The classic comics character known to millions around the world today as Batman began his life in the twenty-seventh issue of Detective Comics, the third anthology comic book series from National Publications, due to the formation of Detective Comics, Inc. -- one day simply to be known as DC Comics.
By the time #27 rolled around in May, 1939, DC was publishing More Fun Comics, Adventure Comics, Detective Comics and their most popular anthology series Action Comics starring the crusader for social justice, Superman. Superman began a huge trend towards costumed heroes, and DC was looking to augment their number one seller with a similar character.
They turned to artist Bob Kane, who was running a small independent art studio at the time. Kane came up with the Bat-Man, with the intention of creating a character who was the antithesis of Superman -- human, mysterious, masked, dark, brutal, a vigilante figure hunted by the police. Inspirations for the character ranged from pulp heroes like Zorro and the Shadow, to artistic sources like Leonardo da Vinci. Kane hired DC writer Bill Finger to script the character and help develop him. It was Finger who created Batman's alter-ego of Bruce Wayne, who decided on the fictional setting of Gotham City, who came up with Batman's iconic cowl, and who wrote the vast majority of the Batman stories published until 1964. Yet, thanks to a good lawyer and a firm contract, Finger was never credited as Batman's co-creator -- and regardless of who was actually writing or drawing the book in question, each Batman story was credited as "by Bob Kane" until around 1969.
But enough of a history lesson! Let's take a look at the Dark Knight's debut as the new lead feature in Detective Comics.
"The Case of the Chemical Syndicate"
Writer: Bill Finger
Art: Bob Kane
Synopsis: The Chemical King, Lambert, has been stabbed. Police Commissioner Gordon invites his layabout socialite friend, Bruce Wayne to the crime scene with him. I guess being the commissioner gives you these sorts of perks. After determining that Lambert's son was not the culprit, we discover there are three partners in the chemical corporation -- Steve Crane (no relation to Jonathan, I assume), Paul Rogers, and Aflred "Not A Menacing Last Name At All" Stryker. Crane fears he will be killed next, and indeed he is, but before the killers get away we get our first glimpse at THE BAT-MAN! The look of the caped crusader is certainly primitive, with an odd looking cowl and cape, regular looking gloves -- but at the same time there is still a clear sense of grim determination in the character. He mops up the bad guys, is chased by the police, and gets away in a red sedan (!) with a piece of paper the killers stole.
Meanwhile, Rogers goes to Stryker's house for safety, and is promptly kidnapped by Styker's burly assistant Jennings, who mumbles to himself "Heh! Heh! One more out of the way, soon I'll control everything!" So it was Jennings, the fiend! He throws Rogers in a GIANT gas chamber that he apparently uses to kill guinea pigs in experiments (how many guinea pigs are we talking here? This thing's big enough for at least five men!) However, the Bat-Man leaps in an open skylight (lock your windows at night, villains!) and rescues Rogers. He tackles Jennings and beats him to unconsciousness.
Then Stryker shows up and ZOMG! He was behind the murders the whole time!! He comes at Rogers with a knife but the Bat-Man stops him, and explains that if Stryker killed the other three, he would get sole ownership of Apex Chemicals! So, what the hell was Jennings doing then? If he was just Stryker's pawn why was he cackling to himself about controlling everything? Bit of a poorly executed red herring there, Bill.
Stryker comes at the Bat-Man, but gets punched over a railing and into a vat of toxic chemicals (that Stryker was keeping in his house??) and the caped vigilante says the immortal words "A fitting end for his kind," before leaping out the skylight (somehow).
Gordon tells the story to Bruce Wayne, who considers it a nice little fairy tale. Gordon leaves and Bruce transforms into...the Bat-Man!! OMG!!
All this in six pages. Six pages. The hallmark of Golden Age storytelling -- sure there's no character development or themes and a whole lot of coincedences and deus ex machinas, but on the other hand its damned economical!
My Thoughts: For a comic book debut, there's something atypical and interesting about "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate". There's no origin story for the Bat-Man, no formal introduction. Instead we jump right into the story, and the hero is just as dark and mysterious for the reader as he is to the hoodlums he fights. We are instantly in a world more real than that of Superman's, darker and more cynical, closer to the world of detective novels and mysteries -- appropriate given that we're in Detective Comics. We don't meet Bat-Man until half-way through the story, and the fact that he's Bruce Wayne is the twist ending! These were elements that Sam Hamm tried to retain in the 1989 Batman film by Tim Burton. Also, in this first appearance, our hero kills a man, something a modern Batman would never do, but was again seen in the 1989 film adaptation. Despite its primitive nature, this six-page introductory story gives us many elements that would permeate the Batman universe for seventy years -- such as the friendship of Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon, and the fact that the primary industry in (not-yet) Gotham City appears to be chemical companies.
The Art: Bob Kane's art here is certainly primitive. Without an inker it lacks much of the shadow and depth of later Batman stories, and most of the figures appear flat and cartoonish. The framing is simplistic and there is little detail in any of the panels. All in all the art lacks any sense of panache or style, and the most intriguing thing about it is the design of the Bat-Man character himself, and even it is in a primitive stage, not yet the iconic look that would dominate the character's appearance until the New Look of 1964.
The Story: Bill Finger's plot moves at breakneck speed, but then again it's only eight pages long. The story is like a pilot for Batman, a demo, showing us just what kind of stories to expect from this character. And while in essence there's nothing here a comic book reader hadn't already seen from the Shadow or Slam Bradley, the very look of the character himself suggested something mysterious, and the twist ending revealing the Bat-Man's identity gives us a hook to come back next month and makes us wonder, "why does a rich, bored, socialite dress up like a bat and fight crime with grim determination?"
Notes and Trivia: First appearance of Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, and Batman. There is not yet a Batmobile, but Batman instead drives a regular red sedan of indeterminate make.
Batman Body Count: 1