80 Years of The Bat: Detective Comics #27 (May 1939)
by Ben Martin
80 Years of The Bat is a column created to celebrate the 80th anniversary of one of the most beloved characters ever created, Batman. Since his creation in 1939, Batman has managed to transcend his native medium of comic books. Eight decades later, the character has a presence in every area of entertainment. Over that time, Batman has garnered generations of fans; thus, always remaining relevant. Throughout the remainder of 2019, 80 Years of The Bat will examine decades worth of Batman material from every medium. But what better place to start than the beginning? In this inaugural edition of the column, I’ll review the comic book that introduced Batman to the world: Detective Comics #27 (May 1939)!
Some childhood development experts maintain that by age 3, a child will have developed some traits and interest that will remain a part of their personality for life. Despite having doubts about such a theory, I may well be living proof of it. By the time I was three, I had taken great interest in The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1984). Like every other 80s baby and 90s kid; I discovered the turtles through the 1990 movie and original cartoon series (1987-1996). Since then, I’ve maintained a casual interest in TMNT, very selectively choosing what modern interpretations of them I’ll check out.
Maybe that’s because by age 4, I’d discovered a character that interested me more than any other and continues to do so-Batman! As a little kid, I took to movies very quickly. See, I have Cerebral Palsy (CP), which in my case, causes me to walk on crutches. Therefore, I’ve never been the outdoorsy type. To the contrary, movies offered a more exciting form of escapist adventure than outdoor play did for me. But one movie changed everything and still impacts me as I sit here writing this.
I was introduced to a VHS copy of Batman (1989) by some older friends that my grandmother babysat at the time. Frankly, I immediately became obsessed with the film. I watched it countless times, including multiple times a day. When it was time to rewind the tape, I would rewind it where I could see the movie play in reverse. (Not that anyone could practically apply this advice now, but rewinding a tape like that is a terrible idea.) Maybe that’s why I went through three VHS copies of Batman ‘89 before DVD became the premiere format in the early aughts. Anyway, in becoming obsessed with Batman ‘89, I also fell in love with the character of Batman and the universe he inhabited. For me, my mind was on some Bat-Channel all the Bat-Time.
Thus, it’s only fitting that the following year, I found an old cedar chest full of comic books; many of which were Batman titles. Mind you, none of these books had been given any real TLC. All of them belonged to my grandpa, who has always been a very casual collector. I wasn’t going to find any bagged, boarded, or graded comics in this chest. Nope, just tattered, four-color, Silver and Bronze Age books with that utterly unique old pulp paper smell. Once again, I immediately fell in love; finding another lifelong passion in comics, just as I had with movies. Over a Summer, I read every comic book in that cedar chest and then started my comic collection.
However, there’s one prized title that I could not find for my collection — a first printing of the issue containing the first appearance of Batman, Detective Comics #27. Or, at least I can’t and probably will never be able to find an original copy at a reasonable price-point. Unfortunately, my grandpa’s collection didn’t contain this prized issue either. (Though he claims that he had the book as a kid; which his mother threw out. Because, as we all know, back then folks felt that comic books would be nothing more than a disposable, trash medium.) Thankfully though, reprints have always been a massive part of the comics industry; so I eventually was gifted a reprint for Christmas. It’s this reprint of Detective Comics #27 from May 1939 that I read for this review.
Before getting into my review of Batman’s inaugural appearance in The Case of the Chemical Syndicate, one fact should be noted. Detective Comics #27 is a compilation or annual-type issue, a packed 64-pages. However, I find that most of the short stories featured here are negligible. Sure, Detective Comics #27 offers variety in the stories it features. You get some mysteries, westerns, and a few comedic strips. Most of these stories are in color, but some are in black-and-white. But, as I said these other stories are entirely forgettable; thus Batman makes even more of an initial impression.
The Case of the Chemical Syndicate tells the story of Lambert “The Chemical King’s” murder. Commissioner James Gordon and his men immediately get put on the case. Of course, when the men are called to the crime scene, Bruce Wayne is visiting with Gordon. As a result, Bruce tags along with the cops. You know, as the general public does. Then again, it probably easier for Bruce Wayne to grease wheels since he’s a billionaire.
While the cops are busy wrongfully accusing Lambert’s son of his murder; a mysterious figure, known as “The Bat-Man” looks into the case for himself. For under his cape and cowl, The Bat-Man has more keen detective skills than any officer on the force. The caped detective determines that Lambert’s business partners in Ace Chemicals, (namely Alfred Stryker) are responsible for the chemical manufacturer’s murder. The Bat-Man tracks these killers down, dispensing his form of vigilante justice. In fact, our hero goes so far as to kill Stryker by letting him fall into a giant vat of chemicals. The remaining homicidal former business partners are left behind for the police, and The Bat-Man disappears into the night.
Batman was co-created for the pages of Detective Comics #27 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Kane illustrated The Case of the Chemical Syndicate while Finger wrote the story for it. Between their two talents, the pair manage to create a simple tale. But, one which manages to capture the reader’s imagination. I believe this is due to the tone of the story; one which takes its cues from the adult-oriented pulp magazines and film noir of the era.
The truth is that in this first appearance, The Bat-Man doesn’t come across as a superhero in the least. Instead, the character presents more like a hard-boiled gumshoe in an elaborate costume. A man who is not necessarily heroic, and lives in a moral gray area. One who will do what it takes to solve a case and deliver his Bat brand of justice; which apparently can include murder. I’m sure some folks won’t appreciate it, but I don’t mind this initial interpretation of The Caped Crusader. Despite the character’s lack of heroism, I still found myself immediately drawn to this interpretation of Batman.
Is The Case of the Chemical Syndicate one of the greatest Batman stories ever told? No, no it isn’t; frankly, this first appearance story is too simple to be great. However, the actual murder mystery plot in The Case of the Chemical Syndicate is nicely crafted. Thus, it is a good Batman story. More to the point though, this is perhaps one of the most important Batman stories ever told. As any good first appearance should, the one in review sets up characters and tone.
These characters and that tone would grow to become both darker and more heroic over time. It’s easy to see why these same elements captured the public’s imagination. At the time of his inception, Batman and the world he inhabited were unique in the world of comics. In the eighty years that have proceeded this initial appearance, Batman and his world have been interpreted in many different ways. All of which are valid in their own way.
I would like to end this article by saying that Batman co-creator Bill Finger, deserves the lion’s share for the creation of Batman and why we love him. Don’t get me wrong; Bob Kane had a great initial idea and talent for illustration. Aside from that though, I think most of the story ideas and elements that still resonate today were Finger’s. I’m thrilled that Finger finally gets his proper co-creator credit, alongside Kane. It’s just a damn shame it took until The Dark Knight Rises (2012) for that to happen.
Reprints of Detective Comics #27 (May 1939) Can Be Purchased at Your Local Comic Shop or Online Retailers. The Issue Is Also Available Digitally, Should Your Prefer That Format.
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