The Caped Crusader: From campy hero to brooding protector, Batman has been subject of many interpretations

By Jeffrey Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, July 19 2012 2:01 p.m. MDT

Christian Bale again dons the Caped Crusader's cowl in "The Dark Knight Rises."

Associated Press

Ever since his debut in the pages of “Detective Comics” in 1939, Batman has been one of the most popular characters in comic history. In fact, a recent poll by the fan magazine “Comic Heroes” placed Batman at the top of a list of the greatest superheroes of all time, beating out other favorites like Spider-Man, Superman and Wolverine.

With the release of “The Dark Knight Rises” threatening to shatter box-office records this weekend, here’s a look back at the history of the Caped Crusader in media, which ranges from early comics and a campy TV show to more recent movies, animated TV series and video games that take on a darker tone — and ratings that suggest they aren’t for young children.

The Bat-Man

Like so many characters, Batman’s origin actually began with Superman. Action Comics No. 1 in 1938, the seminal first appearance of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Kryptonian brainchild, was, simply put, the Big Bang of the superhero universe. It started everything.

At a time when other popular comic books like “The Shadow” and “Dick Tracy” sold between 200,000 and 400,000 copies per issue, those featuring the Man of Steel routinely sold around 900,000. Bob Kane, a young cartoonist at DC, decided to try to duplicate that success for the company’s flagship anthology series “Detective Comics” by creating a superhero detective — part Superman, part Sherlock Holmes.

The earliest concept, though, was a far cry from the Batman audiences would come to know. Kane’s first drawings featured a character in a gloveless, mostly red costume with a domino mask and stiff bat wings (inspired, of all things, by Leonardo Da Vinci’s flying contraption, the ornithopter).

With the collaboration of writer Bill Finger, however, “the Bat-Man,” as he was originally known, gradually took form. The final product managed to straddle the gap between the new superhero genre and the pulp comics it was supplanting, incorporating elements from both Superman and characters like the Shadow, the Phantom and Zorro.

Along with design, Finger also contributed the details of Batman’s secret identity, naming him after Scottish patriot Robert the Bruce and Revolutionary War hero Mad Anthony Wayne (who, in the comics, is said to be Bruce Wayne’s ancestor). Perhaps the most important contribution, though, was the tragic backstory Finger wrote in order to justify the character’s extraordinary exploits.

The final ingredient that transformed Bob Kane’s “The Bat-Man” into the classic comic hero came from DC editor Frederic Whitney Ellsworth. Ellsworth had become concerned at the amount of violence depicted in the character’s early stories. Like other pulp heroes, the Caped Crusader was not, at first, above using guns or even lethal force to dispatch his enemies. At Ellsworth’s insistence, however, Finger and Kane adopted the famous “no-kill” rule, a decision that has had a profound influence on the history of the character in both comics and film.

Batman for all seasons

Batman’s first appearance in “Detective Comics” No. 27 was, as one might assume from the book’s title, in the role of a detective, using his amazing (but not superhuman) skills of deduction to solve “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” Over the decades, however, Batman has worn many masks — from the World’s Greatest Detective to the Caped Crusader to the Dark Knight.

As Bob Kane said, “Maybe every 10 years Batman has to go through an evolution to keep up with the times.”

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