The Golden Age of Batman
(originally published in the August, 1975 issue of Once Upon A Dime)

Batman was born in 1938 when teenage cartoonist Bob Kane sat down to create a new Superman-type strip for DC Comics. Inspired by the derring-do of Zorro, the flying machines of Leonardo DaVinci and an old movie called "The Bat Whispers", Kane sketched a wing-cloaked avenger dressed in the colors of the night. Kane christened his hero "the Bat-Man" and teamed with writer Bill Finger to produce the first Batman story for Detective Comics #27, May 1939.

The Batman origin dreamed up by Finger and Kane is now a standard of the genre. Ten-year-old Bruce Wayne watches in horror as his mother and father are gunned down by a petty thief. Raked with grief, the heir to the Wayne fortune swears to wage a neverending war against crime. He prepares his entire life for this crusade.

And once he gains sufficient strength and knowledge to fight crime, the adult Wayne realizes there's one more thing he needs: a disguise that will "strike terror into [the] hearts" of the underworld. As if an omen, a bat crashes through his window and Bruce Wayne thus decides to become the Bat-Man.

The orphan angle is slightly derivative of the original 1938 story of Superman, who lost his parents when the planet Krypton exploded.

Superman and Batman are brothers of sorts. Superman is the older, responsible one, but it's easy to be responsible when bullets bounce off your chest. Batman, however, constantly risks his life fighting crime. He's angry and frustrated and this is the only way he can deal with his childhood trauma. Superman is basically a nice guy. If he was bitter about his parents' deaths, he'd be waging a neverending battle against exploding planets, not fighting for truth, justice and the American Way.

After a year's worth of stories showcasing Batman beating up assorted crooks and dropping the occasional killer in a vat of acid in the pages of Detective Comics, the more recognizable elements of the Batman myths began to appear. Robin, the Boy Wonder, came along in 1940 and the legion of trademark villains like the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler and Catwoman soon followed.

Robin is essential to the Batman legend. Youthful circus aerialist Dick Grayson also saw his parents murdered by criminals. By adopting Grayson as his ward and providing him an outlet as Robin, Wayne is trying to correct what went wrong in his own life. Wishing there were someone not only to raise him after his tragedy but also to help him avenge his parents' deaths, Batman sees himself as the best possible father figure to Dick Grayson.

The most familiar villains are those from the TV show, many of which didn't exist in the comics series, but there are really only three that matter: Catwoman, Two-Face and the Joker.

Catwoman is the only major female villain in the Batman annals. She represents all the women Batman has shut out of his life. Catwoman steals because it's the only way to get the attention of the man she loves.

Two-Face is lesser known to the general public, but he's still a classic villain of Batman's golden age. Two-Face used to be District Attorney Harvey Dent, a friend and associate of Batman. After the left side of his face was horribly disfigured by a criminal he was prosecuting, Dent went crazy and adopted the "double" motif that marks all his crimes.

Because Two-Face is a lawman-turned-criminal, a friend gone bad, he's Batman's worst nightmare. Bruce Wayne/Batman is similarly schizophrenic - might he go over the brink one day the way Harvey Dent did? Batman always handles Two-Face with kid gloves, holding out hope that Dent can reform and become a good guy again.

The Joker, of course, is the ultimate Batman villain. He's gone through many incarnations, from the ridiculous to the sublime, but the best Joker is part psychopathic killer, part irrepressible funster. The Joker's humor-originated irrationality is the perfect counterpoint to Batman's grim reliance on scientific principles. In his first appearance, The Joker was a jewel thief who murdered his victims with a toxin that gave each corpse a ghastly grin. As the '40s and '50s wore on, the Joker became more clownish and less deadly, plotting relatively harmless, gimmick-laden stunts rather than actual crimes.

The other villains are all variations on a theme. The Riddler, Penguin and company were all obsessives who couldn't plot a crime without first clueing in the Batman.

Why were the villains the only ones afflicted with this curious symptom? How come Batman never played fair and sent the Riddler an advance warning: "What's short, green and about to get arrested?"

In the '50s, Batman got silly. When not confronting offbeat menaces like "The Alien Boss of Gotham City" and "The Valley of Giant Bees," the Caped Crusader was undergoing a bizarre assortment of transmutations in stories like "The Merman Batman," "The Caveman Batman," "Batman, Indian Chief," "Batman of the Mounties" and perhaps worst of all, "Batman Becomes Bat-Baby."

The Golden Age of Batman was certainly over by then.

-- Carr D'angelo

Front Page Fan Fiction History Golden Moments Couragous Outtakes