Zero Year: Hitting historians in the feels

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Warning! Contains spoilers for Batman #24 in The New 52!

Lately, it has occurred to me that being a historian is the saddest profession in the world. This is because no matter my dedication – the historic documents I read, the archives I visit, the photographs I look at – I 27 Batman Covermay only experience the past in the present. I will never know what it was like to run, helter-skelter from a schoolyard to the nearest newsstand in May 1939; to hand over my shiny ten cents in exchange for what was waiting for me and millions of other kids – the first sighting of Batman, ready to show the world what the opposite of cowardly and superstitious meant. So, the cover of the original Detective Comics #27 has never felt like mine. It belongs to someone else; an eleven year-old child born long before me.

At least, that’s what I thought until October this year. You see, I am not like some comic readers. I don’t read previews and generally avoid other such glimpses of art and story. Also, I don’t buy the same comics each month due to money restrictions. Furthermore, because my interests lie so deep in the past, I assumed that I wouldn’t find too much to keep me in ‘The New 52!’ A kind of historian’s snobbery, I suppose. So, up to this time my reading of new Batman stopped after Volume One – The Court of Owls story arc. I had thoroughly enjoyed that, but there were other things to buy, such as 1930s Sandman stories and also my MA history dissertation to complete. However, my attention was drawn to some fuss online about a new Batsuit in Batman #24, and I thought, ‘What the hell? I’ll treat myself this month. I’ll buy an issue…’

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I was unprepared for what was waiting for me. Even though the front cover made it obvious, even though I knew that Zero Year focussed on his origin, I was innocent still – unknowing, no better than a child. So in my state of wide-open, infantile ignorance, I turned the page and saw this:

24 batman 27 homageI think I may have stared at him for twenty minutes. I could not move. Snyder and Capullo had granted my wish. They transported back to 1939, made me eleven years of age and presented Batman to me for the very first time. And though he seemed completely new, that picture also called forth everything I knew about him and set it against an amber-coloured sky. It was like he was made just for me – familiar, yet original.

So perhaps that’s how kids felt in 1939, like all their birthdays and Christmases and Halloweens had come at once. Now they had something new to play with, yet this something new they loved all the more because he was secretly what they’d been waiting for. Batman was an innovation rooted in their cultural past, formed out of their shared experiences of growing up in 1930s America. He was the absolute hero for their time. Therefore, this picture not only gave me my own first sighting of Batman but also managed to sum up the underlying premise of my research. Namely, that 1939 and Batman came together for a reason. The world was waiting for the Dark Knight and didn’t even know it.

Further Work

This post was a simple fan’s letter of love for Zero Year. However silly and non-academic it seems, it begged me to write it. However, publishing this post and reading Zero Year has made me think about how history works in DC comics. Next week, I shall be providing a more in-depth exploration of this theme.

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Batman Banter #2

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Oh well, nothing else to do, might as well.

Oh WellBruce Wayne reacts to Commissioner Gordon’s invitation to visit a crime scene in Detective Comics #27, May 1939. Bruce Wayne is thus established as a bored playboy with little interest in crime from his very first appearance.

This quote enables us to research some of the literary origins of the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne follows characters such as The Scarlet Pimpernel, created by Baroness Emma Orczy in 1909. The Pimpernel is a man dedicated to saving French noblemen from the guillotine in revolutionary France. The hero is in fact Sir Percy Blakeney, a British nobleman. Sir Percy maintains the mannerisms of a dim-witted buffoon in order to stop people guessing his true heroic identity.

The Pimpernel is cited as the first instance of a hero with an alter-ego. He certainly spawned many imitators, including Don Diego de la Vega, otherwise known as El Zorro. Zorro was created in 1919 by a pulp writer – Johnston McCulley. This nobleman’s first story, The Curse of Capistrano, was adapted into a 1920 film – The Mark of Zorro. As all Batfans know, it is The Mark of Zorro that the Wayne family go to watch on the night which ends in Thomas and Martha’s murder. Walking Home From movieHowever, it should be noted that this canonical ‘fact’ is a later innovation. In The Batman Wars Against The Dirigible of Doom (Detective Comics #33, November 1939), where the Wayne murder story first appears, no title is given to the movie. Nor is it given a title in Batman #1, Spring 1940 which repeats the story. However, both Bill Finger and Bob Kane cited Zorro as one of their inspirations in Batman.

A much more immediate cultural influence over Batman’s first apperance is The ShadowThe Shadow. The Shadow first appeared in pulps in 1930 and then became serialised on the radio during Batman’s early years. The Shadow had more than one writer, but Walter B. Gibson is most credited with its popularisation. The Shadow adopts various identities, the most famous of which is Lamont Cranston – a wealthy playboy. However, the links between Batman and The Shadow are even more explicit than the use of the millionaire meme. Detective Comics #27 lifted its plot straight from a Shadow story – Partners Of Peril – written by Theodore Tinsley.

So, the rich, bored playboy-round-town has been a much-repeated feature in hero fiction. However, when researching the cultural influences over Batman’s first appearance, it is important to separate what later becomes ‘canon’ from what were the actual references made in the comics. This short research piece shows that, although Kane and Finger subsequently confirmed that Zorro was an influence, The Mark of Zorro is not mentioned in The Batman’s origin. Instead, it is the awesome power of The Shadow that made more of an impression in May 1939.

The Lady Begins:

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I am staring at a woman, a very excited woman. She has a flush on her cheeks like she’s just had her first kiss. This wasn’t some quick peck on the lips either. Her hair’s a mess and the bow in her blouse is just the decent-but-sexy side of undone. Yes sir, someone gave her a real good time tonight. Whoever the fellow was damn well shook her up good, dragged her down a peg-or-two. Oh – I can tell her type alright. She’s well bred – has those high cheekbones that make looking down on normal people a cinch, though I’d say she’s a little down on her luck. I can see the sleeves fraying on her gabardine wool suit. I’m guessing she had it made when she was somebody, when she had the cash to pay for tailors who know how to accentuate what is there and hide what isn’t.

Yes sir, there’s some class in her, no doubt about that. But her refinement won’t last long, not if the wild look in her eyes is anything to go by. She’s in for it now. She’s scared, excited, confused; asking questions that I can’t answer right now. And I’m telling her that it’s no good – I don’t understand what happened tonight either. Maybe it’s this city, I say. It’s changing, going crazy. But more likely it’s her that’s the problem. She goes looking for trouble and she always find it. She is trouble – I am trouble: We – the two of us, my reflection and I – are trouble personified.

‘The usual, Lady?’

It is Lou, the barkeep. At least, that’s what I call him. He also answers to Mike, Steve, Sam, Wilmore, Hugo and Crud. That’s the ones I’ve heard in here so far. I tear my eyes away from the mirrored wall behind his wooden counter and say,

‘No Lou. No cloudy lemonade tonight. Give me bourbon. Straight up.’

He looks at me funny. To be fair to Lou, it’s hard for him to do anything else. His left eye kind of does its own thing and his little pencil moustache reminds me of that shouty little German I keep reading about in the Gotham Times.

‘Okey. If you’re sure,’ Lou replies.

‘Oh, I’m always sure Lou. I’m never anything but sure, which is what makes this night so goddamn scary.’

Lou pretends to comprehend my meaning and shuffles off. He’s an age getting me my drink and I know why. He’s gone to call Danny-Boy. Lou wouldn’t dare do that to anyone else in this bar – go call their wife or mother or girlfriend to come and get them when they’re getting scary. That service is reserved for me on account of my femininity. I should be offended by this but I’m not. Truth is, I want to see Daniel because I have something on my mind – a six foot-two, 240 pound-something in fact.

The drink is poured into my glass. The drink is then poured down my neck. It stings ‘like a bitch’ as these guys round here would say. But I wouldn’t say that – I’m too well-brought up for such nastiness. And anyway in my experience it’s never the bitches you have to watch out for. It’s the guys who do all the stinging in this city.

I am trying to think of a male equivalent of bitch when I hear the door open. I turn to see the lolloping stride of my bodyguard and Man-Friday, Daniel ‘Danny-Boy’ Danaher. Whenever Danny walks it always seems to threaten to become a cantor. It’s like he’s part racehorse or something. This analogy would suit if he wasn’t built like a bloody great ox. He’s got a big bull nose from being punched in the face too many times. On his head is a mop of strawberry-blond hair. It doesn’t look real – I tried to tug it off once thinking it was a toupee. His eyes are big and black and moist just like a cow’s, and he is ox-wide and ox-strong. But still, big as my Danny-Boy is, he comes nowhere near the brute I ran into tonight.

‘Lady, are you drinking alcohol? Why, that’s not like you!’

His Irish phrasing (which is a damn fraud as he came over when he was six months old) is not going to placate me this evening. ‘No – no it’s not like me, is it Daniel? But then again, I’m not sure what “like me” is anymore, so let’s not argue about it and instead – Lou! Pour Daniel and I another one, would you, dearest heart?’

Lou pours our drinks, flashing Danny a look which I think translates as ‘take her home bud’. Danny doesn’t listen and instead says –

‘Well, come out with it, woman! What is it that mussed you up so?’

I stare ahead and click my tongue against the roof of my mouth. It feels bone dry and this whisky is doing nothing to wet my whistle, as we say in jolly old England. I speak –

‘It was a vampire.’

‘A what now?’ Daniel says, shifting forward as far as he can on his stool.

‘A vampire, Danny; a Nosferatu; a Prince of Darkness; a Count Dracula, perhaps the Count Dracula – I can’t say for sure.’

Danny puts his hand to his mouth and wipes his fingers down his cheeks. They leave white track marks in the russet-red. ‘Relate to your Danny-Boy exactly what happened now, will ya? Because I think my asking for the conclusion to your night has missed out some of the crucial plot-points, and I’ll be buggered if I’m going to let you get away with offering just that as way of explanation.’

So I tell him my story – me talking, him listening, his eyes screwing up tighter with each sentence:

I’d set off that tonight to carry on with a case that had landed in my office the day before. It was my typical fare – a worried wife, husband leaving the house at all funny hours, not like him, sure he was having an affair, blah-de-blah-de-blah. She was a nice lady though – Mrs Stryker; she wouldn’t take no for an answer when she gave me one hundred bucks up front. So I promised her she’d have the answer by the end of the week. And boy, I sure have made good on that promise.

All I’d made out about Mr Stryker so far was that he was in the chemicals business and that he liked to bawl out little waitresses when they forgot to bring his extra bread roll. Also that he looked like a giant baby – no hair, pudgy and fond of dressing in powder-blue. All-in-all, he didn’t seem like much of a catch, but Mrs Stryker seemed adamant that she wanted him round – ‘I’m sure he’s sneaking out the house at night when I’m asleep,’ she’d said. True enough, sitting in my Packard outside his pretentious little mansion, the creep showed his face outside at one o’clock. I started Abigail’s engine up and set off after him.

Styker didn’t head towards a dancing girl’s apartment. Instead I tailed him to the place he owned – the Apex Chemical Company. I knew something was wrong straightaway – who sneaks out after midnight to go to work? In my short experience so far, Stryker reeked of mob involvement. So, thinking there’d be a bigger case involved and the promise of my rent paid for the next three months, I pulled Abigail into where she wouldn’t be seen and headed round the building to look for a way in.

At the back there was a low, windowless structure with a light shining out of its roof. Being a woman burdened by the curse of never knowing when to quit, I scrambled up a fire exit ladder set into its side and scuttled across its roof. The light came from an open skylight. I peered through it and saw a laboratory much lower down, set into the basement. There was a platform set high up above a huge, coverless tank marked ‘DANGER: ACID’.  To me, it looked like an accident waiting to happen but that didn’t stop me lowering myself from the skylight onto the walkway. I ran down the steps to the lab below, but before I could get out of the lab to spy on Styker, I heard voices coming my way so I scrambled to hide. And that’s when it really got interesting.

A doughy-looking guy called Jennings came in, rough-housing some poor dolt in an orange suit called Rogers. Rogers was in trouble, big trouble – the kind that ends up with your entrails being served up as next day’s hot dogs. Jennings dragged Rogers across the floor to a gas chamber set up at the far end of the room. My head was racing and my heart was jumping out of my chest. I had to think fast. How was I going to save him?

I soon got the answer to my question – a six foot-two answer, colored black and gray from head to toe. It swooped down from the same skylight I’d dropped in by, as though hanging over my head like a goddamn ghoul was written into its constitutional rights. It stretched out its arms and I saw it had enormous wings attached. I swear that it swallowed up the whole night. I couldn’t really take in what I was seeing, but it looked like a giant bat, with pointy ears set down low on its bald-domed head and blank-white slits for eyes. It was only when I watched it straddle Jennings and smash his stupid-goon face left-right, left-right with actual blue-gloved fists that I realized the thing was half-man, half-bat. A Bat-man, so to speak.

By the time Jennings resembled a road accident, my friend Stryker turned up all mock-horrified at what had happened. I didn’t fall for that and neither did The Bat-Man. The Bat kept out of sight until Stryker revealed his true colors by attempting to force Rogers into having an acid bath. The Bat-Man leapt out and knocked the knife straight out of Stryker’s pudgy fingers. He started to speak in a voice that could knock the marrow clean out your bones. Turned out that not only could The Bat talk, but he was a clever Bat too – he had the case all figured out. Stryker had murdered two former business partners and Rogers was next. All this so that Stryker wouldn’t have to pay any money to be sole owner of his company, lousy cheapskate.

So, there I was, on my belly under a table, trying not to be seen and also trying not feel bad because a vampire pipped me to my own case when things got really stupid and really nasty. Anyone with half a brain could have seen that The Bat-Man wasn’t to be messed with, but still Stryker had to give it a go. The baby-man struggled free, reached for a gun, aimed, and just as his fat fingers pulled the trigger, got punched square in the kisser by The Bat. The supernatural force of this blow coupled with the gun shot sent Stryker stumbling back, right over the sides of the platform, and he tumbled into the vat of acid, screaming.

 

I pause in my storytelling now. Danny’s hand hasn’t left his face the whole way through. I think he’s held onto it just in case his jaw fell off.

‘And that’s not even the worst part’, I say.

‘Lord forgive us – there’s worse part to come?’ Danny mutters.

‘The worst part is that I enjoyed it, Daniel. I loved every last murderous minute of it. When The Bat-Man punched I punched along with him. When he flew through the air I wanted to go along for the ride. And when he let a man die, I did nothing to stop it. Instead, I savored the entertainment right from The Bat-Man grabbing the knife down to breathing in the fumes from Stryker’s burning body. And it was lovely. Tonight, The Bat-Man taught me that terror is beautiful.’

I knock back what was left in my glass. No matter how much I drink, I can still taste chemicals.

‘Did he say anything else?’ asks Danny quietly.

‘Who?’ I replied.

‘The Bat-Man. Did he say anything more?’

I stare into the mirror opposite. I am back to staring at a monster – a woman with bats for eyes and ball of violence for a heart. Something has happened to me tonight, to Gotham, to the whole world. Nothing is ever going to be the same again. Oh – the Bat-Man had said something more, alright. He had uttered a vengeful, remorseless spell that is going to bewitch the whole world. I can sense it.

So, I turn to Danny and repeat his spell, word-for-word:

‘The Bat-Man said, “A fitting ending for his kind.”’

 

Now read “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” from Detective Comics #27, May 1939. Writer: Bill Finger. Pencils and inks: Bob Kane.