The earliest origin tale is depicted in Batman #1, Spring, 1940.
‘The idea of Batman starts with alienation and acceptance themes. It’s the idea of a kid orphaned by crime.’ Michael E. Uslan, Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman
The privileged son of socialite parents witnesses their brutal murder in a cold dark alley. Traumatised by the horrific events the young Bruce Wayne vows vengeance and invests his wealth to hone mind, body and spirit in his quest for justice. Born out of darkness, as Batman he channels his own childhood fear in to a tempered discipline that aids him in his fight against crime.
Influenced as much by the popular culture of the time as the historic touchstones; Batman’s iconography and persona was also informed by newspaper strips showcasing pulp heroes, The Phantom, The Shadow, Dick Tracey and Doc Savage who lent their sense of high end adventure and secret identities, while classic literary characters such as Sherlock Holmes helped shape him in to ‘The World’s Greatest Detective’. The Golden Age of film presented glamour and dynamic storytelling with The Mark of Zorro (1920), and The Bat Whispers (1930) both of which reflected aristocratic heroes and double identities which left an iconic signature and symbol – other important details that helped shape Batman’s own personality. But it is within wider context and social issues of the time that have been a major, contributing influence on the birth of Batman.
Although the United States had already begun to witness a decline in their gross domestic products it was not until the infamous Wall Street Crash of October, 1929 that its severe effects began to have more visible repercussions. The result was not just a national epidemic but a major worldwide economic crash that marked the beginning of a decade of unemployment that painted a bleak picture of the 1930s. It was during these times that lost opportunities in personal advancement and loss of confidence in the system contributed to an increase in violent crime.
A US newspaper from October 29th, 1929 presents a bleak picture of the beginning of a new decade.
Numerous factors played in to the politics of Depression era America such as high consumer debt and unregulated markets where unrealistic loans by banks drew many parallels to the recent crash of our times. All these major areas spiralled into a reduction in consumerism, lowered production, a fall in confidence and, for many, an increase in fear. To escape the austerity and overwhelming sense of dread and personal anxieties that could often be projected on the younger generation, children and adults alike turned to escapism. As well as the pulp literature of the time and the heyday of cinema; the birth of the first superhero in Action Comics #1 paved the way for a fresh, new art form the Americans could take ownership of.
After the huge success of Superman in 1938, the Editors of National Publications (later DC Comics) began to see the huge potential of the superhero and set their sights on commissioning like-minded creators to develop other characters. Although there are definitive examples of how the idea for Batman was sparked there has been much contention over the years about whether the original creator, Bob Kane came up with the concept all by himself. Early collaborator and writer, Bill Finger referred to how Kane’s idea resembled more of a ‘Birdman’ in his reddish Superman tights and domino mask, which was closer to Robin in origin. With stiff, impractical wings, this precursor to the bat-wing cape was suggested by Bob Kane after he had been inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s images of the ornithopter flying machine he had seen as a child.
As with the original creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; both Bob Kane and Bill Finger were the children of Jewish immigrants who had settled in New York. Born Robert Kahn in 1915 his studies in art led to him working as a trainee animator at the Max Fleisher Studio in 1934 before entering the comic book field in 1936 where he worked freelance for editor, Jerry Iger’s comic book Wow, What a Magazine! Having known the Godfather of comic books, Will Eisner since school, Kane had now secured work the following year when Iger partnered with Eisner becoming one of the first ‘on demand’ publishers of the medium. Working exclusively through Eisner & Iger, Kane began to produce work for the three companies, Adventure Comics, Detective Comics and More Fun Comics, all of which would eventually merge in to DC Comics.
The cover of Batman #1, Spring, 1940 already depicts some significant developments. Aside from the addition of Robin the Boy Wonder, Batman displays a tinge of blue, the iconic gauntlets and a slightly less imposing appearance.
Born in 1914, Bill Finger moved from Colorado with his family to New York where he worked as a shoe salesman. His aspirations in writing led him to work for Bob Kane where he was employed as a ghost writer on numerous scripts which led to their initial meeting about ‘the Bat-Man’. Finger’s more informed approach as a writer had built on those important, iconic details that are still associated with Batman today. With Kane’s initial idea, he suggested the cowl, gauntlets and cape instead of wings and removed any distinct colour so he blended in to the night and, although certain personality traits can be linked to Bob Kane and Batman’s alter ego, the secret identity of Bruce Wayne was also created by Finger. Understanding the importance in a name and the resonance it can carry, Finger combined the Scottish patriot, Robert Bruce and another individual who would suggest a colonial reference to the American Revolution with soldier, Mad Anthony Wayne. However, due to Finger’s meticulous details, his research would often result in a slow approach to his work, which led to the Editor of the time, Whitney Ellsworth suggesting to Bob Kane that he should be replaced. During Finger’s absence, Gardner Fox contributed to the scripts that introduced some of Batman’s familiar arsenal such as his utility belt, Bat-Gyro/plane and Batarang. When Finger later returned he added the Batcave and Batmobile that have become synonymous with the world of Batman along with the introduction of Batman’s sidekick, Robin in Detective Comics #38. Although the Boy Wonder contradicted Batman’s motives and morals (essentially placing a child in danger!), Finger believed that his presence would help with a stronger narrative style and help stay in touch with the younger audience. Within the first year, Batman had become a huge, breakthrough success and, in the Spring of 1940, Batman #1 was released.
Without Bob Kane’s initial concept, it is questionable whether there would have ever been a Batman. The creative process of collaborating on a project that is suggested by and then owned by the original publishers can be one of heated debate, however, once an intellectual property becomes a multi-billion dollar franchise, subsequent creative players only help to contribute and own nothing. Bob Kane’s shrewdness and more business-like approach was in contrast to the ‘notoriously tardy’, Bill Finger and over the course of Batman’s first twenty-five years in print, it was a known fact that Bob Kane directed a number of ghost writers and ghost artists to ape his own style.
In 1965, Bob Kane discussed the creation of Batman in an open and heated letter to Batmania Editor, Biljo White where he rebukes a number articles that question whether he was soul creator. After presenting both the myth and the truth behind a number of details, Kane only suggests, ‘Bill Finger was a contributing force on Batman right from the beginning. He wrote most of the great stories and was influential in setting the style and genre other writers would emulate … I made Batman a superhero-vigilante when I first created him. Bill turned him into a scientific detective.’ During this time, Kane’s name had disappeared from the comic book. Due to having signed away ownership of the character in exchange for a mandatory byline on all Batman comics, by the mid-1960s it was the writer and artists who were credited. After artist, Neal Adams had reinvented Batman with Dennis O’Neil in the late-1960s, Adams went on to champion original creators such as Siegel and Shuster which resulted in theirs and Kane’s original byline added once again to the credits. Finger’s recognition, however, was not received in the same light. Limited acknowledgement for his writing of Batman was a result of his contract as a writer and although credited for the creator of the Riddler, he only received his page rate with no further byline. In 1989, Kane would go on to admit:
‘In those days it was like, one artist and he had his name over it – the policy of DC in the comic books was, if you can’t write it, obtain other writers, but their names would never appear on the comic book in the finished version. So Bill never asked me for it and I never volunteered – I guess my ego at that time. And I felt badly, really, when he died’
Batman #1 was also the first appearance of the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ – the Joker was credited as Jerry Robinson and Bob Kane’s design but acknowledged Bill Fingers writing contribution.
Artist Jerry Robinson, who was also was seen as a major contributor to the Batman mythos and often acknowledged as the creator of the Joker, criticised Kane for failing to share the credit and recalled Finger’s resentment, stating in a 2005 interview with The Comics Journal:
‘Bob made him more insecure, because while he slaved working on Batman, he wasn’t sharing in any of the glory or the money that Bob began to make…he should have credited Bill as co-creator, because I know; I was there. … That was one thing I would never forgive Bob for, was not to take care of Bill or recognize his vital role in the creation of Batman. As with Siegel and Shuster, it should have been the same, the same co-creator credit in the strip, writer and artist.’
Despite many of the disputes surrounding Batman it is clear that both his origins and the processes in which the original creators worked were vastly different to how comic books are produced today. Both Superman and Batman ushered in a fresh medium that had not been practiced before and therefore the legislations in place resulted in creators often losing properties, being discredited or naively signed over to their publishers. However, the origins of the character have as much resonance today as they ever have – a heroic character that fights for honour and the greater good during a time that has its own, deep-rooted issues. Batman endures because writers, artists and editors have not only continued to contribute to his world but, most importantly, have not forgotten that he functions as a man, not a superman and with that are the flaws we all carry.
To be continued in Part III: Mythology