The following article was generously contributed to CT magazine by comic-book scholar Corey Creekmur.
Although I’d call myself a lifelong Batman fan, I can’t claim the investment of either Will Brooker (author of not one, but two books on the Dark Knight!) or Drew Morton (whose dedication includes a tattoo!) in the character. But I was a bit frustrated to see them select only relatively recent Batman texts as their five “best,” as if the character didn’t actually have a so-called Golden or even Silver Age. Drew identifies Tim Burton’s first Batman film in 1989 as galvanizing for his fandom, but I’m of the generation that was motivated by the 1966-68 TV show to buy Bat-toys, Bat-bubblegum-cards, and lots of other stuff . . . including comic books, including those 80-page Giants that reprinted earlier material when collections of older stories were otherwise rare. I recall being a bit stunned to realize there were much older Batman comics, and that these were very different from the ongoing Batman and Detective comics, which themselves we so unlike the campy TV show. And while obviously dated, some of those old comics were really pretty great . . .
Yet the assumptions underlying recent lists of the “best” Batman stories seem to be that most candidates for inclusion must be 1) Serious, if not “grim and gritty” (an overused phrase from the 1980s that now carries some disdain), and 2) Long, following the legitimation of a form once centered on a loose series of short stories gathered in magazine anthologies through the development of the extended and continuity-ruled “graphic novel.”
This list, however, wishes to recover fun and brevity as not just historical options but key components of comics if only to resist the dominant pressure towards the seriousness and length that justify presentation as graphic novels. So, while I have my share of admiration for Batman comics by Frank Miller, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, and other “moderns,” here are some older favorites, selected with the guilty conscience that there are certainly hundreds of early Batman stories I’ve missed or simply forgotten.
The cold, hard fact is that as naively charming or historically significant as they may be, many Golden Age comics stories aren’t very good. After all, nothing in the culture that produced and consumed them encouraged them to be, and so it’s unfair to impose more recent expectations of quality upon them. But at times, even older stories are animated by the suggestive narrative impulses that drive the formulaic variations in later, more celebrated examples.
Batman’s origin story, which didn’t in fact arrive until Batman #33 (1939), was expanded upon early and often, most influentially in “The Origin of Batman” in Batman #47 (1948). But “The First Batman,” written by Bill Finger and drawn by Sheldon Moldoff, and reprinted in Batman Annual 4 (1962), is one of the first to not just expand but significantly revise the traumatic origin story by revealing that the “first” Batman was in fact Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s doomed father (who, an old film reveals, wore a “bat-man” costume to a “flying creatures”-themed masquerade ball). Bruce’s later adoption of a bat as the model for his superhero costume is not based upon coincidence (as a famous panel, recreated here, had asserted), but functions as a tribute and legacy. (Bruce realizes that the bat flying into the room “prodded my subconscious memory of my father’s costume!”)
Thomas Wayne’s murderer, Joey Chill, is also revealed to be an imposter of sorts, a hit man only pretending to be a common thief, and ordered by the gangster Moxon to not kill young Bruce so that he could unwittingly tell the misleading story of his parents’ murder that otherwise remains “official” Batman lore. Origin stories play a mythic role in superhero narratives that’s sustained by their being repetitively, obsessively re-told, although ambitious writers tend to take a crack at revising them. In this fairly early story, Finger suggests that origin stories have origins themselves, and that even established myths may be mined for unsettling revisions.
2. “While the City Sleeps,” Batman #30 (1945)
Retroactively, critics have suggested that some pre-WWII comics—most notably Will Eisner’s “The Spirit”—resemble the dynamic visual style of Hollywood film noir, itself discovered (if not invented) retrospectively by French critics after WWII. While “gritty and grim” because of the quickly tedious norm for Batman stories in the wake of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), many early stories were surprisingly dark in style as well as content. “While the City Sleeps”—which curiously anticipates the title of a Fritz Lang film noir from 1956—includes virtually colorless panels from an era when comic book colors were bold and primary (since cheap printing of the era couldn’t reproduce much else).
The story itself seems in part derived from didactic 1930s film documentaries, such as the British classic Night Mail (1936): While solving a crime organized by sound-phobic villain Hush-Hush Bodin, Batman educates Robin about the “night life” of workers whose midnight shifts support the lives of modern city dwellers. But Dick Sprang’s art often reduces the otherwise upbeat story (which ends with the dynamic duo drinking milk from a morning delivery) to dark shadows of black and blue, with the only flashes of color in some panels coming from gun barrels (or Batman’s fist). A three-page sequence takes place in almost complete darkness, restoring night to inscrutability and mystery despite the story’s tribute to the city’s evening workforce. Like Hollywood cinematographers of the time, the creators of this comic recognize the power of withheld illumination in creating the mood of a story, whatever the ostensibly sunny content.
3. “The Battle of Cape and Cowl,” World’s Finest #153 (1965)
DC’s “Imaginary” stories (“aren’t they all?” Alan Moore would eventually ask) are often recalled as goofy oddballs, easily dismissed because they are explicitly out of the continuity that became sacred to fans with the rise of the Silver Age. But they in fact function as intriguing narrative games, pop culture thought experiments about the limits and flexibility of genre and the curious status of realism. If these stories are “imaginary,” then other DC stories take place in “the real world,” a shift in orientation that asked DC readers to perform a curious balancing act. “Imaginary” stories were ways to break out of the rules of corporate ownership and implicit narrative rules, but by still playing in-house. They allowed writers and (to a lesser extent) artists to push against the logic they took on when they were assigned to an established character and narrative. (DC has never quite abandoned this officially sanctioned escape clause, via their Elseworlds imprint or projects that allow more independent comics creators an unconventional crack at Batman and his fellow trademarked superheroes.)
There are a plenty of wacky “imaginary” Batman stories, but one of the best and most unsettling is “The Battle of Cape and Cowl” (in two parts in World’s Finest #153, November 1965), which imagines that Batman’s fundamental creation of himself as an avenger of his father’s murder was driven by his bloodlust for Superman, who he believes killed his father when he was Superboy. Undermining the amiable team-up of Batman and Superman usually found in World’s Finest, the story anticipates the later recognition that Batman and Superman would probably be ideological antagonists rather than partners. Plotted by Cary Bates with a script by Edward Hamilton and pencils by Curt Swan (whose unmasked Bruce Wayne looks just like his Superman, a potential flaw that actually serves this story), the story reads less like an amusing daydream than a troubling nightmare, a glimpse into the unconscious of the larger Batman narrative revealed in panels such as the disturbing one in which Batman slaps Robin hard across the face. (One of the recurrent obsessions of decades of Batman stories has been Batman’s guilt for harm done to Robin.) The story ends with Batman shot and dying as Superman caresses him, and only a last-minute text rushes to recall “this was only an imaginary story! And are we glad!” “What if” (to use rival Marvel’s formulation) these “super pals” were actually enemies?
4. “Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson,” Batman #20 (1944)
Dr. Fredric Wertham notoriously questioned the relationship of Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson, which he called “a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” If the comics in fact remained discreet about the sexual implications of the arrangement, even they at times acknowledged that the set-up was unconventional: In the bluntly titled “Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson,” writer Bill Finger rips the team apart when Dick’s uncle and aunt show up to claim their relative. It turns out they are shady characters out to sell Dick back to Bruce for a million dollars, but amidst the righting of this wrong, the the story also recognizes that the public role Bruce plays as an irresponsible playboy to obscure the fact that he is Batman ironically makes him a questionable figure to be entrusted with the legal guardianship of a young boy. The story effectively unfolds by following a number of threads (even making clever use of tools of The Penguin, who does not appear in the story), but is most effective and memorable in probing the curious illogic at the heart of the actual and performative relationship between Bruce and Dick. It would be decades before other writers began to fully explore the psychological complexity of this odd pairing.
5. “Photo Finish,” Batman Chronicles #9 (1995)
Can I violate my own premise by including a more recent story? And are stories featuring secondary characters in the Batman universe “Batman” stories? Some time ago, DC released separate volumes of the “greatest” Batman and the “greatest” Joker stories: But aren’t Joker stories always already Batman stories? If Batman doesn’t have to be central to all Batman stories then “Photo Finish” is one of the best of them, even if it features Robin and Batgirl meeting for the first time after Robin leaves Batman behind (and obviously distracted, spread on top of Catwoman) after two pages. Tucked away in the often excellent series Batman Chronicles, it also demonstrates in 18 breezy pages that not all good Batman stories must be long enough to require reonfiguration as graphic novels. Written by Devin Grayson and beautifully drawn by Duncan Fegredo, it’s also that rare thing in contemporary comics, a fun and even charming superhero narrative, centered on two “secondary” characters whose only initial link—Batman—is quickly forgotten as they establish their own trust and bonds.