The Bat Men Before Batman

By chance or otherwise, The Dark Knight's 1939 arrival coincided with public interest in real winged daredevils who attempted superhuman feats without superpowers.

Clem Sohn, before his final flight. (AP)

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.

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.

Among the failed challengers, a 22-year-old Michigan man almost died when his parachute became tangled in his wing, and another broke his back on a landing. In December of 1935, air show employees saved Sohn’s life when air suction dragged his wings towards the propellers on a grounded plane.

In 1937, Sohn embarked on a European flying circus tour. Just before stepping into a plane that would take him above a crowd of 30,000 onlookers in France, he told a reporter that his job didn’t scare him at all. By then, he had improved his wing material from canvas to a “zephyr” (type of wool) cloth that he affixed to steel tubing.

“I feel just as safe as you would in your grandmother’s kitchen,” he said.

That jump would be his last. After his freefall, neither ripcord for his parachutes opened. His body hit the ground approximately 100 yards from bleachers full of spectators.

News footage of Sohn's final flight. (Viewable with audio at British Pathe)

Sohn’s death didn’t eliminate bat-wing flyers from air shows in America. Several months afterwards, one Colorado man constructed his wings with duralumin (an early aluminum alloy), the same metal that Boeing used to construct its jets. And soon after that, one performer earned the nickname “the human bat” due to his eight-and-a-half-foot wingspan and his ability to survive 100 jumps. By July of 1938, papers reported that “bat wing” exhibitions had become widespread, headlining air shows from Hollywood, California to Fargo, North Dakota, Newark, and Salt Lake City. The flying-circus frenzy seems to have peaked in September of 1941, when an air show celebrating the re-opening of the Newark Airport attracted an estimated crowd of 500,000. One thousand members of the Newark police department tried to control a traffic situation that the New York Times said blocked every highway heading to and from the city.

Like Superman a year before him, Batman achieved an instant success. In July of 1939, two months after the caped crusader’s debut, the publishing industry reported that there had been a “sharp increase” in “comic magazine” subscriptions. People didn’t need their superheroes to come from another planet. At his inception, Batman arrived to a public that loved the idea that any man could fly.