The Dark Knight
A NonSuper Superhero
One of the true icons of comic book culture is Batman, a superhero
without super powers. The scourge of the underworld, Batman is a
spectacular crime fighter with a dazzling array of weapons and gadgets.
Unlike most comic book heroes who are gifted with extraordinary
powers, Batman is an ordinary man who develops his skills
through training and hard work. A master detective, Batman is one of
the few superheroes who outthinks as well as outfights his opponents.
The creation of artist Bob Kane, Batman first appeared in Detective
Comics, #27 May 1939. Like Superman from a year before, the
costumed crime fighter caught on quickly with the reading public,
and within a few years, was starring in his own comic as well as continuing
to appear in Detective Comics.
Unlike Superman, however, Batman wasn't unique in comics.
Before he debuted, a number of noncostumed heroes appeared in the
pages of Detective and Action Comics. Soon after Batman's appearance,
a number of very similar costumed heroes with secret identities
joined the ranks of comic book characters, yet none ever achieved
the same level of success as Batman. None ever became an American
legend recognized throughout the world. What made Batman so
For one, his look was unique. Batman's name came from his
appearance. He looked like a bat in human form. With his cloak and
hood, he looked like no other character in comics. With his bright
red and blue outfit, Superman was an all-American hero. Clad in
dark colors and wearing a mask while fighting crooks, Batman was a
creature of the night. To use a catchphrase invented many years
later, the early Batman truly was a "Dark Knight."
Then there were Batman's roots. Unlike Superman, who was
defined by his parents' noble sacrifice, Batman was the product of murder.
Batman's tragic history gave him a depth of character unequalled
by most superheroes. As pointed out by comic book historian Les
Daniels, Bob Kane created Batman months before ever considering the
character's origin. Kane was more concerned with his hero's look
than with his history. The story of how young Bruce Wayne's parents
were killed before his eyes by a petty criminal, inspiring the boy to
devote his life to fighting crime, didn't appear until December 1939.
Kane invented Batman, but it was Kane working with writer Bill Finger,
who together devised Batman's background. The right look and
the right history combined to make Batman a compelling character.
Equally important in shaping Batman was the decision in late
1939 by newly appointed DC editorial director, Whit Ellsworth, to
keep actual violence in Batman stories to a minimum. Early adventures
in Detective Stories had Batman using a gun to dispatch villains.
Ellsworth wanted DC comics to be kid-friendly and reasoned that
too much violence would alienate readers. Within a year, guns were
gone and Batman was capturing, not killing, criminals.
The next major step in Batman's evolution came with the addition
of a kid sidekick, Robin, in Detective Comics #38, April 1940. Bill
Finger, who was writing the scripts for the series, complained that
Batman had no one to talk to. Bob Kane obligingly created Robin.
The Boy Wonder added dialogue to the comics and also gave readers
a character their own age. Robin proved to be a wise move. The
circulation of Detective Comics nearly doubled after the addition of the
teen hero, leading to a proliferation of teenage superhero assistants
over the next two decades.
The final key to Batman's success was the bizarre crew of villains
he battled each month. Finding worthy opponents for Superman
required enemies with incredible powers or super science. Batman,
a crime fighter who used his intelligence to battle crime, merely
needed criminals with a good gimmick to make them worthy opponents.
Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and writer/artist Jerry Robinson created
a wild rogues' gallery for Batman that was spectacular even by
comic book standards. Top-notch villains included the Joker, Catwoman,
Two-Face, the Penguin, the Riddler, and many more.
Appearance, history, a teen sidekick, and intriguing villains make
Batman one of the most popular superheroes in history. During Batman's
more than sixty years of comic book stardom, the formula has
changed on occasion. For example, the original Robin grew up and
needless to say became a crime fighter. A second Robin died. However,
his replacement fights by Batman's side today.
Other writers and artists following the team of Bob Kane and Bill
Finger reshaped Batman to fit the times. Most notably, Frank Miller
turned Batman into a darker, grimmer, more realistic character in
his retelling of Batman's origin in the 1980s with "The Dark Knight
Returns." Miller's stark imagery served as a major influence for Tim
Burton's film, Batman. Today, Batman continues to shine as one of
DC Comics's greatest stars, with his adventures highlighted in a
half-dozen comic books every month.
A non-super superhero, fighting non-super criminals. Where's
the science? Just keep reading.
The Science of Batman
Unlike Superman, Batman wasn't born with super powers, nor did a
friendly alien like the Green Lantern give Batman super powers. An
explosion didn't douse him with chemicals as in the case of the Flash.
Batman didn't fly a homemade rocket to outer space like The Fantastic
Four, nor did he witness a gamma ray explosion up close like
The Incredible Hulk.
Batman is a self-made hero. As explained in numerous stories,
including "How to Be the Batman," Detective Comics #190, Batman
spent years training in a gym to become a perfect acrobat. He
directed his entire education toward scientific crime fighting. Bruce
Wayne trained his mind much in the same manner as he trained his
body. As he stated in Detective Comics #190, "I've got to know science
thoroughly to become a scientific detective." There's little question
that Wayne succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Consider "The Amazing Inventions of Batman," as discussed in
Batman #109, August 1957. In this story, Batman and Robin use
portable jet packs to fly between buildings; use a heat ray to detonate
dangerous boxes of explosives floating in Gotham City harbor; and
use a flying camera to spy on crooks planning a robbery. Was Batman
using real-life science or merely 1950s pseudo-scientific nonsense?
The first accurate prediction of a portable flying pack was made
in 1928 in the novel The Skylark of Space by E. E. Smith, also serialized
in Amazing Stories, August through October 1928. The first
issue of the magazine featured a cover with a man flying while wearing
a rocket backpack. The same issue of Amazing Stories also featured
the first Buck Rogers story. Although the cover had nothing
to do with Buck Rogers, the flying backpack illustration and Buck
Rogers were forever linked by inaccurate research as that "crazy
Buck Rogers stuff."
The writer of "The Many Inventions of Batman" was Edmond
Hamilton, a friend of DC editor Julius Schwartz and longtime comic
book scriptwriter. Hamilton had been writing science fiction stories
since 1926, and there's little question that he read the August 1928
issue of Amazing Stories. Most likely, it served in part as Hamilton's
inspiration. But, quite possibly, so did real science.
In the 1950s and 1960s, magazines like Popular Science and Popular
Mechanics ran several articles about portable jetpacks being
developed by scientists trying to come up with new methods of transportation.
The man most often mentioned regarding such devices
was Wendell F. Moore, a scientist who worked for Bell Aerosystems
during those years. Moore dealt with small rockets fueled by hydrogen
peroxide. According to several news accounts, he came up with
the idea of a man flying by the use of small rockets on his back one
evening while doodling.
Moore's doodles turned real in 1960 when the Army Transportation
Command awarded Bell Aerosystems a contract for $150,000 to
develop a Small Rocket Lifting Device. The Army wanted a practical
machine for improving troop mobility. Moore built his rocket belt and
on April 20, 1961, an associate of his at Bell Aerosystems, Harold Graham,
flew 112 feet outdoors using the rocket belt.
Unfortunately, the Bell jetpack was highly impractical. The
invention was little more than a high-powered rocket strapped to a
man's back. The jetpack used pressure from liquid nitrogen to force
hydrogen peroxide into a catalyst chamber where it reacted with silver
screens coated with samarium nitrate. The mix created a jet of
very hot, very high-pressured steam that provided the thrust that
lifted the user into the air. One wrong move and the pilot was badly
burned by the steam. Equally dangerous, the flier had to use his own
legs as landing gear. In addition, the jetpack made an incredibly loud
noise when in operation.
Despite all of its flaws, the Bell jetpack fascinated the public. The
device was demonstrated numerous times around the world. It was
shown in television shows, air shows, and was even featured in the
James Bond film, Thunderball.
The Army never used the Bell jetpack for the simple reason that
it could only carry enough fuel for a twenty second flight. When
Moore died in 1969, the jetpack was retired from use. However, the
idea of a personal flying device refused to die. An August 2000 news
release described the Solo Trek XFV, made by Millennium Jet
Inc., a vertical one-man jet that could fly up to 80 miles per hour and
for 150 miles before refueling. Chalk one up for Batman.
Flying police weren't anything unusual in Gotham (a.k.a. New
York City). The first police helicopter patrols in the world began in
Manhattan in 1948. Batman merely took a proven idea and pushed
it one step farther. In "The Many Inventions of Batman," the Dark
Knight used a flying camera to spy on a criminal scientist and his
gang. While aerial surveillance was in its most primitive stages in the
1950s, it was an idea that was evolving. In the comic book adventure,
the criminals steal Batman's invention and use the flying camera to
locate an armored car traveling on the highway. Any resemblance to
a certain car chase involving an ex-football player was purely coincidental.
Just remember, Batman predicted it first!
What about the heat ray used to detonate explosives in the
water? Lasers can be traced back to Albert Einstein's 1917 theories.
The first microwave laser was built in 1954, three years before the
Batman story took place. The first optical laser was invented three
years after the story was published. Batman was merely taking existing
science and projecting it forward a few years.
In our time, small, high-powered diode lasers are often used in
delicate surgical procedures, but could be wielded as a weapon if
necessary. Still, whatever damage they could cause, lasers aren't
nearly as effective as low-tech weapons like guns or knives. The
Armed Forces have conducted tests with much more powerful lasers,
but the results of these tests aren't available to the general public.
The most common use of a laser in warfare is as a powerful light gun,
causing major eye damage to distant enemy forces. Use of lasers to
blind people in warfare has already been banned in an international
The most powerful tool used by Batman in his war against crime
was his Utility Belt. On it, he kept a number of tools and devices to
help him battle criminals and solve mysteries. The multi-faceted
Utility Belt has become a part of American pop culture. Some computer
hackers hang all sorts of electrical equipment like pagers, personal
organizers, pocketknives, flashlights, tool kits, and even
miniature computers from their belts. Needless to say, the hacker
nickname for such a belt is a "bat belt."
According to the first Giant Batman Annual published in 1961,
the following items are contained in Batman's Utility Belt:
Tiny oxyacetylene torch
Batman's silken rope is described as being drawn out of the belt
lining like a fisherman's line is drawn from a reel.
It was a fascinating list for the time. Miniaturized items weren't
readily available in a world before microcircuits and computer chips,
but still, were the items outrageous or merely projections of what
science promised for the future?
Do we even need to mention miniature cameras? Every appliance,
electronics, and camera store in the United States has a full
stock of miniature cameras.
There's also the Fraser-Volpe Co. M.I.C.E.-miniature integrated
camera eye-which is a wireless high-resolution camera system.
It can be used as a standalone camera, and it can also be attached
to all sorts of optical devices such as binoculars and rifle scopes. The
system lets the optical device function normally while it transmits
realtime videos back to a command center. It's a device many people
thought only appeared in Mission Impossible, but it's real. There's
no question that it would be part of Batman's arsenal.
Next, we have pass keys. These keys are part of any respectable
burglar's equipment and something that every crime fighter needs
in his war against the underworld. Pass keys or picklocks are legal in
most states, but it is a crime to be caught carrying such tools if there
is clear indication of criminal intent. Most professional thieves know
better than to carry picklocks with them since almost any thin piece
of metal (or sometimes plastic) is all that is necessary to open most
What's true for criminals we must assume is true for Batman, as
well. In his Utility Belt, he probably carries a small set of "jiggler"
keys, very thin keys that can be inserted into most locks and jiggle
the tumblers, and a few Master keys, general all-purpose keys that
slide easily into many locks. Along with keys, Batman carries several
lock picks and tension wrenches. These are easily made from pieces
of spring steel, including piano wire and hacksaw blades. Using these
few tools, the Dark Knight can enter nearly any apartment or building
Electronic locks are more of a challenge, but a little ingenuity
and an electronic coding device will work wonders. Automobile
security isn't any more challenging for criminals or crime-fighters;
most door locks can be opened with a thin piece of wire. Despite
advertisements to the contrary, the famous "club" can be picked by
most car-jackers in seconds. Besides which, most steering wheels are
vulnerable to attack with or without an attached club.
Excerpted from "The Science of Superheroes" by Lois H. Gresh. Copyright © 2003 by Lois H. Gresh. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.