DC FLASHBACK: Batman I

Tue, December 9th, 2008 at 12:00pm PST | Updated: December 9th, 2008 at 12:47pm

Comic Books
Brian K. Eason, Guest Contributor
6

Batman first appeared in 1939's "Detective Comics" #27

With the conclusion of the "Batman R.I.P." storyline by Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel, DC Comics has, apparently, left us a world without a Batman. Who will be the new Batman – of whether a new Batman will even be selected -- remains to be seen. What is clear is that fans have and are continuing to witness a major turning point in Batman’s 70-year history; a history that some readers may be largely unaware of. In this first installment of a multi-part feature, CBR spotlights the early days of the Batman.

The Batman made his first appearance as a six-page lead feature in the 27th issue of the monthly comics anthology, "Detective Comics," in May 1939. Though credited as the creation of comic book artist Bob Kane, the true story of Batman’s creation is one of the longest-running controversies in the American comics industry. What’s generally accepted is that while Bob Kane was the artist behind Batman, the writer was a man named Bill Finger. Kane refuted Finger's involvement with the creation of Batman for decades.

In "The Steranko History of Comics" vol.1, Bill Finger was quoted as saying:

[Bob Kane] had an idea for a character called “Batman,” and he'd like me to see the drawings. I went over to Kane's, and he had drawn a character who looked very much like Superman with kind of ... reddish tights, I believe, with boots ... no gloves, no gauntlets ... with a small domino mask, swinging on a rope. He had two stiff wings that were sticking out, looking like bat wings. And under it was a big sign ... BATMAN.

Finger suggested the domino mask be replaced with a cowl, the wings replaced with a cape, that gloves be added, and that the red elements be removed from the costume altogether.

The 1989 book "Batman And Me,” by Bob Kane and Tom Andrae, included remarks from Finger that detailed the origins of Batman's secret identity, Bruce Wayne:

Bruce Wayne's first name came from Robert Bruce, the Scottish patriot. 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 Mad Anthony Wayne.
Page from "Detective Comics" #27

Bob Kane finally confirmed Bill Finger's contributions in the same autobiography, fifteen years after Finger’s death:

One day I called Bill and said, “I have a new character called the Bat-Man and I've made some crude, elementary sketches I'd like you to look at.” He came over and I showed him the drawings. At the time, I only had a small domino mask, like the one Robin later wore, on Batman's face. Bill said, “Why not make him look more like a bat and put a hood on him, and take the eyeballs out and just put slits for eyes to make him look more mysterious?” At this point, the Bat-Man wore a red union suit; the wings, trunks, and mask were black. I thought that red and black would be a good combination. Bill said that the costume was too bright “'Color it dark gray to make it look more ominous.” The cape looked like two stiff bat wings attached to his arms. As Bill and I talked, we realized that these wings would get cumbersome when Bat-Man was in action, and changed them into a cape, scalloped to look like bat wings when he was fighting or swinging down on a rope. Also, he didn't have any gloves on, and we added them so that he wouldn't leave fingerprints.

Jerry Robinson, ghost artist for Kane, acknowledged creator of The Joker and one of Bob Kane's harshest critics in the decades following Batman’s debut, was interviewed by Gary Groth in The Comics Journal in issue 271 (October 2005). In that interview, Robinson asserted that Finger had been the primary author of the Batman stories from the outset:

I felt that I was part of a team. Unfortunately Bob did not feel that way, most of all with Bill. He should have credited Bill as co-creator, because I know; I was there. The Joker was my creation, and Bill wrote the first Joker story from my concept. Bill created all of the other characters -- Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman. He was very innovative. The slogans -- the Dynamic Duo and Gotham City -- it was all Bill Finger.

Additionally:

[Bob Kane and Bill Finger] co-created the feature and Bill wrote it. Bill also contributed to the visual concepts and Batman's persona; also the origin stories of Batman and Robin.
Pages from "Detective Comics" #33, the first Batman origin story

When Gary Groth published the "Comic Book Interview Super Special: Batman" in 1989, in anticipation of the Batman movie, Bob Kane seemed to soften on the issue:

"...the policy of DC in the comic books was, if you can't write it, obtain other writers, but their names would never appear on the comic book in the finished version. So Bill never asked me for [the byline] and I never volunteered — I guess my ego at that time. And I felt badly, really, when he died.

Ownership of the Batman passed from Bob Kane to National Periodical Publications (the company that would become DC Comics) in exchange for a byline on every story. From that point until the 1960s, when creative teams began to be credited, Bob Kane's name appeared on the title page of each Batman story, no matter what his level of involvement. In the 1970s, Kane (along with other Golden Age creators) began to receive "Created by" credits alongside the existing creative teams.

At present, Bob Kane remains the sole credited creator of the Batman, although Finger’s contributions continue to be acknowledged by the creative community.

Credits aside, Kane and Finger had created exactly what they had set out to: a hit. At first, the Batman was written in the style of such pulp fiction heroes as Doc Savage and The Shadow. Batman carried a gun and would kill or maim criminals. Indeed, the Dark Knight was truly dark in the beginning. But by "Detective Comics" #29 (July 1939), the hero's famed utility belt was introduced, and in "Detective Comics" #31 (September 1939), Batman piloted his first bat-vehicle, the Bat-Gyro. With the first appearance of his colorful sidekick, Robin, in "Detective Comics" #38 (April 1940), Batman left most of his pulp elements behind and began to become a traditional comic book superhero.

1940's "Batman" #1 introduced The Joker and Catwoman

Kane and Finger had achieved success in short order, and while Batman continued as the lead feature in "Detective Comics," he also received his own solo title with "Batman" #1 (Spring 1940). The first issue of "Batman" marked the first appearance of The Joker and Catwoman, and was the last time Batman would regularly use a gun.

When Bob Kane was first approached with creating a new character, National had tasked him with creating competition for their most popular character, Superman. That was the beginning of a rivalry that continues to this day. The Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel were featured in "World's Best Comics" #1 (Fall 1940), although in separate stories. The title would later be changed to "World's Finest Comics" and later to just "World’s Finest." The pair would first team-up in the pages of "World's Finest" #71 (July- August 1954), and Superman and Batman starred together until the book’s cancellation with issue #323 in 1986.

While Superman made it to cartoons first in 1941, Batman was the first to make it to live action. The first big-screen foray for the Dark Knight was Lambert Hillyer's April 1943 "Batman" serial starring Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin. The series had 15 chapters, each with a runtime of about 18 minutes. Batman and Robin were portrayed as agents of the U.S. government, as the censors would not allow a vigilante to be portrayed heroically. As the serial was made during the height of World War II, the villain of the piece, Prince Daka, was a Japanese spymaster bent on turning American scientists into zombies.

Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft were the first actors to portray Batman and Robin

The filmed serials introduced a number of concepts that remain with us today, such as Bruce Wayne's butler, Alfred, who was featured in the comics the same month ("Batman" #16 (April-May 1943). Originally, Alfred was portly and clean-shaven, but as William Austin was thin with a mustache, the character in the comics was altered to match his appearance. The live-action feature was also the first appearance of the Batcave (originally the Bat's Cave), with its secret entrance behind a grandfather clock in Wayne Mannor. A second 15-chapter serial, "Batman and Robin,” was released in 1949, and this one featured appearances by Batman regulars Vicky Vale and Police Commissioner Jim Gordon.

As the 1940s came to an end, the Batman was one of the cornerstones of DC Comics' publishing empire. Editorial changes followed that transformed Batman from a heroic vigilante into a light-hearted character. Stories began to focus more on the fantastical, and even Batman's homicidal foes began to become little more than costumed annoyances. Changes would come in the 1950s that would alter the face of the American comic book industry, and the Batman, despite his popularity, was directly in the crosshairs of an attack on the four-color media.

Join CBR for the next installment of DC FLASHBACK: BATMAN and learn what happened when Batman faced Dr. Fredric Wertham and the "Seduction of the Innocent.”

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TAGS:  batman, dc flashback, bob kane, bill finger, jerry robinson

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