Beyond the Batcave: Why DETECTIVE COMICS is Batman’s Life Line

“Beyond The Batcave” does a deep dive into Batman’s universe and examines his actual cowl -— Bruce Wayne — because I love to be realistic about my favorite fiction.

One of the most popular publications to date, Detective Comics’ role within the evolution of the American comic book is colossal, yet somehow underrated. This is especially ironic considering the dominance of DC Comics’ Batman. Since the character’s first appearance in 1939’s Detective Comics #27, “The Bat-Man” has retained a heavy presence in fantastical tales told for readers young and old throughout the decades.

Many fans and readers believe the Dark Knight is the reason Detective is such a long-lasting and influential book for the comics medium. Of course, there is some truth to this thought. Batman is unmistakably major in the pages of comics and in the eyes of super-hero cinephiles today. To truly understand the importance of this publication, however, is to know that Detective Comics has saved the Caped Crusader from obscurity and “remember when” conversations just as the hero saves Gothamites from random muggers in dark alleys.

To understand the longevity of Batman’s continually celebrated 80-year history is to understand its true lifeline: Detective Comics.

Pulp, Prejudice, and Promise: Detective Before Batman

The early foundation of Detective Comics is factually influential to the beginning of the American comic book we know today. The co-creator of Detective, lieutenant turned publisher Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, changed the way readers took in their leisure content. Wheeler-Nicholson’s company National Allied Publications, established in 1934, was the first to produce comics with original content, not just reprinted comic strips.

1939’s New Fun Comics #1, cover illustrated by Lyman Anderson

Stepping away from the norm of publishing, Wheeler-Nicholson in his golden era released a total of three books that revolutionized the medium. 1935’s New Fun: The New Big Comics was an oversized anthology (in both size and pages) that saw the debut of future Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Months later, New Comics debuted, which eventually became Adventure Comics that would become one of the longest running American comic books to date, ending in 2011 with issue #529. Both of these publications presented new adventures that appealed to all audiences — whether following the adventures of pulp detectives, comedic exploits of anthropomorphic characters, or dramatic draws of cowboys in the ever popular western.

Despite having financial troubles within his personal and professional life and practically being bought out by Harry Donenfeld at the end of the decade, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson in March 1937’s last comic book series, Detective Comics, debuted with issue #1.

Heavily featuring pulp detectives molded from the design of American tradition and landmarks, the four to five tales in each comic were rendered in either color or black and white with ads spilled across the book — something that Wheeler-Nicholson himself is to thank for making a necessity in comics formatting.

1937’s Detective Comics #1, cover illustrated by Vin Sullivan

The first two dozen issues of Detective Comics, released between 1937 and 1939, debuted now iconic characters that defined this Golden Age era of pulp fiction. One figure, who was even celebrated in March’s Detective Comics #1000, was Slam Bradley.

Created by Siegel and Shuster, which is easy to spot considering Bradley’s aesthetic is based off of an early drawing of Clark Kent’s Superman, the Ohio bound Slam Bradley was a private detective who loved fighting off several thugs as once just as much as he loved the random women in his life. While even today Slam Bradley is known as a classic detective in comparison to DC’s “World’s Greatest Detective”, Batman, his and other figures within the pages of Detective are seen today as having racist and sexist tendencies, such as throwing around the term “Chinks” when fighting Chinese gang leader Fui Onyui and his henchmen in both of their very first appearances.

Nevertheless, Slam Bradley’s legacy remains an important testament to the early days of this astounding comic book and pushed forward the inevitable progression and evolution of the publication itself. Of course, Slam Bradley would soon become an afterthought when writer Bill Finger and cartoonist Bob Kane debut their new vigilante detective: The Bat-Man.

Overnight Sensation of The Dark Avenger: The Batman’s Golden Age Evolution

After the insane success of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman who debuted in 1938’s Action Comics #1, National Publications editor Vin Sullivan wanted to have another popular superhero under their wing (or more appropriate, cape). Reaching out to artist Bob Kane, he came up with a character dubbed “The Bat-Man”.

Because of his less than original aesthetics, ones that resembled the Man of Steels, ghost writer Bill Finger stepped in to make necessary improvements on design and persona. This resulted in millionaire Bruce Wayne and his secret identity as The Batman debuting in Finger’s “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” in Detective Comics #27 on March 30, 1939.

1939’s Detective Comics #27, cover illustrated by Bob Kane.

The Caped Crusader’s groundbreaking first story is simple enough: Batman has to track down the murderer of several giants within the chemical manufacturing business. It may not be a thrilling ride as many future Detective issues will present, but there are key points noted that are so ever important.

Commission Gordon also is celebrating his 80th birthday this year (WHY is no one talking about this?! Give Gordon his deserved shine people!) with his first appearance in the same panels as Bruce Wayne’s; this story is the first time we see Finger’s batsuit, cape and cowl that will be the foundation for Batman’s well known look in comics and across all visual media; the climax of this tale also showcases The Batman’s early complacency with The killing of his enemies, something that has evolved into the now modern moral code of “no guns, no killing” that is familiar with many Bat fans.

Detective Comics #27 will forever remain the beginning of one of the most financially successful and favorite franchises in American history, and this is partially thanks to Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s radical idea of bringing to life original characters readers would love just as much as the recycled figures from black and white comic strips.

1940’s Detective Comics #38, interior art by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson.

The Bat-Man’s mythology even within his first literal year in Detective Comics began to mold him into the Dark Knight we celebrate in 2019. The first appearance of Batman’s handy weapon batarang, based off of the Australian boomerang was in Detective #31; Bruce Wayne’s tragic but very well know origin story of his parents’ death which transformed into Batman was the 2 page introductory tale by Bill Finger in Detective #33; the debut of the young character Dick Grayson aka Robin the Boy Wonder who will be Batman’s first (but not last) sidekick was published in Detective #38.

Due to the immensely popular Batman in Detective Comics, there was no surprise that the figure received his own self-titled publication in the Spring of 1940. The Dark Knight having a “Batman” book didn’t stop Detective from producing important storylines, villains, and iconography that truly would be the cornerstone of the development of Batman’s mythos for the next five decades.

1940’s Batman #1 saw the first appearance of both the murderous maniac know as The Joker and the femme fatale of The Cat, better known as Catwoman, which is iconic all on its own. Detective Comics during this Golden Age era, however, could give Batman a run for its money with all of the rogues that debuted over the next two decades.

Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s squawking super-villain The Penguin waddled its way into Batman’s world in 1941’s Detective #58. The scarred mind of Harvey Kent (who would become Harvey Dent to avoid any confusion and connection with Clark Kent) and his transformation into Two-Face would debut in 1942’s Detective #66. The king of conundrums himself Edward Nygma made his puzzling first appearance as the obsessive compulsive Riddler in 1948’s Detective #140. Joker’s first persona of The Red Hood was introduced in 1951’s Detective #168.

1951’s Detective Comics #168, cover art by George Roussos and Lew Sayre Schwartz.

Entering the whimsical science fiction era of the 1950s, Batman already has a presence not just in comic books but on the big screen with two 15-chapter serials under his utility belt and even moments on Superman’s popular radio show. The Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder, in this particular decade, embraced the literal out of this world themes in their stories.

From meeting France Herron and Dick Sprang’s alien Batman of Zur-En-Arrh in 1958’s Batman #113 to being irritated by Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff’s fanatic magical imp Bat-Mite in 1959’s Detective #267, Batman (in both of his central publications) was no doubt a huge hero within National Publications turned DC Comics’ growing universe.

Rise of the Phoenix: The Decline and Rebirth of Batman in Detective Comics

By the early 1960s, Batman not only became a founding member of Gardner Fox’s Justice League of America, but Bruce Wayne had also developed his own “Batman Family”.

Featured was the humble sidekick Dick Grayson aka Robin, the trustworthy butler Alfred Pennyworth, the lawful Commissioner James Gordon, Bruce’s crime fighting “love interest” Kathy Kane aka Batwoman, the loyal dog Ace The Bat-Hound, and the magical imp Bat-Mite. This Bat-unit permeated traditional family values that not only parents wanted for their young comic readers but what enforcers of the Comics Code Authority strived to achieve since the mid 1950s.

Despite the ‘perfect’ Batman Family, Batman sales were less than stellar, borderline pushing the character on the brink of cancellation and obscurity within the DCU. DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz had to make some crucial decisions to not just make Batman more popular but also to reflect the new era of the 1960s. A large part of Batman’s recovery plan involved Detective Comics and its role with presenting a new Caped Crusader while keeping the foundation of his mythology from 1939.

1964’s Detective Comics #327, illustrated by Carmine Infantino, Ira Schnapp, and Joe Giella.

The first bold move Schwartz made was to shrink the Batman Family that was just completed not even a decade prior back to focusing on the Dynamic Duo of Batman and Robin. Having characters like Bat-Mite was even too silly for even the era that would now be considered “campy”.

Next, Batman’s design was altered after not radically changing since the early 1940s. Thanks to Carmine Infantino, Batman received a “New Look”, which introduced the now iconic yellow bat chest emblem on his Batsuit, in John Broome’s “The Mystery of the Menacing Mask!” from 1964’s Detective Comics #327. The combination of Batman’s new Batsuit and a slow but steady return to detective tales and stepping away from wacky stories on distant planets proved to help readers become more interested in the Dark Knight.

1966 was (and still is) one of the most transformative singular years within Batman’s 80 year long history. William Dozier’s live action television series “Batman” debuted on January 12, 1966. This series starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo literally took these characters and iconography from the then revived comic books and slapped them onto the small screen.

The summer of 1966 even saw the spin-off film “Batman”, which involved scenes that epitomized campiness like spraying Shark Repellent Bat-Spray and watching this beast of the deep fall to its explosive demise. The tv series and film started ‘Batmania’, catapulting the Bright Knight from a comic book character to a household name.

1967’s Detective Comics #359, interior art by Carmine Infantino, Sid Greene, and Gaspar Saladino.

Obviously, this boost into popular culture also helped grow sales for Batman and Detective Comics. Schwartz and Detective would not just drive Batman into the 60s era, but also the Female Empowerment Movement.

In Gardner Fox’ and Carmine Infantino’s “The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!”, which was originally published in 1967’s Detective Comics #359, the answer to kill two birds with one stone came in Gotham City’s Head librarian and Commissioner James Gordon’s daughter Barbara Gordon who would become the vigilante persona of Batgirl.

Not caring about Batman and Robin’s non subtle concerns about a “girl getting hurt” fighting against rogues like Killer Moth, Barbara represented a future member of the Bat Family that wasn’t forced into the dynamic to appease concerned parents about false fears and conspiracy theories. Barbara proved to be a strong and independent woman that added to Batman and Robin’s crusade for justice while in her Batgirl persona.

This heroine would become even more inspirational once Yvonne Craig brought her to life in September of 1967 when Barbara Gordon/Batgirl became a series regular on “Batman”. Although the TV show only lasted three seasons, ending in 1968, “Batman” aided in reviving the character and his presence within the DC Universe and the publication that helped lift him off the ground was Detective Comics.

Adding To The Vigilante Narrative: Detective Comics’ Place Within The Modern Era

1978’s Detective Comics #475, cover illustrated by Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin.

Even though “Batman” was cancelled in 1968, the characters’ popularity continued to soar on the small screen in Filmation animated series and within DC comic books.

The beginning of 1970s Bronze Age era saw another transforming period for The Batman and Detective Comics once again played an important role in continuing the evolution of DC’s dark savior. In an aggressive attempt to pull Batman away from his campy exterior from the Adam West series, Schwartz wanted creators such as Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams produced stories that brought Batman back to his Gothic and pulp fiction roots that Bill Finger planted in 1939.

This plan resulted in now classic Batman stories that redefined, the Dark Avenger, figures in his mythology, and Bruce Wayne himself. Frank Robbins’ character Man-Bat that debuted in 1970 Detective #400 saw for the first time a villain that readers could sympathized with, adding more layers to Batman’s ‘evil’ rogues gallery.

Another villain that brings her own complexities is O’Neil and Bob Brown’s femme fatale Talia al Ghul, who met her beloved for the first time in 1971’s Detective #411. Steve Englehart and Walt Simonson’s late 70’s arc “Strange Apparitions” is considered one of the first and best examinations of Bruce Wayne’s dual identity as Batman that include classic stories like ‘The Laughing Fish’ in 1978’s Detective #475 and introducing love interests such as Silver St. Cloud in 1977’s Detective #470.

2009’s Detective Comics #854, cover illustrated by J.H. Williams III.

These Detective Comics issues and more during the Bronze Age helped define Batman as he raced into the modern age of the 1980s and the 1990s. As more villains such as the viscous Killer Croc (1983’s Detective #523) and the underdog of the Bat Family Stephanie Brown (1992’s Detective #647) are added to this sprawling mythos, Batman is growing more and more popular with audiences through movies by directors Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher, TV series within the classic DC Animated Universe, and comics in newly added Bat books such as ‘Legends of the Dark Knight’. Detective even starred in one of Batman’s greatest series within his history, 1999’s ‘Batman: No Man’s Land’.

2019’s Detective Comics #1000, cover illustrated by Jim Lee, Scott Williams, and Alex Sinclair.

Batwoman’s revival and takeover of Detective in the late 2000s, 2011’s The New 52 Initiative issuing in a Volume 2, and returning to Volume 1 with 2016’s Detective #934 in DC Rebirth all showcase major shifts within this classic book. The format of Detective Comics may have changed, but the publication’s place of importance in continuing the Batman’s elaborate story has always remained consistent.

The celebration of Detective Comics #1000 this year is necessary not just because of Batman debuting in this publication. It is due of the fact that when Batman needed a life line to save himself and his incredible mythos from becoming insignificant in today’s standards within the superhero narrative, Detective Comics was the one the Dark Knight called.


Related posts