The Case of the Chemical Syndicate
Every so often historians find something that appears to be the final piece to a puzzle. Comic book historians have certain mysteries or questions they’d like answers to. Recently, Anthony Tollin and Will Murray pinpointed the source material that helped inspire Bob Kane and Bill Finger to create the character of Batman. The results can now make people further consider how much of Batman is Kane and how much is a result of the popular culture of his day, providing fodder to be reimagined in a new medium.
Comic Mix talked with Tollin, a longtime comic book veteran, who has been producing new facsimile editions of The Shadow and Doc Savage for the full details.
Greenberger: Tony, for those less familiar with your name, give us the short hand background on your career in comics and old time radio.
Tollin: 20-year DC career, beginning as proofreader, then assistant production manager/color coordinator, then cover colorist for a decade and interior colorist of Green Lantern (15 years), Justice League of America, Superman, Crisis on Infinite Earths, The Shadow Strikes, Doc Savage, The Phantom, etc. Also co-colored Batman and Detective Comics as a team with Adrienne Roy through much of her 16-year run on the titles (190 issues of each, not to mention The Brave & The Bold, Batman and the Outsiders, Shadow of the Bat, Robin, etc.) And also work at Disney, Topps, Marvel, National Lampoon’s Sunday comic section parody, PS Magazine for Murphy Anderson. Also wrote 70-plus old-time-radio historical booklets for Radio Spirits and the Smithsonian Historical Archives, scripted Stan Freberg’s When Radio Was for six years, and co-authored The Shadow Scrapbook with Walter Gibson.
Greenberger: And what about your fascination with The Shadow?
Tollin: I fell in love with the character in junior high, after previously reading Walter Gibson’s magic books as an amateur magician and ventriloquist. Back then Shadow pulps were few and far between, so I rationed them, only allowing myself four chapters per day. This was back around the time of the Batman television series when Bats was often pretty silly. The Shadow embodies mystery and intrigue. Of course, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams later brought Batman back to his dark and mysterious roots, but I guess I was a bit ahead of the curve. The magic of Walter Gibson’s shadowy creation is that it gave the hero the charisma normally reserved for the villain. The melodrama villain, parodied by
Greenberger: You’ve been researching the Shadow on radio and in print for years. How did you finally discover this nugget?
Tollin: A few months back, Will
Curiously, it turned out to be the first Shadow novel not written by Walter Gibson. Neither of us recognized it as the inspiration for "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate" when we first read it back in the 1970s. And because we were both friends of Walt Gibson, we tend to spend a lot more time reading his 283 Shadow novels than Theodore Tinsley’s 27 novels.
Greenberger: What makes this story significant for comic book fans?
Tollin: Well, it clearly establishes that without The Shadow, there would be no Batman! Since the first Batman story was a start-to-finish lift of an earlier Shadow novel, it establishes that the similarities between the two characters were no accident. Bruce Wayne is wealthy young man about town Lamont Cranston. The friendship between Bruce and Commissioner James Gordon (whose name comes from The Shadow’s sister magazine, The Whsiperer) is no different from the relationship between
It also raises questions about the extent of Bob Kane’s actual contributions to the feature that bears his creator credit. If Finger’s first Batman script was a blatant retelling of an earlier Shadow novel, and Finger also suggested the Caped Crusader’s bat-eared cowl, bat-scalloped cape, black-and-gray costume and utility belt, what did Kane personally contribute to the feature besides its title? And as to Kane’s claims that Douglas Fairbank’s acrobatics in The Mark of Zorro were an influence, it now turns out that it was movie-buff Bill Finger who regularly supplied the acrobatic stills of Fairbanks to Bob Kane and his assistants.
Also, Theodore Tinsley’s first Shadow novel mentions "bat-like" and "bats" on seven occasions. This is most unusual for a Shadow novel. One really has to ask, did this novel actually inspire Batman’s creation from the very start. I mean, it’s a bit of a stretch to assume that Kane and Finger came up with the idea of Batman first, and that it was a complete coincidence that the story Finger chose to imitate was comparatively crawling with bats.
Greenberger: Is there anyway to know if Bill Finger and/or Bob Kane read The Shadow pulps at the time?
Tollin: Oh, yes. Bill Finger confirmed it in the Steranko History. He also admitted that "I patterned my style of writing after The Shadow…. It was completely pulp style." Kane acknowledged a Shadow influence in the text feature that accompanied "Gotham City Line-up," the 1964 "new-look" story that killed off Alfred Pennyworth. (Though of course he got better.) Bob Kane admitted reading hero pulps like Doc Savage when Finger loaned them to him, and also admitted, "We didn’t think anything was wrong with Batman carrying a gun because The Shadow used one."
Greenberger: What prompted you to begin the current cycle of reprints?
Tollin: The opportunity to bring Walter Gibson’s wonderful stories back into print, after a 22-year hiatus. And the reprints have been as successful as I’d hoped. There are a lot of others who love these classic characters. One of the nice rewards is that most of the subscription checks and renewals are accompanied with "thank you" letters from people telling me how glad they are to be getting the stories in this double-novel trade paperback format. And everyone seems to really like the historical articles too.
One thing I’m hoping to accomplish is to introduce readers to the real Shadow of Gibson’s novels. Too many comic fans and creators see The Shadow as a murderous executioner, which he certainly wasn’t in Gibson’s novels. People see the strong cover images of the blazing ’45 automatics and think that’s what the character is about. No, The Shadow is about mystery, deduction and misdirection. The Shadow’s powers of deduction are rivaled only by Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe. (By the way, Gibson did know Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; they were introduced by their mutual friend, Houdini.) The Shadow is certainly well armed, usually carrying four ’45 automatics into battle. But he basically treats them as a soldier or police officer would, only using them when his life or an innocent’s is at stake. The Shadow is certainly not a bloodthirsty executioner (while his imitator The Spider certainly is).
I certainly hope the availability of these new reprints well help comic book and motion picture creators to get the character right in the future, and allow them to draw inspiration from more than just the cover paintings.
TOMORROW: Tony talks about what other goodies can be found in this special issue plus some additional insights to DC Comics, Batman and the pulps’ legacy.