There is an October chill in the air; I’ll probably have to wear a jacket to the next high school football game. The leaves are turning or beginning to; the wind is starting to blow. Pumpkins are for sale from the backs of pick-up trucks parked on the side of the road.
I’ve spent a good deal of time over the last few years thinking about Halloween and about the ghosts, vampires, werewolves and demons that haunt our autumn nights. While researching my book, Creatures of the Night , I read and re-read all of the classic horror tales and I watched and re-watched all of the classic fright films. I did some real-world research too: I explored haunted houses, visited a vampire bar, attended an exorcism, and witnessed the Black Mass. Through it all, I have come to believe that there is something primal about this season and this holiday, this hallows’ eve, and that there is something almost religious about the experience of hearing something scratching at our door at night, of catching sight of something out of the corner of our eye that just shouldn’t be there, and of feeling a cold breath on our necks that makes our hair stand on end and our flesh crawl. I have come to believe that there is something to what that old German theologian Rudolf Otto had to say: “Out of ‘shudder,’” he wrote, “out of ‘shudder’, a holy awe.”
So that’s what I’ve been thinking about, what I will be thinking about, day in and day out until the jack-o-lantern on my front porch turns from bright orange to shades of black and brown. I’ll be thinking about Halloween things, haunted things, about the dead and the walking dead.
And I’ll be thinking about Batman.
I’ll be thinking about Batman because Batman is as much a creature of the night as he is a pulp crime fighter or superhero, and because he has as much of Dracula in his DNA as he does of Superman or the Shadow.
He said it himself, in the pages of Detective Comics #33, when writers Bill Finger and Gardner Fox and artist Bob Kane finally got around to telling the hero’s origin story after six months of adventures. In the famous scene, Bruce Wayne is brooding in his study and thinking to himself: “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night, black, terrible.”
Then the bat flies in the open window and his fate is sealed.
Despite what we are sometimes told, Batman’s dark side is not a recent innovation, not something new that has been added to make the character more relevant for today’s audience. The character premiered in Detective Comics #27 in May of 1939, a creation of Bob Kane and Bill Finger, and he was dark and scary from the start. Granted, during Batman’s long life in comic books, television and movies he has at times left the darkness for the Technicolor light. But his heart, at its core, has always been a heart of darkness.
Batman’s original status as a creature of the night is probably best seen in his early battle with the villain known as the Monk, in the pages of Detective Comics #31 and 32. The tone is set right from the start on the cover of Detective Comics #31: a giant Batman looms menacingly above a gothic castle, looking as much a villain as the red hooded Monk who carries off an innocent victim in the foreground. The story begins with the eerie figure of the Batman watching the city from the rooftops, bat-wings unfurled against a full moon. He is stalking Bruce Wayne’s fiancé, Julie, to stop her from a vampiric attack upon a man in the street. The black and gray figure who intervenes in Julie’s strange assault is not yet a famous superhero celebrity; he is a mysterious stranger, a menacing figure who kidnaps her and takes her off into the night.
Under the command of mysterious forces, Julie’s doctor prescribes a long journey to Hungary, “the land of history and werewolves”, as the cure for her strange hypnotic state. Batman, of course, makes secret plans to follow her there. For the first time, Batman introduces his famous batarang and the original batplane, known as the batgyro. When Batman takes the craft into the air for the first time, the population of the city reacts in panic. Who wouldn’t at the sight of the bat-like thing that sails over the streets of New York? (It was New York City that Batman haunted in those early days, not Gotham.) “Look!” the people shout. “A bat!” “The end of the world!” “We are attacked by Martians!” The awful sight of the Batman produces terror on the streets.
In the course of his journey to the land of the werewolves, Batman battles a giant ape then finds himself trapped in a gothic castle, suspended in a cage above a deep and dark pit. Like Dracula, he stalks a horse drawn carriage through the wilds of Eastern Europe and unfurls his black and menacing wings against yet another full moon. From the carriage, Batman kidnaps another woman, the mysterious Dala, herself an accomplice of the evil figure known as the Monk. Finally, Batman confronts the evil fiends in their castle where the Monk and Dala are revealed as vampiric werewolves.
The story is, for sure, problematic by today’s comic storytelling standards. The creators were still straining to understand this new medium, and it shows. Nevertheless, this story stands as one of the very best of Batman’s early adventures. The character of the Batman seems equally at home in the streets of the city and in the wilds of vampire country. He is an adventurer in the shape of a ghoul; he is Zorro and Dracula all rolled into one. His pose is as menacing as it is heroic. The innocents he rescues must feel like his victims. (To one he says, in what I imagine must have been his best Bela Lugosi impersonation, “Remain until I give you leave to go!!”) He seems more the vampire than the strange vampire lord that he battles. Throughout, Batman’s cape takes the shape of dark and menacing bat wings. His cowl leaves his face undefined and dark; the weird ears conjure a demon’s horns. He is all darkness and shadows. From the good and the bad he elicits both shudder and awe. This early Batman story is a story for Halloween, a story for a dark and stormy night.
Then, so the story sometimes goes, Robin joined Batman in Detective Comics #38 and Batman was forever changed. The darkness was now gone. Gone, that is, until Frank Miller made Batman the Dark Knight again and rebooted the character into what he had been, only briefly, once before. Miller’s Dark Knight may have trucked in the horror of the dystopian future rather than the gothic past, but Batman was undeniably dark again, scary again.
Part of this story is true. Things did change with the advent of the Boy Wonder. Batman became less menacing; colors became brighter; readers were left with less to make them shudder and more to make them cheer, or laugh. Over time, Batman became more of a science fiction character than a figure of horror. But this transformation was never a complete one. There was always darkness in his heart, and from time to time that darkness cast shadows across the panels of his comic books.
As a matter of fact, the Monk and Dala made another appearance in the pages of Detective Comics, and its companion-magazine Batman, in 1982—40 years after that first haunting encounter and four years before Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. This time the evil duo are brother and sister and their victim is not Bruce’s fiancé but Batman’s bright and cheery sidekick, Robin. This time there is no question that this team of creators knew the ins and outs of the comic book medium. The four-part story is, in my mind, one of Batman’s very best tales. (The story is reprinted in its entirety in Tales of the Batman: Gene Colan, volume 1 from DC Comics.)
This version of Batman’s encounter with the Monk and Dala was written by Gerry Conway who, by this point in his long and impressive career, was capable of producing exciting stories of great emotional depth for both DC Comics and their rival, Marvel. In 1972, at the age of 19, he took over the reins of Marvel’s flagship title, The Amazing Spider-Man, from Stan Lee, where he did the impossible by improving upon Lee’s run on the book. Ten years later, when he wrote these spooky Batman stories, Conway was one of the finest writers in the business.
The story opens with Robin bound to a chair in a creepy gothic mansion; he is the captive of Dala, an older woman who has pursued and been pursued by Robin’s alter-ego, college student Dick Grayson. When Robin escapes from his prison, he discovers that his mysterious girlfriend and her brother are vampires and that there are other prisoners in the old house, prisoners who are held captive in a much more horrifying way. Before his escape, Robin falls victim to the vampire’s bite and is himself transformed into a creature of the night. Batman, noticing the strange behavior of his partner, investigates and is himself transformed into a fanged villain before he is able to defeat the ghoulish siblings.
Conway’s story is powerfully told. (Even the sub-plots that pervade the story, meant for a pay-off in later issues and in later stories, work to make Batman’s life seem complicated and real.) Conway is not afraid to tell a dark and adult tale. The vampires’ victims are strapped to crosses where they are slowly bled to death for the nourishment of the demons. Batman, when transformed into a vampire, strikes his faithful servant and friend, Alfred, then assaults a criminal in the streets to quench his horrible thirst. Dick, under the power of the vampire bite, makes a pass at Bruce’s girlfriend, Vicki Vale. The origins of these vampires are not in the Europe of the Middle Ages, but in post-Civil War New Orleans. It’s hinted that the siblings may have been involved in an incestuous relationship before they were transformed by an old woman’s curse into undead fiends.
Every detail of Conway’s story is marvelously wrought by penciller Gene Colan and inkers Alfredo Alcala and Tony DeZuniga. Like Conway, Colan was already an accomplished artist when he turned his talents to Batman. During his long career at Marvel, his dark and moody takes on Daredevil, Doctor Strange and Howard the Duck were only exceeded by his work on The Tomb of Dracula with writer Marv Wolfman. With Tomb of Dracula, Colan produced what is arguably the greatest comic book series of the ‘70s.
The sensibilities that Colan brought to stories of the vampire lord and his cast of characters made him a perfect match for Batman, especially when teamed with Conway’s atmospheric writing. Colan’s Batman is a creature of the night, whether he is battling demons from hell or two-bit thugs. Even Robin is as often as not cast in shadows deep and dark. Indeed, under Colan’s hand there is no hint of Batman’s brush with Pop Art ridiculousness. Bodies in motion appear buffeted by forces beyond their control. Shadows fall like rain over heroes, villains and victims alike.
As with Conway’s script, Colan’s art is up to the task of brining Batman’s early gothic origins back to life. The Batman of this era wore a costume of blue, gray and yellow, but it’s just as terrifying as the black and gray costume that Batman wore in any earlier, or later, era. This is especially so when the transformation to vampire is under way, especially so when the hero stands snarling and out of control before friend and fiend alike.
Conway’s and Colan’s Batman is a stalker of the shadows. He strikes terror into the hearts of the just and the unjust. Even in blue and yellow, he casts shadows that are black and dark. He is not so much a superhero or an adventurer as he is an avenging spirit, gothic and dark – a creature of the night.
So – as the October chill fills the air, as the autumn winds start to blow, as pumpkins are transformed from harvest bounty into fanged and grinning demons – I’ll be thinking about ghosts and vampires and werewolves and demons.
And I’ll be thinking about Batman.