OBSERVATIONS ON BATMAN PART 1: Batman #1-4 (1940) / by Eric Emma

I am going to visit my parents next week in Rhode Island so I’ve actually sent all the Batman books to their house. However, I have begun reading the issues on my Comixology account. I am jumping about a year in Batman’s history to Batman #1-4. Batman first appeared in DC’s “Detective Comics #27”in May 1939, while, Batman #1 didn't come out till April 1940 at which point the character had taken off and DC decided to give Batman his own title.

This detail is important because by the time Batman #1 comes out, Batman has really solidified into his own unique character. This fact is highlighted in Batman #4, where an editor's note lets us know in no uncertain terms: "The Batman never carries or kills with a gun!" This is in stark contrast to a year prior in Detective Comics where Batman is running around killing villains with a gun.

Also Batman’s suit had morphed into what we normally associate with the Batman:

Detective Comics #27:

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Batman #1

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The most fascinating aspect to these early Batman issue is that while Batman was gaining increasing popularity, there was no way for the creators to realize they were creating a world that was going to need to sustain HUNDREDS of stories for the next 75 years. Inherently, this quality separates it from the Bat stories that I'll be reading later. 

It took me a while to figure this out because as I was reading these issues, I kept scratching my head as to what makes them feel different outside the obvious that their written in completely different time period. I mean... Batman is there. He's a vigilante. His alter-ego of Bruce Wayne is established as a rich playboy. And then it hit me... This is not a fully formed world by any stretch. Nothing has any real weight to it. With that in mind, it makes sense that the following has yet to be introduced into Batman’s world: the Batmobile (to come in Batman #5), Alfred, Gotham, the Batcave, the rogues gallery/Arkham Asylum, Wayne Corp, and Commissioner Gordon AS WE KNOW HIM.

Side Note. On Commissioner Gordon. He is there, but he's merely a plot device used when Batman needs to get information about a case. It's pretty poorly done. It's always, Bruce and Jim are friends so Jim Gordon will take Bruce with him when he's asking suspect questions. There’s nothing in the character that represents what their dynamic will be later on and that’s because the concept of Gotham has not yet come to fruition.

In these early stories, characters are introduced simply to serve the plot, but hold no real weight to Bruce and Dick’s existence. In fact, it never really feels like they are real and breathing characters with actually fleshed out backstories. Take the existence of Gotham for example. Gotham as a city is HUGE to defining Batman, yet Gotham doesn’t exist in these stories. Batman operates in a pretty generic city. Taking that further, Wayne Corp doesn’t exist. Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered, but we have none of the context to know that they were murdered because Gotham is this decaying city and they were activity trying to help restore the city the loved. So when as I read these early stories, it’s hard to be invested because there’s no consequence or weight to anything that is happening. And an integral part of the Batman mythos is missing.

This is important because many of these early stories rely on generic two-bit mafia criminals and generic crime stories. Criminals appear and vanish with little to no consequence because this world doesn't live and breathe. Anything Batman was doing in one story didn’t really carry over to the next. Then the Joker and Cat-Woman showed up.

The Joker represents a shift in Bat-Stories. Batman was lifting heavily from The Shadow and Doc Savage and so a lot of these stories as mentioned dealt with low-rent thugs/criminals with relatively petty aims. The Joker and Cat-Woman changed the game because they represent the antithesis of Batman, a love for villainy. The other aforementioned criminals do what they do because it’s a means of getting rich. The Joker on the other hand enjoys committing crimes and considers it an art.

The other game-charger with the Joker was that it was a truly UNIQUE villain that meant bringing him back held specific consequence. Meaning that the stories with the Joker couldn’t be told with any other villain, but the Joker. This led to Batman becoming invested in his dealings with the Joker on an emotional level. And all of sudden, the Batman stories became more interesting/engaging. In the second tale of the Joker, Bruce, upon discovering of Joker's escapes, thinks to himself, "He’s a very unusual man! He’s shrewd, subtle and above all ruthless!! Mark my works, the joker will return with a vengeance!” The invention of the Batman from a writing standpoint required extraordinary villans. The consequence of this development has been reiterated over and over. Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” infamously says, “The Joker: [giggling] I don't, I don't want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, NO! No. You... you... complete me.” Inversely, Joker completes Batman. And it’s fascinating going back now reading those early stories and seeing why.

Cat-Woman represent a similar dynamic like the Joker. It’s one of the few instances, that we see a little of Bruce’s humanity. Cat-woman is refer to as simply “The Cat” and is extremely talented cat-burglar. One of my issues as I mentioned earlier with these stories is that Bruce as a character has little depth because his world is so shallow. He’s written pretty flat-line “I am good. I bring justice.” The introduction of the Cat-Woman brought a much-needed wrinkle to this dynamic because Bruce is attracted to her and can’t bring himself to hand her over to the authorities.

Side-Note. It always bugs me the mischaracterization of the early Batman stories as being dark and brooding and that somehow Batman lost his way and Frank Miller restored that. It’s a misunderstanding of context. The first year of Batman was a discovery process. It grabbing whatever was floating in the pop-culture stratosphere and throwing it on the page. As mentioned, Batman was inspired by Doc Savage and the Shadow, so in those early stories they depicted a superhero going after two-bit criminals. However, death is treated so flippantly and morality is so clear: good/bad. When seen through that perspective, one realizes that the early stories have a tint of darkness, but they’re still pretty light-hearted. Which is why by issue 4 of Batman, the editors did a 180 and made it clear that Batman doesn’t kill people.

Following up on this train of thought, Batman’s attraction to Catwoman highlights this light-heartedness. Most of these stories are extremely tight and focus on crime is committed, Batman sets out to find the criminals, and then put them behind bars. Under this plot-structure, it makes the stories feel darker than they really are. It should be mention that there is a tinge of darkness to Batman’s world at this point because it deals with a very real-life criminal element. Criminals that steal, murder, and coerse for profit. And with no space to see Bruce’s reaction, it gives off an air of darkness. But then you get the Cat-Woman: this beautiful cat-burglar.

Bruce falls for Cat-woman and constantly at the end of each of the three tales that she is in will do something goofy like “Accidently” trip to let her get away. Then the comic will play with the dynamic that Robin is too young to understand love. This continues the trend that Bruce is a special human and he needs larger-than life counter parts not only in crime-fighting, but his love-life. And again, it reflect the worldview of the comic that this is all good fun.

My last observation is that surprisingly, Robin is the best part of the stories. The friendship between Bruce and Dick is pretty rad. It's very different than the more modern take on the two characters. There is no brooding Bruce and Dick chafing under his overbearing presence. In these stories, they have a big brother and little brother dynamic that’s very cute. Dick looks up to Bruce and Bruce relies on Dick to carry out his plans. I also love how self-sufficient Robin is in handling himself. Occasionally, it falls into... Robin bumbles and Batman saves the day, but most of the time, Batman is sending Robin out on secret missions and Robin kicks ass. Again, highlighting this is a light-hearted adventure book that’s not concerned with a grown man putting a little kid in harm’s way or that he’s letting criminals like the Cat-woman get away because she’s pretty.

It’s crazy how much of the stuff that is going to come (some of it like 30-40 years later like Batman’s relationship with Tahlia) is in the DNA that Bill Finger is laying out in these early stories. Check back for more of my observations!