Batman at 60
Article originally published in The Herald on 26 March 1999
Written by Martin Conaghan
On Tuesday 3 November last year, one of the great comic-book artists, Bob Kane, died at the age of 83, just six months before his most famous creation, Batman, would reach his 60th birthday.
Sixty years ago this week, 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, Kane’s original idea was shelved until May of 1939 when he discovered that Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel were making up to $800 per week each from the merchandising of their Superman character.
Eager to avoid duplication, Kane soon took the idea of a costumed crime-fighter more seriously and sat down at his drawing board for an entire weekend breathing life into his latest creation.
In partnership with writer Bill Finger, Kane developed a mysterious character inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying machines and the 1930′s radio character The Shadow. He experimented with a number of names before finally settling on The Bat-Man, with Bird-Man, Eagle-Man, and Hawk-Man among his early concept names.
Bill Finger also helped Kane develop The Bat-Man’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, and was instrumental in changing the location from New York, to the darker Gotham City.
The Bat-Man then 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.
The traumatic events of his childhood led the character into crime fighting in an attempt to exact vengeance on all those who broke the law.
The Bat-Man was a loner and Kane expounded upon this by having him work under the cover of darkness and above the letter of the law. His long, dark flowing costume cast fear into the hearts of villains everywhere, with Kane’s cinematic style and use of contrast creating a unique fantasy world of evil villains and Gothic architecture.
The following year, 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 Bill Finger supplied the look with a photo of actor Conrad Veidt in the 1928 movie The Man Who Laughs.
Despite his extensive involvement in the origin of one of the most successful comic book characters ever, Bill Finger graciously relinquished any credit for the creation of Batman, allowing Kane to retain the highest accolade.
In April of 1940, in the pages of Detective Comics #38, Batman was partnered with his crime-fighting sidekick Robin the Boy Wonder. Their faithful butler, Alfred Pennyworth later joined the subsequently named ‘dynamic duo’ and the team of Batman, Robin and Alfred soon became the nucleus of the Batman stories during the 1940′s, 50′s and early 60′s.
While Superman represented the embodiment of all that human beings aspired to, Batman personified the darker side of life. He had no superpowers and therefore appealed much more to what ordinary people could actually achieve in reality.
The other main attraction to the Batman stories was the exciting mystery that surrounded each case; where Superman could solve problems with his superhuman abilities, Batman relied upon his superior training and advanced intellect.
He became an expert in chemistry and the martial arts, and he could solve cases with the skill 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. Among the best known are his utility belt, the Batmobile, the Batplane, the Batboat, and of course, the 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 1960′s, 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 1980′s, 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 in development, the Batman movie was the talk of Tinseltown and upon its release in the summer of 1989, it became one of the highest grossing movies of all time, netting over $250million worldwide.
The franchise has since spawned three sequels, an animated television series, and no fewer than six regular monthly comic book titles. Along with Superman and Wonder Woman, Batman is the only other DC Comic book character to have been in continual publication since its inception over half a century ago. Around the time of Burton’s movie, Glasgwiegan writer Grant Morrison also produced what was to become one of the highest grossing comic books of all time, Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Morrison’s alternative interpretation of the character struck him an incredible sales deal of one dollar per copy sold, with the book selling over 250,000 copies on its initial run and eventually hailed as one of the trailblazing graphic novels of the 1980′s.
The avant-garde style and disregard for linear storytelling projected Batman into an Alice In Wonderland-style nightmare which was expertly rendered by painter Dave McKean.
Three years earlier, in 1986, American writer-artist Frank Miller helped transform the comic book medium as we now know it when he produced his seminal work, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, which saw an ageing Bruce Wayne emerge from retirement to defend Gotham City once more.
It was to become the one story in Batman’s history where he actually defeated Superman. More recently, the longest serving Batman writer, Scotsman Alan Grant, produced the wonderfully rendered Batman: Scottish Connection with Rutherglen-based artist Frank Quitely.
The story tells of a trip by Bruce Wayne to a family reunion in Scotland and an ancient quest for vengeance.
Other writers have produced memorable interpretations of the character in recent years, including Alan Moore’s origin of The Joker in Batman: The Killing Joke (1987), and Scottish writer Mark Millar’s 1996 Christmas tale of Batman’s stolen train set in Batman: Legends Of The Dark Knight.
From the outset, Kane utilised Batman to appeal to the childhood fantasies we all share: wealth, heroism, action and adventure.
No other comic book hero generates such a dramatic atmosphere, such unforgettably twisted villains, or inhabits a city that mirrors his own dark personality, and today, the Batman comic books still appeal to a wide range of cultivated readers, selling in their hundreds of thousands around the world.
Unlike Shuster and Siegel, Kane also managed to successfully retain control over the rights to his character, acting as consultant on the Batman movies and many other projects until he passed away last year.
As Janette Khan, the President and Editor in Chief of DC Comics kindly commented in a dedication to Bob that appeared in every DC title during April of this year: “With Batman, Bob was the last of the giants who not only helped create the DC Universe but who also put comic books on the map as both a new arena in popular culture and a burgeoning art form. Batman’s ominously elegant costume and the richness of his world are for all intents immeasurable.
“And no-one else, as The Joker has remarked, has such wonderful toys.”