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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: The Birth of a Nation

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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.

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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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I was maybe ten when someone threw a burning cross in a front yard down the street from our house. I didn’t know the family who lived there, just the fact that they were black. My dad doubted it was the Klan, just some local Neanderthals. Maybe the same ones who egged our house and wrote “Niger Lovers” on our garage years before. (Presumably real Klan members would spell the racial slur correctly).

I was too busy reading Marvel Comics to think much more about it, but I mention the event as a kind of apology for one of the more unpleasant discoveries I’ve made while following the superhero back to its origins.

When searching for superhero ground zero, many scholars point to Baroness Orczy’s 1905 Scarlet Pimpernel largely because of Johnston McCulley’s imitative Zorro in 1919, which in turn influenced the 1939 Batman (Bill Finger included stills from the Douglass Fairbanks film when he handed his scripts to Bob Kane to draw).

pimpernelzorrobatman

But the Scarlet Pimpernel lacks one of the superhero’s most defining characteristics. He has no costume, no repeating physical representation. He is only a name and a series of ordinary disguises. (He’s also remarkably non-violent, preferring to deter an enemy with a snuff box of pepper than a blow to the jaw.)

Another historical novel published in 1905 offers a more convincing (though disturbing) predecessor to the modern superhero. Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman is a fancifully offensive portrayal of the KKK as a heroic band of Southern patriots battling the corruption of Northern tyranny. They are also the first 20th century dual identity costumed heroes in American literature.

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Like superheroes, Dixon’s clansmen keep their alter egos a secret and hide their costumes with them (“easily folded within a blanket and kept under the saddle in a crowd without discovery”). They change “in the woods,” the nineteenth-century equivalent of Clark Kent’s phone booth (“It required less than two minutes to remove the saddles, place the disguises, and remount”). Their powers, while a product of their numbers and organization, border on the supernatural (their “ghostlike shadowy columns” rode “through the ten townships of the country and successfully disarmed every negro before day without the loss of a life”).

Dixon’s novel was so popular it became the source material for D. W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, which in turn proved so successful, it inspired the Klan to reform across the U.S. (Their defining emblem, the burning cross, was invented by Dixon. The Reconstruction-era Klan never used it.)

birth nationcross

The new KKK numbered in the millions and was praised as a much needed crime-fitting force that succeeded were traditional law enforcement failed. Historian Richard K. Tucker sums it up well:

“Mainline Protestant ministers often praised the Klan from their pulpits. Reformers welcomed it to vice-ridden communities to ‘clean up’ things. Prohibitionists and the Anti-Saloon League supported it as a force against the Demon Rum. Most of all, millions saw it as a protection against the Pope of Rome, who, they believed, was threatening to ‘take over America.'”

Vice-ridden communities, plots against America, only one thing can save us–any of this sound familiar?

There is an upside though. By the early 30s, the Klan were losing public approval. Though masked heroes sold millions of pulp magazines during the Depression, real life vigilantes were prosecuted as criminals. As a result, Superman began his career as a paradoxical vigilante-fighting vigilante, breaking up a lynch mob in the opening pages of Superman No. 1 in 1939

superman lynch

Superman and the legion of imitations who followed him take some of their most defining characteristics from the Klan (costumes, masked identities, codenames, emblems), while reversing the Klan’s political aims. As a result the superhero is a contradiction. A violent, anti-democratic vigilante fighting for law and order.

Dixon’s literary vision lived on in two incarnations from my childhood. Those Neanderthals roaming the suburbs of Pittsburgh in the early 70s. And the comic books I read then and am only now beginning fully to understand.

[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. The article goes online for subscribers this week and will be available in print later this year.]

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