10 January 2008

Recent Accomplishments in Batman Research

The Cybils have put me in an award-giving mood, so I'm recognizing the best Batman research of recent years. No, it's not Lorendiac's list of all the heroes, villains, and bystanders in the DC Universe privy to the closely guarded secret that Bruce Wayne is Batman, as much labor as that must have taken.

Rather, the prize goes jointly to:

  • Anthony Tollin and Will Murray, for identifying the source of Bill Finger's first Batman story.
  • DSK of the Vallely Archives, for noting the model of Bob Kane's art in the first telling of Batman's origin.

The 1972 Steranko History of the Comics quoted Finger admitting, "My first [Batman] script was a take-off on a Shadow story." But no one knew which story, or how clear the influence was.

That first, hastily concocted Batman tale, "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate," appeared in Detective Comics in 1939. Tollin and Murray spotted its resemblance to Theodore Tinsley's "Partners of Peril," published in the 1 Nov 1936 issue of The Shadow, a pulp magazine forerunner of superhero comics. They published their discovery in volume 9 of a series of reprints of Shadow and Doc Savage tales, available through the Shadow's Sanctum.

One detail of that story had long struck me as odd: When trapped inside a giant glass dome filling with poison gas [don't you hate when that happens?], Batman plugs the gas jet with...his special bat-rubber-stopper? Bat-gum? No, an ordinary handkerchief. I know a gentleman never leaves home without one, but that detail didn't seem very Dark-Knight-Detective.

It turns out that handkerchief, like the glass dome and the story's overall plot, comes directly from "Partners in Peril":
Dial B for Blog presents several more story parallels.

The equivalent of this feat of research on the artistic side of early Batman was achieved by DSK, who maintains a blog devoted to the work of Henry E. Vallely (1886-1950), illustrator of many Big Little Books.

Starting in May 2006, DSK shared several examples of Vallely's influence on cartoonist Bob Kane, none more meaningful than this panel from Detective #33, published in November 1939. That was the first comic book to relate how Bruce Wayne was inspired to become the Batman after seeing his parents killed by a mugger. The pictures below Kane's panel come the Big Little Book Gang Busters in Action, illustrated by Vallely and published in 1938.
Kane didn't directly trace Vallely's drawings, but he obviously studied them as he composed and drew his panels. DSK has identified some other examples of Kane's borrowing, and Dial B for Blog went farther (sometimes too far, I think). Soon after this issue, Kane began to hire assistants and subcontractors to supply his art for him.

Thanks to Dial B for Blog for rounding up this important information.

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