“THE LEGEND OF THE BATMAN: Who He Is And How He Came To Be”
Two pages, twelve panels.
That’s all it took to give The Batman one of the most famous origins in comic book history.
The first story in BATMAN #1 was actually a reprint [And re-colored when you compare the two -- Jett] of a story featured in DETECTIVE #33. It finally gave readers and fans of “The Bat-Man” answers about Bruce Wayne’s past and how he became The Dark Knight. Written by Bill Finger with pencils by Bob Kane and inks by Sheldon Moldoff, the story informs readers that as a young child, Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered in front of him during a botched robbery. A few days later, the young Bruce Wayne makes a pledge to “…avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”
To carry out the vow that he had made, Bruce Wayne “becomes a master scientist” and “trains his body to physical perfection.” Thomas Wayne’s estate has left him wealthy, but still, his plan seems incomplete. He decides that he needs a disguise. At that exact moment, a bat flies through the window of Wayne Manor. Bruce takes it as an omen. “A Bat! That’s it…I shall become A BAT!”
The story is both dated and fresh at the same time. Of course the artwork and even the writing is primitive -- we’re talking about something that’s 67 years old -- but it is still quite powerful to this day. Imagine the pain one must have within after seeing your parents shot and killed -- a pain so powerful that it creates this dark, justice-seeking alter ego.
I wonder if Kane and Finger realized what they had created with they put together this story? Seriously, the beginning of The Batman is one of the greatest and most famous stories in comics. Hell, maybe even in all of American literature.
Great stuff...even today.
The story has The Joker -- who’s appearance hasn’t changed hardly at all in 67 years -- announcing his crimes via the radio before he carries them out. His first victim is millionaire Henry Claridge who has his diamond stolen and is murdered by The Joker as predicted -- even as Claridge is surrounded by Gotham police! The Joker’s method of murder is his “Joker Venom,” which leaves his target’s face twisted in a horrible grin.
And how does The Joker mark his crimes? He leaves a joker card behind of course!
The Joker’s method of madness continues throughout the story, culminating with The Clown Prince of Crime declaring that he plans to whack Judge Drake, who once sent him to prison.
In the meantime, The Joker makes enemies with the “normal” criminal element of Gotham as they feel he’s invading their turf. This part of the storyline has historical significance as it most likely inspired the idea of the “Rise of the Freaks” in Gotham’s underworld. This idea was made famous when it was injected into current Batman mythos in BATMAN: THE LONG HALLOWEEN.
The Batman keeps his eye on The Joker’s antics and promises to strike when the time is “ripe.” I guess that times comes for The Dark Knight as The Joker’s attack on Judge Drake is being carried out. This leads to not one, but two showdowns between The Batman and the character that will go on to become his arch-enemy.
What one should note when reading “The Joker” is that it is a fairly dark story. Especially when the The Joker character was lightened up tremendously as the 1940s progressed. He went from being this dark, murderous madman, to a laughing trickster carrying out rather harmless crimes in short order.
The Batman himself has changed quite a bit in BATMAN #1, from his initial incarnation just a year earlier. He’s still a dark character, but he is quickly progressing to the friendly, friend of the police, walking around in daylight “Caped Crusader” of the late 40s and 50s.
Even though this story is nearly 70 years old, I found it to be a good read. It’s dated obviously (ex. The Joker announcing his crimes via radio broadcasts, the dialogue, etc.), but still comes off rather fresh still today. It’s also very historically important to the Batman mythos with the inclusion of the joker card, Joker Venom, “rise of the freaks,” and of course, The Joker himself.
“The Joker Returns”
“Once again that Harlequin of Hate -- The Joker -- brings grinning death to a terrified people. A mocking doom from which no one can escape. And once again, two heroic figures -- Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder -- pit their amazing skill in a supreme effort to halt his parade of crime!”
The second Joker story in Batman history picks up only 2 days after the events of “The Joker.” When "The Joker" ended, the villain had been defeated by The Batman and put in jail by the Gotham PD. Naturally, The Joker plans his escape. “Jail me will they -- a man of my intellect?! I’ll escape and make them pay for this insult,” screams The Joker from his cell.
And it doesn’t take long for The Joker to blow his way out of jail -- literally. And just wait until you read how he got his hands on the explosives -- he really "sinks his teeth" into the job!
Once at large, The Joker retreats to his hidden “laboratory” found underneath an abandoned cemetery, and commences cooking up more of his “Joker Venom.” He then returns to his crime spree in Gotham which again includes announcing his murderous intentions via the radio before they take place. Once carried out, The Joker again leaves his mark behind -- a joker card.
After carrying out a few of these murders and robberies, The Batman believes he has a plan that will nab The Joker. Meeting with Commissioner Gordon -- as Bruce Wayne -- he suggests that the police bait The Joker with the “Fire Ruby,” knowing that the villain will not be able to resist stealing it.
The plan sets up a final confrontation between The Joker and The Dark Knight that from the look of things, is literally “final.”
To put it briefly, “The Return of The Joker” has virtually the same plot found in “The Joker” as the basic storyline isn’t changed much at all: The Joker announces his next crime, the crime then occurs (despite the efforts of the police), the police are after The Joker, Batman is after The Joker, and The Batman and Joker finally square off at the end.
Of note, The Batman has yet to enter the “friend of the police” years, as twice he has to escape capture by Gotham’s finest. Additionally, Bob Kane and Bill Finger originally planned to kill off The Joker at story‘s end! As a result, we find The Joker with a knife stuck in his check (accidentally self-inflicted) in one of the story’s last panels. Luckily, DC editor Whitney Ellsworth realized how good of a character he was, and The Joker survived (Two panels were added to “The Joker Returns” at the end of the story indicating that The Joker does indeed live).
Can you imagine if that was it for this character? One that is amongst the greatest literary rogues of all time! How much of Batman's history would have been different?
After his first appearance in 1940, The Joker rather quickly evolved into a goofy prankster, as apposed to the grim killer depicted in BATMAN #1. It would not be until the early 1970s that the dark and psychotic Joker would return to Batman comics.
Chris Nolan, the director of BATMAN BEGINS, has stated that BATMAN #1’s Joker stories will have an influence on the new Bat-film, THE DARK KNIGHT -- specifically on The Joker. Consequently, one wonders what elements of the character and the stories will be used. Will The Joker -- to be played by Aussie thesp Heath Ledger -- announce his crimes to Gotham before he commits them? Will he be using some sort of “Joker Venom” to commit murder and twist his victim’s face into a grotesque smile as his comic book counterpart did?
Hell, Nolan’s already tipped his hat to BATMAN #1 by having Gordon present The Batman a joker card at the end of BATMAN BEGINS. “Take this guy. Armed robbery, double homicide -- has a taste of the theatrical like you -- leaves a calling card.”
If you fancy yourself a Batman fan and have yet to read “The Joker” and “The Joker Returns,” you’re doing yourself an injustice. You’ll certainly find a lot of today’s Joker in those first two stories.
“Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters”
The story titled “Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters” was a double edged sword for me to be honest. I’m one who hates the brief period in which The Batman actually killed. On the other hand, this was a pretty good story even though The Dark Knight snuffed out a few of the “monsters.”
If you fancy yourself Batman historian or have read Matt Wagner’s BATMAN AND THE MONSTER MEN, you are most likely familiar with this tale -- Wagner’s miniseries is based on “Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters” from BATMAN #1.
As our story begins, Prof. Hugo Strange -- whom The Batman had defeated in DETECTIVE COMICS #36 -- is seen carrying out a successful prison break. Not long after Strange‘s escape, these huge hulking “monsters” begin wrecking havoc in Gotham. The pipe-smoking Bruce Wayne (how can he perform the feats he does if he's a smoker?!) -- listening to reports of the mayhem via the radio -- believes Strange to be masterminding the attacks.
The Batman takes to the air in the Batplane and follows the monsters back to Strange’s hideout. The Dark Knight lands the plane (where?!) and enters the building, where he is quickly captured by two of Strange’s creatures. As the villains of this era always do, Strange spills the beans to Batman -- telling him that he has discovered and “extract” that accelerates a person’s growth glands, alters their brains, and turns them into monsters.
Strange then injects The Batman with the extract and informs him that he’ll turn into one of these creatures in eighteen hours! Is there enough time for The Batman to concoct a cure and save Gotham from Strange’s scheme?
Come on, you know the answer!
Anyway, “Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters” is a cool little tale that’s fairly similar to the stories of this era. And it’s fairly “realistic” even though The Batman is taking on monsters. For all intents and purposes, Strange creates these brutes with some sort of steroid -- or at least that’s how I interpreted the story. Of course, I don’t think there were steroids around in 1940. But even so, it’s not like they’re creatures from outer space -- although that day is coming soon for Batman!
Of historical significance, I believe this to be one of the last times in the comic books that The Batman kills intentionally, as that practice was being quickly phased out as one of Batman’s crime fighting methods. Also, it’s certainly one of the very last solo Batman stories (Robin does not appear in this one) until the early 1970s.
“The Cat” features the first appearance of the classic Batman villain/partner/love interest, Catwoman. Of course, she’s only called “The Cat” here and wears a goofy costume that’s topped-off by a crazy-looking cat head instead of a cowl or mask.
In short, The Cat is a jewel thief who also happens to be hot. While The Batman prevents her from successfully carrying out her robbery, he ultimately lets her escape because, well, she’s hot.
While “The Cat” in BATMAN #1 may be best known, historically, for the first appearance of Catwoman, it’s also quite well known for this…
A life-long Batman fan, "Jett"|
is the founder of BATMAN-ON-FILM.COM.
He resides in the great state of Texas with his wife, three kids, and two Boston Terriers.