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05 October, 2014

Darkest Knight: Batman Turns 75

In the early spring of 1939, National Publications, publisher of such popular Comic Book titles as Adventure, Action, More Fun, and the publisher’s flagship title (from which it would someday take its corporate name), Detective Comics, had a rather happy problem on its hands.  The first costumed superhero, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman, had debuted a year before in the premiere issue of Action Comics, and the success enjoyed by the last son of Krypton meant the company was looking to strike four-color gold again.  They issued a notice to their in-house writers and artists—come up with ideas for the next costumed “mystery-man.” 
First appearance of Batman, Detective Comics 27, May 1939
Bob Kane, an artist then working on several strips for National, including “Oscar the Gumshoe,” appearing in issues of Detective, had a hero concept that he had roughed out, a cross between matinee idol Douglas Fairbanks and a mix of such literary figures as the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro.  His original sketch of the character featured a masked man, in a red and blue costume, without gloves, and with rigid bat wings.  He showed the sketch to Bill Finger, a colleague of his who was the ghostwriter for some of Kane’s strips.  Finger made a couple of suggestions … a cowl instead of a mask, gloves to avoid fingerprints, ditch the red in favor of dark blues and grays to blend into the darkness, and a cape with scallops instead of the batwings. 
With Finger writing the story, and Kane’s art, National had their, “next big thing,” and the Bat-Man debuted in the May 1939 issue of Detective Comics, number 27, in “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.”  Six pages, fifty-five panels of art and text, and from that would emerge what is arguably the greatest superhero creation ever, second only to Superman.  This year, Batman turns seventy-five, and both DC Comics and its fans have been celebrating enthusiastically.
Batman, in his earliest incarnation, was a vigilante, wanted by the law even as he battled the criminals they couldn't catch.  While millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne hob-nobbed with Gotham City’s police commissioner Gordon, his alter ego, Batman, used gossip from Gordon as intelligence in his war on crime.  These early adventures of the Caped Crusader are some of the best in the Batman’s canon, with Batman at his most basic, without the gadgets and devices that would come later.  There was no Batmobile; Batman arrived on the scene in Wayne’s powerful roadster.  There was no bat-signal or bat-phone; no batcave, Alfred, or even Robin.  There was just Batman, and his unrelenting, unceasing war against the evil that robbed him of his parents and his childhood.
Soon, he would be joined in his crusade by a young boy who, like Bruce Wayne twenty years before, watched the murder of his parents.  Dick Grayson would become Bruce Wayne’s ward, and, as Robin, the Boy Wonder, fight alongside his mentor against the criminals of Gotham City.  The character would evolve throughout the forties and fifties, from the caped vigilante of his early adventures, to a globetrotting law enforcement agent, to a superhero who regularly traveled to both other worlds and other times.  By the early 1960s, Batman had become a campy caricature of himself, more often battling aliens or medieval monsters than common criminals.
It was during this period that his ‘rogue’s gallery’ was at its peak.  These costumed supervillains, each with their own trademarked style and shtick, became one of the most recognizable features of Batman’s comic book adventures, and an integral part of the 1960s television series.  The Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face, Clayface … and dozens more, including the two who would become the most important, and enduring, members of that gallery, the Catwoman and the Joker.
Selina Kyle, aka the Catwoman, first appeared in Batman 1, spring 1940.  At first, she was a society jewel thief who called herself the Cat, robbing the wealthy passengers on an ocean liner.  Soon however, she had changed her name, and by her third appearance had become the first costumed villainess in comic book history.  She was unique in her relationship with the Caped Crusader, a thief but never a killer; a criminal who was Batman’s most serious romantic interest.
The Joker also made his debut in Batman 1, and with his sadistic sense of humor, psychopathic eagerness to kill, and insane gimmicks, he rapidly became Batman’s most persistent, and dangerous, foe.  Though he too became campier into the 1950s and ‘60s, beginning in 1956 there was a transformation in the DC creative offices that would eventually see a renaissance in the character of Batman, and in his world.
When DC’s Silver age began in the 1950’s (for Batman, it began with Detective Comics 236, October, 1956), the Golden age superheroes—Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern—were reinvented for contemporary readers.  Then Editor Julius Schwartz conceived of one of the defining concepts of comic book history, the DC Multiverse.
The Golden age superheroes were revealed to have existed in a parallel universe, on an Earth now known as Earth-2.  Their modern incarnations lived on Earth-1.  We, the fans and readers, exist on Earth-Prime.  And these were only three of the universes available for the writers and artists at DC to play with.  Eventually, we would see heroes from Earth-3, Earth-S (the Captain Marvel family of superheroes, formerly published by Fawcett and acquired by DC in the ‘70s), and Earth-X (home to the Freedom Fighters, likewise a recent acquisition of DC’s, who were a group of heroes originally published by Quality).
While initially there was little difference between the Golden and Silver Age versions of DC’s big three—Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, as time passed the divergence became greater and greater.  In the late 1960s, the popularity of the TV series had boosted sales of Batman’s titles to near-record levels, with the circulation of Detective Comics approaching 900,000 copies a month.  Elements from the series began to infiltrate the ‘real world’ of the comic books, most notably the high camp of the series.  Though the books had been bordering on silly for more than twenty years, the publisher pushed Schwartz to bring the books more in line with the series—and the long time fans weren’t pleased at the results.
Another change that’s usually, but incorrectly, credited to the television show is the introduction of Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara as the new Batgirl.  While Yvonne Craig’s debut as Barbara Gordon on the third season premiere got more attention, the character was actually introduced in Detective Comics 359, January, 1967—more than ten months prior to her TV debut.
When the series was cancelled after the 1967-68 season ended, the circulation numbers, booming due to the exposure of the series, fell off sharply.  Editorially, the decision was made to make the character more relevant and relatable, to bring Batman into the ‘age of Aquarius.’  One of the first stories to reflect this new direction was “The Cry of the Night is—Sudden Death!” in Detective Comics 387, May, 1969.  This was the thirtieth anniversary of Batman’s first appearance, and for the occasion writer Mike Friedrich updated the first Batman story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” transforming it into a topical, thought-provoking exploration of the generation gap that was so large an issue with the teen demographic DC was aiming to capture.
However, it took a new creative team to take Batman back to his roots.  The new lead writer on Batman, Denny O’Neil, spent time in the DC archives, trying to recapture the original feel of the character, the intent that Kane and Finger had when they created him.  He wanted to bring Batman back to that darkness that was so much a part of the character in the beginning, to restore him to the Darknight Detective he was conceived to be.  To give the reinvented hero form, DC enlisted the services of a popular new artist—Neal Adams.  Adams, then working on a pair of humor books for DC, was eager to work on Batman, but had been rebuffed when he had originally asked Schwartz for the assignment.  He went to Murray Boltinoff, the editor of The Brave and the Bold, the Batman team-up mag, and was given a cover assignment; issue number 75 featuring Batman and the Spectre.  This led to more covers, and soon he was drawing the backup feature in Detective, the Elongated Man.  From there, he soon became the feature artist on the Caped Crusader.  It was his art, and that of colleagues Irv Novick, Dick Giordano, and Jim Aparo that came to define Batman in the 1970s.
The decade of the ‘70s saw greater change in the character than ever before.  Dick Grayson was packed off to college, Wayne Manor was closed up, and Bruce Wayne relocated to the penthouse of the Wayne Foundation building in the heart of Gotham City—along with the Batcave.  The character grew darker as time passed—no mean feat, as Batman was already one of DC’s darkest superheroes.  He gained his most complex and, with the exception of the Joker, deadliest foe in a creation of O’Neil and Adams’, the League of Assassins and Ra’s al Ghul.  Ra’s, and his daughter Talia, would figure into some of the most pivotal story arcs of the decade, and would feature prominently in the “Dark Knight” trilogy of films of the 2000s, directed by Christopher Nolan  More characters were introduced, characters that added depth and dimension to our hero.  The Batman that began the ‘80s bore little resemblance to the one that began the ‘70s.
The 1980s were a traumatic decade, for Batman in particular and DC Comics in general.  By the middle of the decade, things weren’t going so well for the venerable publisher.  It’s primary competition, Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics Group, was growing in popularity—often at the expense of DC.  Marvel’s superheroes were perceived as being edgier, more adult, and simply put, more cool, than DC’s heroes.  As the fiftieth anniversary of DC Comics approached, it was readily apparent to the editorial staff at DC that something drastic was needed to revitalize the brand.  That something would be the single most transformative event to occur in comics since Action Comics 1—the Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Conceived by writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez, the Crisis was intended to “clean up” the convoluted, often confusing character continuities that had arisen since the birth of the ‘Multiverse’ in Flash 123.  They felt that the Multiverse had outlived its usefulness, and should be eliminated.  But how to do that without eliminating all the characters that exist because of that Multiverse?
Simple—you don’t.  A list was made of all the characters that had a place in the new, revamped DC Universe.  Everyone else was to be eliminated.  The Crisis touched nearly every DC publication, and changed every continuity.  For all of 1985, fans were riveted to the series, as earths died, universes perished, and heroes fell.  Some were minor heroes, characters whose place in the DC universe had ended long before the Crisis began, such as Lori Lemaris and Prince Ra-Man.  Some, while popular, simply had no place in the streamlined universe, characters like the Huntress, the daughter of Earth-2’s Batman and Catwoman.  While she had been without a regular home since the Justice Society had ended it’s run in Adventure Comics in December, 1979, her subsequent appearances as a back-up feature in issues of Wonder Woman had boosted her popularity to the point that there had been talk of her getting her own book.  But the realigned universe held no place for Helena Wayne, the adult daughter of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, only a few years older than she.
And then there were the deaths that would shake the foundations of the DC universe to that point.  Two in particular would shock fans and have repercussions that would echo through the post-Crisis universe—the Flash, aka Barry Allen, the hero whose creation had launched the Silver Age at DC Comics, and Kara Zor-El, the cousin of Superman who came to Earth as Supergirl.  The Flash’s life had been in a decline since the murder of his wife Iris at the hands of Professor Zoom in Flash 275 (July, 1979), and the story arc involving his trial for Zoom’s death as he tried to recapture him led up to the cancellation of his comic book with issue 350.  Supergirl, who had been a favorite DC character since her introduction in Action Comics 252 (May, 1959), was the most surprising casualty of the Crisis, eliminated due to the decision to once more return Superman to his status as the sole survivor of Krypton’s destruction.
Following the Crisis, every DC character was reinvented, and the Caped Crusader was no different.  Batman became, instead of a character that existed in the darkness, a character within which darkness existed.  A character scarred and crippled emotionally, driven by the compulsion to strike back at the tragedy that robbed him of his parents.  And the man responsible for this transformation was the greatest comic book creator of the modern era, Frank Miller.
Miller, whose career began with some uncredited work at Western Publishing’s Gold Key imprint (after a recommendation from Neal Adams), was coming off a successful run at Marvel, where he had revitalized Daredevil, and created the character of Elektra.  In 1986, DC published Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, a four-issue mini-series that would come to define Batman for a generation, and serve as inspiration, to a greater or lesser degree, for all the live-action Batman films produced in the ‘80s, ‘90s, and 2000s.
Set in contemporary Gotham City, Miller’s Bruce Wayne was a tired, aging man, retired from his life as Batman for more than a decade.  As Commissioner Gordon, now seventy years of age, is approaching retirement, the crime rate in Gotham is spiraling out of control.  A gang called the Mutants is terrorizing Gotham, motivating the fifty-five year-old Wayne to take up cape and cowl once again to defend his city.  With the ever-faithful Alfred, now in his eighties, and a new Robin, this time the ‘Girl’ Wonder, he resumes his war on crime, with unforeseen, and far-reaching, effects.
Miller’s dark vision of Batman would continue the following year, again in a four-issue mini-series entitled Batman: Year One.  Where The Dark Knight Returns featured a Batman at the end of his career, using technology to overcome his age and injuries, Year One took Batman back to his very beginning, with nothing but his wits and training to depend on, fighting a corrupt police commissioner with only District Attorney Harvey Dent on his side.  A young Lt. James Gordon, an honest cop in a sea of corruption, with a pregnant wife at home, and partnered with a beautiful female detective, with whom he becomes involved at work, is tasked with bringing in the masked vigilante known as the Batman.
These two story arcs created the Batman that modern audiences are familiar with, the Batman, essentially, of the Christopher Nolan films.  Those fans that began reading Batman comic books since the Crisis easily recognize the character in the movies.  Those of us who began our friendship with the Caped Crusader in the ‘60s and ‘70s had more difficulty with reconciling the Batman on the screen with the superhero of our childhoods.
My association with Batman began at an early age, watching the TV series in its first run.  I was four when the series ended, old enough to be a Bat-Fan, but still too young for the comic books.  That would quickly change, and by the summer of 1969, my comic book collection had begun growing—or, I should say, my first collection.  I didn’t buy the typical comic books a five-year-old might—the Disney books, or Bugs Bunny.  Nor was I buying superheroes then, DC or Marvel.  If there was one thing that the five-year-old Unimonster had in common with his fifty-year-old counterpart, it was a deep love of horror, and everything associated with it.
Born about fifteen years too late for the “golden age” of E.C. Horror—Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Weird Science—I nevertheless had excellent horror titles from which to choose.  Gold Key had The Twilight Zone and Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery, both titles guaranteed to get my attention.  Another Gold Key that was a favorite of mine was Ripley’s Believe it or Not, an anthology of weird, supposedly true tales of mystery, horror, and suspense.
DC wasn’t without its share of horror titles.  House of Mystery, House of Secrets, The Witching Hour, The Unexpected, all found their way into my stack of comic books.  Soon I noticed other DC titles, featuring characters I was familiar with already, and some that I hadn’t seen before.  Batman and Superman, of course … but also the Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Atom, Hawkman.  All caught my attention, and my interest, but with comic books at 15¢ each, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the horror books yet, and I couldn't afford both.
I needed something to bridge the gap, something that touched both genres to pull me into the world of superheroes.  That came when I was six, almost seven.  The December 1970 issue of Batman, number 227, hit the racks shortly before Halloween, and I had to buy it.  The cover conveyed hints of a Batman with whom I was unfamiliar, one that bore little relation to the Batman of the TV series.  As I read the story “The Demon of Gothos Mansion,” that first impression was confirmed.  This Batman was a creature of the night; a frightening, vengeful fiend that hunted evildoers while cloaked in darkness.  I was hooked.

And I still am, nearly forty-five years later.  My first collection is long gone.  My second grew to over 2,000 comic books before it too vanished, sacrificed piecemeal to the priorities of adulthood.  Now I’m working on my third collection, trying to recapture some of the comic books that I once owned.  Or am I trying to recapture the youth that’s as lost as those four-color memories?

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