Detective Comics #31

By Jacobus Dixon

It’s late 1939, we’re coming out of the Great Depression, World War II has started everywhere except the U.S., Gone with the Wind is the motion picture everyone’s talking about, the New York World’s Fair has opened, and Superman is dominating comic book magazine sales. A close second of course, was Batman (originally Bat-Man, but I guess National Comics figured the hyphen cut in on the name’s appeal). Unlike Superman, Batman was not super-powered and relied on his athletic abilities, gadgets, spooky appearance, and sheer determination to get him out of a jam.  But he wasn’t the only popular character to have these traits.

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The three characters that first come to mind when drawing a comparison to Batman are Zorro, the Shadow, and the Phantom. Like Batman, all three were humans that pushed themselves to fight evildoers without superpowers (well, the Shadow had the ability to cloud men’s minds, but only after he learned how to do it from a Tulku in the Himalayas). But none of these guys were faster than a speeding bullet, or more powerful than a locomotive. Each hero had been around longer than Batman, and each one had a strong fan base that avidly followed (and some still follow) their adventures. True, Batman had made a splash in Detective Comics ever since his first appearance in issue 27, but just how long could he keep in competition with these three big names that were so similar to him?

Fortunately, Batman did not quite share the same media as the Shadow, Zorro, or the Phantom. Zorro and the Shadow were primarily stars in their own dime-novel adventure paperbacks, but both were primarily known more notably for their appearances in radio (the Shadow debuted and carried his own successful show) and film (Douglas Fairbanks immortalized Zorro in the film “The Mark of Zorro”). And while the Phantom was indeed a popular comic character, he did not have his own magazine (until the 1940s that is), but appeared as a comic-strip in the newspaper funnies (which was still a big deal, but not really competition for comic magazines). So Batman had some room to flex his muscles.

But still…something was needed to really cement the idea of who Batman was. That image of him swooping down on a hapless criminal was a great introduction of him as some kind of creature of the night. But to make his image more substantial, the art would need to highlight the supernatural elements of his appearance as opposed to just him beating up some guys. It was a good thing Bob Kane decided to use bats to define Batman’s appearance, because only eight years earlier bats were immortalized as the ultimate supernatural scary creature due to their connection with the title character in the film Dracula (based on the book by Bram Stoker, which is still wildly popular).

But how do you connect a wealthy socialite who fights modern urban crime to a (literally) bloodthirsty Romanian vampire noble? Well…how about the poses to begin with:

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Now this is nice, but it’s more of a gentle nudge of reminder rather than blaring foghorn of recognition. The next step (and more important, really) is using a cover that utilizes imagery made popular by the film. Something like this (to your left)? Mmmm…closer, but not quite. Yeah we’ve got the whole old creepy castle setting mixed with Batman’s villain being a guy dressed like Dr. Frankenstein (and an Indian henchman to boot). But the scene doesn’t really settle on any specific theme and really sacrifices its integrity by blending generic popular pulp and horror imagery.  There’s not really much of a connection between Batman and Frankenstein, so while the story may be riveting (and to his credit, Doctor Death was the first recurring Bat-villain) the only thing that this cover has for someone to get excited about is the fact that this a story with Batman in it. Nice, we all like Batman, but the imagery doesn’t really add a new layer to what we already know about him.

By Detective Comics #31, though, it looks as if Bob Kane has learned from his mistakes. Look at the setting- it’s like it was torn right out of the Transylvanian countryside-from the movie of course.

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The best part is Batman looming over the gloomy setting. Most people will know that this isn’t his castle, but he seems appropriate nonetheless. Batman is this omnipresent specter. He hears and sees all that happens at this place. That hooded fellow with his captive can run, but he can’t hide. We don’t even need to see Batman punch the guy. We know this cowled figure is done for and that he’s walking into a losing confrontation. While the previous issue had its focus all over the place, this one is centered squarely on the popular imagery of the Todd Browning film. And as a result connects Batman with a supernatural element that will only increase his popularity.

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.

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