Superman’s June 1938 debut in Action Comics #1 was a lot of cliché things: it was a bolt from the blue, it burst like a bombshell, it took the publishing world by storm. Listen, seriously – it was big. It was the first comic superhero story and invented a genre that still defines most of the comics industry three-quarters of a century later. And it’s an OK tale in its own right: not great, but readable. That’s why it’s frequently reprinted in facsimile editions (I own a couple of them).

But what about Batman’s debut nearly a year later, in the May 1939 issue of Detective Comics? I’ll bet you’ve never seen that one reprinted outside of an expensive hardbound Archive edition geared toward collectors; in fact, I’d bet you’ve never seen that story at all. Batman’s first adventure isn’t often reprinted and I’m about to commit heresy (and risk a trip to the pillory) by suggesting the reason why it’s seldom seen.

The first story in which Batman appears just plain sucks. Truly.

And when I make that statement it’s not from the standpoint of a modern reader viewing the story with a jaundiced eye through a postmodernist lens. I’m comparing the tale to a wide variety of contemporaneous Golden Age comic stories. Take any random story from the first nine or ten issues of Daredevil Comics, compare it to the first Batman story, and you’ll see what I mean. Bob Kane, a writer and illustrator of modest talent, put together a rather lackluster first outing for his new character, a murder mystery which reads much like an Ellery Queen or Agatha Christie story with a cape thrown in rather than a tale in the noir tradition with which Batman is commonly associated today.

The magazine’s cover was a stunner, I’ll grant you that:

Detective Comics #27, May 1939

…which was later turned into a really swell Heroclix figure (from the DC 75th Anniversary set):


Check out the suit on that crook. Man, the hoods sure knew how to dress in those days!

I’m not able to offer the full six-page debut story here as it’s not in the public domain, but I can invoke “fair use” show a few excerpts from it. Page one starts with a really nice title panel:

Detective Comics #27, May 1939

Notice the hyphen in the character’s name, similar to the way Spider-Man’s name is still spelled today.

The tale begins at the home of Police Commissioner Gordon, who is entertaining his young socialite friend Bruce Wayne. Gordon receives a call stating that a chemical industrialist named Lambert has been found stabbed to death, and that the fingerprints of Lambert’s son were found on the knife.

Detective Comics #27, May 1939

I’m pretty sure that dragging some random snotty rich guy along to the investigation of a crime scene is against police regulations, but it’s a murder mystery trope that goes as far back as Arthur Conan Doyle, not to mention that if you’re the commissioner you can apparently do pretty much anything you want.

At the Lambert mansion, young Lambert tells Gordon that he found his stabbed father on the floor and the safe had been broken into; his prints got on the knife when he was pulling it out of Dad. The son also mentions his father’s three former business partners as possible suspects. Just then the phone rings; it’s Steven Crane, one of the trio of former partners, calling to tell (the deceased) Lambert Sr. that he, too, has received a threat on his life. Bruce Wayne takes this opportunity to slip out, telling Gordon that he’s going home.

A bit later an intruder steals some papers from the Crane home and shoots Steven Crane dead. When the second-story man climbs to the roof, he and his accomplice get a shock:

Detective Comics #27, May 1939

It’s our first look at The Bat-Man in full story context. He cleans house on the two robbers and has just enough time to snatch up the paper they were after before the police arrive and drive him from the rooftop. Then The Bat-Man sets a bad example for today’s “texting while driving” crowd as he reads the papers while speeding away from the scene:

Detective Comics #27, May 1939

Check out his car. No bat wings, no bat head, no bat stylings at all – heck, it’s not even black! Kids, even the greatest heroes have to start somewhere; you don’t get the cool goodies until you earn them.

It’s ironic that a car is depicted here, because it’s at this point that the narrative begins its spectacular crash and burn.

The Bat-Man has just found a clue (which, by the way, any stumblefoot beat cop would have found given the same circumstances), but Kane doesn’t provide us with the information that the paper contains. The fun of a mystery story lies in trying to solve the case before the protagonist does. Even though this particular story has many of the (bad) trappings of a traditional boring English drawing room murder mystery, we’re not invited to participate in solving the crimes. We’re simply spectators here, and Kane thus missed a golden opportunity to turn a lackluster humdrum first appearance of The Bat-Man into a halfway memorable story.

When you compare this story to later Batman tales this missed opportunity becomes even more significant. When I was a little kid reading Detective Comics and Batman in the 1960’s, the reader was invited to match wits with Batman by trying to solve the mystery before he did. The writers and artists would even present a special panel enumerating the clues: “Batman has discovered a ball of yarn, a warped boomerang, and a naked picture of Leonid Brezhnev. Can you decipher these clues and help Batman solve the mystery?” We were never able to, of course, because the killer’s plot was so bizarre, convoluted, and far out in left field that his plan couldn’t have possibly worked anyway. But solving the case wasn’t really the point – we readers felt like we were part of the story. Readers of those 1960’s stories were engaged in a way that readers of Detective Comics #27 can never be.

Let’s return to the story. For those keeping score at home, two of the four business partners have now been bumped off. The third, Paul Rogers, pays a visit to the fourth, Alfred Stryker, and is promptly buffaloed by the lumbering brute manservant Jennings and dragged down to Stryker’s basement laboratory. By the way, all of this is covered in the three panels immediately following Batman’s discovery of the “mystery paper”, so the “who” portion of the tale is no longer relevant – now it’s the “why” that concerns us.

Jennings is in the midst of lowering a glass bell over Rogers in order to gas him. Just then, The Bat-Man arrives:

Detective Comics #27, May 1939

Maybe I missed it, but when did they start putting skylight windows in basements? Maybe Kane meant for the opening to represent a high window in the basement wall, but that window is clearly drawn as being in the ceiling. Someone might try to defend Kane here – good luck. I’m no artist and even I could draw a window to look like it’s in the wall – put it below the ceiling line and draw it as a rectangle, not a parallelogram.

Now it just gets goofy. The hero who is always defined in the DC Universe as being the smartest guy in the room jumps inside the glass bell to smash it:

Detective Comics #27, May 1939

Wouldn’t it have been just as effective (and safer) to smash the bell first, then plug the gas jet? That would also make it easier to justify the sudden presence of the pipe wrench. Maybe The Bat-Man keeps one in his utility belt in case of a plumbing emergency.

The Bat-man socks Jennings then ducks into the shadows just as Stryker arrives in the basement. Rogers tells Stryker that Jennings tried to kill him. Stryker surprises Rogers by attempting to finish the job with a knife. The Bat-Man leaps from the shadows and wrests the knife from Stryker’s hand. A befuddled Rogers asks The Bat-Man what’s going on:

Detective Comics #27, May 1939

The mystery paper which The Bat-man liberated from the thieves at Crane’s home was a copy of the contract, which allowed The Bat-Man to figure out the mystery. Stryker breaks loose from The Bat-Man and pulls a pistol. Our hero pops him in the jaw and Stryker tumbles backward into a vat of acid (which seems to happen to a lot of Batman’s foes – I’m beginning to think that it’s not entirely coincidental):

Detective Comics #27, May 1939

Batman wasted a fair number of criminals back in the day and, as we see here, he typically showed no remorse.

And, by the way, that is a skylight, dammit! A basement skylight. I’ve now officially seen everything.

As the story nears its conclusion we’re treated to the stock (and practically required) comment from Gordon about what a wastrel Bruce Wayne seems to be. And in the final panels The Bat-Man’s secret is revealed:

Detective Comics #27, May 1939

It’s certainly not the worst Golden Age comic story. But it’s far from being a great debut story. Unlike Action Comics, in which Superman was always the star attraction, Detective Comics was a success before The Bat-Man ever arrived on the scene, and it was other characters like Speed Saunders, The Crimson Avenger, and Slam Bradley who continued to carry the book until Kane (as well as several other largely uncredited major contributors; see The Batcave Companion by Michael Eury) reworked The Bat-Man into a more interesting and viable feature which eventually headlined the title. And, unlike the first Superman story from Action Comics #1, this first Batman story has apparently been deemed by DC Comics to be unworthy of frequent reprints outside of pricey Archives collectors volumes.

That might be for the best. Even Nostradamus would have a hard time predicting an uninterrupted run of more than seventy years for Batman based on his first appearance.

Have fun! — Steve

Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.