Obituary: Bob Kane

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE CREATOR of Batman, the comic-strip character who was to become an American icon, Bob Kane always professed surprise that one of his "doodles" should have captured the imagination of the world to such an extent.

Created for DC Comics in 1939, Batman was not only a success as a comic- strip hero, but starred in movie serials and features and a hit television series. "He adapts to each era," said Kane. "He fights against all the injustices in the world. He fights the battle for the little man."

Born Robert Kahn in New York in 1915, Kane started drawing from comic books in the mid-Thirties, mainly creating "silly animals". In 1939, a year after the debut of Superman, the editor of DC Comics, Vincent Sullivan, asked Kane to devise a new superhero. Kane later stated that he created Batman over a single weekend, drawing for his inspiration on several sources, including a Leonardo da Vinci drawing ("When I was 12 or 13 I came across a book about da Vinci which had a picture of a flying machine with huge bat wings - it looked like a bat man to me"), plus such masked heroes of pulp fiction as Zorro and the Phantom, radio's The Shadow, and in particular Mary Reinhart and Avery Hopwood's novel and play The Bat, which featured a mysterious killer who dresses as a bat and casts a rodent shadow through the use of a special flashlight. The story had been filmed twice, in 1926 and 1930 (as The Bat Whispers) and was to be filmed again in 1959 with Vincent Price.

Kane's Batman was a hero, however, who lacked the powers of a Superman but cowed criminals with his strength, agility, a dazzling array of sophisticated equipment and a sinister bat mask. Unlike Superman, who was born on a dying planet and to save his life was sent to earth, Batman was the wealthy orphan Bruce Wayne (chosen to rhyme with Kane), who devoted his life to fighting crime after witnessing the murder of his parents when he was a child.

Batman made his debut in Detective Comics in May 1939 and went on to become world famous as the "caped crusader", an affluent Gotham City businessman by day and scourge of the underworld by night. Kane did the drawings to scripts by Bill Finger, and stated, "I really improved fast with Batman, but it took a year to get the character looking right. I used to get nosebleeds from working on it 16 hours a day at the beginning." The character spawned not only movies, but toys, games, clothing and a wealth of merchandising.

Batman himself, in the course of his adventures, utilised a host of super- gadgets, notably his vehicle, the Batmobile, a specialised boomerang of his own design called the Baterang, and a utility belt containing chemical pellets - but no guns, which had been banned from the strip shortly after its start due to its influence on children.

Batman's principal limitation was that he was human, and thus sufficient strength or weaponry could kill him. Among the colourful adversaries who tried to get the better of him were the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Two-Face and Catwoman, the last a jewel thief who had turned to crime to avenge herself on an abusive husband. She and Batman clashed repeatedly over the years while harbouring an unspoken attraction, and the comic strip had Catwoman ultimately reforming and, after serving a prison sentence, marrying Batman and giving him a daughter.

In 1940, when young Richard Grayson, member of a family trapeze act, witnessed his family's murder, Batman took the lad on as a partner, giving him a costumed identity as Robin, the Boy Wonder. In 1943 the pair were joined by their faithful butler Alfred, and in the same year they were featured in a Columbia 15-part serial, Batman, starring Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft and William Austin as Batman, Robin and Alfred, with J. Carroll Naish playing the villainous Dr Daka who, with his zombie army, tries to steal radium for the Nazis.

Very popular, it was released again in the 1960s following the success of a television series, which started in 1968 and proved an enormous hit, the 30-minute colour show topping the ratings for over a year. Guest villains and cameo stars (who reputedly "begged" to be on the show) included Tallulah Bankhead, Vincent Price, Otto Preminger and Edward G. Robinson.

The statuesque actress-dancer Julie Newmar was a memorable Catwoman in the series, which made her attraction to her adversary explicit. In one episode she trapped Batman in an echo chamber which magnifies sound by 10 million times, and tells him, "Your brains will be turned to mush. Then I shall return and you will be mine forever, Batman. We will have to sacrifice your intellect, but with a build like yours, who cares."

Adam West and Burt Ward were the two leads, and 20th Century-Fox quickly teamed them in a big-screen version, Batman (1966), made in the same campy style that characterised the television show. The plot had the dynamic duo's favourite villains (Catwoman, the Joker, the Penguin and the Riddler) teaming up to take over the world, with Burgess Meredith as the Penguin and Frank Gorshin as the Riddler having great fun chewing the scenery.

In 1989, Tim Burton's Batman returned to the darker vision of the original comic-strip, with Kane's "Dark Knight" a noir-ish figure of vengeance, and was an enormous hit, currently the 12th highest- grossing film of all time. (Jack Nicholson, playing the Joker, took a percentage of profits and reputedly made $50m.) Burton's casting of Michael Keaton in the leading role was criticised by some who thought the actor lacked heroic stature when not in Batman guise, but Burton defended his star: "The whole point is that he's not Arnold Schwarzenegger because, if he were, then why would he need to put on a batsuit?"

Kane also created the television cartoon characters Courageous Cat, Minute Mouse and Cook McCool, but it is for Batman that he will be remembered. Along with Superman and Wonder Woman, Batman is the only character to remain in continuous comic book publication. Although Kane did less of the drawing for the strip after the 1940s, he supervised it for many years and acted as consultant on the recent films. According to his attorney, he was looking through fan mail ("He gets stacks and stacks every day") the day before he died.

The president of DC Comics, Jenette Kahn, stated, "Bob Kane is a giant in the field of popular culture, one of a handful of people who launched the comic-book industry and who gave the world a group of characters so colourful and inventive that they continue to captivate every new generation."

Robert Kahn (Bob Kane), cartoonist: born New York 24 October 1915; married Elizabeth Sanders (one daughter); died Los Angeles 3 November 1998.

Comments