Somebody earlier this week asked me what I’d name a fox were I to have one as a companion. My immediate response was “Don Diego de la Vega” because that’s how my brain works. Thus the inspiration for this column was born.
Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May 1939. But it may come as no surprise that Batman was hardly the first playboy turned masked adventurer to appear in the pulps. Some of the inspirations are obvious, some a little more obscure, and I’d like to tell you all about a few of them that I find particularly interesting. (Just so we’re clear, this isn’t one of Jeff’s columns, I’m not a historian, I’m just a guy with a few correlations and opinions.)
There are a few inspirations the creators of The Bat-Man (yes, there was originally a hyphen) have owned up to. By way of quick clarification, most current DC media attribute Batman’s creation to Bob Kane, but there was also this guy named Bill Finger who helped to varying degrees depending on your account of history. And by helped I mean reshaped a Batman concept away from a Superman clone to the iconic presence we now know and love. Sadly it didn’t work out well for Finger, but at least he has an award given to other unappreciated collaborators (and who doesn’t chuckle every time they hear about the “Finger Award” given the context?).
But I digress. Let’s start with the most obvious creator admitted inspiration: Zorro. A noble (or orphan raised as a noble depending on your interpretation) decides to fight for those less fortunate by dressing in all black and kicking butt up and down town. He has a helpful butler and a great ride. The similarities are clear, so clear that Batman’s own origin (depending your continuity) begins with the Wayne family going to see a Zorro movie in the theater the night Thomas and Martha were killed. The primary difference, in my interpretation, is that Zorro seems to enjoy his night gig, otherwise how could he be the “gay blade”? At a certain point his Latino flair seems to make him more Nightwing than Batman. The other crazy thing to me is that Zorro debuted in 1919, a mere 20 years before the Dark Knight burst onto the scene. For some reason I guess I always assumed Zorro was much older than Batman, if only because of the setting of the character in the first place.
The other admitted inspirations include, but are likely not limited to, the movie The Bat Whispers, the pulp characters Doc Savage, the Shadow, and the Phantom, as well as the timeless detective Sherlock Holmes.
I’ve never seen the The Bat Whipsers, although now I’m thinking it might be required viewing, and have no actual experience with the pulp characters mentioned above beyond understanding their contributions to what eventually became the Batman. The Shadow, in particular, has a cool look, supposedly inspiring the idea for a character having a sweet cape/cloak/thing, and Batman’s cape really is quite awesome, so kudos for that bit of insight on the part of the Bat-creators.
The final cited inspiration I care to comment on can be none other than Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock, in his modern depictions, is rarely seen as a man of action (even though he really was), which I think contributes to his lack of correlation to Bruce Wayne, but he parallels are undeniable. Batman is supposed to be the world’s greatest detective, a trait often trampled by his more bombastic elements, but truly in keeping with Holmes’ legacy. One might even argue that if Holmes’ was operating up until the early 1900’s, then Batman is his logical replacement. Few remember that Holmes himself was a master of disguise, a trait with which Bruce Wayne can surely be compared. Comments as to the relationship between Holmes and Watson and parallels to Batman and Robin are likely best left to the imagination.
Thus we are left with the either un-admitted or unintended corollaries to the Batman. Bruce Wayne is hardly the first aristocrat to turn to a life of disguised adventure. Although, it would probably be more accurate to describe Bruce as a plutocrat, considering both his American heritage and penchant for the literal underworld beneath Wayne Manor.
The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of the archetypal adventurer aristocrats, likely inspiring the subsequent Don Diego de la Vega (Zorro) and thus also Bruce Wayne (Batman). Having basically no familiarity with the Crimson Baron of the French Revolution, I will speak no further, but there is another ‘hero’ with a secret identity I’m keen to introduce: Spring Heeled Jack.
For those who don’t know, Spring Heeled Jack was a folkloric character of Victorian England, i.e. an urban legend. The idea was that an inhuman creature terrorized citizens by spitting fire followed by leaping inhuman distances to escape the police. He appeared all over Europe from his ‘native’ England and all the way to Czechoslovakia. There is precious little documentation of his purported feats, but it was believed that he might have been a nobleman having a laugh by pranking those around him using his superior intellect and resources to annoy the authorities by playing upon people’s fears and misconceptions. “A superstitious and cowardly lot” ring any bells? Any basic stage magician could create a fireball if needed, and disappearing quickly without a trace takes skill but is far from impossible. It seems appropriately ironic that Spring Heeled Jack is still a creature of myth and could just as easily have been the inspiration for the Joker as well as the Batman. Scott Snyder, eat your heart out.
Ultimately Batman is a creation unto himself. I am in no way trying to assert that he is a copy, caricature, or counterfeit entity. Clearly his creators struck gold, but I think it’s interesting to see just how much inspiration may or may not have played a role in his initial inception. It’s almost like the idea was planted in their minds without it being known. What kind of person could conceive of idea implantation AND have an intimate understanding of Batman? I’m not sure I even want to know.