Suddenly, the air was full of bats!
The “air” here is metaphorical and if you’d allow me to fully ripen the trope, possibly to the point where it emits a faint odor, it might read, The air of popular culture in the 30s and 40s was full of bats.
Let’s see. There was a Mary Roberts Rheinhart novel and an early talkie adapted from it, both called The Bat, and there was a pulp hero also called The Bat and, a bit later, another pulp do-gooder who labeled himself The Black Bat. Am I forgetting anyone…? Oh yeah. A comic book character that was introduced in Detective Comics #27, dated May 1939, as Batman. Like an estimated eighty percent of your fellow earthlings, you may have heard of him.
And, again metaphorically, standing behind the Batman and maybe some of the others was one of the greatest pulp heroes, The Shadow. The writer of the early Batman stories, Bill Finger, made no secret of his admiration for the Shadow novels. He went so far as to admit that the Shadow’s influence on his batwork was extremely direct when he told historian (and author and artist and publisher) Jim Steranko, “I patterned my style of writing Batman after the Shadow.” And: “My first script was a take-off on a Shadow story.”
Which brings us to Anthony Tollin. Remember him? I introduced the two of you a couple of weeks ago in this very feature. I told you that a company Anthony owns has been issuing reprints of the Shadow books. Recently, he sent me an early copy of one of those books, titled Partners of Peril, and suggested that I might want to compare it to the first Batman adventure, The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.
Of course there are differences. After all, the Shadow novel is probably around 50,000 words long and Batman’s debut is six comic book pages. But there are also similarities. I won’t even try to describe them all – see Robert Greenberger’s ComicMix article, or Anthony’s text piece in the book itself – but they are manifold. In a phone conversation a few hours ago, Anthony mentioned the most obvious, among which are:
- Both are about a – yes! – chemical syndicate.
- The heroes of both get involved in the proceedings while visiting a law-enforcing friend.
- Both feature virtually identical death traps, which each hero beats in the same way.
- Both heroes offer the same whodunit-type explanation at the adventure’s end.
- Both heroes spend a lot of time on a rooftop after a safe robbery.
- The denouements of both stories are, again, virtually identical.
As I wrote in the earlier column, anyone with even the dimmest interest in pop culture or comics history, or who just wants to sample the kind of entertainment that kept pops or granddad reading by flashlight under the covers, or who’s just in the mood for capital-M Melodrama combined with capital-H Heroics, might want to see if the Shadow has anything for them.
For me, the stuff has another aspect, one which is as modern as hip-hop. But that’s for next week.
RECOMMENDED READING: Awww…you know.
Dennis O’Neil is an award-winning editor and writer of comic books like Batman, The Question, Iron Man, Green Lantern and/or Green Arrow, and The Shadow, as well as all kinds of novels, stories and articles.