As I’ve noted here and thee, most serial narratives never evolve any sort of discourse-thread beyond the level of “good will triumph over evil.” Though I’ve defended the idea of the Golden Age Superman more than once, I can’t say that the execution of the idea rises above this level in its first fifteen years.
Although Bob Kane and Bill Finger created Batman as a response to Siperman’s sudden popularity, they evolved a far more creative property than either the Man of Steel or the great majority of Golden Age serial concepts. During the first six years of the feature’s history—the period I’ve termed “Gothic Batman”—displayed a unique approach to the characters, even though the stories might appear to advocate simple “good vs. evil” morals for the kid-readers. I, like many critics, have emphasized that the early years possess an extravagant, somewhat morbid creativity that bears some comparison with the better prose Gothics. And yet, it’s recently occurred to me that those years are also marked by a certain amount of whimsical fantasy, closer in spirit to stories of swashbuckling adventure than to Gothic deeds of darkness.
To be sure, both adventure tales and Gothic horrors loosely descend from the courtly romances of the Late Middle Ages, so such an alliance has a certain appeal. I’m now of the opinion that the introduction of Robin to Batman’s grim world insured that sinister Gothicism and fanciful adventure would become conjoined; a true marriage of the grotesque and the arabesque.
(I could write a long sidebar as to why I chose to hijack these art-history terms for my own purposes, without agreeing with the way the terms are used in art history, or by such luminaries as Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Walter Scott. But at present, it seems to me that commonplace dictionary definitions back up my usages, so I’ll let it go at that.)
As I stated earlier, Batman’s pre-Robin world depicts the hero battling common criminals, malefic masterminds and supernatural horrors with stoic determination. Batman’s seventh adventure, scripted by Gardner Fox, roots the crimefighter’s joyless struggle in personal tragedy. To be sure, though, a lot of earlier heroes began with traumatic backstories, ranging from Dick Tracy to the Lone Ranger to the Shadow. Indeed, Batman’s devotion to stamping out evil—with no reference to finding the killer of his parents—bears strong resemblance to the origin of the first Phantom, who devotes himself to fighting evil after losing a parent to vicious pirates, and then passes the same cause along to his descendants. But Golden Age authors did not tend to revisit origin-tales as have later generations. In a world where Robin never joined Batman, it would have been routine had readers eventually forgot the reason why Batman became a costumed hero.
Now, I’m not saying that the Golden Age stories, as we have them, make any more reference to the origins of either Batman or Robin than, say, the CAPTAIN AMERICA title kept coming back to the origins of that hero and his sidekick. However, in contrast to most features that paired superheroes and kid sidekicks, BATMAN continuously emphasized the daily familial interactions of Bruce Wayne and his youthful ward. Thus, even if a reader didn’t know exactly how the two characters came together, he’d be able to find out from readers-in-the-know that Batman quasi-adopted the Boy Wonder because they’d shared a similar tragedy. And even if some readers never knew about these interlinked origins, the authors knew, and they played the contrast of the worldly adult with the exuberant youth for all it was worth. (To be sure, once Robin shows up Batman rarely affects his original obsessed, near-humorless attitude, though on occasion the writers allowed the Big Bat a few moments of fear-inspiring brutality.)
Batman, then, despite his handsome face and ripped body, is at heart a grotesque, because the very look of his costume inspires fear more than admiration. Robin’s costume, in contrast, evokes the fanciful spirit I term arabesque. He affects bright daytime colors of red, green and yellow in direct contrast to Batman’s night-hues, and some of his garments, such as boots and tunic, are designed to evoke famed swashbuckler Robin Hood. Even his main weapon in early stories, a David-style sling, carries an arabesque quality in comparison with Batman’s deadly looking Batarang.
The dynamic between Batman and Robin also extended to the way the raconteurs created their super-villains.
Some villains project fearful visages, just as does Batman. These include such notabes as the Joker, the original Clayface, the Scarecrow, Two-Face, the Monk and Doctor Death.
Yet others, however destructive, project images that are more fanciful in character. Thus, the somewhat shorter list of notable arabesques includes the Penguin, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Cavalier, and the Catwoman (who, it should be noted, had as her first costume a simple dress and a cat-head mask).
With the grotesque-arabesque distinction in mind, it’s possible to see that later creative eras can be seen as putting increasing emphasis on one mode over the other. “Dark Procedural Batman” doesn’t entirely eliminate all sinister content from the feature, but the Joker becomes more of a harmless clown, while villains like the Riddler and Killer Moth never project any sort of fearful aspects. I sardonically termed the period after the Comics Code ‘Candyland Batman” because the dominant art-style emphasized lots of daytime scenes and new villains who were usually characterized by bright colors, ranging from goony aliens to goofy one-note villains like the Kite-Man and Mister Polka Dot. This overemphasis on the arabesque resulted in a downturn of the BATMAN franchise, and the following era, “Gothic Procedural,” borrows from all three previous periods, emphasizing ratiocinative detective tales and occasional forays into the Gothic, but not entirely dropping goony sci-fi menaces. Probably most of Bronze Age Batman, to which I’ve assigned no name, became almost totally focused upon Gothic images and tropes.
What I find interesting is that in the 21st century, some fans-turned-writers have become intrigued by the arabesque craziness of the Candyland era. Grant Morrison revived bizarre figures like the Rainbow Creature, and the teleseries BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD celebrated all the light-hearted aspects of both the Bat-comics and numerous other DC features. Arguably, though, the biggest influence that the Candyland era ever had on the career of the Dark Knight was its effect on the 1966-68 BATMAN teleseries, which took the wacky kid-fantasies of the early sixties and viewed them through an ironic prism. (And yes, I know that they borrowed story-content from the following era as well, but the show’s producers never showed the slightest interest in the franchise’s more grotesque aspects from any era.)
Thus, there's definitely something to be said for the aspect of Bat-mythology that Alan Moore called "funny uncle Batman." At some point in the future, I may incorporate this bachelor-thread concept into a wider analysis of the 1966 BATMAN teleseries.