Batman. The Caped Crusader. The Dark Knight. Whatever name he’s known by, this month marks the 70th anniversary of his first appearance in Detective Comics #27, cover dated May 1939. It was standard practice at the time for an issue to be released up to two months prior to the cover date, so the issue could have been on newsstands as early as March 1939. I simply couldn’t find a definitive date for when it actually hit newsstands no matter how hard I looked.
Batman was the second major superhero published by Detective Comics, Inc. after Superman’s successful debut the previous year quickly led to new characters being created to capitalize on the sudden popularity of costumed crimefighters. Batman was created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, although only Kane received official credit for contractual reasons, which still seems unfair considering Finger’s contributions.
In “The Case of the Criminal Syndicate” from Detective Comics #27, the reader is first introduced to disinterested playboy Bruce Wayne and then to the mysterious vigilante Bat-Man, discovering only at the end that they’re one and the same. As written by Finger and drawn by Kane, the early stories lacked the sheer dynamism Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster brought to the early Superman stories, but there was something archetypal in the Jungian sense about the Bat-Man that transcended his simple beginnings. Batman was influenced as much by pulp fiction characters like the Shadow and Doc Savage as by the Man of Steel.
The story of a young Bruce Wayne witnessing the brutal murders of his parents, providing the psychological catalyst for becoming an avenging crimefighter, is well known today, but it wasn’t introduced in the comics until Detective Comics #33, cover dated Nov 1939, in a story written by Gardner Fox. Although little known to many comic fans today, Fox was a major creative force in comics as co-creator of the Sandman (who debuted two months after Batman in Adventure Comics #40), the Golden Age Flash, the Golden Age Hawkman, Doctor Fate, Starman, the Justice Society of America, the Silver Age Hawkman, the Justice League of America, the Silver Age Atom, Adam Strange, and Zatanna, among others.
Detective Comics #38, cover dated April 1940 and written by Finger, introduced Robin the Boy Wonder, whose origin paralleled Batman’s, beginning the popular trend of adult superheroes having children or teenagers as sidekicks. Batman finally got his own title in Spring 1940. Batman #1 was notable for introducing the Joker and Catwoman to the Batman mythos in stories written by Finger.
In terms of their impact, key contributors to the mythos over the years included writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, who returned the character to his more serious roots as a detective in the early 1970s, and writer/artist Frank Miller, whose classic The Dark Knight Returns in 1986 was a far darker interpretation of the character.
The strength of Batman as a concept has been demonstrated by seven decades of continuous publication and numerous interpretations in various media, from outright campy to lighthearted to serious to darker than the shadows Batman lurks in. The character has appeared in a live action television series, numerous animated television series, a radio show, two movie serials, and seven motion pictures, just to name some of his appearances in other media. The most recent film, The Dark Knight, may be the best superhero film ever made, and certainly the darkest.
Although the original Batman is presumed dead in the current comics, no one ever is truly dead in the comics, and his return will no doubt happen sooner rather than later and in seventy years someone will be writing about his 140th anniversary.
So, dear readers, which creators and eras in the comics and/or which actors and films do you consider truly iconic?
For me, I’d add to the creators listed above writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers in the late 1970s, writer Jim Starlin and artist Jim Aparo in the 1980s, and writer Grant Morrison more recently. I used to consider director Tim Burton’s films starring Michael Keaton iconic until director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale far surpassed them. The DC Animated Universe shows produced by Bruce Timm have to be mentioned, too.