The Dark Knight Turns 75!

Seventy-five years ago, in May 1939, the caped crime fighter Batman was introduced inDetective Comics #27.

mghl_batman1984 collector’s edition reprint of Detective #27, by Bob Kane

Detective Comics was first published by the self-titled company, which merged into National Comics, and later was renamed DC Comics.  The title featured different detectives in each issue.  Batman became so popular that he eventually took over the Detective Comics title and gained the self-titled Batman in the spring of 1940.

mghl_batman 02cover by Yvel Guichet, Batman One Million, November 1998

Batman was created by artist Bob Kane, who preferred to draw gag cartoons and slapstick comic art. He tried his hand at being a panel comic strip artist for magazines such as Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and Judge, but could never get the magazines to accept his submissions.  He only sold one cartoon for $35 to the New York Journal American.

Later in his career, he worked at an animation studio doing fill-ins and inking for Betty Boop cartoons.  Kane eventually left the animation studio to try to break into the up-and-coming comic book industry.  He would later draw a comic strip panel Rusty and His Pals that appeared in DC Comics’ Adventure Comics.

Kane began transitioning from gag art to illustrative comic art after editor Vincent Sullivan suggested he should create a new superhero.  Since the successful June 1938 debut of Superman, National Comics wanted another hero to publish.

mghl_batman 03cover by Dick Dillon and Sheldon Moldoff, Detective #296, October 1961

There were many influences to the creation of Batman.

The first was Leonardo DaVinci’s flying machine – the ornithopter, which looked like a sled with giant bat-like wings.  Kane had been fascinated with DaVinci’s drawings and had sketched the machine when younger, debating whether the wings looked like a bird or a bat.  He finally settled on a bat and had written “bat-man” under his sketch.

Two movies influenced signature traits of Batman. Kane’s idol was actor Douglas Fairbanks, who played the masked, swashbuckling crusader Zorro in the 1920 silent film The Mark of Zorro.  The Zorro character (the only son of a wealthy Spanish count) inspired Kane to give his hero a dual-identity, as well as a secret cave.  The bat-signal was inspired by the movie The Bat Whispers, which was a remake of The Bat.  The film’s villain dressed like a bat and would display a bat-shaped light on the wall whenever he planned to murder again.

mghl_batman 04cover by Sheldon Moldoff, Batman #135, January 1960

Kane enlisted the help of writer Bill Finger, who had written scripts for the Rusty and His Pals comic strip. Finger saw Batman as a combination of Douglas Fairbanks, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage and The Shadow.  Finger made suggestions to Batman’s costume design (which included a Zorro-like mask), so it was darker and more bat-like.  The DaVinci-inspired batwings were changed to a more practical scalloped cape.

mghl_batman 04by Jim Starlin, Detective #503, June 1981

As Kane transitioned from gag art into illustrative artwork, his earlier work kept a cartoon style and was not always anatomically correct.  Kane was one of the first comic book artists to experiment with scenes drawn from different angles.  This gave a cinematic quality to the Batman art, which helped differentiate it from the Superman art.  Kane was always credited with the artwork, but DC Comics hired uncredited ghost artists, who drew in Kane’s style under his supervision.  Finger never received a writing credit for any of his scripts.

mghl_batman 05cover attributed to Sheldon Moldoff, signed Bob Kane, Detective #292, June 1961

Over the first year of publication, Batman’s look evolved.  His cowl was drawn higher to see more of his face, and he started to smile more.  The tone of the books also became lighter.  One factor in the tone change was the addition of Batman’s younger sidekick, Robin, in June 1940.  Finger was concerned that Batman had no way to communicate his thoughts other than by always showing he was thinking.  Finger, a Sherlock Holmes fan, wanted Batman to have his own Watson.  The publisher reluctantly allowed one issue with Robin, but after it sold double the normal sales, Robin became a permanent character.

mghl_batman 06cover by Joe Staton (pencils) and Steve Mitchell (inks), Legends of the Dark Knight #68, February 1995

The villains that populated Batman’s universal also ended up becoming permanent characters.  Kane and Finger never planned to have recurring villains and usually killed them off.  While working on Batman #1, which debuted the Joker, the editor insisted that Kane and Finger change the last panel so the Joker survived. With the precedent set for recurring villains, Kane and Finger decided to create their own “Rogue’s Gallery” of eccentric villains, just like in the Dick Tracy books.

mghl_batman 07cover by Dick Gioroano, Batman #317, November 1979

During the 1960s, Batman’s sales figures began dropping, and in 1965, Kane was warned the titles could be canceled.  Kane decided to retire from the titles in 1966. The artists who continued the books still used Kane’s style, but added more naturalism to the way the characters were drawn.

Batman’s popularity ended up rebounding due to the surprise success of the campy-style Batman tv show on ABC from 1966 – 1968.   During 1966 and 1967, the Batman title was higher paid circulation totals than the successful Superman and Superboy titles.  Elements of the TV show, including a campier tone and the signature sound effects made it into the books.

mghl_batman 08

photo from Has TV “Gasp” Gone Batty?, Saturday Evening Post, May 7, 1966

The ratings for the TV show dropped at the end of the second season, and the show was reduced from two days a week down to one, eliminating its signature cliff-hangers.  The producers decided that Batman needed a love interest, and asked DC Comics to introduce Batgirl into the comics before the third season premiered.  The introduction of Batgirl was not enough to save the show from cancelation, but her character became a regular in the Batman mythos.

mghl_batman 09by Gil Kane, Detective #371, January 1968, page 15

After the show’s cancelation in 1968, Batman’s popularity dropped, and DC Comics focused on distancing the character from its campy association.  In 1971, artist Neal Adams and writer Denny O’Neill returned Batman to its original 1940s vigilante roots.  New villains, such as Ra’s al Ghul, were created and remained in the mythos. Familiar villains were also reintroduced with darker tones to separate them from their campy 60s versions.

mghl_batman 10by cover by Jim Aparo, Brave and the Bold #159, February 1980

Batman would continue to take on darker tones throughout the 1980s.  In 1986, the four-part mini-series The Dark Knight Returns showed an aging Batman trying to once again be a crime fighter in an alternate comic universe.  This series, along with a separate 1986 series, Watchmen, received critical praise and showed that comic books were not just light-hearted reading for children but could also be serious literature.

mghl_batman 11cover by Lynn Varley, The Dark Knight Returns, Book 4, 1986

In 1989, a darker, grimmer live-action version of Batman came to the theatres.  The success of the two Tim Burton Batman films increased the character’s popularity and increased sales.

mghl_batman 12by Jerry Ordway, Official Comic Book Adaptation of Warner Brothers Motion Picture Batman, 1989

Batman also got a film noir look in a children’s animated cartoon in the early 1990s.  Batman, The Animated Series, ran from 1992 – 1995 and appealed to Batman fans of all ages.  Several comic book titles were based on the series.  The art deco look was based on drawings by Bruce Timm.

mghl_batman 13by Bruce Timm, Batman Adventures Annual #1, 1994

Batman, and the rest of his supporting characters, continue to get new looks as artist experiment with different styles throughout the decades.

mghl_batman 14

by Bill Sienkiewicz, Batman #400, October 1986

Happy 75th birthday Batman!


The Saturday Evening Post photo is from the Walt Reed Illustration Archive.

The comic book covers are from the Center For Humanities Comics Collection and the Karl S. Kaltenthaler Comic Books and Zines Collection.

Information for this biographical sketch came from:

Batman, part 1 of 3. Dial B For Blog, n.d.

Batman The Animated Series.  Wikipedia, n.d.

Kane, Bob. Batman & Me: An Autobiography. Eclipse Books, 1989.

Yearly Rankings For Comic Book Sales in the 1960s.  Comichron, the Comic Chronicles, n.d.

Levitz, Paul. DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking. Taschen, 2010.

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.