In my first posting about “The Year of the Bat” I focused on when Batman first appeared on the newsstands in the USA. In response to that post, I was informed that Detective Comics #27 (Batman’s first appearance) had a newsstand date of April 18, 1939 as reported by the DC Indexes Blog. While I don’t know how DC Indexes arrived at that date, I have no reason to doubt its accuracy. With that date in mind for Detective Comics #27, it appears that Batman #1 would have hit the stands one week past the one year anniversary of Batman’s first appearance when it appeared on the stands on April 25, 1940. So, what happened in the life of Batman during that monumental first year between April 18, 1939 and April 25, 1940?
As everyone knows, in the May issue of Detective Comics(#27), Batman and Commissioner James Gordon burst upon the scene in “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”. In this story, we learn that a mysterious vigilante has been fighting crime when in the opening panel, Gordon tells his friend Bruce Wayne that “This fellow they call the ‘Bat-Man’ puzzles me!” It is clear from this statement by Gordon that the Bat-Man has been on the scene fighting crime for some period of time prior to this story. Perhaps the most important fact we learn at the very end of this tale, is that Bruce Wayne, the bored young playboy who has tagged along with Gordon to the various crime scenes in this story, is none other than the dark cloaked vigilante, the Bat-Man. The dual identity of the “bored playboy” and the “Dark Knight” is set up perfectly by Gordon in the final scene of this story when he remarks, “…Bruce Wayne is a nice young chap…but he certainly must lead a boring life…he seems disinterested in everything.” The portrayal of the alter-ego of Batman and Bruce Wayne has not been modified in the 70 years since their introduction.
One month later in the June issue of Detective Comics (#28), our hero returns to fight a gang of jewel thieves. The story begins with a description of the character not found in his first appearance, “The ‘Bat-Man’, a mysterious and adventurous figure, fighting crime for righteousness and apprehending the menaces of society in his lone battle against the evil. His identity remains unknown. (He is one Bruce Wayne, bored young socialite.)” His appearance remains unchanged from his first adventure, but we learn for the first time that this mysterious crime-fighter is a superb fighter and acrobat. We also learn that the police are determined to capture this vigilante, and even fire their weapons at Batman as he makes a “spectacular leap” off of a tall building, shortly after subduing a jewel thief for the police. Also for the first time, Batman uses a “tough silk rope” to lasso a flagpole on an adjacent building to assist in his escape. Thus, the “batrope” is born! Finally, this story begins the tradition of Bat-Man leaving the captured crooks tied up on the steps of the police station with a note attached describing the situation. Of course, the note contains a small black bat as his signature, a feature we will see in many stories to come.
In his second cover appearance on Detective Comics for the July 1939 issue (#29), we meet Batman’s first “super villain” in the character Doctor Death. For the first time, we see our hero’s name written as “Batman” (sans hyphen), but is is also written as “Bat Man” in this story. We learn in this story that Batman’s belt is intended for something more than show, as he explains that it contains compartments in which he stores such items as gas pellets that he uses to subdue his enemies. The famous “Utility Belt” is born! As for something that did not happen too often in the life of Batman, in this story he uses a handgun to threaten two thugs (he actually says he will kill them is they don’t give the information he seeks), and we also see Batman shot for the first time. After a lame excuse to his family doctor, his shoulder wound is patched up. At the end of the story, Batman “gets his man” and Doctor Death apparently perishes in a fire as Batman utters, “Death…to Doctor Death!”
In Detective Comics #30 (August 1939) Batman returns in a story that takes place less than a week after his encounter with Doctor Death. As it turns out, this is Batman’s first two part story and features the return of Doctor Death, who survived the fire that had apparently taken his life in the previous issue. While this story is generally unremarkable and Batman captures Doctor Death and turns him over to the police, one notable event occurs in this story. For the first time, we learn that Batman’s ride is a “specially built high-powered auto”. While not called the “batmobile”, it was certainly the precursor to one of Batman’s coolest gadgets.
In a classic issue that is highly sought by collectors, Batman next appeared in the September 1939 issue of Detective Comics (#31). This issue has one of the best classic Batman covers from the early Golden Age of Comic Books, and the story features some notable characters and gadgets. In this story, we learn that Bruce Wayne is engaged to Julie Madison (a relationship that will not last long), and that Batman has added two new gadgets to his arsenal. First, we get a glimpse of the “Batgyro”, a cross between a helicopter and an airplane. As far as I know this is also the first time one of Batman’s gadgets is given a name that begins with “Bat”. We also find out that young Bruce Wayne has mastered the art and science of the Australian boomerang, and has created the “Baterang” as a weapon to fight crime. In this story, Batman embarks on an adventure to save Julie from the evil “Monk”, a vampire. The story takes Batman in his Batgyro over the ocean to Paris, where he rescues Julie. This is Batman’s first “to be continued” story, and the conclusion sets up the readers for the clash between Batman and the Monk to take place in the next issue. Notably, this story also features Batman’s escape from an elaborate death-trap, the first of many he would face in his career.
Batman is back in the October 1939 issue of Detective Comics (#32) where his epic adventure in battling the Monk continues. As for gadgets, one new feature is introduced as Batman combines his silken rope and his baterang to allow him to throw the rope for longer distances and around objects. We also see Batman again use a gun in this story to fire a silver bullet into the body of the Monk to end his rampage of terror once and for all. And yes, someone forgot to tell Kane and Finger that silver bullets generally don’t work when you are trying to dispatch a vampire, but it worked for our hero in this story! Of all of the pre-Robin Batman stories from the Golden Age, the two part story from Detective Comics #s 31 and 32 are the best. In fact, Matt Wagner retold this story in the six issue mini series, Batman and the Mad Monk in 2006-2007. By the way, this story is the first to use the term “Batplane” to refer to the flying machine call a “Batgyro” in the previous story.
With his cover appearance (complete with gun holster) in Detective Comics #33 (November 1939) a milestone was reached in the life of the Batman. For the very first time we learn of his origins and why he took up the Mantle of the Bat. In two short pages, the story is told of the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne (the first mention of Bruce’s parents), and the life Bruce led after their deaths to become a “master scientist” and to train “his body to physical perfection” to be able to “preform amazing athletic feats.” We also learn of the struggle Bruce had to create his alter-ego until one night a bat flies thorough the open window of his study, prompting him to exclaim that he would become “a Bat!”. As the origin concludes, “And thus is born this weird figure of the dark…this avenger of evil, ‘THE BATMAN'”. In the story in this issue, we see our hero fight a Napoleon type character, Kruger, who is using dirigibles to wreak havoc on this city. Although not generally noted, this story represents the first time we see Batman use a disguise (other then his Batman uniform) in a story. The story concludes with Batman exhibiting his skills as a pilot in defeating Kruger in a dogfight. By the way, this story takes place in Manhattan, and we have not yet been told of a place called Gotham City where Batman fights crime.
The story in Detective Comics #34 (December 1939) seems to take place immediately after the adventure that concludes in Detective Comics #32, as Bruce Wayne is still in Paris and has just left Julie Madison on a ship to the USA, but he “is to follow her later”. In this story, Batman battles a mad scientist, Duc D’Orterre. The story is not very notable, except for one particularly wild deathtrap from which Batman must escape. Also of note is Batman’s use of the rope ladder dangling from the hovering Batplane to escape from a moving vehicle as it is about plunge off of a cliff.
With Detective Comics #35 (January 1940), Batman begins his years of unbroken cover appearances on this title. This classic hypodermic needle cover is actually associated with the story from the previous issue (Batman was not featured on the cover of that issue). This issue features a splash panel of Batman holding a smoking revolver (an image that we would not see again in the Golden Age). This story also features the Batman again escaping from the police who are trying to apprehend him, demonstrating that he has yet to form the strong bond with the authorities that will be featured in future issues. Batman also showcases his skill as a chemist in this issue as he produces a gas pellet from his belt that counteracts mustard gas used against him by his enemy. This story features the now obligatory escape by Batman from a death-trap, and the death of the villain at the conclusion of the story. Gordon’s frustration with Batman is highlighted at the end of the story when he states. “That Batman. He’s done it again! He’s making the Police Department look ridiculous. I wish I could get my hands on him.”
Batman’s appearance in Detective Comics #36 (February 1940) shows the start of some changes in the life of our hero. Here, we meet the first of the recurring super villains who Batman will face in the years to come, with the introduction of Hugo Strange. Strange is using a giant fog machine to hold the city hostage. Apparently, Batman is aware of Strange as he states, “Professor Hugo Strange. The most dangerous man in the world! Scientist, philosopher and a criminal genius…Little is known of him, yet this man is undoubtedly the greatest organizer of crime in the world…” Of course, Batman overcomes long odds and defeats Strange who from his prison cell vows to “devote the rest of my life in revenging myself upon the Batman.” Most notably, we first learn in this story of the public perception of the Batman, particularly with his defeat of Strange. The story concludes with a radio announcer stating, “…and so we citizens of this city owe our thanks to one man, the Batman! Because of him an arch-criminal is at last captured!” A son is observed asking his father, “Who is the Batman, Daddy?” to which the father replies, “A great man, son, a GREAT man!” Of note in this story is the first appearance of Batman’s “bat fin” gloves.
Batman’s last solo adventure to appear in Detective Comics is in issue #37 (March 1940). This rather bland story begins with Batman stopping at house to ask for directions! I’m not sure why the world’s greatest detective didn’t at least have a map, but this stop was used to lead him to discover criminal activity taking place in the house. The only notable aspect of this story is Batman’s use of night vision goggles to help him see in the dark like a bat, and his escape, once again, from a watery death trap. Interestingly, this story concludes with a preview of a Hugo Strange story that was scheduled to appear in the next issue, but that was bumped by a feature that was much, much more important.
Detective Comics #38 (April 1940) presents a story that will change the life of Batman forever. Robin the Boy Wonder is introduced to the world! Not only does the introduction of the first sidekick in comics change Batman’s crime fighting methods, it also changes the tenor of Batman stories for years to come. Robin introduces a lighter side to these stories, and in many ways we loose the grim creature of the night aspect of Batman that pervades his earliest adventures. In two pages, this story not only tells the tale of the death of Dick Grayson’s parents on the orders of Boss Zucco, it also details the complete training and preparation of Grayson to become the Boy Wonder. Batman and Robin in their first team-up solve the murder and avenge the Grayson’s deaths. The story concludes with Bruce asking Dick if he will go back to circus life, to which Dick responds, “No, I think mother and dad would like me to go on fighting crime, and as for me, well I love adventure!” With this decision, the Dynamic Duo was formed!
Detective Comics #39 (May 1940) was the last issue to appear in the First Year of the Bat (DC Comics Indexes reports that it had a April 4, 1940 publication date). This issue features Batman and Robin fighting a gang of Chinese criminals, and has a lot of solo action by Robin. This story serves to begin developing the Batman and Robin team. The conclusion of this story further establishes that Batman continues to be revered by the general public. Interestingly, Julie Madison makes a cameo as Bruce’s fiance, as the DC editors were not quite ready to remove her from the life of Batman.
The First Year of the Bat culminated with the publication of Batman #1 on April 25, 1940. This now famous cover features the smiling forms of Batman and Robin swinging over the rooftops of their city. Not only is this issue notable simply because it is the first issue of this title, but it also introduces two characters that will serve to define Batman for all time. The issue begins with the retelling of Batman’s origin from Detective Comics #33, and them moves to the introduction of the greatest villain of all time – The Joker (created by Jerry Robinson)! While the Joker’s origin is not told for many years, we learn right off the bat (no pun intended) that his is not only a worthy adversary for the Batman, but the epitome of evil. While Batman puts the Joker behind bars at the end of this story, we know that he will be back!
Interestingly, the second story of this issue features the return of Hugo Strange as he breaks out of prison. This story was likely originally intended for Detective Comics #38. This story, which was retold in Batman and the Monster Men by Matt Wagner, features Batman taking on a number of giants created by Strange. This is a solo Batman adventure (the last of the Golden Age), and for the first time we learn that Batman is opposed to killing when he says, “Much as I hate to take human life, I’m afraid this time it’s necessary.”
If the introduction of the Joker and the return of Hugo Strange is not enough, the third story of this issue features the introduction of a woman who would become both an enemy and and ally of the Batman, the Cat (later, Catwoman)! Of course, she appeared in this issue out of costume and her name, Selina Kyle was not revealed, but she is one of the most important characters introduced into the life of Batman, eventually becoming a love interest.
The First Year of the Bat concludes with the fourth story in Batman #1, the return of the Joker. In this story, we learn more of the Joker’s maniacal ways, and see him apparently killed with a knife to his chest at the end of the story. Every great hero needs a great villain, so the last panel of the story concludes with the doctor exclaiming that he is alive. The Joker will live another day!
Wow! What an amazing first year in the life of Batman! Not only did the character and his crime fighting arsenal evolve, but some of the main supporting characters in the Batman Family were introduced. We can thank Kane, Finger, Robinson and others for bringing us this great fictional hero 70 years ago, and look forward to another 70 years of adventures from Batman and his supporting cast.