The Symbolism of a Bat. Bat in Pop Culture

Dodano: 26 January 2015

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It must be said openly – Batman doesn’t have a monopoly on the use of the symbol of the bat. It may be hard to believe for his committed fans, but the Dark Knight is not the only hero having spectacular connections with flying mammals. Pop culture abounds in both bats, which in various forms have frightened and fascinated subsequent generations of audiences for years, and heroes inspired by these animals. The presence of bats in modern popular culture can be traced starting from the Broadway production of a play The Bat in the twenties (Bob Kane mentioned it as one of the inspirations for creating Batman’s character), through further adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and pulp detective stories, as well as today’s horror movies, comedies and finally cartoons. Negative characters (e.g. Dracula), positive (e.g. The Black Bat), and those that are difficult to classify (e.g. Man-Bat) have been associated with bats.

Because of the diversity of material, I would like to focus only on three, but very distinctive characters of pop culture, which have much in common with bats (Batman isn’t there of course, but will be discussed in the last part of this series). Let’s start with the most famous hero, whose career began in the 19th century – with the demonic Count Dracula. Then, the Black Bat is going to be presented – a hero deriving from the pulp literature, whose adventures enjoyed considerable popularity in the nineteen-thirties and forties. Lastly, there’s probably the least known character, that is Man-Bat deriving from the DC Comics universe. Therefore, let us look more carefully at the three, at the same time looking for items related with bat symbols.

Count Dracula – bat and vampire

Today, bats are almost automatically associated primarily with vampires. Every bloodsucker, regardless of whether it appears in a film, TV series, comics or cartoons for children, can easily turn into a bat. A demonic figure in a black cape evoking associations with bat wings, usually dwelling in the dark castle, accompanied by beautiful women (who also frequently have some vampiric tendencies) – this is how the dominant pop culture image of a vampire is presented; obviously, the bats are always flying in the background. So, let’s focus a bit more on the origins of the vampire career in popular culture, simultaneously bearing in mind that the very idea of this character is much older than its pop culture version. As Maria Janion writes: “the vampire myth is considered one of the most universal and everlasting” [1].

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A vampire among women and bats

The hero, who comes to mind first while talking about vampires and bats inhabiting contemporary popular culture, is Count Dracula, the hero of the best-selling novel by Bram Stoker, published in 1897. Although it’s not Stoker who introduced a vampire to the society of pop culture, it was his character that has become a superstar. But in this area priority must be given to John William Polidori, the author of The Vampyre story published in 1819 in which the main character is a demonic Lord Ruthven [2]. Polidori is believed to have effectively changed the way we think about the vampire – from the figure appearing in popular folklore he made the vampire a distinguished character of aristocratic origin that hunts for members of the public.

An interesting context for the creation of The Vampyre, which Maria Janion also mentions, is worth taking into consideration. Everything stared on 16 June 1816. During the evening gathering at Villa Diodati which overlooks Lake Geneva, Polidori, George Byron and Mary and Percy Shelley were telling stories about ghosts and the dead. On this gloomy and stormy night, Polidori came up with an idea which later turned into The Vampyre, and Mary Shelley created the basis for the story known today as Frankenstein. As pointed out by Maria Janion, Byron had a hand in creating the character of Lord Ruthven, who during the meeting “probably told or scrawled the idea of the story” [3]. Moreover, as a result of a misunderstanding, The Vampyre was first published as the work of Byron [4].

Whilst the literary predecessor of Count Dracula was Lord Ruthven, his historical prototype was Vlad Tepes IV, also known as Dracula (Vlad Dracul, or Vlad the Devil, was his father). He was a Wallachian hospodar living in the 15th century. The Dracula nickname literally means the son of the one called Dracul, in this case, the son of the Devil. The second nickname of our hero is much more interesting: Tepes, the Impaler. He earned it due to the sadistic passion to impale his enemies. The legends about spectacular cruelty of the Wallachian hospodar, even if exaggerated, probably inspired Stoker. It should be noted that, what’s typical of historical relationships, it’s hard to determine where knowledge of the real deeds of Vlad Tepes ends, and where the dark legend begins. Suffice it to say that even though on the one hand, he is regarded as a bloody sadist and his victims are counted in the hundreds of thousands, on the other hand, he is known – mainly in Romania – as a severe yet consistent and fair ruler famous for a fierce defence of Christianity against the Turkish threat.

But first, let’s go back to Stoker’s Dracula. As pointed out by Maria Janion, the author of the novel “he laboriously compiled ideas about vampires from folk tales, fiction and scientific literature” [6]. Also the structure of the story is compilatory; it consists of accounts between different people presented in the form of diaries, journals and letters. Additionally, Maria Janion makes an interesting remark, namely that all the characters have a say, except for the title one. Dracula himself is condemned to silence. The reader finds out about Dracula’s story only from letters, diaries and journals of other people[7]. The characters describe their encounters with the demonic Transylvanian Count Dracula, who arrives in England on board of the ship Demeter. He meets Lucy Westenra, who together with her friend Mina Harker are on holiday in the seaside town of Whitby. Lucy becomes his first victim. She is bitten by the vampire and gradually loses her strength. Subsequent blood transfusions carried out by Professor Abraham Van Helsing are also ineffective. The girl dies and turns into a vampire. At Mina Haker’s prompting, who found her husband’s diary from the stay at the castle of Count Dracula, Professor Van Helsing and Lucy’s friends begin an investigation that aims to track down and kill the vampire. As we know, the investigation is successful – Dracula is defeated.

Although in the Stoker’s story Dracula turns into not only bat, but also a wolf, it is the flying mammal that became his trademark. “Stoker, with particular relish, gives Dracula the shape of an enormous bat that flutters and presses against the window of Lucy’s bedroom, sometimes breaking it and attacking the victim to drink her blood. In the human incarnation, his cape is a sign of bat wings “[8]. Dracula’s relationship with the bat as a nocturnal animal shows clearly that we are dealing with the dark and demonic figure that functions between life and death. Duality of bats becomes a reflection of the duality of Dracula, who remains both alive and dead, constantly balancing between the two states.

The book, describing the struggle of the bloodthirsty vampire from Transylvania, became the basis of many adaptations which immortalised Dracula. Obviously, the first one entitled Nosferatu. A symphony of Horror belongs to Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau. Max Schreck played the role of the vampire. It is one of the most famous adaptations of this book, but in fact, it’s not an adaptation in the strict sense. Due to the lack of rights to the novel, Murnau changed some elements of the plot and characterisation of the protagonists. Unfortunately, this didn’t protect him from being sued by Bram Stoker’s widow. Murnau lost the case, but the film is still regarded as a work of art. In 1979 Werner Herzog made a remake of this film titled Nosferatu the Vampyre with Klaus Kinski’s unforgettable performance.

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Max Schreck and Klaus Kinski – expressionistic Dracula

However, Tod Browning ‘s Dracula – a Hollywood movie with Bela Lugosi playing the main role, had much greater influence on the contemporary pop culture image of the demonic Count than Murnau’s work. Count Dracula from the Browning’s movie seems to be much more adjusted to the expectations of mass audience – instead of a round-shouldered, bald and slightly scared vampire with protruding ears and oversized front teeth, there’s a handsome, elegant brunet with demonic, hypnotic and seductive eyes. Well, American writers definitely better intuited what kind of vampires the viewers wanted to be afraid of at that time.

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Bela Lugosi, Dracula straight from Hollywood

This version captured the American and global popular culture. New adaptations of Stoker’s novel and their sequels were mass-produced. Dracula himself began to appear in other media. In 1972, Marvel began publishing The Tomb of Dracula series about the adventures of Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula, who inherited his castle in Transylvania. Frank, his girlfriend Jane and her ex-boyfriend Clifton Graves travel to Transylvania to find out whether transforming the castle into a tourist attraction is possible. Of course, Dracula is accidentally resurrected in the castle which begins a series of dramatic events. Just in the first issue, Dracula repeatedly does his party piece, that is, turning into a bat. The metamorphoses become one of his identifying marks (the other is his unquenchable thirst that only the blood of beautiful women can slake) [9].

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Marvel and comic book Dracula

Nowadays, Dracula is a well-known figure. He appears not only in horrors, but also in comedies (e.g. Dracula – Dead and Loving it, with the unforgettable Leslie Nielsen) and fairy tales for children (e.g. Hotel Transylvania) and the characteristic Dracula costume is one of the most popular Halloween costumes for children. This is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable icons of pop culture today, and its transformation into a bat is his easily recognisable trademark.

The Black Bat – bat and detective

Heroes inspired by the flying mammal can be also found in the pulp action-crime literature. The most famous (though, of course, it’s nowhere near as popular as Dracula) is probably The Black Bat, or it should be said, the two different versions of this character. The first Black Bat appeared in six short stories published in the magazine Black Bat Detective Mysteries between October 1933 and April 1934 [10]. William Fitzgerald Jenkins was the author under the pseudonym of Murray Leinster (1896-1975). Apart from the detective stories, he created science fiction, adventure, horror stories, romances and westerns. He also wrote scripts for radio and television.

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The cover of the magazine Black Bat Detective Mysteries – the debut of the first Black Bat

Only six issues of the magazine Black Bat Detective Mysteries were published and all of them contained stories about the Black Bat: The Body in the Taxi, The Coney Island Murders, The Hollywood Murders, Murder at First Night, The Maniac Murders, The Warehouse Murders. Linster self-evidently modelled his protagonist on Sherlock Holmes – Black Bat was a detective who often helped the police in solving crimes. Interestingly, the author has never revealed his true identity. The hero was described very vaguely as tall and handsome, but slender man. He often accompanied the lieutenant (later captain) Hines, who – like Black Bat – was a great fan of cigars. The lieutenant called Black Bat when he couldn’t cope with some mystery or when the traditional police methods failed. However, the detective wasn’t always willing to help, in fact, he didn’t deal with issues uninteresting for him. Hines, who knew him well, could turn the detective to these riddles he wasn’t able to solve himself. Thus, the Black Bat’s achievements included: solving of the mysteries of the murder in Coney Island, Hollywood star blackmail, or the murder of one of the leading Broadway artists[11].

The second and better known version of the Black Bat debuted a few years later. In August 1939, a novel The Brand of the Black Bat by Norman A. Daniels under the pseudonym of G. Wayman Jones was published in Black Book Detective Magazine. It was the first in the series of sixty-two stories about that hero which were printed in this magazine until the winter of 1953.

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The cover of Black Book Detective Magazine issued in July 1939 – the debut of the second Black Bat

A hero of the story was Anthony Quinn – prosecutor who fought determinedly with criminals. During one of the court cases, while defending arguments against the menacing gangster Oliver Snate, he was attacked with acid by one of his thugs and lost his sight. This event didn’t influence Quinn’s determination to fight criminals; he began an intensive training thanks to which he shaped his body and developed other senses. Moreover, as a result of an extraordinary coincidence, he also regained his sight. A mysterious woman, Carol Baldwin, persuaded him to get an eyes transplantation. Her father, who was shot dead, was the donor. The successful operation was conducted by Dr Harrington. Quinn not only regained his sight, but to his surprise he found that he gained the ability to see in the dark. Thus, he decided to use his assets in fight against crime: during the day he still played the role of a blind prosecutor, and at night he turned into an avenger operating outside the law and mercilessly fighting crime – the Black Bat. The criminals elusive for the law were his target. A bat figurine, which he always placed next to his victims, became the signature of the night guardian of justice. He quickly created a kind of bat-family which consisted of: Carol Baldwin, Silk Kerby (an informant perfectly familiar with the realities of the criminal underworld), and Butch O’Leary (not very intelligent knuckle-dragger). There were also two police officers in the stories: commissioner Jerome Warner, who observed Quinn’s legal practice and captain McGrath, who suspected the hero of a secret activity and tried to prove it in each episode (unsuccessfully of course) [12].

It is worth pointing out that the second Black Bat appeared at about the same time as Batman. Initially, both publishers – National Comics issuing Detective Comics and Thrilling Publications issuing Black Book Detective Magazine – accused each other of plagiarism. The dispute was eventually solved and the two heroes functioned side by side. Many common elements are noticeable in the two stories, concerning both specificities of the heroes and their adventures. However, it is difficult to say clearly that one publisher was sneaking the ideas of the other. At that time, the stories about heroes and superheroes’ adventures were written according to proven patterns used by various authors. According to Brian Cronin, the only obvious violation of copyright committed by Batman creators was stealing specifically shaped gloves. The Black Bat as the first one pulled on the gloves with characteristic spikes [13].

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Black Bat and gloves stolen by Batman

To conclude, let’s mention briefly a few contemporary comic attempts to revive the character. In 2010, the publisher Moonstone Books, in the series under the significant title Return of the Originals, released five comic books devoted to the original pulp heroes who became the inspiration for today’s superheroes. Of course, there was enough space for Black Bat in the series. The script was written by Mike Bullock and Michael Metcalf took care of the drawings[14].

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Black Bat in Moonstone Books version

In 2011, Paul Hobbs’ Legacy of the Black Bat comic book with the Black Bat in a slightly different version, was published online [15]. The role of the Black Bat is assumed by one Steve Ventura – a mysterious man with vague Anthony Quinn’s memories. What is more, as the DNA holder of the former Black Bat, he got access to the arsenal hidden in the Crypt. Quinn’s former assistant helps him to adapt to a new role.

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The first page of the comic book about the adventures of the third Black-Bat

The last attempt to restore the former glory of this hero is a much more complex story about the adventures of Anthony Quinn published by Dynamite Entertainment that specialises in bringing back to life the pulp heroes from nineteen-thirties. From May 2013 to May 2014 the publishing house issued a twelve episode series of Anthony Quinn’s adventures written by Brian Buccellato with Ronan Cliquet’s drawings [16]. In this story the authors moved away a bit from pulp sources, describing the beginnings of the Black Bat’s career.

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Black Bat by Dynamite Entertainment

It has to be said that Black Bat, deriving from the pulp literature, was a very distinctive and influential character. Isn’t the picture of a blind lawyer fighting crime not only in the courtroom, but also outside it similar to someone? Isn’t it familiar to us that a man, as a result of being doused with acid in the courtroom, changes his whole life? It appears that the motives from the stories about the Black Bat are more common in the comic modern world than it might seem.

Man-Bat – a bat or a man?

There’s one more comic character having strong connections with bats. DC Comics Universe, apart from the whole bat-family, has another, highly ambiguous hero who perhaps would have more rights to be called the bat. A Man-Bat, the man who didn’t dress up in but simply turned into a bat, debuted In Detective Comics # 400 issued in June 1970. In the three episode Frank Robbins’ story with Neal Adams’ drawings published in Detective Comics # 400, # 402, # 407 (1970-1971), the major role was played by a character whose relationships with bats were much stronger than in the case of Bruce Wayne.

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Man-Bat debuts in “Detective Comics”

The first episode – Challenge of the Man-Bat – introduces a zoologist Kirk Langstrom. The scientist working in the Museum of Natural History, behind the closed doors, carries out research on bat glands extract which is supposed to improve the hearing or help deaf people to regain it. Pleased with the results, Langstrom decides to test the drug and injects himself with it. In the beginning it seems that everything goes according to plan, but unfortunately side effects appear. The zoologist begins to turn into a huge bat. Unluckily, on the day of this unsuccessful scientific experiment, the Blackout Gang heists the Natural History Museum. Tried and trusted Batman gets in the way of the gang, but without Man-Bat’s help it could end up badly. Thus, the two people having particular obsession with flying mammals together prevent a crime. It looked as if the next character would join the bat-family, but further events showed that the relationship between the heroes are much more complicated.

In Man or Bat. the second episode, the bat-hero reappears, but this time the atmosphere isn’t that pleasant. Langstrom steals from a chemical plant a vial with a substance that will help him to return to his normal form. After coming back to his laboratory in the Museum of Natural History, he starts working on the antidote. And here Batman gets in the way; Langstorm is so surprised with Batman’s invasion that he drops the vial with the preparation. Convinced that he lost the chance to return to his normal form, he attacks Batman, and then jumps out of the window. On the run, Langstrom discovers that his body is still mutating – this time he grows wings. Thus the former zoologist accidentally gets to Batman’s cave by air. When the Dark Knight comes back, the fight starts – this time, however, Man-Bat is defeated. Batman starts working on an antidote that will bring Langstrom back to the human form. In the meantime, unfortunately, Man-Bat regains consciousness and hides somewhere in the corner of the cave. Batman, who primarily wants to cure Langstrom, decides to bring along Man-Bat’s fiancée, Francine Lee. in the hope that this will convince the scientist to undergo treatment. Unluckily, when Batman and Francine arrives at the cave, it turns out that the Man-Bat is no longer there.

In the third episode, Marriage: Impossible, Batman finds out that Langstrom is going to marry Francine Lee, but he decides to prevent this. The Dark Knight appears in the cathedral and tears off Langstrom’s mask showing his bat face. It turns out, however, that Francine also injected herself with the serum and, as her fiancé, she also hides a bat face under the latex mask. Now, our hero must face not one enemy, but two. But this doesn’t pose a problem to Batman, who after defeating the pair of bats in love, injects them with the antidote, so they both return to the human form [17].

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Demonic Man-Bat in all his glory

According to a commonly used scheme, DC Comics decided to issue the history which presents the origins of the character. In the Secret Origin of Man-Bat published in “Secret Origins” vol. 2 # 39 (1989) traumatic experiences of Kirk Langstorm were described. Just like a young Bruce Wayne, Langtrom fell into the cave as a child. The difference is that he spent over six weeks it in the company of bats. When he was finally found by the police, he didn’t seem happy about leaving his flying companions. Everything suggests that this period of Langstrom’s life established his relationship with the flying mammals. Man-Bat appeared many times on the pages of magazines dedicated to the adventures of Batman, including Detective Comics # 416 (1971), # 429 (1972), Batman # 254 (1974); Batman: The Man-Bat vol. 1, # 1-3 (1995). DC also issued three miniseries with Langstom playing the main part: Man-Bat vol. 1, # 1-2, (1975-1976); vol. 2, # 1-3 (1996), vol. 3, # 1-5, (2006). In 2009 the Battle for the Cowl appeared. Man-Bat also marked his presence in The New 52.

The adventures of Man-Bat, his choosing between good and evil, the constant dilemma over his dual identity, tragedy connected with a dramatic metamorphosis: all this seems to fit in the previously described ways of perceiving bats as animals existing in the world “in between”. All texts about bats highlight the problems with their ambiguous classification. The experience of being in betwixt, or in a liminal area – as Arnold van Gennep would say – is shared by Kirk Langstrom. We can say that we are dealing with a tragic hero in the strict sense. Batman has similarly ambivalent attitude to him. Although the Dark Knight repeatedly fights with Man-Bat, at the same time he wants to cure him. The relationship between them is far from being unambiguous.

Conclusion

Thus, we reached the DC Comics Universe. We are now on the ground, where Batman feels confident, though even here he is not the only hero having close links with bats. However, in his case the symbolism of a bat takes on special significance. In the next episode of the series we’ll try to look at how it is constructed in Batman comics.

In the next episode: The symbolism of a bat in Batman Universe

The author of the review is PhD Paweł Ciołkiewicz – a sociologist involved in the discourse analysis and sociology of media. He is currently conducting research on popular culture.

Translation: Monika Cach and Klementyna Dec

[1] M. Janion, Wampir. Biografia symboliczna, Wydawnictwo słowo/obraz terytoria, Gdańsk, 2002, p 7.

[2] Ibid, p 170.

[3] Ibid, p 171.

[4] The film Ghotic (1986) directed by Ken Russell describes this meeting.

[5] I. Czamańska, Drakula. Wampir, tyran czy bohater, Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, Poznań, 2003, p 110.

[6] M. Janion, dz. cyt., p 8.

[7] Ibid, p 193.

[8] Ibid, p 156.

[9] http://marvel.wikia.com/Tomb_of_Dracula_Vol_1_1 [access: 16th Jan 2015].

[10] http://www.philsp.com/data/data052.html [access: 3rd Jan 2015].

[11] Carr, N., The Pulp Hero. Special Edition, Wild Cat Books, 2004, pp 16-18.

[12] Ibid, pp 15-16.

[13] B. Cronin, Comic Book Legend Revealed #179,http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2008/10/30/comic-book-legends-revealed-179/ [access: 4th Jan 2015].

[14] http://moonstonebooks.com/shop/category.aspx?catid=115 [access: 3rd Jan 2015].

[15] Komiks jest dostępny w sieci: http://finchcomic.blogspot.com/p/the-complete-black-bat.html [access: 3rd Jan 2014].

[16] http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=43746 [access: 3rd Jan 2014].

[17] The plot description is based on:  http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Detective_Comics_Vol_1_400[access: 17th Jan 2015].

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The Symbolism of a Bat. Bat in Pop Culture written by Chudy average rating 5/5 - 1 user ratings
  • John Sorensen

    Great article. I read those Dynamite issues of Black Bay last year, and they were quite fun. I love seeing the images of Black Bat in the old pulps, for how they relate to Batman etc.