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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Face Front, Marvelites!: RIP Stan “The Man” Lee

I know it’s popular these days among a certain coterie of Comic Book Buffs to bash Stan Lee’s contributions to the medium in favor of artist/collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko . You’ll never find me in that crowd. Not ever. I learned to read (with the help of my dad) at the tender age of three through comics… simple stuff at first, funny books like YOGI BEAR and BEETLE BAILEY. As I progressed into the realm of superheroes, my vocabulary improved thanks to writers like Gardner Fox, John Broome, and especially Stan Lee, who took me to Asgard and Outer Space with Shakespearean-styled dialog and college-level words that made me keep a dictionary always at the ready. Screw you, Dr. Frederic Wertham!!

The Titanic Trio: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko

Stanley Martin Lieber was born December 28, 1922, the eldest son of immigrant parents (his younger sibling Larry Lieber also became a comics writer and artist of note). Young Stan was an avid reader who dreamed of one day writing The Great American Novel. He entered the comic book biz at the tender age of 17, going to work at his cousin-in-law Martin Goodman’s Timely Publications, the precursor to Marvel. According to Stan’s 1974 book ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS (which I still own, and in pretty good condition!), “I started as a staff writer, proofreader, and general all-around gofer”. Stan wrote those two-page “fillers” that every comic had to carry back then to satisfy postal regulations, and helped co-create The Destroyer and Jack Frost, neither of whom catapulted their way to the top of the superhero heap. When Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left Timely in a salary dispute, Goodman asked Stan to fill in as editor and art director for the company. The “fill in” job lasted 31 years!

Timely became Atlas in 1951, then Marvel a decade later. By this time, Stan had written for every comic genre: superhero, crime, western, romance, humor, horror, whatever the market dictated. Kirby had come back to the fold, and superheroes were selling well, especially a book by rival DC Comics called THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, featuring a team of costumed crusaders. Lee and Kirby brainstormed their way to creating a team of their own for Marvel. The “Marvel Method” was for Lee and his artists to conceptualize the story, have the artist draw the layout, then Stan (or another writer) would fill in the dialog… the opposite of most other comic publishers, who used the traditional method of having the story written first, then handing it off to the artist.

But there was nothing traditional about Lee and Kirby’s first creation – THE FANTASTIC FOUR! Sure, they were superheroes, but without secret identities. They were brilliant scientist Reed Richards, his girlfriend Susan Storm, her teenage brother Johnny Storm, and gruff hot-shot pilot Ben Grimm, who flew into space and, bombarded by cosmic rays, gained superpowers. Reed became the Plastic Man-like Mr. Fantastic, Sue The Invisible Girl, and Johnny flamed on as The Human Torch (based on Carl Burgos’s 1940’s hero). As for Ben, he turned into a rock-skinned monster (not unlike the sci-fi monsters Kirby had been drawing for Atlas) dubbed The Thing, and his bad attitude (wouldn’t you have one, if you looked like a Kirby monster!) made him a fan favorite. The FF was a sensation, with science fiction adventures that took them beyond the galaxy mixed with Lee’s soap opera dramatics, and became popular on college campuses. FF #48-50, called “The Galactus Trilogy” and introducing the world to The Silver Surfer, has been cited as one of the greatest achievements in comics history.

But if The Fantastic Four were a hit, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was a total phenomenon! Artist Steve Ditko co-created this character (some say he was sole creator, but I’m not here to debate), a puny high school nerd named Peter Parker who’s bitten by a radioactive spider and given the arachnid’s abilities. Spider-Man was a huge success, especially among the college crowd, and Peter’s teen-aged (later college-aged) angst, coupled with the dazzling action and a Rogues’ Gallery of supervillains (Doctor Octopus, The Green Goblin, Mysterio, The Vulture) made Spidey comics’ most popular character. Issues #96-98 had a subplot dealing with Peter’s friend Harry Osborn’s (unbeknownst to all the son of The Green Goblin) drug abuse, a topic verboten by the then-powerful Comics Code Authority. Lee published the trilogy anyway, without the Code’s stamp of approval.

More costumed cavorters continued: The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Dr. Strange, The X-Men, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Daredevil. Marvel Comics were the In Thing, and Stan was a shameless self-promoter in the cause of Marvel. He gave credit to his artists, who were usually nameless and faceless in other periodicals, giving them sobriquets like “Jolly” Jack Kirby, “Sturdy” Steve Ditko, “Dashing” Don Heck, “Jazzy” John Romita, and “Happy” Herb Trimpe. He wrote a column in every book (“Stan’ Soapbox”) espousing the glory of Marvel, started a fan club called The Merry Marvel Marching Society, and ballyhooed his company to whoever would listen. He lectured on college campuses, appeared on TV and radio talk shows, did magazine interviews, and brought the Gospel of Marvel outside the insular comic world into the mainstream. Did he take too much of the credit? Maybe, but ask yourself this, True Believer  – without Stan’s constant hustling way back when, would the superhero movie phenomenon of today exist? Would crowds be gathering at the local multiplex lined up for the latest Spidey, Avengers, or Guardians of the Galaxy flicks? I doubt it.

Fans always look forward to Stan’s cameos in the latest Marvel film epic. I believe there are a few still in the pipeline (though I could be wrong), but after that, it’s over. Stan is gone to join his beloved wife Joanie in comic book heaven. He never did write that Great American Novel, but what he did, the characters he helped breathe life into, will live with us forever. No, I have nothing bad to say about Stan Lee. He was a big part of my childhood, and I have nothing but reverence for “Stan The Man”. Words matter, at least to a writer like myself, and I thank you Stan for all the words I learned from you. There’s just one word I will leave you with now…

Excelsior!

Rest in Peace, Steve Ditko (1927-2018)


The world lost a true artistic visionary when Steve Ditko passed away at age 90. He had supposedly been dead two days before his body was found in his New York City apartment, an ignoble ending to one of comic book’s most unique artists, the man who co-created Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, two characters currently riding high in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That their spiritual father should leave this mortal coil so anonymously is a tragedy, and a crying shame.

Ditko’s work will never be mistaken for a Jack Kirby or Neal Adams, or any of their myriad imitators. His art was deceptively simple, yet so complicated in its execution. He’s all angles and motion, with lots of empty spaces. His was a style all his own, a style that fans loved for its singularness. Ditko, after a post-war stint in the Army, entered the comics field in 1953, working for Kirby and partner Joe Simon’s studio, where he met veteran illustrator Mort Meskin. The two worked closely together doing inks and backgrounds. He also began his long association with Charlton Comics that year, an association that would last on-and-off until the company folded in 1986.

During this period, Ditko also did work for Atlas Comics, where his surreal twist ending short stories for JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY, STRANGE TALES, and TALES TO ASTONISH became popular among readers. When Atlas morphed into Marvel and got into the burgeoning superhero business, Ditko and writer/editor Stan Lee created THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, a teenaged superhero filled with teen angst. High school student Peter Parker was a geeky science nerd before getting bit by that radioactive spider, and continued to be plagued by doubt when not in costume. Comic fans had never seen the likes of Spidey before, and he became a huge hit, especially on college campuses during the turbulent 60’s. Ditko demanded and received credit for plotting, and Lee just let him loose and filled in the word balloons. During Ditko’s 38 issue run, some of Spidey’s greatest villains were introduced: The Vulture, Dr. Octopus, The Sandman, Mysterio, and perhaps the greatest of them all, The Green Goblin.

Ditko and Lee also teamed on Dr. Strange in the pages of STRANGE TALES. The Master of the Mystic Arts dealt with the supernatural, and Ditko’s trippy, semi-psychedelic art placed the Doctor in other-dimensional battles against the likes of Dormammu and Eternity. Dr. Strange didn’t have the cultural impact of Spider-Man, but was again a hit with the college crowd, who thought Ditko must’ve been tripping on acid to produce such outre’ adventures! After a brief stint on The Hulk in TALES TO ASTONISH, Ditko left Marvel in 1966, working on Charlton’s Blue Beetle and The Question.

At DC, Ditko created The Creeper and Hawk & Dove, but didn’t stay long. In 1967, he introduced Mr. A in the pages of Wally Wood’s independent witzend. Mr. A was an anti-hero vigilante, based on Ditko’s belief in the Objectivist philosophy of writer Ayn Rand. Mr. A saw no grey area in right and wrong, and dealt harshly with the criminal element to dole out his brand of justice. Ditko would return to the character again and again over the years, doling out his own brand of Objectivist theory.

In later years, he worked for Warren, Eclipse, Pacific, and Dark Horse, returning now and then to Marvel and DC. He released all his new works through an independent publisher from 1998 on, preferring total artistic control rather than work-for-hire jobs. He refused interviews and public appearances at Comic Cons, deciding his work could do his talking. Steve Ditko was an iconoclast, an innovator, and a genius in his chosen field. He may have died alone, but his art belongs to the world.

TOMAHAWK Fights The War of Independence – in Comic Books!

There weren’t very many comic-book heroes (super or otherwise) whose adventures took place during the Revolutionary War era. In fact, I can only think of one – DC’s Tomahawk, who made his four-color debut in Star-Spangled Comics #69 back in 1947. Tomahawk fought not only the British, but Indian co-conspirators in the pages of Star-Spangled and World’s Finest, getting his own book in 1950, which had a 140 issue run until folding in 1972.

Writer Ed France Herron and artist Fred Ray produced the bulk of Tomahawk’s tales, and being a comic book there were some sci-fi elements added during the 50’s, and campy super villains in the 60’s. Tomahawk even introduced America’s first superheroine Miss Liberty, a frontier nurse by day who fought alongside Tomahawk in 22 issues. In honor of the July 4th holiday, here’s a gallery of covers chronicling the thrilling stories of Tomahawk:

 



 

Halloween Havoc! Extra: The CREEPY Artwork of Frank Frazetta

Illustrator Frank Frazetta (1923-2010) is well known among fans for his brilliant artwork in the fantasy/horror/sci-fi genres, especially his covers for the paperback reissues of CONAN THE BARBARIAN in the 60’s. Frazetta did a lot of covers for Warren Publications’ black and white horror comic line, and here is a gallery of his work from the covers of CREEPY:

Halloween Havoc! Extra: The Mind-Warping World of EC Comics!

William M. Gaines’ graphic and gruesome line of horror, crime, and science fiction comics helped turn America’s youth into mouth-foaming, homicidal Juvenile Delinquents until they met with a horror of another kind – Dr. Fredric Wertham and the U.S. Congress! These beasts effectively destroyed EC through censorship and propaganda, ending one of graphic arts’ most creative eras. But EC still lives in the hearts and minds of horror fans everywhere, so here’s gallery of ten spine-chilling covers from the Golden Age of EC Comics! Spa Fon!

 

Happy 100th Birthday, Jack Kirby!

Today marks the centennial anniversary of the undisputed King of Comics, ‘Jolly’ Jack Kirby! This creative genius was responsible for some of the best known (and loved) characters of the 20th Century, and his influence is still felt to this day. Rather than using my meager words, here’s a gallery of comic cover art featuring the amazing talent of Jack ‘King’ Kirby!

Happy birthday, King!