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The BAT-MAN: Birth of the Dark Knight

By Tom Mason

Order 'Batman & Me:The Saga Continues!It all starts with the profit motive. National Comics (soon to become DC Comics) had hit it big with their debut of Superman in Action Comics and they were looking around for another super-hero to publish in hopes of striking pay-dirt again.  How Batman was created and who gets credit for what has become quite controversial over the years, but eventually the idea for the Bat Man has to be credited to Bob Kane. In his autobiography, "BATMAN AND ME", Kane remembers his childhood as being influenced by Zorro, the Shadow, the Green Hornet's adventures as well as a host of others...
 
Kane had always dabbled in cartooning and was making $35 - $50 a week with his cartooning but was told by Vincent Sullivan that he should be doing a super-hero as Superman's Siegel and Shuster creators were making upwards of $800 a week - apiece!  Editor Whitney Ellsworth approached Bob Kane, who had been working for them and asked him to come up with a new super hero strip.

Kane's "original" designs for BAT-MAN

Immediately Kane began drawing basic superhero bodies and laying tracing paper over them and superimposing different costume designs over those bodies.  He suddenly remembered some Leonardo da Vinci designs for a bat-like flying machine that he had played with sketching at the age of 13. He went to an old trunk where he had stored those sketches and found one where he had he had drawn a bird-like man or hawk man, as well as a bat-man. He had even crossed out the word bird-man and changed it to "bat-man" in those original sketches.  The name Bat-Man was used at first until several months after publication when the hyphen was dropped.

Fairbanks, de la Motte McKim - The Mark of Zorro: 1920

Fairbanks, Marguerite de la Motte & Robert McKim, in the The Mark of Zorro - 1920

Kane's fondness for the Zorro legend gave him the idea of giving his Batman a secret identity. Bruce Wayne would be a playboy in his normal life.  Just as Zorro had a secret cave he accessed through a grandfather clock in his home, a cave where his jet black horse Toronado was kept, Bruce would also have a cave he called it the BATCAVE, where the powerful Batmobile was kept ready for action.  True to the Douglas Fairbanks image, Kane chose not to make Batman a hero with super powers, but rather an ordinary man who had developed extraordinary athletic prowess through extensive training.  Just as Fairbanks had swung from ropes in movies like the Black Pirate, so did the Batman swing from silken ropes over the roof tops of Gotham City in his endless pursuit of the criminal element.
 
Kane recalled scenes from the sound remake of "THE BAT WHISPERS" that had starred Chester Morris. In that film, he wore a costume that looked a lot like Kane's early Bat-Man drawings with a black robe and a bat-shaped head. This film also featured a bat-signal that would be projected on the walls announcing his next victim and we all know how Kane expanded the idea into the bat-signal.
 
Other influences on Kane came from dark, foreboding films like Dracula, mystery movies and serials and radio's Shadow.  The formfitting costume worn by Lee Falk's The Phantom, with its domino mask and hood to cover his identity was another contributing factor to Batman's all over look. Armed with all these ideas, Kane called a friend of his, Bill Finger, and showed him some of his preliminary sketches.  Finger immediately refined some of Kane's ideas. He nixed the idea of a domino mask and suggested a cowl that made him look more bat-like.  He changed Kane's ideas for his costume from a sort of red union suit with black wings, trunks and mask  to the now familiar gray and blue/black suit we have grown accustomed to.  The stiff bat-like wings that were attached to his arms were just too restrictive and they were changed into a flowing scalloped-edged cape. Gloves were added so he would leave no fingerprints.

This new design was taken to Vincent Sullivan and in turn to Jack Liebowitz who did not quite grasp the idea of the character, but took it on the strength of Superman's success and scheduled it for Detective Comics #27 (May 1939.)  The first story was written by Bill Finger and was entitled "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate."  Kane signed the story as Rob't Kane, but changed it to Bob Kane in the very next story and thereafter.  Batman was drawn by Kane as having a cape with enormous bat-wings, a hangover from his original stiff bat-wings design. He then began using the large winged cape design in early stories to make him appear more menacing, but eventually he gave up the idea sticking with the less cumbersome cape that he wears now. 
 
Kane gladly gives credit to Bill Finger for his contributions to Batman. "Bill Finger was contributing force to Batman right from the beginning.  He wrote most of the great stories and was influential in setting the style of the comic.  He was called the Cecil B. De Mille of the comics. Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved. Because he came into the strip after I had created it, he did not get a byline. Only in the seventies when much of his work was reprinted was he given a credit."  He liked making giant props part of his stories, the Statue of Liberty, a giant penny, typewriter or sewing machine would generate ideas for a story.  He liked the idea of having tiny figures fighting amongst giant props. Kane had made Batman a superhero vigilante at first, Finger turned him around into a scientific detective.  Kane and Finger worked as a team, co-creating the Bruce Wayne legend. The look of Bruce Wayne was that of Bob Kane in his youth. .  Bruce Wayne got his first name from Robert Bruce, the Scottish patriot and Wayne came from Mad Anthony Wayne.

New York City as Batman's base of operations was out because Kane wanted a city that would be easily identifiable to anyone.  After rejecting Civic City, Capital City and Coast City, Kane arrived on the name Gotham City by shuffling through the phone book and finally coming upon an ad for Gotham Jewelers. Gotham City was the name, but we all knew it was really New York.

 
At first, Batman emulated one of his pulp heroes, the Shadow, by carrying a gun and even had machine guns mounted on his plane.  Kane was called on the carpet by Ellsworth and ordered to remove the guns and stop the killing as he felt their reader's mothers would object.  Batman veered away from working outside the law and went over to the side of the law. He was made an honorary member of the police force. In place of the armed violence, Batman became an acrobat who used his physical abilities rather than guns to defeat the bad guys.  Batman left the vigilante image even further behind with the creation of Robin, The Boy Wonder.

Robin was created during a discussion between Finger and Kane about Batman not having anyone to talk to and how he needed someone like Sherlock Holmes' Watson. Robin came out of his Kane's youthful fantasies of being a kid who would fight at the side of his hero Douglas Fairbanks.  He felt that every young boy reading the strip would want to be like Batman, fighting at his side, even if they were not grown up. Robin's name came from the famous Robin Hood legend. The boy was even dressed in the tunic, cape and shoes of Robin Hood' s era. Even his trunks were drawn as chain mail.  When Kane brought the idea of Robin to his publisher, they felt it was wrong to tamper with the current Batman formula. Kane and Finger finally talked them into featuring him for just a trial issue with the promise that if he did not work out, they would pull him.  Robin's debut issue sold double what Batman usually sold as a single.  Needless to say, the publishers allowed him to stay on.

Robin's arrival gradually changed the whole tone of the strip. None of this change was a conscious one according to Kane, it just evolved as the two played off each other.  Batman became more handsome and less vampire-bat looking; his face showed more as his cowl was drawn higher. His ears got shorter, and he smiled a lot and made jokes and puns with Robin as they fought the gangsters of Gotham City.

As time went on, Kane lost more and more control of Batman, although he had wisely negotiated with DC Comics and received recognition as well as compensation for his creation.  His signature appeared on the comic's splash pages as artist for many years before it was changed to "Batman created by Bob Kane."
 

Next: The Joker. the controversy over who really should get credit for his creation.

By Tom 'The Crimson Collector' Mason

 
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