Final Essay for my History of Comics
Evolution of The Bat
Batman was a character created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in early 1939 to meet the growing demand for more ‘superhero’ comics by then National Publications (which would later become DC Comics). Kane’s original drawing for “the Bat-Man” wore reddish tights, boots, no gloves or gauntlets and a domino mask.
Finger suggested changing the domino mask to a cowl and came up with the name of the character’s alter ego – Bruce Wayne. Kane and Finger drew on existing characterizations of aristocratic heroes with a double identity in sources like the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro. They also drew inspiration from contemporary pulp sleuths like Doc Savage, The Shadow and Sherlock Holmes. In his 1989 autobiography Bob Kane talked about Bill Finger’s contribution to the creation of the Batman:
“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 fing
The first Batman story was called The Case of the Chemical Syndicate and was published in Detective Comics #27, May 1939 and featured a remorseless and vengeful Batman killing and maiming criminals. According to Bill Finger this characterizations was driven by the influence of the pulp comics popular at the time. Continuing in 1939 many elements of the Batman mythos were established – the Utility Belt (Detective Comics #29), Batarang and Batplane (Detective Comics #31). The origin of Batman was written in Detective Comics #33 by Bill Finger and depicts a young Bruce Wayne after seeing his parents gunned down by a mugger vowing “by the spirits of my parents [I will] avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”
1940 saw Batman’s introduction as a solo title and it saw a softening of the pulp characterization, primarily with the introduction of a kid sidekick, Robin. Robin was introduced at the suggestion of Bill Finger as a “Watson” type character with whom Batman could converse. Additionally Batman #1 introduced two nemeses in Catwoman and The Joker, the issue also included a storyline in which Batman shoots and kills some giants. That story prompted then editor Whitney Ellsworth to decree that in future Batman would no longer kill or use a gun. This along with DC Comics post-World War II editorial direction removed the “bleak and menacing world” of the early strips and changed the portrayal to a more respectable citizen and father figure that inhabited a “bright and colorful” environment.
From Batman’s first appearance in 1939 until 1943, Batman was written almost exclusively by Bill Finger, illustrated by Bob Kane and inked by Sheldon Moldoff. In 1941 editor Whitney Ellsworth, anticipating Kane’s inevitable draft, assigned Dick Sprang to work on Batman stories, which DC then inventoried to safeguard against delays. Following the war Sprang along with Sheldon Moldoff and Win Mortimer became ghost artists in the Kane’s style under his supervision.
In 1964 with DC was, according to Bob Kane, “planning to kill Batman off altogether.”
Julius Schwartz took over the flagging Batman titles. Bogged down by a number of characters and themes that had been introduced in the Silver Age comics like Bat-Mite and Ace the Bathound. Schwartz planned to bring Batman back to more detective oriented stories and brought in Carmine Infantino to help with the overhaul. The ‘New Look’ Batman premiered in Detective Comics #327 (May 1964) with Infantino redesigning the Batmobile and modifying the costume to include a yellow oval behind the insignia. Schwartz, was asked to, and introduced some of the camp and characters from the popular television series. However in 1968 the camp aspect had worn thin and the show was cancelled once again causing flagging sales of the comic. Schwartz later noted: “When the television show was a success, I was asked to be campy, and of course when the show faded, so did the comic books.”
In Detective Comics #395 (January) Dennis O’ Neil and Neal Adams came onboard and attempted to according to O’Neil “simply to take it back to where it started. I went to the DC library and read some of the early stories. I tried to get a sense of what Kane and Finger were after.”
This return to ‘roots’ would form the building blocks for the iconic characterizations that have cemented the Batman’s popularity. According to comic historian Daniels “O’Neil’s interpretation of Batman as a vengeful obsessive-compulsive, which he modestly describes as a return to the roots, was actually an act of creative imagination that has influenced every subsequent version of the Dark Knight.”
With this building block the next major benchmark in cementing the resurgence of Batman was Frank Miller’s limited series The Dark Night Returns (February – June 1986) which covers the story of a 55-year old Batman coming out of retirement. This story reinvigorated interest in the character and was financial success. 1986 was also the year Dennis O’Neil took over as editor for all Batman titles. Under O’Neil’s stewardship, Batman #400-407 (February–May 1987), the ‘Year One’ storyline written by Frank Miller and art by David Mazzucchelli, recounts the beginning of both Batman and Jim Gordon’s careers. Batman: Year One has been ranked number one on IGN Comics list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels stating “no other book before or since has quite captured the realism, the grit and the humanity of Gordon and Batman so perfectly.”
Batman has been one of the enduring characters in comic for almost 80 years. He is a cultural icon that has managed to endure and evolve. Even though the mythos has remained the same great writing, particularly in the last 25 years, has managed to keep the character fresh and readers interested. There have been slight changes to the costume, a location change and body hair change in the 70s but overall this has been consistently the story of a human character trying bring justice to a dark place.