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"The Dark Knight" -- Overlooked Bat Treasures #3
Sunday, August 6, 2006
Mark S. Reinhart

Copyright © 2006 by Mark S. Reinhart

From the above title, many of you are probably thinking that I have no idea what I am talking about – how can I possibly consider Frank Miller’s groundbreaking 1985-86 graphic novel series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns “overlooked” in any way, shape or form? Let me explain – by “The Dark Knight,” I don’t mean the Miller series, I mean the phrase “The Dark Knight” itself. Since that phrase is going to become an even bigger part of the Batman mythos on account of the fact that Warner Brothers has decided to call their Batman Begins sequel The Dark Knight, I thought it would be fun to examine the history of how those words have been used to describe Batman over the years.

I’m betting that many Batman fans assume that using the phrase as a description for Batman originated with the Miller series, but its usage actually goes back farther than that – MUCH farther. The first time those words were used to describe Batman that I am aware of was in the pages of Batman #1, published in Spring 1940, not even a year after the character’s debut. The phrase “the Dark Knight” was used in the first story in the comic, and that story was a VERY important one – now known simply as “The Joker,” the story featured the debut of Batman’s greatest foe. At the bottom of page 7, Batman has just tangled with the Joker for the very first time, and the Joker pushes a near-unconscious Batman off of a bridge and into a river. Luckily, a title tells us that “The shock of cold water quickly revives the Dark Knight,” and Batman swims to safety.

“The Joker” was written by Bill Finger, who had earlier collaborated with artist Bob Kane in the actual creation of the Batman character. So not only was Finger instrumental in bringing Batman to fruition, he also gave the character one of his most enduring nicknames.

However, that nickname did not stick as well as several others during the first few decades of Batman’s history. During the 1940’s and 1950’s as the character’s overall demeanor lightened up, more upbeat nicknames like “The Caped Crusader” and “The Masked Manhunter” dotted the pages of Batman comic stories much more than “The Dark Knight.” These alliterative nicknames for comic characters became ever more absurd in the 1960’s – who else can remember Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl being referred to as “The Dominoed Daredoll” because of the domino shape of her mask’s eyeholes?

In fact, as far as I can remember, the phrase “The Dark Knight” was completely extinct from Batman comics by the 1970’s. I don’t even recall writer Denny O’Neil dusting it off when he and artist Neal Adams returned Batman to his “creature of the night” roots in the early part of the decade. (If I’m wrong about this, and O’Neil DID use the phrase around this time, please email me and let me know – I looked through some of O’Neil’s most famous stories in preparation for this article and did not find it, but I did not scour his work as closely as I could have)

My next recollection of seeing the phrase in a Batman comic story was when writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers teamed up for a series of classic tales that were first published in Detective Comics during 1977 and 1978. On page 10 of their story “The Deadshot Ricochet,” Bruce Wayne is trying to convince his girlfriend Silver St. Cloud that he has nothing to do with masked alter ego – Englehart writes via a title that “The Dark Knight measures his words carefully” as he talks to Silver. (Englehart’s using the phrase as a way to harken back to Batman’s earliest days was very much in keeping with the overall tone of his stories – in the stories, he even brought back the villain Professor Hugo Strange, who had not made an appearance since the previously-mentioned Batman #1!)

Of course, just a few short years later, Miller’s phenomenally successful graphic novel series immortalized the phrase “The Dark Knight” – and now Christopher Nolan’s 2008 sequel Batman Begins will further cement the phrase to the character. So if you encounter any non-Batman fans who ask you “What’s with this ‘Dark Knight’ phrase? What does it have to do with Batman?”, you can give them the full story, dating all the way back to 1940. And if any of you sharp-eyed Batman fans can think of any other occasion when the phrase was used during the pre-Miller era, please get in touch with me and let me know.

Mark S. Reinhart is the author of THE BATMAN FILMOGRAPHY.
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