According to Mike's Amazing World Of DC Comics, this Saturday marks 70 years since the publication of the first Batman story. "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate," by Bill Finger and Bob Kane, appeared in Detective Comics #27, cover-dated May 1939.
Of course, it all went downhill from there....
It's hard for me to write about Batman without sounding either too fannish or too dismissive. This is the character's main contradiction: despite all the darkness and grit, he's hard to take seriously; and despite all the attempts to lighten him up, the dark core remains. Personally, I think of Bruce Wayne as a frustrated marketer, spreading appropriate amounts of fear and respect virally through Gotham City, with Bat-symbols big as searchlights and small as stationery. In terms of both the real world and the comics, Batman relies on his outsized reputation. Take that away, and he's just a man in a costume.
Ah, but there too is a contradiction: the man in the costume is still a formidable fighter, a cunning strategist, and the World's Greatest Detective. That outsized reputation isn't entirely undeserved.
Now, by saying such a thing, I must admit buying into Batman's admittedly-preposterous premise. Still, I suspect there is no middle ground where Batman is concerned. If you don't accept some element of the character -- for example, how the cape never snags on anything -- I daresay you'll never suspend your disbelief. Batman's setup gets no wiggle room from supernatural means, so everything has to be as "realistic" as superhero comics can get. Depending on how charitable you're willing to be, that either invites or excuses further scrutiny.
Therefore, on balance I come to praise Batman, and not to bury him, on his anniversary. Certainly the past seventy years haven't all been good: Bill Finger's continued lack of a co-creator credit comes immediately to mind, as does the infamous 1-900-number vote. The character also went through a couple of interminable grim 'n' gritty periods, first under writer Jim Starlin in the late '80s and then under various writers (around the time of the "War Games" crossover) just a few years ago.
All this is to say that there's no way I can write an adequate Bat-anniversary post -- and plus, I'm still working on our taxes -- so here are seventy of my favorite Batman stories over the past seventy years.
1. "The Case Of The Chemical Syndicate," Detective Comics #27 (May 1939), by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. The one that started it all is still a fine first adventure.2. [Batman Versus The Vampire], Detective Comics #s 31-32 (September-October 1939), by Gardner Fox, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson. Also introduces the Batplane and Batarang.3. "Robin The Boy Wonder," Detective Comics #38 (April 1940), by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson. Self-explanatory.4. [The Joker], Batman #1 (Spring 1940), by Finger, Kane, and Robinson. Ditto.5. "The Crimes Of Two-Face," Detective Comics #66 (August 1942), by Finger, Kane, and Robinson. First appearance of Two-Face.6. "Here Comes Alfred," Batman #16 (April-May 1943), by Don Cameron, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson. He's a buffoon at first, but quickly becomes part of the team.7. "Bruce Wayne Loses The Guardianship Of Dick Grayson," Batman #20 (December 1943-January 1944), by Finger, Kane, and Robinson. A nifty tear-jerker featuring extortionists, some fine Robin solo work, the backfiring of Bruce's playboy pose, and (I have to admit) some questionable family-law procedure.8. "The Penny Plunderers," World's Finest Comics #30 (September-October 1947), by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Ray Burnley. A crook commits crimes based on small amounts. Batman gets a new trophy out of the deal as well.9. "The Origin Of The Batman," Batman #47 (June-July 1948), by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Charles Paris. Joe Chill gets the shock of his life.10. "The Riddler," Detective Comics #40 (October 1948), by Bill Finger, Dick Sprang, and Charles Paris. Killer puzzles and giant props fuel a classic introductory story; but the Riddler wouldn't be seen again until the '60s.
1. "The Batmobile of 1950," Detective Comics #156 (February 1950), by Joe Samachson, Dick Sprang, and Charles Paris. When a crash totals the Batmobile and breaks Batman's leg, he picks himself up, dusts himself off, and builds something much, much cooler.2. "The Secret Life Of The Catwoman," Batman #62 (December 1950-January 1951), by Bill Finger, Lew Sayre Schwartz, and Charles Paris. A blow to the head restores Catwoman's memories as flight attendant Selina Kyle. After helping Batman round up her old gang, she turns herself in.3. "The Man Behind The Red Hood," Detective Comics #168 (February 1951), by Bill Finger, Lew Sayre Schwartz, and George Roussos. The secret origin of the Joker, revealed while Batman teaches college students about criminology.4. "The Man Who Wrote The Joker's Jokes," Batman #67 (October-November 1951), by David V. Reed, Lew Sayre Schwartz, and Charles Paris. The Joker tricks Batman and Robin into making fools of themselves while he commits crimes.5. "The Jungle Cat-Queen," Detective Comics #211 (September 1954), by Edmond Hamilton, Dick Sprang and Charles Paris. Catwoman plays a little "Most Dangerous Game" with the Dynamic Duo.6. "When Batman Was Robin," Detective Comics #226 (December 1955), by Hamilton, Sprang, and Paris. The death of detective Harvey Harris reveals the (very) early years of Bruce's crimefighting career, as well as the origin of a familiar short-pantsed costume.7. "The First Batman," Detective Comics #235 (September 1956), by Bill Finger, Sheldon Moldoff, and Stan Kaye. Batman learns the truth about his parents' deaths, and his father's history with gangster Lew Moxon.8. "The Man Who Ended Batman's Career," Detective Comics #247 (September 1957), by Finger, Moldoff, and Paris. Professor Milo makes Batman afraid of bats, so Bruce becomes "Starman" instead. This story, in somewhat altered form, became part of James Robinson's Starman background.9. "Batman -- The Superman Of Planet X," Batman #113 (February 1958), by Ed Herron, Dick Sprang, and Charles Paris. On the distant planet Zur-En-Arrh, Batman gains superpowers and helps his counterpart fight crime. I think Grant Morrison read this one.10. "The Failure of Bruce Wayne," Batman #120 (December 1958), by Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff. Bruce's uncle Silas is sorely disappointed that his playboy nephew has failed to uphold the heroic Wayne tradition, so Bruce lets the dying man in on his secret.
1. "Batman Meets Bat-Mite," Detective Comics #267 (May 1959), by Finger, Moldoff, and Paris. Happy 20th anniversary, Batman!2. "The Case Of The Deadly Gems," Batman #131 (April 1960), by Finger, Sprang, and Paris. One word: pants.3. "Prisoners Of Three Worlds," Batman #153 (February 1963), by Finger, Moldoff, and Paris. This epic (for the '60s) guest-starred Batwoman and Bat-Girl, and built up to a fairly convincing scene where Batman, sure they're both about to die, confesses his love for Batwoman. Don't judge me.4. "Robin Dies At Dawn," Batman #156 (June 1963), by Finger, Moldoff, and Paris. I think Grant Morrison read this one a lot.5. "Mystery Of The Menacing Mask," Detective Comics #327 (May 1964), by John Broome, Carmine Infantino, and Joe Giella. The first "New Look" story is pretty good, although Batman is a little too chummy with a gun.6. "Gotham Gang Line-Up," Detective Comics #328 (June 1964), by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Joe Giella. Alfred sacrifices himself to save the Dynamic Duo.7. "The Riddle-Less Robberies of the Riddler," Batman #179 (March 1966), by Fox, Moldoff, and Giella. The Riddler has conquered his compulsion to leave clues … or has he?8. "The Blockbuster Breaks Loose," Detective Comics #349 (March 1966), by Fox, Infantino, and Giella. Batman and Robin's fights with the unstoppable Blockbuster are made even harder by the mysterious Outsider.9. "Inside Story Of The Outsider," Detective Comics #356 (October 1966), by Fox, Moldoff, and Giella. Alfred returns to normal after being transformed into a supervillain.10. "But Bork Can Hurt You," The Brave and the Bold #81 (December 1968-January 1969), by Bob Haney, Neal Adams, and Vince Colletta. Another Batman-vs.-beefy-hulk story, this one guest-starring the Flash.
1. "The Cry of Night Is 'Sudden Death'," Detective Comics #387 (May 1969), by Mike Friedrich, Bob Brown, and Joe Giella. For Batman's 30th anniversary, Julius Schwartz commissioned a remake of "Chemical Syndicate," with the first victim's long-haired son now the chief suspect.2. "The Demon of Gothos Mansion," Batman #227 (December 1970), by Denny O'Neil, Irv Novick, and Dick Giordano. Batman protects a mysterious young woman from an evil cult.3. "Half An Evil," Batman #234 (August 1971), by Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams, and Dick Giordano. The first Two-Face story in 17 years finds him nice and deadly for the '70s.4. "Night of the Reaper," Batman #237 (December 1971), by O'Neil et al., Adams, and Giordano. On Halloween, Batman and Robin encounter a killer out for revenge.5. "The Batman Nobody Knows," Batman #250 (July 1973), by Frank Robbins and Dick Giordano. Three boys tell campfire stories to Bruce Wayne.6. "Night of the Stalker," Detective Comics #439 (February-March 1974), by Steve Englehart and Sal Amendola. Batman silently, relentlessly pursues a killer.7. "There is No Hope in Crime Alley," Detective Comics #457 (March 1976), by O'Neil and Giordano. Every year, Batman checks in with a certain elderly resident of what was once called Park Row.8. "The Deadshot Ricochet," "The Laughing Fish," and "The Sign of the Joker," Detective Comics #s 474-76 (December 1977-March-April 1978), by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin. While Batman fights Deadshot and the Joker, Silver St. Cloud deals with her feelings for Bruce.9. "The Adventure of the Houdini Whodunit," Batman #295 (January 1978), by Gerry Conway and Michael Golden. The Mystery Analysts of Gotham City solve a murder at a magic club.10. "The Last Batman Story," Batman #300 (June 1978), by David V. Reed, Walt Simonson, and Dick Giordano. In the not-too-distant future, after all the old menaces have been taken care of, Batman and Robin don cape and cowl one final time.
1. The Untold Legend Of The Batman, serialized over three issues (July-September 1980), by Len Wein, John Byrne, and Jim Aparo. The comprehensive origin of the Earth-1 Batman is revealed as he deals with a bizarre stalker.2. "Who Can Stop The Shaggy Man," Justice League of America #186 (January 1981), by Gerry Conway, George Perez, and Frank McLaughlin. This Cold War tale features Batman breaking into a Soviet missile base and sending the Shaggy Man on a one-way trip to orbit. Oh, and the Justice League helps.3. "To Kill A Legend," Detective Comics #500 (March 1981), by Alan Brennert and Dick Giordano. Batman and Robin travel to a parallel Earth to stop the Wayne murders … or not.4. "Once Upon A Time…," Detective Comics #500 (March 1981), by A. Beagle, Len Wein, and Walt Simonson. Suddenly, a pirate ship appeared on the horizon!5. "Interlude on Earth-Two," The Brave and the Bold #182 (January 1982), by Alan Brennert and Jim Aparo. Batman helps an aging Batwoman and an adult Robin fight an old foe.6. "The Autobiography Of Bruce Wayne," The Brave and the Bold #197 (April 1983), by Alan Brennert, Joe Staton, and George Freeman. In the 1950s, the Golden Age Batman and Catwoman find each other at last.7. "Garden Of Earthly Delights," Swamp Thing vol. 2 #53 (October 1986), by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben. Batman fights Swamp Thing, or at least tries to.8. "The Night of Thanks, But No Thanks," Detective Comics #567 (October 1986), by Harlan Ellison, Gene Colan, and Bob Smith. Sometimes that young punk is really trying to return that purse.9. "My Beginning ... And My Probable End," Detective Comics #574 (May 1987), by Mike W. Barr, Alan Davis, and Paul Neary. We meet the new Leslie Thompkins, and Batman reminisces about his origins, in this homage to "There Is No Hope In Crime Alley."10. "Bialya, My Bialya" and "Only the Dead Know Bialya,"Justice League International vol. 1 #s 16-17 (August-September 1988), by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Kevin Maguire, and Joe Rubenstein. Guarding his secret even from Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, and Fire (and wouldn't you?), Batman goes undercover as Bruce Wayne.
1. Gotham By Gaslight (1989), by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola. The Bat-Man versus Jack the Ripper in Victorian-era Gotham.2. "Tulpa," serialized in Detective Comics #s 601-03 (June-August 1989), by Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle, and Steve Mitchell. A neat 3-parter guest-starring the Demon.3. "Debut," Batman #465 (Late July 1991), by Grant, Breyfogle, and Mitchell. Having finished his training abroad, the new Robin comes home to Gotham.4. "Faces," serialized in Legends Of The Dark Knight #s 28-30 (March-May 1992), by Matt Wagner. Two-Face builds a gang of freaks, and … dabbles in real estate?5. "Smells Like Black Sunday," The Batman Adventures #20 (May 1994), by Kelley Puckett, Mike Parobeck, and Rick Burchett. Batman matches wits with the familiar trio of Mastermind, the Perfesser, and Mr. Nice.6. "White Christmas," The Batman Adventures Holiday Special #1 (January 1995), by Paul Dini and Glenn Murikami. On Christmas, Batman tracks Mr. Freeze.7. "Petty Crimes," Batman: Black & White #1 (June 1996), by Howard Chaykin. A killer targets people who have bad manners.8. Batman & Captain America (1996), by John Byrne. During World War II, two sets of heroes and sidekicks face off against the Joker and the Red Skull.9. "A Black & White World," Batman: Black & White #2 (July 1996), by Neil Gaiman and Simon Bisley. Between takes with Batman and the Joker on the "set" of a comic-book adventure.10. "War of the Worlds", JLA #3 (March 1997), by Grant Morrison, Howard Porter, and John Dell. "The most dangerous man on Earth" earns the title.
1. "Broken Nose," Batman: Gotham Knights #3 (May 2000), by Paul Pope. A young Batman gets back at the punk who gave him his first broken nose.2. "Siege," serialized in Batman: Legends Of The Dark Knight #s 132-36 (August-December 2000), by Archie Goodwin, James Robinson, Marshall Rogers, Bob Wiacek, and John Cebolerro. As Bruce says goodbye to Wayne Manor, a man from his father's past takes an interest in it.3. Superman & Batman: World's Funnest (November 2000), by Evan Dorkin and various artists. Bat-Mite fights Mr. Mxyzptlk across Hypertime, with apocalyptic results, all to defend his hero's honor.4. "Divided We Fall," serialized in JLA #s 51-54 (April-July 2001), by Mark Waid, Mike S. Miller, Bryan Hitch, Armando Durruthy, and Paul Neary. When the Leaguers are separated into "heroes" and "secret identities," Bruce Wayne has no outlet for his rage, and Batman has no focus.5. "In Thirty Days," Detective Comics #761 (October 2001), by Greg Rucka, Shawn Martinbrough, and Jesse Delperdang. Now that she knows his secret, Bruce trains his bodyguard to fight crime.6. "Made Of Wood," serialized in Detective Comics #s 784-86 (September-December 2003), by Ed Brubaker, Patrick Zircher, and Aaron Sowd. Batman and the Golden Age Green Lantern team up to solve an old mystery.7. "Daydreams And Believers," Gotham Central #11 (November 2003), by Ed Brubaker and Brian Hurtt. Meet Stacy, the receptionist who turns on the Bat-Signal.8. "Batman A-Go-Go," Solo #7 (December 2005), by Mike Allred and Lee Allred. A light-hearted Batman must deal with his dark side.9. "Trust," serialized in Detective Comics #s 833-34 (August-September 2007), by Paul Dini, Don Kramer, and Wayne Faucher. Batman helps Zatanna against a rival magician.10. "The Black Glove," serialized in Batman #s 667-69 (August-November 2007), by Grant Morrison and J.H. Williams III. The Club of Heroes fights a killer while trapped on his island.
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There are some obvious omissions, and they are deliberate; because I wanted to focus on smaller stories. Anyway, I think it's a fine list.
Here's to another seventy years!