On the Origin of Batman

Having written about the Batman tv show from the 60s, and the old Hollywood serials it was based on, as well as the animated show The Super Friends, we thought it would be a good idea to do a quick post on the origin of this evergreen, constantly evolving character of the Batman.

We are apt to thinking of the first superheroes as unimaginably ancient, but the truth is that they are of surprisingly recent vintage. Batman made his debut mere months before two of the Beatles were born (which translates into 25 years before I was born), and I knew one of the original creative team in his last years. You’ll see, young people: these handful of decades are a blip in history. You can almost reach back and touch the age before comic books. Batman was the creation of Bob Kane (Robert Kahn, 1915-1998), a New York kid would had apprenticed with Max Fleischer, and who had gone to high school with Will Eisner of The Spirit. He began working for Eisner and Iger, and then DC, some of the first comic book concerns. In the wake of DC’s smash success with Superman, the publishers began seeking other characters. Kane rose to the occasion by dreaming up Batman. As we wrote here, one of Kane’s inspirations was Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Bat. Other influences included Zorro (an obvious one) and the famous Da Vinci sketches for a flying machine with bat wings. Kane’s collaborator Bill Finger refined the look somewhat, making it more like the existing character The Phantom, and playing a role in creating the character’s legend. Later they brought on Jerry Robinson, whom I knew, who devised the look of the supervillian The Joker (based on a playing card and also Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs).

When I was a kid in the 1970s, Batman was my favorite superhero. I loved the fact that he had no superpowers beyond a burning desire to right wrongs (aided by the unlimited resources of his inherited wealth — a small detail). His dough allowed him to possess his own gymnasium where he worked out to become an incredible gymnast and mano a mano warrior. He was also to aquire an incredible education and the finest scientific equipment to be used for his sleuthing. Thus he was both a detective and a take-no-prisoners street cop, even if the crooks he scooped up sometimes had the entire world in their sights. The ’70s were a great time to discover him. The team that was turning out Batman at that time had rediscovered the darkness and seriousness that had characterized its early years, an apparent reaction to the frivolous silliness of both the tv show and the comic book during the 1960s. But it had not yet become the grim, joyless ordeal of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series. I don’t dig those films at all — much prefer the Tim Burton incarnation, though to my mind the cinema has to this date NEVER found the right person to played the Cowled Crusader. It’s no doubt extremely difficult, otherwise so many wouldn’t have failed. It needs to be someone who can be urbane, sophisticated and suave as Bruce Wayne, and yet macho enough to be Batman. They all fail the most at the Bruce Wayne part — in fact, they seem to disappear in both roles. You need someone who can EMBODY and TRANSCEND the roles. When he was younger, Jon Hamm might have been great in the role. Bruce Wayne needs a bit of Don Draper’s slick charm and confidence. I’m sure existing Batmans will have their defenders. Don’t bother contacting ME with your outrage. I’ve seen the movies, right? No amount of typed humbrage would change my mind. There has yet to be true justice done to the Batman on the screen. On this, I remain, (forgive me) unflappable.