Out of the Vault – Batman’s First Appearance, Detective Comics #27


Okay, so we’ve established that, according to Bob Kane’s official version, he was inspired by The Mark of Zorro and The Bat Whispers, while I personally think as much or more inspiration was drawn from 1926’s The Bat (of which The Bat Whispers was a talkie remake).

But according to Dial B For Blog, those two sources could not have been inspirational because of distinct differences between the final product and the source material.

I disagree. Yes, there are differences, but it seems apparent to me that the Bat-Man was a fusion of many different influences. So let’s take a look at his very first appearance in 1939, in issue #27 of Detective Comics, the title that gave DC its name. The story is “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” written by Bill Finger and “inspired” by the Shadow novel, Partners of Peril.

The story opens as Commissioner Gordon entertains a guest, millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. He gets a phone call about a murder and asks Bruce if he’d like to come along to the crime scene. Bruce responds, “Oh well, nothing else to do, might as well.”

And see, though Dial B For Blog (which, if you’ve never read it, is a great and fascinating blog with hours of archived material) sees a vast gulf between Bruce’s playboy persona and Don Diego Vega’s foppishness, the fact is, with Golden Age stories, you never get much in the way of character. Most of the early Batman stories I’ve read spend as little time as possible with Bruce Wayne.

But Bruce Wayne’s insouciance tracks well with Don Diego Vega’s personality. It may track more closely to Lamont Cranston (who was the secret identity of the Shadow), but chances are that Cranston was also inspired to an extent by the same source material.

At the crime scene, the police are grilling the son of the victim, Old Mr. Lambert (the story never gives either of them first names, just young Lambert and old Lambert). Young Lambert says he found his father bleeding on the floor and pulled the knife out of his body moments before the old man expired, muttering something about a contract. Young Lambert mentions his father’s former business partners moments before one of them, Steven Crane, calls up to say he too has received an anonymous death┬áthreat.

Bruce says (literally) “Ho hum,” and takes his leave as the Commissioner prepares to head over to Crane’s place. Alas, before he arrives, Crane earns his Red Badge of Courage when he is shot by an unknown intruder, who then steals a paper from his safe and climbs out the window to join his partner on the roof.

Why the roof? To provide an appropriate setting to introduce this fellow:

And while I don’t think the filmmakers were consciously looking to this 1939 story for inspiration, that moment reminds me of the introduction of Batman in the 1989 Tim Burton film, which also introduces the Batman by having him beat up two criminals on a rooftop.

BTW, Dial B For Blog also claims The Mark of Zorro could not have inspired Batman because Zorro’s costume was not black, and for proof, he puts up a one-sheet depicting Zorro in a costume of red and blue. But in the film itself, Zorro’s costume reads black…

And Johnston McCulley apparently thought it was black, because in his sequels, he described Zorro’s costume that way.

Anyway, the Bat-Man makes short work of the two thugs, then reads the paper they stole and figures out the mystery. Commissioner Gordon spots the Bat-Man making his getaway and decides to visit the next partner on the list, Paul Rogers.

However, Rogers has gone to visit the last partner, Alfred Stryker. to discuss the murders. But when he presents himself to Jennings, Stryker’s butler, he is attacked! Jennings ties him up and places him under a giant glass bell jar that will soon fill with deadly gas.

But as the glass is being lowered into place, the Bat-Man drops through a skylight and races to Rogers’s side. And who else have we seen recently who had a thing for skylights?

That’s right, the Bat. The Bat-Man plugs the gas jet, smashes the glass with a wrench, and makes short work of Jennings. Then Stryker appears and tries to kill Rogers. The Bat-Man intervenes and explains that Stryker was killing the men to avoid having to pay off on secret contracts they had written to allow him to buy out their mutual chemical business. Mystery solved.

But suddenly…

Ah, yes, the old “Villain Dies By Misadventure Due To His Own Treachery And Not By The Hero’s Hand” dodge. Jeez, how old is that trope? The Bat-Man’s not too torn up over it, and neither is Bruce Wayne when he hears about it.

The final panels give us the reveal that Bruce Wayne is, in fact, the Bat-Man, and that’s it. The entire story only lasts six pages.

One thing that occurs to me, though, is that at this point, Bruce Wayne’s seeming boredom with everything may not be just an act. It could be that he is doing the whole “costumed vigilante” thing just because he’s bored. Other heroes and villains have had basically the same motivation; life is too easy, and nothing is a challenge anymore, so… And we will not learn the Bat-Man’s official origin until Batman #1, published the next year, so who knows what was in the minds of Finger and Kane in this early stage?

Anyway, there you have it. From those six crudely drawn pages, we eventually got this…

Kick ass. See you next week.

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