BAT­MAN AT 75

SU­PER­HERO AND CON­SUM­MATE FAM­ILY MAN

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FRONT PAGE -

“WELL, Com­mis­sioner, any­thing ex­cit­ing hap­pen­ing these days?” Those were the first words — all seven of ’ em — spo­ken by a new char­ac­ter in­tro­duced in the May 1939 is­sue of De­tec­tive Comics. That char­ac­ter was a chap called Bruce Wayne. You may know him bet­ter as the Bat­man. And, if you sub­tract May 1939 from now, you’ll re­alise that he is 75 years old this year.

Wayne is sprightly for a sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian — par­tic­u­larly given that he was hardly fresh­faced and spring-limbed at birth. When the writer Bill Fin­ger and artist Bob Kane de­signed this new comic-book hero, they took in­spi­ra­tion from plenty of old non-comic-book he­roes. A wealthy gent who fights in­jus­tice from be­hind a mask? That’s ba­si­cally the Scar­let Pim­per­nel or, from 1930s pulp nov­els, the Shadow. A de­tec­tive who makes all the oth­ers look de­fec­tive? That’s Sher­lock Holmes. Even the poses Bat­man struck in that first is­sue were based on Dou­glas Fair­banks Sr’s per­for­mance in The Mark of Zorro (1920).

And yet Bat­man has per­sisted. Paw­ing through a copy of De­tec­tive Comics #27 now — you can down­load it to your iPad, if you don’t have the mil­lion dol­lars for an orig­i­nal — it’s re­mark­able how much is fa­mil­iar. The com­mis­sioner Wayne is chat­ting to in the first panel is none other than Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Jim Gor­don, still part of the story. When the Bat­man first ap­pears, be­neath a swollen moon, he’s dressed in a grey body­suit with a black cowl and cape, two pointed ears and a bat em­blem across his chest. The only thing that re­ally jars is his in­dif­fer­ence to a crim­i­nal’s death by acid: “A fit­ting end for his kind.” Harsh.

Within a few years, much of Gotham’s ground­work was in place. De­tec­tive Comics #33 set out “The Leg­end of the Bat­man: Who he is and how he came to be”, which in­volved the mur­der of Wayne’s par­ents by a pinch-faced stick-up man. When Bat­man be­came its own book in April 1940 — out from un­der the De­tec­tive ban­ner — the very first is­sue fea­tured a leer­ing psy­cho known as the Joker, as well as a slinky jewel thief co­de­named “The Cat”. The fourth is­sue then es­tab­lished a rule that hadn’t con­strained Bat­man pre­vi­ously, but that has mostly held firm ever since: “Re­mem­ber, we will never kill with weapons of any kind.” Which is to say, Bat­man’s cre­ators had de­vel- oped a story that would last — even down to most of its de­tails. In the throw­away world of comic-books, that’s quite some­thing.

With re­gard to the char­ac­ter’s cre­ation, there are two claimants: Bill Fin­ger and Bob Kane. Many only know the lat­ter. This is be­cause Kane’s name tends to be stamped on any­thing to do with Bat­man. From books to movies, from video games to lunch boxes, it’s “Bat­man, cre­ated by Bob Kane”. But should it be? It re­mains a painful ques­tion for many Bat fans, even though both Fin­ger and Kane are dead. They ac­cept that Kane, the artist, first doo­dled a “Bat-Man” with a shock of blond hair, a red cos­tume and a pair of enor­mous wings. But Fin­ger, the writer, did prac­ti­cally ev­ery­thing else: com­ing up with the ears and cape and colour­ing, Wayne’s back story, Cat­woman, Pen­guin, the Rid­dler … ex­cept he was swin­dled out of any credit. He’s the man in the mask be­hind the man in the mask.

In any case, it was mainly an­other artist — Jerry Robin­son — who worked with Fin­ger to con­struct one of the most im­por­tant parts of the leg­end. The writer had been con­cerned that there was no Wat­son to Wayne’s Holmes. So, in De­tec­tive Comics #38, the Dark Knight gained a colourful side­kick: Dick Grayson, aka Robin the Boy Won­der. It is this char­ac­ter, more than any other, who be­lies a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion about Bat­man. Our hero is not a loner or a grim uni­lat­er­al­ist. He took in an or­phaned cir­cus per­former, raised him, and kit­ted him out to catch crim­i­nals. He’s one of comics’ great­est fam­ily men.

Strangely, it’s the in­flex­i­bil­ity of these con­cepts — fam­ily, no killing, the ears — that makes Bat­man es­pe­cially flex­i­ble. So long as they are re­tained, people will al­ways know that they are deal­ing with Bat­man. But, around that, al­most ev­ery­thing else can be changed for the times. That’s why he has been ev­ery­thing from a mid­night monster to an in­ter­di­men­sional ex­plorer, a cartoon to a cave­man. He even kept up with the 60s by be­com­ing a wink­ing, pop-tac­u­lar TV star. Kapow.

As Bat­man turns 75, and as the char­ac­ter’s pop­u­lar­ity in­creases, there seems to be a grow­ing sense that all ver­sions of the char­ac­ter count for the good. The only thing that’s miss­ing is a real-life Bat­man.

Ac­cord­ing to the pro­fes­sor and mar­tial artist E. Paul Zehr, who wrote a de­tailed book on the sub­ject, “be­com­ing Bat­man would re­quire a very unique set of cir­cum­stances in­clud­ing ge­net­ics, wealth, a suit­able en­vi­ron­ment, and an un­equalled in­ter­nal drive to pur­sue an ob­jec­tive”. But he continues: “It could be done, though.”

So what are you wait­ing for?

A 1939 copy of De­tec­tive Comics #27, with the first ap­pear­ance of Bat­man

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