Story Title: The Case of the Chemical Syndicate
Published: March 1939 (cover-dated May 1939)
Writer: Bill Finger
Artist: Bob Kane (with sole credit going to “Rob’t Kane”)
Seeking to capitalise on the success of Clark Kent/Superman in their Action Comics publication, the editors of National Comics Publications wanted more superheroes under their banner. In response to this, artist Bob Kane, inspired by pulp heroes like Kit Walker/The Phantom and Lamont Cranston/The Shadow and Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketch of an ornithopter flying device, drew up a design for a new masked crimefighter, the “Bat-Man”. This design, however, was wildly different from the image of the Caped Crusader we know and love today and it was only thanks to the long-suppressed influence of artist Bill Finger that the Bat-Man gained his iconic cape, cowl, and darker, more gothic uniform. In the years since his debut, Batman has become not only one of DC Comics’ most popular characters but also a mainstream cultural icon, appearing in numerous other comics, movies, cartoons, and videogames and it all began way back in 1939 when one man chanced upon the nucleus of a blockbuster idea and decided to exploit his partner, and his character, for all they were worth.
Batman’s first ever story is a brisk, six page adventure that begins shortly after the masked man’s debut. Unlike other superhero debuts, the Bat-Man is not afforded an origin story and his true identity isn’t revealed to the reader until the very last panel, creating a sense of mystery around the character. You’ll also notice that many of Batman’s popular and familiar elements are missing: there’s no Alfred Pennyworth, no Dick Grayson/Robin, no Batarang or Bat-Cave, Batman drives a big, red, clunky automobile rather than the Batmobile, and the story doesn’t even take place in Gotham City!
The story begins with Police Commissioner Gordon entertaining “his young socialite friend”, Bruce Wayne; the two are enjoying a good, old fashioned bit of smoking (with Bruce puffing away on a pipe as characters were known to do in those days) and Gordon blatantly disregarding police protocol by expressing his bemusement at the mysterious “Bat-Man”. Gordon is interrupted by a report of the murder of Lambert, the “chemical king”, apparently at the hands of his own son and Gordon invites Bruce to accompany him to the scene of the murder. Yes, that’s right, the commissioner of the police invites his bored, young playboy pal to visit a murder investigation.
At the scene of the crime, Gordon bluntly confronts the young Lambert about his father’s death and, after working himself into hysterics, the young man relates that he returned home early to find his father on the floor with a knife in his back and moaning about a “contract” with his dying breath. Although the young Lambert isn’t able to name any potential enemies of his father, he does name his three business partners and, quite coincidentally, Gordon gets a call that one of these, Steven Crane, received a threat against his life that very day!
Unfortunately, Crane is shot and killed in the very next panel before Gordon can even begin to mobilise a response unit but, as the killers make their escape via the rooftop, they are confronted by the Bat-Man! Garbed head to toe in black and grey, the Bat-Man sports some oddly unfitting purple gloves and showcases incredible physical strength, easily knocking out one man and sending the other “flying through space” following a “deadly headlock”. Though Gordon and his cops arrive soon after and attempt to pursue him, the Bat-Man manages to escape with the paper the murderer’s stole from Crane.
Meanwhile, Lambert’s other partner, Paul Rogers, having just learned of Lambert’s death, pays a visit to their third and final partner, Alfred Stryker, only to be knocked unconscious by Stryker’s assistant, Jennings. Jennings ties Rogers up and prepares to seal him within a gas chamber in order to gas the man to death, his speech punctuated by loathsome little giggles. Luckily for Roger, the Bat-Man makes a dramatic entrance and first plugs the gas-jet with his handkerchief (…how very…low-tech of you, Batman…) and then smashes them to freedom with a wrench. Although Jennings is packing heat, the sight of the Bat-Man is enough to cause him to hesitate and be felled by a brutal tackle and a swift left hook.
Stryker walks in and looks to finish the job on Rogers with a knife but the Bat-Man stops him, revealing that Stryker was behind all the murders in an attempt to become the sole owner of their company, the Apex Chemical Corporation, and to get out of having to pay his former partners off. In a moment of desperation, Stryker breaks free of the Bat-Man’s grip in an attempt to escape so the Bat-Man smacks him in the jaw and sends him tumbling into an acid tank, offering only a dry comment on Stryker’s fate. The next day, Bruce Wayne appears to be unimpressed with Gordon’s telling of the story, appearing to be little more than a bored, easily distracted rich man but the final panel of the story reveals to the reader that Bruce Wayne is actually the mysterious Bat-Man which, I don’t know about you, I never saw coming!
“The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” is quite a dull story, in a lot of ways; it’s definitely an inauspicious debut for one of DC’s most iconic and popular characters and could even be a bit off-putting for modern readers, who would be more used to all the familiar trappings and elements of Batman and may be perturbed by their absence.
Without the Bat-Signal, the many Bat-gadgets, or the other myriad of Bat-related elements, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” is definitely much more of a pulp mystery than a traditional superhero story. Obviously, this is mainly because superheroes were still in their genesis during this time and to be expected given the Bat-Man’s pulp influences and it does work for the context of the story. The plot revolves first around the mystery of the business partners being offed and secondly around the enigma of the “Bat-Man”, a vigilante who puzzles the police commissioner and whose motivations and backstory are a complete mystery at this point. Even learning that Bruce Wayne is the man behind the mask doesn’t really tell us anything about the character except that Bruce is clearly hiding behind the façade of a wealthy socialite.
Of course, the main takeaway from this story is the Bat-Man’s callous murder of Stryker and his nonchalant reaction to it. Nowadays, Batman is notorious for his staunch “no kill” rule and would never be written to kill a man in such a malicious way but, back in 1939, that’s just what pulp heroes did and it was widely accepted. Nobody bats an eyelid and even Gordon seems in awe of the Bat-Man’s mystery and motivations and it would take a number of subsequent stories and significant developments and additions to the Bat-Man mythos to transform the character into the Batman we know and love today.
Have you ever read “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate”? What did you think of the Bat-Man’s memorable debut? What are your thoughts on the Batman, or other costumed heroes, killing? Did you guess that Bruce Wayne was the man under the mask? Do you think Bob Kane’s original Bat-Man concept would have been as successful as the character eventually became? What was your first experience of Batman and how are you celebrating his debut this month? Whatever your thoughts, drop a comment below and be sure to stick around for more Batman content throughout the year.