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.
In true competitive form, other delayed jumpers tried to improve upon Sohn’s bat wing stunt as soon as he displayed it in February of 1935. Later that year, others tried to better Sohn’s freefall time (he eventually set a record of two and a half minutes) before opening their chutes. To measure their freefalling times, the Bat Men either jumped with a large bag of flour or a smoke container that marked their jumps by releasing particles. The emissions also allowed people on the ground to better spot their trajectories in the air. On several occasions, though, the flour or smoke covered the jumpers’ goggles, temporarily blinding them.