Monday, November 21, 2011

Detective Comics #27 (May 1939)

The classic comics character known to millions around the world today as Batman began his life in the twenty-seventh issue of Detective Comics, the third anthology comic book series from National Publications, due to the formation of Detective Comics, Inc. -- one day simply to be known as DC Comics.
By the time #27 rolled around in May, 1939, DC was publishing More Fun Comics, Adventure Comics, Detective Comics and their most popular anthology series Action Comics starring the crusader for social justice, Superman. Superman began a huge trend towards costumed heroes, and DC was looking to augment their number one seller with a similar character.
They turned to artist Bob Kane, who was running a small independent art studio at the time. Kane came up with the Bat-Man, with the intention of creating a character who was the antithesis of Superman -- human, mysterious, masked, dark, brutal, a vigilante figure hunted by the police. Inspirations for the character ranged from pulp heroes like Zorro and the Shadow, to artistic sources like Leonardo da Vinci. Kane hired DC writer Bill Finger to script the character and help develop him. It was Finger who created Batman's alter-ego of Bruce Wayne, who decided on the fictional setting of Gotham City, who came up with Batman's iconic cowl, and who wrote the vast majority of the Batman stories published until 1964. Yet, thanks to a good lawyer and a firm contract, Finger was never credited as Batman's co-creator -- and regardless of who was actually writing or drawing the book in question, each Batman story was credited as "by Bob Kane" until around 1969.
But enough of a history lesson! Let's take a look at the Dark Knight's debut as the new lead feature in Detective Comics.

"The Case of the Chemical Syndicate"
Writer: Bill Finger
Art: Bob Kane
Synopsis: The Chemical King, Lambert, has been stabbed. Police Commissioner Gordon invites his layabout socialite friend, Bruce Wayne to the crime scene with him. I guess being the commissioner gives you these sorts of perks. After determining that Lambert's son was not the culprit, we discover there are three partners in the chemical corporation -- Steve Crane (no relation to Jonathan, I assume), Paul Rogers, and Aflred "Not A Menacing Last Name At All" Stryker. Crane fears he will be killed next, and indeed he is, but before the killers get away we get our first glimpse at THE BAT-MAN! The look of the caped crusader is certainly primitive, with an odd looking cowl and cape, regular looking gloves -- but at the same time there is still a clear sense of grim determination in the character. He mops up the bad guys, is chased by the police, and gets away in a red sedan (!) with a piece of paper the killers stole.
Meanwhile, Rogers goes to Stryker's house for safety, and is promptly kidnapped by Styker's burly assistant Jennings, who mumbles to himself "Heh! Heh! One more out of the way, soon I'll control everything!" So it was Jennings, the fiend! He throws Rogers in a GIANT gas chamber that he apparently uses to kill guinea pigs in experiments (how many guinea pigs are we talking here? This thing's big enough for at least five men!) However, the Bat-Man leaps in an open skylight (lock your windows at night, villains!) and rescues Rogers. He tackles Jennings and beats him to unconsciousness.
Then Stryker shows up and ZOMG! He was behind the murders the whole time!! He comes at Rogers with a knife but the Bat-Man stops him, and explains that if Stryker killed the other three, he would get sole ownership of Apex Chemicals! So, what the hell was Jennings doing then? If he was just Stryker's pawn why was he cackling to himself about controlling everything? Bit of a poorly executed red herring there, Bill.
Stryker comes at the Bat-Man, but gets punched over a railing and into a vat of toxic chemicals (that Stryker was keeping in his house??) and the caped vigilante says the immortal words "A fitting end for his kind," before leaping out the skylight (somehow).
Gordon tells the story to Bruce Wayne, who considers it a nice little fairy tale. Gordon leaves and Bruce transforms into...the Bat-Man!! OMG!!
All this in six pages. Six pages. The hallmark of Golden Age storytelling -- sure there's no character development or themes and a whole lot of coincedences and deus ex machinas, but on the other hand its damned economical!
My Thoughts: For a comic book debut, there's something atypical and interesting about "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate". There's no origin story for the Bat-Man, no formal introduction. Instead we jump right into the story, and the hero is just as dark and mysterious for the reader as he is to the hoodlums he fights. We are instantly in a world more real than that of Superman's, darker and more cynical, closer to the world of detective novels and mysteries -- appropriate given that we're in Detective Comics. We don't meet Bat-Man until half-way through the story, and the fact that he's Bruce Wayne is the twist ending! These were elements that Sam Hamm tried to retain in the 1989 Batman film by Tim Burton. Also, in this first appearance, our hero kills a man, something a modern Batman would never do, but was again seen in the 1989 film adaptation. Despite its primitive nature, this six-page introductory story gives us many elements that would permeate the Batman universe for seventy years -- such as the friendship of Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon, and the fact that the primary industry in (not-yet) Gotham City appears to be chemical companies.
The Art: Bob Kane's art here is certainly primitive. Without an inker it lacks much of the shadow and depth of later Batman stories, and most of the figures appear flat and cartoonish. The framing is simplistic and there is little detail in any of the panels. All in all the art lacks any sense of panache or style, and the most intriguing thing about it is the design of the Bat-Man character himself, and even it is in a primitive stage, not yet the iconic look that would dominate the character's appearance until the New Look of 1964.
The Story: Bill Finger's plot moves at breakneck speed, but then again it's only eight pages long. The story is like a pilot for Batman, a demo, showing us just what kind of stories to expect from this character. And while in essence there's nothing here a comic book reader hadn't already seen from the Shadow or Slam Bradley, the very look of the character himself suggested something mysterious, and the twist ending revealing the Bat-Man's identity gives us a hook to come back next month and makes us wonder, "why does a rich, bored, socialite dress up like a bat and fight crime with grim determination?"
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, and Batman. There is not yet a Batmobile, but Batman instead drives a regular red sedan of indeterminate make.
Batman Body Count: 1


  1. Hey Rower! Just discovered your blog - pretty awesome!

    I agree that this very much feels like a pilot - speaking of pilots -

    Now for some serious and troubling revelations. I thought as a fellow Batmanologist you should be privy to this:

    1. Yeah I've seen that stuff. While I will agree that many elements of Batman's set up were swiped from The Shadow and that Kane swiped art like a madman, ultinately I feel its important to note that even by Detective #33, six issues later, the character had begun to evolve from being cheap Shadow fanfiction. People love to accuse Kane of being a ruthless talentless hack as overcompensation for the thirty years he spent wrongfully getting sole credit, but the fact is that Kane and Finger worked together on Batman in one way or another until 1946 or so and in that time crafted a legacy that far outlasts The Shadow. For one, the Shadow never had any real motive for what he was doing -- the origin story of Batman was unique to him and gave him the real power that his predecessors Superman, Shadow, Doc Savage, Zorro, Scarlet Pimpernel and Robin Hood never had. Batman does what he does for a reason and its Kane and Finger who did that, not Robinson or Sprang or Infantino or O'Neil or Miller. Finally, the Shadow never had anything like Batman's Rogues Gallery, which even in the Golden Age was second only to Dick Tracy. Those classic villains are all Kane/Finger/Robinson. Look at most classic characterd and sure for the first while you often find them wearing their influences on their sleeves -- compare the original Star Trek pilot to Forbidden Planet and you will see what I mean. But as Batman gained longevity he also gained originality and ultimately I cannot condemn Bob Kane for initiating the creation of one of the great heroic characters of the 20th century, even.if it did start off as a thinly veiled Shadow rip off.

    2. That said, thank you very much for reading and commenting!

  2. Much of the story swiping from the shadow actually came from bill finger, as he himself admitted, but yeah overall it was Kane who swipped from others. As for the origin, many elements and scenes were taken from various pulp sources, including some downright visual plagiarism. To me though Batman begain as a pastiche of the best of various pulp culture elements, elements which his creators refined, and the character transcended these parts. But my problem with Kane is with how he treated Finger and everybody else who worked with him. From all accounts (except his own) not exactly a pillar integrity. Batman born of tragedy! Who'd a thought it?

    1. Definitely Kane was a bit of a glory-stealing asshole and Finger was completely screwed to this very day. In these enlightened times credits on Batman films should certainly read "Batman created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane", just as we now fully credit Steve Ditko for his part on Spider-Man. But it's not like Kane is alone in glory-stealing. I for one have always doubted Jerry Robinson's claims that he invented the Joker and Robin single-handedly when frankly all Robinson can really lay claim to is the design for Joker's playing card and the font for the "R" on Robin's chest -- but as the last surviving member of the original team he was more or less free to claim whatever he wanted.

      On the other hand, I do have a bit of admiration for Kane for at least insisting on getting himself credit and ownership of the character at all -- compare that to the way Siegel and Shuster were treated for forty years after they came up with Superman (no credit at all) and the continuing legal battles over that to this day. They sold their creation to DC as work-for-hire never knowing it would become what it was. In that context, you can almost forgive Kane's jealous guarding of his livelihood -- even if he wasn't doing all the work like he claimed and basically doing none of the work at all after 1946 or so.

      In the interests of fairness, I like to give both Finger and Kane about as much credit as I possibly can, because after all they were the guys writing the scripts and pencilling the stories, even if Finger was stealing stories and often late, and Kane swiping panels and having his roughs almost entirely redone by Robinson by 1942.

      And while even Batman's origin has some visual plagiarism, ultimately it's the story Bill Finger came up with, and the way in which those elements were combined, that give him his power. It's Zorro's basic set-up (and Zorro himself is a steal from Scarlet Pimpernel) with Shadow's pulp setting and sensibilities and Doc Savage's "self-made man" -- but the kid who's parents were killed and who swore to destroy crime is, I think, basically unique at that point.

      Ultimately what gets me is that as the strip went on it began more or less stealing from ITSELF, which we'll see if and when I ever hit the years of Jack Schiff's editorial auspices in the 1950s.

      It does make for an interesting discussion about creator rights, a problem which persisted throughout all of comicdom until it climaxed in the creation of Image Comics in the 1990s.