I was very excited when I looked at “the shelf” and saw that the first Batman appeared only two trades in. He has always been my favorite superhero (if that is in fact the proper term for him. I acknowledge that “antihero” may be more appropriate) and he is by far the character I know the most about. That’s not saying much, but still. My interest was piqued by what I already knew.
I grew up on a steady dose of Batman. I watched the 90’s animated series. I’ve seen all the movies. I’ve even started watching the original 60’s tv show (which I’m starting to believe more and more is the greatest show ever made). I’ve spent many a day walking around with “Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na BATMAN” stuck in my head (and if you think for one second I didn’t just sing that in my head to make sure I included the right number of “na’s”, you’re sorely mistaken). I know the basic backstory and lore, but I’m fuzzy on a lot of the details. I liked what I already knew, and was excited to learn more about this illustrious character.
Luckily, Mistah J is himself a huge Batman fan, and so his shelves are generously peppered with various Batman story lines, ripe for the picking. A part of me wanted to just pick out all the Batman comics and read them at once, foregoing the other character’s stories. I decided against this though, knowing that I would miss out on the full experience of reading about all of the characters and their intersecting worlds, and thus be robbed of a full understanding of the multiverse in which these characters reside.
Still, I’m allowed to have my favorites, and I was all too happy to pick this trade off of the shelf and put it on my “to read” pile.
Beginning with the Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27, this collection chronicles the first adventures of the caped crusader, before he was even known as such. I had exceedingly high hopes for this collection. Here were the first stories about Batman, setting the tone for many series to come and creating the base character from whom countless writers would draw upon.
I’m happy to say the trade did not disappoint, though my enjoyment of these comics was for fairly surprising reasons.
The series opens with Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon sitting around smoking (it still throws me when I these comics supposedly for children and see characters smoking constantly. Different times, my friend), and chatting about nothing much in particular. Gordon receives a call that there’s been a murder, and invites Bruce Wayne to tag along, to which Wayne responds: “Oh well. Nothing else to do, might as well.”
Gee Gordon, sure, let’s invite the civilian to an active crime scene, why not? There’s no way that could possibly be a bad idea.
I can’t help but wonder if Bill Finger had a particular disdain for law enforcement and so chose to portray them in a truly idiotic light. This has become a common trope within superhero tales: the bumbling, incompetent police force as a foil to the ultimately successful hero working outside the law. I just assumed this was something that slowly developed over time. Nope, there it is on page one of Detective Comics #27. With cops like this, no wonder the city needs Batman.
I must admit, I found the early Batman stories more compelling than Superman’s. There was a greater sense of action and adventure within them. It felt like more familiar territory. Each issue had a who-dunnit theme (this is Detective Comics, after all) and I found the stories quite exciting. Bob Kane’s artwork created a real sense of action and suspense. I can already see how his style may could have influenced many artists to come.
That being said, the comics are far from perfect. I know Batman as a dark, brooding man of few words, yet within these pages he’s often making wisecracks as he battles criminals. Don’t get me wrong, some of these were flat-out funny, but they didn’t fit the image of the character I grew up with. The Batman I know is the strong, silent type, depicted in various shades of black and grey, with an ominous, almost sinister overtone. In the early issues we see Batman not only cracking jokes but even smiling. Where is the brooding antihero we’ve all come to know and love (for reasons I’m sure a psychologist would love to explore)? I’m interested to see when the switch was made to a darker character.
Despite Batman’s penchant for joking in the early years, the comics still had quite a few moments of brutality that were rather shocking, especially considering these stories were meant for children. At one point we see, quite graphically, a man’s head split open with a machete.
I wasn’t expecting this in these early issues, and it makes me wonder if children in the late 30’s were simply less sheltered from violent images, and if it was deemed acceptable for children to see these because they were just cartoons. We all grew up with plenty of violence in kid’s programming, but it was generally of a more cartoonish nature. This is outright violent. I’m curious to see how the depiction of violence progresses through the years, whether it is reeled in at any point or simply becomes more artistic in nature, following Batman’s transition into a darker, more callous character.
What made these violent scenes stand out was the fact that they were interlaced with other far more light-hearted moments. At one point Robin gets the jump on a criminal, and the crook exclaims, “I’m being attacked by an elf!”
This tongue-in-cheek humor greatly amused me, not only because I found it funny but because it shows that Kane and Finger acknowledged the comical appearance of Robin’s costume enough to comment on it. (There’s always the possibility that they were simply commenting on Robin’s height, since as a boy he should be at least somewhat shorter than everyone else. That seems like a much more mundane interpretation though, so I’m choosing to believe it was a comment on his overall appearance). Robin’s brightly colored costume has always stood in stark contrast to Batman’s all-black wardrobe, a feature that always baffled me. I suppose it was a way to highlight Robin’s youth and differentiate him from the older, darker persona of the Batman. Nevertheless, the fact that the creators acknowledge the silliness of the costume, however slightly, made me smile, and makes me appreciate their creativity even more.
I was quite surprised to see how much of Batman’s backstory was established in these early issues. Not only do we learn about how Bruce Wayne was orphaned as a child and dedicated his life to fighting crime, but we also see the introduction of Robin (the boy wonder!), aka Dick Grayson, and learn his origin story as well. Both stories were essentially identical to the ones I had grown up with, proving that not much has changed about their histories since they first appeared. Details may have been added, a few facts altered here and there, but the basic shell of who they are has remained unchanged.
These early Batman stories were greatly entertaining to say the least. I admit a personal bias; Batman was always my favorite DC character growing up, so I’m more inclined to enjoy learning about his early years in print. Even so, I think I would have enjoyed these stories even if I hadn’t heard of Batman before. As with the Superman stories, there was a certain nostalgia associated with reading the early stories for these characters. Catching the first time certain trademark items or phrases make an appearance was especially exciting. This collection gripped me from the first page and made me dying to read more. Having to wait an entire month between printings, isn’t that exactly the sort of reaction you want from your reader? These stories were compelling, action-packed, and an all-around good time. It’s no wonder Batman gained the massive following that he did.
Reading these early stories has only further piqued my interest in the character of Batman, and makes me eager to continue reading about the caped crusader’s various exploits.
Lastly: You may question the noticeable absence of any commentary on the Joker’s first appearance in the Batman comics, which appeared in this collection. I am saving that for a second, separate entry, as I feel it deserves to be a blog post in its own right. Not to mention I have plenty to say on the matter. As they say in the comics:
To be continued…