Cash Cows – “…I’m Batman.” Part I

Do you have any idea how many men have spoken those words?

Not counting the guy who was peeing next to me in the men’s room yesterday…there’s been a lot.

While Warner Bros. may not have the most stellar track record when it comes to their rather abundant supply of comic book properties, there is a pretty solid understanding among the brass that one stands above the rest as the franchise. Since one very canny funny-book creator first put his spin on the pulp hero trope in 1939, the character of Batman has been the subject of constant film, television and comic book versions of the property.

Would the real Batman please sta…oh, never mind.

And “version” really is the key word here; in every one of his 6 television incarnations, 6 separate movie continuities and… uhh… well, all the comic stories, The Batman has been marked, above all else, by one significant trait: Diversity.

Every spin has been different – sometimes the differences have been drastic to the previous outing, other times they have been slight. But always, they have followed a principle that has kept audiences, viewers and readers coming back time and again, and they have given us a Batman for every age and era.

This is the beating heart of franchise. A familiar property, mixed with a broad appeal, with enough reinvention to keep him from ever becoming stale. He’s had highs and lows; suffered breaks and cancellations; been the highest grosser and the bottom of the barrel… but the ***damn Batman never says die.

Presumably Frank Miller speaks those words into his mirror every morning.

With the conclusion last year of the latest entry, Christopher Nolan’s excellent Dark Knight Trilogy, it seems like a good time to go through the history of the Bat, take a look at some incarnations you may not have checked out, and speculate a little as to where the Caped Crusader may go from here.

A Killer Origin

So most of you reading should know this one: The first appearance of Batman?

“What is Detective Comics #27?”

Batman was the created in the wake of Superman, still standing unique amid the growing pantheon of costumed heroes. No powers, no sci-fi technology…not even a car (at first) – Batman was a comic-book origin for more familiar pulp characters of the time such as The Shadow, who began their existences as radio-serials.

Creator Bob Kane notes several key influences that lead to his first rendition of the Dark Knight Detective. He was firstly a fan of the character of Zorro, a long-standing hero with a dual identity, and was also, at the time, interested by the sketches of none other than Leonardo DaVinci – particularly one which depicted a rather elegant flying machine with the scribbled note: “The device shall have no other wings than those of a bat.”

…but does it come in black?

About Batman’s early appearances I only want to make two important observations. Firstly, that while Kane has long marched with the sole credit for his character, he did not develop Batman with all his complexities alone. Several well-seasoned comic-book writers and artists lent a hand to fleshing out the names, the costume and even the man himself. One of the biggest contributors in this was writer Bill Finger, who promptly found himself screwed out of credit and royalties for the rest of his life.

You see, Bob Kane’s biggest talent – as it turned out – was in negotiating his deals with the publisher over copyright. He was a shrewd individual who, in knowing that he couldn’t continue to “own” the character, nonetheless ensured that for as long as Batman was a viable property, everyone would know that he was the guy who had come up with the goods. It’s important to point out that Kane wasn’t a jerk – he just had really great business sense. But his exclusivity in rights led to those other voices in the process never receiving their due credit for Batman’s origins. To some extent this has been addressed by publisher DC comics and other industry professionals over the past fifteen years.

The important message here is this: Batman, while conceptually beginning life in one man’s head, is not the end result of only one man’s creativity. Batman, in his fully realised, winged avenger of the night form – was a team effort – the result of several people coming together to help each other tell some good stories.

This establishes from the very beginning how difficult it would be to nail down any one definitive version of Batman, since the initial group all had subtly different ideas in the first place.

One of the first aspects of our hero, in his early adventures, was the fact that he was an unrepentant killer.

I’m not entirely able to recall from my reading of the first story (not in an original copy of the comic people, that’s for damn sure) whether Batman breaks the dudes neck or drops him into a vat of acid… but…

The natural question that comes out of this is quite simply, what constitutes the essence of a character like Batman? Is it the basics of who he was at his first appearance, or who he became after time and some revision? If so, who decides at which point the revisions have rendered him now “definitive”?

Bat-G-Man

Of note about his first film appearance is that Batman is not portrayed as an unhinged vigilante, but rather as a secret government agent tasked with apprehending particularly colorful war criminals in 1943.

The serial – as was the popular format for such properties in the era – starred Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin. It’s pretty basic stuff – good guys are tasked to bring down a mad scientist (who happens to be Japanese) to assist with the war effort. There are no real gadgets or weapons at work here – just a couple of guys in poorly fitted tracksuits and masks doing a lot of running, and a lot of fisticuffs. For what the serial is, it’s not bad – there’s actually a fairly good pace to the story, given that the end of every half hour necessitates a cliff-hanger moment. This was before the days of television and long-form stories in shows, and also before things like real fight choreography or stunt training. But there’s a charming simplicity to this Batman – he’s just a guy in a costume trying to do some good.

Of note about this serial is that it is here that several aspects of now (apparently) inviolable Batman lore first were written. Foremost is the character of Alfred – previously an overwieght amateur detective who occasionally assisted the Dynamic Duo in their cases – here he was recast as Batman’s faithful “Gentleman’s gentleman”. We’ll get into this transformation a bit more in another installment. Also introduced was the Bat-cave, and the long-standing entrance via the Wayne Manor’s grandfather clock.

The first of two, the Batman serial is a product of its time, complete with racist tones throughout the piece. If you’re interested, you can find the DVD around the shops.

A follow-up in 1949 replaced the two leads with Robert Lowery and Johnny Duncan as Batman and Robin respectively.

Batman Without a Face

The last of these early voices of the Caped Crusader were to undertake their roles in the relative comfort of radio. Matt Crowley, Stacy Harris & Gary Merill took their turns at bringing Batman to the airwaves in the syndicated The Adventures of Superman.

Interestingly enough, there was never enough interest in those earlier days, and the character didn’t have enough of a fan base to establish his own radio drama – which was, let’s face it, still the dominant entertainment media of the day. Whenever the voice of Superman, Bud Collyer, needed time off, a special guest story involving Gotham city and her heroes would take his place.

While some online personages have attempted to collect and preserve the Superman radio drama, I haven’t quite yet had a complete dearth of constructive tasks occupying my time which would allow me to plow through the whole series (which ran for several years). Those of you super-keen may want to check out this site and work your way through.

Let us know if you find anything.

So… who or what is the real Batman? As we continue to explore this particular rabbit… er… Bat-hole, you’ll see that the answer gets even more complicated.

Check back next week for Part 2.
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