Your favourite superheroes are over 50 years old! Before they got dark and gritty, they did some goofy things. Welcome to Midlife Crisis on Infinite Earths where we look back at the less than illustrious adventures of some of the biggest heroes in comics. In this edition, we are celebrating Batman day! We’re taking a look back at the troubled career of everyone’s favorite rodent-themed crime fighter, the Batman!
Batman has had varied adventures over his 77-year history. These stories have ranged from the dark and gritty to the absurd. Batman was hit by the wacky stick around the late 40’s until the early 70’s. He lost his groove. So what happened exactly?
The Dark Years
Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May of 1939 in a story titled “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” In that story, Batman investigated a series of murders surrounding the owners of the Apex Chemical Corporation. Alfred Stryker had killed his business partners so he could reap the profits from the company. Ultimately, Stryker is knocked into an acid tank. Watching his foe fall to his death, the Batman remarked “A fitting end for his kind!” This set the tone for Batman’s earliest adventures. If you thought that the Superman of old was a jerk, the Batman was a murderous vigilante.
In the following issue of Detective Comics, Batman killed Frenchy Blake’s men to get at the mobster. Later when Doctor Death was burning alive in a fire, Batman stood by and watched. Although Doctor Death survived to trouble Batman again, it doesn’t make Batman any less brutal. This trend continued as Batman battled the vampire known as the Monk, which ended when Batman shot the Monk to death with a gun. The Dark Knight was also fond of sending his foes crashing to their deaths.
Robin became Batman’s sidekick in Detective Comics #38, dated April 1940. The inclusion of a young ward to the stories certainly lightened Batman up a bit. He stopped murdering his foes for the most part. This didn’t stop the criminals he faced from being brutally violent. The Joker started his career poisoning the people who first put him behind bars. The original Clayface was fond of stabbing his victims to death.
However, things started to change drastically. The stories were taking on a lighter tone. The heroes started quipping and having fun. The villains stopped murdering and began committing relatively harmless crimes. Commissioner Gordon even deputized the vigilante he spent years hunting. So what happened?
Batman’s Greatest Foe: Censorship
With the war going on overseas, those on the home front perceived a spike in juvenile delinquency. A moral panic ensued, and parents were looking for an adequate scapegoat. In response to this backlash the comic book industry took strides to try and prove that they were publishing harmless entertainment suitable for children.
This soon gave rise to the most notorious comic book villain ever, and he was a real guy:
Psychologist Fredric Wertham was the man who saw a link between violence in comic books and juvenile delinquency. At the time he was best known for examining Albert Fish, the notorious serial killer. Wertham had convinced himself that comic books were the root of the problem. He made it his crusade to see particular content banned and all America’s problems with it.
By the late 1940s, Wertham’s crusade began, warning parents of the potential danger comic books posed. By 1954, Wertham published his findings in the infamous book Seduction of the Innocent. In particular, he claimed that Batman promoted homosexuality.
The book prompted the United States Senate to investigate comic books during a subcommittee on juvenile delinquency. The Senate’s words to the comic book industry: Regulate yourself, or else!
Cue the Comics Code Authority:
The Code dictated what sort of material was appropriate in comic books. It neutered the comic book industry. How did that impact the Batman?
To pass the muster of the Code, writers had to write “safe” stories. Suddenly, you got crap like this…
In an attempt to make Batman more “kid friendly,” apparently it was acceptable for average citizens to try and imitate the Batman. Take Midge Merrill for example; he was a Little Person who worked for a circus. When a crook named Trapper Nolan started harassing the circus Midge took on the costumed identity of Bat-Boy to stop him. When I say bats, I don’t mean the animals, I mean the sports equipment. Midge retired from costumed heroics after he helped the Dynamic Duo.
Not every imitator was a play-on-words though. There was also Batman Jones, whose legal name is Batman Jones. See, one night Batman saved his parents when their brakes failed on the way to the hospital. In thanks, the Jones’ named their kid after Batman. With one of the worst parenting moves ever, they reinforced the idea that his namesake was a hero. One day Batman Jones decided to ride his bat-themed bicycle to help Batman solve crimes. Batman eventually convinces the kid that stamp collecting was more exciting than crime fighting.
This was just the tip of the iceberg though…
At this time, DC Comics thought the best way to make their characters more wholesome was to create a “family” of characters. Batman ended up getting the most broken family out of the whole bunch.
It started in 1955 with the introduction of Ace the Bat-Hound. In a nutshell: Ace the dog belonging to Bruce Wayne’s neighbor that started helping the Dynamic Duo fight crime. They made Ace wear a mask because if people recognized Ace, they could connect Bruce Wayne to Batman.
It continued in ’56 with the addition of Batwoman to the Bat Family. Intended to be a love interest for Batman, Batwoman regularly threw herself at him. Though all the attempts to trick him into marrying her, Batwoman couldn’t figure out that Bats just wasn’t that into her.
This was also the period when the Bat-Mite reared his ugly head. This other-dimensional pest mad Batman and Robin’s job that much harder. Because nothing says “a fun time” like comic relief during a gun battle with a gang of crooks.
The writers also introduced Batgirl, because things were not heteronormative enough as they were. I guess they needed to add stress to Robin’s life because apparently Batman and Batwoman’s unhealthy relationship wasn’t enough.
All this equated to Batman and Robin spending more time goofing off with their supporting cast instead of stopping any crimes.
Things Got Wacky
Then there were the stories…..
The stories in the 50’s and 60’s were strange.
Batman and Robin often found themselves transformed by science. They used wacky gimmicks to protect their identities. From one month to the other you could see Batman and Robin as children or older versions of themselves. What kid would not want to see Batman as a toddler or an old man? Am I right?
Eventually, by Detective Comics #327 they tried to get Batman back to his roots… Sort of… The CAC still governed them, but at least they got rid of all the goofy science fiction and went back to more conventional detective work.
Then this happened in 1966…
The Dark Knight Returns
Batman was on life support by this point. However, with the CAC loosening some of its rules, things began to change. In 1970 Batman went back to his darker roots thanks to Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams.
This was a thankful departure of the nonsense created in the past two decades. They weren’t out of the woods yet, because every cover had some over-the-top teaser that suggested that Batman is killed in that issue.
Crisis on Infinite Earths changed all of that. It wiped out all of the ridiculous parts of Batman’s past so he could have a fresh slate. In 1986, Frank Miller penned the classic Dark Knight Returns. It was a return to the dark and gritty Batman of old. They immediately put Miller on the regular Batman title where he published his equally popular Year One storyline.
Over 40 years later, Batman was back to what he did best, just in time for his midlife crisis! Miller’s work brought us the Batman we all know and love. Here we are 30 years later, and creative teams are still using Miller as an influence.
The Villain Always Loses
Frederic Wertham certainly got his way in the end, but clearly, the dastardly fiend didn’t win in the end, so what happened? After thinking he won the war against comic books, he turned his attention to television. He tried to write a second book called War on Children on that subject, but nobody would publish it. Frederic backpedaled on his opinion on comic books, claiming he wasn’t against them. He, oddly enough, was a huge fan of fanzines for some reason. After publishing his book The World of Fanzines, he was invited to speak at the New York Comic Art Convention in 1973 and was booed off the stage.
Wertham died in 1981, but the Comics Code remained his legacy for many years, but comic books were not the boogie man they used to be. The direct market eliminated many hurtles, and the Code became laxer over time. Marvel Comics abandoned it in 2001, and other publishes followed suit. By 2011, the CAC became defunct.
In 2010, Wertham’s manuscripts became part of the Library of Congress. This included a lot of his research materials, which are now unsealed and a matter of public record. Examination of Wertham’s work indicated that his attack on comic books are based on falsified information. Wouldn’t you know it, Frederic lied about his data to support his crusade.
One man’s crusade crushed businesses and harmed the creativity of an entire industry for over 55 years. If there’s any take away from all of this, don’t let the Frederic Wertham’s of the world win. It squashes innovation; it neuters creativity, and what happens? You get bull!@#$ like Batman chasing a monkey in a cape.
When did Batman get his groove back? On the day Frederic Wertham died.