Today is Batman Day. It is also Comic-Con week, meaning that local newscasts all over the country will end their broadcasts with “It’s Comic-Con week!” and proceed to show B-roll of cosplayers and grown men dressed like Doctor Who.
But look closely at that footage. There in the back, you will see someone dressed like Batman or Batgirl. And you’ll say “Cool.” After the horrible real news on every given day, Sailor Moon costumes eventually look silly. But not Batman. He has power over all the others. Why? Why did five-year-old leukemia patient Miles Scott dress up as “Batkid” last November in San Francisco? Because he wanted to hit something.
Batman is the most popular superhero in America. We may guess (or even hope) that it is Superman, but Batman comics, movies, toys, and t-shirts now outsell all the others. “Grim vigilante of the night” now trumps “Truth, Justice, and the American Way.” Whether it is crime, character, or cancer, the truth of Batman is simple.
We all want to hit something.
Batman is 75 years old this summer. Beyond all the marketing and news coverage, this tells us something important about ourselves. Seventy-five years is an eternity in pop culture. Yet here we are: his origin story is like a shared PIN number to some dark, collective fear we don’t want to talk about. Walking home from a showing of the film The Mark of Zorro, Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents’ murder at the hands of a common thief. Vowing vengeance, Bruce devotes his life and fortune to protecting Gotham City as the Batman.
Many of us know his practical origin, too. We know how Bob Kane and Bill Finger collaborated on a character they wanted to be a commercial success. Kane took the credit; Finger took the brunt. Their story is important, but it’s not why Batman is so popular. Not even close.
In America, the popularity of Batman – of what the character represents – is deeper than all that.
The first American literary vigilante is Hawthorne’s Gray Champion, who first appeared in Twice-Told Tales in 1837. But the Champion, who “wore the old Puritan dress, a dark cloak and a steeple-crowned hat,” was just an old guy who showed up to inspire crowds. He was not an action hero. He did not have a Batarang. But that’s because he was fictional. He was not real. Characters like these rarely were.
That would soon change.
In the late 1800s, Taney County was a stamp of land in the southwest corner of Missouri. Its hills and farms collected ex-Civil War soldiers who tried to live a life without incident. It didn’t work. After noticing that serious crimes were going unpunished, ex-Union serviceman Nat Kinney formed a secret group to police the murderers and lawbreakers who walked freely. He donned a mask to protect his identity.
Why did Kinney go to such lengths? The crimes that motivated Kinney weren’t just horse-stealing or land squatting. There were murders, too.
At least forty of them.
So his men swore an oath to him and put on similar masks. Kinney’s boys didn’t have a grim, superhero name. Instead, they called themselves the “Bald Knobbers” because they met on the top of treeless hills to avoid ambush. When they were needed, someone would light a signal fire on top of a mountain. The masked men would come riding.
That an ex-Yankee soldier could put on a mask and bring justice to a lawless territory – thirty years before the Lone Ranger debuted on a Detroit radio station – was romantic, at least for a while. But things — very quickly — got blurry and messy. The group – which now numbered in the hundreds – began targeting drinkers and “loose women” on their list of criminals to scare or beat with sticks. A splinter group in Christian County became more violent and began ambushing, whipping, and eventually lynching not only criminals, but ordinary citizens. The Bald Knobbers now wore terrifying black masks with pointy ears.
A feud soon developed between the vigilantes and the townspeople they were supposedly protecting. The leader of the Anti-Baldknobbers was a young man named Coggburn, who referred to the (allegedly) 6’2 Kinney as the “Old Blue Gobbler.” Coggburn was said to taunt and pull practical jokes on the solemn Kinney who had dreams of larger, political power. Eventually, Kinney, who was said to “fear no man,” killed Coggburn at the Sunday School house. The local and national newspapers were shocked. Two years later, Kinney was killed in retribution by an Anti-Baldknobber in the middle of a general store. The killer, Billy Miles, was exonerated to cheers. The Bald Knobber movement, if you can call it that, ended when the last leaders of the Christian County group were gruesomely hanged in the town square after attacking a sleeping family.
But the legend of the Bald Knobbers didn’t stop in that town square. In the 1907 novel The Shepherd of the Hills by preacher Harold Bell Wright, the group was given a larger, more lasting presence in American pop culture. The novel was not an action adventure tale, but was billed as a “romance of the Ozarks” about, among others, a mysterious masked man who loses his family and wanders the hills. Melodrama drips off the page as secret relatives are revealed, deathbed confessions are whispered, and hills are walked. The Bald Knobbers too made an appearance in a subplot, where they are described as “a kind of protection . . . when the law of the land was the law of rifle and rope.”
Did Kane or Finger, the co-creators of Batman, read it? Wright was the most popular American writer of the first half of the century. Shepherd sold an astounding two million copies by 1918. The book was made into four movies, three of them before 1939. The 1941 version starred John Wayne. In the 1919 adaptation, the masks were based on the real ones, which were still preserved in local museums.
Wright’s book also mentions that the Bald Knobbers congregated in a vast, secret cave that they used “to hide their stuff in.” This particular cave in Missouri is called Marvel Cave.
The fictional Batcave would not be officially mapped out until 1942’s Batman #12 in a story scripted by Finger and drawn by Robinson and Roussos.
Marvel Cave in Missouri is also home to the endangered Gray Bat.
Shepherd remained popular for most of the century. Many, including Ronald Reagan, would refer to Wright’s writings as life-changing. In 1960, an outdoor theatrical adaption of the novel began performances in Missouri. It became so popular that a small community built up around the show to accommodate all the visitors. The town was Branson, Missouri.
The Bald Knobbers still have a presence in Branson, though some versions are much changed, and toothless. After a brief hiatus, the live-action “outdoor drama” version of Shepherd returned this year to renewed popularity. Visitors can also take part in the “Vigilante Extreme Ziprider.”
Branson also has a 1972 amusement ride called “Fire in the Hole” that features Bald Knobber figures. They once boasted ropes around their necks.
The Bald Knobber legend may or may not have inspired aspects of the Batman. But its lure — to put on a mask and break the law in favor of a higher one — offers a good analogy to Batman. The popularity of the Bald Knobbers shows — for well over a hundred years — that this is a fantasy we like to inhabit.
This is the memorial stone in Ozark, Missouri at the site of the last Bald Knobber execution, which was a horrible event to anyone who witnessed it. The stone notes that the Bald Knobbers were “dedicated to bring law and order” and to “punish criminals.” But they “eventually harmed innocent people,” which is a polite way of saying “murdered.” The two deaths caused by these men are noted, but “it was expected that the governor would commute the sentence.” Whose side is the inscription writer on? The text also notes that before the execution, “one member escaped and was never recaptured.” Perhaps he is still out there, outside the law, righting its wrongs. We romanticize our vigilantes because of what they stand for. That’s why people who write about Batman or his creators get so dramatic (EX: this entire essay) about a fictional guy in a cape.
The Ozarks are a long way from Gotham City. The Bald Knobber legend may or may not be Batman. But it is the beginning of it.
Stay tuned for Part Two on Friday for Kane, Finger, unbelievable coincidences, secret clues in comics, Scott Snyder, and what Batman really stands for. If you are going to Comic-Con, come to “Who Created Batman?” on Fri. from 2:30-3:30 in Room 26AB for a panel with Travis Langley, Tom Andrae, Athena Finger, Marc Tyler Nobleman, Denny O’Neill, Jens Robinson, Arlen Schumer, Michael Uslan, Nicky Wheeler Nicholson, and myself. PW is calling it one of the 14 Best Panels at Comic-Con. To learn more about the Bald Knobbers, read Bald Knobbers: Chronicles of Vigilante Justice by Vincent S. Anderson (2013).
Brad Ricca is the author of Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster – The Creators of Superman, now available in paperback. He also writes for StarWars.com. Visit www.super-boys.com and follow @BradJRicca. If you’re at Comic-Con, stop by the St. Martin’s Press booth (#1019) on Thursday at 3 for a free book (only 40 available!) and for exclusive giveaways during the entire show.