July 26, 2014

THE HISTORY OF BATMAN



            This year, Batman celebrates his 75th anniversary. But, just who is Batman?




Batman through the decades.
            Millionaire Bruce Wayne was only eight when he watched his parents, Martha and Thomas, murdered in front of him. That event led to his developing a strong taste for justice, and proceeded to spend his formative years traveling around the world to learn everything he could from various masters. Returning to the fictional Gotham City, he assumed the identity of Batman with the help of his faithful family butler Alfred Pennyworth. By day, Bruce is the irresponsible playboy who heads up Wayne Enterprises, but by night he becomes the dark knight detective.

Bob Kane's original concept sketch for Batman.
With the success of Superman in 1938, National Publications (the precursor to DC Comics) was looking for their next hit and began requesting more superheroes for their books. In 1939, Bob Kane took a shot by designing a character he called “Batman.” The character resembled Superman, but wore red tights with boots, had a domino mask and stiff bat-like wings on his back inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch of an ornithopterflying machine.

Batman's revised costume.
            Kane showed the sketches to one of the associates at his studio, Bill Finger. Finger, influenced by pulp heroes like The Phantom, offered several suggestions on how to punch up the design including a cowl with thin eye slits instead of a mask, a cape instead of wings, adding gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints, and making the overall costume darker and more menacing.

The origin of Batman.
            Batman’s creation was further influenced by the current pop culture they both enjoyed, as well as some bits of history. Finger devised Batman’s real name, taking inspiration from Robert the Bruce and Mad Anthony Wayne, in order to create a name that would suggest colonialism. The dual identity angle was inspired by the films The Mark of Zorro and The Bat Whispers. Batman’s detective nature came from the likes of Doc Savage, The Shadow, Dick Tracy and Sherlock Holmes.

Detective Comics #27.
            Batman premiered in 1939’s Detective Comics #27, although slightly different than we know him today. Heavily influenced by the pulps, Batman had no qualms or remorse over killing and maiming criminals. Proving successful, Batman continued on as a feature in Detective and over the next ten issues his more common equipment, vehicles and origin were established. 

Robin, the boy wonder.
Deciding Batman needed a “Watson” to converse with during mysteries, as well as needing to make the character lighter, more sympathetic and to appeal to younger readers, Finger suggested giving Batman a young sidekick. Detective #38 introduced Batman’s new teen sidekick Dick Grayson, aka Robin, the Boy Wonder. Robin was a circus acrobat with his family when they were killed by gangster Tony Zucco’s men as a warning against the circus not paying him protection money. Feeling a kinship with the boy, Bruce takes Dick on as his ward and trains him to become his partner. Jerry Robinson, who also worked on the stories with Kane and Finger, designed Robin’s costume after TheAdventures of Robin Hood, which was a favorite of his, and also inspired the name. However, an alternate history for the name exists that suggested that it was actually inspired by the bird. Sales on the book doubled, and suddenly every superhero was gaining a kid sidekick.

Even Batman and Robin read Batman. Batman #8.
By 1940, Batman’s popularity led to his gaining a co-starring role with Superman in World’sBest Comics (later World’s Finest Comics) and his own solo title, Batman, which is where many of his well-known rogues gallery was introduced, as well as many more of the familiar elements of the character and his world that persist today. It was also at this point that editor Whitney Ellsworth declared that Batman could no longer kill or use a gun. In 1943, Batman expanded out into a syndicated newspaper comicstrip and gained his first adaptation into film with the 15-part Batman serial starring Lewis Wilson. The serial led to Batman’s primary exposure to an audience that had never picked up a comic before. In 1945, Batman began making appearances on The Adventures of Superman radio show when Superman’s actor Bud Collyer needed time off. A second serial, Batman and Robin, was produced in 1949, this time starring Robert Lowery.

Dr. Fredric Wertham examining one of the offending comics.
In the 1950s, after the comic book industry came under fire from Dr. Fredric Wertham’s book Seductionof the Innocent, many superhero publications ceased. Batman was amongst the few that continued, but as the 50s went on the stories in the book began to take a more science-fiction approach in order to mimic the success of other DC characters in the genre. Batman also was a founding member of the JusticeLeague of America in 1960. By 1964, sales on Batman’s titles fell drastically and DC had planned to kill him off. Editor Julius Schwartz was put in charge of the Bat-books and oversaw drastic changes to them. The stories returned to the detective format, the Batmobile was redesigned, Batman’s chest insignia was given the yellow oval that would define it for decades, and all elements of the 50s sci-fi were retired. Batman’s butler Alfred was also briefly killed off and a new character, Aunt Harriet, introduced.

Batman and Robin demonstrating how physically fit they are.
It wasn’t until 1966 when the sales on Bat-books really changed. Starring Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin, Batman debuted on ABC bringing an element of camp to the Batman mythos. The show proved immensely popular and elements from it were incorporated into the comics, such as the campy elements and the character of Batgirl. Alfred was also returned to life, and Batman received a stay of execution from DC. But, not to be outdone, CBS sought to counter ABC’s new programming juggernaut by licensing Batman themselves and using him to dominate Saturday mornings.

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