Censorship and the Dark Knight

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Comics are some of the more unique things to have developed out of the Great Depression and are a form of entertainment that persists even into the digital and technological world of the 21st century. When first conceived, they were simple, fun, and presented a new way of conveying a story using color that popped off the page and unique or zany characters. Batman, or the Bat-man, was one such hero comic. From the time Detective Comic #27 hit newsstands in 1939, Batman was a dark new hero who fought crime alongside his partner Robin. But Batman had to undergo serious changes years later. His image altered, his plots dampened and his opponents simplified to something childish. So why did a popular super hero who enjoyed widespread popularity and great plots become so reviled and diluted into something queer only fifteen years later? The time period of the late 1930s and 1940s illustrated a time of development and experimentation for comics, particularly the Batman comic universe, under the auspices of only the creator and the publisherr’s overview. However, the 1950s brought Batman and many other comics to be scrutinized by the psychologists and regulated by the US government out of fears of communism and socialism.

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Creating the Bat-Man

In 1939, the birth of Batman came about from the need for a new hero in the nascent and rapidly expanding comic market, a hero that needed to be unique but also reflective of the decades advancements in science and technology. The Depression-era comic company National Comics, the forerunner to todayr’s DC comics, wanted to capitalize upon the success that the Superman comics had. But they needed a new novel idea. Editor Vin Sullivan looked for a new team to put together a comic. They found a cartoonist who ran strips on rag papers in New York City named Robert ?Bob Kane and a writer Bill Finger to create a new hero. The agency wanted to veer away from the usual super-power heroes that were typical of early comics and instead wanted something a little more visceral. Mr. Kane worked as a freelancer for years, working on the odd comic book. Mr. Finger, a former schoolmate of Kaner’s from the Bronx, dabbled with comics and sold shoes before he ghostwrote for Kane in comics published for newspapers and other publications in the early 1930s. But it was Mr. Kane who came up with the idea of the Bat-Man character, and it is certainly not the caped crusader that we know him as today. His outfit was quite different. Kane said that his ideas for Bat-Man were inspired by the Da Vinci blueprint for a device that requires wings to fly. Mr. Finger later recalled:

Finger gave his input of edits to the cowl and a cape over wings. Kane also recalled the meeting in his autobiography, Batman and Me:

This rendering is a Batman many in America are more familiar with. Kane and Finger used the 1930r’s contemporary trends and outlooks on technology to form the mind of the Bat-Man”race, personality, thinking. They also used the scientific advances of the day to influence the heror’s weaponry and methodology. The 1930s were a time where technology was bettering the lives of millions of people from radios to gas stoves. Kane and Finger concluded that Bat-Man should be someone on the cutting edge of the technological curve. In the 1930r’s, technology had advanced so much that peopler’s well-beings was improved close to the standard that we have in the modern era. In the view of many inventors, technologyr’s purpose was to serve humans in capacity that would make life easier and safer. Batman would be no different.

The identity of the Bat-Man is one rooted in the history of Anglo-American rule breakers and shows the uniquely American identity of the hero. When tasked with the development of the secret identity of the Bat-Man, Bill Finger wanted to use Anglo-American heritage. The name of Bruce Wayne was a combination between two people from Anglo-American history: King of Scots Robert Bruce and Brigadier General Mad Anthony Wayne. Robert Bruce, a king, Scottish nationalist, and patriot from the early fourteenth century. Bruce was the leader of the rebellion against England during the First War of Scottish Independence. The ?Wayne portion of the name originated from the Brigadier General Anthony Wayne. His rather odd reputation for his seemingly cockamamie and, by all intents and purposes, bullish war tactics, such as those displayed at the Battle of Fallen Timbers during the Northwest Indian War. This heritage gave Batman a sort of birthright as an American hero.

The predecessors of comics were a largely unregulated series of publications called ?pulps. Of these heroic stories, Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Justice League comics, contained many of the characteristics of the pulp fiction. The term derived from the wood pulp that the paper sheafs these stories were printed on. They were the predecessors to the short fiction and penny press novels that arose out of the democratization of American and British media, such as newspapers and periodicals in the late 19th century. They reached their zenith during the interwar period and featured a diverse melange of stories from those about the lost city of Atlantis to the bloody cases of detectives and from fantastic sci-fi battles to sultry romantic exploits. Many of the stereotypes about certain things ”like aliens and sea monsters” arose from such novels. Literature of this type, as the US Senate Subcommittee on Comics illustrated in their findings on comics published in the 1950s, lacked any real editing on presentation or tastefulness. The pulps also provided no guidelines for publication and that resulted in many being extremely violent and raunchy, even by todayr’s standards. Batman also had some very unsavory elements in the early years.

Batman Ascending

In the Golden age of Bat-Man that spanned from 1939 throughout the 1940s, pulp styles were heavy-handed in the comics and Batmanr’s character became progressively more pronounced with little attention paid to by DC or its editors. By 1940, Batman had his own comic and now was consider a keystone element to the DC companyr’s success. The first few issuances of the Batman comics, Kane noted he gave Batman more striking features such as a heroic face (cheekbones, jawline, etc.) than the Batman in the rudimentary sketches hashed out. Kane affectionally called him, my mature Batman. In the run up to the 1940r’s, Batman had all the hallmark ?Bat gadgets. First was the utility belt that became pivotal in Batmanr’s crime fighting capability. A few months later came Batmanr’s boomerang inspired ?Batarang that is now ubiquitous in all Batman media and is in toy stores across America. In the same rollout as the Batarang, Batman was seen in his flying vehicle” the Batplane. Then in a subsequent comic, the Batmobile rolled onto the scene originally in a bright red and then black and blue. While there is not any major research done on trends in comic hero development through the lease of the times, one can infer that this new toolkit is reflective of the advancement of weaponry that came out of the Second World War and the violence that was present in that conflict. Nevertheless, the technologically reliant hero was an instant hit. Many people were fond of this hero who used items from modern day discourse (i.e. planes and steel weapons). DC was amazed at the astounding sales that they allowed the Batman team look over the stories themselves and bypass company editing.

The late 1940s brought a softened touch for the Batman and a slow phase out of the pulp impacted elements due to rising concern over the Red Scarer’s impact on society. The beginning of this new era of Batman began in April of 1940, with the introduction of Robin who in turn became an absolute staple in the Batman story for the next seven decades. Bill Finger wanted a complementary figure to Batman a sort of figure that would temper the hero and provide a sort of devilr’s advocate and friend while still participating in the crime fighting element of the story. A former circus performer that went by the name Dick Grayson, Bruce Wayne adopted him and brought him into his vigilante project. The new independent Batman comics brought a 17-year-old assistant named Jerry Robinson on the project. A comic cartoonist prodigy, Robinson brought new details to the series that impact the modern Batman tales. The plot lines featured two new unique villains that were static throughout the 40s” the infamous Joker, a psychotic clown, and Catwoman, a cat-burglar. Jokerr’s depiction was a grotesque clown who poisoned his victims with Joker toxin (originally called Joker venom) and the very first super-villains Batman encounters. This Joker villain played into peopler’s fears of psychopaths creating disharmony in the American way of life. Catwoman was a villain who inflected with the changing position of women starting in the 1950s.

In the first few editions of Batman comics and, particularly in his first appearance in Detective Comics, Batman was not the image we would congenitally see him as. One markedly shocking theme came in scenes of him murdering and crippling criminals in a style that many would see as uncharacteristically violent. The first independent Batman comic involved the Caped Crusader killing monsters with a gun in a particularly vicious fashion. This was bridge too far. Editors and executives who wanted a softened Batman and DC stepped in after close to ten years of the series and wanted the gun eliminated from his arsenal for fear of exactly what would happen in the 1950s” censorship.

Censoring Batman

The supposed Silver and Bronze ages of Batman in the 1950s brought with them controversy and a new direction in a heavily scrutinized comic industry that was created by the publication of Seduction of the Innocent and the beginnings of the McCarthy hearings. The 1950s were the years that gave way to hearings in the US House of Representatives, and to lesser degree the Senate, on certain things considered un-American. Among them were the infamous McCarthy hearings that resulted in the smearing of literary and Hollywood figures like Arthur Miller and Charlie Chaplin. Comics, too, came into the searing lenses of ultra-Americanism. In 1954, a book written by a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Fredric Wertham was published called Seduction of the Innocent. It accused comics of having a deleterious affect on the developing psyches of young children, inspiring juvenile delinquency and later drugs, alcohol, and violent crime. How did Nietzsche get into the nursery Here is the repetition of violence and sexiness, he writes, which no Freud, Krafft-Ebing, of Havelocke Ellis would ever dreamed be offered to children and in such profusion! He purported that the relationship between Batman and Robin was homosexual. When he testified in the Senate before the judiciary committee, when asked about Batman and Robinr’s supposed romantic relationship, Wertham stated, Well, it certainly seems that way, wouldnt you think? He said parents werent supervising their kids enough because parents think comics are just about cowboys and silly newspaper gags.

This book became a popular bestseller and encouraged outraged parents to call for censorship in an effort to preserve the countryr’s moral compass. In a 1954 piece in the Providence Journal, staff writer Ben Bagdikian writes about how Wertham views comics as the following: [They are] psychotic[ally] violent, semi-pornography [that] constitute a serious if not underground consumption. Bagdikian continues to say that Werthamr’s behaviorist roots are influencing his thinking. He cites that Wertham belief that comics foster sexual abnormality and confusion in addition to racist ideas and sadism. Its not just boys, girls turn towards promiscuity and sexual teasing. Bagdikian points out that in the United States there are ninety million comic books published a month. One third of them are crime comics (which Batman was characterized as) and westerns (which he notes Wertham counts as a crime book). Bagdikian reports that, according to Wertham, the comic book companies print the crime ?pamphlets for any where between a half or three-quarters cents on the dollar and sell them at a 20 percent mark-up of ten cents on the dollar. They make $1,000,000 per week from children. Some publishers get 40% return on investment. He says paper pulp companies worry about if they can continue to print, and even alleges that the comics own the companies in a monopolistic presentation of the industry. Now, whether or not these numbers or facts were fabricated or not remains a mystery as newspapers at the time watched their tone for fear of being labeled as a communist scandal sheet. Additionally, no documents exist to corroborate these claims of ripping off the poor urchins of America and Mr. Bagdikian could simply be using embellishment.

About a month after the book hit stores, a contributing writer for the New York Times by the name of C. Wright Mills gave a fascinating insight into how ?grateful parents should be for Werthamr’s book. Mills was a professor of sociology at Columbia University and a self-proclaimed scholar of the human mind and its nuances. This piece alleges that parents have zero oversight over what their child reads. ?These ugly pamphlets, as Mills puts it, contribute to the rebelliousness of youth and foster a sense of childhood backwardness. They are a detriment to good reading and a force of illiteracy, Mills accuses. Plainly said, Mills essentially stumps here for Wertham, his research saying it should be further studied and dissected in depth. In New York state, six legislative measures were put forward to attempt to curb comics including Batman citing unrealistic depictions of law enforcement. In a New York Times article from the same year as Werthamr’s book, writer Warren Weaver, Jr. of The New York Times reports from Albany that the Joint Legislative Committee on Comic Books recommended six initiatives for the curtailment of ?lewd books. The report that published in 1954 baselessly alleged that comics, threaten[ing] the spiritual, mental, and physical welfare of the state. The recommended legislative initiatives included fining vendors $150 who sell comics to minors. They also recommended a certain age where an individual can purchase comics. It is a testament of the American court of public opinion and how easily it can be swayed” even when presented with flimsy evidence and weak arguments.

Many of the assertions made by Dr. Wertham and the Senate Judiciary Committee were false in many of the cases involving Batman. For one, the purported notions of a homosexual relationship between Batman and Robin are specious and unfounded as evidenced through simple deduction and closer examination and reading of the comics. All of the comics where Robin or Dick Grayson appeared with Batman or Bruce Wayne and spoke to each other were certainly heartfelt, but none were of the salacious manner that Dr. Wertham argues. This form of censorship made many hero comics, not just Batman, decline in plot quality. One issue had Batman and Robin fighting off a space invasion (perhaps a sign of the times) and in another Batman was turned into a ?Zebra Batman. This radioactive Mr. Hyde figure gallivanted around Gotham as a villain and was widely unpopular appearing only once. Batman and Robin traveling to the moon and getting frozen in ice for 200 years were just some of the bizarre array of plots that came out of this era. The comic companies tried to use vibrant colors and illustrations to reclaim some of the enthusiasm it found pre-Wertham but it was futile. The lackluster plots resulted in a dip in sales but the comics however retained their general popularity.

At a time when Dr. Walter Freeman was performing ice-pick lobotomies as a form of psychotherapy, it seems to us in the modern day ridiculous and a form of pseudoscience. In a New York Times piece published in 2013 by Dave Itzkoff, research presented by Dr. Carol L. Tilley of the University of Illinoisr’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science says that Wertham manipulated the results of his findings to skew the data towards his personal convictions. She also supposes that the fears many Americans held at the height of the second Red Scare and a serious wave of social conservatism in the suburbs forced this book into the spotlight. She also notes the number of children used as a population was heavily inflated and the results were from the poverty stricken area of New York City in Harlem. Additionally, Wertham excluded extenuating circumstances and the possibility of any mental illness in the focus group. Itzkoff also puts in his own thoughts: Werthamr’s influence was indisputable. Comic magazines that focused on horror, crime or shock and suspense stories were shut down by the dozens.

In spite of this new evidence, Batman still required a serious overhaul. The curtailment of violence was because of these McCarthyite impositions on the comic industry. One may surmise that Jokerr’s jovial pranks and more tame story lines existed only as attempts to subvert otherwise draconian rules imposed by the federally mandated Comic Code Authority created as a quasi-public oversight on comic and other graphic publications. Even before being subject to the codes, Joker witnessed a scaled back to try and appeal to a younger audience. They attempted to present him as more of a fanciful and funny prankster. However by the late 50s, Joker saw even further scale backs and in some cases was replaced by other villains in order to comply with codes. Many of the nudity provisions in the guidelines forced Catwoman and Batmanr’s early love interest, Vicki Vale, off the pages. If Catwoman appeared, it was in a tamer form and lacked a sultry nature and Vickir’s relationship to Bruce was much more flat with less passion and romance and more of a platonic courtship. Moreover, to receive the stamp of approval by the CCA, Batman plots in the 50r’s evolved into something more diluted. Many provisions in the code that had to be followed included but were not limited to: crime being depicted as an unpleasant activity, good triumphing over evil, and tasteful depictions of females.

Batman Forever

The story of Batman is one that persists today and comics are still being released every month. With the CCA and the McCarthy era behind us, Batman has taken on a more realistic nature. With the ascendency of the Nixon presidency, the CCA and other family-values lobby groups attempting to censor pop culture fell out of favor. The US government was more concerned with ending the Vietnam War, attempting to revive a flailing economy, and trying to open up many of the closed societies that existed such as in China and Africa. Many comics entered a renaissance period with the rollback of many of the McCarthy era regulations and a resurgence of new Batman comics. The interactions that Americans have with comics today is with movies such as DC’s Dark Knight series and Marvelr’s The Avengers series, both of which address issues of the modern era such as terrorism, roles of government, and the ultimate triumph of hopefulness and the greater good over chaos and evil. Comics give people a way of exploring the greater conversations of human philosophy. To stymy that conversation through censorship is to stymy the human ability to soar onward just as the late comic icon and founder of Marvel Stan Lee said, Excelsior!” ever onward.

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Censorship and the Dark Knight. (2019, Jun 10). Retrieved February 5, 2023 , from
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