Batman at 80: How the Dark Knight Became the World's Most Iconic Superhero
In early 1939, Superman soared over the comic book world. Editors at a nascent DC Comics (then known as National Comics Publication) charged young gag cartoonist Bob Kane with creating a follow-up to the hugely successful character. The illustrator wracked his brain, drawing upon diverse images from across the pop cultural spectrum: Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine, pulp detective novels, a mystery film called The Bat Whisperer and Douglas Fairbanks’ portrayal of Zorro. He called on another young collaborator, Bill Finger, to fine-tune some of the details and zero in on their hero’s backstory.
Over the course of a weekend, the men had created one of the most recognizable figures in modern history.
Eighty years since Batman debuted in the 27th issue of Detective Comics— “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” — the character (a.k.a. Bruce Wayne, the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight — your choice) has conquered practically every medium in existence. Print, television, blockbuster films, toys, video games — you name it, Batman’s done it
In celebration of the 80th anniversary, this week DC released the 1000th issue of Detective Comics, which brings Batman’s past, present and future to life.
It’s a look back at a legacy that could have scarcely been imagined in 1939, back when comics were designed as — quite literally — disposable entertainment, and Batman was conceived as just another sleuth solving crimes.
“With the birth of Batman, you have to go back to the birth of comics itself,” DC archivist Benjamin LeClear tells PEOPLE. “The starting point being newspaper comic strips and pulp magazines, things that show up deeply in his DNA. You have Detective Comics back in 1937, and the conceit is that everyone is a detective.”
With the success of Superman, however, it became clear that intriguing personalities were just as important to the success of a comic as the plot and format. The windfall from Superman’s recent syndicated newspaper strips made the character an important model to follow. Years later, Finger recalls Kane’s first draft closely resembled the Man of Steel.
“He had drawn a character who looked very much like Superman with kind of … reddish tights, I believe, with boots … no gloves, no gauntlets … with a small domino mask, swinging on a rope. He had two stiff wings that were sticking out, looking like bat wings. And under it was a big sign … ‘BATMAN.’”
Finger made important suggestions to Kane’s design, many of which can be seen in Batman’s 21st century incarnation.
“Bill Finger contributed things like adding a cowl and replacing the wings with a cape,” explains LeClear. “It’s this design that’s first used in Detective Comics No. 27.”
More than just the look, LeClear credits Finger with giving Batman his moniker, Bruce Wayne.
“He wanted something that had a sound of American gentry,” says LeClear. “So he rejected a bunch of earlier ideas, like Hancock and Adams. Then he got to [Revolutionary War Officer] ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne. They’ve even made it that Bruce Wayne is a direct descendant of Mad Anthony Wayne. And then ‘Bruce’ is from one of your all-time great rebel figures in history, [Scottish freedom fighter] Robert the Bruce.”
But perhaps his greatest influence is Zorro, the masked vigilante avenger of Spanish California.
“Here is this masked vigilante avenger, this swashbuckling Douglas Fairbanks-like character,” says LeClear. “It’s been in his DNA forever.”
It’s no accident that the most transformative event in Batman’s life — the murder of his parents — occurs as they’re leaving a cinema after watching a Zorro film.
More than a compelling backstory, the loss of his mother and father introduced vulnerability to his superhero persona, and helped endear him to millions of readers.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, the idea of losing your parents to violence hits a nerve with everybody,” says LeClear. “That someone would take this vow of never letting this happen to anybody else means we feel included — he’s actually fighting for us. And I think that’s part of the lasting appeal. He’s also proven that his will is something that is second to none. He won’t give up on us. He will fight.”
Another factor in Batman’s early success was the introduction of his partner in crime fighting: Robin. Fed up with having to write soliloquies for the solitary superhero, Finger sought to compliment the Sherlock Holmes-like Batman character with a Dr. Watson figure. Art assistant Jerry Robinson suggested they name him “Robin,” after the beloved Robin Hood books he’d read as a boy.
“The impetus came from Bill’s wanting to extend the parameters of the story potential and of the drama,” Robinson recalled in a 2005 interview. “He saw that adding a sidekick would enhance the drama. Also, it enlarged the readership identification. The younger kids could then identify with Robin, which they couldn’t with Batman, and the older ones with Batman. It extended the appeal on a lot of levels.”
The original proposal to include Robin was met with strong resistance from DC Comics chief Jack Leibowitz.
“He said, ‘I don’t know…we’re gonna put a kid in this kind of crazy world!?’” LeClear says.
Initially he agreed to only a one issue trial run, but when Detective Comics No. 38 doubled the usual sales figure, they decided to integrate the Boy Wonder into the series on a full time basis.
“I think the most under reported thing about Batman is that Robin is there almost immediately. He’s there in Detective 38, so it’s only 11 issues later that Batman has Robin as a sidekick. And Robin as a character has survived all this time when so many other major, major characters at our company just disappeared because of lack of popularity.”
Batman dominated the Detective Comics series from the get go, and in the spring of 1940 he was awarded his own self-titled comic book series. From there his popularity flourished as his character continued to evolve.
By the dawn of the ’50s, Bruce Wayne was no longer a gun-touting gumshoe fighting members of the criminal underworld.
“There had been attacks on comic books as being dangerous for children,” explains LeClear. “So when you have such a successful character, things like the guns had to away early on. In the ’50s, the attacks on Batman and other comics really get up to a fever pitch, and it’s not surprising that during the censorship movement of the Comics Code Authority, suddenly he’s no longer chasing mobsters and villains; he’s going after space aliens or giant mechanical monsters and things like that.”
More than just his formidable fighting skills and impressive collection of gadgets — predating James Bond’s Q Branch by decades — LeClear insists that Batman’s most valuable attribute is his mind, not his might.
“He fights crime, he’s a vigilante, and that’s always soothing and appealing to us to be able to take matters into our own hands, but it’s his brain that separates him. That’s why he becomes the leader. He’s in the Justice League, and he is surrounded by the most powerful beings that anyone has ever imagined, and they all defer to Batman because of the power of his brain.”
Now entering his ninth decade, Batman has proven that he can withstand any foe, including the passage of time.
“I think the comics are a mirror on our society,” LeClear says. “There’s some really direct links, but sometimes you just see how people have reacted in time periods…He’s in so many different titles, graphic novels, but he’s also been on cartoon shows, and lunch-boxes, and toys. No matter what your medium is, whether it’s video games, whether it’s television, or movies — he’s there.”