Valencia’s coat of arms is one of the few in the world that features a bat. Clearly visible, black, and with outstretched wings, it appears above the crown of the Kingdom, lending a kind of gravitas unequalled by other countries, although the figures also appears in the emblems of Palma de Mallorca and, until 1882, the city of Barcelona.
The explanation for this chiropteran’s appearance above the crowns of these locations traces back to the High Middle Ages. First it was a dragon, which, for reasons that are not too clear, was replaced in the 17th century until the emblem reached its present-day format. Bats were already associated with all kinds of legends long before Bram Stoker penned Dracula. In Teruel and other areas belonging to the Crown of Aragon they also turn up on crests and standards, as heraldry specialists have well observed. The coat of arms of Montchauvet, in France, features two yellow bats, while that of the small German town of Fiefbergen boasts a large and mysterious white bat.
It is also curious that the respective emblems of Russian Intelligence (ГРУ, Главное Разведывательное Управление) and the USA 488th Intelligence Squadron both display a black bat. Like a spider, it seems to extend a network of invisible threads so as to capture — we imagine — all the relevant information that these two agencies handle.
Bob Kane and Bill Finger created the character of Batman for Detective Comics (DC Comics) in 1939, in a story entitled The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.
Quite by chance, both had journeyed around Europe a few years earlier, during the Second Spanish Republic, and arrived in Spain with the country on the verge of its terrible Civil War. Kane was more of an artist and Finger more of a writer, if it’s possible to differentiate as such between the two activities, and their odyssey led them to Valencia. They’d heard of the Miguelete bell tower (Miguelet, to locals) and were keen to discover if its 207 steps really did lead to the city’s skies.
Bob and Bill, having climbed the Miguelete tower, had taken a look around the silk exchange, the central market and the old town in search of inspiration. In the Plaza de la Virgen, they had admired the Water Court, or Tribunal de las Aguas, which was in session that day. And they had marvelled at the number of bats hanging like ripened fruit from decorative carvings and architectural features.
Later, they walked to the Malvarrosa beach with a hearty appetite and the uplifted feeling that comes of undertaking a thoroughly sterile physical activity like climbing 207 steps then going back down them. The pair finally arrived to the terrace of a quiet little eatery that served rice dishes and sangria to whoever wished to try.
The friendly Valencian woman who ran the place, observing that they were two foreign gentlemen, took pains to address them as elegantly as possible. As the risk of sounding like a spoof period drama, the option she chose, while pointing to the paella, was “Gozan el arroz los señores?”. That roughly translates as “Are the gentlemen delighting in their rice?” and sounds like this: “Gothan el arroth los senyores?”
At this stage it’s worth pointing out that in Valencia a paella is not a recipe or a typical dish, but the large, characteristic flat pan with handles that is used to prepare rice. Metonymy has prevailed and beyond these lands it is very rare for anyone to distinguish between the two.
Let’s return to that pleasant restaurant on Malvarrosa Beach. Sitting there, drinking sangria and scraping up the last grains of toasted rice, or socarrat, we have the two characters who, just a couple of years later, would create Batman.
The cook arrived and launched her question: “Gozan el arroz los señores?”
“Gotham?” repeated Bob. “It’s a great name, don’t you think, Bill?”
The cook, who didn’t speak a word of English, felt pleased with herself. “They seem to have liked it,” she thought. Her husband, Josep Dalmau, was an unappreciated genius. At least, that’s what he believed. During quiet periods, he would spend hours labouring in his workshop on the Carrer de San Rafael, a street close to the restaurant run by his wife.
“Manuela!” “Have you, by any chance, taken something from my workshop that looks like a paella?”
“That looks like a paella? But it is a paella! It was about time you made something useful for the business. The rice turned out really well, it didn’t stick to the bottom. And those American gents over there haven’t left a single grain of socarrat.”
“What?! Nooo! It’s not a paella!”
Bob always had a notebook with him and a fountain pen for jotting down ideas. On this occasion, however, he raised his hands to his head and said to Bill:
“Gotham. Batman. I’ve got it, my friend! A millionaire without supernatural powers, but with hugely advanced technology. He hates bats and that’s why he adopts them as his symbol and name. And he protects the city from the bad guys.”
“Are you alright, Bob? I think you’ve had too much sangria. Although…wait…” He too raised his hands to his head and exclaimed, “Can you hear that? It’s like… Like a subsonic buzzing…”
“Yes… And it’s coming from that pan they call paella. Although now that you mention it…”
Bill combed the pan with his fork, scraping off the last remnants of socarrat, and in the late-afternoon sunshine, the circuits that Professor Dalmau had installed in the device came into view.
As if he had somehow sensed what had happened, Josep gesticulated and rushed over the gent’s table. He spoke some English, an outcome of undertaking the gargantuan task of translating the instruction manuals for all the gadgets he acquired by mail order. They helped in his research and lunatic development projects, and now enabled him to address the two Americans in the language of Shakespeare.
“Don’t do that! Don’t scratch the bottom!”
“Why not? What will happen?” asked Bob, alarmed, as he dropped his fork.
“It’s a subsonic paella!”
Indeed, closer observation would have revealed that the paella, the base structure which the professor had used to build his invention, was criss-crossed with integrated circuits sensitive to any kind of interaction or vibration.
A powerful low-frequency buzzing emanated from the device and the three raised their hands to their heads.
“What’s the aim of this gadget, professor?”
“To stimulate the imagination. The idea is to use low frequency sound waves to encourage the irrational association of ideas, giving rise to scenarios that, otherwise, we would never have been able to imagine. But it must be handled with care!”
Bill Finger and Bob Kane returned to New York, which was re-baptised as Gotham in all the Batman stories… They did so just a few days before the Spanish Civil War broke out. And today, three quarters of a century later, millions of viewers marvel at the adventures of a millionaire who emulates bats whilst still prisoner to his own, almost insurmountable insecurities.
It all started in that modest establishment by Malvarrosa Beach, thanks to the subsonic paella created by Josep Dalmau who, for the very first time, had invented something useful. At least that’s what the people at DC Comics thought…
Illustrator: Amaya Arrazola