Ask Chris #189: Batman’s 75th Anniversary
Q: What does Batman’s 75th Anniversary mean to you? — Caleb, via e-mail
A: That’s a tough question. I mean, as you have probably noticed if you’ve spent more than five or six seconds browsing ComicsAlliance, I’ve written about Batman before. I’ve written about Batman before today. That’s how much it happens. But to be honest, I don’t really think of things in terms of big anniversaries as much as I think of them as slow, ongoing processes that see those characters change. It’s the long-term view that I like, where you take a look back and see what stays consistent to form the core of the character, rather than trying to fit it all in at once.
So really, I guess that’s as good a place to go with this as any. Batman’s 75th Anniversary (with his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939) marks three quarters of a century of Batman’s evolution as a character, from those pretty sketchy beginnings all the way to today, refining what works best to make the character. And really, it’s that evolution, compressed into 75 years by hundreds of creators and corporate interests working to refine the character, is pretty fascinating to think about.
When you get right down to it, Batman began as a synthesis. Not just a synthesis of Bob Kane’s terrible original idea for a dude in red pajamas swooping around on wings and Bill Finger’s ideas for literally everything else, but as a synthesis of everything else that was going on in pop culture at the time. I’ve written before about how Batman in his original form is a pretty direct descendent — and, if we’re not going to be all that charitable about it, kind of a total rip-off — of the Shadow, and if you look back, I think that’s a connection that holds up. The Shadow was at the height of his pulp and radio popularity, doing big business by informing listeners every week that about the bitter fruit borne by the weed of crime, and you can see how that popularity informed the early development of Batman. The millionaire alter-ego, the dry and brutal early stories, the guns that were in place before they started to distinguish Bruce Wayne from Lamont Cranston by giving him a different origin. Even the Yellow Peril villains and the strange adventures fighting vampires one moment and mobsters the next, that’s all stuff lifted directly from the Shadow and dropped onto the comics page.
The difference is that Bill Finger and Kane (or, more appropriately, whomever was ghosting for Kane that day) were filtering those ideas out of the pulps and into an entirely new medium and an entirely new genre: the superhero.
See, despite the occasional attempt to take him back to his pulpy roots, Batman was never actually a pulp character. He was a pulp-inspired superhero, and while that might seem like nitpicking over semantics, it makes a lot of difference. The creators of the Golden Age were in this unique position of having to figure out what the rules of a medium and the conventions of a genre were while they were making the stories that they were trying to sell to readers. It’s what makes Golden Age books seem so weird. They read like the people behind them had no idea what comic book stories are supposed to be, largely because they didn’t. They had no idea what they were doing, which is why you get stories like Rockman, the Underground Super Agent, the king of a subterranean city who digs through to the surface so he can fight Nazis, or Marvex, the Super Robot, who has to keep informing human women that he can never love him because he is Marvex, a Super Robot, proving his point by pulling his clothes off to reveal his metal chest. They are weird.
But if you were paying attention in that last paragraph, the one about Super Agents and Super Robots, you might have already guessed where a lot of them were looking for guidance: Action Comics and Superman. As the pioneering figure of the genre (who was himself informed by pulp characters like Doc Savage and Philip Wylie’s Gladiator), Superman inspired a bunch of imitators that were trying to recapture the lightning in a bottle. Those stories, from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (and other creators that included, not coincidentally, Bill Finger), were the foundation of the rules that the entire genre was built on, from storytelling conventions to the way characters were supposed to look. Superheroes having a code against killing, for instance, is something that I’d argue stems directly from Superman, because his creators realized early on that a super-powered killer, even if justified, would be a terrifying bully rather than an inspirational source of hope. The codified establishment of a secret identity. I mean, the very idea of superheroes wearing capes, and that we still refer to “cape comics” to this day as a shorthand for a genre, even though they haven’t been a fashionable part of the design since around 1954. That all comes from those early rules.
Incidentally, it’s worth noting that even more important than being first is the fact that Superman was a massive success in terms of sales, too. It’s no surprise that people — people like Bob Kane — wanted the money that came along with the emerging superhero genre, so they hewed close to the ideas that had already been established. It’s one of the reasons that the Silver Age came to be dominated by the aesthetic that you think of when you hear those words — you know, massively overpowered heroes, silly plots, gorillas — because it all stems from Otto Binder and Captain Marvel Adventures, which was outselling Superman in the ’40s before the lawsuit cut it off at the pass.
My point is, that’s the environment for which Batman was created, the influences that shaped him and gave us our starting point: A synthesis of the darker pulp adventure hero with the shiny new comic book superhero. He’s mutable from day one, changing and evolving and refining over the years, and you can see it start to happen almost immediately, because the first big evolution comes only five issues after the origin locks Batman into place as his own character: The debut of Robin.
I’ve written about Robin pretty extensively in the past so I’ll try to keep this short, but again, it’s one of those moments where you can see the conventions and tropes of a genre becoming written in stone as you’re reading. Sidekicks had existed before, of course, from Iolaus to Dr. Watson, but Robin was a whole new kind of sidekick that gave rise to a hundred imitators. Bucky, Kid Flash, Stuff the Chinatown Kid, Wing, Sandy the Golden Boy — the list goes on. And oddly enough, it’s where you can see Batman and Superman separate as the defining leaders of the genre. Even if Jimmy Olsen was meant to function in a similar sort of role, Superman never had a sidekick in the same way that Batman did.
It’s a really interesting move, because it changes not just the direction of the genre, but the direction of the character himself. Things start to move and shift to accommodate something that’s popular and lucrative that readers are demanding, so we see Batman shifting even further from the dark gunman of the Shadow and towards the character that we know today, the one built, at his heart, around ideas of family.
The years that follow see a host of really interesting slow changes that build on each other, making this chain that leads you right until today, with outside forces and internal development all forcing Batman to evolve and change. There are so many stories, so many influences and so many subtle changes and refinements that we’d be here all day if we tried to cover them all, so let’s follow one particular chain for a few years and see where it leads, shall we?
The comics code and its prohibitions against capital-C Crime comics (of which Detective Comics, by its very nature, certainly was) make it more difficult to show the gun-toting mobsters that had been Batman’s primary opponents through the ’40s, so the result is the weird “sci-fi Batman” era of the ’50s, full of alien worlds and rainbow monsters.
Those stories get increasingly bizarre, paving the way for the kind of bizarre crimes of the “Arch-Criminal” era of the ’60s. Those stories saw a focus on elaborate deathtraps, byzantine criminal plots and obsessive nemeses for the Caped Crusader (and the Boy Wonder) to foil, and we all know where that leads: Batman on ABC-TV as a massive pop-cultural force and 50 years of “Biff! Pow!” headlines whenever comics make the news.
Now, it’s easy to see what happens next as a simple backlash to the ’50s and ’60s, but things like this rarely just move backwards. Batman becomes slightly darker as creators push him in a more serious direction to shake off the stigma of the “silly” TV show, sure, but there’s also another outside influence shaping how he changes: James Bond.
There’s been a connection between those two franchises ever since they both hit a critical mass of popularity in the ’60s. In a way, they mirror each other really closely, each focused on the idea of a highly trained but otherwise ordinary man who is, in reality, an unstoppable and indestructible ultra-competent crusader hell-bent on carrying on a mission with the aid of assorted fantastical gadgetry and occasional scoldings from an older Englishman. And really, if you doubt that they’re still influencing each other to this very day, just go watch The Dark Knight and Skyfall back to back and see if you notice any similarities.
(Hint: You will notice the entire movie.)
So building on that connection, with Bond as the sort of blueprint for the contemporary adventure hero in the same way that the Shadow was the blueprint in the ’40s, you see Batman reshaped into more of a worldwide crimefighter, an adventurer on the global scale. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’s Ra’s al-Ghul stories are essentially just Bond movies with the martini and Walther swapped out for a cowl and a batarang. They even dispense with the pretense of a secret identity, and throw in an alluring femme fatale just to complete the circle.
And it continues from there on through to today, as pop culture evolves and Batman evolves right along with it to reflect the times. Bits and pieces of the past are discarded and retrieved, ignored and restored, examined and altered as new pieces are added to fill out parts of the puzzle and make those things mean something different. You can see it happening in the move away from Year One in recent years, a move that doesn’t try to deny the importance of that story, but seeks to recontextualize it (like Morrison and Daniel in Batman) and build on what it already established (like what’s going on right now in Zero Year). It’s a process that’s been going on now for 75 years, and the result is a character with a rare combination of a solid core that can still adapt to new stories and situations as time goes on. It’s why Batman’s my favorite character, and why I think about him constantly.
And hopefully, the next 75 years will bring out even more.