Before Batman: What the First Twenty-six Covers of Detective Comics Reveal About the Early Days of Comic Books

“Vin Sullivan conceived Detective Comics not as a brochure for newspaper syndicates but as a comic book equivalent to pulps, with self-contained stories in a single genre.”  – Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow:  Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book

Detective Comics 1
The first issue of DETECTIVE COMICS features a sinister-looking Asian villain on the cover. The cover artist for the first issue was editor Vincent Sullivan.

First published in 1937, Detective Comics was the foundation of one of today’s largest and most influential comics companies. Comics pioneer and businessman Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was broke, and needed money to publish his new detective anthology comic book; he entered into a business partnership with pulp magazine publisher and distributor Harry Donenfeld and Donenfeld’s accountant, Jack Liebowitz, and the corporation Detective Comics, Inc. (which eventually evolved into the present-day DC Comics) was born.  Without Detective Comics, there would be no DC Comics.

In 1939, Batman made his debut in Detective Comics #27. The character was created in response to Detective Comics, Inc.’s desire to feature more superhero characters after the huge commercial success of the first comic book superhero, Superman, who appeared a year earlier in Action Comics #1.  Batman would eventually take over the Detective Comics series and become one of the world’s most iconic and popular superheroes.

But what about the twenty-six issues of Detective Comics that preceded the debut of Batman?  A detective genre anthology series featuring mostly forgotten characters, the content of those first twenty-six issues of Detective Comics is not easily available for analysis. But the covers of those twenty-six issues offer some clues about the content of Detective Comics and the presumed tastes of its intended audience.

Racism: Three of the covers (issues 1, 8, and 18) portray Asian characters in an unflattering manner. (Issue #8 features Mister Chang, an Asian detective protagonist no doubt influenced by fictional Chinese detective Charlie Chan, but without context, his cover appearance seems somewhat sinister). “Yellow Peril” Asian villains were unfortunately a common trope of popular entertainment in the 1930s, particularly in pulp magazines and comic strips, and the first issues of Detective Comics feature the villainous Ching Lung, while issue #18 features the most archetypal of pulp Asian menaces, Fu Manchu.

Detective Comics 8
The cover for DETECTIVE COMICS #8 by Creig Flessel features Asian detective protagonist Mister Chang , but without context the character looks somewhat sinister.
Detective Comics 18
The cover for DETECTIVE COMICS #18 by Creig Flessel features Asian supervillain Fu Manchu.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In his book Men of Tomorrow:  Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, comics historian Gerard Jones confirms the presence of “Yellow Peril” racism in early issues of Detective Comics; writing about a Slam Bradley strip that was written by Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and published in Detective Comics #1, Jones notes that the Slam Bradley character, influenced by Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates comic strip, is fighting a “horde of evil Chinese” led by the villainous Fui Onyui.

Cops and Robbers: Not surprisingly for a detective anthology comic book, there are a lot of cops, private detectives, and crooks on the covers. Most of the early covers are done by artist Creig Flessel, with Leo O’Mealia, Jim Chambers, and Fred Guardineer also providing covers (the first issue’s cover was done by Detective Comics editor Vincent Sullivan).  Below is a sampling of some of the covers; by modern standards these covers just seem flat and uninteresting, which leads to another point…

Detective Comics 2
DETECTIVE COMICS #2 (cover by Creig Flessel) Looks like this crook has been caught!
Detective Comics 7
DETECTIVE COMICS #7 (cover by Creig Flessel) Ooh – a tommy gun!
Detective Comics 4
DETECTIVE COMICS #4 (cover by Creig Flessel) Someone’s going to pay for breaking that window!
Detective Comics 26
DETECTIVE COMICS #26 (cover art by Fred Guardineer) Look out behind you!
Detective Comics 15
DETECTIVE COMICS #15 (cover art by Creig Flessel) Caught in the act!

Underwhelming Covers: Imagine that you are alive in America in 1937; you are at your local newsstand and have ten cents in your pocket. You look at the pulps and comic books before you and see the first issue of Detective Comics, and the current issue of The Shadow Magazine. Going by the covers alone, which one would entice you to part with your dime?

Detective Comics 1
You have one dime to spend in 1937 – you see this cover on the newsstand; do you take a chance on this new comic book…
Shadow_Magazine_Vol_1_121
…or do you find this cover for THE SHADOW MAGAZINE more enticing?

The first issue of Detective Comics has a bright cover featuring a crudely-drawn Asian villain and The Shadow Magazine has a lush, action-oriented painted cover by George Rozen, featuring The Shadow, an established, popular character in both pulp magazines and on radio dramas. The covers for Detective Comics aren’t just flat and uninteresting by today’s standards, they were also meager competition to the exciting pulp covers of the period.

A Masked Hero Appears!: Issue #22 – at last, a costumed hero on the cover. But no, it’s not Batman. Not yet. It’s The Crimson Avenger.  The Crimson Avenger character was created by artist Jim Chambers and first appeared in Detective Comics #20, and made the cover two issues later. The character has no iconic letter “C” on his costume, just a domino mask, a crimson cape, and a hat. The Crimson Avenger has more in common with radio vigilante character The Green Hornet (who undoubtedly inspired The Crimson Avenger) and the pulp hero The Shadow than he does with the brightly costumed superheroes that would soon dominate comic books.

Detective Comics 22
DETECTIVE COMICS #22 (cover by Jim Chambers) The Crimson Avenger was created by Jim Chambers and had many similarities to radio vigilante character The Green Hornet

Collectively, the covers for the first twenty-six issues of Detective Comics convey a comic book medium that is still struggling to compete with the pulps, copying the pulp conventions of Asian villains, masked vigilantes, and private detectives in crude four-color art. It’s clear that these early comics are competing with the pulp magazines, and losing.

Although the sales figures for early comic books might have been strong enough to interest a pulp magazine publisher and distributor like Harry Donenfeld in publishing comic books, the sales figures were not that impressive compared to the sales numbers for pulp magazines.  Indeed, Jones notes that Donenfeld’s interest in publishing Detective Comics was motivated by a desire to sell other types of publications through Donenfeld’s magazine distribution company, Independent News:

There wasn’t big money in comics yet, but they brought something valuable to Independent News.  Being a girlie mag distributor put a lot of dealers off, but if a sales rep could go into a grocery store in Toledo or Lubbock or Butte and say, “Look at these funnies – they’re great for the kids,” he’d be listened to.  Then he could say, “If you like those, why don’t you take a flyer on a Super Detective or maybe a few Spicy Detectives for the men?”

THAT’S RIGHT; DC COMICS – PUBLISHER OF SUPERMAN, BATMAN, WONDER WOMAN, AND OTHER NOTABLE SUPERHERO COMICS – BEGAN AS A SCHEME BY ITS FOUNDERS TO SELL SOFTCORE PORNOGRAPHY MAGAZINES IN GROCERY STORES.

Spicy-Detective-Stories May 1938
A May 1938 issue of SPICY DETECTIVE STORIES – one of several risqué magazines responsible for the formation of the present-day DC Comics.
Detective Comics 27
DETECTIVE COMICS #27 (cover by Bob Kane) A very exciting Batman cover!

And then Batman swings into action on the cover of Detective Comics #27.  Batman (along with Superman, and the other superhero characters inspired by Superman) gave comic books something unique – a genre of secret identities and iconic costumes that was not present in the pulps.  Granted, the pulps had heroes like The Shadow and Doc Savage (and it should be noted that these characters were influential in the creation of superheroes like Superman and Batman), but comic books like Action Comics and Detective Comics showcased heroes in colorful, symbolic costumes, fighting evil in four-color glory.

After Batman’s debut and success, Detective Comics would eventually cease publication of imitation pulp detective adventure strips.  Detective Comics became a comic book about the detective superhero, Batman, and it – along with other comic books that featured superheroes – would outlast its pulp fiction competitors.

SOURCES AND FURTHER READING: Gerard Jones’ Men of Tomorrow:  Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book provides a rich history of the early days of comic books, including the creation of Detective Comics.

You can see the all of the early Detective Comics covers at coverbrowser.com (the site also has lots of cool pulp covers, as does the site pulpcovers.com.)

The images above are the property of their respective owners, and are presented for educational purposes only under the fair use doctrine of the copyright laws of the United States of America.

 

 

28 thoughts on “Before Batman: What the First Twenty-six Covers of Detective Comics Reveal About the Early Days of Comic Books”

  1. Damn, Reed, You’re killing these articles! I remember watching the 1940 Batman serials where the villain was a Japanese dude who looks a lot like the cover of Detective #1. His secret lair was located in an old carnival in Japan town( I think thats what it was called). It was WWll propaganda at its finest (worst). He had all of these white guys as his henchmen and I remember when one wanted to quit he told the Japanese dude that no matter what, America would never be beaten, and then he was killed 🙂

    And DC needs to bring back the Spicy Detective! Muy caliente’!!!

    1. Thanks; glad you liked the article. The “Yellow Peril” racism of the pulps and comics was bad enough, but the WWII propaganda efforts to depict Japanese as sub-human and evil are even more heavy-handed in their racism, and the Batman movie serial villain Prince Daka is a fine example.

      (Speaking of the 1943 Batman movie serial, next week I’ll be making a brief mention of the serial’s impact on a pilot episode of a failed Batman radio program.)

      The cover of SPICY DETECTIVE that I chose for this articles is one of the less risqué SPICY DETECTIVE covers. Researching the article, I was surprised to learn about the role that “spicy” softcore pornography magazines played in the formation of the present-day DC Comics. The site coverbrowser.com has a lot more SPICY DETECTIVE covers.

  2. Great article. It’s amazing comics survived based on their original material. I wonder what kind of resistance there would be out there if these stories were reprinted since they are not very pc.

    I had to check out the other Spicy Detective covers and I would buy those books today. Purely for investment purposes of course.

    1. Thanks, Jeremy. There is apparently awareness by DC Comics that a lot of Golden Age material is culturally insensitive. My understanding is that DC Comics has chosen not to collect the original “Captain Marvel and the Monster Society of Evil” stories because of its portrayal of minorities; one of the villains Captain Marvel fights is “Nippo from Nagasaki”.

      Another factor that might impact DC Comics’ decision not to reprint some of the pre-superhero comics material is that a lot of the more commercial comics from that period are by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, specifically Dr. Occult and Slam Bradley. Given the ongoing legal disputes between Siegel and Shuster’s heirs, it is unlikely that this material will ever be reprinted.

      As another example of how to handle Golden Age reprints, Dark Horse Comics does as excellent job of reprinting Golden Age comics material in its archive collections and noting that publishing and studying historic comics material that is culturally insensitive is not the same as condoning the culturally insensitive material.

      I’m glad to hear that you are considering “investing” in SPICY DETECTIVE magazines. 🙂

      1. I’m glad you like the article. The high quality and passion of the articles written by the NBC! team motivate me to write the best articles I can, and I appreciate the feedback.

  3. Good article Reed. Recently I read some of the earliest Batman stories in Detective Comics and was struck by the vast difference in quality between the Bob Kane covers featuring Batman and the covers that featured generic cop and robbers type tales. Kane’s art has a striking element to it, which is completely lacking in the other bland, stiff, unoriginal compositions. Putting them side by side, you can see one of the reasons, Batman (& other superheroes) caught on in comic books. As you suggest, they stood out as something different.

    Yeah, “yellow peril” is pretty disgusting now.

    When I’m not at work I’ll need look up those Spicey cover. Purely for historical research of course . . . 😉

    1. Thanks. Regarding the Bob Kane covers, Gerard Jones suggests in MEN OF TOMORROW that Bob Kane did not draw the cover for DETECTIVE COMICS #27: “What was lacking in Kane’s pages was provided by the cover. Against a nocturnal skyline, the Bat-Man, a crook in his grasp, swoops through the air by a rope. The image is too elegant to have been executed by Kane. Perhaps Kane conceived the design, perhaps not; but whoever did so clearly understood the romance implicit in the Bat-Man.” Jones believes that an unidentified ghost artist drew the first cover, but he offers no concrete evidence of this, and I could fine no other source that disputes Kane’s work on the first cover.

      1. Well, considering the fact that these early Batman stories have a, shall we say, tangled history of credits – most notably the ongoing debate how much of Bill Finger’s work, Kane took credit for — I would believe that some ghost artists were at work. However, lacking any definitive evidence, we are left with the credits as printed. To my eyes at any rate, I do not see a huge difference in quality between Detective #27 and the other Batman covers Kane is credited with. Of course, they could all be ghost artists, which is a whole other issue . . .

        Regardless, my main point is still valid: Batman was something new and dynamic, which quickly set itself apart from the other blander features in Detective Comics . . .

        1. Yes; your point is very valid – Batman was something new that changed the medium of comic books, regardless of whether the work was done by Kane or Bill Finger or other ghost artists/writers. It’s great that these ghost writers/artists are getting credit for their work now.

          1. Kane is infamous for taking credit for work he didn’t produce (Robinson’s Joker comes to mind). Ah, the power of caption. Some suggest that Stan Lee has done much the same.

  4. Now this might sound crazy, but I think they should remove Batman from Detective Comics, at least for a little while, and focus on some really good, classic mystery style stories. Maybe even something Gotham Central-esque.

    1. I don’t think that is a crazy idea at all. As Greg Rucka has pointed out, despite Dan Didio’s comments to the contrary, GOTHAM CENTRAL sold well, and continues to sell well for DC (the series continues to be collected in trade and deluxe editions).

      Also, I think one of the coolest concepts Grant Morrison introduced in the maxi-series 52 was the HOUSE OF MYSTERY, essentially a club of all the DC Universe’s detectives (Detective Chimp, Elongated Man, Dr. Thirteen, etc.) It would be cool to see more of this club of detectives working together to solve strange crimes.

      1. Well, as we learned from Justice League United #0, DC has ret-conned away the Animal Man in space segment of 52. I’m guessing most of that series is non-canon now, which might make it easier to bring that gathering of detectives back again. If 52 is tossed out, then Ralph could still be alive, and it that’s the case, yes, this is the moment where Cosmo asks DC once again to ret-con out of existence Identity Crisis and bring us back Ralph & Sue . . .

        Anyway, it would be a cool concept to revisit, though, I’m not sure how well Detective Chimp fits in with editorial’s current vision of the DCU.

        Incidentally, Batman was originally removed from Detective Comics in the aftermath of RIP and replaced by Batwoman. If I remember correctly, the Batwoman feature was pulled prematurely and the lead given over to Grayson’s Batman. This, of course, after some disposable Hine stories would allow us to have Snyder’s Black Mirror. Still, I think at this point, fans just expect Batman in Detective and Superman in Action. Remember how much fans complained when Action went so long without Superman?

        1. “I’m not sure how well Detective Chimp fits in with editorial’s current vision of the DCU.”

          Reading that sentence, a chill went down my spine as I imagined a Brother Eye-controlled cyborg Detective Chimp with a magnifying glass mounted to the end of a prosthetic robot arm. 🙂

            1. I think we found a way to ruin Cosmos Super pets event. We’ve also found a way to make that event a reality. Win some lose some.

              1. You hadn’t heard, Pat? The conclusion of Futures End leaked out: it involves G’Nort leading the Superpets into battle to save the day when everything else has failed . . .

  5. “Fui Onyui.” I see what they did there.

    My reaction to the early covers was different; I was struck by how much better the cover art was on most of them (not mainly the ones you’ve included here, though) than on the first Batman one. My faves are 9, 11, 13, 15, 16, 18, 21, 23, and 32.

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