golden age batman

Last week, I wrote about how the Superman of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice compared to the original incarnation of the character who was introduced in the pages of Action Comics in 1938. In a nutshell, neither version lined up with the popular vision of the character. Golden Age Superman and Zack Snyder‘s Superman are not the Superman the public knows. Seeing how each depiction diverges from the norm made for a compelling personal study.

And since we’re still talking about this movie, I figured I might as well give the same treatment to Ben Affleck‘s Batman and compare his take to the original Golden Age version, who debuted in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939 via the pen of writer Bill Finger and the pencil of artist Bob Kane. As with the previous Superman article, I based all of these observations on a reading of the first year of Batman stories. And as with that previous article, the character on display here is far from the character we know and love. And also like that previous article, this is not intended to be a defense of how Zack Snyder depicts Batman (so much of it rubs me the wrong way), but rather a peek down the pop culture history rabbit hole.

  golden age batman origins Bruce Wayne and the Origins of The Bat-Man

The entire world is so familiar with Batman’s origin story that the mere fact that Zack Snyder told it again in Batman v Superman has been a subject of discussion and controversy amongst fans. How many times do we have to watch Thomas and Martha Wayne get gunned down in a mugging gone wrong? How many times do we have to watch young Bruce Wayne cry over the bodies of his murdered parents outside of a movie theater? How many times will Martha’s necklace be the focal point of this confrontation?

Snyder’s depiction of the Waynes’ murder is borderline fetishistic. Shot in extreme slow-motion, the intent is to drill every painful millisecond of this encounter into our minds, forcing us to watch the moment that changed young Bruce’s life in agonizing, traumatizing detail. You almost can’t blame Snyder for taking an overblown approach to this particular piece of the Batman mythos – we are so intimately familiar with it that recreating it with sledgehammer force feels like the only option left. There’s no room for subtlety in a film that is already packed with incident.

It’s weird to read the earliest Batman comics and realize that this origin story didn’t come into play until a little later. In his first six adventures in the pages of Detective Comics, there is no mention of Bruce’s parents or how he decided to declare war on criminals to avenge them. There is just Bruce Wayne, the young socialite who is apparently so bored with his humdrum life that he’s taken up crimefighting because there’s nothing better to do. These early Batman stories are akin to the earliest pulp heroes – the Bat-Man (as he is initially called) does what he does because that’s just what he does. He doesn’t need any stinking motivation! This is his hobby. It’s actually pretty amusing how many times Bruce Wayne ducks out of a dangerous situation because it’s too “melodramatic” or because he has something better to do, only to return a panel later as Batman.

The seventh Batman adventure, collected in Detective Comics #33, finally supplies Batman with his iconic backstory, dedicating two pages to the death of the Thomas Wayne and Mrs. Wayne (Martha isn’t named yet) and explaining that young Bruce trained himself to be an extraordinary chemist and peak physical specimen in order to battle crime. And then a bat flies through his window and gives him the rest of the necessary motivation. It’s all incredibly straightforward and it’s no wonder that later filmmakers (from Snyder to Christopher Nolan) would feel compelled to spice it up a bit. No, young Bruce doesn’t fall into the Batcave in these early stories. Heck, the Batcave doesn’t even exist yet.

golden age batman villains

The Rogues Gallery

Few fictional heroes are as defined by their villains as Batman, whose adversaries are so well-realized and indelible that they tend to dominate the larger DC comic book universe these days. You can’t go a week without another superhero running into a bad guy introduced in the streets of Gotham City. Heck, just look at the upcoming Suicide Squad, where more than a few of the villains in the line-up are Batman antagonists. There are enough of them that Batman himself is going to pop in for a cameo. These guys are a big deal.

And even though no proper Batman villains rear their heads in Batman v Superman, they still linger over the movie. Some exist as Easter eggs, like graffiti that all but reads “the Riddler was here.” Others exist as offscreen reminders of past events, like graffiti scrawled all over the armor of an absent Robin, which makes it perfectly clear that the Joker was there and he wasn’t taking prisoners on that particular day. Even in a movie where Batman fights Superman villains, these guys can’t help but be present. They cast large shadows.

So it’s strange to watch Batman do battle with enemies that aren’t the Penguin and Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy and Bane and the rest of that crew. In his earliest adventures, Batman takes on an eclectic crew of crooks and maniacs, but few of them have that instant, iconic jolt provided by his most infamous baddies. There are a fair number of jewel thieves and white collar criminals, the kinds of guys who plot to take over companies by stealing contracts and murdering their partners. Many of these guys aren’t breathing in the final panels (more on that in a bit), so the chances of them becoming classic, recurring villains are slim.

But soon enough, Detective Comics is letting its pulpy flag fly in a big way. Although Batman continues to fight his fair share of ordinary criminals, he’s soon doing battle with Doctor Death, a mad scientist type who actually manages to survive his two encounters with Batman so he can return for later adventures (although he is horribly mangled and gets a monstrous new look). Even better is Master Monk, a Hungarian vampire with a giant ape henchman who tries to kill Batman by tossing him into his werewolf pit. While the all-powerful Superman was tackling social justice issues, the mortal Batman was literally saving the world from a quartet of mad scientists whose ray-gun dirigibles literally threaten the safety of every person on Earth. In his modern incarnations, Batman tends to be the street-level hero, fighting his way through the gutter to pave a way for hopefully brighter future while Superman handles the gigantic, world-saving adventures. It’s fascinating to see their roles reversed this early on.

Eventually, Batman does meet the first member of his regular rogues gallery: the mad scientist Hugo Strange, who is more of a riff on Sherlock Holmes’ chief nemesis Professor Moriarty than his later “psychopathic psychologist” incarnation. A few issues after that, one issue beyond where this particular project ended, the Joker makes his grand debut.

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