03 April 2011

The Original Daily Batman

Yes, Dick, we discern the irony in your current situation.

This panel is from the first Batman and Robin daily comic strip, which ran in North American newspapers from 1943 to 1946. Each week brought two independent storylines, one in black and white Monday through Saturday and another in color jumping from one Sunday to the next. Although some tales from the strip were reconfigured for the magazines, most of these comics never reappeared until DC and Kitchen Sink Press started to assemble the complete run in four volumes in 1990.

The daily Batman and Robin strips are notable for being Bob Kane’s last sustained work on the most famous characters he co-created (and for a long time took full credit for). Even with diligent practice and Charles Paris’s inking, Kane was only fair at drawing realistic scenes (much less the super-realistic rendering of superheroes). Note, for instance, the background of this landscape. Kane managed to have the shadows extending from the house, the barn and shack, and the farm equipment in three different directions.

It’s no mystery why Kane chose to concentrate on the comic strip instead of the comic books. Newspapers were more established and prestigious than cheap magazines. In addition, if more papers picked up a strip, a creator could receive more money without having to do more work—and Kane was all about taking money for as little work as possible. In contrast, DC paid a flat rate for comic-book pages regardless of how many copies they sold.

For similar reasons, Gerard Jones wrote in Men of Tomorrow, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster concentrated on the Superman comic strip launched in 1939 and let other artists produce the magazines. That strip ran continuously until 1966, nearly twenty years after Siegel and Shuster quit. (Then a new Batman strip fueled by the TV show took over the slot.)

The Robin of the daily strip functions exactly like the character in the comic books. He’s someone for Batman the detective to talk to and to withhold information from; he gets held hostage or trips at inopportune times. And he expresses emotion more openly than Batman—which could strain Kane’s drawing skills.

Indeed, some of Kane’s portrayals of Robin go beyond awkward to downright creepy. This wasn’t such a problem in drawing Bruce Wayne/Batman, whose handsome stolidity produced a limited set of facial expressions. Kane could kept using his favorite stock poses—face straight on, for example.

When storylines required, say, slinky women, DC gave the assignment to other artists. But for ordinary crime cases, Kane’s artwork served just fine, with a Dick Tracy vibe. And one humorous storyline, built around the wartime housing shortage, even ended with the Dynamic Duo doing a “plop take” out of the last panel as if they were “bigfoot” comics characters.

Indeed, Kane seems to have been a comedic cartoonist at heart. He started out drawing funny comics like Hiram Hick, Ginger Snapp, and Peter Pupp, his first character to have a young sidekick. After giving up Batman (but not credit), Kane developed a couple of TV cartoons, Courageous Cat and Cool McCool. Those projects were a better fit for his natural style and talents.

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