On February 27, 1935, a 24-year-old daredevil named Clem Sohn stood in a plane 12,000 feet above Daytona Beach. He had affixed a harness to his core, one that connected a metal bar across his chest to several feet of a canvas material that draped behind his waist. He wore two parachutes. Before jumping, Sohn put on goggles that resembled a scuba mask. He raised his arms to his sides, an act that lifted and straightened the canvas into what looked like wings.
Spectators couldn’t see Sohn the moment that he jumped from the plane, but when he came into focus, he resembled his nickname—the “human bird.” Sohn glided and somersaulted with open wings through a 10,000-foot freefall. About 2,000 feet from the ground, he tugged one of his parachute ripcords.
Within seven months, young male skydivers across the country were trying to improve upon Sohn’s stunt. The press called them “Bat Men.”
Bob Kane, the co-creator of Batman, was a 14-year-old boy when Sohn and his fellow aerial performers made national headlines with their stunts. Four years later, DC Comics asked the young cartoonist to come up with a hero who could stand alongside Superman, then one year old. Kane’s initial sketches had “a pair of stiff wings” that his creative partner Bill Finger encouraged him to change to a cape; “stiff wings” is a phrase that reporters also used to describe the stretched canvas used by Sohn & co.
It’s almost surprising that Kane and Finger did not mention the “Bat Men” as one of the influences on the character first seen in print 75 years ago this May. Throughout their lives, the two artists attributed Kane’s sources to the radio show The Shadow, to two movies, The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Bat Whispers (a 1930 picture about a cape-wearing criminal who flashed a bat insignia), and to a Leonardo da Vinci drawing of a flying machine that Kane said “looked like a bat man.” But prior to the character’s first May 1939 appearance, the average American would have visualized a specific image when hearing the term “Bat Man”: one of several highly publicized daredevils who headlined popular air shows across the country.
Whether or not they directly influenced Batman, this subculture of performers captured the American imagination in much the same manner as the comic-book crimefighter who would later share their name. With only the benefits of their physical training regimen, courage, mental acuity, and technological advances, bat men real and fictional embodied the the idea that humans could achieve superheroic feats without special powers. Off the page, though, this aspiration sometimes had horrifying consequences.
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Clem Sohn had a specific goal: to construct wings that would allow him to land without a parachute’s opening. That he thought he could do this is evidence of the impact of the Wright brothers’ 1908 flight on the American imagination. “Flying circuses” traveled around the country, entertaining the masses by offering people eyewitness accounts of advances in flight. The popularity of these air shows (also called air carnivals, field circuses, air pageants, and barnyard storming) increased after World War I, when former military pilots could earn money by showing off their trade. These shows featured plane stunts, including aerial acrobatics, formation flying, combat maneuvers, and a move called a “dead stick” landing, in which a pilot would turn off the plane’s engine and coast to the ground.
The star of the show, though, was the “delayed jumper,” a skydiver who would freefall several thousand feet before pulling his ripcord. These aerial performers constantly challenged one another, going from circus to circus as they tried to improve upon feats such as jumping from the wing of a plane, or moving between planes via a rope ladder before jumping. It is as a delayed jumper that Sohn first found success. One year before Sohn added bat wings to his routine, his partner in a dual delayed jumping exercise died after fracturing his skull in a bad landing in Brooklyn.