This week DC Comics is celebrating the 80th Anniversary of the debut of one of the most iconic comic book characters, Batman, the Dark Knight vigilante of Gotham City.
Batman’s first appearance was in Detective Comics #27, in the story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” written by Bill Finger and drawn by Bob Kane. Detective Comics #27 first went on sale 80 years ago this week. As Bleeding Cool observed, distribution throughout the United States in 1939 varied dramatically from one region to another, and in certain areas it would have hit the newsstands a week or two later than others. Nevertheless, it is generally believed that March 30th was very likely the earliest date Detective Comics #27 was available anywhere.
I was born in 1976, so quite obviously I was not around to see the first appearance of Batman. Like many future comic book fans of the post-Boomer generation, my first exposure to Batman, Robin and their colorfully demented rogues gallery was via the Super Friends cartoon series and reruns of the Batman television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward.
I began occasionally reading comic books in the early 1980s, around the age of seven. My choices were almost always limited to whatever random issues my parents would consent to get for me, or that I would spot on a rare trip to the nearby Big Top Stationary in Scarsdale NY. For whatever reason, practically all of these were Marvel Comics releases such as Captain America and Incredible Hulk.
Going by my hazy childhood memories, I don’t think I ever saw an actual comic book published by DC until around 1986, and most of those belonged to other kids at school who would let me read them during lunch. Even when I did finally begin picking up DC books myself, it would be a Superman here or there, and even a couple of Hawkman issues.
I did not read my first Batman comic book until 30 years ago, in 1989. That was the year the Tim Burton movie starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson hit the theaters, and a tide of Batmania to rival the mid-1960s craze swept over the country. Batman was everywhere… t-shirts, posters, action figures, and (of course) comic books. Somebody at DC must have realized the movie was going to be a hit, because suddenly there was a seeming deluge of specials and miniseries and high-profile story arcs and trade paperbacks for sale at the comic book stores. Batman assistant editor Dan Raspler even referred to it as “the Year of the Batman.”
In the midst of this massive hype, I remember one Saturday in May at the Dragon’s Den comic book store in Yonkers thinking to myself “Maybe I should check out an issue of Batman, see what all this fuss is about.” I think at that time the current issue was the second or third chapter of the story “The Many Deaths of Batman” and I found the idea of trying to figure out what was going on a bit intimidating. So instead I took a browse through the back issue bins.
Amidst a longbox of mid to late 1980s Batman issues, one cover leaped out at me: a moody image of Batman hanging upside down from the branch of a tree, the night sky around him filled with bats, the moon glowing behind him. It quickly joined my pile of purchases for that week.
This issue was Batman #431, which had come out only a few months earlier. ‘The Wall” was written by James Owsley (later to be known as Christopher Priest), drawn by Jim Aparo & Mike DeCarlo, lettered by John Costanza, colored by Adrienne Roy, and edited by Dan Raspler & Denny O’Neil. That striking cover artwork was courtesy of George Pratt.
At home, reading Batman #431, I was completely enthralled. Owsley wrote Batman as a driven, imposing, brooding figure (at the time I was already aware that Jason Todd, the second Robin, had died just a short time before, which explained the Dark Knight’s especially grim demeanor). In this one story Batman was shown to be a brilliant detective, a master of disguise, a figure of stealthy infiltration, and an expert at martial arts. Through both Owsley’s story and Aparo & DeCarlo’s art, Batman was a figure who was powerful & terrifying, yet also all too human.
The issue was capped off by a stunning eight page sequence, mostly dialogue-free, that saw Batman fighting against a quartet of ninjas belonging to the League of Assassins. It was an expert demonstration of clear, dynamic storytelling by Aparo. (The entire eight page sequence can be viewed in the DC Database entry on Batman #431. Definitely check it out.)
I was hooked.
The next week I was back at Dragon’s Den, and I bought Batman #432. “Dead Letter Office” was by the same creative team as the previous issue. It wasn’t quite as enthralling as the issue that preceded it, but I still enjoyed it. I was especially struck by the powerful artwork of Aparo & DeCarlo. They really made those two issues stand out in my mind, and all these years later I am still in awe at their work on those stories.
By my next visit to Dragon’s Den the latest issue of Batman, the first part of the “Year Three” story arc, was on sale. Marv Wolfman, Pat Broderick & John Beatty explored the continuing effects of the second Robin’s death on Batman, while also providing the post-Crisis origin for Dick Grayson, the original Robin, now known as Nightwing. George Perez provided the covers for Batman #436 to 439, and that might have been my first exposure to his beautifully detailed work.
After that I was a regular reader. I was thrilled that, beginning with #440, Wolfman was teamed up with the returning Aparo & DeCarlo. They made a great creative team, and told some incredible stories. Tim Drake, soon to be the new Robin, was introduced, and fought Two-Face. Batman encountered the NKVDemon, a disciple of his old foe the KGBeast. The Joker resurfaced for the first time since Jason Todd’s death.
During this time I also began reading Detective Comics, starting with issue #608. The creative team was writer Alan Grant, penciler Norm Breyfogle, and inker Steve Mitchell. Breyfogle was a very different penciler from Aparo, to be sure, but his work was absolutely stunning. I enjoyed the stories Grant, Breyfogle & Mitchell were telling in Detective Comics as much as I did the ones by Wolfman, Aparo & DeCarlo in Batman. The team in ‘Tec introduced the anti-hero Anarky and pitted Batman against the Penguin, Catman, and a variety of menacing, macabre foes.
As I’ve said before, a person’s favorite Batman artist is often very much dependent upon when they first began reading comic books. That is definitely the case with me. In my mind, Jim Aparo and Norm Breyfogle will always be two of the quintessential Batman artists. I realize this is an extremely subjective determination on my part, but that’s how it is. Viewing their depictions of the Dark Knight will always give me that little extra thrill, that emotional charge, that comes from having read stories drawn by them when I was in my early teens.
Regrettably I never had the opportunity to meet Norm Breyfogle before he passed away unexpectedly last year at the much too young age of 58. Jim Aparo is also no longer with us, having died in 2005 at the age of 72. Fortunately I did get to meet Aparo once in the early 2000s. He autographed a couple of the stories he had penciled, including my copy of Detective Comics #627.
Released in early 1991, the issue had both creative teams telling their own updated versions of the original Batman story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” It also reprinted the original story from 1939, as well as the 1969 retelling by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown & Joe Giella.
As an aside, Detective Comics #627 may have also been the first time I began to be made aware that writer Bill Finger was the (then uncredited) co-creator of Batman. As I have mentioned before, I am glad that Finger is now publicly recognized for his vital contributions to the Bat-mythos.
I have also met Mike DeCarlo on a couple of occasions. A talented artist in his own right, DeCarlo was probably the best inker of Aparo’s pencils other than Aparo himself. I know some others disagree with that assessment, but by my estimation the two of them made a very effective art team. It was definitely a thrill to get Batman #431 and #432, those first two issues I bought back in 1989, signed by DeCarlo last year.
By the late 1990s I stopped following the various series featuring Batman. Part of that was due to their being too many crossovers. Another part was that too many creators wrote Batman as an obsessive, anti-social control freak. I also was getting older, and had begun gradually losing interest in superheroes. Finally, I just got sick of the Joker showing up all the damn time.
From time to time I will occasionally pick up a comic featuring Batman, but that’s almost entirely dependent on who is writing or drawing it. I’ve come to the point where I follow creators, not characters.
Nevertheless, I do still have a fondness for those Batman stories from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yeah, a significant part of that is due to nostalgia. But, even allowing for the questionable tastes of a teenage boy, re-reading those stories as a 42 year old, most of them are still pretty darn good.
I did end up buying a copy of the giant-sized Detective Comics #1000 anniversary issue that came out this week. Yes, DC somehow managed to arrange things so that issue #1000 came out the week of Batman’s 80th anniversary.
Of course DC just had to release it with numerous variant covers, including a bunch of “store exclusive” ones, and all that. Someone on Facebook commented, only half-jokingly, that Detective Comics #1000 had 1000 variant covers. It’s not quite that many, but it is a lot.
The one that I did end up getting was the Bruce Timm one featuring Batman, Robin and the Joker that pays homage to Golden Age Batman artist Jerry Robinson. It is a great cover, and it reminds me of Batman: The Animated Series, which Timm was intimately involved with. The animated series was another huge part of my teenage years, and I watched it every day after I got home from high school. Just like Aparo and Breyfogle, seeing a Batman by Timm brings a smile to my face.
One last note: Amongst the stories in Detective Comics #1000 is one written by Christopher Priest, aka the former James Owsley. Priest is paired with legendary artist Neal Adams, who drew many of the classic Batman stories in the 1970s. They are joined by letterer Willie Schubert and colorist Dave Stewart. The story features an encounter between the Dark Knight and his implacable adversary Ra’s al Ghul, who Adams created with Denny O’Neil back in 1971.
All these years later, it’s definitely nice to see Priest, the writer who helped get me hooked on Batman in the first place, back on the character. And I was genuinely surprised to discover his story had a callback to Batman #431, the very issue that personally got me started on this journey three decades ago.
Happy birthday, Batman. Here’s to the next 80 years, and beyond. Our paths may not cross too often nowadays, and I really think you need to lighten up a bit, but I will always enjoy those stories from my teenage years.