13 December 2009

“That’s Potent Stuff, Kid! Like as Not to Give You Bad Dreams…”

Some Batman histories, such as the From the ’30s to the ’70s volume I read as a lad, say that Dick Grayson’s departure for college allowed the Caped Crusader to return to his detective roots. Indeed, the first story that followed, “One Bullet Too Many,” was a forensic procedural. But a lot of that era’s stories featured vampires, ghosts, and Man-Bat. They belonged to the gothic or horror mode rather than the detective genre.

Of course, those stories were a return to Batman’s roots. His earliest adventures in Detective Comics, before Robin arrived, also involved vampires, mutated monsters, mad monks, and other elements of gothic horror. Which isn’t that big a shift when you start with a millionaire dressed as a giant bat.

Those fantastic elements didn’t go away when Robin arrived, as Batman’s pistol did. In fact, the arrival of a young character opened the door for a new sort of story, even more fantastic—indeed, unreal.

Detective, #44, half a year after Robin’s debut, offered “The Land Behind the Light.” It showed the Dynamic Duo passing through a scientist’s strange light into “the 4th Dimsension,” a world wracked by war between giants and dwarfs! That fantastic mode played to Bob Kane’s strengths as an illustrator; he was better at comically exaggerated figures than realistic ones.

For more detail of this adventure, see Vintage Spandex. But I’m spoiling the ending: Yes, it was the Batman saga’s first use of the “It was all a dream” escape hatch when a writer—in this case Bill Finger—couldn’t finish or explain his tale. Eventually comics publishers realized that their readers would sit for “imaginary” stories, parallel universes, “What If?” alternatives, possible futures, “Elseworlds,” and other justifications for stories that don’t take place in their heroes’ “real” lives. Even in the real lives of Batman and Robin, stories broadened to feature time travel by hypnosis (don’t ask) and trips into outer space.

I don’t think Kane and Finger could have used the “all a dream” exit without Robin. Batman is supposed to be a physical and mental paragon; in those early years, he was also an emotional paragon. He wouldn’t get lost in a book of fables and be unable, even for a minute, to tell dream from reality. But because Robin is still a child, he can get lost in a nightmare. His arrival on the scene in 1940 widened the team’s storytelling possibilities to include fantasy sequences.

In contrast, a later story told us that Batman hasn’t had nightmares since his childhood. (It also showed us that he sleeps in his full costume and cowl, so we can debate how well adjusted he really is.)


Bully said...

Without eyeholes in his mask, it looks like Batman's just lying in bed depressed.

J. L. Bell said...

I think that says a lot about Batman.