Batman at 80: The Greatest Detective Comics Stories from the First 1,000 Issues

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Pop culture rarely stays fresh over a period of years—to say nothing of decades. But at 80 years old, Batman is at least as cool as he ever was.

Probably cooler: for much of his career, the Dark Knight settled for second billing behind DC’s high-flying megastar Superman. I’m not sure that’s the case today—for a myriad of reasons, Batman had moved to the front of the pantheon of popular heroes long before the modern superhero renaissance. He might not be able to leap tall buildings, but he can build a grapple up them with ease, and it’s that aspirational quality that makes the Bat such an effective hero.

We will never be Superman, and, let’s be honest, we will never be Batman, but it’s fun to imagine that we could be if we were just a little stronger, a little smarter, had a little more money, and had suffered a lot more psychological damage. We could be out there fighting the good fight. This month’s anniversary is a dual celebration: it’s Batman’s 80th year on the stands, and it’s also the 1,000th issue of Detective Comics, the book in which he premiered.

In honor of those milestones, here are some of our all-time favorite issues of the book that gave DC it’s name, Detective Comics.

Detective Comics #1, by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and E.C. Stoner
This isn’t quite as obvious as it might sound: we’re celebrating two things that don’t entirely line up. Detective Comics, which debuted in 1937, reaches its landmark 1,000th issue this month. We’re also celebrating the 80th anniversary of Batman’s debut, which didn’t happen until #27, released in 1939. As a result, a couple dozen largely forgotten issues of Detective came out before Batman was even a thought. The first issue isn’t entirely without merit, though (in spite of a rather wildly offensive cover): among its nine stories, it introduces detective hero “Speed” Saunders, whose feature ran for 50 issues and who is later (through a variety of retcons) revealed to be the relative of two different Hawkgirls, giving him a connection to the later DC universe. Even more significantly, the final story offers up the first appearance of that famous Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster creation, Private Investigator Slam Bradley. OK, he might not be Superman, but given the legacy of his creators, and the fact that he predates Batman by about two years, he’s got almost as good a pedigree as the Dark Knight. Slam can still be counted on to put in an appearance in a DC book every so often.

Detective Comics #27, by Bill Finger and Bob Kane

“The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”

Here’s where the magic starts. Written by Bill Finger with art by Bob Kane, the origin of Batman is more in the way of a mercenary venture on Kane’s part than an entirely artistic one, but it doesn’t much matter: many of the familiar pieces are in place here, particularly Bruce Wayne’s double-identity and the involvement of Commissioner Gordon. It’s quite simply one of the most important comics in history.

Detective Comics #38, by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, and Jerry Robinson

“Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder”

There he is: The Sensational Character Find of 1940! A big piece of Batman’s lore, Robin, was introduced relatively early in the game by Finger, Kane, and another very important figure in the early development of Batman and company, artist Jerry Robinson. The other half of the Dynamic Duo showed up less than a year after Batman’s debut. Despite the Bat’s reputation as a brooding figure of the night, his devil-may-care sidekick has endured in one form or another ever since. The origin outlined here has pretty much stuck: circus performers the Flying Graysons are killed on the orders of Boss Zucco, a consequence of their employer’s unwillingness to pay protection money. Their son Dick is taken in by millionaire Bruce Wayne, who provides him with a wildly inappropriate outfit in which to aid Batman in his fight against crime.

Detective Comics #66, by Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, and George Roussos

“The Crimes of Two-Face”

By sticking strictly to the history of Detective Comics, we miss out on the debut of the Joker, that having occurred in the first issue of Batman’s self-titled series. An almost-as-important villain (with an even better origin story) first showed up here, however. Harvey Kent (not a typo: Kent, not Dent, was his name in the early days) is a young district attorney with everything going for him—until he tries to prosecute Boss Moroni, using an unusual double-sided coin as evidence. In an ill-conceived plan to avoid prosecution, Moroni throws acid at the DA, hideously scarring one side of Harvey’s face. Now drawing horrified looks from the citizens he once tried to help, and rejected by his fiancée, a flip of Moroni’s coin sends him to a life of crime. In the end, Batman convinces his friend to try for another coin toss—this time, it lands on its edge, leaving Harvey’s fate ambiguous. For about two issues.

Detective Comics #168, by Bill Finger, Lew Sayre Schwartz, Win Mortimer, and George Roussos

“The Man Behind the Red Hood!”

Detective Comics didn’t give us the Joker’s debut, but it does give us his origin. Or one of them, anyway. Batman regales a class at the state university with the tale of an unsolved case: a criminal going by the name of the Red Hood, who had managed to escape from Batman and Robin by jumping into a the chemical waste of the Monarch Playing Card Company (a bigger polluter than you’d think). Reopening the case, the dynamic duo lure the Red Hood out of retirement only to discover that he is… you guessed it: the Joker. The once small-time criminal survived his chemical bath in part because of that hood (more of a helmet, really), but it didn’t save him from his trademark ghostly pallor, distorted features, or penchant for murder.

Detective Comics #225, by Joseph Samachson, Jack Miller, and Joe Certa

“The Strange Experiment of Dr. Erdel”

He’s never managed to become quite the household name the other Justice Leaguers have, but J’onn J’onzz, the Manhunter from Mars, has been one of DC’s MVPs since his debut in this 1955 issue. A mainstay of the League for decades, he’s also appeared on several different TV shows and cartoons—just never on the big screen, which explain the pop culture disconnect. The title’s Doctor Erdel sends a teleportation beam out into space that snags the green Martian and traps him on Earth. Any hope of returning home is thwarted when the doctor drops dead almost immediately after J’onn’s arrival. Good thing for Earth really. Using his shape-shiftinf powers, the Martian becomes a police detective as John Jones while avoiding his one great weakness: fire.

Detective Comics #233, by Edmond Hamilton, Sheldon Moldoff, and Stan Kaye

“The Batwoman”

Some good things require a bit of a wait. And, given an eight-decade history, there’s time for that. Case in point? Kathy Kane, the Batwoman. Introduced here as a society heiress and circus aerialist who takes on the mantle in order to aid Batman and Robin in their fight against crime, she was popular for a while, but then fell out of favor when the Batman books went darker a few years later. She was reintroduced in 2006 as both Jewish and gay, having been booted from West Point for her sexual orientation. She quickly took on a high profile through a couple of solo books and, for a time, as the lead in Detective Comics itself. Today, she’s poised for broader recognition via a forthcoming CW TV series.

Detective Comics #327, by John Broome, Carmine Infantino, and Joe Giella

“The Mystery of the Menacing Mask!”

The story itself is OK, but this particular issue represented a major change toward a more recognizably modern style for Batman. With the addition of legendary editor Julius Julius Schwartz and artist Carmine Infantino, Batman took on a much-heralded “New Look,” most obviously via his adoption of a yellow background behind the logo on his chest. Even more importantly, this was the beginning of the Bat-books’ move away from the more kid-friendly science fiction elements in favor of a more mature themes.

Detective Comics #359, by Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino, and Sid Greene

“The Million-Dollar Debut of Batgirl”

Batgirl begins. In her comic debut, Barbara Gordon creates the Batgirl costume for a charity masquerade ball, but leaps into action when she sees Killer Moth attacking Bruce Wayne, giving him time to escape. Naturally, Batman shows up moments later, and the two make introductions. Though Batman initially dismisses her help, not wanting to have a girl underfoot, she proves herself against the villain by the end of her first story. Bats welcomes her help with surprising encouragement: “She doesn’t have to take a backseat to anybody!”

Detective Comics #475-476, by Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin

“The Laughing Fish”

The conclusion of a legendary run from the creative team of Englehart, Rogers, and Austin is also a fantastic and suitably wild Joker story. The Clown Prince comes up with an elaborate scheme to trademark his chemically altered fish, and goes on a murderous rampage when Gotham’s small-minded bureaucrats won’t do him the simple favor. This one was adapted into an episode of the Batman: The Animated Series.

Detective Comics #633, by Peter Milligan, Tom Mandrake, and Mike DeCarlo

“Identity Crisis”

Peter Milligan had a relatively brief run on Detective Comics, joined by legendary artist Jim Aparo and, for this issue, by the similarly talented Tom Mandrake. Each of his largely standalone tales of the Dark Knight is a mini-masterpiece, with this one cutting to the core of the character to tell a darkly It’s a Wonderful Life-style story in which Bruce is trapped in a world without a Batman. This one also was turned into an episode of the animated series.

Detective Comics #854-857, by Greg Rucka, J.H. Williams III, and Dave Stewart

“Elegy”

For the first time in ages, a character other than Batman took over Detective Comics, although they didn’t stray far from the theme. This issue marks the return of Kate Kane, Batwoman, as she leads a one-woman war on crime and a cult in the deepest and darkest recesses of the Gotham underworld. The storytelling propelled Batwoman to the DC heroes A-list, and the prominently red-and-black art is iconic in itself.

Detective Comics #871-881, by Scott Snyder, Jock, and Francisco Francavilla

“The Black Mirror”

Before he began a long and already legendary run on Batman’s self-titled book, Scott Snyder cut his chops here, with a story of Batman (who was, at the time, Dick Grayson) and Jim Gordon teaming to hunt a killer with a deeply personal connection to the commissioner. It’s a grim and exciting story that’s part detective procedural, and part chronicle of the cost of life in Gotham City.

Detective Comics #934-940, by James Tynion IV, Eddie Barrows, and Alvaro Martinez

“Rise of the Batmen”

The Batman books have been firing on all cylinders in the last few years, with both of the main books telling very different kinds of stories. Detective here becomes a team book, with Batman setting Kate Kane up as the leader of a band of Bat-friends including Red Robin, Spoiler, Orphan, and Clayface. He needs a team in order to stop the group of vigilantes that’s running around Gotham killing criminals in the name of the Batman. It’s a fun new spin on the Batman’s long legacy, and it’s also a great jumping-on point for the modern era of Detective Comics leading up to #1000.

Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman is available now. Preorder Detective Comics #1,000 here.

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