With the creation of Batman, comics took a leap forward. The Crimson Avenger and Sandman were not hugely different in conception; like The Shadow, all were simply men with weapons who went outside the limits of the law to pursue criminals. But as strangely as they dressed, they could not be compared to Superman. Batman could. Was it the ears?
Batman’s costume was pretty much the same at the start as it is now. The cape had some internal supports, to make it stick out at unnatural angles, and the cowl went further down on the face, with the bat-ears much larger, and located over the ears of the person wearing the cowl, but both cape and cowl would be well on the way to their “normal” look by the end of 1939. But it was a costume, not just an usual assembly of clothing, and that made Batman different.
Even the story was told in a different fashion, more like a mystery. The reader is not made aware that worthless playboy Bruce Wayne is secretly the Batman until the last page of the debut story (though I don’t imagine it was a huge shock.) Bob Kane took elements of Rusty and his Pals, mixed with the Shadow, the Count of Monte Cristo and Zorro, and distilled comic book magic.
The backstory had to wait a while. At first, all we know is that Bruce spends his free time hanging out with Commissioner Gordon, then dons a costume he keeps in a trunk in his living room to go battle crime.
Though he is wearing what would come to be called his utility belt from his first appearance, it is not used until his second story, when he carries sleeping gas pellets in it. His only “weapon” at first is his “tough silken cord.” He would first use a “baterang” [sic] in issue 31. Batman drives around in a “specially built high-powered auto,” but this looks simply like a large red car. Issue 31 also introduced the Bat-gyro, called the Batplane in issue 33. This looked like a giant black bat, with an unusual helicopter-type blade assembly on the top.
It did not take long for Batman to start facing the crazed villains he was known for. None of the big names debuted in this early period, but he fought Dr. Death in issues 29 and 30, a murderous mad scientist, The Monk in issues 31 and 32, a cloaked and hooded vampire, and a man who dressed as Napoleon, with a death-ray mounted on a dirigible, in 33.
Issue 31 introduces Julie Madison, the fiancee of Bruce Wayne, an actress who falls under the spell of the Monk. Batman pursues the Monk and Julie to Hungary, and the three issues set in Europe (31, 32 and 34, the last published out of sequence) established the death-traps, castles, and general gothic horror feel of the series. There was no element of Gotham City yet – indeed, the only time a city is mentioned it’s Manhattan – but over time Gotham would come to take on the atmosphere of these three tales.
Issue 33, the Dirigible of Doom, gave the first telling of Batman’s origin. This is likely the reason it was moved ahead of the story in 34, which directly follows the events in 32. And I suspect, the change in publication order is the reason that the cover for issue 35 reflects the story printed in issue 34. One little change tends to spiral that way.
At any rate, in the first two pages of 33, we get the tale of young Bruce Wayne seeing his parents both shot in front of him, after a hoodlum tries to steal his mother’s pearl necklace. The boy makes a tearful, bedside vow to avenge his parents’ deaths, and then spends years training himself for the task. We get the classic panel of Bruce sitting in the dark, alone in his house, saying “criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot, so my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night. Black, terrible. a…a… ” and then the bat comes flying through the open window. “A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen! I shall become a bat!”
The origin is so simple, really, and though the bat coming through the window is almost laughable now, those two pages have a darkness and a power to them that even the eeriest of Sandman stories could not touch.
Later in that story, Bruce presses a panel on the wall to open a secret passage to his laboratory. The Batcave was far in the future, but at least he started storing the trunk with his costume in the lab, instead of his living room.
Batman continues in the Early Golden Age.
Batman: Detective Comics 27 – 34 (May – Dec 39)