‘Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible…a…a bat! That’s it! It’s an omen. I shall become a bat!’ Detective Comics #33, November 1939.
During a time when there were less distractions in the world, those children who first witnessed the birth of the superhero during the harsh climate of Depression era America gave very little thought in parting with their own pocket money. Detective Comics #27 illustrated a new character in contrast to the bright colours and optimism of Superman and instead delivered a dark, demonic figure cloaked in cape and cowl more reminiscent of gothic horror than innocent adventure. The Batman was composed with cinematic verve, a criminal clutched under his arm as he flies on bat-like wings high above the city with perfect grace and strength. As those kids clutched that comic book in their hands for the first time and studied the cover more closely, they realised that he wasn’t flying at all, yet merely swooping on a rope as would any mortal man attempt to traverse the rooftops. Here was a primal, mysterious new character hinted at through his own concealed eyes – nothing more than knife cuts that helped convey an air of menace and, perhaps, secrets that any good Detective story thrived on.
It is questionable in today’s society if criminals are ‘superstitious’ and that modern audiences would accept a hero whose reason behind dressing up as a bat was forged by an omen. There is, however, the gothic undertone that harkens back to classic American literature, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven and therefore the details surrounding his origin bore strong, cultural significance. In subsequent stories, certain details have been altered due to changes in society and audience perception. But what hasn’t changed since Batman’s origin unveiled in both Detective Comics #33 and Batman #1; is his humanity. Omens have been replaced with a more psychological approach that has helped to develop more intention and reasoning behind the actions of one man who wears the mantle of a bat to avenge the murder of his socialite parents.
The Bat-Man of Gotham, Caped Crusader, Dark Knight, The World’s Greatest Detective – Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s iconic creation of American pop culture has embedded himself in the hearts and minds of generations of children and adults alike for the past 75 years. Much more than a product of his time, the cultural phenomenon of Batman has been shaped by a rich tapestry of historical and contemporary references – a character that has grown throughout the stories and world he inhabits; transcending his medium and gaining the ultimate accolade of global success and universal appeal.
First and foremost it is the journey of alter ego, Bruce Wayne that has helped display the importance of his humanity and a key aspect that distinguishes him from other popular characters within his genre. Where the patriotic Superman lends himself more to classic myth and religious archetypes – a godlike figure that some demographics struggle relating to – Batman represents a more introverted and psychological aspect of the superhero that helps define his nature and make him more accessible. While Clark Kent had no recollection or memory of his parents’ death and was nurtured by his humble, adoptive family, Bruce Wayne witnessed, first hand, the violent death of his wealthy parents and was left in the soul care of his Butler. This defining moment could be seen as the night Bruce Wayne also died, leaving a deeply disturbed individual who has sort solace in avenging his Mother and Father’s death. It is this demon of vengeance that contributes to his own psychopathic tendencies; a vigilante born out of a traumatic experience that has set him on a path of self-discovery and discipline.
Despite his brooding and deeply troubled backstory, it is these very details that have contributed to the myth and legacy of Batman. At the heart of the character he is simply a man and the fact that he relies only on his wit and gadgets is his everlasting appeal – many wish they were Batman while others simply are. His humanity can also be defined by how he has dealt with and continues to deal with his own psychosis. Despite being labelled an outlaw in true American mythological fashion, he attempts to justify his actions by saving the lives of others and following a strict code – that he will never, under any circumstances, kill. But, when one picks up the mask, others follow. Whether it is his allies or Rogues Gallery of villains, Batman sets precedence in his actions and, in some way, is responsible for their creation – the high price a man pays for the personification of vengeance.
It is in this study of Batman that the roots of the character will be explored in order to understand what has made him such an enduring figure – how the icon of the bat has evolved in to an identifiable message that goes beyond the potent imagery of fear and, instead, represents the hero and justice in an otherwise imperfect society.