Sunday, April 1, 2012

BATMAN in Comics - Dawn of a Hero (1939 - 1940)

Batman made his debut in “Detective Comics” issue #27 on March 30th, 1939 in a story titled “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.”

The character, created by an earnest young cartoonist named Robert Kane and writer William Finger, was visually inspired by a number of sources that both men brought to the table.


His demonic costume, with its hooded cowl and bat-winged cloak, could be traced to sketches of a bat-like flying apparatus designed by Renaissance icon Leonardo Da Vinci, as well as the 1926 silent film “The Bat,” whose antagonist wore a grotesque bat mask and cape.

The concept of a dual identity harkens back to several influences from Kane’s childhood, specifically the film character of Zorro as portrayed by Douglas Fairbanks Sr. along with Robin Hood, the Shadow and the Scarlet Pimpernel. The character’s keen intellect traces back to Sherlock Holmes while master illusionist Harry Houdini clearly inspires his knack for escape artistry in any situation.

Playboy by day and avenger by night, Batman’s initial conception was exceedingly inventive. Making him mortal made his achievements all the more impressive. It also afforded him a much more relatable outlet to readers tethered by a humanity in which super powers didn't exist. But more than that, it succeeded in creating a dark, more reality-bound parallel to the optimistic fantasy of Superman.

“Detective” #27 also introduced one of the character’s key allies with Police Commissioner James Gordon, who would become a constant player in the narrative of the books.

Initially, as many people may not be aware, Batman began fighting crime not on the streets of Gotham, but New York City! The character’s now beloved home would not be created until a few issues in, once Batman’s success truly began to gain momentum.

Another aspect to the character that was later abandoned was his being comfortable with committing murder.

In “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” Batman consciously knocks the stories' villain into a giant vat of acid (“A fitting end for his kind.”). Another “Detective” issue saw Batman kick the head of a two-bit hood as he leaned out of a window, snapping his neck in the process.

And for a good collection of issues, Batman even wielded a sidearm; a pistol that he wouldn’t hesitate to fire upon criminals in cold blood.

For many living in the bleak landscape of the Great Depression and urban expansion, this was acceptable for the time. However, DC Comics came to adopt a code of ethics involving its characters and Batman's brutality was quickly toned down to disregard fatality. This decision culminated in the first true detailing of Batman’s origin (though Bruce’s run-ins with whether or not to use guns are documented on several occasions later on throughout the mythos).

Having been birthed out of a marriage of comic strips, noir and horror pulp magazines, Batman was (and continues to be) very much the one comic book hero who has most distinctly maintained a constant pulp edge of mystery and horror throughout the decades, certainly more so than Superman or Wonder Woman.

This can be clearly evidenced in the first collection of the Bat-Man’s adversaries, such as Dr. Death and especially the dreaded Monk; a vampire/werewolf hybrid with telekinetic abilities who first appeared in “Detective Comics” #31.

A pressing thorn in the crimefighter's side, the Monk's reign of terror was however short lived. After rescuing his fiancée Julie Madison, the Bat-Man successfully managed to slay his undead adversary by shooting him with silver bullets.

While the pulp mentality remained an undercurrent for the character, the true motivations for Batman’s campaign against crime and evil gave our hero a more clearly defined sense of purpose with the publishing of “Detective Comics” #33 and the story “The Batman; Who He Is and How He Came To Be.”

Bruce Wayne had already been introduced as the Bat-Man’s secret alias, but “Detective” #33 introduced readers to Dr. Thomas Wayne and Martha Wayne, Bruce’s parents. The story stands as the first definitive account of their murders at the hands of a nameless armed mugger. Making a bedside vow by candlelight, Bruce embarks on a personal quest to train and hone his mind and body (it’s left unclear as to whether or not he travelled; or, at least, how extensively he travelled. That story would be definitively accounted in both “Batman: Year One” and “The Man who Falls” some 50 years later by Frank Miller and Dennis O’Neil respectively).

Some years later, sitting in the Wayne Manor study, Bruce determines that criminals by nature are ‘a superstitious and cowardly lot.’ That superstition could lead to fear. All Bruce needed was a symbol; a catalyst to that fear.

When a bat flies outside the window, Wayne sees it as an ominous and powerful omen. A legendary hero is born, not just out of tragedy but out of the key motivation, the driving force of Batman. A force so central that it becomes universal.

One person, with the passion, the capability and the will could make a difference.

The first collection of Bat-Man stories were drawn by Kane himself, whose style would be the central design influence as far into the history of the books as 1964.

But the unsung hero behind Batman’s success, without a doubt, was writer extraordinaire Bill Finger.

Writer of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” it was Finger who suggested that Batman’s costume be blue and gray (according to a number of sources, Kane’s initial designs were a respective red and silver color scheme. Think Zorro, but without the hat and a pair of red bat wings on his back!).

Finger was also constantly referred to as the first great writer of comics, injecting human issue and emotional angst into Batman’s early adventures.

Despite Bob Kane’s claims of wishing he had given Bill a bi-line on Batman (just as Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster shared on Superman), Kane made no such gesture. As a result, Bob Kane’s estate holds sole ownership over the property (and the annual percentage it generates) while Bill Finger essentially died penniless, even though his contributions were essential to conceiving Batman as we know him today. In the time since both men's passing, this revelation has come to light and today, Finger is widely regarded by many as an equal co-creator of the character; in spirit if not in print.

Even so, 1939 marked a momentous year for the entire infantile comic industry as it gave birth to one of comics’ greatest success stories.

But even in the midst of a smashing first impression, Batman wouldn’t be enjoying the spoils of success just yet.

War loomed on the horizon.

And the Caped Crusader was about to be enlisted by Uncle Sam.

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