Dawn of the Dark Knight

Holy History Lesson, Batman!


Up until 1939 Superman, the man from Krypton, had been DC Comics' main draw, the comics world's first "super-star." He was soon to be joined by a second hero with no super powers at all, a creation so fascinating in his own right that he would come to share top billing with Superman for a career spanning six decades.

That man was, of course, the playboy philanthropist Bruce Wayne, or The Batman. Born in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939, Batman was the creation of Bob Kane, with Bill Finger assisting in the development. Like so many others, Kane had started his career in comics at the Eisner-Iger studio, working on his first story, Peter Pupp, for Jumbo Comics in 1938, supplementing his income with work on small fillers at DC Comics. Finger was a science fiction fan living near Kane in the Bronx, and when the two met at a party a friendship began that resulted in collaboration between the two, a strip called Rusty And His Pals for Adventure Comics.

It was apparent that Superman was the wave of the future. DC wanted more super heroes and Kane was asked by editor Whitney Ellsworth to create another one. Inspired by a 1920s movie, The Bat, Kane began producing sketches at home, basing them on the bat-like costume of the villain in the film. Finger, who had been invited over to Kane's apartment, suggested that the costume include a cowl, further suggesting that The Batman be a combination
Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage.

The new crimefighter's Detective Comics debut was a six-page story , The Case of the Chemical Syndicate. "My first story was a take-off on a Shadow story," Kane later recalled, "but I didn'twant Batman to be a Superman. I wanted Batman to be hurt. Everything he did was based on athletics, on using his astute wits, and acute observation."

Unfortunately The Batman came close to meeting his end while still in his infancy. In July of that year a pulp magazine, Black Book Detective, hit the stands featuring G. Wayman Jones' TheBlack Bat, a character very much like The Batman, down to the cape and cowl. "There was a lawsuit almost pending," recalled Finger, "It was a weird coincidence. Apparently this character had already been written and on the drawing board. Whit Ellsworth used to be a pulp writer for Better Publications. So through Ellsworth's intervention a lawsuit was averted."

Speaking of legal matters, unlike Superman's creators, Siegel and Shuster, Bob Kane had the good fortune to have an attorney relative who counseled him to retain a copyrighted interest in the new character. Good advice-- and as a result of it Kane would reap a large salary from DC for the rest of his career.

Kane and Finger continued to develop their hero. In issue 29 they had invented the gas pellet utility belt, and in issue 36 Batman gained his finned gauntlets. By the 35th issue of Detective Comics, the Caped Crusader was featured on all the covers, and by 1940 had a second comic, Batman.

Finger, who had been working on a freelance basis for Kane for the first six or so stories, was officially hired by DC Comics and given other writing assignments. Gardner Fox, fresh out of college, took on Batman scripting with a vampire tale that introduced the Batarang and the Batgyro. Batman also acquired another newcomer, Mort Weisinger (of Thrilling Wonder Stories), as his first editor.

At around this time Kane took on an art assistant, Jerry Robinson. He had met Robinson, who had been selling ice cream after school, and had been impressed with the self-decorated jacket the young artist had been wearing. Robinson started work with Kane as a letterer, working his way up to penciling backgrounds, and then inking. The seventeen-year-old had a good design sense and Batman's look became crisper and more polished.

For the first few issues of Detective Comics Batman had been portrayed as a menacing loner, a night bird of prey. Kane and Finger realized that their vigilante needed a humanizing influence, someone to talk to. That someone was Dick Grayson, the orphaned son of trapeze artists killed in an accident, or Robin, the Boy Wonder. Robin was an excellent addition to the strip if only as Watson to Batman's Holmes. He premiered in Detective Comics #38, April 1940.

For a brief period The Batman packed an automatic. Said Finger, "I goofed. I had Batman use a gun to shoot a villain, and I was called on the carpet by Whit Ellsworth. He said 'Never let us have Batman carry a gun again.' He was right."

A good hero needs good villains. Jerry Robinson came up with The Joker, the best of the worst. Robinson got his idea for the criminally psychotic clown from the image of a playing card Joker. Bill Finger wrote the first two tales of The Joker that appeared in Batman #1. He also recalled showing Kane a magazine clipping on the film The Man Who Laughs, a movie whose protagonist's mouth has been permanently twisted into a ghastly grimace. Other great villains, Two-Face, The Catwoman, The Penguin, would soon follow the garishly garbed lunatic, but to many fans The Joker would always be the most memorable. In 1988 his origin story would be retold in Batman: The Killing Joke, by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, to my mind the definitive Joker story and a classic well worth reading.

In addition to Finger and Fox, other writers turned their talents to Batman scripts. Weird Tales writer Edmond Hamilton contributed to the Batman mythos as did Otto (Adam Link) Binder, Al Schwartz, and Bill Woolfolk. Artists working on the strip included George Roussos, Dick Sprang, Hal Sherman, and Curt (Superman) Swan. Sheldon Moltoff, the man credited with giving Bill Gaines the idea for horror comics, ghosted Batman for Kane in the 1950s. In the next four decades Batman would be continually reinvented and defined by writers and artists, most notably by Frank Miller in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986).

In the fifties Kane went to Hollywood to work in animation, helping to develop the tv series Courageous Cat. In 1965 he helped with the Adam West campy Batman television show. There had already been two Batman serials, in 1942 and 1948, and there would be five Batman movies (four by Tim Burton), a novel, a radio show, numerous animated cartoons, coloring books, Batmobile kits, action figures,and virtually every known form of merchandise imaginable. Although Bob Kane and Bill Finger are no longer with us to guide their creation, it seems certain that Batman will endure well into this new century.

--Steve Stiles