When "Batman" first appeared in 1939 under the aegis of DC Comics (Detective Comics), comic books were the bastard child of comic strips. Early comic books were reprints of syndicated strips -- daily and Sunday comics tossed between covers -- and the success of DC's original-material comics was unexpected. Today, syndicated adventure strips might be considered dinosaurs, but at the dawn of comic books, syndicated strips roamed and ruled the newspaper world -- Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates"), Alex Raymond ("Flash Gordon") and Chester Gould ("Dick Tracy") were the idols of aspiring young cartoonists.
The creators of "Superman," Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were a couple of teenagers from Cleveland who would be repaid for coming up with the great symbol of "truth, justice and the American way" by losing their character, rights and all, for a mere $130. Bob Kane, at 22 a little older and wise enough to get a better contract, would see his creation, "Batman," bring him fame and money for many decades. Some comics historians credit Kane's primary writer, Bill Finger (21 when "Batman" began), as the co-creator of the strip, but his contributions remain murky.
"Superman" was a comic-strip concept that every syndicate in the country had turned down: Having it appear in a low-end comic book was a last resort, even for a couple of teenagers. But the surprise success of the feature in Action Comics led DC to encourage other creators to come up with costumed heroes. Kane's response was to develop "Batman," a modern-day version of Johnston McCulley's "Zorro," with elements of various pulp-magazine heroes thrown in.
With the "Batman" movie franchise poised to reinvent itself yet again with "Batman Begins," the expected flurry of comics material, new and old, rushes to the shelves. Two reprint volumes are of particular interest -- "The Batman Chronicles: Volume One," which collects tens of thousands of dollars' worth of rare late-1930s and early-'40s comic books into one modestly priced package; and "Batman: Year One," Batman's beginnings as seen by the character's most influential contemporary interpreter, Frank Miller.
The difference between the two is as striking as a Miller visual (although Miller himself does not draw "Batman: Year One" -- that's left to the brilliant David Mazzucchelli). And "Chronicles" represents the better bargain -- four 1980s comic books can hardly compare in collectibility to the original Batman stories as seen in Detective Comics No. 27 (May 1939) through No. 38 (April 1940) and the priceless Batman No. 1 (Spring 1940).
Yet it's fair to say that only collectors and pop-culture buffs will prefer "Chronicles" over Miller's dark vision. Anyone under 25, knowing only the film franchise, may be astounded by the crude, juvenile nature of the source material; even a generation or so of fans of DC's "Batman" comics and graphic novels may find bewildering the amateurish nature of Batman's real beginnings.
The first story in "Chronicles" (Detective Comics No. 27) is crudely drawn, almost childish in Kane's strained technique combining Gould and Caniff. The story is a pale shadow of low-end B movie plots with some radio-serial nonsense tossed in. But the raw outlines of the concept can be made out: Commissioner Gordon and Bruce Wayne are present, as is a fiendish villain. The art style is largely "Dick Tracy" -- geometric, though a hint of the gothic comes when Batman is silhouetted against the moon. Still, "Rob't Kane" is clearly a beginner.
Both Kane and Batman improve, however, and fairly quickly. By the next issue, Batman is using "a tough silk rope [drawn] from his belt" to swing between skyscrapers, and the artwork is cleaner and better designed, and the writing slightly less redundant. But the plotting remains simultaneously simplistic and incoherent: Batman leads the police to assume he's a jewel thief "so that the [real] jewel thieves would think they weren't being watched." By Detective No. 29, Kane is providing a nicely designed (if perspective-impaired) cover, stylish and evocative with bats against the moon and a "mad scientist" castle. And Batman starts using gadgets -- gas pellets from the as-yet-unnamed utility belt, as well as suction gloves and, embarrassingly, kneepads.
Kane seems an increasingly confident artist, but the writing remains redundant, a caption telling us: "The Batman is in his car," which is exactly what the panel depicts, as if the script's descriptions have been accidentally included, like Carl Reiner's actor who thinks his first line is "Enter laughing!"
As the issues progress, however, the art grows moodier, the covers particularly strong, the action tough -- Batman even breaks a bad guy's neck, and frequently uses a gun (soon to be forbidden in the feature). New York has not yet been renamed Gotham City, but (by DC No. 31) Batman's gadgets have acquired their familiar prefix: Batarang, Batgyro, Batplane.