Batman #1—The Ultimate Batman Comic

At WonderCon 2014 there was a panel to celebrate Batman’s 75th Anniversary. In attendance at the panel were some of the most vaunted creators to add to the great American myth of Batman: Neal Adams, Jim Lee, Scott Snyder, Grant Morrison, Denny O’Neil and Frank Miller. All of them legends both in comics, and also with a beloved take on the iconic character. Frank Miller, had the most insightful and fascinating comment on the character of all attending the panel: “The best way I’ve been able to describe it, is that Batman is like a very large, multifaceted diamond; you can do almost anything with him.” [Also like a diamond], “you can throw it against the walls, you can do anything to it, it will not break.” Everyone at the panel agreed with this statement saying that Batman is still resonant in any form, whether he be grounded in an extremely realistic setting in Year One, or pure fantasy with Bat-Mite and aliens. Morrison defended every version of Batman as valid. He even dared to earn the scorn of fans when he said that he enjoyed Joel Schumacher’s Batman films, whose camp and silliness has been met with derision while Adam West’s era on the Batman TV Series has reached a renaissance of warm embrace. Frank Miller, who is generally regarded as having written the best Batman story of all time (The Dark Knight Returns, or Year One) concurred with Morrison’s argument that all Batman interpretations are the best arguing: “The very best Batman, is the one you like the best.”

Batman fans are free to choose campy-Batman in series such as the aforementioned Adam West series or Batman: Brave and the Bold. Batman can speak to all-ages such as Batman: The Animated Series, or be written strictly for mature readers such as Batman: The Black Mirror. Every interpretation of Batman is right and can be enjoyed as the “true Batman”. What is fascinating is that the wide range of scope in Batman’s stories was demonstrated as early as 1940 with the publication of Batman #1. In one single comic Batman’s uncredited and only recently recognized (by fans not DC) co-creator Bill Finger crafted four incredible and memorable stories that would demonstrate the range of Batman’s tone and stories. Batman #1, has two brutal crime dramas with Batman encountering the Joker for the first time countered with a bizarre nigh-fantasy story and a purely comedic fourth-wall breaking campy story. Batman #1 has every single tone and approach to Batman all collected into one single 34-page comic. Batman #1 is the ultimate comic ever produced on the character as it demonstrated every possibility that all future creators would explore as their signature tone to Batman.

The debate over creator and co-creator is always a valid debate, but Bill Finger is undoubtedly the most unsung writer and co-creator in the history of comics. Almost everything that makes Batman unique and memorable as a character came from the mind of Finger, including something as crucial as the design for the character’s costume. His lack of credit is attributed to a passive personality in the workplace and accepting the nigh-tyrannical Bob Kane’s terms of Finger receiving pay for being regarded as a ghost writer. Neal Adams said in a passing but frank comment that Finger was a man who would not even defend himself of his credit to Batman . The official sole-creator of Batman, Bob Kane, said in his auto-biography that he regretted his treatment of Finger whom he considered a friend and said: “Now that my long-time friend and collaborator is gone, I must admit that Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved. He was an unsung hero … I often tell my wife, if I could go back fifteen years, before he died, I would like to say. ‘I’ll put your name on it now. You deserve it.’” Bill Finger died alone, never seeing a dime or even credit for a character that he helped define. Batman became a worldwide phenomenon on the levels of Sherlock Holmes, while his co-creator Bill Finger was swept under the rug and all but forgotten for decades.

Finger’s unjust treatment though should not overshadow his incredible talent as a writer. As shown in Batman #1, Finger was a writer who could move effortlessly across genres, tones and targeted audiences all the while providing a consistency in quality to Batman. Few writers have the talent of Finger in providing consistency in quality while never being moored to a specific tone or genre. The first and final stories of Batman #1 were the brutal crime dramas that introduced Batman’s arch-enemy the Joker. The character was visually conceived by Jerry Robinson, and his first two stories were crafted by Finger who had the Clown Prince of Crime depicted as a brutal and cunning criminal. Contrary to popular belief, the introduction of Robin to Batman did not “lighten” the seriousness or violence depicted in Batman comics. The Joker’s debut story has mass murder with the forever chilling image of the Joker’s victims dying with a rictus grin. The story would set the tone for the Joker as being an enemy unlike any that Batman had come to face before and was more dangerous than any that would come later. Robinson’s reliance on shadow effects as well as a kinetic energy to the graphic violence being depicted make the two Joker stories the strongest of Batman #1.

It is worth noting that Batman’s ultimate enemy was originally conceived to be a one-off villain who would meet his end in his second story in the comic. But the editor of Batman saw that the character had greater potential than Batman’s first recurring villain, Dr. Death and pushed that the Joker survive. In his debut the Joker was a character with only slight hints of mirth in his actions. The Joker’s main “joke” was countering the expectations of how he would achieve the crimes he committed. His ultimate intended demise was a poetic note of the joke being on the Joker. The Joker taking this to heart laughed as he was dying. The story also created the eternal mystery of the Joker somehow surviving despite numerous possible deaths. In two short stories, Finger writes two gripping crime dramas about a murdering sociopath whose inventive methods of killing his enemies and showmanship made him the perfect foil to the dark, brooding detective of Batman.

While the weird and dark detective stories were doubtlessly the most memorable and unique of the four original stories told in Batman #1, Finger had far an amazing range of tone and subjects in his stories. For the second story included in Batman #1, Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters, would be a model for all science-fiction Batman tales. Batman, while at times living firmly in the real world has stories that cross the weird and fantastic, with characters such as the shape-shifter Clayface and the horrid monster Clayface appearing as recurring enemies to the Dark Knight. Such bizarre science-fiction characters (and also fantasy characters like Bat-Mite) were first included in Finger’s early Batman stories. The recurring mad scientist Hugo Strange makes horrid experiments that mutate humans into mindless monsters which the Batman hunts down. Part of what is noticeable is that the notion of the Glob-trotting Batman made popular in Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams take on Batman first appears in Finger’s story. The Batman sets out to stop Strange attacking New York (an established separate city from Gotham). Batman has no restriction on preventing crime in any place. Batman also takes a much more lethal turn in the story, but prefaces that he is weary and reluctant to take life when avoidable. Later Batman writers such as Frank Miller, and movie director’s Tim Buton and Christopher Nolan would be criticized for depicting Batman as killing people. Finger, however, viewed a character that was not above killing if it was unavoidable and necessary to save lives.

The third story The Cat is one of the silliest and enjoyable of Finger’s writing. The Cat is written in a camp style that would be later heralded by Dick Sprang and Adam West. Part of what makes the story endearing is it’s self-awareness and slyness. Whereas the Joker stories were grounded and strictly adhering to writing a grounded horror-crime story, The Cat has Batman break the fourth-wall and directly instruct young readers on how to behave. The story is also told primarily from the perspective of Robin, suggesting that not all stories involving Batman necessitate that Batman be the protagonist. Robin is focused on duty and stopping a jewel thief while Batman falls in love with the Cat and lets her escape. The story is an enjoyable comedy story that shows Batman could be just as funny as it could be serious and terrifying. Batman #1 is unlike any comic produced. It demonstrated all of the tones and artistic directions that would follow for Batman, all in one single comic and all written by one of the greatest writers of comics.

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James Kelly has been obsessed with comics and superheroes since he saw Batman: The Animated Series on TV. His father also got him hooked on Star Wars when he took him to the 1997 re-release of the magnificent Saga. Kelly graduated from Cal Poly with a degree in English Literature, and a concentration in Fiction Writing. He hopes to be able to one day produce his many comics and other writing projects to mass audiences.

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