The following article was published in N-SPHERE September 2011 issue.


Batman is undoubtedly one of the most recognized icons in 20th century pop culture. The impact & influence of the entire Batman universe & the cult status it has rendered over the decades since its inception in the late 1930s is noticeable in the huge success of different medias in which the Dark Knight has appeared over the years, from extensive series of comic books to movie series, films & animated series to a myriad of merchandise, toys, collectibles & Batmania paraphernalia.

Our classic image of Batman as the lonely vigilante with a hidden identity & shrouded in mystery who swears to avenge his parents’ death by constantly fighting against a never ending list of villains & foes & trying to protect Gotham City from crime has evolved through the years. Not everyone is familiar with the Caped Crusader‘s initial 1939 image filled with dark, gloomy & grim overtones. In the next lines I will try to outline this dark imagery of The Bat-Man (as he was known in the early comic books) by focusing on his first appearances in Detective Comics, starting with his debut in Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) up until Detective Comics #37 (March 1940) which marks Batman‘s last adventure as a lonely hero, paving the way for the introduction of his young sidekick Robin, the Boy Wonder‘s a month later in the April issue of Detective Comics. The Batman‘s debut in Detective Comics #27 featured a short story of 6 pages, The Case of the Chemical Syndicate, in which the comic book hero is introduced as “a mysterious and adventurous figure fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong doer, in his battle against the evil forces of society”. The major influences in creating and shaping the Batman figure came from different 1930s pieces of American pop culture – movies (like the swashbuckler classic The Mark of Zorro & the obscure mystery film, The Bat Whispers), pulp stories (their alert style is present throughout the late 1930s & early 1940s Batman comics with The Shadow character as a major influence), comic strips (heroes like Dick Tracy). The Dark Knight was envisioned as a mysterious & menacing figure for New York City’s (Gotham City was first used in late 1940) villains, displaying both brutal & elaborate skills at fighting his enemies by kicking, punching & throwing them in the air & a keen sense of sleuthing & analyzing every detail using deductive reasoning in order to track down “the evil forces of society”. Both of these qualities were fully expressed in Batman‘s first appearance, as he is seen giving fist after fist & sending his opponents hurdling though the air & in the end revealing himself as a master of whodunit. The most strikingly uncomfortable moment of this first story is near the end when Stryker, the leader of the chemical syndicate, tries to shoot Batman but thanks to an agile move, the Dark Knight stops him & with a punch sends him down in an acid tank to meet his doom. The Caped Crusader then replies that this was “a fitting ending for his kind”, thus emphasizing Batman‘s mission at maintaining social order no matter the costs or ways. Whereas the debut of the story stated the unknown identity of Batman, the end reveals his secret identity, that of wealthy industrialist & playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne, who constantly tries to hide his alter-ego persona of crime fighter by wearing a bat costume. As Bob Kane originally envisioned him, Batman is by definition the “obsessed loner”, a creature of the night lurking in the dark foggy streets & buildings of Gotham’s gothic scenery, a figure immersed in a shadowy & mysterious aura, attributes which define him as a grim presence which causes states of uneasiness & anxiety in the hearts & minds of wrong doers.

In Detective Comics #28 (June 1939), Batman‘s attitude lightens up a bit & there are even some hints at sarcasm & witty humour from the Dark Knight, especially in his short peer-to-peer dialogues with the thugs, mobsters & gangsters who are up to no good breaking the law, essentially the typical foe image which was explored in 1930s Hollywood gangster movies. An interesting moment is when Batman captures the jewel syndicate’s boss, Frenchy, ties an end of a rope to a bed & the other to the gangsters waist, tosses him off the window & threatens to cut the rope which would send Frenchy to sheer death, if he doesn’t get a full confession from the boss. The foe cooperates & in the end Batman manages to bring him to justice by dumping Frenchy in front of the police headquarters, also leaving a letter for commissioner Gordon explaining the events. Earlier in the plot, Batman was mistaken by the police as a member of the jewel syndicate & there are some similar recurring events in later issues of Detective Comics, partly due to Batman‘s eerie presence & specific, individual modus operandi.

The next issues of Detective Comics, #29 (July 1939) & #30 (August 1939) introduced the first major villain in Batman‘s universe, Doctor Death & marked yet another interesting moment, when Batman holds some of Death‘s men at gunpoint & threatens to shoot them if he doesn’t get some information from them (“your choice, gentlemen! Tell me! Or I’ll kill you!”). This is when Death‘s assistant, Jabah enters the room & shoots Batman who manages to escape only thanks to the deadly gas from one of his utility belt glass pellets. This moment clearly marks the difference between the extraordinary yet supernatural powers of the other major hero of the Golden Age of Comic Books, Superman, & the limitations of simple human abilities, skills & power. Batman manages to surpass & defeat his enemies only by using physical & intellectual power. The whole Batman universe is about exploring the inner substance of ourselves, the human psyche, the way we deal & cope with our deepest fears & existential traumas; this limited yet natural, real, tangible pattern is used in creating Batman‘s world, including his arch-nemesis. The end of issue #28 illustrates a similar point of view as that in the early line “a fitting ending for his kind”, when after seeing Doctor Death succumbing in a powerful fire in his laboratory, Batman concludes by saying “Death… to Doctor Death” or, in other words, you reap what you sow, in the end everybody gets what they deserve, especially the wrong doers.

Starting with another set of two issues, Detective Comics #31 (September 1939) & #32 (October 1939) which introduce another villain, The Monk, the plot tends to incorporate supernatural motifs. The Monk is a vampire who can also morph into a werewolf, has a female ally named Dala, makes Batman face a giant gorilla & “has uncanny powers”, like being able to hypnotize; The Monk uses his hypnotic powers on Batman & Julie Madison, Bruce Wayne‘s fiancée. This is the first time we learn of the presence of a woman in Bruce Wayne/Batman‘s life & after many perils, like fighting with a huge gorilla & escaping the bloodthrust of a pack of werewolves, The Dark Knight finds a way of defeating The Monk & Dala & breaking the spell that was set upon his beloved one by shooting the two vampires with two silver bullets while they are asleep during the daytime. “Never again will you harm any mortal being” proclaims Batman as he shoots The Monk who was resting in his coffin & yet again Batman is seen holding a gun & this time pulling the trigger proving that he can go to any limits in order to save his loved one. Following these issues, DC editors considered it would be wise to leave out the lethal weapons such as guns as far as Batman was concerned & to focus more on realistic events instead of adding a supernatural flavour to the plot.

Detective Comics #33 (November 1939) marks the first appearance of the origin story of “the Batman and how he came to be!”, showing in no more than 2 pages the childhood trauma of seeing one’s parents getting shot & dying on the streets in a gloomy night. We then are witnesses to a personal oath declaring eternal war to the nemesis of crime & almost 15 years of intense training from physical perfection & athletic feats to mastering the sciences & detective skills with the help of which Bruce Wayne is ready to become that “weird figure of the dark” & “avenger of evil”, The Batman. The story then follows the actions of a minor villain named Kruger, a lunatic with a Napoleon complex who, in the end, dies when his plane hits the water. Nearly all the early villans end up dying whether it takes one issue or two for the plot to unfold its tragic dénouement for Batman‘s enemies. The same pattern is applied in some of the next issues [Detective Comics #34 (December 1939), Detective Comics #35 (January 1940) & Detective Comics #37 (March 1940)], in which the villains, a mad scientist called Duc D’Orterre, criminal mastermind Sin Fang (whose real identity of Sheldon Lenox is revealed in the end by Batman through Holmesian deduction) & foreign agent Count Grutt (who is also Elias Turg), each meet their doom in different ways: D’Orterre dying in a car accident, Sin Fang/Sheldon Lenox falling through an open window & hurdling to death, while foreign agent Count Grutt/Elias Turg who ends up being impaled upon his own sword.

Detective Comics #36 (February 1940) introduces Batman as “already an almost legendary figure” and 1940 clearly marks a departure from the rigid nature of the hero’s character to a more lightened up vigilante, one who constantly makes funny & witty remarks & has a way with words (like “let’s pretend I’m the ball and you’re the pins!”) as he does with fists thrown in every direction thus ridiculing his thug adversaries (“you boys are a better workout than the gym!”). He even makes fun (“so you wanna play cops ‘n’ robbers, eh?”) of some slow policemen who mistake him for a murderer just because he happened to be near the scene of the crime & he can even be seen smiling in some strips. In this Detective Comics issue, Batman faces an arch enemy that will prove his match, Professor Hugo Strange, a scientist & criminal mastermind who is the first in a long line of villains that doesn’t get killed at the end of the story. Although he is imprisoned at the state penitentiary, there are clear signs of his vile intentions of escaping & revenging himself upon the Batman. This is the first time when citizens of New York City (future Gotham City) express their gratitude towards Batman and signal a direct appreciation & recognition of his noble mission when a little boy is shown asking his father “who is The Batman, daddy?”, and the parent replies “a great man, son, a great man!” while a nearby radio broadcast announces “and so we citizens of this city owe our thanks to one man, The Batman! Because of him an arch-criminal is at last captured!”.

In the last issue of Detective Comics upon which I focus, namely Detective Comics #37 (March 1940), after managing to foil & stop the wicked plans of foreign agents who try to sabotage an American ship in order to generate an international crisis which might lead to armed conflict, Batman displays a cold & pragmatic judgment by reasoning that the bitter & tragic end of the head of the operation would have always been the first choice (“Dead! It is better that he should die!”), instead of a situation in which armed conflict between states might have had terrible costs on the lives of many Americans (“He might have sent thousands of others to their death on a battlefield if his plans had been successful!”).

This emphasizes Batman‘s key role in providing security & hope not just for a city’s citizens, but for an entire nation.

Further reading: * Les Daniels, Batman: The Complete History, Chronicle Books, 2004 * Bill Finger & Bob Kane, Batman Chronicles, Volume One, DC Comics, 2005 * Robert Greenberger, The Essential Batman Encyclopedia, Del Rey, 2008 * Robert Greenberger & Matthew Manning, The Batman Vault: A Museum-ina- Book with Rare Collectibles from the Batcave, Running Press, 2009 * Roberta E. Pearson (editor) & William Uricchio (editor), The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and His Media, Routledge, 1991 * Mark D. White (editor), Robert Arp (editor) & William Erwin (series editor), Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul (The Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture Series), Wiley, 2008

Photo | Detective Comics #29. DC, 1939.

by Adrien Seelebruder

Full article here.