This year, 2014, is Batman’s 75th anniversary. Yup, the Caped Crusader had been around in some form or another for three fourths of a century. Each “era” of Batman has its own style and tone and each is as drastically different from the previous one as the next. With the plethora of Batman out there, one might be forgiven for not knowing where to start. To someone already familiar with Batman’s mythology through the character’s numerous film and television appearances—whether it be the Nolan films or the theatrical serials of 40’s—The Batman Chronicles Volume 1 might come as a bit of a shock.
The reason for this is that in the era this book collects (roughly the first year of Batman comics) Batman was still being figured out. The first issue—Detective Comics number 27—has no Bat-signal, no Bat-Plane, no Batarangs, and no Batmobile! It appears as if the creators (Bob Kane and Bill Finger, for those who were wondering) were figuring out how the character should work from panel to panel! He’s referred to as “The Bat-man”, “Bat-man”, “Bat Man”, and “Batman” as the first issue goes on, verbally demonstrating the uncertainty as Kane and Finger were discovering this icon as they went. There are a few artistic inconsistencies as well: Batman’s ears seem to fluctuate in size and placement—sometimes they’re long and on the top of his head, sometimes they’re short and situated where his actual ears would be. Ol’ Batsy can’t even seem to decide if he wants to wear gloves in these early pages!
That’s not to say that there aren’t some familiar things—Commissioner Gordon is in the book from the get-go, as is his propensity for leaving the room when people’s backs are turned. Eventually he gains a Batarang and a Bat-plane (originally referred to as a Bat-gyro), though in place of a grappling hook he sports a “silken thread” and his transportation of choice is a regular, sometimes-red, sometimes-black car. But the biggest difference that many fans will gawk at is the fact that Batman’s a straight up killer in this. Yup, Mr. “NoGuns McLetTheJokerLiveAndEscapeAllTheTime” not only allows many of his enemies to perish without making any attempt to rescue them—a decidedly unBatman trait—he guns criminals down! With a gun! That shoots bullets! Out of a gun!
That’s just nuts.
Interestingly, Batman’s first super villain comes in his third issue—Detective Comics number 29—in the form of the generic Doctor Death. Not much to write home about here—he’s just a generic mad scientist archetype with an expendable burly, foreign henchman (in one issue it’s an Arabic man named Jabah, in another it’s a Russian named Mikhail). After encounters with a hooded hypnotist, a vampire, and a “Yellow Peril” Oriental villain, we begin to see more characters that will make a mark on Batman’s history. One of which is Doctor Hugo Strange (who here is a mad scientist archetype with a better-than-usual character design), and the other is—of course—The Joker!
The Clown Prince of Crime doesn’t make his first appearance until a year into Batman’s existence, when the publisher decided that the vigilante’s appearances in Detective Comics were popular enough that he needed his own ongoing series. Thus, Batman number 1 was born, at around the same time Robin was introduced into the franchise. But the Joker’s introductory issue is a doozy, as it’s the most interesting story in the whole collection. It’s easy to see why the character made such an impact—the Joker venom concept is unique and unsettling, as is the Joker’s design itself! Famously, the creators were inspired by the Paul Leni German expressionist film The Man Who Laughs, and Bob Kane was clearly influenced by the character’s demented look in that film. Of course, he brought his own twist to the concept, and history was made. It’s worth noting that the Joker comes off as slightly more moody in this—he smiles a lot, to be sure, but a major early scene shows him frowning at his desk. In fact, he doesn’t make any more jokes than the rest of the characters do (I think Batman has him beat) and doesn’t laugh until the end of the issue!
Reading The Batman Chronicles Volume 1 is a fascinating look into one of the most iconic characters in pop culture history. I had a blast reading through these old stories, which, though they cannot be judged by any modern standards, are inventive, colorful, and charming—if a little rough around the edges. If you’re a hardcore fan of Batman, you probably already have this. If you’re a casual fan of Batman, this book is probably going to be very educational for you. Given the age of the stories, however, it may not be for everyone. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it and don’t regret my purchase one bit. Recommended.