"Charles Lee Jackson's knowledge of film history is encyclopedic" -Forrest J Ackerman.
WHAT IS it that scares you? I mean, really gives you the willies? In 1939, a young man named Bob Kane thought he knew – at least for one segment of society. "Criminals," he posited, "are a superstitious, cowardly lot...."
He had been asked by Vincent Sullivan, editor at National Comics, to create a brand-new character, a follow-up to the previous year's "Superman". The twenty-two-year old Kane produced a hero who was in many ways the antithesis of the Man of Steel: skilled instead of super-powered, garbed in a costume of black and mauve rather than bright colors, more a man of mystery than a man of action; in short, he would be a perfect lead for National's premiere book, which had been floundering without a strong cover feature. He would be the star and anchor of Detective Comics.
Bob Kane had almost literally grown up with a pencil in his hand. His father had been a printer for the New York Daily News, and had brought home for his son the funny papers, which Kane traced and copied until he could draw the characters as well as some of the original artists. He began his career at the Eisner/Iger studio, doing strips such as "Peter Pupp" for Will Eisner, his former classmate at
seventeen, Kane had gone to the Fleischer Studios, working on "Betty
Boop" cartoons. When the studio moved on to the new offices in DeWitt Clinton
High School Florida, Kane decided to stay in . New York
For his new character, Kane drew on several sources of inspiration, including The Shadow, Zorro, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, but the most important was the colorful villain from Mary Roberts Rinehart's popular novel, play, and films: The Bat!
He developed and designed "The Bat-Man" in coöperation with artist Jerry Robinson, and writer Bill Finger, another high school-mate, whom Kane called "...the unsung hero of Batman". It was Finger who, after looking over Kane's tracings of Superman with a domino mask and stiff bat-winged cape, showed the young artist a dictionary sketch of a real bat and suggested the idea of a full-head cowl for the design. He also suggested empty eye-slits to add an air of mystery to this grim figure. So successful was this device that four generations of cartoonists have made it a standard.
Finger's scripts defined all of the classic elements of the "Black Mask" school of fiction in which the Batman worked. Coupled with Kane's stylized, "Dick Tracy"-like art, this produced a classic of American popular art. Batman panels, in fact, hang in the
. Museum of Modern Art
Their first collaboration headlined Detective Comics number 27, in May of 1939. This tale, "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate", introduced Police Commissioner James Gordon and his layabout friend, millionaire Bruce Wayne, as well as Wayne's alter-ego, a mysterious vigilante, the "Bat-Man". It would be some time until the Caped Crusader would become an officially recognized law-enforcement official.
The story did not include any indication as to why the Bat-Man fought crime. That explanation waited until Detective 33 (November 1939), in "The Bat-Man Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom", where we learned that, as a child, Wayne had watched his parents gunned down by a robber, and had sworn on their graves that he would not rest as long as there were lawless men preying upon the innocent. He had trained and studied for this crusade, and found himself one evening pondering how to go about his new career. "Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts," he mused. "I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible...a..a..." Suddenly, through his open window flew "..A bat!" That was it: he would become a bat-man!
Soon, he acquired a companion, in the Boy Wonder, Robin, whose parents, highwire act "the Flying Graysons" had been killed in mid-performance by a gangster attempting extortion on a small circus. Thus young Dick Grayson went through the same nightmare as had Bruce Wayne years earlier. This fact was not lost on the Batman, who enlisted young Dick Grayson's help in wrecking the gang's plans. To disguise Grayson,
presented the boy with a colorful costume and the nom de geurre Robin (named for the robin red-breast the coloring of
which his costume mimics, and for the Earl of Huntingdon, Dick Grayson's
childhood hero). Later, Wayne
arranged for custody of the orphaned Grayson, and Robin became Batman's
permanent sidekick. Wayne
The Batman quickly rose to the heights of his medium. Only Superman and Fawcett Comics’ Captain Marvel were more popular. And he had something the other two lacked: audience identification. No boy could realistically expect to grow up to be the Man of Steel or the Big Red Cheese; but with luck and pluck, a kid could – just maybe – grow up to be the Batman – could already be Robin.
And fight those amazing villains, another important part of Batman's oeuvre. Foremost of these is the Joker, the Clown Prince of Crime, whose terrifying Pagliacci face was inspired by Gwynplaine, The Man Who Laughs in the film of the same name. The Joker has faced the Batman nearly one hundred times over the years since his introduction in Batman number one (Spring 1940). With one marginal exception, the Joker is Batman's oldest recurring foe.
Faithful Alfred, the
butler, who would become a cornerstone of the Canon, first appeared in Batman number 16, just, as shall become
apparent, in the nick of time. Wayne
During the period of Batman's rise to fame, his owners were more concerned with the shepherding of their top gun, Superman. They eventually signed a licensing deal with Republic Pictures Corporation for a "Superman" serial, though that arrangement would come to naught. But the other studios had been keenly involved in the bidding, and were on the lookout for hot properties to adapt. And National Comics had this one other superstar...