By Scott Tipton
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.
(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.)
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.
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.
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.
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).
In more recent years, the belt has also included items for more specific needs, such as a sliver of Kryptonite – just in case.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
(She’s also featured in her own outstanding solo series by Ed Brubaker. Go check it out.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
Batman may not be gay, but he most definitely has some commitment issues.