With a panel from the opening of 1939s ‘Detective Comics’ #27, the world was introduced to Batman. In the seven decades since his first publication, Batman has become an internationally recognized figure, his distinctive logo is one of the top five recognized symbols in the world. He remains one of the top sellers of comic books, appearing in multiple titles, and various creators have parlayed that success into other media such as film and television. But the secret to his cultural resonance remains an elusive mystery that has not been duplicated.
How can a character that has alternatively been portrayed as a detective, a father figure, a boy scout, a comedian and a dark avenger have gained a prominent place in the psyche of popular culture? Comic book scholars such as Roger Reynolds and Peter M. Coogan have explored Batman and the superhero community as a continuation of the mythic tradition in their respective works, ‘Superheroes: A Modern Mythology’ and ‘Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre.’ ‘Detective Comics’ #27, May 1939, was compiled with archetypes which has lead to superheroes enduring popularity. Alternatively, Will Brooker in ‘Batman Unmasked’ analyzes how different aspects of Batman’s complex personality is emphasized during distinct American time periods, reflecting the contemporary culture and leading to his continued cultural relevance. I find that Roger Reynolds’ and Peter M. Coogan’s approach is too broad, drawing on classical myth as a whole instead examining the unique themes that characterize individual heroes, while Will Brooker’s approach is too narrow, relying on new historicism at the detriment of additional critical approaches that would provide additional enlightenment. To comprehend the superhero’s power in the popular consciousness, one must have a singular focus on an individual hero, such as Batman, while maintaining the broad perspective on mythological and historical sources. By analyzing the timeless themes from classical and American mythology as well as the malleable nature of a national culture, it will be revealed that Batman’s continuing popularity is the result of his status as a postmodern American mythology.
In order to discuss Batman as an American myth, one must have a foundational understanding of the comic book genre and its history. Part of the reason that heroes such as Batman have been able to create a postmodern American mythology is because they were created for a postmodern American art form: the comic book. The combination of pictures and words has long been a part of a literary tradition, but no one would confuse comic books with illuminated manuscripts. That is because of the comic book, and its predecessor, the comic strip, is a sequential art, visually drawing much more from cinema than from painting. As Batman creator Robert Kane put it, “Comic books and films are both highly visual media, the comic book panel a condensed version of a film frame.” Because words and images have to work together, neither can stand out, be too “great,” or they would detract from one another. So the early history of comic art is predominated by simplistic images and stories. However, this type of sequential storytelling best served the multi ethnic United States of America at the turn of the century, being easily interpreted by most anyone in addition to reflecting the ideals of the nation. As Paul Thomas Mann wrote, comic books reflect “the infusion of the aristocratic spirit of art into the democratic spirit of the cinema.”
The American history of comic art begins with the comic strip of the late 1800s. The comic section was one of the most popular parts of the newspaper, with the adventures of characters such as ‘The Yellow Kid’ and ‘The Katzenjammer Kids’ being followed by millions of devoted readers. In the early 1900s, serials of these popular characters were collected and reprinted in a cheap, pamphlet format, thus creating the comic book. It was not until 1935 that the innovation of creating original material for comic books was begun. Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was the first to experiment with original material with ‘New Fun.’ His efforts were not successful and he was soon bankrupt, but others kept on with the idea. In June 1938, DC Comics published ‘Action Comics’ #1 with an original lead feature by two boys in Cleveland entitled “Superman.”
With the creation of the superhero, the comic book genre came into its own. Superman was an original concept with the visual punch of a film, but none of the budgetary considerations. With the level of special effects in the 1930s, Superman would have looked ridiculous on screen, but comic books could depict him with “perfect realism.” And when the sales numbers for ‘Action Comics’ #1 came in, everyone wanted a superhero for their own comic book.
Vin Sullivan was the editor of ‘Detective Comics’ at the time. He had created ‘Detective Comics’ to be the equivalent of the pulp magazines, featuring stories in one genre. He wanted a Superman, but it would have to fit into the crime-solving theme of the magazine. Vin Sullivan talked to artist Robert Kane and, showing him how much money Superman’s creators were bringing in, convinced Robert Kane to switch from his standard slapstick stories to superhero. Vin Sullivan asked for a superhero on a Friday. Robert Kane had one by Monday.
Sadly, the true history of Batman’s creation has been lost to time and Robert Kane’s hyperbole. For years, Robert Kane claimed sole credit for creating Batman, excluding writer Milton Finger. Robert Kane once wrote, “To the victor belongs the spoils. I am assured that in the folklore of legendary comic history of our times, I know that Bob Kane will be remembered as the creator of ‘Batman’ and no one else.” He even forged sketches of a ‘Batman’ figure that he drew “at the age of thirteen” in order to avoid infringement on the Birdmen characters in the Flash Gordon comic strip. But the truth is that without the aid of Milton Finger, Batman would have been a much different character and probably not have achieved the mythic status he enjoys today.