Golden Age Batman (1939-1964)

Much has been written about the origin of Batman. Famous influences certainly include Zorro (a dark, masked avenger who predated Batman by 20 years), The Phantom, and Superman (with The Spider and Dick Tracy also rating mention). Credited creator Bob Kane regularly name-dropped Leonardo Da Vinci (whose ornithopter sketch stuck in Kane's mind), Dracula, and "the Bat," a costumed killer character immortalized on stage and screen (1930's The Bat Whispers, as well as the 1926 silent The Bat). Douglas Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro made a big impact on Kane and unofficial co-creator Bill Finger, who further cited The Shadow and Doc Savage, describing Batman as a combination of D'Artagnan and Sherlock Holmes. Obviously, in the 65+ years to follow, Batman evolved into a distinct and enduring figure in his own right.

Bob Kane (1916-1998) always took public credit for creating Batman. A life-long cartoonist, Kane dabbled in advertising and animation, but paid his dues in the infant comic-book industry. A year or two before Batman, Kane began collaborating with writer Bill Finger (1914-1974), now widely accepted as the unsung co-creator of Batman. When an editor at DC (named for flagship title Detective Comics) intimated to Kane that DC was looking for another Superman, Kane set to work on sketches and began bouncing them off of Finger. Since 1938, Superman led the Action Comics title, and in May of 1939, Batman debuted in the pages of Detective Comics #27, a copy of which is worth about $200,000 today.

Finger penned most of those early stories, including Batman's origin story (which appeared in November 1939), but Gardner Fox contributed a couple of early stories and invented the Batarang, Batman's sharpened boomerang-style weapon. In the first year of pulpy stories, Batman could be seen wielding a pistol and being shot himself in the line of duty. The origin reflected the character's dark tone: Bruce Wayne, a mere child, watches his parents Thomas and Martha Wayne cut down by a mugger's gunfire (according to Finger, Bruce Wayne's name alluded to Scottish patriot Robert Bruce and Revolutionary Warrior "Mad Anthony" Wayne).

/content/features/86/3.gifSwearing on their graves, Wayne "becomes a master scientist[,] trains his body to physical perfection", and reasons that "criminals are a superstitious[,] cowardly lot." Inspired by the omen of a bat, he adopts the fearful persona of a "creature of the night." Bruce Wayne maintained his secret identity as a millionaire playboy by day, while patrolling Gotham City by night. Over the years, those basic elements have remained gospel, though the origin has been retold, refined, and expanded ever since (now, commonly, the story includes the detail that the doomed Wayne family is walking home from a screening of The Mark of Zorro). Only Tim Burton dared to change murderous hoodlum Joe Chill into Jack Napier (a.k.a. The Joker) to serve the purposes of the 1989 film Batman.

As the character's popularity and demand grew, Batman's roster expanded to include a string of other writers and "art assistants," like Sheldon Moldoff (1920- ). Moldoff may have inspired the addition of Robin the Boy Wonder, who joined Batman's adventures in April of 1940 (Detective Comics #38), though writer Bill Finger is now acknowledged as the creator of Robin, Alfred, Catwoman, Penguin, Two-Face and, eventually, Bat-Mite. Robin allowed the strip to brighten up, lighten up, and invite young readers more readily into the fold (though Robin, like Batman, turned to crime-fighting after the traumatic murder of his parents). Around this time, a young artist named Jerry Robinson became Kane's assistant, as Batman launched into his own self-titled book (while remaining a Detective Comics feature).

Batman #1 (Spring 1940) made threefold history, by introducing two enduring villains. The Clown Prince of Crime called The Joker eventually became Batman's Moriarty, and the female, feline jewel thief The Cat became better known as Catwoman. The credit for the Joker was a bone of contention for years afterward. Kane claimed he and Finger developed the character; Robinson still insists the Joker was his idea. Finger, though, undisputedly suggested a visual model: either a photo of Conrad Veidt in 1928's The Man Who Laughs or advertising art pitching a Coney Island attraction with a hugely grinning man, depending on whom you believe.

In the years to follow, Batman's Rogues' Gallery of villains expanded to include The Penguin (1940), Clayface I (1940), Dr. Hugo Strange (1940), the Scarecrow (1941), Two-Face (1942), the Mad Hatter (1948), the Riddler (1948), Killer Moth (1951), Calendar Man (1958), Mr. Freeze (1959), and Clayface II, a.k.a. Matt Hagen (1961). Batman's allies also expanded to include Commissioner James W. Gordon (around in some form since 1939), Batman's trusty butler Alfred Pennyworth (1943) and photojournalist Vicki Vale, who was also Wayne's girlfriend from 1948 to 1963. Batman's accoutrements eventually took shape, from gadgets and vehicles to his headquarters, the Batcave (suggested by Columbia's 1943 movie serial). Artist Dick Sprang (1915-2000), hired in 1941, joined Moldoff as one of the most enduring "ghosters" of Batman art, all published under the Bob Kane stamp. Including his work on the Batman-Superman title World's Finest (introduced in April 1941 as the multiple-hero title World's Best Comics), Sprang drew Batman up until his retirement in 1963; Sprang was typically inked by Charles Paris. Paris also inked Moldoff, whose primary Batman work appeared between 1953 and 1968.

/content/features/86/2.jpgBy the 1950s, Batman had succumbed to goofy storylines ("The Valley of Giant Bees," "The Caveman Batman!", "The Creature from 20,000 Fathoms!") that reflected the the nuclear age of "B" sci-fi/horror movies and paved the way for Batman's reinvention as the camp hero of the 1960s. Strained additions to Batman's circle of crime-fighting friends contributed to the long, slow drift from the comic's hard-boiled crime origins: Ace, the Bat-Hound (1955); Batwoman Kathy Kane (1955), and Robin counterpart Bat-Girl (1961). Most unsettling was the interdimensional imp Bat-Mite, who began popping up in 1959. Ace's resemblance to Superman's dog Krypto and Bat-Mite's parallel function to Superman's pest Mr. Mxyzptlk betrayed the characters' superficial, cookie-cutter origins.

Two important developments prefigured the character's eventual maturation. In 1954, Fredric Wertham's conservative "expose" of the comic-book industry Seduction of the Innocent "outed" Batman and Robin as covert homosexuals (Robin, as Dick Grayson, was Bruce Wayne's adopted ward). Though the charge was preposterous, Batman's innocence was ironically threatened if not lost, under Wertham's harsh spotlight. In 1960, Batman appeared in the first "Justice League of America" story (The Brave and the Bold #28)—this association has continued until today—and the character soldiered on until, in May of 1964 (Detective Comics #327), DC unveiled the "New Look" Batman, designed by artist Carmine Infantino. Though Kane's "ghosters" lingered for a few more years, the character had moved into a more realistic style.


Works Cited

"Batman." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. (27 May 2005).

"Bill Finger." (27 May 2005).

Daniels, Les. Batman: The Golden Age. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000.

Hughes, Bob. "Batman Who's Whose" Who's Whose in the DC Universe. 2002. (27 May 2005).

Jourdain, William F. "Who is the Golden Age Batman?" Golden Age Batman. 1996-2000. (27 May 2005).

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