Hello all you happy people! Josh Stoodley here with another Fandom Heresies post. This week we will be talking about who and what Batman is. We will be looking at the core character concept from the original Golden Age Batman all the way through to the most modern versions of the character. This is all a set-up for the third and final post in this series, where we will look at both this post and the previous one (which you can find here.
But first, some housekeeping. Pokémon Red Version chapter nine will be up this week, as will Batman chapter nine. We will be delving into my version of how Robin came to be, so be sure to check that out!
Heroic Fantasy has undergone some minor rewrites, and chapter seven will also be up this week.
On to Batman!
That Weird Figure of the Night, Golden Age Batman!
Okay, so the first thing we have to acknowledge is that Batman did not start out as a ninja. Bob Kane claims to have never heard of ninja, and given the man’s general ignorance, I think we can take him at his word here.
Bill Finger, Batman’s real creator, is likewise supremely unlikely to have heard of ninja. While he was a film buff and a little more cultured than Kane, ninja would not penetrate American pop culture until much later. Mostly in the seventies and eighties, with the rise of martial arts movies and increasing imports from Japan.
So Batman did not start out as a ninja, despite strong superficial similarities even at this early date. What he did start out as is a detective.
Okay, in the Golden Age, Batman was kind of a lousy detective. He often sat around with Dick, waiting for the perfect time to strike. The Batman we know of today, actively hunting his prey, searching for clues and analyzing crime scenes, would take a while to develop. That said, Batman still did detective things. He tailed his opponents all the time in the Golden Age, and often sent Robin in undercover when he didn’t go himself. So Batman, even accounting for the massive amount of Early Instalment Weirdness of the Golden Age, was still a character who fought with his head.
Further, many of Batman’s tactics that Denny O’Neil and later writers would popularize are present in this initial version of the character. Batman relies on stealth and surprise, often appearing out of nowhere and ambushing his opponents. His most frequently mentioned gadget in the Golden Age, at least by my count, are glass vials filled with smoke powder. So here, we have the foundations of modern Batman: a stealthy, cunning fighter.
But wait! you say. Didn’t Batman also wrestle tigers and lions and such in the Golden Age? Wasn’t he famed for his strength and power as much or more than his mind? And didn’t he tank a bullet at least once?
And the answer to all those questions is yes. Golden Age Batman did more than set up Batman as a thinker and a strategist: it also set him up as the peak of physical perfection (at least for a regular human) as strong as he was brilliant. Which makes a certain amount of sense: not only was this an attribute inherited from Batman’s pulp predecessors (namely, Doc Savage. The Shadow, while still an impossibly good fighter, relied even more on mind tricks and subversion than Batman ever has and rarely confronted his enemies openly), fighting crime is hard work. You have to be in good physical condition to do it. One of the modern issues with the police is that many of them are terribly out of shape: either fat, overworked (twelve-hour shifts? For emergency personnel? Are you kidding me?) or abusing steroids. Or a combination off all three.
So Batman being as fit as he is does make sense. Unfortunately, it also leads to this situation where some writers, especially modern ones, portray Batman as a juggernaut. Either by overcompensating for his mortal weaknesses by giving him power armour (which is Stark’s shtick!) or just making him an impossibly good martial artist who can outfight the Flash at close quarters.
That’s just… not how Batman works, guys. Batman’s initial character concept is a detective; while Batman gets into more action than a detective should, he’s still a detective. He should be fighting with his head, not just tanking bullets!
Denny, Your Asian Fetish Is Showing: The Bronze Age Batman
We’re going to skip over the Silver Age version of Batman, because that really isn’t relevant to our discussion here. Silver Age Batman can be divided into two periods: the first, early period, where Batman became a cheap Superman knock-off (oh, how the tides have turned! And not for the better) and had goofy science-fiction adventures. This is the period of the original Batwoman, Bat-Mite, Ace the Bat-hound and the like.
Then there’s the second, later period which was more like both the original Golden Age character and later, more modern versions; though significantly more light hearted and campy. Those of you who have seen Batman (1966) know exactly what I’m talking about.
You can see why neither period is important to this discussion.
So instead, we’re going to look at the Batman of the Bronze Age. Largely re-invented by Denny O’Neil in 1970, Batman took on a whole new slew of influences. Primarily the martial arts craze kick started by Bruce Lee in the mid-to-late sixties, new cultural imports from Japan, an increasing desire to expand beyond the all-white and all white bread comics of the fifties, and James Bond. Batman became a globe-trotting, Gothic, superhero. It is from this era that we get images of Batman haunting graveyards and perching atop gargoyles.
It is also the era that Batman becomes a ninja.
It turns out that Neal Adams Gothic art made for a great match with Denny O’Neil’s Asian obsession. And why not? Ninja, after all, are supposed to be masters of shadow and deception. They creep about in the darkness, stealthily taking out targets. Given Gothic art’s love of deep shadows, dark imagery and tendency to put the action at night, you can see how well the two concepts matched up. It also, ironically, brought Batman closer to his roots: though the Shadow was not a ninja, he too used the shadows, trickery and mind games to defeat his opponents. The laughing maniac who guns down his enemies without a thought is a revisionist, modern take: the original pulps, though much bloodier than the radio show, depicted a calculating, strategic-minded Shadow.
You can see where I’m going with this. Why would Batman, who’s always used stealth in his tactics, and who suddenly became even more associated with stealthy, shadowy characters, use heavy armour? Granted that Dungeons and Dragons makes wearing heavy armour more onerous than it really was, but the Disadvantage to stealth is reality! Armour is heavy. It’s awkward, hard to wear for long periods of time and does impair your agility to a noticeable degree.
Ninjas, in real life, wore disguises or period appropriate climbing gear (for when they had to sneak into high up places) for a reason.
So, if Batman used stealth and cunning right from the beginning, if he was a detective (a character archetype famed for its intelligence and fighting smart; even the hard-boiled ones like Marlowe and Spade) right from the beginning, and his tanking of bullets was relatively rare, where does this ‘Batman is heavily armoured’ nonsense come from?
And guys, as we will often do in this series, we’re going to have to blame a man named Frank.
Frank Miller’s Juggernaut: Batman of the 80s and Beyond
Hands down the most important piece of Batman fiction Frank Miller ever wrote, The Dark Knight Returns came out in 1986 and sent a shock wave through the industry. I maintain that much of its popularity came from people who didn’t like comics and weren’t reading Batman at the time: Julius Schwartz, legendary Batman editor, had already thoroughly reinvented the character in the seventies. Under his command, writers and artists like Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams, Steve Engelhart and Marshall Rogers remade Batman into the dark, Gothic figure of the night he was always supposed to be.
But it doesn’t matter. The Dark Knight Returns was a massive hit, and it’s depiction of Batman as a psychotic, fascist, juggernaut influenced future Batman writers for the worse. Miller’s Batman isn’t just physically fit; he’s a goddamned tank, a solid block of a human being.
And, more importantly for us, he wears armour under his costume (because apparently he’s never heard of a helmet. You know, just about the first piece of armour ever invented by humans). Now, as we mentioned earlier, this is not actually the first time Bruce has worn armour under his costume or tanked bullets. Batman did that all the way back in Batman #1, the debut of the Joker. So yes. Writers misunderstanding how body armour works is at least ninety years old.
However, the Golden Age Batman was kind of forgotten by this point. Remember, this was the period before the internet and the rise of digital archives. Heck, even trade paperbacks and graphic novels were kind of a new thing at this point. So outside of a handful of people with access to DC’s old archives, nobody really knew what Golden Age Batman was like. Plus, the news media as we mentioned before hadn’t kept up with recent comics. They, by and large, only knew of Batman by way of the T.V. show. And while Adam West and his merry band deserve lots of credit for what they did for the Bat, reducing Batman to that one show is kind of unfair.
At any rate, Miller’s take on Batman would go on to have a huge impact on the rest of comics. Batman stopped being Superman’s close friend; he became much more paranoid, cruel and violent; and started wearing armour a lot more often.
Now, to be fair, this wasn’t entirely Frank Miller’s fault. Batman (1989) came out shortly after TDKR and likewise had a huge impact on Batman comics. He wore an all black suit for a while (which I hate; all black is just terrible camouflage) and, there’s a scene where Batman famously tanks bullets. Okay, by falling down, but still.
Further, there were exciting new developments in the world of armour. Body armour of the 80s was space age stuff compared to the 30s and 40s; development has only increased since. It is now plausible, if only barely, for Batman to wear a lightweight suit of stab-proof armour. At least if you take into account the fantastical nature of comics.
Because many of those new developments didn’t pan out. Armour is still heavy and awkward. We discussed this last time. Again, we should note that this is all relative; modern body armour is light for its purpose. But for a guy climbing skyscrapers and sneaking around at night, it’s still much too heavy.
Finally, there’s Tony Stark. Tony’s cachet shot up with general audiences since 2008 (even as he heavily divides comic book fans due to the catastrophe that was Civil War). And, superficially, he bears many resemblances to Bruce. Both are rich playboys who have taken up fighting crime and use gadgets to do so. Surely they should fight the same, no?
The problem is that power armour has always been Tony’s shtick. Whereas Bruce has always been more of, well, a detective ninja. Their motivations are different, their styles of fighting are different, and making Bruce into the DCU’s Tony Stark just doesn’t make any sense.
Batman is a detective ninja, and there he should stay.
I’ll see you guys next week!