THESE ORIGINAL WORKS REVEAL HOW DICK SPRANG, NEAL ADAMS, FRANK MILLER AND OTHER TALENTED ARTISTS TURNED A DARK KNIGHT INTO A CAPED CRUSADER AND BACK AGAIN JUST IN TIME FOR THE FOREVER-YOUNG MAN’S BIRTHDAY
By Robert Wilonsky
Batman doesn’t look a day over the day he was born: March 30, 1939. That’s when Detective Comics No. 27 arrived on newsstands, introducing readers to artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger’s rough-draft Dark Knight, a crimefighter dressed like a Superman made of shadows. At the urging of a comics editor eager for another hit hero, Batman sprang from an assortment of predecessors: The Shadow, Zorro, the Scarlet Pimpernel and pulp heroes called The Spider, Black Bat and The Bat. The result was “the most flamboyant masked avenger of them all,” in the words of Batman and DC Comics historian Les Daniels.
Eighty-five years ago, when he was hot on “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” readers didn’t know what motivated this caped-and-cowled vigilante. Bruce Wayne’s tragic origin story – watching his parents gunned down in an alley after a family outing to the movie theater – followed a few issues later. But in that 27th issue of Detective Comics were all the hallmarks of the Caped Crusader to come: his secret identity as the wealthy playboy, his friendship with Commissioner Jim Gordon and the costume that rendered him a creature of the night even in broad daylight. OK, so soon after, he ditched the gun and got a preteen sidekick. But it was all right there from jump.
His story has evolved significantly since: Batman got married (to Catwoman, introduced way back in 1940’s Batman No. 1); had a son named Damian (yet another Robin, no less) with whom he currently shares a comic book; starred in a few excellent movies and a couple of pretty bad ones; died, traveled through time and came back to life; popularized a dance called The Batusi; beat up Superman; had a Bat-Hound sidekick and fought villains named Kite Man, Killer Moth and Orca, who was, as you might expect, half-human and half-whale. Look, the man’s been through a lot.
There will be countless 85th birthday celebrations throughout the coming year, culminating with the 10th annual Batman Day on September 21. Between now and then, expect the usual crush of anniversary action figures, paperback collections and merch. But we suggest beginning this very special year browsing through the Batman history lessons available in Heritage’s very first Comics & Comic Art Signature® Auction of 2024, which runs January 11-14 and counts among its myriad Bat-highlights one of only three copies of Batman No. 1 graded CGC Fine/Very Fine 7.0.
Some of the Caped Crusader’s best-known artists are also represented with original artwork in this event, beginning with Dick Sprang, who started working on Batman in the early 1940s and whose rendering of the broad-chested Batman defined the hero for decades, long after he jumped from the Batcave to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. As Comicbook.com noted on what would have been his 100th birthday, “Sprang brought a whimsical and family-friendly take to the Caped Crusader, often sending him to outer space or placing him on flamboyant set-pieces.” That brings us to this page from 1949’s Batman No. 56 and the story “Ride, Bat-Hombre, Ride!,” which is a sort of precursor to the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s – or, more accurately, Three Amigos. Batman with a mustache is an exceptional touch to this tale pitting him against the, um, terrifyingly monikered El Papagayo and his talking parrot Toto, which was a real thing.
For many of us, Batman didn’t become Batman until he was in the hands of Neal Adams, who started drawing the Dark Knight in the late 1960s – after Carmine Infantino dipped the Golden Age version into a brighter shade of Silver. Adams made Batman a few shades darker than previous iterations; as The New York Times noted upon his death last year, “Batman, as drawn by Mr. Adams, was lithe and menacing, a return to the hero’s shadowy roots after a boom and bust in his popularity following the campy 1960s Batman television show.” The original cover of Detective Comics No. 404, which “pits” Batman against Enemy Ace, is particularly special: It hails from 1970, early in Adams’ Dark Knight run, and pays homage to Joe Kubert, whose work “changed my life,” Adams once said.
Adams laid the groundwork for almost every Batman artist who followed, chief among them Jim Aparo, who started at DC in the late 1960s swimming with Aquaman and wound up taking over The Brave and the Bold, which paired Batman with fellow heroes and occasional villains. Those of us raised at the spinner racks of the mid-1970s like to argue who was better, more definitive, the best Batman artist. Some will insist it was Aparo, hands down, like this 2021 essay from The Comics Journal, which acknowledges the early Adams influence but insists Aparo’s work was eventually “shorn of so much of the fussiness that undercuts Adams’ work to this day.” This splash page from The Brave and the Bold No. 186, featuring a Kubert-like Hawkman and a Batman who’s all cape, proves that point.
There are other Batman-artist all-stars throughout the auction, including Golden Age great Irv Novick, responsible for this star-studded Bronze Age splash from Batman No. 257 and who collaborated with writer Frank Robbins and artist Dick Giordano on this 13-page Man-Bat tale for the 100-page Super Spectacular Batman No. 254. Here, too, is a Giordano masterpiece that used to hang in every comic kid’s room: Batman swinging through Times Square as part of DC’s 1978 Calendar of Super-Spectacular Disasters. And here’s an original rendering of Batman from 1978 by trained architect Marshall Rogers, whose eight-issue stint on Detective Comics in the late 1970s proved as influential and definitive as anything by Adams or Aparo.
Then, of course, there’s Frank Miller, who took everything that came before and dragged it through the fetid gutters of 1980s New York City for Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. When Miller spoke to Heritage in June 2022, he talked affectionately of his friend and mentor Neal Adams, an obvious influence on Dark Knight Returns. But he also mentioned the earlier artists and how they impacted his decision to make Batman look like a tank that had survived a thousand wars.
“I found myself more and more just looking to re-create the blocky, chunky father figure Batman that I’d grown up with, the one drawn by Dick Sprang of the 1950s, because I didn’t want Batman to be a fantasy of what I wanted to be,” Miller said. This event features one of the most important pages from Miller’s four-part epic, in which a long-retired Bruce Wayne is still so haunted by the murders of his parents that just a few pages later, he suits back up as the Batman.
Finally, there’s Jim Lee, whose Batman of the early 2000s was, by his admission, an amalgam of all those Gotham Guardians, Dark Knights and Caped Crusaders who’d come before. As Lee said in 2022 when he began offering his work through Heritage, “I grew up reading DC in the 1970s and ’80s, and Aparo was my Batman artist. Neal influenced him, but I had more stories drawn by Jim Aparo. He was an influence, then Neal, Marshall and Frank and [Batman: Year One artist] David Mazzucchelli. Those are the five artists who impacted the way I draw Batman.”
All this is on display in this stunning page from Batman No. 615, Chapter Eight of the “Hush” epic that impacted comics like nothing since, well, The Dark Knight Returns. It’s history in a page – a look into Batman’s past that brought the world’s greatest detective roaring into the 21st century. Happy birthday, kid.
ROBERT WILONSKY is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.