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Batman Through the Years

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 16, 2024 3:02 am

Batman Through the Years

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 16, 2024 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Batman is a household name. His list of comic issues, let alone live-action movies, animated films, and TV shows, video games, you name it, is nothing short of astounding… but this wasn’t always the case. Andrew Farago, Curator at the Cartoon Art Museum and author of Batman: The Definitive History of the Dark Knight in Comics, Film, and Beyond, is here to tell us the story of the Caped Crusader.

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Well it's nothing short of astounding. But this wasn't always the case. Today Andrew Farago, Curator at the Cartoon Art Museum and author of Batman the Definitive History of the Dark Knight in Comics, Film and Beyond is here to tell us the story of the Dark Knight. I suppose it's appropriate for a character whose secret identity is a millionaire and later a billionaire. But money was kind of the driving force behind Batman at the beginning. So a struggling and fairly undistinguished cartoonist named Bob Kane was working for national periodical publications, doing funny animal comics, he was doing adventure comics, he was doing anything he could to try to make a name for himself, try to just make a living. And he heard that Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who were the co-creators of Star Wars, who were the co-creators of Superman, were making a really nice living, hundreds of dollars a week, you know, just out of the Great Depression, tail end of the Great Depression from their creation. He talked to his editor and editor said, yeah, you bring me another Superman and this will be lucrative for you.

And he said, you know, I'll do it over a weekend. He basically went home and tried to come up with his version of Superman. And initially the character he came up with was really nothing like the Batman that we all know.

He looked more like a circus acrobat with a domino mask, blonde hair, Leonardo da Vinci-inspired black batwing cape, he was possibly going to be a flying superhero. But thankfully Kane was interested in the concept. But thankfully Kane was in touch with a very talented, very inventive writer named Bill Finger. And Bill Finger saw the raw potential there. He took Kane's ideas, he refined it, he gave Batman the cape and cowl and outfit really close to what we know and love today.

He took Kane's concept and turned it into something that 80 years later still energizes and excites fans everywhere. Batman made his debut in a publication called Detective Comics. And Detective very much spun out of the pulp magazines that have preceded it. So they were raw, edgy, dark stories.

The good guys were very good, the bad guys were very bad. Bad guys often met very gruesome fates. And Detective Comics, as the title indicates, every month had detective stories. And Batman, the earliest stories, and actually throughout his history, they have been detective stories.

He's one of the people who claims the title the world's greatest detective. So each story had to have at least some hint of a mystery to justify Batman's inclusion. The early Batman comics did have stories like that. They did have mysteries involving political corruption and gangsters and, you know, the kind of stories one would say were ripped from the headlines. And prior to that, it had been police officers, it had been private investigators, a lot of square jawed guys wearing suits, punching gangsters on the cover. So obviously, Batman wearing his incredibly dark costume, swooping out of the night sky, grabbing criminals, energized audiences the same way that Superman the year before really energized readers. And very soon Batman became a staple. He appeared every month in that magazine. And Detective Comics circulation went through the roof.

And he was awarded his own solo magazine. You know, in the late 30s, this was this was very forward-thinking on the part of the publisher that's now known as DC Comics. So Kane and Finger knew we need colorful villains, we need eye-catching covers, we need dynamic storytelling.

They really were going that direction very early. So within about a year of Batman's debut, we had the introduction of Robin the Boy Wonder. Again, bright red, yellow, green costume. They called him the laughing young daredevil. I would say that's why we're still talking about Batman today in the present tense instead of some interesting pulp-inspired character whose time came and went. Immediately, I think for the better, changed the tone of the stories. It made Batman a father figure, gave him someone to talk to when he was his way through a case, and that gave the readers a surrogate, a stand-in where they could feel like, hey, I could do that, I could take part in these adventures. That partnership really pushed Batman even farther into the superhero territory than he'd been before. And you know, that pushed the villains that much farther into extremes, because right after Robin's debut, you had Joker, who was evil and dangerous a villain as there was.

You had Catwoman, Two-Face, and the Penguin, and the Riddler, who are just as iconic as any heroes from that era. They really tapped into something. They knew what would be popular, they knew what would sell, they knew what the kids liked. They did pay incredibly close attention to their competition, so they paid attention to what kind of numbers is Superman doing, what's going on in Captain Marvel this month, who's the big new character on the stands. And if there was a way for them to tap into an audience, even if it was taking away readers from other books that were coming out from the same publisher, then they tapped into that. And the first year before Robin was introduced, the stories were very grim, they were very dark.

And very quickly, the publisher realized, you know, we're reaching hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of kids with these comics. Maybe we have a responsibility here to be setting a better example. So they decided early on, Batman doesn't carry a gun, Batman doesn't use lethal force. He tries to find a better way to solve his problems. If he can solve a problem without violence by using his intellect and using his detective skills, that's even better. And you've been listening to Andrew Farago tell the remarkable story of Batman's history. When we come back, Batman Through the Years, here on Our American Story. Lee Habib here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country.

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Terms and conditions apply. And we're back with our American stories and the story of Batman. Andrew Farago, curator of the cartoon art museum was just telling us how Bob Kane and Bill Finger not only created the character, but paid close attention to what the audience wanted with the idea that children were their primary audience, the publisher, as well as the creators made it clear early that Batman didn't use lethal force, but rather his intellect to defeat his foes back to Andrew. So Batman was fighting murderers. He was fighting killers. He was fighting really the lowest of the low, as far as the villains went. And as, as more children were reading these books, as DC comics was increasingly concerned about setting a good example, and they realized, why don't we tone them down a little bit?

Why don't we have them do funny crimes and zany crimes? And by World War II, especially when kids wanted lighthearted entertainment, these adventures were becoming outrageous, more over the top. You had another artist by the late forties, early fifties come on who really redefined Batman, an artist named Dick Sprang. He had a more cartoony art style, and Batman was this big barrel-chested, smiling adventurer. Robin started cracking puns and wacky jokes. They would have crazy adventures that involved things like giant oversized prop typewriters, or blimp chases, or time travel. Bad guys that he's fighting during that time include aliens, they include mad scientists.

You may have a criminal where Batman is trying to uncover his identity, and they'll realize that the criminal is spelling out his name one crime at a time. And they went from being, let's be just a little bit different than the real world, to let's go totally nuts and have a crazy, fun adventure story. I would imagine anybody who read the first issues in 1939, and then took a break and came back around 1952, would not have recognized the character. And actually this was totally fine with the audiences, because up until that point there was constant audience turnover in comic book readership.

You did have some diehard fans who started reading in the 30s and kept reading, but generally speaking kids would read from about 8 until maybe 12 or so, drop out, and then a new batch of 8 to 12 year olds would come in. So stories didn't have to be particularly sophisticated, they didn't really need continuity, they carried over from one month to the next. Stories could repeat themselves every few years because they assumed that the readers were new and hadn't seen them before. Characters like Batman and Superman, they were seen as very safe, very respectable books that any kid could read.

You knew you were getting a good, reliable adventure story every month. By the early 60s, Batman was actually in danger of cancellation. You know, it may have been that they weren't challenging their audiences, they had competition from publishers like Marvel who were really winning the hearts and minds of younger readers, they were seen as more dynamic, more fun, more challenging stories. At this point they actually turned to some creators who had recently revitalized one of their comics, The Flash. They took a character from World War II era and came up with a new version of him that really engaged readers.

It was exciting, it was more modern, it was more dynamic. Whereas Batman in the early 60s looked like a throwback, kind of a relic. So they had creators like writer Gardner Fox and artist Carmine Infantino come along and this is really what ultimately saved Batman. They did an era called The New Look. They modernized him, he was not the barrel-chested, grinning, kind of Superman knockoff character that he was. They made him more streamlined, they made him a modern detective, they gave him computer equipment and modern ized everything about the character. And that was a signal to readers that hey, take a look, we're changing things, we are aware that Marvel Comics exists and that that's the comic of choice for young readers and teens right now.

But we can be cool, we can be hip, we can be with it. And right around that time executives at ABC were looking at bringing, they wanted to bring a comic strip to television. They wanted to take advantage of things like Technicolor and they wanted to take advantage of nostalgia that people had for popular characters. So some producers, including a man named Bill Dozier, were determined to bring comics to television somehow.

That was going to be it, that was going to be the kind of thing that they could put toe-to-toe with. Shows like The Addams Family and the Munsters that were winning over young audiences this one. Young audiences, this really coveted young audiences and their families. And they had all grown up reading Batman, they had fond memories of him and they thought, we can do this, we can make this a fun television show. The TV show when it debuted in 1966 was an immediate sensation. It was a huge hit in the ratings and really nothing would be the same for the character after that.

It was just a smash in every sense. You had Adam West as Batman on the cover of Time Magazine, Life Magazine, TV Guide. You had fashions inspired by Batman, you had catchphrases, you had every possible kind of merchandise under the sun coming out.

It put the comic books back toward the top of the sales charts. Even though the show was campy, it was comedy, it was humor, it really wasn't far off from the source material. Adam West was perfect as a stoic, square-jawed, very sincere hero and crime fighter.

And you have Burt Ward as his plucky, inquisitive, excitable sidekick. If you look at the roster, if you look at the cast list in the second and third season, you'll see that Hollywood A-listers were fighting. They were begging to be on this show because they wanted to be a Batman villain or make a cameo appearance.

It was the cool, hip thing to do at the time. All good things must come to an end and the ratings came tumbling back down to earth very quickly in the third season. But the damage had been undone and Batman would have his ups and downs in the years since, but there was never any danger of him going away once the television show hit. The Batman TV show came to define the character for a long time, for a good 20 years, as far as the public was concerned. And in a way, it came to define comics. So you could not see a newspaper headline from 1966 through maybe even the early 2000s that didn't have Biff Bam Pow superheroes in the headline. And not too long after that final episode aired, the show started up again in syndication. So much like Star Trek had this incredible shelf life after its cancellation, so did Batman because almost the minute the new episode stopped, UHF stations picked it up and kids could still watch Batman every day after school. So as a kid in the 80s, that's how I was introduced to Batman.

So this really loomed large. This was, as far as the public was concerned, this was Batman. But that actually didn't sit well with some of the comic book creators. They looked at this campiness, they looked at the silliness, and they realized, you know, if we try to do this, if we try to translate this exactly how it is on the screen to the comics, you know, we're gonna look like dinosaurs. The TV show had had its chance, it came, it went. We want to do modern comics, we want to do things that again can go toe-to-toe with Marvel comics and with the other comics that are on the rack. And we've been listening to a remarkable story about Batman.

And it all started with money as the driving force. Bob Kane had found out that the people making Superman were making a couple of hundred bucks a week in the Great Depression. And he thought, well, I can come up with my own character.

He and his partner, Bill Finger, did just that. By the end of the 1930s, they had their own book. World War II came, people were looking for an escape, and a different version of Batman formed. And then came the early 60s. Batman's popularity was waning, and in came the TV show. And soon every A-lister wanted to be a part of it.

Burgess, Meredith, Frank Gorshin, Eartha Kitt, Jerry Lewis, Otto Preminger, Sammy Davis Jr., and the list goes on. When we come back, more of the story of Batman through the years here on Our American Stories. secret history of the casting couch. So join us as we navigate the tangled web of Hollywood's secret history of sex, money, and murder. Subscribe now to Variety Confidential wherever you get your podcasts. NFL Plus is your ticket to the NFL postseason. You gotta get this one, boys.

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See dkng.com slash football for eligibility and deposit restrictions terms and responsible gaming resources. And we're back with our American stories and the story of Batman. Despite the widespread praise of the 1960s live action Batman show starring Adam West, the comic book writers felt the show was too campy. They didn't want that reflected in the print version because they would rather compete with what was going on over at Marvel and other competitors. Andrew Farago tells us how instead the writers sought to pursue a darker tone. Prior to the 60s comic books were, whether stereotypically or just traditionally, they were there was something that a reader outgrew.

The cliche is it's something that boys are into until they discover girls. But with Marvel comics in the early 60s, you know, they had stories that were more geared toward that slightly older audience. They were geared toward teenagers. They had storylines that continued from one month to the next and they encourage readers to come back. With creators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, Marvel felt like a clubhouse and Stan wrote columns and he answered letters in the books that encouraged a dialogue between him and the readers. So the Marvel comics creators, instead of being faceless, uncredited people behind the scenes, they were upfront. They had Stan Lee's name. They had Jack Kirby's name. They had Steve Ditko's name prominently displayed in the books and readers responded to that in a huge way. DC, as they lost more and more of their market share to Marvel, they realized that they needed to catch up. They realized if the audiences are sticking around, if we want them to stick around, this is how we have to tailor our storytelling.

This is what we have to do to keep these readers here, keep them coming back. So I give a lot of credit to Denny O'Neill. He was very smart. He was very well read. His formal training had actually been in journalism before getting into comic books. He actually got into them kind of by accident because he was interviewing Roy Thomas, who was a writer and editor at Marvel comics. And Roy suggested, hey, we need more, we need smart guys like you writing comic books. And Denny went that direction.

He was a hippie. So, you know, he brought kind of a more adult, mature sensibility to the comics, compared, especially compared to what had gone before. And they brought that sensibility over to Batman. Their signature villain was a shadowy, ancient criminal mastermind named Ra's al Ghul, who planned to actually exterminate up to 90% of the Earth's population, because he felt that ecoterrorism was necessary to kind of restore balance to the Earth.

So this was very heady stuff compared to Two-Face robbing the Second National Bank at 2 p.m. on Tuesday. They also had Robin grow up and start going to college, so he had solo adventures. So he had Batman throughout almost the whole decade of the 70s. He had Batman as this solo adventurer. And Robin, so after about 10 years of solo adventures, there was kind of a half-hearted attempt to bring him back into the Batman stories.

The problem was he was now an older teenager. So the solution was to have Dick Grayson, the original Robin, grow up a little bit and take on a new superhero identity. So he did that and became a character called Nightwing. And they introduced a new sidekick for Batman named Jason Todd. And then in the mid-80s D.C. to celebrate their 50th anniversary of publishing, decided to kind of start everything from scratch.

They were worried that new readers may have been put off by having 50 years of history to all these characters. So they wanted to do a fresh start with their comics. And with this fresh start, they decided that Jason Todd, instead of having an origin that was directly cribbed from Dick Grayson's, they decided he should have a new origin. They reinvented him as a street kid, a tough kid, who actually met Batman because he stole the Batmobile's tires. Readers didn't really like this new version of him. They thought he was kind of a, he was kind of a punk. You know, he was not properly deferential to Batman. He was written, especially by the next writer of the Batman comics, Jim Starlin. He was written as kind of a hothead.

Yeah, Starlin actually did not like Jason Todd or sidekicks in principle. So he kind of wrote a version that he knew would be unlikable, that he knew readers wouldn't warm to, and kind of brought everything to a head with a storyline called A Death in the Family. They wanted to do a big publicity stunt, draw attention to their comics, and they wanted to take advantage of then modern telephone technology, and they wanted to do a call-in poll.

This was in part inspired by a Saturday Night Live call-in poll where you determined whether a lobster named Larry the Lobster would be boiled on air or set free at the end of the night. So they wanted to apply the same thing to a DC Comics publication, and they said, we need to make it big. We need to make it life or death for readers to care enough to spend 50 cents to call in and make this phone call. They decided, we've got this Jason Todd character.

Let's put it to a vote. Does he live or does he die? By a very narrow margin, by about 72 votes, readers said, yeah, the Joker should kill Jason Todd. So they killed him off in this violent storyline. It got national headlines. Yeah, Denny O'Neill, who's the editor of those books, I was able to talk to him about this, and he said they had the fortune or misfortune of it hitting on a slow news day. So the comics sold out nationwide. They rushed them. He caught grief from friends, neighbors, the local deli.

Everybody was upset at him for allowing this to happen. It really indicated that the public was ready for a much darker take on Batman, and that's really what we got. But those darker comics paved the way for Tim Burton Batman movies. It really was tapping into what this older readership was seeking. We're now into at least the second generation, maybe third generation of creators who grew up on Batman comics and Batman movies and Batman television shows who have their own vision for the character.

They know what kind of stories they want to tell. They know the best way to tell them, and whether that's in comics or movies or television or video games, we're getting some truly incredible stories. It's a testament to the original core concept of Batman, that he's more widely known than ever. You can barely say that about any other character from the 1930s. You can maybe say that about Superman, but you can't say that about Superman. Mickey Mouse doesn't have the cultural relevancy today.

Popeye doesn't. Batman is such an ageless, timeless concept. It's, you know, a child suffers an unspeakable tragedy and then transforms himself into a protector, someone whose mission is to make sure no one, no kid anywhere has to go through what he did. And that's a story that you can tell today. It's a story you can tell a hundred years from now. Batman is a wonderful vehicle for telling all manner of stories. You can tell Batman stories about street level crime, fighting Nazis during World War II, fighting fifth colonists, fighting communists in the 1950s. And I think that's going to be true 10 years from now.

I think it'll be true a hundred years from now. And it is so true, Batman will be around for a very long time. A terrific job by our own Monty Montgomery and Robbie Davis and a special thanks to Andrew Farago, curator at the Cartoon Art Museum and author of Batman, the definitive history of the Dark Knight in comics, film, and beyond.

Get the book at the usual suspects online. And my goodness, the major decision made was to stop catering just to young kids who would grow out of the comics and instead choose adult themes so that adults too could enjoy these remarkable stories and characters. Batman Through the Year is here on Our American Stories. Abusers in Hollywood are as old as the Hollywood sign itself. Underneath it lies a shroud of mystery. From Variety, Hollywood's number one entertainment news source and I heart podcast comes Variety Confidential. I'm your host, Tracy Patton. And in season one, we'll focus on the secret history of the casting couch.

So join us as we navigate the tangled web of Hollywood's secret history of sex, money, and murder. Subscribe now to Variety Confidential wherever you get your podcasts. NFL Plus is your ticket to the NFL postseason. You gotta get this one boys.

Let's go! With NFL Plus, stream the entire NFL postseason and catch Super Bowl 58 live on phone and tablet. That is unbelievable. Plus stay connected throughout the offseason with special content of the NFL scouting combine, NFL draft, and more all in one place.

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