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Bill Eggert

May 10, 2014

75 years of Batmania: The Dark Knight’s evolution

— The appeal of Batman is universal.

Local resident Wayne Faucher has been a professional artist/inker on the various Batman titles for over 20 years.

He says: “Absolutely my favorite comic book character! No powers, just strength and wits.”

We can identify more with Batman.

This spring marks the 75th anniversary of the debut of Batman in Detective Comics in 1939, just one year after Superman’s debut. It was the success of Superman that prompted National Comics (predecessor to DC Comics) to seek out another superhero to complement the Man of Steel.

It was a different world in 1939. We had radio but no TV; airplanes but no jets. Space travel was limited to movies, radio and comic strips.

Enter 23-year-old artist Bob Kane and 25-year-old writer Bill Finger with a creation called “Bat-Man.” The original concept was Kane’s idea, citing Douglas Fairbank’s silent film “The Mark of Zorro,” the 1930 movie thriller “The Bat Whispers” and the popular pulp hero The Shadow as influences.

However, Finger put on the finishing touches that lasted for 75 years. Kane’s “Bat-Man” wore a red costume with black boots, trunks, large bat wings, no gloves and a small domino mask.

Finger suggested changing the red costume to gray, the wings to a scalloped cape, gauntlets and a cowl with large ears in lieu of the small mask – essentially his costume now.

In fact, the late Bill Finger’s contributions to the Batman mythos far outweigh those of Kane or anyone else on the creative end. The 100th anniversary of Finger’s birth is this year.

As a writer, Finger also created Bruce Wayne, Gotham City, Commissioner Gordon (all 1939), Alfred (1943), Ace the Bathound (1955), Bat-Mite (1959) and the original Bat-Girl (1961).

He was also co-creator of Robin (1940), the Batmobile (1939), the Bat-Cave (1944), the Joker (1940), Catwoman (1940), the Penguin (1941), Two-Face (1942) and the Riddler (1948).

Other iconic feature sin which Finger was not involved were the Bat-Signal (1942) and the original Batwoman (1956).

Like many successful narratives in fiction, the Batman mythos was not born fully mature. The various features evolved over time, as much as 20 years.

Theme-wise, film noir-styled mysteries of the 1940s segued into the science fiction tales of the 1950s with time travel, aliens and interdimensional imps.

Then, without warning, on the 25th anniversary of Batman’s debut, the character and mythos were rebooted coldly and abruptly. Incredibly, the Batman magazines were on the verge of cancellation due to poor sales.

A new editor was brought in and jettisoned all supporting characters except Commissioner Gordon. He even killed off Alfred, who ultimately was brought back to life two years later thanks to the TV show. The Batmobile was revamped, and Batman now had a yellow oval around his chest-bat. New artists and writers were brought in.

The changes were only mildly successful, and it was not until the debut of the wildly popular TV show in 1966 that sales of the magazines skyrocketed again.

During the past 50 years, the only thing to remain constant in the Batman mythos is change.

As the times change, so has Batman reflected that change.

About every 20 years Batman and/or the DC Universe he occupies have undergone dramatic and cataclysmic reboots, throwing even the “Bat-Baby” out with the “Bat-water,” losing longtime fans in the process.

Since the 1964 “New Look” reboot, America has undergone massive social and technological upheaval, taking Batman with it.

Cosmetically, Batman has lost the yellow oval on his chest, been through a handful of new Robins and numerous design changes to the Batmobile.

Psychologically and emotionally, Batman has gone through an intellectually nuanced reassessment of his trauma as a young boy witnessing his parents’ brutal murders.

It all comes back to where it began. Every triumph of Batman over criminal evil seeks closure on that tragedy. It is a tragedy that will haunt Batman the rest of his life.

Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.

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