From Just An Anthology To The Home Of The Dark Knight
♦ Tripwire senior editor ANDREW COLMAN takes a look at the history of Detective Comics, the title that gave DC its name, which celebrates its 80th birthday in 2017…
The title that gave DC Comics its name has remarkably made it to its eightieth anniversary – remarkable in that it was, at its inception, just another comic strip anthology aimed at children, produced by men who were not likely to be concerned with the long term, nor with the burgeoning new medium’s credibility as something with artistic potential. Debatably the first comic book devoted entirely to police, crime and detection, Detective Comics was the brainchild and final publication of Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, owner of National Allied Publications. In debt to Harry Donenfeld, a young pulp publisher and distributor who was about to luck into the best deal of his life, Nicholson agreed to a partnership to get the series published, changing the company name to Detective Comics Inc. in the process. Neither he, Donenfeld, nor accountant Jack Liebowitz could ever have envisaged that the book would last five years, let alone become the longest continually published title of all time in the U.S.A.
Of course a certain Dark Knight may have had something to do with the title’s longevity. But prior to his arrival in issue 27, the title had some interesting, if disposable, forerunners to the Caped Crusader – Slam Bradley, created by Siegel and Shuster two years before Superman, Speed Saunders, Cosmo, the Phantom Of Disguise, Buck Marshall, Bruce Nelson, Chin Lung (a Fu Manchu analogue) and later the Crimson Avenger. Most of these characters were crime fighters who lacked the cinematic edge that Batman possessed, but occupied the same milieu. Many of the issues from this pre-superhero period also featured beautifully rendered and evocative covers from Creig Flessel, that echoed the noir B-features coming out of Hollywood at the time.
Batman’s emergence from that urban darkness in issue 27 would prove to be DC’s other great masterstroke in the development of the medium. A year earlier Action Comics 1 had introduced what would turn out to be the most important character in comics, an alien being with super-strength who wore prime coloured spandex. By combining the ground-level sleuthing with such a costume, DC unwittingly created another successful archetype – a mysterious, driven hero with no super-powers. And by issue 35, Batman would be the permanent cover star of the book.
For the first eleven issues of his tenure, the Batman (note the definite article) was indeed a creature of the night, a gothic shadowy figure battling criminals and other inhabitants of the demi monde in adventures that were a counterpoint to the lighter slapstick humour to be found in Superman’s two books. Issue 38, however, which coincided with the first issue of Batman’s own title, saw a radical shift in tone with the arrival of the Boy Wonder. DC’s introduction of Robin in 1940 immediately lightened the timbre of the book and its new sister title, in a move that would have a decades-long effect on the character as well as other super-heroes, as the child or teenage sidekick improved sales by appealing to a younger demographic. That and the appearance of a new type of garish, more theatrical arch-villain in the shape of the Joker and Catwoman (in Batman 1) meant that gritty verisimilitude would be taking a back seat for several decades.
Nevertheless Detective Comics maintained certain stylized elements in its look for the next decade or so – the villains were still edgy, if not slightly grotesque, and there were some more than worthy additions to the rogues gallery in this period, with Clayface (issue 40) the Penguin (issue 58), Two Face (issue 66), the Scarecrow (issue 73) and the Riddler (issue 140) all making their debuts. One could say that Batman, despite having a vestigial junior partner who continually needed rescuing, retained certain aspects of his formative era as he was still a master detective fighting against the underworld. The more lightweight ( and semi-autobiographical) tales would be found in the anthology’s secondary features, such as Simon and Kirby’s Boy Commandos and the Newsboy Legion. Granted, the stories were not in the same night time setting as before, with the Joker’s origin story (in issue 168) a particularly silly tale that inevitably became part of the legend anyway.
The book continued in a similar, unchanged manner until the mid-1950s, a time considered by aficionados as the start of the silver age. The first appearances of the Martian Manhunter (issue 225), Batwoman (issue 233) and the unspeakable Bat Mite (issue 267) heralded an era of bizarre kitsch that almost paralleled what Mort Weisinger was doing in the Superman family of titles. By now Batman was inhabiting a world that had nothing to do with his eldritch roots, with loopy science-fiction, ludicrous weaponry and clunky art the order of the day. And it was certainly no better in Batman’s own title.
It took the better part of a decade for the title to get back to some connection with quality, when in 1964 Carmine Infantino gave Batman a new costume and look, and above all vastly improved stories and art. Despite the Batman T.V. show arriving two years later, the title suffered less of its tawdry, camp influence than Batman. Granted there was Batgirl arriving in issue 359, along with the T.V. iteration of the Batmobile in issue 375, but the book had begun a pivotal switch in direction. This was of course fully initiated with Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams’s first and crucial turn on the character, in issue 395 (The Secret of the Waiting Graves), which genuinely brought back the hard boiled characterization and tropes of old. Five issues later, in number 400, the first appearance of Man-Bat by Adams ensured that the sea change was set in stone, and that the new decade would have the old Batman back, with Robin and Batgirl relegated to an occasional guest appearance or back-up feature.
For the next decade, Detective Comics showcased a Batman who was fortuitously back in his element – at times his adventures bordered on Bond-style espionage, but this was only to be expected in the 1970s. The title came into its own in 1973 with the arrival of the revived Manhunter by Walt Simonson, coupled with the series of 100 page Super Spectaculars, from issue 438 to 445, all of them featuring excellent new Batman stories and classic reprints from the golden age and 1950s – some of the reprinted stories also featured non-DC characters who had been bought up by National, such as Dollman and Plastic Man.
Despite Adams leaving the title and character behind, the overall quality of the stories rarely dipped, with above average tales focusing more on Batman’s characterization. Another high watermark for the title culminated a few years later in 1977, when the team of Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers provided a possibly definitive version of the title and lead, the retro art and cinematic flourishes evoking a classicist, golden age homage that both transcended and revitalized its source. The writing and characterization of Batman and his rogues’ gallery was first rate, the theme of the monomaniac outsider dedicated to protecting his city now thoroughly crystallized. This take on Batman, following on from Denny O’Neill’s overhaul, was to be the template for all the key versions that followed, both in graphic novels and in film.
After Englehart departed, Len Wein and later Gerry Conway and Doug Moench continued in the same vein, with a raft of quality artists in tow, such as Jim Starlin, Michael Golden and Don Newton. At this point the title changed format, becoming a 68 page dollar comic, as it merged with Batman Family. By its 500th issue, the book was riding high, with Batman poised to be rehabilitated further in the ensuing years, most notably with Frank Miller’s revisionist Dark Knight Returns bringing the character even greater media attention and credibility. Mike W Barr, Alan Davis and Todd McFarlane continued Frank Miller’s other work on the character in issues 575 to 578 with Batman: Year Two, another noir melodrama in which Batman temporarily joins forces with his parents’ killer, Joe Chill, against The Reaper. Alan Grant, John Wagner and new artist Norm Breyfogle continued the title into the latter part of the decade.
By the early 90s, with the success of the Tim Burton movies and the Batman Adventures cartoon, the Dark Knight’s popularity had reached an apex of sorts, with event story arcs such as Knightfall (influenced no doubt by the gothic lite of Burton’s work) becoming the order of the day. The series was followed by Knightquest and KnightsEnd, in a shift that many saw as a move towards formula. Other crossover series that followed were Batman: Legacy and No Man’s Land. In the late 90s Greg Rucka and Shawn Martinbrough took over as the creative team, with Paul Dini and later Scott Snyder taking over the writing from the mid 00s onwards. Artists such as Jock and Andy Kubert arrived for the title’s final years before it was ended in 2011, the last issue being 881.
Immediately after its cancellation, Detective Comics was restarted under the New 52 banner, this second volume continuing for 52 issues. With yet another continuity – readjusting reboot of DC’s titles in early 2016, this time labelled Rebirth, the title reverted to its original numbering with issue 934, the frequency upped to semi-monthly to capitalize on the imminent issue 1,000. With this resumption Batman was now featured as one of a team of heroes that included Batwoman, Batwing, Tim Drake, Azrael and others.
Despite all the other Bat-titles, miniseries, one-shots, annuals and specials that have been and gone over the last twenty years, Detective Comics remains a consistent and evergreen staple in the DC catalogue, and one of the few constants in the history of the industry, its run a testament to the durability, if not survivability of American comics. Ultimately it would be impossible to calculate its importance and legacy, and the extent of its celebrated canon.