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Batman - the first incarnation

Promo for the first on-screen Batman, the 1943 15-part serial.

One way or another, Batman keeps turning up in my life.

As a small boy growing up in suburban Perth in the 1940s, I started off as a devotee of Batman comic books, tattered editions of which would pass from hand-to-hand among my schoolboy mates. Before long the same boys became enthralled fans of the Batman serials that ran at the local cinema during the Saturday afternoon matinees. These initial depictions of Batman on the screen were serious and disturbing stories which could generate nightmares in a small boy.

I make this point in order to draw a comparison with my next instalment of Batmania. This occurred in the mid-1960s when I was a student in the USA, and the “camp” version of the Batman story (made especially for TV), was released. I was living in a dormitory for graduate students at the time. We were all in our mid-to-late 20s, and remembered the 1940s serials. About fifty of us would crowd into the dorm’s TV room every Wednesday evening to watch the weekly Batman episode, and we would roar with laughter at its absurdities.

Then in recent years the Hollywood Batman movies arrived on the big screen, with their gloomy settings, grim stories, tragic anti-hero, and ludicrous high-tech accoutrements. I have not enjoyed any of the movies; indeed, I could not even finish watching the most recent one which purports to give the poor troubled guy’s backstory: learning martial arts in a monastery in Tibet. It is not that I am too old for this sort of stuff (I loved the Superman films, especially the first one); it’s just that I think the Batman film-makers have now taken a good fantasy, an almost-believable fantasy, way too far.

It is to the original 1940s serials I would like to return. There were two of them, the first made in 1943 (“Batman”) and the second in 1949 (“Batman and Robin”). They have always seemed to me to be the high-water mark of the genre. It is true that I watched them at an impressionable age, and also at a time when I was myself secretly a superhero. As I have told elsewhere in a story about my childhood:

“....for a while there was a brief period in which my brother Peter and I patrolled the bushland across the road in our secret identities as the great crimefighters Shadow Man and Shadow Boy. Our mother had made us each a cape and mask. We would move silently and menacingly around the bush, dealing ruthlessly with imaginary criminal masterminds in the manner of the comic book superheroes of the day. Sometimes, as evening set in, we climbed over the picket fences into people’s back yards, to emerge later in another street, and then circle back home, always keeping well in the deepest shadows, as befitted our names. I’m not sure the degree to which we should take the credit, but our part of Dalkeith was largely crime-free in those days.”

The first Batman serial, the one that made the deepest impression on me and, I think easily the better of the two, was shown each Saturday at our local cinema. The afternoon’s program was especially designed for small boys. There would be a Mighty Mouse or a Tom and Jerry cartoon, or perhaps a Three Stooges one-reeler, which would have us in an uproar of laughter. The mood would then swing dramatically as we watched an episode from a gripping serial (of which Batman was one), each episode ending in a cliff-hanger to ensure you would come back the next week. There would then be an interval, at which a six-penny soft drink or an ice-cream would be consumed. This was followed by a full-length feature film. By popular demand, these would nearly always involve Tarzan, Jungle Jim, Robin Hood or Burt Lancaster playing a swashbuckling swordsman or pirate. Also popular were the westerns in which Randolph Scott played a square-jawed, hard-riding, straight-shooting lawman confronting renegade Indians, or ranchers who were being unpleasant to homesteaders.

I have recently reacquainted myself with the original Batman serials. By chance one day I found that both are now available on DVD and can be purchased for a few dollars and shipped to Australia from the USA. Strictly for purposes of research, I bought and watched them both, limiting myself to one episode per night over a month or so. Later I watched the first one again in a series of sessions with one of my grandsons, whose literary and cultural tastes I am trying to influence (without success).

Episode 1 of the first serial opens to dramatic, sinister music and a view of a large house beyond which the moon is striking through fitful clouds, and then it cuts to a stern, costumed figure sitting at a desk in a cave, surrounded by flitting bats.

"The Batman", as he was initially known, in his cave beneath stately Wayne Manor

A sombre, super-dramatic voice-over sets the scene:

“High atop one of the hills that ring the teeming metropolis of Gotham City, a large house rears its bulk against the dark sky. Outwardly there is nothing to distinguish this house from any other. But, deep in the cavernous basement of this house, in a chamber hewn from the living rock of the mountain, is the strange, dimly-lighted, mysteriously secret cave, the hidden headquarters of America’s Number One Crimefighter – Batman. Yes, Batman! Clad in the sombre costume that has struck terror into the heart of many a swaggering denizen of the underworld. Batman! Who is even now pondering a new assault against the forces of crime, a crushing blow against evil, in which he will have the valuable aid of his two-fisted assistant Robin, the Boy Wonder!

They represent American youth who love their country and are glad to fight for it, wherever crime raises its ugly head to strike with the venom of a maddened rattlesnake. Batman and Robin strike also, and in this very hour when the Axis criminals are spreading their evil over the world, even in our own land, Batman and Robin stand ready to fight them to the death.

Before long Batman and Robin are right into it, swinging through window panes on ropes and whaling into the baddies, their capes swirling. The only sound is the crisp crack of fists on jaws or noses. Fist-fighting, I might interpose here, is a feature of the Batman serials in the way that gunfights turn up in spaghetti westerns. They go on for some time, and many terrific blows are landed, but in the way of all good fantasies, neither Batman nor Robin is in any way inconvenienced. No-one cries out or grunts with pain. After an exchange of heavy punches to the face, they simply go on to other things, unmarked. Similarly, they are able to leap from speeding express trains and high-speed cars and fall over cliffs without suffering the slightest injury. Apart from the capacity to absorb punishment without pain or injury, Batman has no superpowers. He is a wonderful climber up ropes and around the windows and rooftops of tall buildings, but he cannot fly and does not have X-Ray eyesight; nor is he impervious to bullets.

As in all good superhero adventures there are seriously evil masterminds to be overcome. In the first serial it is Dr (or sometimes Prince) Tito Dakar, a villainous Japanese, or “Jap” as he is called throughout the serial, who is attempting to undermine the American war-effort from a cave behind an abandoned amusement arcade in downtown Gotham City.

The sombre narrator explains:

This was part of a foreign land, transplanted bodily to America and known as Little Tokyo. Since a wise government rounded up the immoral hoods, it has become virtually a ghost street, where only one business survives, eking out a precarious existence on the dimes of curiosity-seekers.....”

To get to Dr Dakar’s lair, it is necessary to ride on one of those little horror railways, where ghastly figures loom at you out of the darkness, and waxwork ‘Jap’ infantryman threaten woman and children with rifles and fixed bayonets. Eventually, provided your fingerprints are acceptable at the secret entrance, you are admitted to a subterranean complex, complete with office (the walls lined with Chinese-looking willow-pattern prints) and laboratories throbbing with fearsome equipment.

The evil "Jap" mastermind, Dr Tito Dakar

Dr Dakar is not just evil, he is an evil genius. He has developed a machine that allows him to turn top American scientists into zombies who then have superhuman strength and wordlessly obey every command of Dr Dakar. He has also invented a ray gun that can disintegrate everything in its path.... but here he runs into trouble, because he needs a good supply of radium to operate it. The storyline (well, remember it was made in 1943, not long after Pearl Harbour) is unashamedly anti-Japanese, and makes it clear that the horrible Dr Dakar is a fair representative of his nation and race. Just in case you miss how horrible he is, an early episode reveals that he keeps a nest of starving crocodiles in a tank beneath his office, the trapdoor to which he can control with a button on his desk.

Somehow or other Batman gets mixed up in all this, and so begins 15 exciting episodes. Each of these ends with Batman and/or Robin in a diabolical situation, from which at first glance there can be no escape. In the next episode, they do escape, and when you watch the episodes in your lounge room one after the other, rather than in a cinema at weekly intervals, you can easily see how. Basically, the script-writer cheats. For example, in one episode, Batman has been knocked out, and is lying on a railway bridge. A huge freight train thunders down the line and seemingly runs right over him. In the next edition, the scene is shot from a different angle, and we see Robin running onto the bridge, lit by the locomotive’s headlight, heaving Batman into the river below and then leaping to safety himself with a split-second to spare. Phew! In another episode, Batman is flung from the parapet of a tall city building, and we see him wind-milling helplessly towards the footpath below, observed by screaming women. But in fact (we find out the following week), he lands feet-first on a window cleaners’ platform, not far below the top; he instantly swarms up the ropes and whales into the baddies again, none the worse for wear.

The second serial has the ‘Dynamic Duo’ (as they were known by then) matched against another evil genius, The Wizard.

The Wizard with his amazing machine, directing operations from his HQ

The Wizard also lives in a cave, reached only by scrambling through a tunnel in a mountainside (the entrance to which is hidden by a bush), climbing down a ladder and then taking a short ride in a remote-controlled submarine. Inside his cave, the Wizard has an amazing machine, complete with flashing lights, levers, dials and hissing steam valves, with which he can control all the traffic in Gotham City and beyond, selectively. In this way he can immobilise the police car chasing his henchmen who have just done a heist, or he can cause the steering of Batman’s car to fail, just as Batman and Robin are driving at speed along a curving road with a sheer cliff on one side.

The Wizard can also use the machine to make himself invisible. I was always surprised that he didn’t make more use of this, considering its potential, although it did have limitations. In one scene, the Wizard hangs on a rope outside the Police Commissioner’s office window, completely invisible apart from the revolver with which he tries to assassinate Batman, and which Robin spots just in time. He also has a fighter plane capable of shooting down other aircraft, which he does in the skies above Gotham City, seemingly attracting no interest from the US Air Force.

But again, there is a weakness in the evil master plan. The Wizard’s traffic control and invisibility machine requires a certain rare type of industrial diamond, available only from one place in America (quite close to Gotham City) and this is guarded by the US Army. Again, Batman gets involved in the plot, is nearly killed a dozen times, survives unscathed, and at the very end, unmasks The Wizard and destroys his evil machines. I need to point out that The Wizard (like Batman) is a respectable member of society in ‘real life’. He only adopts his weird black Ku Klux Klan-type Wizard outfit when he is up to no good. We meet up with his unsuspicious alter ego throughout the serial. My wife saw through The Wizard's disguise in the first episode, and if I hadn’t seen it before, she would have spoiled the whole thing for me.

As in the first serial, the second has numerous, prolonged fist-fights between our heroes and the villains. Strangely, for a crime and adventure story made in America, guns are almost never used, and no blood is spilled. The bad guys seem to think that they can overcome Batman by taking him on in a sort of free-for-all bar-room brawl, and even when they carry guns, they rarely choose to use them. There was one notable exception. Batman is cornered at the end of a corridor high in a city skyscraper. He is shot through the chest, falls backwards through a glass window pane, and plummets to the ground, falling with a crash on the sidewalk thirty stories below. “Is this the end of Batman?” the sombre-voiced narrator intones portentously as the episode concludes.

Well, no, as it turns out. In a scene they overlooked to show us the week before, Batman exchanged his clothes with one of the baddies, and it is the crook, dressed as Batman, who is shot by his own mates and falls to his death.

Batman and Robin ‘in real life’ are the wealthy playboy Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson.

Robin and Batman in their Dick and Bruce personas

I have always found this business of secret identities and alter egos to be intriguing, but also puzzling. For example, why is it necessary? Could they not just be Batman and Robin all the time? And it always perplexes me the way people close to them in both identities are fooled by the disguises. Bruce and Dick go everywhere together and speak in exactly the same voices as when they are Batman and Robin. The masking of their eyes seems to be enough to throw even Bruce’s close lady friend (an investigative journalist) and the presumably well-trained Police Commissioner completely off the track.

We have seen all this before of course. It is necessary to suspend rational thought or the whole premise of this sort of story collapses. Both Zorro and The Lone Ranger, for example, became a complete mystery to people once they donned a little mask over their eyes (“Who was that masked guy?”), and Clark Kent became unrecognisable as Superman simply by putting on a pair of spectacles. That other great comic book hero, the Phantom, would don a heavy checked overcoat, a hat and dark glasses when he became Mr Walker, but he still had his trained wolf at his side in both identities. At least Batman did not make this elementary mistake – his dog “Ace”, also known as “the Bat Hound”, always wore a small mask over his eyes when he was helping Batman fight crime.

Furthermore, in neither of the 1940s serials, is there a Batmobile. Batman and Robin rush to the scene of the crime, or pursue the criminals in Bruce Wayne’s Cadillac convertible, and their butler Alfred acts as chauffeur to both sets of identities. No-one seems to notice. I didn’t notice myself back then.

Batman and Robin with the forerunner of the Batmobile in the background. In the 1943 serial it was a Cadillac, and in 1949 a Ford Mercury.

Reflecting on the Bruce Wayne persona – he is cowardly, lazy, and rich, contributes little to society, and is generally sneered at – I suddenly remembered another legendary literary character and favourite of my youth: Sir Percy Blakeney, alias The Scarlet Pimpernel in the wonderful novel by Baroness Orczy. Sir Percy, we recall, is a “fop”, a rich, good-for-nothing who even his own wife despises. Yet secretly he is a master of disguise, the leader of an outrageously dare-devil organisation that crosses the Channel to France and rescues aristocrats from the very teeth of the guillotine, under the very noses of the blood-thirsty Revolutionaries. The parallels between Bruce Wayne and Sir Percy Blakeney are irresistible.

Psychologists these days have a ball with Batman and Robin. There are those who go so far as to suggest a sexual relationship between them (indeed in one panel of an early comic they are shown, albeit innocently, in bed together); others draw attention to the weirdness of the bat symbolism and the strange costumes, and still others analyse which of Batman and Bruce Wayne is the real person and which is the actor. I don’t fall for any of this. What I see is a good old-fashioned fantasy, targeted at the small boys who went to the cinema on a Saturday afternoon for a dose of adventure and who (like all small boys) were looking for a hero with whom to identify. I see Batman as an evolution of the Scarlet Pimpernel, but with the superhero aura that was becoming so popular in the USA in the post-war years. I feel no need to have this interpreted to me in post-modernist mumbo-jumbo.

Although at the time I took the stories seriously and they are not intentionally funny, today I find the old 1940s serials mostly laughable. Batman is rather portly for one thing, and his costume is ill-fitting and clumsily sewn-together (especially his bat ears, which more closely resemble horns than ears). In the first serial he and Robin change into their Batman and Robin costumes on the back seat of the Cadillac and do so with lightning speed. Anyone of my age who once tried getting dressed or undressed in the back seat of a car will wince at the memory, especially having noted the complexity of Batman and Robin’s outfits, with their cowls, capes, masks, tights, shorts, boots and fancy belts. In the second series Batman carries his costume in a sort of Gladstone bag, so he is able to get changed at short notice wherever he is at the time. The sudden appearance of Batman and simultaneous disappearance of Bruce Wayne, even in places as far from civilisation as a remote ‘radium mine’ in the mountains, excites no surprise from onlookers. Nor does anybody find their strange costumes unlikely as, for example, they attend meetings with the Police Commissioner or meet with reporters or passers-bye.

The old serials lacked the ultra-high tech, computer-generated special effects of the modern films, and the humorous gimmickry of the 1960s ‘camp’ TV program (in which, for example, I always loved the Bat Phone, a direct line from Police HQ to the Bat Cave), but back in the 1940s there was still that wonderful arrangement where the Police Commissioner, wanting Batman’s assistance, would shine a searchlight out through his office window, and a giant bat-image would be reflected from the clouds. The serials also show Bruce and Dick climbing into a grandfather clock which conceals the entrance to the Bat Cave, and on another occasion, Batman flies his own aeroplane which for some unaccountable reason has a steering wheel.

Incidentally, there is a change in the relationship between Batman and the police between the 1943 and 1949 serials. In the first serial, the police don’t seem to know what to make of Batman, and regard him as a sort of dangerous vigilante, but in the second he is the Police Commissioner’s Number One Man, the go-to guy at the first sign of trouble. This up-and-down relationship with the authorities was to become a recurring theme in the Batman narrative.

Batman seems to get a popular reincarnation about every 20-30 years, suggesting that I will miss the next one. I’m not too concerned about that. The modern comic books are unreadable - indeed I have not read one for years, as even by the 1960s they had become ridiculous, with Batman’s physique drawn as if he had been on steroids for decades - and I find the modern movies unwatchable. I am happy to look back on the old 1940s serials with the genuine pleasure of nostalgia. I easily forgive the war-time propaganda and racism, the cheap sets, the megalomaniac evil geniuses, the third-rate toughs in their baggy suits who played the bad guys, the improbable hair-breadth escapes, and the sensationalism of the narrator’s voice-over.... and why not? It is another of the great and unforgettable experiences of my youth.

I’ve heard it said that nostalgia is not what it used to be. Well, to anyone of my generation who thinks this way I say: get into a couple of episodes of the 1943 Batman serial! You will feel better immediately.

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