Who Is Batman?
By Arthur Smith
“Maybe every ten years Batman has to go through an evolution to keep up with the times.” —Batman creator Bob Kane
Like Walt Whitman, Batman contradicts himself and contains multitudes. He has been, at various times: A grim, bloodthirsty vigilante who thought nothing of tossing criminals from rooftops (his initial comic book appearances in the thirties)...
A bland, do-gooder, “Officer Friendly” type who cavorted with a young boy and faced outré foes in endless battles of no real consequence (the toothless but diverting comics of the fifties);
A camp figure of fun who held in his gut while intoning corny little epigrams (the phenomenally successful Batman TV series of the midsixties, echoed by the franchise-endangering Joel Schumacher films of the nineties);
A modern-day Sherlock Holmes with odd taste in evening wear (the “back to basics,” detective-oriented late sixties and seventies comic book stories);
A vengeful dark knight of mythic power bestriding a nightmarish dystopia (Frank Miller’s seminal eighties reinterpretation);
A psychologically fragmented neurotic eternally tending his wounded inner child (the Batman films of Tim Burton, and, most recently, Christopher Nolan).
What other modern myth could withstand such lunatic variety? It’s hard to imagine Mickey Mouse picking up a machine gun, or James Bond sobbing on a therapist’s couch. Batman could do either, and still be in character.
Created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger in 1939 as a direct response to the phenomenal popularity of Superman, who had debuted the previous year, Batman was inspired by a peculiar mélange of influences: Kane has cited Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of a batwing-shaped “ornithopter” glider device as a principal visual inspiration, and the pulp tradition of animal-themed mystery men included a few bats in their number.
Other key influences were Zorro, a feckless rich playboy by day who became a dark, masked avenger by night, memorably played by Douglas Fairbanks on the silver screen, and Dick Tracy, a brilliant detective from the newspaper comics who used an array of ingenious technological gimmicks to battle a rogues gallery of grotesques and freaks.
One early Batman story directly references the eerie faceless Tracy villain the Blank with an identically designed character.
Photo credits: Alex Ross painting from Mythology, ©2005 Pantheon; Da Vinci drawing, Batman comic book panels, and Detective #27 cover from Batman: The Complete History © 1999 DC Comics; Dick Tracy comic strip panel from The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951 © 1990 The Wellfleet Press; The Mark of Zorro: © United Artists/Photofest
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