Against the suffocating world of Nazism, communism, Holocaust camps, and gulags, imagination found a new life in the 1940s and 1950s, as artists strove for a renewal of beauty, goodness, and truth. It is only in this context that one can understand the rise of the “superhero,” among whom none have endured as well as Batman.
When Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in the spring of 1939, all hell was about to be loosed upon the world. It had already crept up from the abyss of late-nineteenth century nationalist and socialist thought into central, southern, and eastern Europe, as well as in Russia and in large parts of Asia. Very soon after Batman appeared, two incarnate earthly hells would ravage Poland, with the Nazis and Soviets equally dividing the spoils while each decimated the ancient, noble cavalry of the Poles with modern mechanized impersonal and ideological brutality. The breach into the world of the Shades would only expand, engulfing the world in terror, war, and ideology.
Against this suffocating world of Nazis, communists, Holocaust camps, Gulags, and other inhumane evils, imagination found a new life. Many of the twentieth-century’s greatest artists—from J.R.R. Tolkien to Willa Cather to Dave Brubeck to Miles Davis—realized it was not enough to be against something. Anyone in the free world can be anti-Nazi, anti-communist, anti-Gulag, and anti-Holocaust camp. But, to be in favor of something? That’s much harder. Much of the greatest art of the twentieth-century came from those who did not reject the past, but who took what was found there and built upon it. Tolkien did this with Scandinavian, Mediterranean, Finnish, Celtic, and Anglo-Saxon stories. Cather did it with the myriad of ethnicities and artisanships remade on American soil. Brubeck and Davis did it by mixing classical forms of music with African rhythms and spontaneity. Eliot did the same with Dante, with “The Waste Land” serving as the Inferno; “The Hollow Men” as Purgatorio; and “Ash Wednesday” and “The Four Quartets” as Paradiso. C.S. Lewis, George Orwell, Sister Madeleva Wolff, Graham Greene, Dorothy Sayers, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, Rose Wilder Lane, Claire Boothe Luce, Owen Barfield, Sigrid Unset, and Bob Dylan, did the same. Each of these authors, consciously or not, fought for a vision or something rather than just against a thing. Each, rather openly or not, strove for some kind of renewal and reminder of beauty, goodness, and truth, in a world shattered by hatred, division, and violence.
It is only in this context of history that one can understand the rise—uniquely American—of the “superhero,” especially those that came out of the company that would eventually be known as D.C., Detective Comics. While the art of D.C. might not be the equivalent high art of Eliot or Cather or Davis, it is art nonetheless, taking from the past and searching for a goodness and truth in a generation that desperately fought to be for something rather than just against. Between 1938 and 1940, D.C. (for sake of argument, this is short hand, even when the company was called National or something else), creators brought into existence Superman, the alien immigrant raised in innocence and honesty by a Kansas couple who understood the Christ-like powers of their adopted son; Batman, the American aristocrat, detective, and crime fighter, who patrolled the darkest corners of urban America, protecting the innocent from harm; and Wonder Woman, the angelic, Greek classical goddess, who comes to the aid of American servicemen waging just and proper war against the ideologues. This trinity of heroes stood powerfully in 1940, but it remains equally powerful almost a century later. The heroes—immigrant; dark avenger; and demigoddess—speak to us of the twenty-first century every bit, if not more, as much as they did to the generation of the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Of all the superheroes that came into existence between 1938 and 1954 or so, none have endured as well as Batman. Others have had their days and their fads, but none but Batman has weathered all phases and all cultural upheavals so steadily and with such dignity (usually). Throughout his long history, he has been, at various times, detective, playboy, spy, astronaut, time traveler, and holy avenger.
The opening panel of the first Batman story sets the tone perfectly for all that is to come over the next eight decades. A full banner across the top of the page, the panel offers the first image of the Batman, a dark, human-bat figure, silhouetted against a twilight, urban skyline on the right third of the image, with the other two-thirds reading “The Bat-Man,” “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” and “By Robt. Kane.” A small, inserted, bat-winged box explains: “The ‘Bat-Man’: A mysterious and adventurous figure fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong doer, in his lone battle against the evil forces of society…. His identity remains unknown.” The next panel reveals a wealthy, aristocratic Bruce Wayne speaking casually with the police commissioner, Commissioner Gordon, each smoking a pipe. A phone call interrupts them, and the commissioner speeds off to examine a crime scene. Though short, the first Batman story lays out much of the character that remains to this day. Seemingly aloof as Bruce Wayne, Batman enters the fray without hesitation, punches the bad guy so hard that he falls into a vat of acid, presumably melting and burning to nothingness. As the criminal falls to his death, Batman sighs, “A fitting end for his kind.” Unlike Superman, Batman is vulnerable to bullets, and he’s shot in the shoulder in his third appearance. At the end of the issue, though, Batman hurls a fire extinguisher at his foe, Doctor Death, who drops the chemicals he’s holding. They ignite, presumably burning the man alive. Batman pities him, but he also does nothing to save him. As it turns out, the fire has merely horribly disfigured Doctor Death, forcing him to wear a “skin mask” over his deformity. Importantly, this first iteration of Batman feels no responsibility for the mutilation, believing the villain has brought it upon himself. This urban American icon in his earliest phase is vengeance and justice, devoid of his later qualities of mercy and charity.
Editor’s Note: This essay is the first in a series about Batman.
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1 “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” Detective Comics 27 (May 1939).
2 “The Batman Meets Doctor Death,” Detective Comics 29 (July 1939).
3 “The Batman Meets Doctor Death,” Detective Comics 29 (July 1939).
4 No title, Detective Comics 30 (August 1939).