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COMICS 101

By Scott Tipton
Scott Tiptons Comics 101

2003-12-03 - "WHERE DOES HE GET THOSE WONDERFUL TOYS?": Batman, Part II

For those who came in late: Last week, we began our long-requested discussion of DC Comics’ Darknight Detective, Batman. Having covered the character’s creation under the pen of artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, we discussed the first appearances and origins of the series’ three major characters, Batman, Robin the Boy Wonder, and their faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth. We continue this week with an exploration of another innovation by Kane, Finger and others that would later become a convention (if not outright cliché) of the genre: the Batman’s gimmicks, gadgets and vehicles.

As early as July 1939, Batman had made use of what would later be called his "utility belt" to carry with him the equipment necessary to give the decidedly human and mortal Batman an edge when battling criminals, as well as aid him in his investigative efforts. As noted last week, early on, Batman would equip his belt before going out with the tools he expected to need for the night’s work. As the series evolved, the utility belt became a sort of catch-all life saver, carrying absolutely everything he might expect to need and then some. Even from its first appearance, Batman’s utility belt retains the trademark design it would bear for decades to come: bright yellow in color and constructed from a combination of leather and solid steel, with a rectangular buckle and cylindrical pouches built into the length of the belt.

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(Much later, artist Frank Miller would redesign the utility belt in his graphic novel THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, replacing the streamlined cylinder-pouches with bulky rectangular ones, a look that he used again when revising the character’s origin in the BATMAN: YEAR ONE storyline. The redesign has proved quite popular, and has now all but replaced the original in most modern renderings of the character.)

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One of the earliest items to be carried in the belt is the “bat-rope,” or as it was referred to for decades, the “silken cord.” Initially, the cord was carried looped from the belt, lasso-style, and was later incorporated into a reel in one of the cylinder pouches.

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The folks behind the Warner Brothers ‘90s BATMAN animated series gave Batman a “grapple-gun” that fires a grappling hook and length of line for climbing and swinging, and this device has made its way to the comics nowadays as well. Not long behind the silken cord was the batarang, Batman’s scalloped boomerang-styled throwing weapon. Normally stored on the interior of the belt in the small of the back, the Batman can use the batarang as both an offensive weapon and as a makeshift grappling hook in combination with the silken rope.

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For decades, the use of the batarang as a throwing weapon was fairly innocuous, usually resulting in a bump on the head or a tripping maneuver of the feet; again, it wasn’t until Frank Miller’s radical re-think in DARK KNIGHT RETURNS that the batarangs would take on a decidedly more, shall we say, intrusive manner, being utilized more like shuriken, the Japanese throwing knives.

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Other devices commonly found in the utility belt include a fingerprint kit, concussion grenades, tear-gas and smoke pellets (along with a portable rebreather unit in case he has to use them), an acetylene torch, infra-red goggles, lockpicks and skeleton keys, and a two-way belt-radio (which was a lot more impressive in 1940, by the way).

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In more recent years, the belt has also included items for more specific needs, such as a sliver of Kryptonite – just in case.

Now, the silken rope is fine for short distances, but a man’s gotta get around, right? Enter the Batmobile. In his first appearance, Batman tooled around Gotham in a red sedan; functional, but hardly top-of-the-line, and not much to look at, either. By 1941, Batman and Robin were referring to their convertible roadster as the “Batmobile,” but it was still fairly indistinct, save for a small bat-shaped hood ornament.

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However, by the spring of that same year, the first recognizable Batmobile was introduced, a dark blue sedan (a Studebaker, from the looks of it) with a giant Bat-head adorning the grille and a large bat-shaped tailfin extending from the roof to the back bumper.

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With minor modifications, this version of the Batmobile would remain until 1950, when a new model was introduced, this time featuring a fully enclosed plastic bubble top in place of a traditional roof and windshield.

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With the ‘60s, the Batmobile would grow increasingly sportier, switching to a convertible sports car in 1964, followed by a 1967-68 model which combined the sporty lines of the convertible with the bubble top of the ‘50s version (and which, not coincidentally, much resembled the George Barris-designed Batmobile used in the Adam West TV series).

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Nowadays, the Batmobile has opted for form over function, with a series of unremarkable-looking black sportscars being utilized in the comics. Occasionally, however, modern creators will show Batman taking one of the older, more stylish models out for a spin.

Sometimes, though, bats gotta fly, and Batman is no exception. As far back as 1939, Batman has made use of specially designed aircraft, specifically, the “Batgyro,” a combination plane/helicopter introduced in DETECTIVE COMICS #31.

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Within a year, however, the Batgyro had been abandoned for a more traditional “Batplane,” initially an open-cockpit fighter-plane design. Much like the Batmobile, the Batplane would evolve over the years, becoming first what looks like a passenger plane, then shifting to a more streamlined jet fighter.

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For more flexibility, the Batcopter was introduced in the late ‘50s, as was a personal favorite: the Whirly-Bats. The Whirly-Bats were collapsible, one-man helicopters which Batman and Robin kept stored in the Batmobile’s trunk, ready to bust out at a moment’s notice.

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As if all that weren’t enough, there was also the Batboat, the Batmissile for suborbital jaunts, and even, yes, the Batmarine, first utilized to keep Batman and Robin underwater and alive while they slowly depressurize, so they don’t get the bends – never mind; it’s a long story...

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Naturally, a guy needs a place to keep all this stuff, which is where the Batcave comes in. Unlike many of the other innovations in the Batman character, the Batcave wasn’t introduced all at once, but rather gradually evolved over time, starting off as just a disguised barn near the Wayne mansion where Batman stored his roadster, then becoming a series of underground hangars for his aircraft, followed by nondescript underground laboratories beneath the manor.

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By 1944, the underground base of operations has been officially dubbed “the Batcave,” and by 1950, it’s been revised as an enormous natural subterranean cavern that just happens to be located beneath the manor, accidentally discovered by Batman and put to good use.

Access to the Batcave from Wayne Manor may be had through a secret entrance in Bruce Wayne’s study, behind a grandfather clock.

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(In one of the more morose details, it was once established that the secret entrance was triggered by setting the hands of the clock to 11:55, the exact time of the deaths of Thomas and Martha Wayne, but that was most likely deemed too grim even for Batman, as it was swiftly forgotten.) In the Batcave, Batman keeps storage and maintenance facilities for all his vehicles, a fully equipped criminology lab, a gymnasium, and the famed “Bat-Computer,” the tremendously powerful computer system used by Batman for analysis and information-gathering. There’s also an underground stream that leads from the Batcave to Gotham’s river and tributary system, allowing access for the Batboat.

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Probably the most famous aspect of the Batcave is the Hall of Trophies, where Batman keeps souvenirs of his most interesting or unusual cases. Some have thought it strange that a character so rooted in tragedy would indulge in what seems as frivolous a notion as a trophy room, but it always made sense to me. Consider: with the murder of his parents, Bruce Wayne’s childhood is ended at an abnormally early age, as his life becomes devoted to avenging the loss of his parents. To my mind, the Hall of Trophies was Batman’s acknowledgment of the loss of his childhood, and a sort of unconscious compensation for that loss, by collecting toys on a colossal scale.

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Most notable in the Hall of Trophies are the giant mechanical Tyrannosaurus Rex, the gigantic Lincoln-head penny and the enormous Joker-faced playing card, but there are plenty of other items that have been seen in the Hall of Trophies over the years, such as the Penguin’s trick umbrellas, Two-Face’s double-head silver dollar, many of Batman’s specialized costumes, and much more.

BRUCE WAYNE: LADIES' MAN

The very nature of his double life forces Bruce Wayne to keep relationships at arm’s length, for fear of discovering his secret. In addition, Wayne intentionally puts out the public image of Bruce Wayne as a vacuous, pampered and boorish millionaire, so as to divert any suspicion from his nocturnal activities. (Often, people contend that the notion of Bruce Wayne’s secret identity is ludicrous, that anyone would be able to figure out that Batman was really Bruce Wayne. To which I retort: let’s just pretend for a moment that there really was a guy running around New York City in a Batman outfit, beating up muggers and evading the police. Would you naturally assume it was Donald Trump?) As a result of Wayne’s public façade, significant relationships for Bruce Wayne have been few and far between.

The first romantic interest Bruce Wayne was seen to have was actress Julie Madison, starting all the way back in DETECTIVE COMICS #31 (September 1939).

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Introduced as Bruce Wayne’s fiancée, Julie appears sporadically through DETECTIVE #49, occasionally getting involved in Batman’s cases (including being kidnapped by vampires, in an early and somewhat uncharacteristic Batman adventure), before her acting career takes off, and she ends her engagement with Wayne, frustrated at his refusal to find a career and give up his playboy lifestyle.

Bruce’s next relationship would be with photojournalist Vicki Vale, introduced in BATMAN #49, Vol. 2 (October/November 1948). Although the character would linger in the comic for decades, Vicki Vale never seemed to catch on with either the readers or the creators, most likely because she was such a blatant and obvious attempt to copy the Superman/Lois Lane relationship from the pages of SUPERMAN.

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As a character, Vicki had little to offer, just the same tired “I will prove that Batman is really Bruce Wayne” shtick that the editors lifted from Lois Lane. While that proved mildly entertaining with Superman (before it was run into the ground), there it had the benefit of years of interplay between Clark Kent and Lois Lane to serve as subtext. Here, it felt very forced and artificial, and it’s no surprise that Vicki Vale is one of the sole recurring characters from Batman’s long publishing history to have been almost entirely ignored in the 18 years or so since DC revised their universe with the CRISIS.

In the 1970s, writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers introduced Silver St. Cloud, probably the most memorable of Bruce Wayne’s love interests. Fiercely independent, Silver pieced together the secret of Bruce Wayne’s double life, and eventually ended the relationship, not able to handle the risks Wayne was taking on a nightly basis.

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Considering how much of Bruce Wayne’s life is a mere act, it’s no surprise that all of the significant romantic relationships he finds himself involved in are with women who he meets in his identity as Batman, and who are able to function on his physical and intellectual level as well. The first and probably most notable of these relationships is his prolonged flirtation with Selina Kyle, the burglar and thief known as Catwoman.

Catwoman first appeared in BATMAN #1 (Spring 1940), and in her first appearance was little more than a plainclothes jewel thief, going by the nickname “the Cat.”

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In later appearances, she took to wearing a bizarre full-head cat mask, (complete with fur, even), but by 1946, Catwoman had adopted the familiar slinky skintight dress, cape and cat ears ensemble she would wear for much of the next four decades.

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For most of her career, Catwoman has been torn between her criminal life and her strong attraction to Batman, often abandoning plans at the last minute that might result in harm to Batman. For his part, Batman was often on the receiving end of the Catwoman’s embraces, and more often than not would remark at each adventure’s end how it was a shame that Kyle’s life of crime was keeping him from pursuing her romantically. As the series progressed into the 1970s, Kyle actually reformed, and even embarked upon a romantic relationship with Bruce Wayne, not knowing he was Batman. (Naturally, this didn’t last, and before long the Joker had enlisted his local evil psychotherapist to mind-control Selina back to her villainous ways.)

When DC revised their universe in 1985, the Batman books were given an overhaul as well, and the new version of Catwoman (as debuted in Miller’s BATMAN: YEAR ONE) was given a distinctly harsher persona, with a more S&M-influenced outfit (with much more emphasis on the whip) and a more mature backstory that intimated a background in prostitution.

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Much of this has fallen by the wayside in passing years, and much more recently Catwoman has been given a far more prominent role as the primary romantic interest in Batman’s life, even being trusted with Batman’s secret identity in the pages of the Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee issues of BATMAN.

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(She’s also featured in her own outstanding solo series by Ed Brubaker. Go check it out.)

Batman found himself with a more traditional companion in 1956, with the introduction of Batwoman.

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Introduced in DETECTIVE COMICS #233 (July 1956), Batwoman is Kathy Kane (note the reference to Batman creator Bob), a former stunt motorcyclist, trapeze artist and circus daredevil who inherits a vast sum of money and uses it to fund her crime-fighting career. Inspired by Batman’s abilities as a daredevil, Kathy resolves to put her own skills to the same cause of justice.

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Building a mansion over an old abandoned mine-shaft which she uses as her own “Batcave,” Kathy designs her own costume and crime-fighting equipment; however, this being the 1950s, her choice of equipment wasn’t exactly progressive. Instead of a utility belt, Batwoman carried a purse. Sure, she called it a “shoulder-bag utility case,” but it was a purse. Even worse, check out Batwoman’s array of crimefighting gear: there was a powder-puff loaded with sneezing powder, a perfume flask filled with tear gas, a hairnet that grew to ensare criminals, a telescoping periscope lipstick (not to be confused with the lipstick smoke-bomb), and charm bracelets that double as steel handcuffs. Ay caramba.

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Batman and Robin deduce Batwoman’s true identity in her first appearance, and try to convince her to retire, pointing out that if they could so easily figure out her secret identity, then criminals could too, putting her at risk.

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Kathy falls for this entirely specious line of reasoning and agrees to retire, but it doesn’t take, and soon enough Batwoman is a regular fixture in Gotham City, often called to fill in for an absent Batman, or just fighting at Batman’s side.

The timing of Batwoman’s debut is rather suspect. In 1954, psychiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham stirred up a nationwide controversy with his book SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, in which he blamed comic books almost entirely for the problem of juvenile delinquency. In his book, Wertham declared that Batman and Robin were clearly gay lovers, and that the BATMAN comics were “like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together.” Apparently gay folks in the ‘50s really wanted to wear capes and go beat up criminals; how Wertham knew this is beyond me. Regardless, in the face of Wertham’s asinine theory (which got a lot of play in the media, even resulting in Congressional hearings and the eventual self-censorship of the Comics Code), BATMAN editors decided it was time to get Batman some steady female companionship, and within two years, Batwoman, and her niece “Bat-Girl” (who we’ll get to next week) had been introduced.

Batwoman remained a steady presence in the books until 1964, and the relationship between Batman and Batwoman actually saw some advance, culminating in this scene from BATMAN #153 (February 1963), in which Batman, convinced he and Batwoman are facing certain death, finally confesses his love for her, and the two kiss.

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After Batman and Batwoman escape their perilous straits and solve the case, a smirking Batwoman reminds Batman about their romantic clinch. Batman backpedals furiously, claiming that “I thought we were going to die -- and I wanted to make your last moments happy ones!”

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Batman may not be gay, but he most definitely has some commitment issues.

Next week, we'll take a look at Batman’s other crimefighting partners over the years, and begin our exploration of Batman's rogues' gallery, one of the best in comics. If you have any questions about comics, send them to stipton99x@comics101.com. We aims to please.

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