Batman 80th Anniversary – The 1930s

Batman is turning 80 on March 30, and it’s time we celebrate the man, the bat, the legend.

Starting today, we will be publishing a post each day celebrating a decade of Batman. We will break it down by comics, TV, films, and general culture. Because of the breadth of his impact on the world, there is no way we can hit every landmark moment, but we’re going to try our best to bring you an overall history of the infamous Batman.

Batman in the 1930s

At the beginning of 1939, National Comics Publications – the forerunner of DC – was on a quest to launch more superhero comics. Superman was a success, and the company knew that it needed to come up with some more heroes to keep the momentum going.

Bob Kane was running a ‘packaging’ studio at the time that would create comics content for various publishers trying to get into the field. He came up with a concept that he referred to as ‘the Bat-Man’ that he thought would fit the bill. When he felt he had something down on paper, he asked Bill Finger, an employee of the studio, to take a look at it and give him his opinion. “One day I called Bill and said, ‘I have a new character called the Bat-Man and I’ve made some crude, elementary sketches I’d like you to look at,’ Kane said in his autobiography. “He came over and I showed him the drawings.”

“At the time, I only had a small domino mask, like the one Robin later wore, on Batman’s face,” Kane continued. “Bill said, ‘Why not make him look more like a bat and put a hood on him, and take the eyeballs out and just put slits for eyes to make him look more mysterious?’ At this point, the Bat-Man wore a red union suit; the wings, trunks, and mask were black. I thought that red and black would be a good combination. Bill said that the costume was too bright: ‘Color it dark grey to make it look more ominous.’ The cape looked like two stiff bat wings attached to his arms. As Bill and I talked, we realized that these wings would get cumbersome when Bat-Man was in action and changed them into a cape, scalloped to look like bat wings when he was fighting or swinging down on a rope. Also, he didn’t have any gloves on, and we added them so that he wouldn’t leave fingerprints.”

This collaboration, of course, would lead to decades of issues for Bill Finger and his family due to his lack of credit, but we will return to that issue decades from now.

Once the character of Batman and a story – “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” – were submitted to National, the decision was made to slate them to appear in Detective Comics #27. Although the comic had a May cover date, it was actually released on March 30, 1939.

First image of Batman - Action Comics 12
First image of Batman to appear in Action Comics #12 via WikiCommons

1939, a Year of Firsts

Things kicked off quickly for Batman, and hallmarks of the character rapidly appeared. Before the year was out, Batman had thrown his first Batarangs (Detective Comics #29), and the Batplane marked the first appearance of a bat-themed vehicle (Detective Comics #31). Possibly the most important moment of all, his origin was revealed; the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne was first depicted in a two-page story in Detective Comics #33, and was written by Bill Finger.

80 years later, it’s nearly impossible to think of Batman without thinking about these moments and items.

Even more surprising is the fact that two ongoing villains appeared before the year was out. While your mind may immediately jump to someone like the Joker, you’ll have to wait for our look at the 1940s for the Clown Prince of Crime to make his debut. Doctor Death first appeared in Detective Comics #29, a mere two issues into Batman’s existence. And, despite a February 1940 cover date, Hugo Strange made it in just under the wire appearing in Detective Comics #36.

Julie Madison – an on-again, off-again – love interest of Bruce Wayne’s, made her debut very quickly in the first year, appearing in Detective Comics #31.

Also notable during these early adventures was the influence of pulp stories such as Doc Savage, and swashbuckling film stars such as Doug Fairbanks’ take on Zorro. on the character. During 1939 Batman was seen multiple times to maim and kill criminals. The rules of comic book vigilantism clearly had not yet been established, and Batman was more about the end result of the mission than how it was accomplished.

And, of course, at the time, no one knew what was to come, so thank goodness they established so many rules and toys so early on that so many more creators would get to play with down the road.

Josh McDonald and Jay Yaws contributed research to this post.

Check out the other installments in this series!

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