80 years on, Batman still packs a punch

80 years on, Batman still packs a punch
Pictured: Christian Bale as Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures' "Batman Begins."

As the Caped Crusader hits 80 years of protecting Gotham City, Chris Wasser looks at the history of the world’s darkest superhero.

In 1939, a 23-year-old New York comic book writer and artist by the name of Robert Kane pitched a new idea to his bosses at National Allied Publications. The company, which was founded by American entrepreneur, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, had recently enjoyed enormous success with the launch of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman.

America’s new favourite superhero had taken everyone by surprise - not least, the publishers. It made sense, then, that the suits at NAP — which would later become DC Comics — wanted more. More heroes, more readers, more profits. They put the word out, and Bob Kane — a hungry freelancer, who’d impressed publishers with a series of humorous adventure strips — answered the call.

Enter ‘The Bat-Man’. Our boy, Bob, had originally conceived of his nocturnal, superhero vigilante in 1938, sharing sketches and designs with his friend and colleague, Bill Finger — a part-time shoe salesman and aspiring writer, who would eventually fill in the blanks.

Kane had essentially come up with a darker, pulpier take on Superman; a winged, masked crime-fighter in skin-tight, red-and-black attire, armed with just a piece of rope and a bad temper. It was Finger’s idea to add a cowl, and to replace Batman’s wings with a cape. Finger also suggested changing the colour of our hero’s tights from red to grey, for a more “ominous feel”.

They went further. Soon, they began to add names, stories, backgrounds and villains. Every decent superhero needs a cool secret identity, and it was Finger who devised Batman’s millionaire, daytime persona.

“Bruce Wayne’s first name came from Robert Bruce, the Scottish patriot”, Finger would explain.

Wayne, 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 [18th century US Army Officer] Mad Anthony Wayne.

The boys also found inspiration in Lee Falk’s acclaimed comic strip, The Phantom, Johnston McCulley’s Zorro and, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.

The Batman’s first appearance was teased in the pages of Action Comics No. 12. Then, in March 1939, things got real, with the official, six-page debut of the caped crusader in Detective Comics No. 27: ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’. The magic was in the cover; a breath-taking, single-panel portrait of a winged vigilante, swinging into action, over the moonlit rooftops of Gotham.

It’s one of the most memorable front pages in comic-book history. The issue was a hit. Back in 1939, a copy of Detective Comics No. 27 cost just 10 cents. Today, as we celebrate the 80th birthday of America’s grumpiest superhero, an original copy has been known to shift €1 million at auction.

In 1940, Batman finally received a solo title. By that stage, the ‘bat history’ had begun to evolve. According to Finger and Kane, every Sherlock requires a Watson and, together with artist, Jerry Robinson (who also created the Joker, Batman’s maniacal archenemy), the lads set to work on Robin the Boy Wonder.

The Bruce Wayne story has undergone several changes ever since, but the core concept of why it is this angry, wealthy, playboy philanthropist, dresses like a bat on the weekend has, more or less, remained the same. Our man in the cowl witnessed the violent murder of his parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne, as a child, and has spent his entire life seeking justice — if not for himself, then for the hard-up citizens of Gotham City. His loving butler, Alfred Pennyworth, looked after him — and continues to do so.

Adam West as Batman
Adam West as Batman

Bruce is an industrialist, and runs his late father’s company, Wayne Enterprises. Throw in a suit that’ll strike fear into the hearts of his enemies, and a nifty, underground lair, and, well, that about covers it. He may be a skilled martial artist, but remember, Bruce Wayne is human — his only superpowers are his intelligence and his bank balance. He’s just a regular dude with real traumas, and real fears.

There are those that might consider Batman one of the more problematic heroes of our time. Why?

Because he’s a bit messed-up. Therapists would have a field day with this guy — some already have. In 1954, as the Golden Age of Comic Books was coming to an end, German-American psychologist, Fredric Wertham, published Seduction of the Innocent, a 397-page thesis in which the author argued that comic books — particularly those as violent as the Batman title — were corrupting the morals and values of America’s youth.

Wertham also believed that, because Batman and Robin occasionally shared a bedroom, they were, more than likely, lovers. Cue a nationwide, parental meltdown, and a troubling controversy, which eventually resulted in the establishment of the now-defunct Comics Code Authority. This Code would allow comic publishers to self-regulate content. As a result, Batman started to lighten up. The Batwoman was introduced (you can probably guess why). Things started to look different.

80 years on, Batman still packs a punch

By this time, Batman had already made the jump from the page to the screen. In 1943, audiences were presented with Lambert Hillyer’s The Batman, a 15-part, black-and-white serial, starring Lewis Wilson as the caped crusader. Hillyer’s serial was a huge commercial success, eventually giving way to a 1960s live-action TV series.

The thing to remember about William Dozier’s Batman — a deliciously camp slice of cornball edutainment, all dressed up as a superhero sitcom — is that it was never supposed to be taken seriously. It almost always had its tongue firmly planted in its cheek and, in the clever casting of Adam West (Batman / Bruce Wayne) and Burt Ward (Robin / Dick Grayson), provided frequent moments of comedy gold.

The series ran for an astonishing 120 episodes. It also spawned a 1966 feature – the one where Batman fights off a shark, with a can of bat-shark repellent. Simpler times, indeed.

In 1989, director Tim Burton —inspired by Frank Miller’s phenomenal re-imagining, The Dark Knight Returns— gave us Batman, a $35m picture starring Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight, and a reliably over-the-top, Jack Nicholson, as the Joker.

Burton’s film broke every box-office record in the book and, in 1992, he and Keaton reconvened, enlisting Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, for a barmy and surprisingly saucy sequel (Batman Returns) that, once again, angered a lot of American parents.

Since then, we’ve had big-budget toy commercials disguised as films (the disastrous Val Kilmer / George Clooney era, which sold millions of Happy Meals, but almost killed the bloody franchise), a billion-dollar-grossing comeback (Christopher Nolan’s magnificent Dark Knight trilogy, with Christian Bale), and, um, Batfleck.

The one thing that most Batman films share in common is that they’re usually the subject of an amusing casting controversy. When Warner Bros announced that Michael Keaton was to assume the role of the caped crusader in Burton’s aforementioned Batman, the studio received almost 50,000 letters of complaint.

Nobody could have imagined that Keaton would turn out to be the quintessential, cinematic Batman, just as nobody could have predicted that the late, great Heath Ledger would deliver one of the most startling screen performances of the 21st century as the Joker, in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterpiece, The Dark Knight. According to screenwriter, Jonathan Nolan, Ledger’s casting confused both fans and studio executives.

Likewise, the internet exploded over Ben Affleck’s casting in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (in hindsight, a catastrophic move, for everyone involved). More recently, there are currently multiple petitions online, requesting the removal of Robert Pattinson from the forthcoming reboot, provisionally entitled, The Batman.

Pattinson — the former Twilight heartthrob who has, in recent years, proven himself to be a remarkable talent, and an unlikely superstar of independent cinema — is strongly rumoured to be the new Dark Knight. And, well, some fans are devastated. They already hate Patman.

If there’s one thing we have the abysmal, Ben Affleck era to thank for, it’s the long overdue recognition of Bill Finger’s contribution to the franchise. That’s the weird thing about comic books: behind every triumphant superhero, there is almost always a bitter war about who brought them to life. The problem with Batman is that Kane took all the credit — and DC allowed him to do so. Kane had always insisted that he was the brains behind the bat, and that Finger was more of a ghost writer. However, following Finger’s death in 1974, Kane began to mellow on the subject.

“I must admit that Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved,” Kane wrote, in 1989. “He was an unsung hero. I often tell my wife, if I could go back 15 years, before he died, I would like to say. ‘I’ll put your name on it now. You deserve it’.”

In 2016, after a long, hard fight by Finger’s family, the folks at DC Entertainment listed Bill Finger as co-creator of the character in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice — and Finger began to receive credit in the comics, too. Well, at least that horrible film was good for something.

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