Pulp Fiction #3: Batman At 80

Whether you call him the Caped Crusader or the Dark Knight, it’s hard to believe Batman has been in the public eye for eighty years! Making his debut in Detective Comics #27 (cover dated May 1939) in a story titled “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by co-creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane, Batman has gone from mere comic book crimefighter to king of all media! Not bad for a poor little rich kid from Gotham City!

BATMAN BEGINS 

Artist Bob Kane (1915-1998) had been toiling in the nascent comic book field for three years when DC’s superhero character Superman took off like a rocket. Comic houses were scrambling to compete in this new genre of costumed cavorters, and Kane came up with some sketches of a masked vigilante, basing his design on Lee Falk’s Phantom, Douglas Fairbanks’ ZORRO, and the 1930 horror/mystery THE BAT WHISPERS. Kane asked writer Bill Finger (1914-1974) to look at them, and it was Finger who came up with some suggestions: Batman’s iconic cape and cowl, gauntlets, and dark color scheme. Though Kane got sole credit for decades in Batman’s creation, without Bill Finger, the character probably would’ve faded into obscurity like a thousand other masked men gracing the pages of early comics. Finger also wrote that first story, and contributed to much of the Batman Mythos, like secret identity Bruce Wayne.

The Bat-Man (as he was originally called in that first story) was heavily influenced by the pulps of the era, especially Walter Gibson’s The Shadow. He worked outside the law, and even carried a gun, but soon evolved into his own (bat) man. Batman’s utility belt was introduced in Detective #29, complete with chemical pellets, grappling hook, and sundry other Bat-devices added later on. The Batarang, Batman’s most well-known weapon, debuted in Detective #31, along with the Batplane. The Batmobile was at first just a red car, but as time went on morphed into the familiar batwinged vehicle we all know and love.

Batman’s origin wasn’t explained until Detective #33, as we learned millionaire Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed by a mugger when he was just a child. Young Bruce vowed to wage war on crime, and studied voraciously, learning everything he could about the criminal mind, becoming proficient in science, and immersing himself in the fighting arts. Batman proved so popular he was given his own comic in 1940, and featured in other books like World’s Finest (where he’d have a long-running team-up series with DC’s top superhero Superman beginning in 1954).

THE FRIENDS OF BATMAN

Commissioner Jim Gordon was featured in that first Bat-story in Detective #27, at first an antagonist to the cowled crusader, later becoming a trusted friend and ally. Gordon’s main way to communicate with Batman was through the Bat-Signal, introduced in Detective #60. His daughter Barbara later became Batgirl during the height of the camp craze (but we’ll get to that later).

Butler Alfred Pennyworth made his first appearance in Batman #16. Originally a chubby comic relief character, Alfred later lost weight and became Batman’s sounding board. Alfred was popular enough with readers to have his own four-page featurette in Batman Comics lasting thirteen issues, with the (then) bumbling butler solving crimes on his own.

Now we come to Robin The Boy Wonder, introduced to the world in Detective #38 as an eight year old, growing over the years into a teenager. Robin was the first comic book teenage sidekick, for better or worse, created to give kids someone to identify with, but I never identified with any of those those (as Mad Magazine once called them) “icky teenage sidekicks” – I’d rather be Batman! Be that as it may, young Dick Grayson debuted in 1940, a circus aerialist whose parents are murdered by gangsters. Bruce Wayne adopted Dick as his ‘ward’, leading Batman into some hot water with a certain psychologist – but like Batgirl, we’ll get to that later, too!

Robin was popular enough to be featured in his own solo adventures, in the pages of Star-Spangled Comics from 1947-52. The Boy Wonder was also one of the founding members of Teen Titans, along with other “icky teenage sidekicks” Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, and Aqualad. They made their debut in The Brave and the Bold #54 back in 1964, getting their own mag in ’65, and have been comic book staples ever since.

BATMAN’S ROGUE’S GALLERY

One of the best things about Batman has always been his enemies, the most colorful collection of costumed criminal creeps in comic book history! With apologies to all you Bane enthusiasts, here are Batman’s Top 10 Most Wanted:

THE JOKER (Batman #1, 1940) – The Dark Knight’s greatest adversary, this chalk-white, green-haired killer has been a thorn in Batman’s side from the get-go. According to legend, Joker was a crook called the Red Hood, chased by Batman into a chemical vat, causing his grotesque visage, and warping his mind as well. The killer became the Clown Prince of Crime after the arrival of the Comics Code, but returned to his murderous glory in the 70’s thanks to the Bat-team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. Joker is one of the few super-villains to star in his own comic series, back in 1975.

CATWOMAN (Batman #1, 1940) – Selina Kyle was a slinky jewel thief whose relationship with the Caped Crusader has always been a bit complicated. Though she’s usually on the wrong side of the law, let’s just say she and Batman are more than just frenemies!

DR. HUGO STRANGE (Detective #36, 1940) – This maddest of mad scientists was Batman’s first recurring foe, until he was killed off in Detective #46, brought back to nefarious life in Detective Comics during the 70’s by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers in the story arc “Strange Apparitions”.

THE PENGUIN (Detective #58, 1941) – Oswald Cobblepot, that waddling master of foul play, used bird and umbrella motifs to commit his heinous crimes, always fouled by Batman. Penguin is certainly the most dapper of Batman villains!

THE SCARECROW (World’s Finest #3, 1941) – Psychologist Jonathan Crane, bullied as a child, used chemically-induced fear on the Dynamic Duo for two appearances in the Golden Age, returning with a vengeance during the 1960’s to become even more scarier!

THE RIDDLER (Detective #140, 1948) – Edward Nigma (E. Nigma, get it?) was a puzzle-obsessed crook compelled to leave cryptic clues at the scenes of his crimes. Riddler was really a minor figure in Batman’s world until Frank Gorshin brought him to life in the 60’s TV series (yes, we’ll get to that later, I promise!).

POISON IVY (Batman #181, 1966) – The beautiful botanist’s kiss put a spell on Batman, and like Catwoman, there’s more than meets the eye in their love-hate relationship. Poison Ivy emerged in full bloom in her debut, and it wasn’t until much later readers were given her full back story. In an interesting side note, Ivy’s look was originally based on pin-up girl Bettie Page!

MAN-BAT (Detective #400, 1971) – Dr. Kirk Langston, seeking a cure for his hearing loss, mutated into the hideous Man-Bat, terrorizing Gotham City. Code restrictions were loosened during the early 70’s, and horror-themed anti-heroes proliferated (ie, Spider-Man’s vampire foe Morbius). Like The Joker, Man-Bat also had a brief run in his own title.

RA’S AL GHUL (Batman #232, 1971) – This ancient eco-terrorist believes the world can achieve balance by wiping out most of humanity. Ra’s replenishes his life by frequenting The Lazarus Pit, and is leader of the League of Assassins, chief among them his daughter Talia, another villainess who’s more than fond of Batman! Speaking of more than friends….

THE SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT 

In 1954, eminent psychiatrist and world-class kook Dr. Fredric Wertham published an ominous tome titled Seduction of the Innocent, in which he claimed comic books were the leading cause of warping young American minds. Not just EC’s graphic horror and crime comics, but… well, I’ll let Dr. Wertham state his case:

“Sometimes Batman ends up in bed injured and young Robin is shown sitting next to him. At home they lead an idyllic life… Bruce Wayne is described as a ‘socialite’ and the official relationship is that Dick (Grayson) is Bruce’s ward. They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases… Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown… It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.”

Well. Who knew?

Apparently nobody who read comics, but adults were up in arms about Wertham’s claims, which not only painted Batman and Robin as gay lovers, but Superman as a fascist and Wonder Woman a bondage-loving lesbian! Of course, newspaper editorials expressed their outrage over these four-color abominations corrupting American morals, and of course a Senate subcommittee was formed, led by headline-hunting presidential wannabe Estes Kefauver.

The comics industry, rather than succumb to governmental oversight, created its own Comics Code Authority, to which every publisher was to adhere. Among the many do’s and don’ts were no more use of the words horror or terror in their titles (effectively killing off EC Comics), all crime must be punished, respect for authority, no sexual perversion or abnormalities, no excessive violence, and no drawings of excessive female pulchritude. Or as Dean Wormer said in ANIMAL HOUSE, “No more fun of any kind!!!”.

Batman and his costumed cohorts (of which there were few, superheroes having gone out of vogue) were essentially deballed. The Dark Knight took on a much lighter tone, and the Dynamic Duo wren’t so dynamic anymore. Batwoman and Bat-Girl were introduced, just to prove Bruce and Dick weren’t sexual deviants after all. They were even given a pet pooch, Ace the Bat-Hound, who aided in their crimefighting efforts. Stories about inter-dimensional imp Bat-Mite were played for “laughs”, and all in all it was a terrible time to be a Bat-Fan.

ENTER JULIUS SCHWARTZ 

Batman was boring, so boring DC was seriously considering cancelling it’s line of Batman comics, until editor Julius Schwartz took over stewardship in 1964. Schwartz, a literary agent who’d once represented Ray Bradbury and H.P. Lovecraft, entered the comics field as an editor in 1944. He helped usher in the Silver Age of Comics with revivals of The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Justice League of America, and now set his sights on returning Batman to his former glory. The “New Look” was initiated; gone were Batwoman, Bat-Mite, and all that silliness, and the writer/artist team of John Broome and Carmine Infantino brought back the detective aspect of Detective Comics. Batman was even given a little costume freshening, with the now-familiar yellow oval encircling the bat on his chest. Things worked out for the best, and Batman was Batman again… thank you, Julie Schwartz!

HOLY CAMP CRAZE! 

Batman first appeared onscreen in a 1943 serial starring Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft as the Dynamic Duo, battling the evil machinations of Japanese spy Dr. Daka (J. Carrol Naish). They wouldn’t return until 1949, this time with Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan taking on criminal mastermind The Wizard (Leonard Penn). Batman and Robin wouldn’t be seen in live action form until 17 years later, this time on television.

BATMAN  debuted as a mid-season replacement on ABC January 12, 1966. To say it was an immediate hit is to put it mildly. This was the age of James Bond and THE MAN FROM UNCLE, of pop art and rock’n’roll, and the series’s style reflected the era. It was camp, it was hip, and it self-knowingly winked at its audience. Every kid in America with access to a TV set was talking about the show at school the next day (including Yours Truly!). Adam West and Burt Ward were perfect as the Dynamic Duo, helping to make BATMAN not only must-see TV for the small set, but getting teens and adults all a-buzz about it (remember kids, back in the day, there were only three TV networks!).

High camp was in, and every star in Hollywood wanted to get in on the act. Special Guest Villains were a prestige gig, and stars like Cesar Romero (Joker), Burgess Meredith (Penguin), Julie Newmar (Catwoman) and the aforementioned Frank Gorshin (Riddler) were the Big 4 in Bad Guys. But there were plenty of others: Victor Buono (King Tut), Vincent Price (Egghead), David Wayne (Mad Hatter), Roddy McDowell (The Bookworm), Joan Collins (The Siren), Cliff Robertson and Dina Merrill (Shame and Calamity Jan). Mr. Freeze was played by three different actors: George Sanders , Otto Preminger, and Eli Wallach . Rock stars Chad & Jeremy and Paul Revere and the Raiders took part in the fun, and a cameo role on BATMAN became the in thing to do; Dick Clark, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Devine , Phyllis Diller, Jerry Lewis , George Raft, and Edward G. Robinson all popped up in brief bits.

Despite the initial outbreak of Batmania, the show lasted just two and a half seasons. Even bringing on Yvonne Craig as Batgirl failed to boost ratings, and the Bat-Craze of the mid-60’s came to an end just as fast as it began. But oh, what a glorious time to be a Bat-Fan it was!

THE LEGEND CONTINUES 

Batman soldiered on in comics, with memorable pairings of writer/artist teams like the previously mentioned O’Neil/Adams, Englehart/Rogers, and Bob Haney/Jim Aparo in the team-up comic The Brave and the Bold. Frank Miller’s 1986 miniseries “The Dark Knight Returns” restored Batman to his dark roots. In 1989, He returned to the screen in BATMAN, with Michael Keaton donning the cape and cowl, and Jack Nicholson a memorable Joker, and hasn’t left since (despite those two awful Joel Schumacher versions!). Batman continues to fascinate fans, whether in comic form, animated TV, live-action movies, or in his super-cool Lego incarnation. So happy 80th anniversary, Caped Crusader… here’s to 80 more! Now everybody Batusi!!:

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8 Replies to “Pulp Fiction #3: Batman At 80”

  1. Love the Adam West TV series and really enjoyed the early to mid 90’s animated show (the one with Mark Hamill as the Joker). Been buying my Dad the reprint Golden Age collections of both Batman and Superman for his last few Birthday and Father’s Day gifts. Can’t believe the Caped Crusader/Dark Knight is 80.

    Liked by 1 person

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