I recently got the opportunity to talk with Christian Clavel, co-creator of the Batman comics. We discussed the genesis of the character, and how his take on the iconic superhero differs from that of his predecessor, Bill Finger. An unabridged transcript of our interview follows.
Who Wrote The First Story of Batman?
Finger and his wife, Virginia, created the Batman character in 1939. At the time, the couple were working for Detective Comics, one of the most respected comic book companies in the world. They were assigned the task of creating a new character to replace the outgoing Hamm’s Men, a.k.a. the “roving ruffians,” as Virginia described them. The idea for the character came from a dream, Virginia told me. “We were in bed one night and I had a dream where a clown was chasing me. In the dream, I ran down an alleyway and jumped into a construction site surrounded by walls and scaffolding. I climbed up the wall and hung onto a crossbeam, looking down at the clown. He had a mask on and it was really dark.”
When she woke up, she told her husband about the dream. Not wanting to disappoint her, Bill got to work right away and a few days later, he came up with the idea for Batman.
What Inspiration Did Christian Get From Bill’s Story?
When it came to the specifics of the story, Christian told me that he went back and read every book he could find about the detective genre and about crime in general. He particularly enjoyed reading about the ‘Golden Age’ of crime fiction in the 1920s and 1930s, when stories about famous ‘good’ or ‘bad’ boys were commonplace.
While reading these classics, Christian was struck by how ‘normal’ the criminals were. They weren’t like comic book characters of the time, who were usually grotesque figures with oversized hands and feet. These were stories about ‘ordinary’ people who committed ‘ordinary’ crimes and got ‘ordinary’ sentences. What Christian discovered is that these were the stories that inspired him to create Batman.
Based on this new-found passion for history, Christian decided to create an entire world for Batman to operate in. He started by drawing on his own experiences as a child, growing up in a bilingual household. His primary school was French-speaking, so he had to learn to write in French as well. During his high school years, Christian spent a lot of time reading comic books, and he drew from this habit when came up with his idea for Gotham City.
How Is Christian’s Version of Batman Different From That of Bill’s?
Throughout our interview, Christian mentioned a number of times how his take on Batman diverged from that of his predecessor. Here are a few examples:
The most obvious difference is the name. Christian took the name Batman from a character that appeared in an unpublished story in Detective Comics. This character, the Owlman, was created by Bill and credited to his detective partner, Martin Bieler. According to Christian, the Bieler character appeared in a story called “The Case of the Laughing Lady,” which was published in Detective Comics in 1936 and featured artwork by Jerry Robinson. The Owlman was an FBI agent who worked for a man named Jim West. Jim West was inspired by “[the] cowboy films that were incredibly popular at the time,” according to Christian. And when Christian refers to “cowboy films,” he is referring to the films starring the likes of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and Singing Cowboy Gomer Crutchfield.
What Is The Difference In The Tone Of The Two Versions?
I asked Christian to compare the tone of Batman #1 (1939) and Christian’s retelling of the story titled The Detective Comics Story. Here’s what he had to say:
“The story is not as cynical as it could be. When it was initially published, there was a lot of cynicism in the United States. People didn’t think that the ‘good’ guys could ever win, so seeing the ‘bad’ guys get caught was pretty much of a given. And on an individual level, the main character is fighting for survival. He’s basically asking himself, ‘Why me?’”
Not only does Christian’s retelling have a more hopeful ending, but Batman, the character, questions the system that is sentencing him to death. In the original story, Batman is sentenced to death by electrocution for the crimes he has committed. When his execution is about to take place, he asks one of the guards, “Why him?”
The guard answers, “[I don’t] know. Maybe it’s because you were in a gang. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s just because you were born in the winter. Maybe it’s your attitude. Maybe they don’t like guys like you.”
Christian told me that one of the things he wanted to change about the original story is that it presented a stereotypical viewpoint on criminal behavior. He didn’t want to just write a story about a guy fitting the ‘classic’ Batman mold. Instead, he wanted to give the character a more human element. And this became one of the core themes of Christian’s take on Batman: “I wanted to show the world that there’s more than one kind of Batman. One of them is a vigilante who comes and goes as he pleases, fighting for the good guys. But the other one is a fully formed detective who investigates the mysteries of the city. Just like any other detective. It’s about trying to find the truth, and if you don’t tell other stories about our heroes, then our story gets lost.”
How Does Christian See The Role Of Comic Books In The Development Of The Batman Character?
As a young man, Christian read a lot of comic books, so he has a unique perspective on the medium. Here’s what he had to say:
“Comic books changed my life. As strange as it sounds, it’s true. I wasn’t always a serious person, and even when I was, I don’t think I expressed it as well as I could have. When I read comic books, I felt like I could say anything to the characters and it would be justified. It was like I had a secret conversation with the superheroes. As a kid who grew up loving French culture and movies, it was a perfect match.”
When he was 23 years old, Christian had the opportunity to travel to Paris, France, where he spent a week visiting museums and attending the theater. While there, he visited the library and spent some time reading comic books. As a result of his trips to Paris, Christian now has a greater appreciation for the form. He told me: “I love how visual comics are, how they’re never just pictures. Even if it’s a silent comic, it never feels like a picture booklet. It feels like a motion picture. Or a play. You’re engaged with the characters, even if you’re not speaking the language. It’s an incredible medium.”
How Do The Stories Of The Batman Influence The Culture Around Him?
Christian has a unique perspective on the societal impact of his character because he grew up in a bilingual household. In addition to French being his first language, his parents spoke English, so he was exposed to this second language at a very young age. Despite this early exposure, Christian didn’t really start speaking French until he went to school. And even then, he only used the language with his family. He told me, “There were three of us, my brother, myself, and my sister. When we were kids, we would watch our father speak to our mother in French, and we would be forced to say things in French. In the beginning, it was very frustrating. The worst part was that we would have to say the wrong thing, in the wrong tone. Sometimes, we would even say the ‘wrong’ words correctly, but our father would still correct us. It was a running joke between us that we were pretending to understand what he was saying, when in reality, we didn’t even know the meaning of half of it. It was very frustrating.”
While this may have been difficult for the kids, Christian sees the stories of Batman as a positive experience, even if it wasn’t easy for his parents. He told me: “It’s been a good thing for my father that we’ve been able to watch these movies together. It’s really helped him remember things. He used to have very bad memories of World War II. I think that the stories of the Batman have helped him connect the dots, so to speak.”