Batman would acquire most of the trappings we now take for granted during this period. Not the least is the first use of Gotham City, in Detective 53. The Batcave, Bat-Signal, even the word Batmobile all have their debuts in this era, along with many of the familiar Bat-villains, and, of course “the sensational character find of 1940” – Robin.
Batman would graduate into his own book, the second comic book character to do so, in early 1940, and then gain a spot in World’s Finest Comics in 1941. Bringing more artists onto the series was a necessity, and two would arguably add as much to the feel of the series as Bob Kane did. Jerry Robinson gave a more realistic feel to the characters, though perversely was also the one to create the Joker. Dick Sprang went in the opposite direction, in a way, stylizing things even further, introducing the giant props that would become in a hallmark of the strip in later periods.
Batman’s origin is re-told, virtually just reprinted, in Batman 1, but aside from this never mentioned or referred to again. His arsenal expands, mostly things that he can carry in his utility belt- an acetylene torch, gas pellets, smoke pellets and such, though he would also use a “Bat-poon” in Batman 23, a rope with two spiked metal spheres on the end. His car is first called the Batmobile in Detective 48, and takes on its classic appearance a couple of months later in Batman 5, a big dark 1940s roadster with a large wing on the roof and rear, and a bat-mask on the front. In some stories it would also have two red racing stripes along its sides. The Bat-Signal debuts in Detective 60, and quickly becomes a standard feature.
The first of Batman`s special uniforms appears in World`s Finest 7, `The North Pole Crimes,`completely white suits that he and Robin use to blend into the background.
The Batcave was slow to develop. In Detective 47 we get to see a tunnel that leads from Bruce Wayne`s home to an abandoned barn, which he uses to store his car and plane. The trophy room is first seen in `Brothers in Crime,`in Batman 12, but in this story it is located in the house itself. The trophy room has souveniers of cases, but lacks the giant penny and robotic dinosaur that would become so iconic – even though the story the robot dinosaur comes from, `The Isle that Time Forgot`, took place in Batman 10. In Batman 16 his lab is located in a brick-walled room under the house, and the tunnel to the barn comes from this room. Only with Detective 83, in 1944, would the phrase Batcave debut, and now it was indeed a cave under the house, which has sections for the lab, gym, trophy room and storage of the Batmobile and Batplane.
Commissioner Gordon appeared infrequently at first, he is barely in any of the stories in 1940, but this was the period when the police were still chasing Batman. That changed in Batman 7, `The People Vs. Batman,`which sees Gordon give a long speech defending him and explaining why Batman is needed, culminating in appointing him an honourary member of the Gotham police department. Gordon appears more often after this, though we learn nothing about him, except, apparently, that he is somewhat vain. In `The Loneliest Man in the World,`in Batman 15, we see that the Commissioner has a giant painting of himself behind his desk.
Bruce`s finacee Julie Madison makes only three more appearances, two in stories that feature the villain Clayface. Her acting career takes off after filming Death Castle in Detective 40, and in Detective 49 the studio changes her name to Portia Storme, and she heads off to Hollywood, calling off the engagement. Julie Madison would not return until the Bronze Age.
Robin is introduced in Detective Comics 38, a young boy who performs with his parents John and Mary Grayson as trapeze artists with Halys Circus. The parents are murdered while doing their act, as the circus owner refused to pay protection money to Boss Zucco. Bruce takes the boy in, trains him and has him vow to fight crime, and then outfits him with a bright red, green and gold costume and gives him the name Robin, after Robin Hood. Dick takes to the life eagerly, after taking a photo of Zucco killing one of his own men, sending the mob boss to prison. Robin`s main weapon in this era is a slingshot, and often he is pitted against much larger foes, lending a David vs Goliath element to his fights.
Robin would get his own series in the Late Golden Age, but even in this period he had a number of stories where he got the lead role. The first of these is in Detective 41, only three months after he first appears, as he is sent undercover to a boys school that has a counterfeiting ring operating out of it. He does much the same thing in Batman 5`s `Crime School for Boys.` A mixed-up report card gets him grounded in Batman 18`s `Robin Studies His Lessons,`, and Dick takes on a job to earn money for a birthday present for Bruce in `Dick Grayson, Telegraph Boy,`in Batman 22, but his most important story is Batman 20`s `Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson.` Dick`s Uncle George, and his wife Aunt Clara, arrive and take Bruce to court for custody of the boy. They win, but turn out to have no interest in him, and offer to sell him back to Bruce. Infuriated, Bruce dons his Batman gear to expose the charlatans, and regains custody of Dick at story`s end.
Batman 5 introduces socialite Linda Page, an old friend of Bruce`s who has become a nurse. They strike up a relationship, even though Linda is more smitten with Batman than with Bruce. We learn that her family is from Texas, where they own a number of oil wells, in Batman 6`s `The Iron Jungle.` Linda appears in ten stories between 1941 and 43, but never manages to make much of an impression. Her final appearance is in a Catwoman story, `Your Face is Your Fortune,`in which she suspects Bruce is more interested in the former criminal than in her. Bruce is actually playing both women, and gets caught at it. It seems clear that Linda does not forgive Bruce for his games, as we never see or hear from her again.
You can guess who debuts in Batman 16`s `Here Comes Alfred.` A former actor and wanna-be detective, Alfred Beagle is short, fat and balding, with no real desire to be a butler, but his father served Bruce`s father, and Alfred comes over from England to fulfill his dying father`s last wish of having his son work as a servant. An odd last request, I tend to think it had more to do with getting Alfred out of blitzkrieg’ed England than of wanting him to be a butler. Neither Bruce nor Dick is keen to have him around, but Alfred proves his worth, rescuing both of them in his first story, as well as literally stumbling on the entrance to the Batcave. Alfred never lets them know he discovered their identities by accident, preferring to make them think his detective skills allowed him to deduce it. Alfred is largely played for comic relief at first, though he does get to track down the bad guys in World’s Finest 12’s “Alfred Gets His Man.” Detective 83’s “Accidentally on Purpose” sees Alfred head off to a spa, and by the end of the story he has lost all his excess weight, gained about a foot in height, and his balding pattern has changed as well. The tall, skinny Alfred who saves the day at the end of this story is the one we recognize today. His importance increases dramatically after this story. In Detective 86’s “Danger Strikes Three”, he, Batman and Robin each operate solo for part of the story. All get captured, and work together to escape and capture the criminals, and Alfred is put on equal par with the other two heroes. He impersonates Batman in “The Duped Domesitcs,” in Batman 22, in an attempt to impress the maid Belinda, not realizing she is really Catwoman. Bruce is in the story, but allows Alfred to stay in Batman costume, and its Alfred who captures Catwoman and turns her over to the police, after apparently spanking her.
Hugo Strange appears in three more stories in this era. He has a fog machine and concentrated lightning weapon in Detective 36, creates giant monster men in Batman 1, and develops a fear gas in Detective 46. The story in Batman 1 is notable for Batman machine-gunning a truckload of monster men from his Batplane, then snagging another around the neck with a noose, strangling him to death as he hangs from the plane. Hugo Strange appears to die in this last tale, but would return in the Bronze Age
The Joker makes two appearances in Batman 1, murdering people and leaving a huge smile on their faces as he robs their jewelry. In the second of the stories he gets stabbed, and was meant to die, but the final panel was altered to have him survive. The editors knew they were onto a good thing.
But perhaps they milked it too much. In the four years between Batman 1 and the end of this period the Joker appears in 20 different stories. This means there was a Joker story about every two months. It is hardly surprising that the quality of these tales would suffer. In Batman 8’s “The Cross Country Crimes,” the Joker’s murder spree takes him to New Jersey, Ohio, Kansas and Delaware, and he leaves behind his Joker playing card at the site of each crime, with the states name on it. The New is scratched off of the New Jersaey card, and the D from the Delaware card, and Batman realizes the Joker is spelling his name, and that the next crime will occur in Rhode Island. A number of later Joker tales would use this name spelling gimmick, but Batman never twigs on before the fourth letter. In “The Joker Walks the Last Mile,” in Detective 64, he is executed, but revived by his men. From this point the Joker is far less likely to commit murders, his crimes taking on more of a joke element, as he uses classic pranks, puns, or upside down clues, and such as the motifs for his crimes. He does, however, get his classic looking hideout with Batman 11, with playing card symbols scattered around the room, a Joker carpet and large smiley mask over his throne. The only other notable Joker story in this era is ‘The Joker’s Double” in Detective 86, in which a different person dresses as the Joker to commit murders and decoy the police from his actual motive. Batman suspects that the Joker is not the actual killer, but when confronted by both Jokers cannot tell which is the real one. The Joker’s protestations of innocence in this case, while true, are of no help to him, and both men are taken to jail.
Catwoman also debuted in Batman 1, though she was known just as the Cat for her first two stories. In Batman 1 she is in disguise as an elderly woman until the last page, only then do we discover the mysterious jewel thief is a beautiful young woman. Batman allows her to escape, and even stops Robin from following her. She returns in Batman 2, competing with the Joker to rob a precious case of jewels. She and the Joker only share one page in the story, but she offers the jewel case to him if he will spare Robin’s life. Batman bursts in before the Joker can decide, and once again the Cat escapes.
In Batman 3 she is called Catwoman, and wears his first costume, a brown cat-head mask and a tawny dress. She would switch to a black cat-head mask and matching dress for her next appearance, “The Princess of Plunder,” in Batman 10. In this story she is socialite Marguerite Tone, who hosts scavenger hunt parties as a cover for her men to commit robberies. I had mentioned Batman 15’s “You Face is Your Fortune,” when discussing Linda Page. Here, Catwoman is working in a salon under the name Elva Barr, while making masks of women while giving them facials, then using the masks to impersonate them and commit crimes. She meets and falls for Bruce Wayne in the story, and they begin seeing each other. Catwoman disguises herself as Linda to see if Bruce is seriously interested in her, but Bruce’s lies to cover his Batman identity backfire on him, and she returns to her life of crime. Her last story in this era was also already mentioned, Batman 22’s “The Duped Domestics,” in which she adopts the name Belinda and works as a maid to gain access to wealthy peoples homes and rob them.
The original Clayface, actor Basil Karlo, makes a great first appearance in Detective 40, a film-set based whodunnit as the actors in the movie Death Castle are killed off according to their deaths in the movie. He returns for revenge in Detective 49, in a more prosaic tale. Basil Karlo would not appear again until 1980, by which point there were already two other Clayfaces that had appeared.
The Three Devils appear in Detective 50, former circus acrobats who turned to crime. I mention them only because Azrael would deal with an updated version of the Three Devils in his series, far in the future, but I will reach it one day!
The Scarecrow debuts in World’s Finest 3, a great story that sees poor, reclusive bookish Professor Johnathan Crane turn to crime so he can afford to collect rare books. The scene where he pulls out a gun in class and fires it near the students so they will experience fear is such a great moment. It’s a shame that his second story, “The Scarecrow Returns,” in Detective 73, is all about rhyming words and run of the mill thefts. The Scarecrow would not appear again until the late 1960s.
The Penguin gets his nickname from Robin in Detective 58, as he and Bruce visit an art gallery and see a short, overweight man with an elongated nose, wearing a tuxedo and carrying an umbrella. The thief overhears the comment, and adopts the name himself. The umbrellas are his main gimmick in this era, and they can contain blades, guns, sleeping gas or spikes that shoot out. He uses them to conceal stolen art, a radio, or a mirror. He glides to freedom using them, and even has a helicopter one, though Batman prevents him from escaping using that one. The Penguin’s best stories have him playing con jobs, and my favourite is his second appearance, “King of the Jungle,” in Detective 59, as he turns in wanted men to collect the rewards, then frees them from prison and splits the money with them. He sets up his first nightclub/casino in Florida, in Batman 11’s “Four Birds of a Feather,” and runs a bird store in Detective 67’s “Crime’s Early Bird.” Altogether the Penguin appeared in seven stories in this era, a distant second to the Joker, but enough that the umbrella gimmicks would get a bit stale.
Two-Face appears in three stories that form a nice, completed saga in this period, in Detectives 66, 68 and 80. He is District Attorney Harvey Kent (the last name later changed to avoid confusion with Superman, apparently, though anyone dumb enough to confuse Superman and Two-Face likely shouldn’t be reading comics), prosecuting mobster “Boss” Maroni, who throws acid into his face while on the witness stand (not the best possible defense). With half his face horribly scarred, Harvey steals Maroni’s two-headed coin and scars one side of it, and takes to wearing a suit split down the centre into two patterns. Based on the flip of the coin, Two-Face either commits crimes, or acts philanthropically. His robberies are based on the number two, robbing a double feature, a baseball doubel-header, a symphony’s double concerto, or kidnapping a rich man’s double. His wife Gilda hopes for Harvey to turn himself and in follows him around, getting shot for her efforts in the third story. This shocks Harvey enough that he allows Batman to take him in, and he undergoes plastic surgery, which returns his face to normal. A surprisingly upbeat ending for the character, but he was too popular to get a happy ending, and Two-Face would return in the 1950s.
Tweedledee and Tweedledum were cousins who looked so much alike people thought they were twins. Short, fat and bald, Deever and Dumfree Tweed do dress as their Alice in Wonderland namesakes in their first story, in Detective 74, to rob a costume ball, but their second tale, “The Secret of Hunter’s Inn,” in Batman 18 is much better, as they build a duplicate of a resort, and control the road access to lure wealthy guests and rob them. When the victims try to bring the police to the resort, they wind up at the real one, which has no record of the guests ever arriving.
The Crime Doctor appears in Detective 78, and the following month in Batman 18. Matthew Thorne is a respected surgeon lured by the excitement of a criminal life. He wears surgical garb and travels in an ambulance, helping out other thieves with “house calls,” then charging them for his help. He attempts to maintain a code of ethics, stopping to operate on Robin when he gets shot, but gets killed by his own men for failing to back them up. An interesting character, an “Earth-One” version would appear in the Bronze Age.
The Cavalier was the last notable villain to debut in this era, and a serious effort was put in to make him a worthy opponent for Batman. In Detective 81 he leads his gang in a series of seemingly pointless robberies, intending to ultimately acquire a collection of sports miniatures. His primary weapon is his electrified sword, though he also uses a lace handkerchief with a lead ball attached, and has a metal spiked plume in his hat feather. In Batman 22 we learn that he is Mortimer Drake, a wealthy Gothamite, member of the same social club as Bruce Wayne, which allows for delightful scenes with the two of them, neither aware of the others identity. Drake has no need of money, his thefts are of miniature collectibles. In his third outing, “Laboratory Loot,” in Detective 89, his ego has prompted him to write an entry on the Cavalier for the club’s Who’s Who, and knowing that the Cavalier must be a club member, Batman quickly spots some acid stains on Drake’s hands, which match injuries the Cavalier sustained in attempting to rob a scientist, and exposes him. The Cavalier escapes yet again, but now he cannot return to his home or former life.
When not facing his ever-increasing gallery of villains, Batman usually is dealing with mobsters or solving whodunnits. World War 2 is ignored almost completely. There are only three stories that touch on it, and the memorable cover of Batman 15 that has a smiling Robin feeding bullets into a machine gun that Batman is firing. The first of these, “Swastika Over the White House,” is the best, as a German spy gets a job as a newsreel cameraman. In his secret nazi meeting room they have a big swastika chandelier, and you cannot help but notice how non-threatening a swastika is when you cover it with little light bulbs and suspend it from the ceiling. Batman 15’s “The Two Futures” shows a nazi occupied USA, and contrasts it with an allied victory. Batman 19’s “Atlantis Goes to War,” has the Germans using Atlantis a secret base for the submarines until Batman and Robin convince the Atlanteans to aid the allies instead.
Three stories are billed as “Police Division” stories, and have Batman and Robin aiding different, umm, police divisions (ok, you craft that sentence better). “The Good Samaritan Cops” in Batman 18 deals with an emergency squad that drive green trucks. I have no doubt this squad existed in the 40s, but it does not seem anything special now – and why did they drive green trucks? “The Lawmen on the Sea,” in Batman 20 is a decent story about the harbour patrol, but the genuine information on the division is overwhelmed by the very science-fictiony “sub-sea water lock” the villains use to conceal their underwater hideout. I was very impressed with Batman 23’s “The Pelt Plunderers,” which deals with the RCMP. As well as being accurate with geography and the use of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the story features a seaplane refitted to land on ice, and an old “aerocar,” a kind of hovercraft on skis. I have seen one of these old vehicles, and the illustration of it is completely accurate.
Another type of story common to this era is what I call the “Grand Hotel” story. These will have a number of different characters, all with their own plots and concerns, usually only one of them a criminal one. Batman is the central character in these tales, but the reader gets far more involved in the smaller stories being tied together. The first of these is `Destination Unknown,`a train-based tale in Batman 13. `Prescription for Happiness,`in Batman 13 centres it on a drugstore, but the best of this type is “Destiny`s Auction,” in Detective 79. A young aspiring starlet, an aging actor and thief each consult a fortune teller at the start of the story, and get readings that seem to be positive, but in fact turn out badly. Each has a an identical trunk, which gets taken by the police for one reason or another. The story then jumps forward a couple of years. The trunks are being auctioned off, and though each buys one, none get their own trunk. After all is said and done the performers make a hit on Broadway, and the bad guys go to jail, once again fulfilling the fortunes told at the start of the story, but in yet a third way.
A couple of the stories from this period would be re-written and re-used over the years, both as Batman stories, and with other heroes. Detective 61’s “The Three Racketeers,” has three criminals sitting around playing cards as they discuss their recent crimes, all of which were foiled by Batman. At the end of the story we see that all three are sharing a prison cell. “The Case Batman Failed to Solve,” in Batman 14, has Batman and a number of other “famous” detectives invited to a dinner where their host is murdered. It is easy to see that one of the detectives is based on Charlie Chan, and another on Sherlock Holmes, but if the other two are meant to be detectives from this era they are not ones I am familiar with. Batman discovers that the killer was the victim himself, who was dying anyway and wanted his death to be a great unsolved mystery. Batman pretends to have not been able to solve the case, to give the man his wish.
Batman continues in the Late Golden Age
Batman: Detective Comics 35 – 89 (Jan 40 – July 44)
Batman 1 – 23 (Spring 40 – June/July 44)
New York World’s Fair 1940
World’s Best Comics 1 (Spring 1941)
World’s Finest Comics 2 – 14 (Summer 41 – Summer 44)