Date of Publication: May 1939
Author: Bob Kane
To me the cover of this first issue represents a good deal of the basic appeal of Batman–his strangeness. His portrayal here, unlike later, softer versions of the costume, is deliberately animalistic. The long ears and thin eyes remind me of Max Schreck in Nosferatu; the cape flows dramatically outwards like two large batwings. (Usually in the comics, his cape acts more like a cape.) Batman doesn’t look like a superhero. His costume is black, grey, and a faded yellow, unlike the colorful heroes of the day. (The blue highlights, which would later lead to his costume looking very blue, are artistic conventions simulating light on the costume and are essentially a way of making the linework visible as opposed to a single unbroken blob of black).
Nor is Batman acting like a conventional hero. He’s not lifting a train, or fighting a monster, or even punching a criminal. He’s abducting that criminal, holding him oddly by the head, and swinging away on a rope. It’s like if Errol Flyn was a monster who preyed on men with guns. And the viewpoint characters in the image are not children (which these comics were probably originally intended for) or bystanders–they’re two criminals, men in hats with hard faces. One of them holds a gun. Both of them have their back to us, looking up and to the right at the unknown figure who has just come from above and taken one of them away. “Who is this masked man?” they seem to think, silent. Batman is the only major comics hero to which this question sometimes follows: “Is he a man?”
In other words, the overall effect of this cover isn’t exhilarating; it’s unsettling. There are a lot of reasons why people like Batman, but I think this is the reason he stayed around even in this rough, early mode. Batman’s weird. He and his stories are bizarre and off-kilter. And that’s here from the very start.
When you read this first Batman story, it’s clear that modern comics are a long way away. It wasn’t until later that comics creators learned how to streamline their storytelling. The art style is pretty representational; the people are people, not cartoons. The panel structure is unremarkable. The story is mostly told, rather than shown, via both heavy narration, largely unnecessary (“The commissioner and Bruce Wayne speed toward the Lambert residence” is self-evident, given the preceding and following panels) and the exposition-rich dialogue (the commissioner on the phone: “What’s that? Lambert, the chemical king – stabbed to death? I’ll be right over!”).
It’s apparent that when they invented this vigilante character, they had no idea how he would find crimes to solve. The authors get much more creative with this later on, but for now, Bruce Wayne is simply friends with the police commissioner, who brings him along on calls. It’s a relationship that would eventually prove fruitful dramatic territory. (The earliest example I know of being Miller’s Year One, but perhaps we’ll find something sooner.)
The plot of this first issue is fairly prosaic, with three interesting exceptions. The general thrust (delivered in full-on Explain-O-Text by Batman at the end) is that three businessmen are set to be killed by the fourth, who prefers murder to having to pay out on a secret contract they all signed. Bruce Wayne and the Commissioner are called to the first crime, and learn that the second businessman has received a death threat. The Commissioner heads over there, but Wayne excuses himself and goes home. Later, the second businessman is killed; the killers again take the secret contract and escape–only to meet the Bat-Man on the roof. He beats them up, takes the contract, and heads to the four businessman’s lab–as does the third businessman. The latter is nearly killed via slow death-trap, but he’s saved in time by Batman. Batman then defeats the fourth businessman and wraps up everything with an explanation of motive.
The three things I find interesting here are…
-The way that, although Batman is a strong force in the plot of the second half, the reader is kept out of his head. The comic makes a point of telling us we don’t know what clues Batman has found in the contract, nor where he’s going. This mysteriousness is something the comics abandon pretty quickly, so it’s pretty cool in this first issue.
-Batman defeats the evil businessman by punching him in the face; the businessman falls backwards into a vat of acid and dies horribly. Batman’s response?
This plants the seeds for many, many years of exploring both the tragic and violent nature of kind of person who would say that, and the need/desire for society to have that kind of person around. That’s the heart of vigilantism: “I know what’s just, and those criminals don’t deserve my consideration.” By considering them an “Other” Batman justifies his violence. I’m not saying this is entirely wrong; the argument that criminals have in some ways set themselves outside of society when they cause harm to others is a common one. But few take it as far as Batman.
-Finally, the closing revelation that Bruce Wayne is, in fact, Batman, although of course well-spoiled by now for everyone, is still a cool twist. The contrast between the bored, wealthy playboy Wayne and the serious, strange vigilante Batman is something that continues to get both comic and dramatic mileage to this day (as in Nolan’s Batman films). It’s also cool that Batman doesn’t start with an origin story; he’s just there, already doing his thing, when we first read about him. We are presented with a character, already formed, and have to decide for ourselves who he is and how we feel about him.
How do I feel about him? I feel like reading the next issue.
Tune in next week for Detective Comics #28 as Baturdays continues.