Batman’s Beginnings

The first superhero I remember is Batman as portrayed by Adam West in the 1960s. I loved that show and would watch it obsessively. I remember begging my parents for a toy Batmobile. I even built a toy Batcave out of a Styrofoam box insert. The show was my gateway into the world of comic books. Anytime I had enough spare change, I would buy an issue of Batman or Justice League from the corner drug store and read it over and over until it fell apart. In my high school years, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight would be one of the first series I would collect seriously. I still have my original copies. As with any canon that has been around for a long time, I love going back to the beginning to see how the story was originally conceived.

DC Comics has been pretty good about collecting omnibuses of its early material and I recently picked up Batman: The Golden Age Volume 1 in its digital format. Over the years, I’ve owned replica editions of Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27. I also have the Joker and Catwoman stories from Batman #1 collected in anthologies. That noted, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to read Batman’s first 19 appearances in Detective Comics along with the first three complete issues of Batman 1 through 3. The omnibus also includes Batman’s appearance in New York World’s Fair Comics.

Batman first appeared in May 1939 as The Bat-Man in issue 27 of Detective Comics. Right away the first panel introduces to wealthy socialite Bruce Wayne and his friend Police Commissioner Gordon discussing the Bat-Man. Gordon soon gets a call and he and Wayne rush to a murder scene. The Bat-Man makes his first appearance on page 3, cutting a figure that’s still recognizable to readers today. The pointy ears on his cowl are a little longer and stick out a bit more to the side than they ultimately would. His eyes are more slit-like and his cape seems a bit more wing-like. By the end of the issue we would learn that Bruce Wayne is the man in the bat mask. The Bat-Man’s hyphen would mostly disappear by Detective Comics #30.

The first of Batman’s famous rogue’s gallery, Dr. Hugo Strange, was introduced in Detective Comics #36. Batman’s sidekick Robin would make his first appearance in Detective Comics #38. In that issue, we’re given two pages of origin story followed by Robin fully entrenched as Batman’s sidekick. This issue was followed by Batman #1 in April 1940, which introduced us to both the Joker and Catwoman. To me, no one has yet matched Jerry Robinson’s original Joker design for sheer creepiness. I was also fascinated to see that the sexual tension between Batman and Catwoman started almost right at the very beginning.

What’s perhaps most interesting in these earliest issues is what’s missing. There’s no Batmobile. Batman just drives around in an ordinary sedan. He does have a very cool bat-shaped plane, though. There’s no Alfred the Butler and no Batcave. While Batman is very grim in the earliest issues, he starts smiling more, like he’s taking delight in bringing criminals to justice.

I’ve recently been researching the early part of the 1930s for a story I’m writing. There was a definite fascination with gangsters who were romanticized into figures who stood up to authority and were sometimes seen as Robin Hood-like figures who took money from the rich. It’s interesting to see how Batman emerged at the end of that era as the Great Depression came to an end and the United States watched World War II unfold. Instead of a Robin Hood, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson gave us a rich guy who did what he thought was right, even if he skirted the law. Batman and Catwoman not only flirt with each other but they almost flirt with the idea of becoming a Bonnie and Clyde, but ultimately, Batman does what’s right and remains on the side of justice.

Over the years, the art of comic books has become more polished as has the writing. Still, it’s fun to go back to the beginning and see how these characters started. Much of what makes them popular now was right there at the beginning, but many things we take for granted took years to develop. I’m grateful Adam West and Burt Ward invited me into this expansive world many years ago and while I follow other comic series more closely now, I still like to check in and see what Batman and Robin are up to from time to time.

5 comments on “Batman’s Beginnings

  1. As you apparently discovered Batman as a kid (as did most of us), I’m curious when you saw the comic book Batman as different from the 1960s TV version. I’m not actually sure when I did.

    One thing I’ve recently wondered about is the origin of the look of the Joker–and Batman. I’d heard of the possible inspiration for the Joker from Conrad Veidt as Gwynplaine in 1928’s *The Man Who Laughs*. But as I’ve recently been studying Victorian England, I have a suspicion the image of both Batman and the Joker might have been inspired by the cover of a penny dreadful…..

    • I think I first saw the comic book as distinctly different from the TV show somewhere around my middle school years. I remember my brother mentioning it off-hand and then I started looking closer at the comics. That noted, one interesting comment I once saw in an interview with Bob Kane was that he considers the TV show a better representation of the Batman comics of the 50s and 60s than the old Batman serials were of the comics of the 30s and 40s. A lot of silly, wild sci-fi stuff went on in the comic starting in the mid 1950s.

      I think it was that same interview where I heard Bob Kane himself cite Conrad Veidt from The Man Who Laughs as the inspiration for the Joker. Both Kane and Robinson were pretty young when the Joker was created. If I remember right, Kane was in his 20s and Robinson was literally just out of high school, so I’m not sure how many Penny Dreadfuls they would have seen, but it’s not impossible one of them saw the cover you’re thinking of and filed it away in the back of their minds and pulled up later as the Joker. That kind of thing does have a way of happening!

  2. I’ve always wondered why anyone would admire the gangsters of the 1930s. Maybe they were seen as defying the Prohibition on alcohol that so many people disliked.

    • I think that’s one aspect, but only a few gangsters were bootleggers. More to the point, I think in Depression era America, the only people who seemed to maintain wealth were those born into it, like J.P. Morgan, Andrew Mellon, or the Rockefellers. Gangsters were seen as people who had pulled themselves out of poverty to live the good life. And many of them came from groups who seemed to have all the odds stacked against them at that time. Al Capone was the son of Italian immigrants, Bonnie and Clyde were from a poor neighborhood in Dallas, John Dillinger was the son of a Midwest grocer.

      Now admittedly, the “glamor” had a lot to do with how the newspapers portrayed these characters, but still, they appeared to have found a way to live the good life in spite of their circumstances and the tough times the country was having. Banks were also seen as a villain at the time because they foreclosed on poor farms, for example. So, when gangsters robbed banks, some people felt like it was almost karmic retribution.

      Yes, there’s a dark reality. Bonnie and Clyde, for example, only held up a few banks. Mostly they robbed ma and pa grocery stores. Still, the romanticizing of the gangster image, I think, is closely related to romanticizing pirates. They’re figures who “stuck it” to what was seen as Draconian authority who stood in the way of ordinary folks succeeding.

  3. […] Blog post: Short Essay on Batman’s Beginnings by David Lee Summers (Read the comments too!) […]

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