For 75 years, the inhabitants of Gotham City, a city at times both light and dark, have been protected by a selfless and fearless avenger of justice. A caped crusader, sworn to patrol its rooftops and keep safe its shadowy alleyways. No super powers. Just a man at the pinnacle of human physical condition, often relying on nothing more than his wit and ingenuity. A man who lost his parents to Gotham’s darkest soul, yet would dedicate his life to prevent the same from happening to others.
Throughout his storied career, he would face the worst that Gotham had to offer: a Clown Prince of Crime. A question-mark-clad connoisseur of conundrums. A feline foe, a centuries-old terrorist, a shapeshifting man of clay, and a chemically souped-up assassin who would literally break him. And many more. Yet for three-quarters of a century, in many venues ranging from comic books, to television series, to cartoons, to feature films, this Dark Knight continues to prevail.
It is the anniversary of a hero. A cause to celebrate. A knight, if you will, to remember.
The year is 1939, and National Publications (later known as DC Comics) is riding high after the success of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Action Comics, which featured a red-and-blue-garbed hero they called Superman. The editors immediately realized they needed more super heroes for their comic book publishing arsenal. The editors of National Publications went to their cartoonist, Bob Kane, and Kane envisioned the idea of The Bat-Man, a hero he claimed to have modeled after Douglas Fairbanks’ portrayal of Zorro, a sketch of an ornithopter by Leonardo DaVinci, and the 1930 film The Bat Whispers. For help in realizing his vision, Kane enlisted aspiring writer and part time shoe salesman Bill Finger, whom Kane had met once at a party.
In the book The Steranko History of Comics, written by Jim Steranko, Finger was quoted as saying, “Kane had an idea for a character called ‘Batman’, and he’d like me to see the drawings. I went over to Kane’s, and he had drawn a character who looked very much like Superman with kind of … reddish tights, I believe, with boots … no gloves, no gauntlets … with a small domino mask, swinging on a rope. He had two stiff wings that were sticking out, looking like bat wings. And under it was a big sign … BATMAN.”
It was Finger who would suggest that Kane’s Bat-Man wear a cowl instead of a domino mask, a cape instead of wings, gloves, and removing the red sections from the original costume. Finger said he devised the name Bruce Wayne for the character’s secret identity. “Bruce Wayne’s first name came from Robert Bruce, the Scottish patriot. Bruce, being a playboy, was a man of gentry. I searched for a name that would suggest colonialism. I tried Adams, Hancock … then I thought of Mad Anthony Wayne.” He later said his suggestions were influenced by the comic strip, The Phantom.
Kane and Finger drew upon 1930s pop culture for inspiration of the Bat-Man’s look, personality, and weaponry. While Kane borrowed heavily from Zorro, and The Scarlet Pimpernel, in regard to the Bat-Man’s secret identity and symbol, Finger would tap into the veins of The Shadow, Dick Tracy, and Sherlock Holmes, giving the new hero his reputation as a master detective.
In Bob Kane’s 1989 autobiography, Batman and Me, he detailed Finger’s contribution to Batman’s creation. “One day I called Bill and said, ‘I have a new character called the Bat-Man and I’ve made some crude, elementary sketches I’d like you to look at.’ He came over and I showed him the drawings. At the time, I only had a small domino mask, like the one Robin later wore, on Batman’s face. Bill said, ‘Why not make him look more like a bat and put a hood on him, and take the eyeballs out and just put slits for eyes to make him look more mysterious?’ At this point, the Bat-Man wore a red union suit; the wings, trunks, and mask were black. I thought that red and black would be a good combination. Bill said that the costume was too bright: ‘Color it dark gray to make it look more ominous.’ The cape looked like two stiff bat wings attached to his arms. As Bill and I talked, we realized that these wings would get cumbersome when Bat-Man was in action, and changed them into a cape, scalloped to look like bat wings when he was fighting or swinging down on a rope. Also, he didn’t have any gloves on, and we added them so that he wouldn’t leave fingerprints.”
Eventually, Kane and Finger’s Bat-Man would lose the hyphen and would be unleashed upon the world in the now classic Detective Comics #27 (May 1939). Finger said, “Batman was originally written in the style of the pulps.” And that would be evident right out of the gate with the first Batman story titled The Case of the Chemical Syndicate. Batman would frequently kill or maim his enemies and would show little remorse. But Batman proved to be a hit, and in 1940 would get his own solo title, and would also be featured with Superman in World’s Best Comics when it debuted in 1940. It would later be changed to World’s Finest Comics, and the heroes would actually work together rather than be featured separately. Pulp-inspired Batman would soften up after Finger introduced Robin, feeling that Batman needed a Watson.
The popularity of comics began to decline in the 1950s, yet Batman was one of the few superhero characters that continued to be published, and it would be among the first to come under scrutiny after the now (in)famous Seduction of the Innocent accused the book of promoting homosexual undertones, insisting Batman and Robin were lovers. Batman would leave its dark roots behind for a sunnier portrayal to refute the allegations that Batman and Robin were gay, and in part because of the newly enacted Comics Code Authority. As a result, Batman stories became more science-fiction oriented, introducing Ace, the Bat-Hound, and Bat-Mite. And in 1960, Batman joined the Justice League when DC brought its heroes together to create the team that first appeared in The Brave and the Bold #28.
The 1960s had arrived, and by 1964, sales of Batman had dropped so harshly that DC was preparing to kill off the character. In response, DC executed broad and drastic changes to Batman, doing away with the cheesy sci-fi stories, killing Alfred (but wisely bringing him back), giving Batman’s chest symbol the yellow background, and introducing Aunt Harriet, who came to live with Bruce and Dick.
And then there came a TV series.
In 1966, Batman aired on ABC, pulled in viewers, and incorporated the camp into the comic, rejuvenating interest in the comic and sending sales through the roof. But by 1968, the camp grew thin, viewers stopped watching, and Batman was cancelled. And interest in the comic also dropped. But DC knew they had a gem. They just had to shine it up a little. DC editors brought in writer Denny O’ Neil and artist Neal Adams, who pretty much snubbed their noses at an already obsolete Comics Code Authority, brought Batman back to his darker roots. The creative team ditched the camp and returned Batman to his status as a grim avenger of the night. O’ Neil said his goal was to “simply to take it back to where it started. I went to the DC library and read some of the early stories. I tried to get a sense of what Kane and Finger were after.”
Michael Keaton’s Batman, Kevin Conroy’s gravelly-voiced Batman: The Animated Series, and Christian Bale’s contributions to the mythos are all influenced by the work of O’ Neil and Adams. But despite their work, popularity continued to wane. And by 1985 it was at an all-time low.
Then came Frank Miller.
In 1986, Frank Miller, known for his gritty crime drama stories and who was responsible for some of the best Daredevil stories ever written from Marvel, tried his hand at saving Batman from certain doom. He wrote a five-issue mini series called The Dark Knight Returns that dealt with a 55 year old Batman forced to come out of retirement. Miller’s tale was the shot in the arm Batman needed and the mini series is hailed as one of those stories that transcends the medium. DC would later hire Denny O’ Neil to be editor of the Batman comics, insuring that every story to come met the revamp O’ Neil and Adams had worked on.
Fans would be treated to Frank Miller’s Year One, where Batman’s origins were redefined.
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke, where the Joker shoots and cripples Barbara Gordon and kidnaps Jim Gordon, subjecting him to intense physical and psychological torture, a defining moment in DC Comics history.
For the first time in comics history, fans could call an 800 number and vote on whether or not Jason Todd, Batman’s second Robin, lived or died at Joker’s hands (By a close margin, fans decided to kill him but he would somehow return as Batman’s nemesis Hush).
The following year, Tim Burton’s Batman was released, beginning a multi-million dollar movie franchise.
The 1993 story arc Knightfall introduced Bane in a story that saw Batman’s back broken, while someone else donned the cape and cowl in Bruce’s absence.
The critically-acclaimed stories The Long Halloween and Dark Victory that dealt with Batman’s early career.
A cornucopia of animated series and movies
And in DC’s recent reboot of its universe, the New 52, Batman was relaunched and continues to be a sales juggernaut, seemingly more popular than he’s ever been.
Batman has become a pop culture icon, recognized around the world, and his presence has extended beyond his comic book origins. Forbes magazine recently estimated Bruce Wayne to be the 8th richest fictional character. Tony Stark, by the way, was listed as 5th. The Dark Knight has certainly fought his way through the annals of time, ultimately finding a place among the gargoyles and ledges and rooftops of pop culture history. We at SCIFI.radio would like to thank everyone responsible for contributing to Batman’s mythos, allowing us to be able to celebrate 75 years of awesome Bat-history.
Michael Brown is a comics nerd and a father who lives in small town Tennessee. When he’s not making his players mad in his “Shadowrun” RPG or experimenting with new and inventive uses of duct tape on his children, you can find him checking out the latest comics and movies for SCIFI.radio!