The time has come to face facts. We cannot avoid the issue any longer. We must talk about sex. Because the human experience is all about sex, you see. Well, sex and death actually (if we are to follow Freud). These two things motivate all of us: Eros and Thanatos – the need to create and the need to destroy, urging humanity along a path to places unknown. Therefore, if we are to learn about human progression (history), then sex and death are subjects that demand our attention. And as you probably realise, Batman and his ethos have both in heaps, but it is sex that is our focus here.
Bruce Wayne has power, money and hot cars. Batman has power, gadgets and a hot car. He also has a habit of rescuing people and generally saving the day. This is ever-so-slightly attractive. He appeals to adult and post-puberty readers who may be motivated by sexual themes. Not all of his adult fans find him ‘sexy’, but a number do and talk about it. Ergo, Batman is a bit of a sexy fella.
As an adult reader of Batman, I perceive his sex appeal even in the Golden Age. Batman’s storybook was small and therefore restricted in scope at this time, but nevertheless he had his charms. Bob Kane et. al. drew him in an attractive way. For artistic inspiration, Kane had an incredible cultural source to draw from if he so wished; that great American cultural industry – Hollywood. In the decade of Batman’s birth, the young men who worked for DC experienced movies as part of their daily lives. Furthermore, photographs of film stars were the most popular images of the thirties. More than 30 million Americans accessed the photographic iconography of the studios each year. The movie industry exuded glamour, which was defined in the era as “sex appeal, plus luxury, plus elegance, plus romance” – a description that lends itself very much, I think, to Bruce Wayne. Hollywood actors thus became a group of modern gods and goddesses, in a fantasy that rose above mundane, everyday America.  Again, this is something that could be said about the superheroes in comic books. Therefore, readers of Batman were very aware of movie stars, so his glamorous, movie-like qualities would have been entirely familiar to his audience.
This brings us to our next question – just who were the audience of Detective Comics and Batman from 1939 to 1945? Nowadays, DC’s dominant demographic is teens to mid-twenties readers. Its most frequent rating is T for ages 12 and over. Ian Gordon writes that comic book publishers in the Golden Age assumed they had a younger audience than those who read comic strips in newspapers. The widely-held view is that Golden Age comic books had an 8-14 year old readership. This is reflected somewhat in the subject matter of 30s-40s comic books and also in their marketing. In Batman, we see this most keenly with the introduction of Robin in 1940, whom people such as Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson cited as being brought in to make Batman appeal more to children.
So – Batman was for kids. Why is it, therefore, that this panel was included within the debut issue of Batman’s own comic in 1940? And also this panel? Saucy, eh? These two panels herald the introduction of The Cat – or Catwoman as she is later known. Both are playfully sexual in imagery and language. Perhaps a 14 year old would have been appreciative of such spiciness, but an eight year old who has yet to experience puberty? That seems more of a reach, though a child might have found it funny for an adult to be threatened with a spanking!
The answer to this may be that the readership of comics was more complex than first appears; that the company was aware that older brothers and sisters read their younger siblings’ copy and thus included more risqué matter. We know that after Robin’s introduction in 1940, the demographic for comics was hugely affected by the Second World War. Between 1941 and 1944 comic book sales doubled to 20 million per annum, and much of this can be traced to the numbers of servicemen reading comics:
‘In 1944, 41 per cent of men between the ages of eighteen and thirty read comic books regularly, which researchers defined as more than six comic books a month. In military training camps, 44 per cent of men read comic books regularly and 13 per cent read them occasionally.’
For men posted overseas, comic books provided an easy distraction from war and a reminder of home. Also, DC and other publishers dedicated their pages to propaganda – to encourage Americans to support the war effort at home and abroad. Thus, the delights of beautiful heroes like Wonder Woman or indeed Batman for servicemen who were (secretly) gay or bisexual, meant that comics were a hit during these hard years.
However, the key to all this sexiness lies perhaps, not so much with the readership, but with the men who wrote and drew Batman. DC was overwhelmingly staffed by young men, as were all comic book studios in the Golden Age. Comics was a young man’s profession and young men throughout history have tended to enjoy sex and the pursuit of it. With Bob Kane and the Batman crew, we might see a bit of the creators reflected in their creation. In note 43 to pages 13-19 in his excellent book – Comic Book Nation – Bradford W. Wright writes that:
‘It would be easy to read too much into the psychological disposition of the comic book creators, but it may be worth noting that Bob Kane – unlike Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster – was tall, handsome and comfortable around women.”
Wright then links this to the fact that Batman possesses no superpowers, unlike Siegel and Shuster’s creation – Superman, and speculates that this may be due to Kane’s own self-confidence. This brings us to another salient (and sexy!) point: the difference between Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. Bruce is sexy in and out of the costume, Clark is not.
Clark’s awkwardness is commonly attributed to Siegel and Shuster’s teenage years. They experienced the kind of nerdy shyness that so many of us (especially comic book fans) do, and used it to form Superman’s alter ego. Simcha Weinstein writes that, ‘The Yiddish vernacular has many words to describe fellows like the shy, bumbling Clark: nudge, schlepper, schmendrick and schlimazel. In the comic, Clark is simply called a klutz.’ Again, this emphasises how much of Siegel and Shuster’s background is within Superman. In contrast to this, Wright cites Jules Feiffer, who in his book suspected ‘the Batman school of having healthier egos.’ And if there is one thing we can say about Bruce, is that he has confidence in bucket-loads.
There are lots of questions here that may be impossible to answer confidently, but I hope that it has provided some information for you to think about. A subject such as ‘sexual imagery and language in Batman 1939-1945’ may be explored in all kinds of different ways. Here, we have touched upon:
- Movies and photography in the 30s and 40s.
- The demographic of comic book readership in the Golden Age.
- The personality and experiences of comic book creators and how these may be reflected in their creations.
Furthermore, we haven’t even mentioned one of the defining features of Golden Age Comic books – the fact that publishers were unregulated. There was no official body to prevent sexual subject matter from being included in the first place.This changed of course with the publication of Seduction of the Innocent and the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, factors that helped to bring about the end of the Golden Age.
And to think – this whole post came about because your Editor was intrigued by the shapely leg of The Cat and Batman’s predilection for spanking her within two panels from Batman #1, 1940. But that is precisely why comic books are such a rich historic resource – they give excellent visual clues to a host of cultural themes.
As a parting thought, I would like you to consider two more panels.
One is Julie Madison – Bruce’s fiancée in 1939 (yet more sexiness!). The other is of The Cat. Are you as struck by their likeness as I am? This may be a reflection of Bob Kane’s limits as an illustrator or – and I do wonder about this – did Bob Kane have a ‘type’?
Did dark haired girls with cat-like eyes appeal most? And did Julie and The Cat have a real-life model? I wonder if anyone has ever researched this question? If you have information on that, please feel free to comment below.
 David Eldridge, American Culture in the 1930s (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2008), p. 61.
 Robert Dance and Bruce Robertson, Ruth Harriet Louise and Hollywood Glamour Photography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), p. 119.
 Ian Gordon, Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 (Washington; Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998), pp.128-129.
 Gordon, Comic Strips, p.139.
 These statistics included only men in service, not women, but of course women served in the armed forces. Their readership of comics is unfortunately not given.
 Bradford W. Wright, Comic Book Nation (Baltimore; The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), p. 289.
 Simcha Weinstein, Up, Up and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero (Fort Lee; Barricade Books, 2006), p.23.
 Wright, Nation, p.289. Editor’s Note: Wright references here Jules Feiffer, The Great Comic Book Heroes (New York; Dial Press, 1965). I have not yet been able to source a copy of it, but would like to. Feiffer is a noted cartoonist, writer and educator. This is an archive of his website. Both these sites were last retrieved 09/01/2014.