Spotlight on The Dark Knight: “The Smile on the Bat”

“A grin in the wrong place is more frightening than a snarl.”

— Walter Simonson in 1989 on drawing Batman

Recently in “To Be Continued…” you all read the story of the Heckler. How he lived, how he “died”. Gave you a kick, huh? You’re kicking for more? So here’s the story about the Smile on the Dark Knight.

When Batman debuted in Detective Comics #27 (May, 1939) as “The ‘Bat-Man’” (quotes included), he was an undeniably grim figure, different from both the kitschy character of the 1960s era and even the veteran crime fighter of today. Today, Batman controls himself with a strict set of rules, but that initial story by Bill Finger (writer) and Bob Kane (artist) was also the first Batman story in which an enemy died at the hands of the Caped Crusader. At the time, Batman had no compunction about killing and his enemies rarely survived past the final frame. Batman even occasionally used a gun to take out the bad guys, starting in Detective Comics #32 (1939) and held a pistol in advertisements.

Soon, the Batman would take on a more vocal and physical interpretation (more reminiscent of the later hero Spider-Man), wise cracking even as he broke criminal necks. This could be due to the fact that he finally had someone to joke with when he was joined by fellow orphan Robin in Detective Comics #38 (April 1940). Robin was originally intended to boost sales with younger readers (a successful move, as profits more than doubled), but these initial stories with the Boy Wonder were not exactly kid stuff.

It took an industry-wide shift in attitude (partially sparked by Frederic Wertham’s attack on comics in his book Seduction of the Innocent) to lighten up the Dark Knight. Batman and Superman represented two of very few superhero families to survive the resulting McCarthy-era comicbook witch-hunt with most others heroes retired until their Silver Age replacements made their debut. Similarly, Batman villains were retooled as pranksters and thieves who went laughingly to jail instead of facing the threat of death. Notoriously, The Joker debuted as a terrifying multiple murderer who barely survived his first face-off with the Dynamic Duo in Batman #1 (1940), but by the time the 1966 Batman TV show came about, the Joker had already been reduced to an almost literal clown. In 1966’s Batman Kellogg’s Special #2 (“The Joker’s Happy Victims”) the once macabre Joker’s major villainous plot is to… paint Bruce Wayne’s house without permission. In his defense he did choose some pretty ugly colors.

Once the Batman TV show and its 1966 film spinoff became enormous hits, spawning “Batmania”, the campiness of the comics was a case of giving the people what they wanted. When the show’s glory faded, however, editor Julius Schwartz (who had been instructed to keep the comics similar-in-tone to the TV show) was free to reverse this trend. Enter writer Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, the team who sought to bring Batman back to his darker roots.

Batman went from a dark, inhuman extreme to a technicolor caricature in under 30 years. O’Neil and Adams, along with Schwartz and inker Dick Giordano were successful in distancing the detective from his day-glow sixties incarnation and for Bruce Wayne’s thirtieth birthday they regained for him something he hadn’t enjoyed for many years: critical acclaim.

The gift truly was to Bruce Wayne, as this newly leaner, long eared and shadowy Batman was the first to break out of the two extremes of his character. “The Dread Batman” (as O’Neil often introduced him on splash pages) was truly a chilling creature of the night, but for the first time he was balanced with the more human side at the same time. Making the best use of Neal Adams’ and Dick Giordano’s incredible artwork (much of which is still used in advertisements to this day, never having gone out of style) Batman brooded and ran through the shadows of Gotham City, appropriately terrifying the superstitious, cowardly lot of criminals. He also appeared in daylight, used practical tools (like a hooded parka and goggles in the snow) and even showed real human emotions.

The realistic, psychological approach to Batman (who would take out a charging leopard without weapons but also said things like “Later, I’ll cry… if I must!”) was no less dark, but set the stage for what we could expect for the 1970s and beyond: A Dark Knight in broad daylight and a smile on the Batman. That smile, however, was not the cheesy grin of the 1960s but was often, as Walt Simonson once said, more frightening than a snarl.

The question is, however, did this return to fighting form and unprecedented complexity translate to sales?

Next week, “To Be Continued…” is back with more on the return of darkness and the infusion of realism into DC Comics’ “Darknight Detective”. Don’t miss Batman’s next phase on the gridded page when the Joker’s smile becomes spooky again and Batman duels Ra’s Al Ghul at sunset.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.