Detective Comics 1 (March 1937) was another ground-breaking comic book. It was the first to have a single theme – all the stories were, to one degree or another, about detectives. Even the two funny strips, Gumshoe Gus, and Eagle-Eye Jake, were about them.
It seems odd that this would be revolutionary, but up until this point comic books held a wide variety of series within them. As most strips were only a couple of pages in length, the idea was likely to hit as many genres and styles as possible.
The cover does not depict any specific story, nor would it for quite a while, and not regularly until Batman came aboard. It could, however, be viewed as representing the story written by Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the owner of National Periodical Publications, “Claws of the Red Dragon,” some very poorly written racist yellow peril stuff, and the longest story in the issue.
Detective Comics was such a huge success that the other books changed their cover formats to match Detective, and the company soon adopted the moniker “DC Comics” – DC meaning Detective Comics. Which means that ‘DC Comics’ really means Detective Comics Comics, which intensely bothered me. For years.
Speed Saunders held the lead feature in Detective Comics for much of it’s first three years. He begins as an investigator for the harbour police (also referred to as the river patrol). Though there would be little personal information given about Speed, we do learn that his first name is really Cyril. His stories were all self-contained, usually 6 page murder mysteries. Over time they developed a format in which Speed would explain the solution in the last panel or two, frequently citing evidence or information that the reader had not been privy to until that moment.
In his first case, dead bodies are found floating in the harbour, and the coroner intriguingly describes them as “real oriental chinamen”. Not fake oriental chinamen. Or real african chinamen. Speed investigates a boat that stays moored in the harbour without ever coming to port, and stumbles across a ring that smuggles these men into the US, tossing sick ones into the bay.
Among the many reasons these men deserve to get caught, I would rank stupidity fairly high on the list.
Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise is the first of a number of DC detectives who specialized in disguises, but used them far less than his successors would. I find it odd that in over one third of his tales, Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise does not bother using them. In reality, his character seems to be largely drawn from Sherlock Holmes (also known for disguises), and he even smokes a pipe of the style that we associate with Holmes.
Cosmo has no other name. Indeed, it is unclear if Cosmo is a first or last name. He himself barely appears in his debut tale, which pits him against a villainous disguise artist, Taro, but from then on is unquestionably the star of the series. Cosmo often uses disguises to allow him to infiltrate criminal organizations, or gain access to locations that allow him to solve the crime, but also impersonates people in danger, and sometimes even people who are already dead, to get the killer to reveal theirself.
Bret Lawton is an “ace international detective” who appears only in the first two issues of Detective Comics. He is hanging out in a bar in Cristobal, Panama, when he receives a letter from an old friend, Tim Morgan, currently running a mine in Peru, who needs help solving a series of murders that have occurred.
Bret heads to Peru, and spends 10 days at the mine, during which more men get killed, and Bret does little other than determine that the dead men had unusual puncture marks on their necks, and that they all died in the vicinity of an abandoned mine. Somehow Tim never noticed either of those things. Bret also notes that a large emerald is found near one of the bodies, indicating that the murders were done for some motive other than theft.
He heads into the jungle with an Inca guide who explains that the Inca are no more, they were killed off or work in the mines, but we see one atop a pyramid watching them.
Bruce Nelson is an adventurer and amateur sleuth, and a former pilot, likely with the American army. Although his series would run from Detective Comics #1 on, it would be quite a long time before his strip actually took on his name. His earliest stories, both serial and one-shot, simply were given the name of the story. Oddly, in an era where series expanded in page count over time, Bruce Nelson’s would do the opposite, decreasing in length as it went on.
His first serial, Claws of the Dragon, runs from issues 1 – 8, with the first chapter written by DC’s owner and publisher, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. And the first chapter is by far the weakest, a very long, dull tale that has Bruce Nelson go to a Chinese restaurant, where no one will serve him. A German father and daughter, Erick and Sigrid Von Holtzendoff, then enter and are menacingly catered to, and then all three are captured and hooded and taken away.
Nelson notices that he and Von Holtzendorff are wearing matching rings, but it is clear they do not know each other – though by the end of the serial we will learn they in fact did know each other in Peking at the end of the Boxer Rebellion, when both had rings fashioned from broken pieces of the Red Jade Dragon.
To me the most notable part of this opening chapter is Bruce thinking that a Chinese restaurant is out of place in the business district of San Francisco. How times have changed!
Spy was the first of two series created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for Detective Comics, and for the first two years of its run was a humourous and light-hearted romp. Easily my favourite of the pre-Batman series in Detective.
The story begins as Bart becomes a spy. He pretends to have been fired from his job, and, as ordered, tries to break up with his girlfriend, Sally Norris.
Sally doesn’t believe him,and follows him to an embassy party. Bart is in disguise, trying to be bait for a foreign spy, and Sally butts in, threatening to blow the entire operation.
The first episode ends sort of split-screen, as Bart is about to be drugged by the evil spy lady, and Sally is being menaced by some tough guys working for her.
The male/female investigative team, popularized in the Thin Man movies of the time, found a great home in this book.
Buck Marshall, Range Detective is a fairly repetitive series, set in and around Sage City. Buck helps the sheriff (who never gets a name) with cases that frequently involve murder, and usually cattle rustling as well.
In the bulk of the tales rivalry between ranchers, over cattle, land and access to water, proves the motive for the crimes, and they always are trying to blame each other. Once in a while a bank or stagecoach or payroll gets robbed, but even in those stories the root motives usually come back to ranchers squabbling with each other.
Slam Bradley was the second Siegel and Shuster series to debut in Detective Comics #1. It would prove to be a very successful, and long-running, blend of serious action and humour, largely achieved through the skillful use of Shorty Morgan, Slam’s sidekick. Shorty was drawn in a completely different style than Slam, different than the other characters and backgrounds as well. In fact, it almost looks like Shorty was photo-shopped in from a silly newspaper strip.
But Shorty’s role in the stories was not limited to comic relief, in most tales his actions would be vital to the resolution of the plot.
The opening narration informs us “In a hidden catacomb under the streets of Chinatown, Slam Bradley, ace freelance sleuth, fighter and adventurer is tangling with a mob of celestials who resent his investigating. Knives flash! Fists fly! Altho’ outnumbered, Slam is having a swell time!”
I still don’t understand the “celestials” thing, but this tale has more than its share of racism, Slam getting one asian to talk by threatening to cut off his “pigtail” so he will be separated from his ancestors. The story is straight out of the “yellow peril” genre, with a white woman kidnapped by asians, under the leadership of Fui Onyui.
Slam has a good relationship with the police in this, the Chief allows him to use a desk at the police station, and clearly wants him on the squad, but accepts his “freelance” status. Towards the end of the story, the narrations refers to Slam’s “indomitable courage, surprising strength and laughter in the face of overwhelming odds,” a fitting description of all of Siegel and Shuster’s heroes.