Golden Age showcase #6: Batman

Today we are going to talk about Batman

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Yes as a matter of fact, that Batman.

More specifically we’re going to take a look at the Golden Age Batman to see what his creators were originally doing with the character, the mythos, some of his most famous villains, and what if anything changed over the years.

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Origin and career

With all due respect, if you don’t know Batman’s origin story than greetings alien visitor, welcome to Earth!

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What’s a bit more interesting is the real life story of the hero.  The first issue of “The Batman” appeared in May 1939, a little less than a year after the first appearance of Superman.  He was created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger (side note: it should be noted that while Kane gets a lion’s share of the credit for Batman’s creation it has slowly come to light that Bill Finger was the man responsible for most of Batman’s iconography, supporting cast, and early stories and doesn’t get all the credit he rightly deserves) and was a hero who introduced a lot of firsts to the superhero genre.

He was the first hero to have a troubled origin and motivation for his actions.

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and he was the first hero to have a kid sidekick in Robin, who appeared in April of 1940.

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But what makes Golden Age Batman really interesting is just how dark and violent the original character was.  Most people like to use Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns as the pinnacle of Batman as the dark and violent type,

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But truth be told, the first Batman stories put Miller’s work to shame.

Before we delve into the character of Batman it’s worth looking into the characters that helped inspire him.  Batman has his roots in pulp adventures and other action novels that were popular at the time.  Looking at Batman throughout the ages it is easy to see the costumed heroics of the rich aristocrat from Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel

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The swashbuckling heroics and black costume of the rich aristocrat turned defender of the innocent Zorro,

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and the dark and often violent adventures of the radio serial heroes like the Shadow.

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All of these influences would play a huge part in creating the Batman as a character and a pop culture icon, let’s take a look.

Let’s start with the character himself.  Right from the start Batman was a wealthy socialite who could become a superhero mostly because he could afford to become one.

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His equipment was pretty simple: some rope, a keen set of detective skills, his costume, and his utility belt.  There was no Batcave, no detective lab, no Bat computer, and no Batmobile (although there was a Batplane).  Instead he had a large black car with no roof, a confusing choice when considering it would leave him frightfully exposed to bullets.

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The Golden Age Batman also had no qualms about killing people, apparently the creators realized that any rich kid who lost his parents would probably take their anger to the most logical extreme.

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Batman had no qualms about letting his opponents die horrible deaths by either punching a man into a vat of acid and believing it was for the best,

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kicking a man in such a way that he impales himself on someone else’s sword.

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or straight up machine gunning two men driving in a truck because he believed it was “worth it”.

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And while the Batplane has always been armed one thing always remained constant, Batman’s refusal to use guns.

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Just kidding!  The original Batman had no qualms against using guns and would routinely break out the firearms against would be criminals.  Naturally this put him at odds with the police who had orders to arrest, or even shoot, Batman on sight.

With Batman being something of a cold blooded murderer himself it would make sense that many of his longest lasting villains would have equally violent beginnings, and for the most part it’s true.  The Golden Age saw the creation of two of Batman’s most iconic foes: The Joker and Clayface.  Out of the two of them Clayface was the one that changed the most.  Instead of being a mutated lump of clay

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The original Clayface was an actor named Basil Karlo who wasn’t a mutant, he was just really good at disguising his face as a twisted and grotesque monster who started killing actors that pissed him off or threatened his acting career.

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And then we get to the Joker.

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Strangely enough the Joker’s journey is almost the complete opposite of Clayface.  While Clayface underwent a dramatic change the Joker has remained relatively consistent over the years.

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The Joker, who was based off of the 1928 German Expressionist film (by the way if you ever want inspiration for a horror villain look at German Expressionist films from the 1920’s, they are terrifying) The Man Who Laughs,

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is cold, conniving, brutal, and a master chemist who has perfected a serum which he calls “Joker Venom” that kills its victims by twisting their faces into smiles.

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His origin was kept ambiguous and he remained an enduring foe of the Batman well into the modern day.

So what happened?

The 1950’s happened.  I’ve talked about the Comics Code Authority and its impact on the industry in the 1950’s in my article about the Golden Age Ghost Rider, but it hit Batman especially hard.  Parents didn’t like the idea of having their children reading stories filled with grotesque violence, death, and general mayhem and they made their displeasure known with public comic book burnings.

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While Batman tried to be a bit more kid friendly with the addition of Robin and more fanciful storytelling it didn’t work and in response to public outcry the industry created the Comic Code Authority: a review board that censored comic books to make them more palatable to American parents.

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Batman would obviously survive, he was just too popular.  That being said, his stories were significantly neutered.  In accordance to the Comic Code all criminals were to be caught and thrown into jail, there would be no violent deaths, and the police were to be always portrayed as a force of good resulting in Batman having a more friendly relationship with the police.

While Batman has changed significantly over the past 75 years, it is important to know where he came from…and what the original Batman was willing to do in the name of justice.

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