According to the Library of Congress, Detective Comics #27 was released for sale on March 30, 1939. In addition to the usual Detective lineup of Slam Bradley, The Crimson Avenger, and Speed Saunders, this issue introduced a new character: Batman. As of last Sunday, Batman is 75 years old.
In his first two appearances, he was actually called The “Bat-Man”. Always “The”, and Batman was always hyphenated and always appeared in quotes. Even if it was spoken in dialogue, which makes me feel like everybody is using air-quotes the whole time. That first story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” is… weird. Aside from the costume, Batman really isn’t any different from the leads in the other Detective features. None of his gadgets or weapons or vehicles appear. Batman drives a regular car and at one point, uses a handkerchief to plug a gas nozzle. It’s not explicitly stated that he pulled the handkerchief from his utility belt (which isn’t even identified as such), but I like to think that’s what happened. Commissioner Gordon appears in that first story, and the big surprise reveal at the end is that Bruce Wayne (who appears in the opening pages) is… The “Bat-Man”. GASP!
In that first story, Batman straight up kills the criminal by punching him into a vat of acid. People always cite this as evidence that Batman used to kill people all the time, but there are maybe three or four early stories where that happens. And back then, every lead character killed the bad guy because comics were rooted in the pulp tradition. In fact, early Batman is not much different from the Shadow or the Spider, because Bob Kane never had an original thought in his life.
(And this is not my main focus, but Bob Kane is one of comics’ greatest hucksters. He still has creator credit on every Batman appearance to this very day, but his original idea for Batman is very different from what eventually appeared. Everything we know about the character came from writer Bill Finger, who does not get creator credit. In those early issues, Bob Kane only provided the art and most of that was even swiped from other sources.)
I wish I could say that Batman had star power from the very beginning, but in actual fact, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” really isn’t even the best story in the issue. In those days, they just had to fill a page count and tossed whatever they had into the comic. And since the remit of Detective Comics was, clearly, detective stories, Batman mostly stands out because he has a costume and a secret identity. By the time they would have had reader feedback (which, in 1939, would have been letters from children), Batman was already more fleshed out. He had a recurring villain (Doctor Death), he’d moved from fighting dishonest chemists to actual vampires, and as of Detective 33, he had an origin. To my mind, that’s what made the difference. Slam Bradley, Bruce Nelson, and Bart Regan were just guys who were detectives for a living. Bruce Wayne put on a costume and fought crime for another reason. If Batman hadn’t had that origin story (two pages, twelve panels), I think he’d have eventually passed into obscurity. As it was, after only a year, Batman warranted his own solo title, Batman. And that book was all new material. Even Superman couldn’t make that claim – his solo book was initially reprints from Action Comics. Eventually, Batman took over Detective Comics entirely and had two full-length monthly books of his own.
Seventy-five years later, here we are. Batman, along with Superman and only a few others, survived the post-WWII collapse of the superhero genre and kept on appearing in multiple books every month. Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman – all of those guys disappeared entirely and a decade later were resurrected as new characters with repurposed names. Batman kept on going. In all that time, there’s never been a publication gap. Every month since March of 1939, there’s been at least one new Batman comic on the stands. Since then, he’s appeared in just about every other form of media. TV, animation, feature films, serials, video games, original web content, novels – Batman’s done them all.
A lot of that comes down to his nearly infinite adaptability. As long as he has some variation of the costume and even the broadest strokes of the origin, you’ve got something recognizable as Batman. Christian Bale, Adam West, and Will Arnett’s LEGO Batman – they’re all Batman. Frank Miller’s aging embittered Batman, the Batman who fights aliens with the Justice League, Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated – all Batman. He’s not locked into one portrayal or one type of story. You can put Batman into a sci-fi story, a Western, an allegorical battle against the idea of evil, whatever you want.
But if I could say for sure why Batman has succeeded the way he has, I’d have applied those lessons toward creating my own iconic character and now I’d be a millionaire. Clearly, this has not happened so there remains some degree of uncertainty. All I can do is talk about why Batman has been in my life for as long as I can remember.
I was reading at a ridiculously young age. I could sit down with a collection of Peanuts strips before I was three years old and when I started preschool I could read the teacher’s lesson plan. At one point, I was considered gifted but despite the advice of education professionals, my parents didn’t enroll me in the gifted classes because they wanted me to be socially well-adjusted. They didn’t realize that ship had already sailed, I guess. (And to their credit, it turned out that I’m a dumb guy who’s just really good at reading.) But the point is that because I was a very young reader, there were comic books in the house. They were cheap and I’d sit quietly and read for a long time. I was a low maintenance child in that way. A lot of my earliest memories are old comics, and going back and checking the records, the oldest one I can clearly remember is Aquaman #61, which boasted a Batman guest appearance. That might be my first exposure to Batman, though it’s likely that I’d seen him on TV before that. Regardless, I like the idea that, in the first Batman comic I ever read, he’s wearing scuba gear the entire time. (He still has his costume, including the cape. But he’s got a scuba mask and air tanks because he and Aquaman are battling Kobra underwater.)
I was two when that issue came out, so there really isn’t a time in my life before I liked Batman. I had a utility belt of my own and an alarm clock that woke me up with the voices of Adam West and Burt Ward. (“Golly, Batman, we’re needed again.” “Right Robin, time to wake our friend.” “Jeepers, Batman, can I make the call?” “Yes, Robin, time to wake them all.” “It’s time to get up, get out of bed!” “Right, Robin. Very well said.” 1979 alarm clock greeting, FROM MEMORY. Beat that, people who dated in high school!) All these years later, I have an entire bookshelf full of Batman books and collections, a page of original art, and more figures than I can comfortably justify.
There was a time, a few years ago, when I had a girlfriend who didn’t know about my Batman fandom. I mean, there were a lot of nerd qualities that I made a great effort to hide because it didn’t fit in with the person I was trying to be for her benefit. I could choose not to express strong opinions about video games, and my knowledge of the Star Wars Expanded Universe rarely comes up in the day-to-day. But never mentioning Batman? Not even when I went to a midnight show of Batman Begins on opening night and had to take the next day off because I was too charged up to sleep? That was weird.
I learned important lessons from that relationship. Like, I don’t even try to impress people when I meet them because there’s no way I can continue to keep to that standard. Which may not be healthy either, but if there’s one thing I do, it’s overcorrect. But the most important thing, and maybe this is dumb, is that Batman is important to me even if I can’t quite explain why.
I wasn’t popular as a kid. Or now, but this is not the time for that. We lived outside the city limits on a cul de sac, and my grandparents were our only neighbors. Besides church and annual visits from my Kansas cousins, I had never spent time with a person my age when I started school. I was the weird kid. When you don’t understand how your peers interact with one another, you’re going to get caught up in a fantasy world instead of making friends. I’ve said before that I wanted to be friends with Superman, but I wanted to be Batman. He was the guy who made sense to me – the one who’s sort of on the outskirts. Yeah, he was technically a member of the Justice League, but none of those guys ever came to Gotham City. Batman had co-workers, not friends. (Except for Superman, but he likes everybody.)
Of course, this may be giving my young self too much credit than warranted. It could very well have been that I just liked Batman’s costumes and thought he had the best villains. Young EJ is a mystery to all of us.
It seems like every nerdy guy has that part in his biography where he gave up comics because he discovered girls. In my case, I discovered them but since they hadn’t discovered me, it seemed like a waste to give up comics while I waited. Then Batman: The Animated Series came along during my senior year. That was huge. I still love that series, and to me at the time, it was cool. I think that was when I realized what it meant for a character to be iconic. The picky little continuity stuff didn’t matter because there’s a Batman that everybody knows is the real one. And yes, the fact that I thought talking about a Batman cartoon rather than Batman comics was my ticket to popularity just indicates how delusional I was. But at the time, it felt like progress.
I can’t account for why Batman has stuck with me all this time, but he has. In 2002, some friends of mine decided that I was going to get drunk on an overnight trip, and I went along with it. My only caveat was that they had to test me on Batman trivia every once in a while – if I couldn’t give the real names or first appearances of major villains, I was too drunk and had to stop. Turns out, that knowledge does not go away. I couldn’t remember how doors worked, but I still knew Oswald Chesterfield Cobblepot, Detective Comics #140, and that Paul Sloane was the second Two-Face. When The Dark Knight opened in 2008, not only did I write daily Batman content for spunkybean all week, I caught a midnight showing of the movie, went home, wrote a review, cleaned up and went back to work. Two days without sleep and I didn’t regret it at all.
Sometimes it seems crazy that so much of my brain is tied up with a fictional character owned by a multinational corporation. DC could reboot Batman (again) or put a terrible creative team on his books. But even if that happens, it doesn’t really matter. If the day comes when there is no new Batman material that interests me, there’s still plenty of it already available. And no matter who plays him in the next movie or what sort of continuity nonsense comes his way, I always have Batman swordfighting Ra’s al Ghul in the desert. Batman fought his way back through time after shooting Darkseid with the idea of a bullet, he held a terminally ill little girl as she died, he reclaimed Gotham block by block after a devastating earthquake, and he lifted a gorilla over his head for hours. That’s awesome, and nothing can take that away. It’s like Commissioner Gordon said, “Batman always comes back. Bigger and better; shiny and new. Batman never dies. It never ends. It probably never will.”
Or, if I can quote the final episode of Brave and the Bold yet again, when Batman learns he’s a fictional character and his reality is going to be cancelled, Ambush Bug reminds him: “Here’s the thing, Batman. There’s a lot of people out there. People who believe in you. Real or not, what you do in here matters.” And that’s it. For seventy-five years, Batman has mattered. My life is better because of a fictional character, and I’m not the only one.
Happy 75th Anniversary, Batman!