24 January 2011

Batmobile History Part I: The Pulps (1939-1941)

The Golden Age of Batman is my most favorite, because of the rawness of the ideas.  With nothing sacred, nothing written in stone, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and Jerry Robinson had to carve out their own unique blend of pulp fiction and heroic fantasy.  One of the interesting challenges of The Bat-Man, a grim avenger of the night armed with his wits, was to figure out how he operated in Gotham.  Unlike his Pulp contemporaries, Doc Savage, The Avenger, The Shadow et al, Batman worked alone.  No one to get him from place to place and no powers beyond the keen of mortal man to speed it up.

The 1/64 JOHNNY LIGHTNING Bat Gyro (2002)
In 1939, the Bat-Man's original mode of transportation was a bat-stylized auto gyro.  It's a great visual concept, borrowing from vehicles used by Doc Savage and The Shadow, but adding a unique comic imprint. How can anyone resist the image of a giant bat looming over the city in the moonlight?  This did wonders for striking fear in the hearts of criminals, but made it tough to actually get the bad guys, as landing an auto gyro in the middle of Gotham City was never easy and autopilot only goes so far.

During the first two years of his appearances in Detective Comics, the Bat-Man employed several nondescript sedans.  Left to a four colour palette, it's not surprising these cars started out red and then were bright blue.  Also, given the visual appeal of the Bat-Man, most were convertibles.

The artists of these comics, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, Shelly Moldoff, were by no means industrial designers and their cars showed it.  Nevertheless, these crude comics have great appeal.

My biggest surprise was when CORGI decided to make 1/50 reproductions of not only the red sedan from Bat-Man's first appearance in DETECTIVE COMICS #27, but also this black roadster.  These toy cars represent amazingly faithful reproductions of rather poorly drawn cars.

It wouldn't be until 1941 when the term "Batmobile" was first coined by writer Bill Finger.  By that point, Bat-Man would be "Batman", have a Boy Wonder Sidekick, and a gallery of bizarre rogues.  

For these initial stories, Bat-Man was a raw vigilante, fighting crime and supernatural villainy by moonlight.  The time was Pulp.  
No one cared what car you drove.  In part, the anonymity of a sedan was part of the point.  

I think that's the point of departure for Super Hero comics, when suddenly tights, capes, and eye-popping fantasy started encroaching into the dark corners of Pulp.  For me, that started with a bright red car with a big honking bat hood ornament.   


  1. Is this what Grant Morrison was wanting to bring back in Batman and Robin?

  2. I really dig the Bat auto gyro... I would have liked to have seen Catwomen have one too, esp. whilst she was still sporting that big cat head costume she had. :)