75 years of the Dark Knight

Seventy-five years ago today, The Bat-Man first appeared in the pages Detective Comics #27, in a story entitled The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.

First conceived in 1934 by American artist Bob Kane, the original idea was shelved until May of 1939 when he discovered that the artist and writer partnership of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel were earning almost $800 per week each from the exploitation of their Superman character – a small fortune at the time.

Eager to avoid duplicating their creation, Kane, in conjunction with writer Bill Finger, developed a mysterious character inspired by the 1930s radio show The Shadow, initially experimenting with a variety of names including Bird-Man, Eagle-Man, and Hawk-Man – before finally settling on The Bat-Man.

Finger also helped Kane develop The Bat-Man’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, and was instrumental in changing the character’s setting from New York, to the much darker Gotham City.

The Bat-Man became an independent masked avenger in the style of Kane’s movie hero from The Mask of Zorro, having witnessed the death of his parents at the hands of a mugger named Joe Chill, a traumatic event that led the character to exact vengeance on all those who broke the law.

Kane expounded upon his character’s loner status, working under the cover of darkness and above the law; his long, dark flowing costume cast fear into the hearts of Gotham’s villains, with Kane’s cinematic style and use of high contrast creating a unique fantasy world of evil geniuses and Gothic architecture.

In 1939, the release of Batman #1 featured the first appearance of Batman’s two most enduring archenemies, The Joker and Catwoman – Kane’s assistant Jerry Robinson created The Joker and Finger supplied the look with a photo of actor Conrad Veidt from the 1928 movie The Man Who Laughs.

In April of 1940, Batman was partnered with his crime-fighting sidekick Robin the Boy Wonder in the pages of Detective Comics #38. Their faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth joined the dynamic duo and the team of Batman, Robin and Alfred soon became the nucleus of the Batman stories during the 1940s, 50s and early 60s.

While Superman represented the embodiment of all that human beings aspired to, Batman personified the darker side of life; he had no superpowers and appealed to the achievable dreams of ordinary people. Superman could solve problems with his superhuman abilities, but Batman relied upon his superior training and advanced intellect; he became an expert in chemistry and martial arts, solving cases with the deductive reasoning of Sherlock Holmes.

One of the great hallmarks of Batman was the unique crime-fighting gadgets he developed with his seemingly inexhaustible supply of wealth; his utility belt, the Batmobile, Batplane, Batboat, and of course, the famous Bat Signal.

In 1943, Columbia Pictures released a 15-episode Batman serial written by Bob Kane, starring Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft in the roles of Batman and Robin.

However, it wasn’t until the 1960s, when Batman appeared on television that actor Adam West finally brought the character vividly to life in a colourful series of over-the-top storylines starring some of Hollywood’s finest character actors, including Cesar Romero and Burgess Meredith.

A brief venture onto the big screen ensured global success for the original Batman television series, until the late 1980s, when maverick director Tim Burton cast Jack Nicholson in the role of The Joker for the first serious attempt at a Hollywood-style movie.

After eight years of development, the 1989 Batman film became one of the highest grossing movies of all time, netting over $250million worldwide and spawning a franchise and multiple sequels of varying quality, not to mention numerous animated television shows, console games, merchandise and several regular monthly comic book titles.

The character was rebooted for the big screen by British director Christopher Nolan in 2005 as part of his hugely successful Dark Knight trilogy starring Christian Bale, and will feature again in a forthcoming Superman team-up with Ben Affleck taking on the cowl of the Caped Crusader. The arrival of the television series Gotham is imminent, promising an exploration of the character’s origins.

In 1989 Glasgwegian writer Grant Morrison produced what has become the highest-selling graphic novel of all time, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. The alternative interpretation of the Batman character has since sold over 600,000 copies and remains popular today. Morrison later killed off Batman in 2008, before the character’s miraculous return several months later.

One of the longest-serving writers of the Batman monthly comics, Scotland’s Alan Grant, produced Batman: Scottish Connection with Rutherglen-based artist Frank Quitely, weaving a story about a trip by Bruce Wayne to a family reunion in Scotland and an ancient quest for vengeance, while Coatbridge-born writer Mark Millar told a 1996 Christmas tale of Batman’s stolen train set in Batman: Legends Of The Dark Knight.

From the character’s outset, Kane utilised Batman to appeal to the childhood fantasies we all share: wealth, heroism, action and adventure – which continues today – and long with Superman and Wonder Woman, Batman is the one of few DC Comic book characters to have remained in continual publication since its inception three-quarters of a century ago.

Unlike Shuster and Siegel, Kane also managed to successfully retain control over the rights to his creation, acting as consultant on the Batman movies and many other projects until he passed away in November 1998.

Few fictional characters generate such dramatic tension or boast so many unforgettably twisted supporting villains, and today, Batman still appeals to a cultivated audience, instantly recognisable across the globe by his simple bat-shaped logo.

As Morrison remarked in his 2011 analysis of superheroes Supergods, fictional characters like Batman entered into existence long before most of their readers – and will live on long after they are gone – so in many respects, he is much more real than we will ever be – and for all intents, his contribution to popular culture is immeasurable.