inner monologue.
So we know only what we see: the Bat-Man punching a villain over a railing to his agonizing death and commenting to a nearby hostage, “A fitting end to his kind.”
This homicide proves only the beginning of his murderous spree. In just the first year of his existence Batman will send some twenty-four men, two vampires, a pack of werewolves, and several giant mutants to their ultimate ends, occasionally at the business end of a gun. Eventually—after the tyke in the pixie boots shows up to lighten the tone—Batman will find himself resorting to deadly force less often, and will ultimately reject the use of firearms outright. For now, though, he’s a remorseless killer.
The final element is the story’s last-panel revelation that the Bat-Man is secretly wealthy young socialite Bruce Wayne.
The notion of a masked vigilante with a secret identity was certainly not new. Neither, in a time when the country was still climbing shakily to its feet after the Great Depression, were light entertainments that revolved around the lives of the young, beautiful, and very rich. It was the era of The Thin Man, Topper, Private Lives, and Anything Goes. Millions of Americans passed long, happy hours in theaters watching the adventures of gadabouts in smoking jackets and sylphs in organza gowns, trading barbs and champagne toasts against a backdrop of unimaginable luxury.
And even though the quaint drawing room whodunit was passing out of vogue, supplanted by the pulpy urban noir of hard-boiled detective yarns, a fascination with the upper crust lingered.
In “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” and indeed in many of these first adventures, it’s notable how thoroughly writer Bill Finger grafts the guns-and-gumshoes tropes from pulp magazines like Argosy, True Detective, Spicy Mystery Stories, and Black Mask onto the rarified world of old-money privilege.
The result is a puzzling alloy indeed: Bored man-about-town Bruce Wayne lives a life of pampered ease and dons his outlandish garb to bust the heads of brutish thugs. Crucially, he does so not to defend the rights of the honest American workingman like the populist hero Superman, but more often to protect his wealthy friends and associates—and their money.
In this first adventure, he settles a dispute between rich rival businessmen over a chemical fortune. In his next, he nabs jewel thieves. Over and over, throughout this first year, he faces down those who would threaten the lives of millionaires to extort their millions from them.
Of course, the wealth of Bruce Wayne, and by extension the social world he inhabits, is a central tenet of the Batman mythology, and one that serves two simultaneous narrative purposes. On a practical level, it’s a plot device to explain it all away: the gadgets, the vehicles, the HQ, the vast featureless stretches of leisure time that allow him to pursue his single-minded quest for justice. That quest will ultimately leach into Bruce Wayne’s life as well. In the decades to come, writers will transform Wayne from bored socialite to passionate philanthropist who uses his money to fund civic programs that combat crime in ways that do not involve donning tights and punching it.
But the second and more essential storytelling function of his lavish wealth is wish fulfillment. He was birthed at a time of national hardship when the country reveled in escapism. He embodied a glamorous lifestyle free of prosaic concerns like paychecks and debt, foreclosures and defaults.
So that’s the Bat-Man, in his first-ever adventure: detective, martial artist, grim vigilante, aristocrat. And so he has remained, through the decades. But in that first appearance, and for most of his first year of existence, he was one more thing as well:
IN THE CROWDED SHADOW OF THE SHADOW
Batman ripped off the Shadow. This is by no means a controversial assertion; both of his cocreators essentially acknowledged as much in interviews. Indeed, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” so closely apes the November 1936 Shadow tale “Partners of Peril” as to seem to modern sensibilities howlingly, and legally, actionable.
The Bat-Man was by no means the only Shadow rip-off stalking his prey in the urban jungle of late-1930s America. Introduced as a mysterious announcer on the Detective Story Hour radio program in July of 1930, the Shadow swiftly became the very first multimedia sensation when the public found itself more fascinated by the program’s creepy announcer than the stories he introduced. The publishers of Detective Story Magazine commissioned a series of Shadow film shorts and tasked writer Walter B. Gibson (under the pen name Maxwell Grant) with churning out tales of a sinister, black-clad crime fighter who worked under the cloak of night to terrorize his victims.
In those print adventures, the Shadow was in fact famous aviator Kent Allard, a master of disguise who availed himself of several different identities, including a successful businessman, a humble janitor, and—most famously—Lamont Cranston, wealthy gadabout.
These pulp adventures gave rise to a wave of mystery-men imitators like the Crimson Avenger, the Green Hornet (both millionaires), and the Phantom Detective (a wealthy socialite who could be summoned from his crime lab by a beacon). Popular Detective magazine featured a mysterious figure who donned a hood emblazoned with a black bat to hunt criminals. He called himself the Bat.
In 1937, the Mutual Broadcasting System launched a new program in which the Shadow stepped out of his usual radio role as anthology host to take a central part in the action. The show streamlined the character’s already Byzantine pulp continuity to focus on the Lamont Cranston identity. This new radio version (voiced, initially, by Orson Welles) also came with a new superpower: the ability to “cloud men’s minds” and render himself invisible, a device that neatly obviated any need to explain to a radio audience just how it was that the Shadow always managed to overhear his victims’ nefarious schemes.
The show’s opening themeIV became a cultural touchstone, saturating the airwaves and imprinting itself upon a generation of listeners.
Thus the Shadow’s shadow grew longer still—long enough to inspire two additional imitators in 1939. Both wore cowls and swanned about the rooftops of their respective cities in scalloped capes that resembled the wings of a bat. One, who first appeared in the July 1939 issue of Black Book Detective, called himself the Black Bat. He hung around until the early fifties. The other, who’d hit newsstands two months earlier in Detective Comics #27, proved to have more staying power.
He went by “the Bat-Man.”
BECOMING A BAT
Bob Kane created Batman. At least that’s what Vin Sullivan, his first editor at National Comics, and later, generations of fans, believed. That was because Kane said so.
In fact, Kane had designed a character that looked nothing like the one he ultimately sold to National. In a bid to create a comic book character that could match the wildly unprecedented success of National’s Superman—introduced almost a year before and already a merchandising sensation—Kane had sketched a dutiful knockoff.
To do so, he traced an Alex Raymond drawing from the January 17, 1939, Flash Gordon comic strip, which depicted Flash swinging in on a slender rope to rescue his companion from a monster. Kane kept the action pose but drew a new costume on the figure that essentially reversed the color scheme of Superman’s outfit—instead of blue tights and red trunks, his guy wore a skintight scarlet leotard and blue-black trunks. Superman wore nothing to disguise his features, so Kane gave his character a domino mask.
The only significant thing that set him apart from Superman—what Kane considered his true magic, and which, he would later tell interviewers, was inspired by a Leonardo da Vinci sketch—was the wings. Kane drew a pair of stiff, black bat wings affixed to the figure’s back. It looked dramatic. It had potential, Kane thought, because it was different, but not—if the idea was to appeal to the kids who loved Superman—too different.
He scrawled a name below it: “The Bat-Man.”
As for the Bat-Man’s shtick, who he was and what he did, Kane had some vague thoughts, but he knew a guy who could flesh that stuff out.
Years before, he’d met a kid named Milton “Bill” Finger at a party, and they’d gotten to talking about the comic strips they loved. Kane and Finger began to collaborate on a variety of strips that Kane ended up selling to newspaper syndicates and, ultimately, National Comics, home of Superman. They made an effective team. Finger attacked his work with zeal but lacked social confidence, occupying the periphery of any room he entered. If Kane, who was merely a competent cartoonist, were to enter the same room, he’d plant himself at its center, all back-slapping, glad-handing brio. Drawing was hard work for Kane and always would be, but he was a tireless negotiator; selling came easy to him. So the gigs kept coming.
They had a system. He and Finger would fire ideas back and forth and Finger would write the scripts. Kane would draw them. None of Kane’s editors knew that Finger existed, as he signed only “Rob’t Kane”—and, later, “Bob Kane”—to the strips he turned in.
So when this Bat-Man idea came around, Kane considered it business as usual: he showed up at Finger’s apartment with the sketch and asked for his thoughts.
The young man’s reaction was simple: the drawing looked too much like Superman wearing a craft project. The wings seemed ungainly, impractical, even a little silly. Finger proceeded to suggest several changes that introduced the iconographic elements now universally associated with the concept “Batman,” changes that effectively transformed Kane’s Winged Underwear-Man into a Dark Knight.
First off, it was a guy in red long johns. He didn’t look scary enough to merit his name. Finger showed Kane an illustration of a bat in a dictionary and pointed to the distinctive long ears. Lose the wings, Finger said, and replace them with a flowing, scalloped cape that would help convey speed. He’d need gloves, to ensure he didn’t leave fingerprints behind. And fix the color scheme—if this was to be a bat man, he’d work at night; he’d blend into the shadows. The crimson tights became a dusky gray, and the cloak and cowl became black—or as near to black as the printing process of the time allowed, which was black with blue highlights.
They didn’t bother with supplying him an origin, at first. Superman had a nifty one, but Superman was science fiction, and their Bat-Man would be a two-fisted detective straight out of the pulps; pulp heroes had adventures, not backstories. It took years for readers to learn the true identity of the Shadow, for example, so Batman’s secrets could wait. In their place, Finger needed a story that would sell the character. So he swiped one, streamlining Theodore Tinsley’s 1936 Shadow yarn “Partners of Peril” to fit within the allotted six pages, and to make room for an even more outré hero.
Kane, for his part, would later cite several other influences on Batman’s look, including Zorro (another hero birthed in the pulps) and the 1930 film The Bat Whispers, in which a mysterious figure in a hooded costume terrorizes and murders guests at a wealthy estate.
But when it came to the task of penciling and inking that first Bat-Man script, Kane’s inspirations were much closer to home. He drew the cover by swiping the same Flash Gordon pose he’d used in his concept sketch and he filled several panels of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” with figures he’d traced from a 1938 children’s book called Gang Busters in Action. He would continue to swipe panel layouts and figures from other sources for the duration of his tenure as Batman’s artist—which was significantly shorter than he let his publishers, or the public, know.
OUT OF THE SHADOW(S)
When Detective #27 hit the stands, nobody seemed much to care that this outlandish new mystery man owed so much, in both concept and execution, to so many different sources, or that Kane and Finger’s attempt to cash in on the Superman craze had birthed a character who was in so many ways the Man of Tomorrow’s antithesis.
Superman was a creature of the daylight, burnished in panel after panel by the golden rays of a sunrise straight out of a neosocialist mural.
The Bat-Man haunted the urban shadows, literally and figuratively cloaked in the colors of night. He was a grim, laconic figure of menace. In his first outing, he brought no hopeful reassurance, personified no we’re-all-in-this-together promise of a better day and brighter future. Instead, he came steeped in the lurid violence of gangster films and dime novels, a mysterious harbinger of death and destruction.
In other words: the Shadow.
During his first year, the disparate borrowed elements coalesced into the unique and familiar form we now call Batman. It’s the raw-element Batman of this one brief year that continues to cast the longest shadow over the character, more than three-quarters of a century later. Because it’s to this grim, violent proto-Batman that writer Denny O’Neil would return, in 1970, in his attempt to rescue the character after the television-inspired Batmania fad of the late 1960s had cooled.
Generations of readers that followed would consider O’Neil’s take on the character “their” Batman—the one true version—while in effect dismissing the three decades of adventures prior as campy, unserious kid stuff. Here was Batman as a loner and a badass, and it’s these two aspects of his character that continue to possess a fundamental appeal to the most vocal segment of his fan base.
O’Neil, along with everyone who has since attempted to reframe, remount, or reinterpret the Batman story, from Frank Miller to Tim Burton to Grant Morrison to Christopher Nolan, has returned, again and again, to the loner, badass Batman of 1939–40. And so must we.
THE BAT-MAN: YEAR ONE
In the Bat-Man’s second adventure, in Detective Comics #28 (June 1939), Bill Finger didn’t deviate much from the formula he’d laid out in the previous issue. The Bat-Man foiled a ring of crooks in James Cagney dragV who possessed the temerity to heist jewels belonging to “the Vandersmiths” and other wealthy scions of the city. Our antihero pitched another unlucky goon off a roof and extorted a confession from the ringleader by dangling the poor sap out a window—all straight from the playbook of Lamont Cranston’s slouch-hatted alter ego, or his many imitators.
But Finger was already trying to find something that would set this character apart. Here, for the first time, the Bat-Man seemed to justify his circus tights by displaying marvelous feats of acrobatics in his pursuit of justice. He hurled himself off skyscrapers to somersault through the air and swung from building to building via a “tough silk rope.”
He made for a dashing figure, certainly, but he wasn’t yet Batman. For one thing, he’d spent these first two adventures essentially working security—a Pinkerton man in a leotard. For another, he had yet to match wits with a true villain, and even in the pulps, a hero without a nemesis was no hero at all.
Because Finger tended to agonize over his stories and let deadlines blow past him, Kane secretly hired writer Gardner Fox, who pounded out the scripts for the next five issues. Those issues took the character in a new direction, adding showy gothic flourishes that swiftly became part of his permanent makeup. But it remained a period of experimentation, and Fox flirted with several other ideas, including Batman’s first supervillain, that didn’t quite take.
In Detective Comics #29 and #30, for example, the BatmanVI faced Doctor Karl Hellfern, a forgettable mad scientist straight from central casting (down to the goatee and monocle) who developed a lethal plant pollenVII with which he threatened the wealthy of the world. Fox’s script skimped on the sleuthing that was Finger’s passion but reveled in tricking out our hero with utility belt, gas pellets, and suction-cup gloves and knee pads for climbing the sides of buildings. The Batmobile was still two years away, but the Batman’s distinctive red roadster got a lot of play, as did his tendency to worry about where to discreetly park it, which remained one of the oddest leitmotifs of Year One Batman.
In squaring off against his first archcriminal, Batman threatened to kill a couple of Doctor Hellfern’s (aka Doctor Death’s) assistants—and promptly took a bullet to the shoulder. It looked like curtains for our hero, until he managed to make his escape by fishing a gas pellet from his belt, crashing through a window, and swinging to safety on his rope.
It was a clear message: Batman was not Superman. Kane seemed to take a lurid glee in drawing the blood trickling from the entry wound on our downed hero’s deltoid. He was human and vulnerable, set apart from us not by uncanny physical strength but by the strength of his will.
The careful reader may have noticed the beginnings of a subtle stylistic shift in this issue. Kane’s line work was thicker and more confident, his compositions moodier, lingering over depictions of the Batman using his distinctive, angular silhouette to unsettle evildoers unlucky enough to catch a glimpse. Beginning with this issue Kane shared the art duties with inker Sheldon Moldoff, and it showed.
In the next issue (Detective Comics #30, August 1939) Gardner Fox’s script gave us our first hint that demons might roil in the unguessed-at depths of our hero’s psyche. The story’s introductory caption matter-of-factly informed readers that Batman was a “winged figure of vengeance.”
Vengeance. It was an odd, conspicuous word choice, and a concept that Superman—even the frequently brutal Golden Age Superman—would piously disdain. It was also a deliberate pivot: in his previous adventures, Batman “fought for righteousness” and spent his nights “righting wrongs and bringing justice”—par for the hero course. But vengeance?
That was new, and it underscored the character’s ties to the flawed antiheroes of the noir tradition. Readers wouldn’t have long to wait to learn exactly why he thirsted for vengeance, to witness the tragedy that formed him and the oath that defined him, in issue #33.
In the meantime, however, Detective Comics #31 and #32 saw Fox and Kane (with help from Moldoff) send Batman on his first international adventure. It was an odd one indeed, featuring a Lois Lane–like damsel in need of rescue, a mysterious supervillain called the Monk, hypnotism, a giant ape, werewolves, and vampires. It wasn’t unusual for pulp heroes to come up against supernatural foes, but this was a full-bore monster-movie matinee of a tale that took Batman from his home amid the rooftops of New York CityVIII to a gloomy gothic castle in the mountains of Hungary. Along the way, writer Gardner Fox introduced readers to the “Bat-Gyro”IX and “a flying baterang [sic]—modeled after the Australian bushman’s boomerang!”
As befits the subject matter, Kane and Moldoff load up the page with elements borrowed from German Expressionist cinema: long shadows and tangled trees against the moon. The cover image could have come straight from Caligari’s cabinet: a lonely castle atop a mist-shrouded mountain, over which the titanic image of Batman looms ominously. It’s a tableau of primal, iconic power, and one that has inspired dozens of homages over the decades, in and out of comics.
At this point Batman’s adventures were only twelve-page stories in each issue of Detective Comics, which contained eleven features in total, including the more prosaic adventures of two-fisted lugs like Speed Saunders, Slam Bradley, and Buck Marshall, Range Detective. Against such bright punch-’em-up yarns, these dark, heavily inked, claustrophobic stories about a guy who hopped around rooftops in devil horns and a cape must have stood out. After this tale, however, with its swoonily melodramatic horror trappings, there could be no mistaking which character was Detective Comics’ star.
But Batman’s dalliance with the supernatural proved brief. The very next month, it was back to business as usual, or at least, a switch of genre from horror to science fiction. In November 1939’s Detective Comics #33, Batman tackles the Dirigible of Doom—an airship armed with a death ray and piloted by a madman with a Napoléon complex. This issue also introduced readers to Bruce Wayne’s “secret laboratory”—a precursor to the Batcave—where our hero mixes chemicals to use in his fight against crime.
But Detective Comics #33 isn’t of interest for its tale of deadly zeppelins or the fact that Batman once again used a gun and fretted about parking.X What earns this issue its prominent place in popular culture history is a two-page introduction written by Bill Finger.
“THE BATMAN AND HOW HE CAME TO BE”
It all happens in twelve panels.
Panel one: a terrified child and his parents are threatened by a gun-toting mugger under a streetlight. Panel twelve: the boy, grown to manhood, crouches on a moonlit rooftop in a bizarre, bat-winged getup. The brief tale that unfolds between those two images, the chronicle of how that boy became this “weird figure of the dark,” will prove itself the most powerful story engine in modern history. These twelve panels will be iterated, embellished, deconstructed, and parodied thousands of times through the decades, infiltrating the collective consciousness. To modern eyes, they seem crude, even slapdash, but together they retain a simple intensity.
“Some fifteen years ago,” a caption informs us, “Thomas Wayne, his wife, and son, were walking home from a movie.” Below those words, on the panels’ left-hand side, stand the Waynes: the adults in smart hats, the boy goggle-eyed with fear. On the right, the mugger in a blue newsboy cap, having stepped out from behind a street lamp. “I’ll take that necklace you’re wearin’ lady!” he says, leveling his weapon at Thomas Wayne, who seems to be raising his hands into a fighter’s stance.XI
The second and final page of Finger and Kane’s 1939 origin of Batman is laid out in a simple nine-panel grid. In the first two panels, we watch a weeping young Bruce react to his parents’ slaughter as the mugger makes his getaway. But it’s the quietly remarkable panel that follows, which occurs at the very middle of this origin story and acts as its pivot point, where everything changes.
In it, young Bruce Wayne kneels beside his bed, hands clasped in prayer, gazing upward. The wall behind him glows in the guttering light of a candle, but the right half of his face is sunk in shadow.
The boy speaks. It’s a single sentence, delivered in a breathless rush of pure emotion.
“And I swear by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”
This is the moment that makes Batman Batman, this solemn oath made by candlelight in a child’s lonely bedroom. This vow that transforms inner turmoil into public crusade. Because this considered choice, despite its impossibly grand objective, manages to evince a stealthy pragmatism.
Note the lack of vague ideals and abstract nouns of the sort that vows generally entail: there is no Truth or Justice being sought here, and certainly no civic-minded paean to the American Way. The boy doesn’t swear to stop Crime or protect the Innocent. Yes, he vows to avenge his parents’ death, but Vengeance per se is not his true goal.
This oath, which resides at the core of every iteration of Batman that has ever or will ever exist, from pulp antihero to TV buffoon, is much more practical and matter-of-fact. It is a declaration of war.
The enemy combatants? “All criminals.”
A lofty goal, surely. But young Bruce understands this. He’s prepared to dedicate “the rest of [his] life” to this war, knowing victory is not assured. Victory is not even his objective. Rather it’s the war itself that he dedicates himself to in that panel. A lifetime of violent opposition. He consigns himself, in this image, to decade after Sisyphean decade locked in perpetual combat.
Or, as his jock older brother in the red boots might put it: to a never-ending battle.
The final sequence of the origin finds the adult Bruce on the cusp of insight. He sits ruminating before the roaring fireplace in his fabulously appointed study. “Dad’s estate left me wealthy,” he says, as if the smoking jacket didn’t tip us off, “I am ready. But first I must have a disguise.”
“Criminals,” he muses, “are a superstitious, cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible . . . a . . . a . . .”
In the next panel, Bruce is startled when “as if in answer, a huge bat flies in the open window!” Kane depicts this creature with its wings extended against the yellow circle of the moon.
“A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen!” says the man who just seconds before scoffed at the superstitions of criminals. “I shall become a bat!”
In the final panel, Batman stands poised for action on a midnight rooftop, a character unlike any the world had ever seen, a brand-new hero unleashed upon the public.
Except that he wasn’t.
Nothing about the character was new. He was simply a combination of tropes from many sources: even his origin story itself was full of swipes.
Kane lifted many of the origin’s panels from the children’s book Junior G-Men, illustrated by Henry Vallely. The tale’s concluding image of Batman springing to action on the rooftop was traced from a drawing of Tarzan by Hal Foster.
It wasn’t just Kane: Finger borrowed just as shamelessly. The whole business of Bruce’s being inspired by a bat flying in his window was lifted wholesale from a 1934 issue of Popular Detective.
As for the oath sworn by young Bruce? The key element of the Batman legend that sets him apart, that defines him as a character and provides the basis for his enduring appeal?
The Phantom had one just like it.
The details were more grisly—instead of a kid swearing by the light of a candle, Lee Falk’s jungle hero swore on the skull of his father’s murderer, and the wording was both more abstract and more grandiose—“I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, and cruelty, in all their forms”—but the gist, the mission statement, was the same.
So there you have Batman: a crude, four-color slumgullion of borrowed ideas and stolen art. And yet there was something new, legitimately so, in the precise proportions of those ideas and images found in the stories that Finger, Fox, Kane, and Moldoff were grinding out. Those proportions were not yet fixed—and it would take another five months, with the addition of Robin, the Boy Wonder, for the final core element of the character to manifest—but in that bizarre mixture lay a potent, and lasting, appeal.
A DARK KNIGHT, BEFORE THE DAWN
The remainder of Batman’s first year of life was fitful and bizarre, as he struggled to coalesce into a clear and consistent character. Detective Comics #34, for example, found Fox, Kane, and Moldoff riffing wildly, as Batman went toe-to-toe with an evil French duke in the sewers of Paris. Once again, Fox’s script introduced uncanny elements of the sort the more grounded Finger would likely have rejected as grotesque—a mysterious ray that removes faces, a hothouse of flowers that, for reasons never explained, bear the faces of beautiful women. But the writer adhered to two story conditions that marked Batman’s earliest adventures: he helped the wealthy, and he killed the bad guy.
Bill Finger returned to script chores with Detective Comics #35 (January 1940) and came back with a vengeance, offering a comparatively grounded mystery involving a ruby statue. The story’s dramatic opening splash page depicted Batman entering a room with a grimace of determination . . . and carrying a smoking pistol. It was a standalone image, and Batman didn’t wield a gun at all in the accompanying story, but it couldn’t help but to underscore the character’s conceptual roots as a Shadow knockoff, even as he was struggling to become his own hero.
In Detective Comics #36 (February 1940) Finger began to nudge Batman out of the Shadow’s grim shadow. For the first time, he wisecracked as he mowed down a crowd of thugsXII and comforted a hostage.XIII On the cover, he grinned(!) as he kicked his attacker down a flight of stairs.
Finger also introduced the Batman’s second recurring villain, the “scientist, philosopher and criminal genius” Professor Hugo Strange. In an important development, the threat posed by Strange (he creates a thick fog to confound the police while he unleashes a crime wave) affected the entire city, not only the upper echelons of society. And in another significant break from tradition, Batman did not kill Professor Strange but merely subdued him and handed him over to the police. The plan was for Strange to return often, of course, and perhaps even establish himself as Batman’s Moriarty. But it was not to be: just two months later, another, even more twisted and diabolical archnemesis shouldered the professor roughly aside.
Kane—joined for the first time by a young Jerry Robinson on inks—brightened the visual atmosphere of the story to match Finger’s lighter touch, devoting more attention to the mechanics of the story’s set-piece warehouse brawls than to gloomy, Expressionist shadow play.
In Detective Comics #37 (March 1940), Finger seems so impatient to adopt a more humorous mood that he opens the story by turning our hero into a hapless tourist: “The Batman, having lost his way on a lonely road, stops before a lone house to ask directions.” The story that followed—which our hero would have avoided completely if he carried his AAA TripTik—saw Batman bumbling into a plot involving foreign agents attempting to draw the US into war.
This was Batman in his eleventh month, now all but fully emerged from the shadow of the Shadow: as his adventures flirted with a lighter tone, he shifted from guns-blazing avenger to a detective in the Sherlock Holmes mode. But there was one more change to come, a change that would put any lingering conceptual debt to the Shadow to rest once and for all, a change that altered the hero’s idiomatic framework forever.
And that change wore bright green pixie boots.
For Bill Finger, it solved a storytelling problem. For Bob Kane, it was a savvy marketing move. For National’s editorial director Whitney Ellsworth, it offered up a tidy opportunity to deflect the wrong kind of attention.
The “it” in question was Robin, the Boy Wonder, the first kid sidekick in comics.
Bill Finger was tired of having Batman talk to himself all the time. He was a detective, after all, and that meant he had to walk readers through his deductive process. It wasn’t enough, Finger realized, to model a character on Sherlock Holmes if you didn’t also supply him a Watson—an audience surrogate—to talk to.
It was Kane who came up with the idea for a wisecracking kid to fight alongside Batman in the role of protégé, a junior version of the hero with whom, he felt confident, “every boy in the world” would identify.
Ellsworth was keeping a wary eye on a growing national unease. In 1939, just a few years after the comic book was born, American kids were devouring almost ten million comics per month, and parents, teachers, and church groups took notice. Their nascent concern would not erupt into a high-profile, government-sanctioned anticomics crusade for years to come, but attacks on the lurid violence and sexual content of comic books were beginning to pop up in newspaper editorials and church bulletins across the country. Sensing this, Ellsworth had expressed some misgivings about Batman’s wielding firearms to Finger and Kane on previous occasions; he hoped the advent of a kid sidekick would push the Batman character in a less grim and violent direction.
According to Kane, Detective’s editor, Jack Liebowitz, was not convinced, and expressed two very practical objections. One, that Batman in Detective Comics was so successful on his own there was no reason to change the formula, and two, that you don’t ease the worries of America’s parents by sending a young boy in short pants into battle with gun-toting thugs. Finger and Kane agreed that they’d introduce their kid sidekick on a probationary basis.
They came up with a list of possible sidekick names with young artist Jerry Robinson, who was already exerting considerable influence over the look of both Batman and his world, given that he’d taken over the inking of Kane’s pencils from Sheldon Moldoff. Kane’s pencils employed a flat, boxy approach to anatomy that owed a great deal to Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy; Robinson’s inks imbued the completed page with a richer, fuller, more rounded quality.
Robinson recalled an illustrated Robin Hood storybook he’d loved as a child, with paintings by N. C. Wyeth. He sketched a boy in a boldly colored and vaguely medieval outfit—tunic, shoes, tights—and designed a logo for him in a typeface that approximated Old English script: Robin, the Boy Wonder.
Any kid who picked up a copy of Detective Comics #38 (April 1940) could see that things had changed. Forget about the masked moppet jumping out at us in a skimpy red and green outfit. Forget the breathless marketing copy above his head, touting him as “the SENSATIONAL Character Find of 1940 . . . ROBIN, The BOY WONDER.”
The really odd, unsettling thing was that Batman was smiling.
Not smirking grimly, not grinning with relish as he visited a fresh act of violence upon some poor, evildoing sap, but beaming up at us beatifically, his chest thrust out like a Little League dad watching his kid sliding home. Everything about this former lone avenger of the dark screamed, suddenly, “That’s my boy!”
Inside the cover, the story’s opening splash page reproduced it all—the boy, the logo, the beaming Batman—and threw in an introductory scroll full of still more exclamatory promises that bluntly delivered the new character’s mission statement:
“The Batman, that amazing, weird figure of night, takes under his protecting mantle an ally in his relentless fight against crime . . . introducing in this issue . . . an exciting new figure whose incredible gymnastic and athletic feats will astound you . . . a laughing, fighting, young daredevil who scoffs at danger like the legendary Robin Hood whose name and spirit he has adopted . . . Robin the Boy Wonder.”
The relationship between Batman and Robin—specifically, the homosocial nature of their bond—would go on to fuel decades of knowing winks, sniggering jokes, gay panic, fanboy outrage, and Derridean deconstruction. In just a handful of years from this first appearance, gay innuendo will be used against Batman by one hugely influential and entirely nonfictional child-welfare advocate in a crusade that will come very close to ending our hero, and his entire medium, forever.
And here, at the moment of that relationship’s birth, before the very first panel on the very first page of Robin’s very first appearance, a lettering error in the introductory text transcribed above elides the space between the two words “an ally,” causing that opening passage to instead inform us that Batman “takes under his protecting mantle anally . . .”
So. Yes. Well.
Fraught from the moment of its beginning, the Batman/Robin partnership came factory-installed with subtext both acknowledged and unspoken, subtext that various audiences have always read and interpreted in a host of discrete ways.
“I’M NOT AFRAID”
As introduced in Detective Comics #38, the Flying Graysons are a team of circus acrobats consisting of young Dick, his mother, and his father. While performing on the flying trapeze one night, the ropes break, sending Dick’s parents plummeting to their deaths. Dick overhears gangsters gloating to the head of the circus that the “accident” wouldn’t have happened if he’d paid protection money to Boss Zucco, the mob chieftain who runs the city.
Dick is determined to go to the police when the Batman appears to him, warning the boy that if he does so, Zucco’s men will find him and kill him. “I’m going to hide you in my home for a while,” he says, because 1940.
Batman quickly notes an affinity between himself and the newly orphaned boy: “My parents too were killed by a criminal. That’s why I’ve devoted my life to exterminate them . . . All right, I’ll make you my aid [sic]. But I warn you, I lead a perilous life.”
“I’m not afraid,” says young Dick, unaware of the multiple decades’ worth of kidnappings that lie before him.
Next, in a scene that evokes Bruce’s oath, Batman and young Dick face one another in the dark before the light of a single candle. Both raise their right hands; Dick lays his left hand on Batman’s. We join them just as the Batman finishes a new oath.
“. . . and swear that we two will fight together against crime and corruption and never swerve from the path of righteousness!”
“I swear it!” the boy intones.
Then it was off to the races in Finger’s forceful, fast-paced style: Dick goes undercover and finds Boss Zucco’s hideout; Boss Zucco reveals himself to be a thug cast in the Edward G. Robinson mold;XIV and after a climactic fight at a construction site, Zucco is convicted of murder, ushering in a new era of Batman comics, in which the villain of the piece ends up behind bars, not six feet under.
The die was cast: for long decades, Robin would remain essentially the chipper, guileless lad he is throughout this first adventure. Created to epitomize 1930s ideals of American boyhood—the kind of cheerful, athletic, and outdoorsy kid who stared out from the cover of Boys’ Life magazine—he was exactly the kid that his ten-year-old readers believed they would be, if they ever got the chance to fight alongside their hero.
Batman was the guy they might become in ten years, as long as they ate their vegetables, studied hard, and did calisthenics, but being Robin was just a pair of green underpants away. In his adventures they saw their idealized self reflected: brave and determined, good with his fists, great undercover, quick with a quip or a cringeworthy pun, and unfailingly loyal (a trait that would get him in trouble often).
He also just looked good, offering a sharp contrast to the mentor standing beside him. If Batman’s colors were those of a gloomy winter’s night, Robin’s were those of a bright spring morning. He popped.
Whatever the reason, it worked: sales of Robin’s debut issue doubled that of the previous month’s. And in the ensuing vogue for masked mystery men that arose in the months and years that followed, boy sidekicks quickly became a staple accessory: The Sandman had Sandy. Green Arrow had Speedy. The Shield had Rusty. Captain America had Bucky. The Human Torch had Toro. Mr. Scarlet had Pinky. The Shining Knight had Squire. And the Vigilante, wincingly enough, had Stuff, the Chinatown Kid.
They were all cast in Robin’s mold, all of them resourceful, plucky, tenacious, wisecracking, and eminently, achingly kidnappable.
Overnight, the ruthless lone vigilante became a doting father figure. His brand changed, too: he swapped a definite article for a second noun and a coordinating conjunction: the Batman was replaced by Batman and Robin.
“Batman and Robin” were now a single entity occupying the same patch of cultural real estate that the Bat-Man had staked out by himself for almost a year. In the public imagination, their names would soon become shorthand for the very concept of a two-person team: Lewis and Clark. Abbot and Costello. Burns and Allen. Batman and Robin.
Adding Robin was no mere cosmetic tweak; it was a fundamental and permanent change that placed Batman in a new role of protector and provider. With that change, the fifth and final essential element of Batman fell at last into place.
Because at his core, Batman is a hero sworn to wage war on criminals. He is a detective. A martial artist. A millionaire.
He is also, finally, a father.
Beginning with Robin in 1940, Batman would assume the mantle of patriarch and guardian of a slowly growing brood of fellow crime fighters. In the decades that followed, men and women, boys and girls, a masked dog, a shirtless were-bat, and one fifth-dimensional imp would join him. To them, he would be mentor, disciplinarian, sensei, father. To him, they would become that for which he most keenly longed, the family that had been ripped from him as a boy.
Superman, Captain Marvel, and other heroes would eventually accrete their own heroic dynasties as well, but Batman got the ball rolling first, and his relationship with Robin would form the central dynamic all such super-families would eventually adopt.
The Boy Wonder came along at an important time and opened up new narrative possibilities. The mere presence of Robin in a given story deepens its impact by supplying Batman with something to care about, over and above any abstract notion of justice. When the boy is imperiled, the stakes increase. When the boy misinterprets Batman’s actions (a go-to Silver Age plot device), the melodrama boils over.
For the next thirty years, a grinning, happy-go-lucky Batman and Robin would fight shoulder to shoulder across a variety of media.
Even Robin’s eventual departure in 1970 did not and could not dispense with the concept of Batman as father figure. It would remain fundamental to his character, though in the years that followed it grew more symbolic in nature. True, Batman patrolled Gotham City on his own, but Robin (and Batgirl, and others) would put in the occasional appearance—and in the pages of one Batman anthology comic published from 1975 to 1978, their solo stories would intersect; the resulting adventures looked a lot like the high old times of the forties, fifties, and sixties. The name of that anthology, not to put too fine a point on it: Batman Family.
The 1980s would see the Batman-Robin relationship undergo a series of shattering setbacks and bifurcations, and in more recent years, Batman’s surrogate family has grown larger and more diffuse than ever. But Batman remains squarely at its center, ever the stern, caring, pointy-eared Ward Cleaver.
“Father figure” was the last of Batman’s essential elements to manifest, and it is the first aspect to be jettisoned by writers, filmmakers, and television showrunners whenever they wish to tell Batman’s tale anew. In a bid to keep the storytelling simple, they strip him of his familial context and take him back to the dark, brooding loner of this very first year.
But Robin always comes back, eventually, in some form, because he must: Robin is half the story. Despite what many fans believe so fervently, the Batman of that very first year isn’t truly Batman—not yet. Robin serves to define and delineate Batman, as do Batgirl, Nightwing, Huntress, and the others. Batman’s status as the ultimate mentor is a base principle, inasmuch as it speaks directly to who he is: he saves others because, on one terrible night long ago, there was no one to save him.
DROP THE GUN
With the arrival of Robin, the tone of Batman’s exploits in Detective Comics lightened even more, but it would take the advent of World War II for Batman to move past the grim violence of his earliest outings.
In the spring of 1940, Batman’s runaway success earned him his own quarterly published solo series. When it appeared on store shelves, Batman #1 (Spring 1940) was only the second comic book ever published to be devoted entirely to a single character.XV Each issue contained four different stories written by Bill Finger, penciled by Bob Kane, and inked by Jerry Robinson and George Roussos.XVI
The premiere issue kicks off with a reprint of Finger’s two-page Batman origin from Detective Comics #33. It also contains a tale in which Dick goes undercover on a luxury yacht to protect a priceless necklace from getting pilfered by a mysterious woman known as “the Cat”—the first appearance of the seductive villainess who in later appearances will be known as Catwoman. In another adventure, written before Robin’s arrival, Batman is back to his old murdery tricks, offing monsters in various grisly ways and, in one astonishing panel, using the Batplane’s machine gun to execute two escaping thugs. “Much as I hate to take human life,” he rationalizes, “I’m afraid THIS TIME, it’s necessary!”
But National didn’t agree. According to Finger, the panel in which Batman mows down his enemies from on high led to an editorial crackdown on firearms. “I was called on the carpet by [editorial director] Whit Ellsworth. He said, ‘Never let us have Batman [use] a gun again.’ ”
Despite that controversy, Batman #1 is best remembered for the remaining two stories in the issue, in which the Caped Crusader’s greatest nemesis makes his debut.
It was then-eighteen-year-old Jerry Robinson who came up with the idea for a new and terrifying villain, a chalk-faced mass murderer with a grisly sense of humor. Robinson was taking creative writing courses at Columbia University at the time and offered to write the story introducing his killer clown, whom he called the Joker. Finger and Kane, worried that Robinson would miss the deadline on what would have been his first comic book script, persuaded the young inker to let Finger write the story instead.
The ensuing tale is pure pulpy goodness, and it fits squarely in Finger’s whodunit style: a mysterious villain robbed the wealthy of the city and somehow, amid rooms teeming with protective cordons of police officers, managed to dose them with a lethal venom that left them with a “repellent, ghastly grin, the sign of death from THE JOKER!” Readers watched victim after victim die panicked, horrible deaths as the vicious Joker gloated. Despite his misgivings about such violent imagery, Whitney Ellsworth stepped in to make sure Finger and Kane didn’t bump the Joker off at story’s end as they had planned to do; he knew they’d struck upon a villain who was too good to lose.
Even in this first tale, so much of what will forever define the character was already set in stone—the white face, green hair, and red lips; the impossible rictus grin; the Joker venom; the maniacal laughter; and the riverboat-gambler couture: tails, vest, spats, and hat.
For the first two years after this debut, the Joker would remain a cold-blooded killer, cavalierly slaughtering both innocent victim and criminal colleague alike. Ellsworth believed that while Batman must resist lethal force—and even had him give up his role as vigilante to become an honorary member of the police department in Batman #7 (Fall 1941)—it only made sense for the villains to remain villainous, even homicidal.
But after April 1942 (Detective Comics #62), the editorial mandate for gentler, brighter, more kid-friendly fare manages to reach even the Harlequin of Hate. The Joker’s schemes grow suddenly more baroque: increasingly elaborate jewel heists and ever-more-involved death traps (which never quite manage to live up to the term) abound. Exit Joker the maniacal murderer, enter Joker “the cackling cut-up of the crime world.” It wasn’t until the 1970s, when stories involving the newly retrenched, badass-loner Batman needed their stakes raised, that Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams reintroduced the Joker as an archnemesis who could be counted on to add a serious body count.
YA GOTTA HAVE A GIMMICK
Throughout his long life in and out of the comics, the Joker has remained the first among equals, the premier and most flamboyant villain in Batman’s vast rogues’ gallery of grotesques.
Each archvillain he’d face over the course of his first decade came at him with an individualized quirk that grew out of a warped worldview—corny gags, cats, the number two, fear, the mystifying combination of birds and umbrellas. These signifiers helped readers keep them straight, of course, but they also strongly hinted that these criminals were something more than merely crooked: they were twisted. Not merely criminal but crazy.
For the next thirty years of Batman comics, however, their various colorful psychopathologies took a backseat to their larceny: they were crooks with gimmicks. The Joker was no different—a villain whose signature shtick was, ingeniously enough, exactly the sort of jokes and novelties that readers could order from ads in the very comics they were reading: playing cards, joy buzzers, itching powder, X-ray specs.
But when Batman was returned to his loner roots in the 1970s, O’Neil, Adams, and the writers and artists who followed them attempted to imbue the Dark Knight, and his world, with dense psychological underpinnings. Batman grew deeply obsessive, and his archvillains, who for over thirty years had been routinely carted off to Gotham State Penitentiary at the end of each adventure, began to be takenXVII to someplace never mentioned before: Arkham Hospital.XVIII
As these dark intimations of obsession and sociopathy began to cling to Batman, his villains grew increasingly tormented, riven by a violent and terrifying madness. The Joker most of all. The now-hoary notion that the Joker represents Batman’s opposite number didn’t really manifest until late in his history. It took until the 1980s—almost half a century—for writers to explicitly posit that the Joker embraces the chaos of insanity and death, while the Batman instead channels his pain into an endless crusade to impose order.
With the essential elements finally in place, it was time for Finger, Kane, Robinson, and Roussos (along with other uncredited Kane ghost-artists like Win Mortimer, Jack Burnley, and Charles Paris) to set to work building the fictive universe around the Dynamic Duo.
The New York of the Bat-Man’s first-year adventures is renamed Gotham City in the early months of 1941, about the same time that Batman’s red roadster gains a bat-shaped hood ornament and is first referred to as the “Batmobile.” The Bat-Signal makes its first appearance a year later. Slowly, over the course of several years, the abandoned barn in which Batman houses his vehicles evolves into a subterranean cavern accessible from Wayne Manor via a secret stairway, officially earning the name “the Bat Cave”XIX in January 1944.
Lest Bruce Wayne’s intimate relationship with his young ward Dick Grayson raise any eyebrows, Alfred the butler took up residence in Wayne Manor in the spring of 1943, a kind of bumbling British twenty-four-hour chaperone. And speaking of totally 100 percent heterosexual, red-blooded straight maleness, Bruce began dating Linda Page (a debutante turned nurse) from 1941 to 1945. Later still, Bruce met news photographer Vicki Vale, whom he proceeded to date sporadically for the next two decades.
Meanwhile, Batman’s rogues’ gallery swelled with colorfully vile crooks, as the Joker and Catwoman were soon joined by Two-Face, Clayface, the Penguin, the Riddler, and the Mad Hatter.
Batman starred in a third title in 1941; the bimonthly World’s Finest Comics featured separate tales of the Dynamic Duo and Superman.XX
Throughout the Second World War, many covers of Detective Comics, Batman (now bimonthly), and World’s Finest depicted Batman and Robin in star-spangled tableaux that could have been ripped from propaganda posters: riding an American eagle or a battleship’s cannons, hawking war bonds, planting a victory garden, etc. But despite this patriotic cover imagery, only a handful of Batman stories published during the war made even oblique mentions of the global conflict. Instead, Batman’s focus remained steadily on the mean streets of Gotham City, which, given the editorial edict for sunnier stories, were growing less and less mean with every passing month.
Let Captain America, Major Victory, and other flag-wrapped bruisers take the fight to the Ratzis—Batman and Robin had more than enough to look after on the home front; besides, sales were surging. By 1943 the three titles that featured Batman’s adventures were selling a combined three million copies every month and were read by an estimated twenty-four million men, women, and children.
It was the kind of success that sent Batman caroming into other storytelling formats, turning him into a multimedia phenomenon like the Shadow before him. In 1943 Kane left the comics to his ghost-artists and turned his attention to a syndicated newspaper strip called Batman and Robin, penciled by Kane, that ran for three years.XXI
A pilot script for a Batman and Robin radio serial was written, turning Dick Grayson’s circus-performer parents into FBI agents who were murdered by Nazis. Despite that canny attempt to cater to the patriotic tenor of the times, the radio show was never produced.
In the meantime, on July 16, 1943, Batman debuted on the silver screen with a movie serial, a full five years before the Man of Steel would make the same leap. Columbia produced fifteen episodes of the Batman serial, and it became one of the quintessential matinee cliff-hangers of the war era, filled with repetitive fight scenes, cheap costumes (Batman’s ears kept going askew, like the guy was dowsing for water), troubling jingoism, and many deeply weird, albeit fun, touches: A radium gun! Japanese soldier-zombies! Death by alligator pit! An experimental airplane! A room with spiked walls that close in on our hero! A mysterious super-weapon!
The Batman movie serial departed from the comics in odd ways: to explain why Bruce Wayne hadn’t been drafted, it was implied that Batman and Robin worked for the US government. Commissioner Gordon became, for no compelling reason, Captain Arnold.
Cinema houses offered worried wartime Americans a communal, cathartic experience: they watched newsreels to learn about the progress of the war and got their “Keep ’Em Flying!” fervor stoked by Hollywood tales of brave GIs and leathernecks. This may explain why the serial featured an entirely new villain that people—even non–comics readers—could hiss at on sight. Enter the evil Japanese scientist Dr. Tito Daka, who was from Japan, and was also, not for nothing, of Japanese descent, and who had a Japanese accent and who dressed after the Japanese fashion. Because he was Japanese.
But the serial also influenced the comics in small, telling ways. The concept of the “Bat’s Cave” appeared there first, months before the comics version, as did the notion, which quickly became canon, that a secret entrance to Batman’s lair lies behind a grandfather clock in Bruce Wayne’s study.
Bruce’s comic-book girlfriend Linda Page got some screen time, as did Alfred the butler. In fact, in Alfred’s comic-book appearances following the serial’s stint in the nation’s movie theaters, artist Jerry Robinson altered the butler’s look to more closely resemble actor William Austin.
Batman became one of Columbia’s most successful serials to date and touched off a modest boom in tie-in merchandise—decals, paper Batplanes, belt buckles, decoders, etc. Sales were brisk, though the variety of Batman offerings paled in comparison to the bonanza of Superman paraphernalia on store shelves at the time. But then, Superman had a wildly popular radio show that delivered him straight into American living rooms five times a week; Batman didn’t.
On February 28, 1945, Batman and Robin put in the first of their many appearances on the Superman radio serial. As the years went on, several episodes at a time would be given over to the Dynamic Duo (who, for the purposes of the drama, made their home in Metropolis), which served to give Bud Collyer, the voice of Superman, some much-needed downtime.
In 1949, six years after the Batman movie serial had proven a hit, Columbia tried again with a follow-up serial called Batman and Robin.
The budget was lower this time around, but the screenwriter made a concerted effort to pay fealty to the comics—now it was Commissioner Gordon who worked closely with the Dynamic Duo, even busting out the Bat-Signal for the first time on-screen, and Bruce’s then-girlfriend Vicki Vale played a largish role.
Unfortunately, the whole affair came off as an even lower-rent, amateur-theatricals version of the 1943 serial; sets, props, and costumes evince a handmade quality. When it was finally released to theaters, on May 26, 1949, the heyday of the movie serial had passed; despite its skinflint budget, Batman and Robin did not meet the studio’s box-office expectations.
TWILIGHT OF THE SUPERHEROES
Bad box office or not, Batman had managed to accomplish in his first decade of life what most of his comic book colleagues never would. Thanks to the newspaper strip, the appearances on the Superman radio show, and the two movie serials, the idea of Batman established a base camp beyond the comics in the wider, noisier world of popular culture.
And that was important, because back in the comics—in superhero comics, specifically—something was happening. The masked mystery men (and women) who’d flourished during the war years were dying out. The fad for caped crime fighters faded quickly in peacetime, and the few superheroes who remained (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman—and in backup features, Aquaman and Green Arrow) were getting shouldered aside by Western comics, war comics, crime comics, and romance comics.
Batman’s newspaper strip was canceled in 1946, but Detective Comics, Batman, and World’s Finest managed to stay afloat through the end of the decade although sales had plummeted from their wartime heights. As long as a Batman comic remained on the stands, there was the hope that the character might live to get another big break—maybe even, like his colleague Superman was preparing to do, to make the jump to an exciting new medium called television.
All he had to do was hang in there and trust that, month after month, his comics would keep coming out. He had weathered a world war without getting his ears mussed—surely there was nothing on the horizon that might somehow threaten his continued existence, right?
. . . Right?
I. The weird gloves wouldn’t hang around long, and whenever DC Comics reprints this first appearance, the gloves are recolored to match the cape.
II. By KO’ing the first and tossing the other off the mansion’s roof without a backward glance.
VIII. Bill Finger wouldn’t coin the name “Gotham City” for another two years.
IX. A helicopter with wings, also referred to as the Batplane.
X. “The car will be safe here where no one can see it!”
XI. Martha Wayne’s necklace will prove an aspect that many storytellers, across all media, will fixate upon whenever they iterate Batman’s origin. The fact that the murders occurred as the family was leaving a theater will also provide many stories with their narrative grist.
XII. “This, boys, is what they call a perfect strike, on a bowling alley!”