We’re Back!

Sticky

Yes – after an absence of six months, the office of Lady Batman, Comics Detective is open once again!

Lady was lured away temporarily byrobin_batman_goldenage_comics a role in online journalism, but her main reason for being away was organizing a charity event around Batman Day on July 23rd, 2014. The Lady and the Editor will report on that fantastic event soon.

But now we are back where we belong – the Golden and Silver Ages of comics and boy, have we missed it! The Lady and The Editor are determined to never leave 1940s and 1950s Gotham ever again. Furthermore, the Editor will be researching an article to be included in this forthcoming publication over the next few weeks. As part of that, some of her peripheral research will be included on this blog.

So – come join us for lessons on why the Golden and Silver Ages of comics is so damn good. And you never know, perhaps The Lady will finally track down her elusive prey – The Bat-Man.

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A letter from Lois Lane

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Writer’s note: I wrote this tonight over a couple of hours. Basically, it is a letter from Lois Lane to Clark Kent. She’s saying goodbye to him on the occasion of DC Comics launching the New 52, and so wiping out her past as his girlfriend on Earth Prime. But really it’s about a person realizing that their hopes for a relationship aren’t going to work out. There’s no particular reason for me writing this, other than I’m a bit bored of writing comic scripts all the time and wanted to write some prose. Anyway – enjoy:

A letter from Lois Lane

There’s a star at my window. I see it every night stuck out there, all on its lonesome. It’s all the light pollution, you see. This city of ours shines so damn bright that it blots out heaven. So this star must be really something to make it through. A star so strong and so special that it makes Metropolis sit up and take notice.

For all its brilliance though, it’s such a friendly-looking star. It twinkles just so, kinda like it’s winking. It seems so close to me, so approachable, that I fancy if only I could reach up far enough I could get to know it. I could become its friend. So there’s been more times than I care to remember that I’ve woken on my tippy-toes, straining to touch a celestial body a thousand miles away or more.

You can see where I’m going with this, right?

What was I even thinking? There was never a real chance that we were gonna make it, but still we tried. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s the man you love, impossibly. How can you love someone you can’t understand? Someone you can’t relate to? Oh sure – there are crossroads in our lives’ journey; places where our experiences meet. But at the very end of it all there is something waiting for me that you may never experience – death. And if you do, the lives you will have led will be many and long, whereas mine will have been singular and short.

It happened, Clark. You are from there, I am from here, and never the twain shall meet.

What a great thing it is to imagine you love a star. “Is this happening to me?” you ask yourself as you soar, headfirst into the romantic stratosphere where the air is thin and gravity is weak and where the Earth with all its boundaries and its don’t-do-that-it’s-stupid is so very, very far away. It makes you dizzy with the ridiculousness of it all. And then you stop, momentarily, and you place your hand against your chest and feel your heart beat – ba-dum-dum-dum. And then you think you know – you think it’s happening to you: You’re in love and you laugh your head off because you’re the biggest idiot in the universe. But for the first time in your life you don’t care. No one can see up there, trying to make love to a star.

But then something strange happened – you imagined you loved me back. You noticed me up there, dying a happy death, and caught me. Right there, in that instant of shared madness, you became a tiny bit mortal too – just another damn idiot making a fool of himself with an idiot friend to keep him company. Oh, the dates we’d go on, the love we’d make; the house we’d buy, the names we’d choose for our boy and girl. Because in space, no one can hear you make a million plans that will never come off because you’re a reporter and your boyfriend is a superhero from outer space.

You were never mine to have. You belong to the world, not to me.

Now it has been decreed that you must be with another. Her name is Diana, which was the name of the Avon lady who used to sell my mom a pink lipstick that made her teeth look yellow. But I digress. This Diana doesn’t sell cosmetics. She is a Wonder Woman. How can I compete with that? I can’t and I won’t even begin to because I don’t need to. I’m Wondrous in my own ways, I just don’t wear spandex when I do my thing. But I like her. She’ll make you happy, I think. And that’s as much as I ever hoped to do for you.

But I will never forget the very first moment I saw you. I was scrunched up in a ball under my desk, waiting for death to come. Everything went still and quiet; the oxygen was sucked out of my chest, suddenly and without pain. I shut my eyes to it. The end was here. But I was wrong because the air rushed back into my lungs. I gasped, I opened my eyes and I ran to the window just in time to see you – or at least the impression of you – zooming past the glass. You were just a streak of red and blue, like someone had taken a couple of pens and scratched ‘You are saved’ across the city. I didn’t see your face, I wasn’t even sure you were a ‘someone’, but I knew there and then that you were my answer to everything.

I take it all back Clark. This is real. I do love you, somehow. But I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.

I can still see that star. I sure hope it can still see me.

Lois x

That Boy’s a Wonder! Richard Grayson’s Lessons on Childhood During the 1940s and 1950s

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This article first appeared on Broken Frontier on March 7th 2014. As previously explained, my new role at Broken Frontier means that there will be a cross-over between my blog and that site. The article below was initially designed for this site and accompanies Batman’s letter to his former ward.

This article is a formal exploration of the themes found in Richard Grayson’s youth between 1940 and 1960. The Lady and I hope you enjoy it:

Long before Peter Parker reflected on the great…responsibility that had fallen upon his young shoulders, there was another boy whose role it was to teach the world about growing up in a man’s world. In 1940, a group of men working at what would later become DC Comics Inc. decided that the kids of America needed a character they could relate to; a child-hero. Dick Grayson Lead ImageThis child would be typical of DC’s readership, so that when he looked over and grinned at the adult swinging through the air by his side, he would be staring with the eyes of pre-teen America. And so it was that DC chose a young man by the name of Richard (Dick) Grayson to take on this defining role. Grayson became Robin, the Boy Wonder.

The stories of Dick Grayson in the first twenty years or so of his career contain some beautiful tales. As a new reader of comics, this young man proved to be a revelation to me. I shall never forget my joy as I read his exploits for the first time, or the sadness he made me feel. He truly is a Wonder. The reason for this is simple; Grayson’s life is kind of lesson in growing up in 40s and 50s America. He teaches us both what being a child may have been like back then, but also about what people thought childhood should be like. As history is the story of human development, some of these ideas and experiences of childhood are different to our perception today. But make no mistake: although “the past is another country”, some concepts remain eternal. Richard’s stories still have huge relevance, therefore.

Lesson #1: How We Fail Our Children

Richard’s age is not given in his first appearance in Detective Comics #38, April 1940, but canon has since determined that he was twelve years of age when he became Robin. For a boy like Dick Grayson – the product of a largely Jewish male workforce at DC – it is the year before his bar mitzvah. For the rest of us, twelve is the year in number before teenhood, puberty and all that problematic ‘stuff’. Thus twelve is when a young person stands on the cusp of burgeoning responsibility, independence and assuming control over one’s destiny. Nevertheless, a boy of twelve is a still minor. He may have very definite ideas of who he is right now and who he wants to be in the future, but he is not yet free to choose that path. Instead, he is subject to the care and rules of adults who, as many of us unfortunately attest to, do not always act in a child’s best interests. And there is no better lesson in how we fail our children than the origin of Richard Grayson.

Richard’s father and mother – ‘The Flying Graysons’ – are murdered because of the enforcement of a protection racket. This is the consequence of adult behaviour; of a group of ‘grown-up’ gangsters headed by a man named Zucco. When Dick learns the truth about his parents’ death he is determined to go to the police with the incriminating information. However, Batman persuades him not to because:

“This whole town is run by Boss Zucco. If you told what you knew you’d be dead be dead in an hour.”

This is one of the most significant statements in the whole of Batman. Adult society not only fails to safeguard the lives of the Graysons, but also denies them justice. The only way that Dick can secure a conviction of these murderers is by becoming a masked hero – the type of character that children’s playtime is filled with. Adults are the cowardly, superstitious lot, tainted by corruption and vice. If we want the world to be a better place, then a twelve year-old boy is the ideal candidate to make that utopia happen.

Society also failed the other little boy who Robin fights alongside with – Batman. Detective comics 38Batman is an eight year-old child inhabiting an adult’s body. When Bruce witnessed the murder of his parents he swore that he would devote his life to fighting criminals. But unlike the rest of us who would either quietly forget or become an institutional crime fighter such as a policeman, Bruce donned a mask and cape and lived out his playtime dreams. Just because Batman is dark and frightening does not exclude him from childhood. Children all too readily feel pain and understand the consequences of loss, the thrill of fear.

So when Batman relates his own tragic story to Dick, the boy becomes determined to live the superhero life. Batman – to his credit – is reluctant to take Richard on, but Grayson persuades him to do so. By candlelight, Batman and Robin swear ‘an undying oath’ ‘never to swerve from the path of righteousness’. These two BFFs are thus joined forever in the kind of secret club pact that little boys and girls make every day the world-over.

Lesson #2: The Kids Know Best

When Richard first became Robin, society had defined the journey from birth to adulthood as including only these elements. A person was a child, then a grown-up; the word ‘teenager’ was still a decade away from reaching people’s lips. But this is not to say that young people did not exhibit all the behaviours we associate with teenagers – rebellion, introspection, being-a-pain-in-adults-asses. The history of crime in American cities is that of the teenager-to-early-twenty-year-old, of young gangsters making notorious names for themselves. Furthermore, comic strips in newspapers (read by an overwhelming adult audience) teemed with smart-mouthed kids, usually from the rough side of town, like the Katzenjammer Kids.

Young Master Grayson reflects this rebellious air. Dick is mostly permitted to show his distaste for adults by his treatment of criminals. There’s barely an issue of Batman that goes by without Robin likening some ugly goon to a monkey or elephant and it is very, very funny. But significantly, Batman also gets the brush-off. Richard often disregards his adoptive big brother’s orders, sometimes with positive consequences. Robin – the child – seems to know best, or at least has judgement as good as the adult hero. His disobedience leads to the solving of cases and the capture of those same ape-faced goons whom Grayson so loves to slap around.

Batman doesn’t take Robin’s disobedience lightly, though. I have lost count of the number of times Bruce threatens to whale on Richard for doing his own thing. Also, Bruce is pictured spanking Richard at least once to my knowledge. His methods of discipline utterly reflect the times. Though it can be said that Western history from the mid-nineteenth century can be defined by its increasing ratification of human rights, child-rearing in the US and UK at this time still overwhelmingly supported the use of corporal methods of punishment. The spanking question has still not gone away even now, with “To Train Up A Child” – a book that advocates corporal punishment methods for babies – being linked to a child’s death. So yes, Batman is a spanker. The fact that Batman also likes to spank criminals and especially Catwoman, is a whole other story, though.

Lesson #3: Being Young is a Struggle

Disobey OrdersThe popular image of Robin remains the dutiful sidekick with cheesy ‘holy’ catchphrases, as immortalised by Burt Ward in the TV series. However, this obedient, unthinking Robin, so at ease with the role of superhero is not always reflected in the comics. In Batman #66 from August/September 1951, there is a tale that is almost forgotten about, but one that is amongst the most heartbreaking episodes in Batman history.

“Batman II and Robin, Junior!” proves that the responsibility of being Robin is too much for any child. It brings together this theme with that of Grayson’s natural rebelliousness to devastating effect. In it, Grayson fails to follow an order from Batman and is admonished for it. This ‘failing’ by the boy is becoming a habit, it seems. Richard then has a dream in which his future, adult self is Batman and his young son is Robin. This fantasy child of Grayson’s disobeys an order his father gives him, the consequence of which results in their deaths.

On face value, this story seems like a 1950s lesson in the consequences of disobedience for young boys. Dick was growing up in a patriarchal age. 50s America was determined to prove that the American way of life was the only way and that way included an ideal home with mother, father and ‘daddy knows best’ as its core philosophy. But this story goes much deeper than that. Dick’s rebellious tendencies result in toxic genes; a horrible fate is imprinted in his bloodline. Those who perceive the Golden and Silver Age of comics as childish or simplistic are not reading the stories with the respect they deserve.

In this example, Dick Grayson is suffering from acute levels of anxiety for acting as all kids do – a bit naughty and dismissive of ‘the olds’. But Richard isn’t allowed to act like his readers who get to say, ‘Later dad! I’m reading Batman!’ when their parents ask them to take out the trash. For Batman and Robin, later means dead. This is Richard’s insight into the world of being the child-hero.

Lesson #4: Robin Makes Batman More Batman!

Let us not forget that there are two experiences of childhood – that of the child and that of the parent. If we choose to have children, we hope that the experience is going to be a happy one. Certainly amongst my peers, child-raising is expressed as the most rewarding experience a human can enter into. To fully understand Richard’s childhood, therefore, we need to look at it from Batman’s point of view.

As I stated, Batman can be seen as the eternal little boy, but his duty towards his young ward is very clear. Bruce, along with Alfred from 1941, provides the adult care for Richard. For some fans, Robin’s inclusion in the Bat-verse is an annoyance, not in keeping with the Bat’s lone wolf ethos. It is true to say that in my research year of focus – 1939 – Batman is a very different beast to the man who teams up with Dick Grayson. But I have to say that, whilst 1939 Batman has a certain grim enjoyment, he can also be terribly boring. I often liken 1939 Batman to a black hole in deep space, with nothing in its gravitational pull.

To the naked eye, all we see in that situation is blackness. But as soon as a bright star falls victim to the black hole’s wake, we see the phenomenon clearly because we are able now to perceive its effect. That bright star is Robin. We know that Batman can be grumpy because he admonishes Robin. We know that Batman likes to be punctual because he shouts at Robin to be on time. We also know that Batman likes to make a joke when punching goons because it makes Robin laugh. The Robin dost maketh The Batman.

Lesson #5: Families Wear Pyjamas

bruce-dick-bedSome fans may not like Robin, but it has to be said that Batman does. Batman loves him. This is not the kind of love that Wertham accused him of in Seduction of the Innocent. The allegation of homosexuality in their relationship shows a breathtaking level of cultural ignorance. Quite apart from the fact that Wertham actually meant paedophilia (which is wrong, as opposed to adult male with adult male consensual sex, which is not wrong), Wertham’s example is laughable and easy to explain: ‘Batman and Robin share a bed’, ‘Batman and Robin are pictured wearing pyjamas’.

Yes – because they are family and this is what families once did and still do sometimes. When Bob Kane and Bill Finger were growing up in New York, overcrowding in the city (and many others across the world) was common. Low-income families had to make do, so siblings shared beds. My own father had to share a bedroom with his brother until he moved out to get married. It doesn’t matter that Wayne Manor has 99 unused bedrooms, 30s and 40s kids were used to sharing rooms with their older siblings and parents.

Lesson #6: Family is The Most Important Thing

Disgruntled fans may not want to read the 40s and 50s Batman books because Batman goes out of his way to show us just how much he loves the kid. Richard brings joy to the older man’s life just as much as any parent/carer hopes for. This goes back to Batman and Robin’s parallel origin stories. Adult society failed Bruce Wayne and Bruce’s promise to change this situation is a never-ending battle for him. But in Dick Grayson, Bruce has proof he has helped at least one child deal with loss. We may not agree with Bruce’s method – making a mini-me, a child soldier, actually – but Richard makes it clear that donning the cape and mask was his choice. Bruce is there to guide him through this, to keep him as safe as he can.

Far more than this, Richard gives Bruce what he has always longed for – a family. The ranks of Marvel and DC positively teem with orphans. It is the origin story de rigueur, a sure-fire way of getting any child-reader to understand why a hero must become so. After all, what is worst to a child than losing her parents? Richard thus helps to heal the wounds left in Bruce from that fateful night in Crime Alley by reconstructing a family for him. This is demonstrated by “Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson”, from Batman #20, December-January 1944. In this, Bill Finger, the creator of Batman tells us that:

guardian4“The Wayne home is a happy home, for in it lives a happy trio!”

This ‘happy trio’ is Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson and Alfred Pennyworth. But all this is threatened when someone purporting to be from Dick’s family returns to claim Bruce’s young ward. There is a lot of crying in this story. Richard tries to be strong, but bawls nonetheless because he doesn’t want to leave. Alfred then joins in with the sobbing. By contrast, Bruce keeps a stiff upper lip. As we count down the hours to Richard leaving, he urges his young ward to be a brave little boy. But when Richard walks out the door to be spirited away from Wayne Manor, Bruce’s manly façade crumbles.

Wayne is pictured in shadow, but the tiny, trembling lettering of his farewell betrays his tears as he waves off his kid brother forever. Frankly – if you are not biting down on your lip to force back your own tears, then you have rocks for a heart.

Conclusion: Childhood is a complex thing

The lesson that Richard Grayson provides for us is that childhood then, as it is now, was a complex thing. Grayson is his own person, but is expected to fulfil a certain role, an expectation that he sometimes feels he cannot live up to. Despite public perception, he is as cheeky as he is obedient and as mischievous as he is dutiful. Though Richard benefits from the care of Bruce, it is the adult hero who wins most from their relationship. Batman benefits from having a family, but the whole character of the Dark Knight is made three-dimensional by Robin’s inclusion in the DC universe.

Most of all, Richard Grayson is a timely reminder of how we fail our children. The fact that any child feels obliged to don a cape and mask in order to secure his future is a terrible reflection on us all.

A letter from Batman to Dick Grayson

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Dick Grayson has died in Forever Evil. It was a strange kind of death because it didn’t seem real. Not because of the way it was delivered, but rather because of our understanding of comics. Everyone knows he’ll be back, probably in the next issue, regenerated as a good Talon or something like that.

So when the Lady and I read those panels – his heartbeat fading away and his face growing greyer – it didn’t seem such a ‘thing’. But then, when we put the comic book down a realisation struck us: a man we loved had died. It doesn’t matter that in four weeks time we shall probably see him again because right now, at this moment, Richard’s life is no more.

Then an unexpected thing happened: Batman appeared in our office. Could he post a few words on Robin? – he asked. To which we replied yes, as though any other answer was ever going to be possible. So here it is, Batman’s letter to Richard Grayson:

Hello Dick,

I wanted to write you a few words. You know I’ve written letters like this for my mother and father many times, for Jason and for Damian. I just never thought I’d be writing one of these letters for you too. And that says a lot about you, Richard. I’m used to regret, the pain of missed opportunities, but you always wrong-footed me where that was concerned. I’ve got used to you making it through okay. You were my one safe bet; the guy who was going to see it through from start to finish. I thought you were going to be with me forever, but I was wrong.

You were twelve years of age when you came into my life, a Detective comics 38baby really. You’d just found out that your mother and father had been murdered, and you were angry and you were vengeful. All you wanted was a chance to put the whole lousy world to rights and you figured that I was the opportunity you were looking for. So there I was, trying to persuade a twelve year-old firebrand not to go vigilante, but all I could see in your eyes was that blue cape and cowl of mine (remember that old thing?), and I knew I was fighting a losing battle. There was no turning you, Richard.

So before I knew what had hit me, I had a twelve year-old for my crime fighting partner. Me – a grown-up scary guy started running round Gotham with a kid. But thing was, it worked. I don’t know how or why, but you and I just clicked, and I have never, in all my seventy-five years, had as much fun as during those years I spent with you. Though I know it was tough and it was cruel and that we spent night after night getting our brains beat in, all I can remember now is how much we laughed. I can hear every one of your lousy jokes in my head and see that cheeky grin of yours as you kick some goon in the shins or worse. That’s all I see – the good times, not the bad, and I don’t want to accept that the good times are never coming back.

You might have just been a kid when I met you, but you were the smart one.Dick Grayson Lead Image You never let the nastiness get to you. I did. When I look in the mirror I can barely recognise myself, I allowed my grief to eat me up inside. But that was never your problem, Richard. The person you were when you were twelve years old lives on inside you. That kid full of hope and promise – he never went away and I envy that. The real me got left behind in an alleyway when my mother and father died. But you somehow managed to find the little bit of child in me that remained. You brought him out from under these black bat wings to play with you in the light. You made me feel and act eight years of age again. That’s why you are the real Boy Wonder.

I should just stop lying to myself and tell the damn truth. And that is I didn’t try very hard to persuade you not to join me. The moment I found you and you started talking to me, I realised that I had found the one person on this planet who could understand what I was going through. So even though you were just twelve years of age, and you becoming my sidekick was the most mindless thing any adult could let a kid do, I still allowed it to happen. And I did that because I am selfish and because I was sick of being on my own. That is the sad, stupid truth of my life. But you know this already. You know everything about me. And that’s why your leaving me hurts like hell.

Barbara sent me this poem which I have to say sums up how I feelI Couldn't Love you More much better than all the crap I just posted above. Now – you do know that I love you, right? I know I said it a couple of times when you were growing up, but I never said it enough. You were my little brother, my son and my best friend all in one. So anyway – Barbara likes this and so do I. I think she wants to say these things as much as I do:

Funeral blues

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

WH Auden, poet (1907 – 1973)

A quick update

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You may have noticed that the Lady and the Editor have been silent through the month of February. This is because we have taken up a new role as staff writers at Broken Frontier. Broken Frontier signifies a new chapter in our lives, a chance for our comic book analysis to reach a wider audience. Not only this, but it means that we will be working on a number of comics from different eras. Broken Frontier is absolutely the best forum for our research, because the BF team prides itself on intelligent, thought-provoking journalism. So the Lady and myself are very happy about this.

Inevitably, this means that less content will appear on this blog. This is a concern I wish to address. When the Lady and I set up office a few months ago, we had no idea how fast things would progress for us. Originally, we thought a post per week would be feasible, but this was not to be. Our increasing caseload aside, this blog is designed for serious, intense research. Typically, the Lady and I consult at least five books for each post, as well as reference texts and websites. We cannot turnaround a post per week. It seems as though a two posts per month is the most we can manage, and at times this reduces to one. Our focus must remain the project at the heart of our blog, and this cannot be allowed to suffer for the sake of jamming content into our casefiles.

Our lives are getting busier and busier but are all the more rewarding for it. The Editor starts a PhD in October and our office is even branching into comic book writing! So, there will be more output, but spread over different places. However, this will always be our headquarters, our home, the place it all started. So, bear with us. There is much more to come.

The Three Histories of Superhero Comic Books

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This casenote is not about a historic theme in Batman, but rather about an approach to studying history of some comic books.

‘That sounds very boring!’ you cry.

Well, I hope not because it was prompted by questions and comments I get from you fans. Our interactions made me realise that the way I think about Batman’s history as a historian is different from my thinking about it as a Batfan. My approach as a historian is seen as the ‘valid’ one for research purposes, whereas my fandom-influenced approach is not. However, I consider that if you are going to research the history of Batman you should be aware of fandom history. This is because we – the fans – are also part of the cultural history of comic books.

So, in order to tie historian-thinking and fandom-thinking together, I have formulated a theoretical model for the study of long-running serialised comics which are subject to retcon.[1] As such, this model is best suited to the superhero-type comics of DC and Marvel.  I do not assume that my idea is original – in fact, I’m almost sure that other comic book researchers will have written about it in some form or another. I just haven’t found the books or articles detailing their approach yet.

The Model

Just like DC Comics has Earth 1 and Earth 2, comic book history has three ‘worlds’:

History One – human history;

History Two – sequential history;

History Three – retcon or narrative history.

Let me explain what these mean using Batman and my project:

History One is historian’s history; ‘real’ history. It concerns the human process that went into making Batman; the writers, artists, distributors, retailers and readers who produced, sold and consumed Batman comics and merchandise. Their actions and the events which surrounded them – be these explicit (Bob Kane drew the debut story) or implicit (instances of violent crime in New York were high in the late 30s) may be called into question in order to judge whether they were part of ‘the cultural origins of the Bat-Man’.

History Two is the stories of Batman in the sequence in which they appeared – i.e issue-by-issue. Detective Comics #27, May 1939 includes ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’, where we learn that Bruce Wayne is Batman.[2] Detective Comics #28 June 1939 Frenchy Blake Batmanincludes ‘Frenchy Blake’s Jewel Gang’, in which our hero smashes a jewel-thieving ring.[3] If I wished to chronicle the life of Bill Finger, say, I would state that his first Batman story appeared in issue 27, his second in 28. Therefore, History Two feeds into History One; the sequential history comes out of the human history making the Caped Crusader. However, it is also the story of Batman as he appeared in each subsequent comic, so it is also his ‘history’.[4]

History Three is what makes my research so interesting. As Batman appeared in more and more comics (History Two), the writers added to his storybook. They revealed things about Batman’s past as they went along, introducing ‘new’ characters – some of whom he had apparently known since boyhood yet were previously unseen. Also, DC is fond of the type of retcon where previously established ‘facts’ are changed or even erased. All of this might seem confusing, but we fans deal with it marvellously by creating History Three. In History Three we take the chaos of History Two and make it so that Batman’s life appears to us in a chronologically sensible order. In effect, we write the narrative history of Bruce Wayne/Batman.

Why I Have to Battle History Three

But whilst History Three is fantastic and I take part in it as much as the next fan, I constantly have to battle against it in my historian life. This exchange I had with a fan online about Batman in 1939 [the character] illustrates my meaning:

Fan: But the first truth of the character is that he was never alone. He always had Alfred.

Lady Batman: He didn’t get Alfred until 1943. He got Robin in 1940. So, you’re thinking of retrograde[5] adjustments.

Fan: Then there has been some retconning. My mistake!

Yes – this fan was mistaken, but we are all ‘guilty’ of this. As a fan of Batman inhabiting History Three, I am happy to state that he had Alfred by his side from the very beginning. However, as a historian operating in History One and Two, I cannot do that. Read the Dark Knight in 1939 and you see a man completely on his own; no sidekicks, no home-help. A factually sound history requires me to take into account the sources available and the evidence they present. We might suppose that Team Batman (Kane, Finger et.al.) had Robin and Alfred in mind right from the beginning, but unless we see evidence where they stated this, our thought remains a supposition and not fact.

The Case of the Chemical Syndicate

Okay – let’s explore this ‘lone Batman’ within the Histories. For this, we are going to use ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’. As stated, the first appearance of this tale was also the debut of The Bat-Man in Detective Comics #27, 1939. The story introduces Commissioner Gordon as a friend to the young Bruce Wayne, but The Bat-Man has no allies. In fact, all Bill Finger tells us about him (other than revealing he is Bruce Wayne at the end of the tale) is that he is ‘fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong-doer’. In order to fulfil this heroic intention, The Bat-Man does this:

Dude thrownWhich I think results in the man’s murder[6]:

Look at the man in the yellow suit, lying face-down on the pavement.

Look at the man in the yellow suit, lying face-down on the pavement.

The Bat-Man also does this:

punching stykerWhich results in a death like so:

Hes Falling InAnd all The Bat-Man has to say in conclusion about the preceding event is:

A fitting endingPretty full-on, huh? Imagine reading this issue when it hit the stands in 1939. You might have wondered, ‘What is this guy’s motivation for fighting for righteousness? And why is he so set on apprehending evil-doers into a vat of acid?’ Batman was brand new and the reader got dropped right on top of his murderous action. And remember – he is doing this absolutely on his own. Why?

US readers had to wait six issues to get an answer. Issue #33 of Detective Comics gave us this, the reason why Batman feels compelled to do what he does:[7]

Thomas Wayne DeadAnd so, that most important of Batman’s stories was established – the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne in front of their son, Bruce.

So – how did the Histories work in this case?

  • Batman’s actions on the initial publication of #27 were there to be read, considered and judged only by appearance, and that process was (of course) personal to the individual reading it and the societal norms the individual lived within (History One).
  • The murder of Thomas and Martha had not happened yet (History Two).
  • #33 is published six issues later. The murder of Thomas and Martha had now occurred (History Two).
  • The reader then established a timeline for events – the murder of Thomas and Martha preceded The Case of the Chemical Syndicate (History Three). A narrative history for Batman was established.
  • #27 could now be re-read, reconsidered and re-judged in light of the revelation from #33. And that process was (again) personal to the individual reading it and the societal norms that individual lived within (History One), but crucially that process also drew some of its information from #33 (History Three).

These five bullet points are, to me, the most exciting points I have ever written down. This process – this wonderful, beautiful, crazy thing we take part in every time we sit down and read a comic – is what keeps me researching. We add to history just by virtue of being a fan. That has to be something to celebrate, but also it needs to be understood in order to fully research a cultural history on characters such as Batman.

Fast-forward seventy-five years and DC published another version of The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.[8] In this, Brad Meltzer leaves us in no doubt as to why Batman does what he does. Some highlights include:Cowardly and superstitious ‘I do it because I survived that alley’ and ‘I do it because criminals are cowardly. And superstitious.’ Thus Meltzer gives us all the things we now know about Batman, the things we couldn’t have possibly known the first time he appeared to fight for righteousness. I have to say, I’m glad we have this information. The historian in me writes about #27 and sometimes has to ‘ignore’ #33, but the fan in me (like Meltzer) looks at The Bat-Man of 1939 – determined, deadly, alone – and sees the pain he carries. I don’t agree with his methods but I understand why he does what he does. It is History Three, therefore, that makes a Batfan of me.


[1] TV Tropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Retcon; last retrieved 29th January 2014.

[2] ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’, writer – Bill Finger, artist – Bob Kane, in Detective Comics #27, May 1939, published by DC Comics.

[3] ‘Frenchy Blake’s Jewel Gang’, writer – Bill Finger, artist – Bob Kane, in Detective Comics #28, June 1939, published by DC Comics.

[4] Historians would say that Batman does not have a ‘history’ because he is not real. He is a literary construct, therefore he has a story, not history.

[5] I didn’t quite mean ‘retrograde’. I meant ‘retroactive’ but it was late at night and I was typing fast!!!

[6] I believe that there is more than one death at the hands of the Bat-Man in his debut. Bat-Man has thrown this guy backwards off a rooftop, and he lies sprawled on the ground below with a policeman in attendance. If he’s not dead, then he must (at the very least) be very unwell.

[7] ‘The Batman Wars Against The Dirigible of Doom’, writer – Gardner Fox, artist – Bob Kane, inks – Bob Kane and Sheldon Moldoff, in Detective Comics #33, November 1939, published by DC Comics.

[8] ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’, writer – Brad Meltzer, artist – Bryan Hitch, colourist – David Baron, letters – Chris Eliopoulos, in Batman Detective Comics #27, March 2014, Published by DC Comics in January 2014.