Illustration © Frank Miller
THE AMERICAN SUPERHERO phenomenon was made possible by young sons shamed by immigrant fathers, fathers who couldn't speak English, worked unheroic yet dangerous jobs, and kept their heads down while bootleggers and white slavers fought for streets in a wide-open city. Those kids helped their European-born or former-sharecropper fathers read Dick Tracy at the end of the day: newsprint was their cultural currency. Little boys burned for a response to the criminal impunity they witnessed all around them, and from the early thirties they found it in Dick Tracy, in radio's Lone Ranger and the Green Hornet, in Superman, and then, in 1939, in Batman.
As DC Comics' two flagship superhero franchises go, Superman has had the more continuous career: his primary-color power fantasy may warp and weft a bit with the times, but it's always essentially the same. Bob Kane and Bill Finger's Batman is a trickier creature, constantly being pushed and pulled between camp and grit. The character's relative incoherence may owe something to his more confused origin: Superman had a six-year gestation, whereas Batman was ordered up almost overnight in an attempt to match Superman's sales figures. As a violent creature of the night, Batman is sometimes plucked from the world of superheroes entirely and sucked into the vortex of that still-spreading, posthumously-applied-and-thus-faux category, noir. Where Superman's creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster drew on science fiction and the Jewish legend of the Golem, Kane pulled from a contemporary source: the 1922 Broadway hit The Bat and Roland West's film adaptations of it, the 1926 silent and 1930 talkie (the latter titled The Bat Whispers). In the 1930 film — a visually innovative comic mystery in what used to be called the "old dark house picture" genre — a master thief wears a mask and cape and baits the police with mocking notes; the film even features a bat signal. Batman, like West's Bat, wears a mask, though he is the hero and not the villain, and the mask would prove a feature that had an interesting hold on young boys' imaginations. The mask promises self-erasure: it promises that one's deeds will speak for themselves and reveal one's true identity as crusader or avenger, rather than the grubby little kid one really is.
Kane and Finger eventually built up a distinctive gallery of arch-criminals, but in the early comics, only the title-page portraits of "the Batman" had real iconic power. Detective Comics wouldn't commit graphically to a nocturnal world of black-and-white, and so Batman jumps around in an incongruously brightly-colored night. Another misstep was the speedy addition of sidekick Robin, whose introduction in April 1940, one year into Batman's must have insulted all but the title's youngest readers. (If Batman can't be a brooding loner in the night, who can be?) The same year, DC published the first free-standing Batman No. 1 — the comic which introduces the Joker. From this point, the original Batman finds its formula: Batman and Robin versus a gallery of arch villains every inch their sartorial match.