The Bat-Man was not a bad-ass. He was an idiot.
We all get by on sound-bites. The vast majority of what we know, or rather, of what we think we know, consists of little beyond brief and beguilingly simple statements. There’s an awful lot to remember and not a great deal of grey matter to carry it all around in. This is as true for the history of comic-book characters as it is for anything else.
The history of Batman, for example, has been reduced with time to a litany of deceptively-thin, or just plain deceptive, bullet-points. Facts have been over-simplified, opinions accepted as undeniable facts, statements repeated so often in passing that they’ve collected the air of unchallengeable authenticity. For those without the time, opportunity and even inclination to investigate texts such as Les Daniel’s Batman: The Complete History or The Batcave Companion by Michael Eury et al, let alone read the original stories themselves, the character’s history is often understood to fall into quite recognizable periods, each with its own utterly distinct and unarguably defining characteristics. Judgements of authenticity and quality have been culturally allocated in the broadest of terms; this Batman of these years is the real Batman, that Batman is barely Batman at all. All of this is nobody’s fault, of course, and it causes no great harm, but it does mean the historical record becomes more and more distorted as time passes.
And so, it’s generally understood that the eleven months between the Batman’s first appearance, in Detective Comics #27, and Robin’s debut, in Detective #38, is the ur-text of the character of the Dark Knight. This, so a host of comments on various blogs and boards, fanzines and letters pages, is where the “real” Batman can be found, the definitive Batman, the pure form against which the value of all other takes must be measured.
With the coming of Dick Grayson, so the gospel of “of-course” declares, the essence of the Batman was immediately diluted, the value of his adventures overnight changing from powerful and conceptually flawless to derivative and toothless. It’s an opinion which has long been held amongst both fans and professionals, although earlier generations have, as would be expected, held to their own markers of what’s genuine and what’s counterfeit where matters of Batology were concerned. The seminal All In Colour For A Dime, from 1970, reported the belief that the character had ceased to be truly himself when his alter ego’s title lost ”the definitive article,” became “Batman” instead of “the Batman.” Yet even that’s a far more difficult moment to define than at first appears. The character’s title-page logo lost that “the” after August 1939, at the same moment as “The Bat-Man” became “Batman.” But it’s only in Batman #1 in the spring of 1940 that Bruce Wayne starts to regularly be referred to as a the-less “Batman” in the actual text of his stories. Such apparently straight-forward turning points can become more and more indistinct the more the reader pays attention to them, a comicbook Mandelbrot point zoom sequence. Place undue reliance on the definitive article on the title page as a marker of authenticity and only the first four tales of “the” Bat-Man become holy writ and pass the puritan absolutist’s test. Yet the narrative caption of “The 1,000 Secrets of the Batcave” from Batman #48, from the autumn of 1948, still refers to “the Batman’s subterranean retreat” and “all the other crime-fighting tools of the Batman,” even as two sentences later Bill Finger’s script declares “and when this enemy would destroy Batman’s fate.”
Certainty can be a tough business when the texts themselves are taken into consideration. Why, the lead tale of Batman #48 is something of a dark and violent tale in itself, long after such stories are commonly supposed to have disappeared from Bruce Wayne’s adventures. There are police guards being callously shot and police motorcyclists being deliberately murdered in car crashes, doctors being savagely beaten, children being cracked across the head, and a wonderfully macabre death scene where the clearly-psychotic Wolf Brando drowns in a whirlpool in the Batcave. (The Bat-Whirlpool?) While no one would mistake “The 1,000 Secrets of the Batcave” as a story which could have been published in 1939 or early 1940, it stands as a direct contradiction to any scema which declares that the coming of Robin left the Batman’s stories without darkness, value, or even, indeed, that sacred definitive article.
This focus on the conceptual purity of the first year or so of Bruce Wayne’s career in Detective Comics, and upon the unquestionable value of those tales, hasn’t always been the commonly accepted version of Batman’s history. In 1970, for example, Ted White identified the period of 1940 to 1946 as the high summer of the character’s history, an opinion now extremely difficult to hold, unless, of course, the stories of those years have actually been read. Contemporary dogma now tells us that 1940 was the end and not the beginning of the Batman’s first age of excellence, and the years of the forties are now assumed to be marked by a rapid and increasing decline in the quality of his adventures. Similarly, it’s generally held that the undeniably fine scripts of Denny O’Neil, Archie Godwin, and Steve Engelhart in the late sixties and seventies restored “the” Batman to full health because they brought back what the character had originally been, before commercial pandering turned him into Robin’s foster father, a neutered children’s comic-book character, where once Bruce Wayne had been the Dark Knight.
It’s easy to understand why such beliefs have become articles of faith. There’s undoubtedly a great deal of meaning, if not always any precise grasp of the facts, in such credenda. But the truth of the situation is so much more complicated and qualified that the accepted version.
Because the version of the Bat-Man / Batman before Robin’s arrival isn’t in any way the default take on the character. In truth, there are grounds for arguing that in many ways he’s not the Batman at all.
The Batman, so the legend goes, was returned to his original uncut state after the camp era ground the character’s sales down to the point of cancellation. From this over-simplification of circumstance comes the assumption that the post-1968 Batman was a character that was essentially the same character as the Bat-Man / Batman of 1939-40. And so, we constantly hear that the Batman was returned to his dark noir roots, that he was restored as a creature of the night, that he became again in most if not all fundamental ways the Batman of Kane and Finger, Fox and Moldoff and Robinson.
The truth of the matter is rather different, of course, and Denny O’Neil for one has always been careful not to make any such fundamentalist claims for his take on Batman. The version of the Dark Knight that O’Neil helped to develop as part of editor’s Julius Schwartz’s team of creators was characterised, he’s argued, not by pulp noir, or any such vaguely-defined but romantically compelling concept, but by ”magic realism,” by the premise that”if Batman could exist, this is how he could be.” To O’Neil, his caped crusader was a quite different version of the Batman to the first one, whom he categorised as a ”costumed gentleman crimefighter.”
These labels, these sound-bites, can be incredibly effective in shaping our thinking. The Dark Knight, the Dark Knight Detective, the Masked Manhunter, the Gotham Guardian: these are powerful, emotive labels, although in themselves they mean nothing. They carry a sense of what the Batman has become and, to a greater or lesser degree, they stand for what he’s no longer supposed to be, for a rejection of the supposed epoch between 1940 and late 1968 when the Batman wasn’t truly himself. Even in 2011, where Grant Morrison and The Brave & The Bold cartoon have convincingly established the worth of at least some of those supposedly fallow years, we’re mostly all still sure that the Batman of the interregnum was only something of himself, and a selective use of quotes from key players in the restoration can help bolster that impression. And so, Julius Schwartz’s statement that he, O’Neil, and Adams had in 1968 decided to ”go back to the way it used to be” can be taken out of context, as it indeed has been, to indicate a protestant reform of an extravagantly corrupted text, a back-to-basics version of a long-ignored but utterly essential take on the Batman.
What would the taken-for-granted understanding of the Batman’s first year of adventures be today if O’Neil’s definition, as stated in Batman in the Seventies, and others like it, had become accepted as definitive? What if the Batman, or the Bat-Man, of 1939 had been cast decades later as something other than a slightly-less-restrained, still humane and quite brilliant ”creature of the night?” After all, little seems as antithetical to the idea of the criminal-terrifying Dark Night Detective, for example, as the image of a ”costumed gentleman crimefighter,” carrying as that does images of wealthy indulgence, class privilege, and a distinct lack of elemental fearsomeness.
What if it had been accepted that the Bat-Man wasn’t any Batman at all? I wonder whether many of the violently grim-’n'-gritty excesses imposed upon the character in the quarter century following the unexpected commercial success of The Dark Knight Returns would have been conceivable without the common belief that the first Bat-Man was is so many ways the true Batman?
The truth is that the 1968 reworking of the Batman could never have been a return to the original take of the superhero. As I’ll try to show next week, such could never have been considered, and that’s true even if we discount the much-discussed matter of the Batman having once been shown carrying a smoking gun, and twice, actually firing one. The brutal, arrogant, egoistical, careless, contemptuous, bodging the Bat-Man, with the air of a racist class-warrior, wouldn’t have been at all in keeping with the DC of 1968, and could never have been revived in that original form.
The fundamental difference between the Batman of pre-Summer 1940 and that of the post-1968 revision is utterly straight-forward and simple, and it’s so essential a distinction that the two depictions stand not as similar takes on one essentially unchanging “core” character, but as two utterly separate and antithetical superheroes. Because the Bruce Wayne who lost his parents some time in the 1920s responded to his loss by becoming a great deal of a brute. He’s not, as some have chosen to see him, simply inexperienced, and he’s certainly not naive; he’s not a man on a journey to assume his costumed responsibilities as a competent and compassionate man in any way at all. The truth is, he’s a persistently stupid, vicious and largely uncaring man. In complete contrast, the Bruce Wayne of the late 1960s is a terribly psychologically wounded character who’s seeking not to avenge himself while having a very good time indeed, but to prevent others from suffering as he did.
It’s an obvious difference, of course, but it’s one which changes everything. These two Batmen aren’t anything but opposites. The little boy shown weeping in the Batman’s first origin tale, told seven month’s after the superhero’s first appearance? His tears can deceive the reader into believing that this is a lad who’ll grown up to be characterised by benevolence and perseverance cloaked in the image of a fearsome vigilante, but that’s not the man that the first Bruce Wayne grew up to be. He’s little but the second half of that equation, unless you’re someone of his class, to whom he tends to display a touch of sympathy and concern. Jones and Jacobs, in The Comic Book Heroes, describe 1939-1940s Batman as being “explicitly motivated by his rage over the murder of his parents,” but his behavior doesn’t read today as “rage” so much as contempt. He’s not simply more violent than the Batman we know, he’s an entirely different human being. There’s no restraint or doubt at all in the mind of the first Bruce Wayne; he’s so utterly convinced of his moral superiority that his whole life seems dedicated to expressing his disdain in as violent a fashion as possible towards his “cowardly and superstitious” criminal opponents. He is, as O’Neil described, “The lone obsessed avenger,” but unlike today, when such characters are inevitably seen as damaged and often tragic figures, the first Batman became more and more of joyfully thuggish bully. He very much loved not just helping those he was concerned to, but hurting those he disapproved of, and as the months passed, he was shown reveling to a greater and greater degree in the harm that he could achieve, especially where the early months of 1940 were concerned.
Eury et al call these the character’s ”darker, more sinister” roots, and though that’s quite literally true, a modern understanding of what those words mean obscures the sadism and glee which characterized the Batman’s first year. We think of a “dark,” “sinister” Batman as being one who adopts a vampiric disguise in order to achieve through intimidation what violence alone might otherwise fail to accomplish, but the character’s first 11 appearances aren’t about a man pretending to be terrible at all. Rather, those story’s present a character who’s morally rather than physically ”dark” and “sinister.” That Bruce Wayne isn’t using Batman as a front for his mission, he’s occupying the identity so that he can have a great time showing off and beating people up.
Those qualities of glee and sadism would constantly threaten to be his undoing, but The Batman never noticed. He was having far too much fun punching and shooting whoever he wanted to.
This article was originally published on Colin Smith’s blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.