Saturday, April 18, 2009

Seventy bat years

As noted by my pal Tom Bondurant, today marks seventy years since the arrival of Detective Comics #27. The issue was cover dated May, but apparently hit the stands on April 18, 1939.

That issue of Detective was packed with several ongoing features, including Slam Bradley and Bart Regan, Spy (both created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster), the Shadow-like Crimson Avenger, Cosmo the Master of Disguise, ace investigator Speed Saunders, Bruce Nelson, and range detective Buck Marshall. Several of these had been running since the first issue of Detective in February 1937. But the cover of this issue showcased a new feature: “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by Bill Finger and Bob Kane introduced us to Police Commissioner James Gordon, idle playboy Bruce Wayne, and an eerie figure of the night called the Bat-Man.

I never thought of myself as a Batman fan. I always figured I was much more a Superman guy. As Jules Feiffer explained in 1965:

"If I were ever to be trapped in a steel vault with the walls closing in on all sides, I was obviously going to have to break out with my fists because it was clear from my earliest school grades that I was never going to have the know-how to invent an explosive in my underground laboratory that would blow me to idea of a superhero was some guy, bad with his hands, who came from an advanced planet so that he didn't have to go to the gym to be strong or go to school to be smart."

That sounded about right. (Other acceptable answers would have included receiving a power ring from a dying alien, or becoming super-fast after being struck by lightning while chemicals splashed over me.) I was always willing to read Batman comics -- particularly during my peak comics-reading years in the Seventies -- but I don't remember going out of my way to seek the latest issue, the way I did with Green Lantern or the Flash or Superboy or the LSH or the JLA. So I was a bit surprised when Tom presented his list of seventy favorite Batman stories and I remembered pretty much all of them.

A few months ago, I was asked to do fact-checking and proofreading on a book about Batman. I really didn't want to do it. "I'm not your guy. I don't know Batman the way I know the Legion of Super-Heroes. I haven't even seen all the Batman movies. There are more qualified people who'd do a better job of spotting errors," I said. "We'll pay you," the publisher said. "Give it here," I replied. The funny thing was, as I read the manuscript I found myself going if you're going to mention this, you need to mention this other story here and no, they wrote out Aunt Harriet in this issue, not that issue and the Outsider was revealed as Alfred in... and so on, all from memory. Obviously I'd absorbed way more Batman lore than I realized in what I'd thought was casual and haphazard reading over the years.

Maybe part of the reason it all stuck is that the character's seventy year history in comics is more or less a solid edifice. Superman and Wonder Woman and the rest have had their pasts and personalities and backstories tossed out and reinvented and reimagined several times, to ever-diminishing returns. By contrast, Batman has remained sufficiently coherent -- even allowing for the occasional Earth-1 versus Earth-2 hiccup, or multiple mutually incompatible origins for the Catwoman -- that Grant Morrison was able to craft a story starting from the premise that the entire body of stories had all "really happened" to one individual.

At the same time, Batman has always been the most protean of costumed superheroes. Depending on your age, Batman might be the scientific detective of Gardner Fox and Carmine Infantino...or the "hairy-chested love god" of Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams...or the humorless psychopath of Frank Miller. For me, he's the purposeful, driven yet totally sane adventurer written by folks like Archie Goodwin, Steve Englehart, and Len Wein. (And for those to whom this distinction means something, my Batman has his chest emblem inscribed in a yellow oval. That's just the way it is.) Each generation gets the Batman it wants, but somehow it's always still the Batman. That's quite an accomplishment for something that's lasted this long and passed through so many diverse hands.

I never thought of myself as a Batman fan...and I thought I had nothing to say about him in this post. Instead I could go on for a few thousand more words, but I'll leave it at this: Happy birthday, Batman!