29 May 2014

From Spring Heel Jack to Batman

Among the ephemera on display in the “Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK” exhibit at the British Library is a penny-dreadful tale of Spring-Heeled Jack, which the curators suggest was an inspiration for Batman, pointing particularly to his horns.

I thought that was a stretch. Not that Bob Kane and Bill Finger were above borrowing plots, images, and details from other adventure stories of their time, acknowledged and unacknowledged. But how would two guys growing up in post-WW1 America have seen the Spring-Heeled Jack magazine serials from Victorian Britain? And wasn’t Spring-Heeled Jack a monster and/or troublemaker instead of a crimefighter?

At io9, commenter Michael Munro laid out a lineage of pulp fiction leading from London to California to Gotham:
Spring Heeled Jack…transitioned from London urban myth (1830s) to melodrama anti-hero (1870s) to prototype superhero (1880s-early 1900s). As written by "penny dreadful" author Alfred Burrage, SHJ was a wealthy aristocrat who assumed the disguise of a devilish, bat-winged avenger of the night, maintained a secret underground lair and used his athletic and technological skills to battle evil-doers - sounds familiar?
Expounding at more length, Munro wrote:
The several "penny dreadful" iterations of Spring Heeled Jack, many written by Alfred Burrage under the pseudonym "Charlton Lea", portrayed him as a nobleman who had been cheated out of his inheritance and who took up a devilish disguise to punish those responsible. Along the way, Spring Heeled Jack also rescued damsels in distress and generally stood up for the innocent and downtrodden. He wore a distinctive mask and costume and was capable of performing incredible leaps thanks to a special pair of boots, credited in one source to a secret mechanism invented by Indian street magicians.

Anticipating Zorro, Jack was fond of marking both enemies and territory by carving his initial with the point of his rapier. He also maintained a secret underground lair (in a converted crypt) and terrified his adversaries with his ringing laugh and catch-phrase, "The day is yours - leave the night to me!"
As Munro notes, the Batman team acknowledged Zorro, created by Johnston McCully in 1919, as an inspiration. Thus, Spring-Heeled Jack wasn’t a direct influence on Batman, and the horns/ears were a shared trope rather than deliberate borrowing.

No comments: