In which we continue our look, begun here, at the first year of the Batman’s existence.
For the sake of clarity, I refer to character as he appeared prior to April 1940 as “the Bat-Man,” although that hyphen, of course, disappeared from sight in the July of the year before.
So repeatedly idiotic and catastrophically dangerous is the Bat-Man’s behaviour during the first year of his existence that the reader familiar with anything of his post-1968 career can struggle to perceive the scale of the original’s incompetence, to say the very least. There’s a troubling sense of cognitive dissonance generated by those first 11 month’s worth of stories, because the Bat-Man looks so much like the character we know, and yet he’s little but a gloryhound and a fool, if he isn’t actually something of a madman. The eye perceives a familiar heroic figure now commonly defined by compassion and competence and, as a consequence, struggles through a fog of over-familiarity and fondness to recognise that the first Bruce Wayne was neither kind nor able nor predominantly sane.
There’s something heretical about realising that the Bat-Man isn’t Batman at all, but rather, just a disturbed individual wandering around in a somewhat-threatening rodent-costume. Though professionals and fans alike have for decades now debated the degree to which Bruce Wayne is sane or not, or indeed whether he even exists as a character in his own right, the Bat-Man is something else entirely. The key debate where he’s concerned isn’t how insane he is, but how sane. For there’s an immensely strong case for correlating the behavior of the Bat-Man with any number of psychological disorders associated with impulsivity and a pronounced lack of remorse. Of all the indicators associated with the personality trait of impulsivity, for example, the only one the Bat-Man lacks to a degree is the inability to persevere, although it should be said, as we’ll discuss, that he’s easily distracted from his ultimate aims by the presence of the chance of a brawl and a bragging. This means that the first Bruce Wayne is something fundamentally different from the popular understanding of the Batman, from the idea of the beneficent superhero who, as Les Daniels wrote, “came out of the darkness, out of the collective unconscious where visions of avenging angels dwell.” The Bat-Man isn’t an expression of a collective desire to be freed from a predatory class of criminals, but rather a distinct and damaged individual response to a toxic brew of loss and privilege. Neither a superhero stepping in to act with a measure of restraint where the state cannot or will not do so, nor a pulp adventurer dealing out death in response to specific and overwhelming threats, the Bat-Man is a profoundly damaged individual lacking any significant measure of restraint or emotional engagement. In truth, he’s a danger to everyone around him, and his victories are consistently marked by an excess of undeserved good luck and the minimum of adequacy.
In that, I realised while writing the second part of this piece, the Bat-Man doesn’t deserve to be hated at all. For the more the first eleven months of his adventures are studied, the more his lack of normalcy becomes obvious, and that’s true even when the oddnesses and inconsistencies of his superhero peers are taken into account by comparison. And, as such, perhaps “Why I Pity the Bat-Man, and His Victims Too” would have been a far better title for this discussion in the first place.
The Bat-Man is continually hurling himself into situations where he’s intensely vulnerable, and he often does so not because the safety of others requires it, but because he’s incredibly lacking in foresight and fear. And so, in “The Spies” from Detective Comics #37, he frees a man from being tortured by gangsters and never considers that anyone in that situation might be themselves a somewhat dangerous individual. Having been beaten into unconsciousness through the application of a revolver to the back of his head, we might expect the Batman to learn from this experience. But no, after the briefest indulgence in keeping to the shadows while amassing information, the Batman is soon back placing himself in the most exposed and defenceless of situations. Facing down three no-doubt armed criminals “on a pier in lower Downtown,” the Batman fails to reconnoitre the locale and places himself directly below a building from which a great heavy sack is thrown at him. (Given that his opponents were committed to waiting for a distant ship to arrive and dock before them, there was plenty of time for the Bat-Man to approach them in a cautious and effective manner.) Unconscious again, he barely escapes death, having been tied up and thrown into the sea, but he still fails to learn his lesson. In resolving the case, this apparently punch-drunk hero chooses to enter the house of the fiendish Count Grutt through the front door while a great armed brute of a butler stands to bar his way. That he might have been shot doesn’t seem to enter The Batman’s mind, and nor does the concept that he might have sneaked into the house in order to ensure that he achieved his ends with the least possible chance of being knocked out a third time.
It’s not a characteristic which appears only in that one story. In fact, it’s absolutely typical, and it shows a very clear difference between this first Batman and the pulp heroes that he’s so often compared to. For as Don Hutchinson writes in The Great Pulp Heroes, when “the Shadow laughed, it seemed reasonable that he did so to scare the hell out of criminals.” The Shadow fought for a purpose, controlled his battle-grounds as best he could, and, to my knowledge, never fought impossible battles for no conceivable gain in the face of almost inevitable death simply because he liked a brawl and couldn’t imagine the consequences of losing. Yet that’s very much what the Bat-Man does, time and time again. The Bat-Man fights when there’s nothing at stake, no hope of winning, nobody to save and the world-ending matters at hand unlikely to be resolved if he falls.And when the Bat-Man laughs, it’s because he’s having a really good time! In the previous month’s “Professor Hugo Strange,” for example, the Bat-Man enters a warehouse only to find himself faced with nine gangsters. But they haven’t yet drawn their guns and they’re at least 20 foot away from him at that moment, while the Bat-Man still has an open door immediately behind him to escape through. With nothing to gain and a firing squad before him, with himself at the apex of a killing zone, we might expect discretion to be the better part of valour, but we would be disappointed. For this Bat-man charges at the men before him even as the distance is so great that they’ve time to begin to draw their weapons, and only his excess of unbelievably good luck saves him, since his opponents have, unbeknowst to him, been ordered to take him alive. And so, once again, inevitably, “a black-jack crashes down on the Batman’s head,” resulting in his being brought before Professor Strange to be tortured.
One month before that and the Batman is so concerned to gloat out loud while beating up two thugs that he fails to note the arrival in the room of three “Hindus”, who club him into unconsciousness. He lunges at the Duc Dorterre without giving thought to the idea that his enemy might be armed in Detective Comics #34 and as a result ends up blasted into unconsciousness by a ray gun. His impetuousness sees him knocked out by one of the Napoleon of Crime’s men in “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigibles of Doom,” knocked out by the vampirette Dala and trapped in a room he’s entered rashly in “Batman versus the Vampires,” and shot while interrogating prisoners in a penthouse flat he’s not thought to first make secure in “The Batman Meets Dr Death”. Elsewhere, he’s incredibly lucky not to have been murdered time and time, giving his habit of launching himself into buildings without making the slightest effort to find out what’s going on inside first, such as in his second appearance, where the awareness of a simple burglary inspires him to leap without looking at all.
This Bat-Man isn’t a “creature of the night” in any sense that we recognise. He doesn’t represent any coherent moral principles beyond his own desire to continually be involved in circumstances which excite him. He’s either a very dim individual indeed, and so incapable of noting that being beaten insensible over and over is something which can be avoided, or he’s marked by some kind of cognitive limitation or even mental disorder which drives his constantly self-destructive behaviour. And once this is recognised by the reader, then certain moments in his first year of adventuring suddenly become far more telling than they at first appear to be. And so, for example, the fact of the Bat-Man, “having lost his way on lonely by-road” and stopping “before a lone house to ask directions” in “The Spies” suddenly stands as a quite typical example of this Bruce Wayne’s lack of proficiency and preparedness. The very idea of today’s Batman finding himself lost in a rural backwater of Gotham City is inconceivable. Even without modern technology, the Batman would know so much of Gotham – or in this case New York - and its surroundings that he couldn’t possibly be so lost that he’s reduced to knocking on the door of an entirely isolated countryside home. But here, despite being at least a year into his adventures, the Bat-man is capable of simply getting lost. Does the Batmobile contain no maps, does the Bat-man lack a photographic memory as to where he’s been driving so that he might retrace his way homewards?
Or did he just keep driving his great beast of a Batmobile down unlit dirt-track roads further and further into the darkness? Well, of course he did. This Bat-Man lacks the ability to stop and consider his options, and given his apparent hunger for distraction and excitement, he probably got off on disappearing into the night where he couldn’t predict or control what he would find, even if all it brought him was the fact of being utterly lost. After all, this is a Batman who responds to an advert in a newspaper asking for the caped crusader to collect a message at the post office by turning up as Bruce Wayne to do so, as if no-one else could have read the public notice, as if the police and press and underworld of Gotham might not have been waiting for him. This Batman might have become, according to his origin, a “master scientist,” but that doesn’t mean that he can be trusted to put his shoes onto the right feet, let alone defeat super-criminals through little beyond improvisation, desperation and luck.
As the first year of the Bat-man’s published adventures progresses, his tendency to behave in an impulsive and quite frankly suicidal manner intensifies. It’s very much as if a personality disorder is over-riding whatever discretion and restraint this Bruce Wayne possesses. In his first appearance, he does take the care to surprise the burglars escaping from Stephen Crane’s house, and he only “leaps” into Jenning’s gas-chamber in order to save Rogers when there’s no alternative to doing so. But from that point onwards, it’s as if the Bat-Man finds it impossible to restrain himself, as if the very business of playing the role of the Bat-Man reinforces the very worst of his nature.
We can see evidence for this degeneration of his character in the way in which the originally taciturn crime-fighter becomes more and more outspoken and contemptuous of those he’s fighting with. Indeed, by the February of 1940, there’s a sense that the Batman is truly out of control. In “Professor Hugo Strange”, he surprises a gang of criminals in a warehouse, including a guard with a machine gun, and, standing yards away from his opponents, taunts them. Then, as he “races towards” them, he suddenly breaks into an expression of absolute glee! “This, Boys, is what they call a perfect strike, on any bowling alley!”, he declares as he smashes into all 5 of them, and there can be no doubt that this is a man who enjoys inflicting hurt while taking ridiculous chances with his life.
This inability to resist the lure of impossible odds is matched by a joy in hurting others which Denny O’Neil’s Batman would’ve recoiled from. Unlike the Bruce Wayne that we’ve long been familiar with, this Bat-man is a fearsomely violent brute, and the laconism of his first appearances is gradually discarded until he’s constantly barking out the kind of aggressive wisecracking which we might expect from an overgrown and none-to-bright playground bully. “Come on, suckers!” he taunts the spies in Detective Comics #37, flexing his muscles and adopting a pose which has nothing to do with fighting and everything to do with self-adoration. In such a way does his long-established habit of constantly talking aloud to himself in private become matched by an inability to shut up when fighting.
This escalating love of violence is matched by an unchanging and complete callousness where the suffering and death of the Bat-Man’s opponents is concerned. There’s never a single scene where the Bat-man expresses the slightest sorrow at the passing of an adversary. The criminal he hurls off the roof of Crane’s house in “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” for example, can’t possibly have survived his three story plummet, and yet The Bat-man shows not the slightest concern.(It was a quite unnecessary death too, because Wayne could simply have waited for the men to come down to ground-level. There was nowhere for them to escape to.) When he later punches Stryker into an “acid tank” in the same story, the Batman’s response is “a fitting end for his kind,” an irredeemably egocentric and essentially unchristian approach to the business of law and justice. And the
deaths certainly do pile up from that point onwards, just as the expressions of sympathy and regret fail to, though the Bat-Man appears to become slightly less casual about killing folks without a half-decent excuse as the months pass. There’s a jewel thief kicked off the roof of a skyscraper in “Frenchy Blake’s Jewel Gang,” whose death-fall goes unnoted in the narrative at all, just as does the fact that the Batman hadn’t needed to pick a fight with ‘Gloves’ and his knifeman in the first place, for there was no way for them to escape him on those rooftops. A plea of self-defence could be more productively entered by the Bat-man where the apparent immolation of Dr. Death is concerned, and the case for his gassing of Kruger, and the Napoleon of Crime’s consequent death in a plane crash, could similarly be excused. And the execution of the vampires through the use of silver bullets in Detective Comics #32 is hard to feel too outraged by, even though some fans still shiver at the very idea of The Batman wielding a gun. Yet if one or two deaths are understandable, the sheer number of them surely raises questions of the Batman’s will to save the lives of those he’s opposed to. The Duc plunges to his death in his car, one “Mongol” is punched so that he’s propelled onto a sword of a colleague, the Count is similarly pushed towards an equally final and punctured fate, and Lennox is knocked out of a window to his death onto the street far below. When two different opponents end their lives run through by swords, and when it’s one man’s fists which have added momentum and direction to their final moments, then the very idea of a sequence of terrible accidents committed in the name of self-defence becomes less and less tenable. The fact that only three out of the Bat-Man’s first eleven adventures passed without the death, or apparent death, of a protagonist establishes that he’s not an individual who’s particularly concerned with the welfare of those he’s fighting with.
Yet such is the degree of the Bat-man’s incompetence that it is just possible that he’s knocking off his foes by accident. The suspicion lurks that although The Bat-man rather prefers his enemies to die, he’s not particularly bent on achieving any such end. Instead, he just seems not to be thinking about the consequences of what he’s doing. He’ll throw folks off of the tops of roofs if it seems like a good idea on the spur of the moment, but that’s as close as he seems to get to premeditated murder. For it’s not that the Bat-Man has a mission to murder so much as it just doesn’t seem to bother him. He simply doesn’t care, and perhaps he’s incapable of doing so. For instance, his first apparent killing, in Detective Comics #27, only makes sense if we assume that the Bat-Man suddenly quite forgets both why he’s standing on a rooftop and what happens to people, and the evidence they’re clutching, when they tumble from such high places. Concerned as he is to take the stolen paper from the men who’ve shot Stephen Crane, Bat-man instead “grabs his second adversary in a deadly headlock… and with a mighty heave… sends the burly criminal flying through space.” In doing so, the Bat-Man has suddenly forgotten that that “burly criminal” is still holding the vital paper as Batman throws him to his death, and it’s only chance that causes him to drop it just as he’s hurled over the roof’s edge. It’s as if the Bat-Man just forgot the sole reason why he was there, standing absurdly and vulnerably upon that roof. But then, a fight had started, and it all seemed rather fun and demanding, and the fact that the Bat-Man was actually throwing away the vital information he’d risked his life to try to acquire simply seems to have escaped his attention in the thrill of it all.
For it’s not just that Bat-Man seems to forget those rather substantial matters of human rights, of life and death, when he starts off on one of his endless melees. He also appears to loose track of any aspect of his existence beyond the moment itself. Life, death, vital scraps of paper? None of it seems to matter when the excitement kicks in and the adrenalin squirts through him.
I’ve no doubt that the morgues of the New York City of 1939-40 gradually filled up not just with the bodies of the criminals which the Bat-Man declared war upon, but also with those of all the blameless bystanders and compromised-but-redeemable individuals who unfortunately got in the way of his larks. The comics may not show them, but there’s no doubt that a man with this much power and this little self-control would very quickly start racking up his total of unfortunate passers-by. A man so lacking in conscience and reflection, so alien to restraint and forethought, couldn’t possibly just have done away with stereotypical gangsters and super-criminals, all replete with their very un-WASP surnames. This Bat-Man really was a menace to society as well as to himself, and if ever I was on the police’s side as they’re shown tracking down a costumed would-be do-gooder, it’s here, where the Bat-Man is such a disturbing and damaged individual that all the reader can do is hope that he trips on his cape and ends up with an immobilising broken ankle, safely incarcerated in a pleasantly comfortable prison-hospital cell.
Without such deceptively extravagant good fortune, this Bat-Man couldn’t possibly have made it to the end of 1940 without there being one more crack across the back of his head, and one more descent into unconsciousness which, as the laws of probability finally asserted themselves, didn’t end with a lucky escape and a last-ditch victory.
Should you not own a copy of the softcover Batman Chronicles, Volume 1, which contains the first 17 Bat-Man / Batman stories, my recommendation is to seek it out as swiftly as circumstances permit! It’s a absolute hoot, I promise. And perhaps we might all agitate for a stand-alone series starring this Bruce Wayne, set back in 1939, once the dust of the new DCU has settled. It’d surely have every chance of being a hoot too.
This article was originally published on Colin Smith’s blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics.