12 Jun, 2014
By Jacobus Dixon
Now as much of a smash that Action Comics #1 was, it was by no means the first comic book cover. And Superman was not the first recurring famous character. Characters like Doc Savage, The Shadow, Slam Bradley (also a Siegel and Shuster creation), Buck Rogers, and Flash Gordon were quite famous already and had their own fan bases to boot. However, none equaled Superman when it came to sales. The simple-but-appealing back-story, combined with amazing powers to take on current societal ills, wrapped in a dynamic costume really stuck out for readers. What happens when you’re digging and strike gold? Well, you’re gonna mine that vein till it’s dry! Which is exactly what National Comics (remember they weren’t DC just yet) were going to do.
Superman was going to have adventures in both Action Comics and his own upcoming book, Superman (which was a big deal). But what could National give audiences between Action Comics and the highly anticipated Superman #1? Well…how about a knock-off; rival comic companies were scrambling to pull it off, why shouldn’t National have a little fun? This knock-off was published in National’s Detective Comics in May of 1939. Now what’s going on here? This is a night scene (I know, not obvious, but the background had to be light so that Bat-Man could be seen). These guys in the foreground don’t look like they’re upstanding citizens with their upturned coat collars and pulled down hats. One of them’s even packing a piece! Something’s about to go down. It doesn’t look like they planned for this weird bat-guy though. Look at this, he must have literally JUST swooped down and grabbed this hapless thug like a bird of prey. The expressions on the other gangsters’ faces are pure surprise. Even the one with a gun is too stupefied to shoot!
He may not be smashing a car, but this Batman character is clearly not one to be trifled with. He’s got to be either out of his mind or completely badass to swing on that rope throttling hardened crooks like that. What’s this guy’s deal!? The story that the cover’s referring to happens to be a mystery. A bunch of wealthy industrialists are being murdered. This naturally draws the attention of the police. Commissioner Gordon brings his young wealthy socialite friend, Bruce Wayne along for the ride. The callow Wayne finds the affair extremely dull and leaves during the investigation. As another industrialist is targeted by assassins, they are thwarted by the dynamic-but-grim figure of the Bat-man.
The Bat-Man wastes no time in taking papers on the assassins (which tie in with contracts that were stolen from the previous victims) and deducing who the ringleader of the dastardly enterprise is. Gordon recounts the story of the last would-be victim to Bruce Wayne. About how the Bat-Man saved him from his former business partner by plugging a deadly gas nozzle then smashing his way out of the gas chamber to punch said business partner into a vat of acid. Wayne only yawns and makes some comment on how it’s a nice fairy tale, naturally frustrating the Commissioner. At the end though, the audience is treated to the revelation that this mysterious, grim, and hardcore Bat-Man is none other than WAYNE himself!
So while it isn’t the obvious show of force that Superman was, there’s still a lot of neat stuff going on here. We know that this Bat-Man is not some super-powered alien like Superman, but just a guy. An extremely badass guy who’s as deadly as he is smart (and he’s able to save a guy just in the nick of time). Like the cover, the story implies that there’s nothing superhuman about Bat-Man, he’s just really determined and skilled. But he’s also intelligent enough to deduce the workings of a conspiracy before the police while keeping a low profile and hiding his identity. Like Superman, Bat-Man’s an ubermensch, but much more subtle. Uh oh, looks like National has another hit.
The key here was surprise. The cover depicts the main character literally striking out from the shadows like his animal namesake upon unsuspecting criminals. Like the gangsters, the audience is startled. The story shares this mood by drawing you in the way a typical crime-mystery would. The yellow background may be a distraction for more modern audiences, but for a 1939 audience this was a common technique used to illustrate a night scene in a way that allowed the focus to be directly on the characters and scene being displayed. It’s far more subtle than Action Comics #1, but just as effective at grabbing attention and garnering interest in a character that was really meant to be nothing more than a Superman knock-off. And by the time we’re done reading the story, we’ve discovered that this Bat-Man is far more than that.
The views expressed herein are solely those of the writer, and not Midtown Comics. Additionally, Midtown Comics makes no representations as to the accuracy of any of the information expressed herein.