Sunday, March 30, 2014

Batman Turns 75 Part One: The Comic Books

It was 75 years ago today that Detective Comics #27, May 1939 hit newsstands. It proved to be one of the most important issues of any comic book ever published for the simple reason that it featured the very first appearance of The Batman. It was not long before the Caped Crusader became the second most popular superhero (after Superman) published by what would become DC Comics. In fact, it is quite possible that Batman was among the three most popular superheroes of the Golden Age of Comic Books, alongside Superman and Captain Marvel. Following the Golden Age Batman's popularity has fluctuated, but since the late Eighties it seems likely that the Dark Knight has surpassed even Superman in popularity. Quite simply, 75 years after his first appearance, Batman may be the most popular superhero in the world.

That having been said, the creation of Batman was tied directly to the success of Superman, who had become a phenomenon in the months following his first appearance in Action Comics #1, June 1938. It was in a meeting that editor Vin Sullivan told artist Bob Kane of the money that the Man of Steel was making for his creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. Bob Kane then decided to create a superhero of his own. Precisely what transpired afterwards is somewhat unclear as Bob Kane told many different versions of Batman's creation, some of them wildly inconsistent with others. It seems obvious from the original appearance of Batman and interviews Bob Kane had given over the years that the character's appearance was probably inspired by the Hawkmen of Alex Raymond's comic strip Flash Gordon. Indeed, as comic book illustrator Arlen Schumer revealed in an issue of Alter Ego several years ago, it appears that the cover of Detective Comics #27, with Batman swinging on a rope with a criminal in tow, was actually swiped from panel 5 of the 17 January 1937 Flash Gordon Sunday page, in which Flash is shown swinging from a vine. Bob Kane often claimed to have been inspired by Leonardo da Vinci's sketches of a "flying machine" in creating Batman and, while some doubt has been shed on Mr. Kane's claim, it cannot be ruled out entirely.

Regardless, we know from interviews with the various parties invovled that Bob Kane later took the sketches of his new hero to writer Bill Finger. We also know that Mr. Kane's sketches featured a character wearing a small domino mask and a red, Superman-like costume with stiff, bat-like wings attached to his back. It was Bill Finger who suggested that Batman have the now familiar cowl with bat ears and a darker costume. Bill Finger is also credited with suggesting that the awkward bat-wings be replaced with a scalloped cape, although for his first several appearances Batman retained his original bat wings. Bill Finger also made several other contributions to the character beyond his appearance. It was Bill Finger who devised the name "Bruce Wayne" for Batman's secret identity. It was also Bill Finger who created the character of Commissioner Gordon and created  or co-created such characters as Catwoman, Robin, Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred, and others. While Bob Kane may have thought of the initial idea for Batman, Bill Finger must then be regarded as his co-creator.

Other writers and artists would also contribute to the development of Batman in his early days. It was legendary comic book writer Gardner Fox (who created or co-created such characters as The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and so on) who introduced Batman's utility belt (in Detective Comics #29, July 1939) as well as the first of Batman's many gadgets (the Batarang and the Batgyro in Detective Comics ##32, October 1939). It was artist Jerry Robinson who created Batman's archenemy The Joker and co-created the characters of Robin and Alfred.

As originally conceived,  Batman resembled the modern day character a great deal. The Batman was an at times brutal vigilante who operated primarily at night. By day he was Bruce Wayne, a wealthy playboy who had witnessed his parents' murder at the hands of a mugger. So traumatised by the experience was young Wayne, that he vowed vengeance on criminals. Training physically and intellectually from a young age, he eventually donned a bat like costume to battle crime. In his earliest days Batman could be absolutely ruthless with criminals. He actually carried a gun and even used it on occasion. Quite often his opponents died by accidents of their own making. Other times (such as the vampire called The Monk in n Detective Comics #31, September 1939) they might even be killed by Batman himself. Even today's Dark Knight could be downright gentle when compared to the original Batman.

It was two events that occurred when Batman was around a year old that would result in the feature lightening considerably in tone. The first was a code created  by co-owner of National Comics and Detective Comics (two of the companies that would become DC Comics) Jack Liebowitz and editor Whitney Ellsworth as to what would be permissible in their comic books. The two men had wanted to prevent their comic books from coming under attack from moral watchdogs much as pulp magazines had earlier in the Thirties. Because of this code none of their heroes would ever willingly kill another human being. And because of this code Batman stopped carrying a gun and stopped killing criminals.

The other event that would cause the Batman feature to lighten a good deal in tone was the introduction of Robin in Detective Comics #38, April 1940. Robin was created by writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson for two very simple reasons. One was to give Batman someone with whom to talk. The second was to give boys a character with whom they could identify. Jerry Robinson was the one who named the character. He had loved  The Adventures of Robin Hood as a child. As a result, not only would the character be named "Robin", but the character's costume would have a medieval look. Robin was a professional acrobat, part of the family acrobatic act called "The Flying Graysons". It was after his parents were murdered by gang lord Boss Zucco that Bruce Wayne took legal custody of Grayson as his ward and trained the boy to fight crime. He would remain a part of the Batman feature for the next twenty nine years.

While the Batman feature would become lighter in tone following the creation of Messrs. Liebowitz and Ellsworth's code and the introduction of Robin, it could still be fairly grim when compared to contemporary comic book features. While Batman no longer carried a gun or killed criminals, he still operated primarily at night and many of his opponents could be downright frightening. The Joker, Two-Face, The Scarecrow, Clayface, and some other villains Batman faced in the Golden Age of Comic Books had appearances that would be quite fitting for horror movies. Not only did many of Batman's enemies look frightening, but many of them could quite rightfully be described as homicidal maniacs. In the very first story in which he appeared (in Batman #1, spring 1940) The Joker alone killed four people.

 Regardless, Batman became the second most popular superhero published by National Comics and Detective Comics, surpassed only by Superman, and he may well have been the third most popular superhero during the Golden Age of Comic books after Superman and Captain Marvel. So popular was the character that at times Batman appeared in four different titles during the Golden Age, including Detective Comics, Batman, World's Finest, and Star Spangled Comics. The character also appeared in other media (more on that in part two) and would be the first character published by Detective Comics and National Comics to appear in a live action film, the 1943 movie serial The Batman. Batman also appeared in a newspaper comic strip (from 1943 to 1946), on the radio show The Adventures of Superman, in the 1949 movie serial Batman and Robin, and in an unsold radio show pilot in 1950.

Even as the Golden Age of Comic Books progressed during the Forties, the Batman feature began to change. Some of these changes came about due to the 1943 serial The Batman. The serial introduced  "The Bat's Cave", which would find its way into the comic books as "the Batcave". The Batman would also be responsible for a change in Batman's butler Alfred's appearance. When Alfred was introduced in Batman #16, April–May 1943 he was clean shaven and overweight. In the serial, however, Alfred was played by slender, moustachioed actor William Austen. Starting with Detective Comics #83, January 1944, then, the comic book version of Alfred was also slender and bearing a moustache.

Over time the Batman feature would change even more, drifting further away from the original concept of "a terrible creature of the night". The introduction of Robin had already changed Batman into something of a big brother or father figure. In Batman #49, October-November 1948, a new love interest was introduced for Bruce Wayne in the form of Vicki Vale, a nosy reporter very much in the Lois Lane mould. Batman's various gadgets and vehicles played a greater role in the feature. Star Spangled Comics #89, February 1949, featured a piece on "Batman's Utility Belt." Detective Comics #151, October 1949 introduced the "Batmobile of 1950". Batman #61, October-November 1949  marked the debut of  a new Batplane.  It was during this period that the Batman comic strip would make its first excursions into pseudo-science fiction. "Batman, Interplanetary Policeman!" appeared in Batman #41, June-July 1947. Batman #78, August-September 1953 featured Roh Kar, the Manhunter from Mars--a prototype for J'onn J'ozz of Justice League of America  fame, who would make his debut in Detective Comics two years later.

While the Batman feature became lighter with the passage of the late Forties and the early Fifties, the character still fought crime primarily at night and faced some very dangerous villains. It would be the Fifties that would see massive changes that would entirely change the nature of the feature. The late Forties and the early Fifties saw comic books under increasing attack by moral watchdogs. At the forefront of these attacks on comic books was psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham. Dr. Wertham believed that children were harmed by the content of what he called "crime comics", a heading under which he also included superhero and horror comic books. In 1954 his book about the alleged detrimental effects og comic books on children, Seduction of the Innocent, was published. Among the characters he criticised in the book were Batman and Robin.

In Seduction of the Innocent Fredric Wertham stated that, "Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of  psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoeroticism which pervades the adventures of the mature 'Batman' and his young friend Robin." He also attacked The Catwoman, one of Batman's archenemies during the Golden Age, as "vicious" and noted that she "...uses a whip." Dr. Wertham claimed that in Batman comic books, "If the girl is good-looking she is undoubtedly the villainess"  (apparently Dr. Wertham did not find Bruce Wayne's girl friend Vicki Vale attractive...). Today Dr. Wetham's attitudes would be considered both homophobic and sexist, but his accusations toward the Dynamic Duo could not have been made at a worse time. Homosexuality was still listed as a mental disorder in the the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the early to mid-Fifties were the height of the Lavender Scare, when homosexuals within the Federal government (and often in the private sector as well) were persecuted.

Fredric Wertham also attacked the violence within Batman comic books. He notes that "They constantly rescue each other from violent attacks by an unending number of enemies" and that Batman and Robin "..are captured, threatened with every imaginable weapon, almost blown to bits, almost crushed to death, almost annihilated." Dr. Wertham wrote of the Batman feature, "Violence is not lacking in these stories. You are shown Batman and Robin standing in a room with a whole row of corpses on the floor."

It would be Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and other similar attacks on comic books in the late Forties and Fifties that would lead to the creation of the Comics Code. The comic book industry described the self-censorship code at the time as "...the strictest in existence for any communications media (sic)." This was no exaggeration, as in its original form the Comics Code was exceeding strict. It forbade everything from  "lurid, unsavoury, gruesome illustrations" to vampires and werewolves. It was perhaps because of the Code's strict rules on the portrayal of women, as well as the fact that Dr. Wertham had singled her out for attack, that The Catwoman would not appear in comic books from 1954 to 1966. It may have been due to the Code's ban on anything gruesome that Two-Face, half of whose face had been damaged by acid, would not appear from 1954 to 1971. The Joker continued to appear in the Batman comic book feature, but was reduced from homicidal serial killer to a practical joking nuisace.

It was perhaps because of the Comics Code, and most likely Fredric Wertham's attacks on the character as well, that the Batman feature would change dramatically after 1954. During the Golden Age and the early Fifties Batman and Robin had fought gangsters, hired killers, and a rouge's gallery that included such outright psychopaths as The Joker, Two-Face, The Scarecrow, Clayface, and so on. After 1954 pseudo-science fiction stories began to proliferate in the Batman feature. The Dynamic Duo faced aliens, travelled to other planets, and travelled through time. Their rogue's gallery from the Golden Age began to appear less and less, and any new supervillains introduced in the feature tended to be science fiction oriented: Mr. Zero (later renamed "Mr. Freeze" on the TV show), a new Clayface (this one capable of changing shape), and Dr. Double X.

As the Fifties progressed the Batman feature began to resemble Superman more and more, with the Caped Crusader picking up an extended family not unlike those of Superman or Captain Marvel. Perhaps to advert any suspicions that Batman and Robin were gay, two new female characters were introduced: Batwoman, who debuted  in Batman #105, January 1957, and Bat-Girl, who first appeared in Batman  #139, April-May 1961 (not to be confused with the Batgirl of later Sixties comic books and the TV show). Just as Superman had Krypto the Superdog, so too did Batman have Ace the Bat-Hound. And while Superman was plagued by the imp Mister Mxyzptlk, so too was Batman was sometimes helped or hindered by the imp Bat-Mite.

Ultimately these changes would have a deleterious effect on the Batman feature. While sales may not have dropped as low as many histories would have us believe, sales for Batman comic books did appear to have been lower than they had been in years. It was then that National Periodical Publications (the company now called DC Comics)  assigned Julius Schwartz to edit the Batman feature. Julius Schwartz was already responsible for new versions of such Golden Age characters as The Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, and Hawkman. Indeed, the reboots of The Flash and Green Lantern had been particularly successful.

Julius Schwartz would make drastic changes to the Batman feature, not the least of which was called "the New Look". Artist Carmine Infantino, who had designed the new version of The Flash, was brought in to give the Batman feature a more modern appearance. Unlike previous artists who had drawn Batman, Mr. Infantino made no effort to emulate Bob Kane's style, but instead used his own sleek style on the character. Indeed, Batman's  costume was overhauled, with the inclusion of a a yellow oval around the bat-insignia on his costume's chest. The Batmobile and other Bat-accoutrements were also redesigned. 

The appearance of the Batman feature was not the only thing to be changed. Julius Schwartz jettisoned the supporting cast Batman and Robin had picked up in the late Fifties, so that Batwoman, Bat-Girl, Ace the Bat-Hound, and Bat-Mite were all gone. He did away with the pseudo-science fiction stories entirely. Instead an emphasis was placed on Batman's skill as a detective, so that many of the stories would be mysteries. To advert any accusations of homosexuality, Julius Schwartz killed off Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred (who had been part of the feature since 1943) and had Dick Grayson's Aunt Harriet move into Wayne Manor. The "New Look" of Batman was introduced in World's Finest #141, May 1964 (while the cover featured Batman in his old costume, the interior featured him in his new one), Detective Comics #327, May 1964, and Batman #164, June 1964.

Following the changes that came with the "New Look" for Batman sales for the Batman titles increased slightly from what they had been; however, there would soon be something that would happen that would send sales of Batman comic books through the roof. Namely, on 12 January 1966 the TV show Batman debuted. The show was a smart parody of superhero conventions, and many fans at the time were disappointed that it was not a loyal treatment of the character. That having been said, the show would have a huge impact on the Batman titles (there will be more on the TV show in Part Two).

The TV show Batman not only proved to be a ratings smash, but it also proved to be an outright phenomenon. Its Nielsen ratings were incredible, pulling in an extremely high Nielsen rating of 28.5 for the week of 13 February 1966 alone. It also produced more merchandise than any other television show before, dwarfing even the "Davy Crockett" fad from over ten years before. Batman would account for $150 million worth of merchandise sold in 1966 alone. The show also inspired the 1966 feature film Batman. Quite naturally the success of the Batman TV series would affect sales of the Batman comic books as well. The Batman titles became the top comic books on the market, with 900,000 copies per month sold.

Beyond an increase in sales the Batman TV show would have other effects on the comic books as well. In the short term the comic books emulated the camp style of the TV show, with similarly exaggerated situations featuring various members of Batman's rogue's gallery. The Batman titles' turn towards camp only lasted about a year, after which they would turn serious again. While the Batman comic books would turn to camp for only a short time, the TV show would have a lasting effect on the comic books in other ways. Indeed, it was because of Alfred's presence on the television show that he was brought back from the dead in the comic books. Alfred has remained a part of the Batman feature ever since.

It was also because of the TV show that Catwoman appeared in the comic books for the first time in twelve years. Prior to the TV show The Riddler had been a very minor villain in Batman's rogue's gallery. In fact, during the entire Golden Age he had only appeared twice and was then absent from the feature for 17 years.  It was largely on the strength of Frank Gorshin's performance that he became a major villain in Batman's rogue's gallery. The Batman TV show would also be responsible for the creation of one Batman's major opponents, although she never appeared on the show. The Catwoman proved to be one of the most popular characters on the show, so that Julius Schwartz, artist Carmine Infantino, and the other staff on the Batman titles then started to think about new female characters who could be incorporated on the show. As a result Robert Kanigher and Sheldon Moldoff created the supervillain Poison Ivy. While Poison Ivy never did appear on the show, she proved to be one of Batman's most popular opponents over the years.

The popularity of Catwoman on the TV show would also lead to the creation of Batgirl (not to be confused with the earlier "Bat-Girl"). . Batgirl was Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Commissioner Gordon. The head librarian of the Gotham City Public Library by day, she fought crime by night as the mysterious Batgirl. Batgirl made her debut in Detective Comics #359, January 1967 (although it hit newsstands in November 1966). Batgirl would be incorporated into the TV show for its third season.

Like most fads the Batman TV show eventually ran its course after about a year, so that ratings for the TV show dropped. It went off the air on 14 March 1968 after only a little over two years on the air. Sales for the Batman titles would drop as well. By 1969 only 356,000 copies per month were being sold, even fewer than had been sold immediately prior to the New Look.

To counter the lower sales a conscious decision was made in 1969 to return Batman to back to being a grim avenger of the night in effort to distance the character from the TV show. Editor Julius Schwartz, writer Dennis O'Neil, and artist Neal Adams then made changes to the Batman feature. Dick Grayson went off to college, so that Batman was once more operating alone. Bruce Wayne moved out of Wayne Manor into a penthouse atop the Wayne Foundation building in Gotham City. Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams created a new opponent for Batman in the form of Ra's al Ghul, a virtually immortal master criminal. After last appearing in the comic books in 1969, The Joker returned to the Batman titles once more as a homicidal psychopath in 1973.

Some of the changes made to the Batman feature in the late Sixties and late Seventies would not remain in place for long. Bruce Wayne would eventually return to Wayne Manor, while Robin would rejoin Batman from time to time. That having been said the image of Batman as an at times brutal vigilante has persisted ever since. That is not to say that the Batman feature has not changed over the years. In a run on Detective Comics that ran from May 1977 to April 1978 writer Steve Englehart and pencilers Walt Simonson and Marshall Rogers further fine tuned the Batman feature. Messrs. Englehart, Simonson, and Rogers made Batman even more of a grim vigilante, putting him at odds with the law (or at least the Gotham City political machine). They also made use of Batman's classic rogues gallery, even reviving villains not seen since the Golden Age (Hugo Strange and Deadshot). In Mr. Englehart's hands The Joker became even more a madman, killing on a mere whim. It would be Steve Englehart who revived the use of the nickname "the Dark Knight" for Batman, not used since the Golden Age. Reportedly Steve Englehart's run on Detective Comics would inspire much of Tim Burton's 1989 feature film Batman.

The Eighties would see  further changes to the Batman feature. Dick Grayson ceased being Batman's sidekick Robin and took the new name Nightwing in 1984. In Batman #366, December 1983 an orphan named Jason Todd became the new Robin. Jason Todd would not remain around for long in the Eighties. He was killed off in four-part story "A Death in the Family" in 1988. He would later be revived in the Naughts, although as a villain and later an anti-hero. In Batman #442, December 1989 Tim Drake assumed the role of Robin and remained such until 2009, when he went out on his own and assumed the identity of Red Robin. More recently it has been retconned so that Tim Drake served as Batman's sidekick under the name Red Robin.

The year 1986 would see the publication of Frank Miller's highly influential limited series The Dark Knight Returns. The Dark Knight Returns was set in an alternate future where Batman has been retired for several years and then returns to fighting crime. Violent and very dark, The Dark Knight Returns would take Batman even further into being a ruthless vigilante. In the graphic novel Batman wore an updated version of his Golden Age costume, which over time would become the hero's dominant look. Ultimately The Dark Knight Returns would have a lasting impact on the character.  The Dark Knight Returns was followed by Alan Moore's graphic novel The Killing Joke in 1988. The graphic novel provided a possibly apocryphal origin for The Joker and presented him as an even more dangerous, psychotic, and homicidal than before. The Killing Joke would have a lasting impact on the comic books. Among other things, in The Killing Joke The Joker shot Barbara Gordon. The injury resulted in her being paralysed and as a result she had to give up being Batgirl. She later assumed the identity of Oracle and appeared for many years in the comic book Birds of Prey. Barbara Gordon's mobility would be restored in in 2011 and she resumed her career as Batgirl afterwards. Both The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke would provide some of the inspiration for the 1989 Batman film, as well as director Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight Trilogy".

Since the late Eighties Batman has rarely been out of the media spotlight. In 1989 the film Batman, directed by Tim Burton, was released. It would be followed by Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995), and Batman and Robin (1997). In 2005 the character of Batman was revived with the film Batman Begins, directed by Christopher Nolan. The film was followed by The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). The animated television show Batman: The Animated Series was largely inspired by the 1989 film. Since its debut in 1992 it has been rare that Batman has not been featured in some sort of animated show on television.

Batman became one of the most popular comic book characters almost immediately upon his first appearance. During the Golden Age it seems quite possible that his popularity was surpassed only by Superman and Captain Marvel. Following the Golden Age Batman's popularity would fluctuate although with the Eighties he would once more become one of the most popular characters in comic books. Since then it seems quite likely that Batman is the most popular superhero in the world. Seventy five years after his debut Batman remains more popular than ever. Indeed, as will be examined in part two, Batman has appeared in many different media over the years.

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