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Batman: The Dark Knight Archives, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

I figured, what with Christopher Nolan releasing the final part of his Batman trilogy this month, it might be worth going back and taking a look at the early days of the Dark Knight. DC have done a rather wonderful job collecting classic material featuring their iconic heroes as part of their “Archives” line, a line that seemed to have died last year, but I am very glad to see undergoing a resurgence. The idea is that each archive edition collects roughly a year’s worth of classic comics. The premium format pays for the restoration of the material, with DC then making it available in more cost-effective packaging, like their paperback “Chronicles” line that collects every appearance in order, or their “Omnibus” line, which collects larger chunks.

Batman: The Dark Knight Archives, Vol. 1 doesn’t collect Batman’s very first appearance in Detective Comics. However, it does collect the first four quarterly publications of his self-titled Batman comic book in 1940, each collecting several stories of Batman’s crusade against crime.

Batman Begins in six panels…

I have to admit, I’m generally wary of jumping back into classic comics. The writing is typically a bit dodgy, to say the least – chunks of exposition are provided in walls of text, characterisation is barely consistent from one page to the next, internal logic doesn’t seem to exist, and the stories tend to be fairly paint-by-numbers and repetitive. We get dialogue like “although your bullet-proof clothing protects you from bullets — it doesn’t from this!!” I would have thought that suggesting bullet-proof clothing protects the person wearing it from bullets would be a bit… obvious.

That’s not to say that all classic comics are like this, of course. Will Eisner’s The Spirit could almost have been written yesterday, if you remove the unfortunately racist portrayal of African Americans. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s The Amazing Spider-Man is perhaps the most accessible Silver Age comic, and I think it’s still an example of the finest of superhero storytelling. However, those are the exceptions.

At least he died happy…

That’s not to suggest that old-fashioned comics like this aren’t of any interest. Of course they are. It’s interesting to see familiar pop culture icons evolve and grow. There’s a certain flexibility in these early appearances, as if the cement on these icons hasn’t quite “set.” Anything is possible. The Batman could make witty one-liners, shoot a gun, kill, even. It’s interesting to see the writers define the boundaries that would eventually be set in stone for these instantly recognisable characters. In particular, early Superman is almost unrecognisable (save for the outfit) – he’s a dynamic (and angry) social crusader who doesn’t hesitate to impose his will upon others. That’s quite a bit away from the inoffensive cultural icon he’d become.

These early Batman stories are a bit of a minefield. Despite the fact that Bill Finger wrote most of the stories in the collection (save a two-page origin by Gardener Fox), Bob Kane gets sole credit for his work on the character, ahead of a wealth of contributors including Jerry Robinson. Kane very cleverly negotiated his contract with DC, managing to avoid a lot of the ownership issues that would plague other writers and artists responsible for various other superheroes – like the Kirby estate or Shuster and Siegel. As a result, every Batman appearance came with a Bob Kane credit, forever cementing the artist’s association with the character.

The dynamic duo…

These early Batman stories feel almost like rough drafts. While Kane’s designs are fabulous (I still adore his very early “Bat-man” design), the artwork is a little less smooth than most modern readers will be used to. I know it’s easy to argue that this is just a relative thing – that the art was reasonable for its time, but it looks distinctly unpolished when compared to the work that Will Eisner or Jack Kirby were doing at approximately the same time. Figures appear distinctly block-y and move in the most awkward manner possible. Posture and anatomy seem forced, almost half-way between a modern comic and a classic newspaper cartoon. That said, Kane does make some excellent use of light and shadow in these early stories, and clearly has an eye for design and layout..

German expressionist cinema was a massive influence on these early comics, with the Joker modelled on Conrad Veidt’s appearance in The Man Who Laughs, and you can see that. There are some wonderful moments where the shadows themselves look more impressive than any of the figures on the panel, and it creates this sense that Batman is rooted in this very classic, very gothic tradition. Even though Batman is very clearly an American hero, with stories referencing atomic power and gangsters, there’s a sense that Bob Kane rooted his character firmly in an old-fashioned and European storytelling method.

What’s on the cards?

It’s interesting to compare and contrast with Superman, who was a distinctly American character. He was an immigrant who looked towards the future. In his earliest iterations, the character was literally the future – a hyper-evolved man. His Metropolis was the City of Tomorrow and he was a staunch crusader for social justice, resenting the exploitation of the American working class. In contrast, Batman is a decidedly European character.

Indeed, according to History of the Comics, Kane had even picked the name Bruce Wayne to evoke Robert Bruce, the famous Scottish patriot. Batman’s influences remain decidedly European, with Kane and company inspired by Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel, the work of Leonardo Da Vinci and even Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. (Though the film was American, the style was very much old-world European.)

Hm… this will take all his Bat-deduction…

That said, there were distinctly American influences on the character. Zorro, of course, was a heavy influence on the hero, one who would find his own way into the Batman mythos as the last movie Bruce attended with his parents. (That said, you could argue that Zorro is very much a swashbuckling European-style hero, rather than an American-style crime-fighter.) Arguably Batman’s most distinctively American influence was that of The Shadow, who, among other things, influenced the way that Batman carried around a gun. That influence seems to be slowly phased out towards the end of Batman’s first year, as the character establishes his own identity.

While Siegel and Shuster explored the struggles of the working man with Superman, with an angry and reactionary hero standing up for “the little guy”, that “little guy” is conspicuously missing in these early Batman stories. The world of Batman is much more focused on the upper class. Indeed, the population of Manhattan (the city hadn’t been established as Gotham yet) seems to comprise mainly of wealthy socialites and common criminals. There are a lot poor and impoverished children running around, but none of their parents appear, and there’s little sense of a wider social construct. Crime appears, and Batman fights it. That’s the complexity of the sociology in Batman.

The clown at midnight…

It makes for a rather interesting twist on what many fans would consider to be the traditional Batman and Superman dichotomy. In the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, Superman has traditionally been cast as the more conservative of the pair, a stand-in for unquestioning obedience to authority. It was only in following the model set by Batman that Superman settled into his traditional “boy scout” persona.

Batman occupies a world of the upper-class, where those who commit crimes are motivated by gambling debts or “losses on the stock market.” It seems that nobody steals to eat, or to live in this world. It’s a city populated with estates and mansions, where there’s always a will-reading or a social going on – whether in a fancy ballroom or aboard a large and expensive yacht. There’s a sense that Bruce only really gets away with being Batman because he’s a rich guy with social status and money to burn.

Wow, taking him to see The Mask of Zorro might not have been the best call…

Bruce is such an upstanding and upper-class citizen that Gordon even (repeatedly) brings Bruce along on official police business. “Hello, Bruce!” Gordon greets him at one point. “Yes, going over to the Storme Mansion to do a little questioning! Come along?” Bruce’s right to be present at any of these occasions is never questioned by anybody. It’s just seen as the kind of thing that a person in his position in society should be allowed to do.

Of course, that sort of apolitical world view would serve the superhero well. There was less chance of being accused by moral crusaders of harbouring some subversive agenda or trying to corrupt the innocent minds of children. (Though, of course, such accusations inevitably arrived anyway.) Indeed, according to Tom Andrae, Superman creator Jerry Siegel remembers being explicitly asked to tone down his creation’s radical politics to bring the book more in line with Batman.

Making a splash…

However, it isn’t just the rigid class structure that suggests Batman is a consciously old world creation. Even the settings seem to evoke Europe. Although Batman is very much an urban superhero, most of the people he encounters seem to live in houses rather than apartments. Batman always seems to find himself prowling around gothic locales, like old houses built on hills outside of town. The Joker himself resides in a gothic “haunted house” on the edge of town. (The one that, I believe, Rogers and Engelhart would use during their Batman: Dark Detective series years later.)

There’s a decidedly colonial feeling to some of the stories here. Not once in these four issues, but twice, the stories reference King Kong. The first time, one of Hugo Strange’s monster’s climbs to the top of a tower for Batman to shoot him down. At another point, the film is referenced when a giant from Africa is almost kidnapped by the mob. However, it seems that the writers may have missed the tragedy of the tale, with Batman cast as the pilot in the first homage, and the rather bleak colonial overtures in the second.

This kitten’s got claws…

At one point, Batman finds himself confronting a bunch of “African Pygmies” attacking a train carrying an explorer. The reason? The explorer had kidnapped a giant that they were worshipping as a god. Unsurprisingly, Batman seems completely okay with this abduction and deportation. “Fantastic!” he remarks. “Pygmies following you from Africa, thinking that they could rescue their ‘god’! Well, I discouraged them a bit!” Batman undoubtedly feels that he put those upstart natives in their place.

Of course, there’s a bit of moral dissonance when gangsters kidnap the giant. Apparently it’s okay for the explorer to kidnap him from the tribe, but the mob is wrong to kidnap him from the explorer. Never mind that he’s a human being treated like an object. (Rather than a literal giant, he has over active “glands”, which is the bit of pseudo-science these stories use to explain anything and everything.)

The strong arms of the law…

Not that this sort of surreal moral dissonance is out of character for early Batman, who at times seems so far removed from modern morality that it’s hard to sympathise. I’ve never been overly fond of Robin as a character – if only because it makes Batman seem reckless to involve a child in his crusade. However, Batman treats the kid absolutely terribly here. Robin is the kid who gets all the grunt work when Batman is too preoccupied to handle a particular case.

At one point, Batman pits Robin against four goons and literally sits back and watches. “I’m going to show the kids of America how yellow you rats are without your guns!” he advises the criminals. “I’m going to let Robin here take four of you on all at the same time!” Way to volunteer your teenage sidekick there, Bruce. I can almost see Frank Miller’s dysfunctional dynamic duo in these early stories, as Robin eagerly attempts to meet his “best friend’s” occasionally self-centred commands.

Oh, boy!

Of course, the Golden Age Batman is, as with a lot of Golden Age heroes (including the Golden Age Hawkman), a bit of a dick. Consider, for example, his passive response to the Joker’s first couple of murders. When Robin asks if Batman is ready to move against the Harlequin of Hate, Bruce responds, “Not yet, Dick. The time isn’t ripe.” He’s willing to sit idly by until it suits him to intervene. This is a version of the character who is more preoccupied with his own sense of thrill than with any broader sense of justice. In fact, this iteration of the character seems almost thrilled to meet the mass-murdering Joker, “It seems at last I’ve met a foe that can give me a good fight!” And only a few people had to die in order for that to happen.

This is a version of the character who does, to be fair, acknowledge the illegal nature of his crusade. Cops seem as eager to arrest him as they do to arrest the crooks, with Batman repeatedly forced into situations where he’s forced to beat up cops. “Sorry boys but I’m not quite ready for jail!” It feels somewhat hypocritical that the comic is so obsessed with the idea that children might be looking up to criminals. After all, Batman is hardly a much better role model, frequently scuffling with the law.

Batman’s on the prowl…

In fact, it seems like Bruce has next to no respect for the authorities in his own city. When the Joker is sent to hospital followign a particularly brutal confrontation, Batman doesn’t trust the authorities to hold the fiend, and plots his own action. “My plan is to abduct the Joker from hospital before he becomes strong and wily enough to slip through the hands of the police. Then we’ll take him to a famous brain specialist for an operation, so that he can be cured and turned into a valuable citizen.”

That’s quite Orwellian, if I do say so myself. Sure, his lack of faith in the authorities is justified when a bunch of criminals spring the Joker, but one would imagine that cooperation would have been a better option than simply kidnapping a suspect from police custody and labotomising him. Sorry, I mean “turning him into a valuable citizen.” Bruce seems quite self-centred in his pursuit of justice, or what he deems to be justice. In fact, it seems like he’s really just more concerned with his own amusement.

Joke’s on him…

Consider, perhaps, his incredibly sexist and almost paternalist attitude towards Catwoman. Removing her disguise as an older lady, he reprimands her, “Quiet or papa spank!” Later on, Batman effectively lets the thief go. Escorting her back to land, she escapes her bonds and jumps overboard. We’re told, “As Robin makes ready to jump after the Cat — the Batman clumsily ‘bumps’ into him!” This is such an obvious ploy that even Robin, normally blind to Batman’s faults, calls him on it. “Say — I’ll bet you bumped into me on purpose! That’s why you took her along with us — so she might try a break!”

During a later encounter, she escapes again. Batman reflects on the situation, clearly in love with the woman. “Yes,” he tells Dick, “and it’s too bad she has to be a crook! What a night! A night for romance, eh, Robin?” Again, the fact that she’s a criminal (and one without any of the redeeming “Robin Hood” qualities that later writers would add) is irrelevant to Batman. The fact that she is a master thief and repeat offender is of secondary concern to Batman’s own romantic fixation on her. “A vigilante is a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification,” Henri Ducard would comment in Batman Begins, and it feels like an appropriate description of this early iteration of Batman. He feels like a spiritual descendent of those sorts of colonial heroes like Quartermain.

Some sinister puppeteer is pulling the strings…

Indeed, the adventures in Batman feel consciously pointed backwards, as if looking to older stories for inspiration. At one point, for example, Batman has Robin investigate a school of street kids being taught to steal by “Pockets”, a character who seems relatively similar to Fagan from Oliver Twist. Another adventure sees Batman and Robin taking on pirates, of all things, like buccaneers. The story itself even acknowledges that it’s a throwback. “Pirates in the twentieth century!” a member of the crew laughs. “Shades of Captain Kidd! Haw haw!”

And yet, there are some nods towards the present, even if the adventures of Batman aren’t necessarily as rooted in the then-current American zeitgeist. There’s a hint of pre-war patriotism to be found here. The “golden rules for Robin’s regulars” include “nationalism.” At one point, Batman intercepts a plan to steal American atomic energy secrets so that the sinister (and obviously Russian) “Dmitri” could sell them to interested international parties.

A cool cat…

The book does, to be fair, have a social conscience, even if Batman doesn’t seem like the best role model for young kids. Repeatedly, Batman takes time out from his activities to teach kids that crime is not cool. The series seem fixated on the worry that kids might criminals as role models – with Batman making a point to refer to them as “yellow rats” and even taking out a “the Batman says” letter to readers. “Bruce,” Robin asks at one point, “if you could speak to every girl and boy right now, what would you say?” Bruce responds, “Just this, don’t be impressed by the power of criminals, of their sleek clothes, their luxurious surroundings!”

And, in fairness, the book does acknowledge that young people don’t get involved in crime for the hell of it. At the end of one issue, Bruce addresses readers and asks them to get services and facilities provided in their cities and states to ensure that kids have other options open to them, presenting a model of social responsibility that is often lacking in the typical “Batman beats up gangsters” stories.

Staying sharp…

This is a version of the character that few long-time fans will really recognise, despite the familiar appearance. For one thing, Batman seems to have a talent for really awful one-liners in the middle of his fights. “Sorry,” he tells an armed thug, “but I’ve got a bone to kick with you! The funny bone! Ha! Ha!” You can guess what happens next. I think it’s the “ha! ha!” that compounds Batman’s dickishness. It’s just rude to laugh at your own one-liners. He’s clearly just having a great time kicking the crap out of these guys. However, there are differences a lot more fundamental than that to be found in these early stories.

For example, in Batman #1, we see that Batman has a Gatling gun attached to his bat plane. Of course, that was an early issue, but it still seems rather strange. The writers had clearly tightened things up a bit by Batman #4, when we’re told, “The Batman never carries or kills with a gun!” Of course, the panel immediately preceding that one sees Batman using a crook’s discarded weapon. This version of Batman, especially the one seen in Batman #1, seems eerily comfortable with death.

Nobody bats an eyelid at this sort of streetfight…

Of two Monster Men he fooled into murdering one another, the Batman remarks, “They’ve killed each other as I hoped they would!” Later on, he intercepts some of Strange’s criminal conspirators on the Post Road. The caption tells us, “But out of the sky, spitting death — the Batman!” He almost sounds sorry as he mans the Gatling gun to take on Hugo Strange’s hired goons,“Much as I hate to take human life, I’m afraid this time it is necessary!”

The sudden shift in Batman’s persona was, according to Will Brooker’s superb Batman Unmasked, was apparently a result of letters from concerned parents worried about what their children might pick up from this masked vigilante. You can see the rough edges being worn off the character as the stories progress. Indeed, by Batman #4, the character does look a lot more familiar. Even his conflicts with the police, an element reintroduced in modern adaptations, would be consciously toned down by Kane, who went as far as to make Batman an “honorary police man.”

Quiet, now! This is a break-out, see?

That said, despite the early brutality, there are elements that readers will find familiar. Unlike Lois Lane, Batman’s girlfriend is only fleetingly mentioned and never seen. Most DC (and Marvel) heroes would attract a long-term love interest, but Batman remained curiously footloose and fancy free as a superhero. Julie Madison is mentioned by name, but we never spend any time with her, which fits quite easily with later characterisations of Bruce.

It’s also interesting to see that the “Bruce as stupid playboy” persona was in effect even this early in the character’s history. At one point, Gordon asks Bruce, “Well, Bruce, what did you think of Harley Storme’s strange will?” Bruce responds, “I never think! It bores me! Thinking is too laborious.”He might, of course, by layering it on a bit heavy there, but it’s fun to see that that particular element of the character was pretty much always there.

Batman and Robin were a good sixty years ahead of Pirates of the Caribbean…

The Joker and Catwoman are introduced here, with each making multiple appearances. It’s funny to think that the Joker almost died at the end of his second appearance (in the first issue), as the history of Batman would have gone quite differently. Batman has a great selection of foes, but it seems like they were assembled through a loose trial and error. His bad guys tended to crop up over an extended period of time, scattered across multiple books, rather than coming from one introductory run. (That’s why they are so diverse, if you ask me.) Still, by this stage of the game, Batman’s world felt far more cemented than that of Superman.

I do like this early portrayal of the Joker. It’s a relatively stripped-down version of the character, presenting him as something of a grim serial killer. He isn’t the anarchist or the Nietzsche wannabe that later iterations would become. He kills for motivations that are easy to understand. He speaks in “a toneless voice”, he smiles “a smile without mirth”, and he wears “a changeless mask-like face — but for the eyes — burning hate-filled eyes!” It’s interesting that, like The Dark Knight, this version of the Joker has his white skin as make-up, rather than appearing completely white. (Although his grin is fixed.)

It may have taken them a while to get into the wing of things…

It’s a long way between Batman: The Dark Knight Archives, Vol. 1 and the modern interpretation of Batman. It’s over seventy years, which is just really astounding to think about. You can see a lot of the character Batman would become here, but – at the same time – there’s a lot that would change as well. It’s fascinating to look at how deeply rooted the character was in the past, with his pulpy sword fights and pirate adventures. This is especially the case when the character is contrasted with the relatively dynamic modernness of Superman at the same time. (Hell, at one point Superman even ended World War II.)

Still, it’s an interesting slice of comic book history, and DC have done a fantastic job packaging it up. the restoration is top notch and there’s a lovely introduction from Senator Patrick Leahy, a long-time Batman fan. The collection is well worth a look for anybody looking to get a sense of how Batman began.

3 Responses

  1. I think the line “Quiet or Papa spank!” (Uttered fully seriously) pretty much destroys all credibility these stories have in the development of Batman as a character.

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