Batman begins? Hardly.
Unlike Batman Begins, the $135 million movie opening in 3,700 of the nation's movie theaters today, the real beginning of Batman has nothing to do with big-budget Hollywood blockbusters set in far-off monasteries. It has to do with a couple of twentysomethings in the waning days of the Great Depression, struggling to make a go of it in the comics pages at a time when, if you weren't from the planet Krypton, you were nothin'.
In 1938, Bob Kane was 23, a former New York street tough - his autobiography Batman & Me talks about having his hand broken by rival gang members, and his relief at having it heal sufficiently to let him continue drawing - who honed his craft at Cooper Union and the Art Students League. Hired by National Comics (which would later change its name to DC), he started drawing adventure strips that were soon relegated to second-class status within the company. National's crowning achievement, and a huge moneymaker at the time, was Superman, the creation of two Cleveland teenagers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster.
Kane's boss, Vincent Sullivan, asked him to come up with a character similar to Superman, but not too similar. Drawing on a host of influences - everything from movie star Douglas Fairbanks to a pair of oversized bat wings designed by Leonardo da Vinci to a 1930 film, The Bat Whispers - Kane came up with the concept of a man who fights crime by combining his brains, brawn and adroitness with a sewing needle.
Kane called on a friend, 24-year-old writer Bill Finger, who helped hone the Batman concept, eliminating some of Kane's more garish strokes - for example, he suggested changing the inflexible bat wings to a more functional, and fear-inducing, cape. The two spent a weekend in Kane's studio, and by May 1939, Detective Comics No. 27 was on newsstands, chronicling "the unique and amazing adventures of The Batman."
"We felt we had a winner," Kane would later write. "Bill said that anything that was original enough to combine da Vinci, Zorro and The Bat had to be a success."
Within a few years, Batman had acquired a teen sidekick, Robin, and a Rogue's Gallery of memorable adversaries, including The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin and Catwoman - evildoers who grew up with Batman throughout the 1940s and made the transition to both television (the Batman TV series aired on ABC from 1966 to 1968) and the big screen, beginning in earnest with Tim Burton's Batman, released in 1989.
While Superman and Batman were always duking it out over who was the most popular comic-book character, the two were very different heroes. Unlike young Kal-el, who survived the destruction of his home planet, Krypton, and acquired superpowers upon landing on Earth, Bruce Wayne was just a kid done wrong.
Orphaned when his rich parents were killed right in front of him by a petty crook, he spent years honing his muscles and his brain, dedicating his life to ridding the world of the sort of injustice that took his parents' lives. Bruce grew up to be Gotham City's most celebrated millionaire playboy, no one knowing he was also the Caped Crusader who kept streets safe.
It took a world blowing up to produce Superman; it took only hard work to create Batman.
"Of all the comic-book superheroes," says Alan J. Porter, author of The Unauthorized Batman Collectors' Guide, "he's just basically, at the end of the day, an ordinary person, just a guy doing the best he can to make the world a better place. He's always the hero that anybody could be."
Although Kane, who drew the first Batman books, was credited as the creator, "Bill Finger was a contributing force to Batman right from the beginning," Kane wrote in Batman & Me. "He wrote most of the great stories and was influential in setting the style and genre other writers would emulate."
Still, it was Kane who benefited most from Batman. He was able - thanks to a business acumen many peers lacked - to become a rich and famous man off his creation, even though he often didn't draw the books, having hired a staff to assist him. "Bruce Wayne was what Bob Kane wanted to be, the rich playboy," says Porter. "Independently wealthy, with beautiful women hanging off his arm - basically, that's what Bob Kane became in the end."
Finger would continue to work in comic books, occasionally dipping his hand into TV and movie scripts, but never enjoying the fame or comfort of his early partner. When Finger died in 1974, few outside of rabid comic fans noticed. When Kane died in 1998, his obituary ran throughout the world. Even the staid New York Times got into the act, listing among Kane's survivors "Batman, Robin, the Joker, the Riddler, the Penguin and the Catwoman."