Detective Fiction, Pulp Magazines, and the Origins of Batman
It may be a subject for debate about who is the most famous detective–Batman or Sherlock Holmes or Scooby Doo? And even though Sherlock is the eldest of the three, even he cannot claim to be the first.
Usually that literary honor goes to Edgar Allen Poe’s Auguste Dupin, who first appeared in 1841 in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and again later in “The Purloined Letter.” What set Dupin apart was his ability to make connections that led to the solving of an apparent mystery; he was very much an armchair detective.
Dupin would set the stage for Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, first arriving on the scene in 1887. Despite being known for his keen intellect, Sherlock was also an active detective, who visited crime scenes, disguised himself to get information, and resorted to physical confrontation only as necessary.
In the pulp magazines in the United States, detectives, who were in competition with western and science fiction heroes, became even more active. Action and adventure were blended with mystery. By the 1920s and 1930s, characters and plots had already started to cross the mediums of pulps, newspaper strips, radio, and movies.
Danny Fingeroth reminds us that this evolution of character across multiple tellings often paralleled that of the folk heroes (Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, etc.) of previous generations. The early decades of the twentieth century saw the advent of characters like the Shadow, Tarzan, Doc Savage, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, Dick Tracy, and others. Superman arrived in 1938, with Batman quickly following in 1939.
Drawing from a number of important interviews, particularly one with Bob Kane, Les Daniels offers a definitive statement about the origins of Batman. Bob Kane and Bill Finger were the two creative minds who launched the career of the Dark Knight. Kane the artist admitted to the influence of two movies The Bat Whispers and The Mask of Zorro along with Leonardo Da Vinci’s plans for an ornithopter, while Bill Finger thought of Alexandre Dumas’ D’Artagnan and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
Debuting in Detective Comics 27 (May 1939), Batman started his career with a murder mystery. Though many saw Batman as a partner for Superman, as is evidenced by numerous later pairings, Kane and Finger stressed that Batman could not stop bullets. The dark, pulp-inspired tone would only last about a year, until the introduction of Robin, as Batman’s Watson, brought a change in tone for the comic.
For a character who has been around for three-quarters of a century, it is impossible to do justice to all the various incarnations. Les Daniels’ history offers a nice overview of those years, focusing on how the character drifted from its darker origins to a lighter tone in the 1940s to bizarre uses of science fiction in the 1950s attending the push to create a “Bat-family” to counter Frederic Wertham’s 1954 attack on the comics industry, and Batman in particular.
The most well-known incarnation of the 1960s is, of course, Adam West’s performance, yet it is important to note that even in the midst of all this camp Batman still was a detective who worked in close consultation with Commissioner Gordon. The 1970s, thanks to the work of Julius Schwartz, Dennis O’Neil, and Neal Adams, would see Batman coming back to his darker, more mystery-oriented beginnings, which would influence the 1980s Tim Burton movies, the graphic novels by Frank Miller and company, and the Bruce Timm and Paul Dini 1990s animated series.
The turn of the century continued this tradition in another animated series, in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises), and in Scott Snyder's successful runs on Detective Comics and Batman. Most of the memorable writers have contributed to this portrait over the years. Batman has grown into his superlative title “the world’s greatest detective.”