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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Bill Finger

Jerry-Robinson-Joker-Sketch-Card

Who created the Joker?

Standard answers boil down to some combination of Bob Kane and his assistants, writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson. According to Kane though, Robinson “had absolutely nothing to do with it” because Robinson’s contribution—the Joker playing card used in Batman No. 1—was added after Kane and Finger already thought up the character. Robinson, however, claimed “the concept was mine,” including both the playing card and the “outline of the persona and what should happen in the first story.”

They were both wrong.

The Joker was Finger’s idea, and I know because he stole it.

Kane and Robinson agree that Finger handed Kane a photograph of Conrad Veidt from the 1928 film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs which Kane used to draw the Joker. A clown-faced ad for a Coney Island attraction has gotten some credit too. But Finger’s kept his primary source hidden.

The Joker’s first appearance begins with a death threat: “Tonight at precisely twelve o’clock midnight I will kill Henry Claridge…”

Henry Claridge, frantic with fear, calls the police.

CLARIDGE: “You’ve got to protect me!”

POLICE CHIEF: “Don’t worry, Mr. Claridge.”

Time drags on—seconds minutes then the fatal hour twelve o’clock.

CLARIDGE: “I’m still alive! I’m not dead! I’m safe! I’m SAAAAGH! Aaghh!”

The Joker has fulfilled his threat. Claridge is dead!! Slowly the facial muscles pull the  dead man’s mouth into a repellent ghastly grin. The sign of death from the Joker!

CHIEF: “It’s—it’s horrible!”

OFFICER: “Grotesque! The Joker brings death to his victims with a smile!”

The Joker repeats the pattern a page later: “At ten o’clock that fiend will kill Jay Wilde!”

The toll of time—the fatal hour!

BONG! BONG!

WILDE: “Ten! It’s going to happen now! The clock is ticking my life away!”

A strangled scream—death!

JOKER: “Are you so happy that you smile for joy, eh? I’m glad I have brought you so much cheer!”

My son was ten the first time he flipped through my Batman Chronicles reprint, half the age of students in my superhero class who looked equally disturbed. It struck a nerve in 1940 too. Kane’s DC editors rescued the Joker from death to keep a recurring character—one who would become the most famous supervillain in comic books.

But he wasn’t new to pulp fiction. His first joke was published a quarter century earlier:

Cocantin had just noticed that Favraux held in his hands a yellow envelope similar to the one that contained Judex’s earlier message.

The banker unsealed it. Scanning every word, he read it aloud:

If before the stroke of ten tonight, you don’t relinquish half of your ill-gotten fortune to the Public Assistance, it will be too late. You will be punished mercilessly.”

And it was signed: JUDEX!

“The joke continues,” emphasized Cocantin with a humorous smile.

“It has lasted for too long,” scolded the banker while raising his eyebrows.

“Don’t be upset, Monsieur Favraux,” implored Cocantin. “. . . .This sinister joke will soon collapse due to my efforts. . . . I reassure you, Monsieur. I will look after you!”

. . . The monumental clock on one of the room’s panels displayed two minutes before ten o’clock. . . . Instinctively, his eyes sought the clock. The hands had almost reached the time foretold by Judex. . . .  Fear shook his mortal frame. . . .

The clock struck ten o’clock. Favraux’s face contracted in a hideous convulsion. . . . As a frightful moan escaped his throat, he collapsed. He had been struck down!

Judex had kept his word!

In the commotion, guests ran to Favraux’s side. . . . The facial features of the gilded banker were frozen in a grotesque grimace of superhuman fright.

Swap a few names–“the Joker” and “Judex,”“Favraux” and “Claridge” or “Wilde,” “Cocantin” and the Police Chief—and the scene is the same as the ones in Batman No. 1. Except it was written in 1916 when Bill Finger was only two years old. It’s by Arthur Bernéde from his novelization of director Louis Feuillade’s film serial Judex. The French magazine Le Petit Parisien published installments with the theatrical release of each weekly chapter.

Feuillade’s previous serial had brought the villain Fantomas to screen, but the title character of Judex—often cited as an influence on the cloaked and slouch-hatted Shadow who in turn influenced Batman—is the hero, a “judge” taking revenge on a corrupt banker (who, we later learn, isn’t really dead). When Finger supplied his boss with the Veidt photo, he was filling in details for “the joker” of Bernéde’s text.

It’s possible Robinson drew his playing card independently—stranger coincidences happen. It’s a greater leap to think Robinson handed it to Finger first, triggering Finger’s memory of the “joke” in Judex. Either way, Bernéde’s contribution outweighs all others. Kane even drew him with Judex’s hat and white face of the 1916 magazine illustration.

JudexbJoker

I have no idea if Bill Finger ever saw Judex, but according to Robinson he was a voracious reader “who spent lots of time doing research.” Robinson also called him his “cultural mentor,” describing him as “extremely well read” and a “student of pulps and radio drama” as well as “Dumas and Shakespeare.”

Bernéde and Feuillade, avid researchers themselves, read Alexander Dumas too. Judex’s destruction of Favraux’s ill-gotten fortune as well as imprisoning him until he acknowledges his wrong-doing—that’s the  Cliff Notes version of The Count of Monte Cristo, the fate suffered by one of the three men who falsely imprisoned Dantès before he assumed the guise of the vengeance-seeking Count.

But neither Dumas nor Feuillade originated Bernéde’s joker scene. The silent picture includes little of the banker and the detective’s dialogue (neither of the “joke” references) and when Favraux collapses on screen, Feuillade supplies no close-up.  The “grotesque grimace” exists only in Bernéde’s novelization, the version of Judex Finger could have easily accessed.

Bernéde figures in Batman’s origin too. When Kane needed an explanation for his hero’s “lone battle against the evil forces of society,” Bill Finger retconned a pair of murdered parents and a vow of vengeance. “I swear by the spirits of my parents,” cries the kneeling Bruce Wayne, “to avenge their death by spending my life warring on criminals.” The young Judex kneels before his own father’s body, as his surviving mother demands the same vow: “your father was murdered by a crook named Favraux. Swear before him that you will avenge his death . . . .”

This isn’t the first time Finger borrowed heavily from another writer. Will Murray details Finger’s use of Theodore Tinsley’s 1936 Shadow novella, Partners of Peril, for Bat-man’s first adventure in Detective Comics No. 27. “Finger did not simply draw inspiration from this thunderous tale,” writes Murray, “he adapted it outright! It’s the same story . . . . Only the character names have been changed.”

The Joker’s real name is Arthur Bernéde.

Arthur Bernéde

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The-Great-Gatsby

Jimmie Gatz, AKA Jay Gatsby, debuted in dual-identity crime fiction long before the prototypal Bruce Wayne slipped on his Bat tights.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby rolled off the press in 1925, Detective Comics No. 27 in 1939. When Bob Kane and his writers (probably Bill Finger, possibly Gardner Fox) tacked on an origin story six issues later, they set the alleyway murder of Bruce’s parents “Some fifteen years ago.” I’m not suggesting Gatz (it’s slang for “gun”) was that homicidal thug (one of Mr. Wolfshiem’s other associates would be a better guess), but the Gatsby and Wayne funerals would have been simultaneous. Which might explain why nobody attended Gatsby’s. Though I suppose friends of the extravagantly respected Waynes would have snubbed a West Egger regardless. Thomas and Martha Wayne were tight with the Buchanan crowd.

“Jay Gatsby” is a disguise, one as elaborate as the mild-mannered reporter a certain Kryptonian invented for himself. Jimmie Gatz was born on the alien planet of smallville Minnesota. To the snobbish Nick Carraway, he might as well have crawled out of New York’s lower East Side or the swamps of Louisiana. He is a rough-neck trying to pass as an Oxford man. And, unlike Bruce and Kal-El, he’s not one of the good guys.

Jay is a party-crasher to a long tradition of gentleman thieves popular in the first decades of the century. For an origin point, see E. W. Hornung’s 1898 “A. J. Raffles,” a man of seeming wealth and leisure who secretly burgles his fellow aristocrats. Hornung was a brother-in-law of Arthur Conan Doyle, and his character is an inverted Sherlock Holmes. By 1925, the character type’s anti-heroism had mutated to Robin Hood do-goodery, the mission Kane and Finger burgled for Batman. Graham Montague Jeffries published Blackshirt the same year, another tale of a thieving yet well-intentioned well-born—this time inspired by Mussolini’s Fascists. Hitler published Mein Kampf in 1925 too, a treatise Tom Buchanan and many of his fellow East Eggers sent up the best seller list.

As far as supervillainous schemes go, the Gatz Plan for World Domination is small-fry, mostly bootlegging and stock scamming. Unless you count his secret identity itself. “Jay Gatsby” is an agent of social chaos greater than Christopher Nolan’s Joker. To Tom Buchanan, the mere existence of the new money millionaire signifies the collapse of Aryan Civilization. Soon blacks and whites will be marrying. He’s the bridge beyond which anything can happen.

But what ultimately wins Nick over to Gatsby’s belated side is his other Plan for World Domination, the wooing of Daisy Buchanan. In addition to re-inventing himself, Jay invents a time-machine more complex than Dr. Doom’s or Kang the Conqueror’s. He wants to reboot the world and repair the moment he lost Daisy. And like any Quixotic supervillain, he can’t see the futility of his own plan. Of course he’s going to fail. That’s the point.

I miss teaching The Great Gatsby. Before I re-invented myself as a college professor, Fitzgerald was a perennial high point on my high school syllabus—same as most high school syllabi. I don’t need a time machine to visualize the filmstrips from the 1974 adaptation I had to watch when I was sixteen. It’s a god awful film, the surprisingly incompetent script penned by Francis Ford Coppola. So imagine my delight when I heard Baz Luhrmann was taking a fresh shot. His Romeo and Juliet was a delightfully frenetic mess, Moulin Rouge yet more so, and so who better to capture the excesses of the decadent 20s?

True to form, Baz delivers a circus wagon of a movie. I was planning to enjoy it, but despite the incongruous hip-hop beats, it was almost as yawningly dull as last time Gatsby the Great popped into our timeline. I admit much of the problem is me. I know the book embarrassingly well, and the Luhrmann script, like the Coppola script, is a collage of favorite lines. I know, you’d think that would be a good thing—Fitzgerald’s own words!—but it means neither doggishly devoted screenplay ever commits to its own storytelling.

Worse, Luhrmann loves voiceovers. Which isn’t necessarily an absolute evil in screenwriting. But instead of visual juxtapositions or contradictions, we get lazy repetitions. Tobey Maguire narrates what we’re already seeing. He tells us that his neighbor is standing on the dock reaching for the green light. And, yep, sure enough, there’s Leonardo DiCaprio doing exactly that. It’s the definition of excess, but not the fun kind (like replacing Klipspringer’s baby grand with a church-sized organ—why not!). Early comics suffered similar redundancy. Look at the Bill Finger panel declaring Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics 27: “As the two men leer over their conquest, they do not notice a third menacing figure behind them… It is the ‘BAT-MAN!’” And, yep, that’s exactly what Bob Kane drew in the panel under it. Comics outgrew the flaw decades ago, making poor Tobey all the more annoying now.

But maybe Baz is fulfilling a larger theme here. Gatsby has to fail. It’s what makes him Great. Ultimately, he and Bruce aren’t very different. Yes, Batman directs his megalomania for good—but just barely. His never-ending war on criminals is about vengeance and self-punishment. He’s ceaselessly borne back into his parents’ alleyway, endlessly replaying a botched past he will never get right. Gatsby’s jilting at the hands of the Daisy is no different. It’s a fate he’ll never escape either.

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

I can’t wait till the next time Hollywood reboots him.

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death of parents 2

A little boy witnesses the murder of his parents and swears vengeance. It’s right up there with radioactive spiders and Krypton exploding. But Detective Comics ran six adventures before Bob Kane bothered to sketch in his hero’s background.

Legend has it that Kane was planning “Bird-Man” before his scripter Bill Finger steered him toward “Bat-Man.” After plagiarizing a Shadow novella for the first adventure, Finger (or possibly second string writer Gardner Fox) plagiarized an even more obscure pulp for the origin story. The 1934 “The Bat” is credited to C. K. M. Scanlon, a likely pseudonym for superhero trail-blazer Johnston McCulley (you know him for Zorro).

the bat

You also know how The Bat chose a crime-fighting identity:

“He would not be able to appear in public unless he was carefully and cleverly disguised. . . . he must become a figure of sinister import . . .  A strange Nemesis that would eventually become a legendary terror to all of crimedon. . .  In the shadows above his head came a slithering, flapping sort of sound. As the creature hovered above the lamp for an instant it cast a huge shadow upon the cabin wall.  ‘That’s it!’ exclaimed Clade aloud. ‘I’ll call myself ‘The Bat.’

Five years later, Bruce Wayne also sits alone contemplating his own disguise:

“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 . . . .”

Like McCulley’s Clade, Bruce’s needs are answered by a seemingly chance appearance, “As if in answer a huge bat flies in the open window!” Which provides Bruce his needed inspiration: “A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen. I shall become a BAT!” He stands in full costume in the concluding frame: “And thus is born the weird figure of the dark . . . this avenger of evil, ‘The Batman.’”

batman origin

Comic book expert Will Murray was the first to identify Batman’s debt to The Bat, but the story goes deeper. Kane and McCulley were both influenced by an even older source. D. W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation (a disturbing combination of landmark film innovation and unbridled racism) contains the first origin story for a masked hero’s costume.

After seeing his homeland under “Negro rule,” future Klan leader Ben Cameron sits alone “In agony of soul over the degradation and ruin of his people.” A group of children appear as if in answer. Two white children place a white sheet over their heads, and the black children are terrified by the ghostly sight. “The inspiration.” Cameron stands, now ready to act. “The result. The Ku Klux Klan . . . .” In the next frame sit three mounted Clansmen in full costume.

inspiration

The sequence prefigures not only Batman’s three-panel origin structure—hero alone, chance inspiration, first image of costumed persona—but also the “superstitious” rationalization for the disguise.

Promotional posters for the film also featured a Klansmen on horseback, his cape fluttering and his Klan emblem centered on his chest. After Action Comics No. 1, these would become standard motifs of the superhero costume. It seems unlikely that Joe Shuster, a young Jewish artist from Cleveland, knowingly copied his Superman from anti-Semitic vigilantes, but Birth of a Nation and the Klan of the 20’s and 30’s had blurred into popular culture by the time he took up his pens.

birth nation

Bill Finger’s plagiaristic impulses, however, are better documented. Finger was only a year old when Birth of a Nation premiered in theaters, but a sound version was re-released in 1930, giving him and the rest of the Batman creative team opportunity to view it first hand. McCulley was already 32 in 1915. He would not have needed to view the film a second time to be influenced by the origin sequence. Most likely McCulley borrowed from Griffith, and Finger borrowed from McCulley.

But however you draw the lines of influence, the KKK still haunts one of comic book’s most cherished superheroes.

[If you’re interested in a fuller treatment of this argument, see “The Ku Klux Klan and the birth of the Superhero” in Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics.]

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Last summer while I was visiting my parents in Pittsburgh, Christopher Nolan was shooting Dark Knight Rises at Heinz Field. I could have huddled in the stands with a few thousand other unpaid extras, watching the Steelers dress up as their alter egos, the Gotham Rogues. It’s a winter scene, so the crowd had to pretend to shiver as they sat in parkas in 90 degree heat all afternoon. But no one complained. They were grateful just to be part of the show.

And that pretty much sums up the Dark Knight trilogy.

Erinn Hutkin from Chicago’s Suburban Life phoned me last week to ask why Batman is so popular, why this movie was so highly anticipated. I’ll tell you what I told her.

Batman is the kind of make believe we love to mistake for reality. Usually superheroes give us exactly the opposite: blatantly larger-than-life abstraction. Men who fly. Men with impossible bodies. Men made of pixels limited only by the imagination of their computer animators. The biggest difference between the Superman cartoons of the 1940s and the barrage of superhero films of the last decade is technological. Hollywood has gotten more skilled at portraying the absurd.

Batman is different. Even “Bat-Man,” Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s 1939 original, stood apart from the other leotards. No alien rocket, no magic ring, no transformative laboratory catastrophe. He’s just a vigilante in a freaky suit.

There were plenty of non-superpowered crime-fighters before him—the Shadow and his gangs of 1930s mystery men—but Batman was the lone comic book hold-out. Even his origin story was a throwback. When Superman decides to champion the oppressed, there’s no motive. He could as easily rule the planet. The core of the superhero formula (regular Joe gets powers, dedicates himself to justice) is psychological nonsense.  Stan Lee fixed that in the 60s, but Finger and Kane found it first. Like so many of those other mystery men, Batman is all motive: BLAM! BLAM! in a back alley. His war on criminals isn’t ad hoc mission. It’s revenge. No magic bat swoops down and bites him on the neck. He transforms himself.

Christopher Nolan and his script brother, Jonathan, capitalize on that. Their Batman is made of flesh and crunching bone. He inhabits a world that looks a hell of a lot like ours. Tim Burton’s Gotham was phantasmagoric. His second movie was literally an amusement park. Nolan’s second Batman opened on street level Chicago. Joel Schumacher’s villains were cackling cartoons in campy costumes. Nolan’s are grotesquely broken human beings, not a superpower in sight. In fact, the most incongruous thing in Dark Knight Rises is the batsuit. It barely belongs.

But this doesn’t make Nolan’s vision any less artificial. Where Burton cast Mr. Mom, Nolan went for the naked guy with a chainsaw in American Psycho. Both choices are wonderfully silly. But we’ve been trained to experience Nolan’s mass consumer product as “gritty realism.”

Which is why it’s so hard to divorce Dark Knight Rises from its very real world context. This Batman wears his political colors on his bruised and bloodied knuckles. He doesn’t just war on crime. He wars on terror. The Nolans upgraded Heath Ledger’s psychologically devastating Joker to stadium-bombing terrorism and revolutionary anarchy. Joker wanted Batman’s soul. Bane wants America’s.

Despite the Obama campaign likening the villain Bane to the villainous Bain Capital, and Rush Limbaugh accusing liberal Hollywood of brainwashing voters against the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney isn’t the allegorized bad guy of the film. If anything, he’s the hero. Romney grew up in the same neighborhood as Bruce Wayne. The 99%, on the other hand, are played by Ann Hathaway. “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” says the world’s sexiest Robin Hood. “You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits you’re all going to wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

Bruce is a 1%-er devoted to championing the status quo. He’s a vigilante because that’s what the job requires. Government brutality is unethical and, worse, ineffective. Nolan makes that clear from the opening scene. A CIA agent interrogates prisoners at gunpoint, ready to toss their corpses from a plane. Any sympathy—he’s only trying to protect us from Terrorism—tumbles through the open door too. America can’t employ violence without corrupting itself and fueling its enemies. We need a proxy. We need a guy in a freaky suit.

Or a three piece suit. In which both Christian Bale and Mitt Romney look significantly better. And expectations couldn’t be higher for either millionaire. Have the words “Oscar buzz” and “superhero” ever travelled in the same sentence before? Batman Begins grossed about $200 million, while The Dark Knight topped $500. Sequels aren’t supposed to do that. Neither are Presidential runs. Romney’s 2008 campaign was a flop, but the sequel raised over $100 million last month alone.

But Dark Knight success was largely due to the late Mr. Ledger, a performance gapingly absent from Rises. Instead we get Hathaway slinking next to Berry, Pfeiffer, and Kitt on the Catwalk of fame. Nolan fans might remember Tom Hardy from Inception (though probably not from that other franchise closer Star Trek 10, in which he plays Captain Picard’s younger yet equally bald clone). Bane is another bald villain, but this time Hardy has to roar his lines through a high-tech Hannibal Lechter mask. It’s a little better than Darth Vader, but Hardy’s eyes are only so emotive.

Still, the spectacle almost works. If Bane’s British accent is a bit muffled, well, so is his character. Does he want to Occupy Wall Street or behead it? The villain is a brawny reboot of the first 20th century supervillain, the guillotine-crazed Citizen Chauvelin of Baroness Orczy’s 1905 superhero ur-text, The Scarlet Pimpernel.  That author, unlike Nolan, was a deposed aristocrat, so I get why she pits her hero against French revolutionaries—those  “savage creatures,” as she terms them. But Batman belongs to the same ruling class elite as the Pimpernel. And Gotham’s proletariat is still “animated by vile passions, and by the lust of vengeance, and of hate.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Nolan literalizes the underclass by moving them to the sewers, but it’s those regular Joes working the cement trucks you really have to watch out for. They’re the devoted pawns of Bane’s socialist rhetoric, unaware that their leader is using them as political theater. The revolution is being televised to the humbled Bruce’s prison pit, which, although located somewhere in dusty Asia, is as accessible as the suburbs of Gotham.  Will Bruce regain his spirit and climb out in time to disarm the nuclear bomb?!

The retraining sequence and rematch bear an unfortunate resemblance to Rocky III, which pitted its symbol of American exceptionalism against the Evil Empire. America has since moved from cold war to class war. If Bane is a political parody, he’s Evil Obama. Dark Knight Rises is a right wing morality tale aimed at the 99%. Protest financial greed and look what happens!

But even though Warner Bros. has a lot to gain from the Romney’s promised 10% corporate tax cuts, they’re hedging their bets. Dark Knight Rises gives us a split ticket, Batman-Catwoman, a superheroic feat unthinkable but in the reality-warping universe of “gritty realism.” The now penniless Scarlet Pimpernel lends Robin Hood the keys to the batcycle and together they defeat Citizen Bane before retiring anonymously to the middle class.

I predict Dark Knight Rises will retire into its own anonymity long before the Oscar race. If it has any impact on White House politics, it will be as yet another horror story in the gun lobby saga. No superheroes swung to the rescue of the twelve theater goers murdered in Colorado opening night. That’s a real world tragedy far far beyond the reach of even the grittiest realism.

Instead of social revolution, the rest of us get what we always get, a Hollywood-financed extravaganza, right down to the grassroots. My son came home from summer camp every day last week spattered in black paint and Gorilla Glue. They were building a cardboard batcycle to be parked in front of our smallville theater opening night. It rained all weekend, so we never got to see it. My son didn’t complain though. He and all the other Batman campers were just grateful to be there.

Let them eat popcorn.

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The most annoying panel in comic book history: young Bruce Wayne lifting a massive dumbbell with one arm. The caption tells us he “trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats.” It’s literally the centerpiece of Batman’s 1939 origin page. Fifteen years of effort reduced to a 2 by 3 inch box.

Other superhero origins are instantaneous: a spider bite, a lightning bolt, a planet exploding. Bob Kane’s stands out because of its compression. A long and painstaking process turned into a snapshot. It’s what superhero readers want. Instant transformation.  One-panel puberty. Just say the magic word.

My ten-year-old started jogging with me last fall. I made him a deal: run a mile and get unbound video time for the rest of the day. He’s a voracious reader and sporadic athlete, but lately his Wii alter egos could do anything but get him off the couch.

Day one he went a winded half lap, an eighth of a mile, before resting. Week two he was doing two sets of double laps. Week three we timed his first nine-minute mile. Now he’s talking about racing 5Ks in the not-so-distant spring.

My own exercise routine used to include push-ups. It took me five months to climb from three sets of thirty to three sets of fifty. This is not impressive. It’s an illustration of how mind-numbingly dull Batman’s origin story really is.

Superman co-creator Joe Shuster knew it. While his partner Jerry Siegel was handing him descriptions of their hero’s athletic powers, the twenty-year-old Joe was hefting real dumbbells. He was a bodybuilder, dedicating hours to gymnasium solitude. Jerry tried it too.  Briefly. It’s more fun imagining physical perfection than slogging toward it.

Jerry’s Clark Kent didn’t work at all: “As the lad grew older, he learned to his delight that he could hurdle skyscrapers, leap an eighth of a mile, raise tremendous weights, run faster than a streamline train.”

Shuster idolized real strong men, Benarr MacFadden, his loinclothed protégé Charles Atlas.  Both built business empires on the promise of instantaneous transformation. I remember the Atlas ads from the comics I read as a ten-year-old. A bully kicks sand in little Joe’s face, and Joe returns a panel later to exact revenge. It’s the Batman origin, only more so. The panel of transformation is split by the diagonal caption: “LATER.” In the second, lower half, Joe is preening at his mirror: “Boy! It didn’t take long. What a build.”

Manhood in minutes. That’s the heart of superhero origins. If it requires hard work, it doesn’t work.

Look at the obese and superhero-obsessed narrator of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He goes 270 pages without committing to his own exercise routine. But then a “couple of months” later he’s lost twenty pounds. It took one sentence. Four pages and Oscar’s “fatguy coat” is gone forever. We didn’t even see him sweat.

In fact, when we do see him sweating (the novel is filled with Oscar’s abortive attempts at exercise), the transformation fails. There’s a reason “his number one hero” is “Shazam.”

Oscar earned Diaz a Pulitzer in 2008. An instantaneous transformation that only took fifteen years. If you don’t count all the writing he did before starting his MFA in 1993.

I won’t theorize about Diaz’s motives, but Oscar’s are clear. He wants the girl. And after his magic transformation, his mutant heart gets her. Briefly. Charles Atlas promises the weaklings in his ads the girl too. It costs “Only 15 Minutes a Day!” If you count the time biking to the track, my son spends thirty. He just turned eleven. He doesn’t care about the girl yet. He still closes his eyes when characters on TV kiss. He comes home sweaty and proud to relax with a Wii remote in his fist.

One of Siegel and Shuster’s filler panels in Action Comics #6 offers “Acquiring Super-Strength” advice tailored to 1938 readers content to sit on a couch all day:

“Clench your fists as tightly as possible, exerting every ounce of energy! While in this tense state, sharply jerk them in various directions! This will eventually impart to you a crushing hand-grip!”

Eventually.

It’s been over seventy years. How’s that coming along?

[Addendum: Cameron hit a 7:40 mile in March.]

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The short answer: Sort of.

Bob Kane never drew the dynamic duo in an intentionally compromising position, but were the two having sex in the gutters between the panels?

Can’t say. That’s the point of the comic book gutter. It requires the reader to fill in the narrative gap. If you read sex in that space, then sex it is. Frederic Wertham certainly did, and lots of it.

In his 1954  Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham famously explains: “Only someone ignorant of the fundamentals of psychiatry and of the psychopathology of sex can fail to realize a subtle atmosphere of homoerotism which pervades the adventures of the mature ‘Batman’  and his young friend ‘Robin.’ . . . They live in sumptuous quarters, with beautiful flowers in large vases, and have a butler, Alfred. Batman is sometimes shown in a dressing gown. . . . It is like a wish dream of two homosexuals living together. Sometimes they are shown on a couch, Bruce reclining and Dick sitting next to him, jacket off, collar open, and his hand on his friend’s arm. . . . [Robin] often stands with his legs spread, the genital region discreetly evident.”

Wertham is great fun to lampoon, but the question remains: What about Batman and Robin encourages someone, anyone, to read in sex?

The long answer:

Batman was a throwback to the mystery men of the 1930’s pulps. Bill Finger plagiarized the first “Bat-man” episode from a monthly Shadow novella published three years earlier. Though mystery men like the Shadow and the Spider never settled down and married, they did have partners, fiancées who knew exactly what was under their heroes’ costumes.

Alan Moore (through the fictional autobiography of a retired superhero in Watchmen) identifies “the repressed sex-urge” of the pulps (“I’d never been entirely sure what Lamont Cranston was up to with Margo Lane . . . .”), sensing that these heroes and their fiancées were not entirely “innocent and wholesome.” Writers like Walter Gibson and Norvell Page couldn’t depict sex, but they sure knew how to imply it.

For Batman’s fifth episode, Gardner Fox inserted a pulp-standard fiancée, Julie Madison, a character even Batman forgets after Robin debuts a few issues later. Comic book superheroes had a new breed of helpmate to share their secrets. Fiancées were out, and sidekicks were in. In addition to knowing all the ins and outs of Bruce’s Batcave, the Boy Wonder fulfills the same plot roles. “Like the girls in other stories,” observes Wertham, “Robin is sometimes held captive by the villains,” something Julie never got to do after her first appearance.

The narrative gaps in the Shadow’s and the Spider’s stories lured many readers’ minds to the gutter, a ploy to titillate without stepping into censorable sexuality. I doubt Bob Kane and his DC cohorts intended the same, but when they plumbed old stories for new material, they brought the pulps’ sexual baggage with it. As a result, Batman and Robin’s sexuality is hilariously ambiguous, but with no way to prove or disprove Wertham’s or anyone else’s claims.

The short answer: Batman and Robin are as gay as you want them to be.

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