My Son, the Batman: A Proud Memoir by the Artist Who Sired Gotham's Defender

updated 07/31/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/31/1989 01:00AM

By day, Bob Kane is a mild-mannered, 67-year-old artist and cartoonist. But by night, or at least by evening, when he attends an endless round of premieres, screenings, cocktail parties, lectures, press interviews and television tapings, Kane rides the waves of Batmania, a national hysteria sparked by Batman, the megahit movie based on characters he created in 1939. Fifty years later, Kane is still very much the proud Batdad. When a visitor arrives at the cartoonist's West Hollywood penthouse, Kane opens the front door to reveal a room as dark as his superhero's subterranean headquarters. "Welcome, "he says, "to the Batcave."

A native of the Bronx, the son of a printer at the New York Daily News, Kane invented Batman at 18. He drew him for DC Comics from 1939 to 1966. This October, Kane, who has spent the intervening years painting large canvases of Batman and exhibiting them around the world, will publish his autobiography, Batman and Me.

Divorced in 1957 from his first wife, Kane has been married for two years to actress Elizabeth Sanders, 36. He talked with correspondent Michael Alexander about his masked hero.

I was born with a pencil in my hand. I'd doodle on the sidewalks in New York, I'd scribble on walls. On the subway, I'd see an advertisement with the Colgate girl smiling with that beautiful set of ivory teeth, and I'd start blacking the teeth out. I must have been one of the all-time doodle-holics in the early days. I just used to scribble on anything I could get my hands on.

When I was 10, I knew I wanted to be a famous cartoonist. When my dad brought home the Sunday comic pages, I used to copy them all practically as good as the cartoonists who created them. In those days, most people didn't know what a cartoonist was. My family did, though. They encouraged me. They certainly didn't give me any flak for wanting to draw. My dad would bring my sketches down to the Daily News and show them to the cartoonists. They'd say, "Gee, your son has talent. He ought to stick to it."

I started selling cartoons when I was about 16. I got $5 a page for a cartoon, which was a lot of money in 1936. After I graduated from high school, I went to work for six months at Max Fleischer Studios, where they had Popeye and Betty Boop. From there I won a scholarship and studied art for around nine months.

Comic books were a whole new industry, but they didn't become really popular until DC Comics' Superman hit the market in 1938. I created Batman in 1939, after I was at DC about seven months. So I didn't suffer too long.

Superman became a sensational runaway hit overnight. I had a talk with my editor, Vincent Sullivan, one Friday. I said, "These two guys who are doing Superman, they must be making a fortune, right?" They were making probably $1,500 a week between them, and I was making $25 a week. The editor said, "Well, do you think you could come up with a superhero?" I said, "For that kind of money, I could come up with anything over the weekend." So I went home and started superhero doodling.

There were three major influences on Batman. The first was Zorro. As a kid, I was a movie buff. One of my favorites was The Mark of Zorro, with Douglas Fairbanks Sr. Zorro had the dual identity. By day, like Bruce Wayne, he feigned being a bored, foppish count, the son of one of the richest families in Mexico. By night, he became a vigilante. He would disguise himself, wearing a handkerchief mask with the eyes slit out. He exited on a black horse from a cave underneath his home, and that's the inspiration for the Batcave and the Batmobile.

The second influence was a Leonardo da Vinci book I had seen. The book had a lot of inventions, including a flying machine. It was a man on a sledlike contraption with huge bat wings. Da Vinci had a quote that went something like, "Your bird will have no model but that of a bat." There it was—from a book 500 years old!

The third inspiration was a silent mystery movie called The Bat, in which the bat was a villain. They had a searchlight in the movie with a bat in the middle, just like my Batsignal. I was always frightened by bats, but I was fascinated with them too, with the evil that they represented.

I wanted Bruce Wayne's costume to throw a terrible fear into the denizens of the underworld. If a huge bat came into your apartment, it would scare the hell out of you. I wanted to create a costume that was so awesome that the crooks would be petrified.

Batman was very crude at the beginning. He had stiff bat wings stuck behind his shoulders; he looked like a bat, actually. But I showed Vincent Sullivan my first crude sketches of Batman that Monday. He loved it and said, "Okay, let's go!"

I created Bruce Wayne to be a normal human being living in our society. I didn't want a second Superman. I think Batman is still the only superhero who's a normal man without superpowers. And therein I think lies the longevity of Batman. Every human can relate to being a Batman. Not giving Batman superpowers also gives the stories more tension because he can be killed. He'll bleed and he can die. That appeals to people, because he's vulnerable.

My father died when I was 22 or 23. That left a dark mood over my persona. Underneath it all, I'm a brooder like Batman. I really am Batman. When I was younger, I looked just like Bruce Wayne. I got the image from myself. Bruce Wayne—Bob Kane.

When Bruce Wayne was 10 years old, his mother and dad were murdered coming out of the theater. This dramatic shock motivated him to become a vigilante. Bruce Wayne isn't crazy, but he's obsessed. He became, in his own way, as psychotic as the Joker, except the Joker fights against justice and for evil. They're mirror images of each other.

Of all the villains I created, the Joker was my favorite. He's the most maniacal. He's sick but he's fun. His appearance is frightening and humorous at the same time. The inspiration for the Joker was a photograph of a German actor, Conrad Veidt, from the movie The Man Who Laughs. The film is derived from a Victor Hugo story about rival Gypsy gangs in France at the turn of the century. Sometimes the gangs would raid each other's camps and slit the mouths of children from ear to ear, so that when the children grew up, their mouths became frozen in a ghastly grin.

In the mid-'60s Batman was campy, in the comic book as well as on TV. I liked the TV series. It was good for the era of pop art. I still like it. The TV show was a farce, but it was still one of the great comedy shows of all time.

There are two factions today. There are those that like it campy, with Robin and the puns and the byplay back and forth. And there are the dyed-in-the-wool Batman fans who like it more misterioso.

It's difficult to turn a comic-book hero into a movie. The only yardstick was the TV show. We all agreed that we didn't want to do anything campy. We wanted to make Batman dark and brooding, taking the story back to its roots.

At the beginning, Michael Keaton was not my first choice to play Batman. But [Batman director] Tim Burton explained that he was looking for a character who was three-dimensional, real flesh and blood. We didn't want a superhunk. Michael Keaton has an edge about him. We knew we had a Joker who could blow the screen apart. We had to get a strong actor who could stand up to Jack Nicholson. Michael Keaton has a maniacal quality that Nicholson has, the same craziness going on in the eyes.

The Batman sequel will come as surely as I'm talking to you, probably in '90 or '91. They're going to rush one out, because they want to tear the sets down in Pinewood Studios, outside London. They'll need the space for something else if we wait too long.

I think Robin is definitely going to be in the next one. Robin was originally going to be introduced in the very last five or six minutes, but there wasn't time left to establish him as a character.

Some people expected the movie to fall on its face because of the hype. We worried about that. Now the whole Batmania thing is just unbelievable to me. We had a Batmania in '66 with the TV series, but this is even bigger. This movie is blowing through the rooftop.

And just think, I started it all with my little Batpencil when I was 18. Pretty amazing, isn't it?

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