Comic books, and the stories they tell, have become very popular, in the last few years. Many popular films have been based on comic book franchises, such as Spiderman and Batman. So, let’s take a trip into the history of comic books, with the first issue of Detective Comics.
I wouldn’t ordinarily suggest judging a book by its cover, but it’s clear just from the cover image that the first issue of Detective Comics falls squarely into the Yellow Peril genre. Two of the stories, “The Claws of the Red Dragon” and “Slam Bradley”, feature the stereotypical Chinese villains being defeated by heroic Americans. For a change of pace, “Speed Saunders and the River Patrol” has Chinese immigrants as the victims of a crime, rather than the perpetrators. Let’s consider each story in turn.
Speed Saunders and the River Patrol
Story and pencils by E. C. Stoner. Inks by Creig Flessel.
This story introduces us to Cyril Saunders, known as “Speed”, a special operative in the river patrol. A bayman has found four dead bodies floating in the bay, and Speed is called in to crack the case. Speed investigates, and ultimately reveals that a ship had been smuggling Chinese immigrants, and throwing sick men overboard. Speed catches the crooks and brings them in, earning himself a vacation.
This story had some potential, I feel, but it was severely handicapped by its length. It is only six pages long, and one of those is just the setup introducing Speed Saunders, which has nothing to do with the mystery. As a result of its brevity, the summary I gave is essentially the whole story. Speed doesn’t come across as a very good detective, either. For example, when he visits the morgue to inspect the drowned men, we see this:
Excellent deduction, Speed.
Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise
Story and art by Sven Elven.
A thief, Taro, has announced that he’ll steal some very valuable pearls from Gregory Dillingwater during a certain week, and the police, fearing that they’ll be unable to protect the pearls from the thief, who has eluded them repeatedly in the past, call in Cosmo. Despite all their preparation, the thief manages to sneak in, subdue the butler, and drug Dillingwater. However, much to Taro’s surprise, the apparently drugged Dillingwater suddenly springs upon him, then removes a wig, revealing himself to be Cosmo. As Cosmo says, “the simplest method to apprehend a crook is to trap him by his own talent for making a living… a disguise for a disguise!”
This is another six page story, and again it suffers for its brevity–there’s just not enough time to build up any suspense or sense of mystery. Cosmo’s trick, disguising himself as Dillingwater, is a good one–good enough that (if I recall correctly) Batman used it, later–but even a good trick isn’t enough to save this story.
Author unknown. Inks by Creig Flessel.
Some men, working at a mine in Peru, have been killed under mysterious circumstances. Bret Lawton, ace international detective, is called in to investigate. A ‘mysterious Inca priest’, with ‘hatred and malice in his cruel eyes’, shows up on the last page. Is he the murderer? We’ll find out next month, it seems.
Yet again, a six page story–counting the full page title image. And once again, the story is too short to be interesting. It would probably not be worth reading this issue of Detective Comics at all, except out of historical interest, but I do think it’s worthwhile to see how comics have changed, over the last 75 years. For example, I’d be very surprised to see anything like this panel in a modern comic:
The Claws of the Red Dragon
Story by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. Art by Tom Hickey.
A man, Nelson, comes across a Chinese restaurant, situated, unusually, among office buildings. But the service is terrible! And those Chinese people are so creepy! He makes a nuisance of himself, then is heroically captured by the villains, along with two other diners. To be continued…
Thirteen pages. It’s twice as long as the previous stories, but no more happens in it. Instead, we are witness to the tedium of a man waiting in a restaurant with slow service, who imagines that the waiters are secretly evil. It doesn’t matter that it’s true. The story is still bad. There is some mystery with the other diner having the same kind of ring as Nelson, and of course we don’t really know what the villains are going to do with their captives, but it’d take a heroic effort to rescue this story from being utterly dull.
Story and art by Bill Patrick.
A four page comedy piece, with an incompetent detective who is sent to prevent a jewelry theft. It’s not the very best humor, but it’s not too bad. A sample:
Bart Regan, Spy
Story by Jerry Siegel. Art by Joe Shuster.
Bart Regan, a federal agent, is recruited to be a spy. There’s a catch, though: he must leave his old life behind, forsaking his “personal life and all thoughts of marriage”. Bart has a fiancée, Sally, who he must break all ties with.
He doesn’t seem all that sorrowful. Bart is tasked with meeting a female spy, Olga, “who is suspected of using her charms to worm valuable army secrets out of young officers”. Sally, who intends to confront Bart about his sudden change of heart, is not pleased when she sees him trying to work his way into Olga’s good graces. When the story ends, Bart is in Olga’s apartment, about to be drugged, and Sally is in the street below, restrained by a taxi driver she was unable to pay, having left her purse behind when pursuing Bart.
Siegel and Shuster, of course, are most famous for the creation of Superman, who would debut in Action Comics #1, in June 1938, a little over a year after this story was published. We can see, though, a little of what would go into Superman’s story, here–the hero hiding his identity, and the woman who loves him doggedly pursuing him. Unfortunately, Bart is a complete jerk to Sally; she pursues him, but why would she even want him, after what he’s said and done to her? Still, it’s interesting to see an earlier work by this famous duo. The four pages of this comic tell at least as much story as any of the other comics in this issue, and it’s at least as interesting as the others, too.
Story and art by Russell Cole.
Another four page comedy bit. This one’s in the format of an illustrated poem, about a sleuth of little renown called Jake. After detectives from all around are stumped by a jewel theft, Jake is called in, for a laugh. Jake, it turns out, is no slouch. He discovers the secret–there never were any jewels to be stolen; Dame Gotrox just wanted attention.
This is a fun little story, and Jake has some nice lines. I particularly like this one:
“To facts we must confine ourselves / the facts we must smoke out – / Let others b’lieve th’ things they hear – / let us remain in doubt!”
Story and art by Fred Schwab.
This segment is just a single page with a few jokes on it. It wouldn’t be out of place in a newspaper.
Buck Marshall, Range Detective
Story and art by Homer Fleming.
Another six page mystery. Buck is called to investigate cattle theft. Buck, using a false name, takes a job at the Bar S ranch, and investigates. He sees through the rustlers’ trickery and, with the help of the sheriff, subdues the criminals.
This story could be pretty good, but it, like the others, suffers from its short length. Buck reveals the criminals’ plan, but we didn’t actually see it before he does so. So, we can’t have any opportunity to guess at what was really happening, and Buck’s explanation of the events doesn’t hold much interest. I’ve no reason to care how a trick works if I don’t see it work, myself.
Story by Jerry Siegel. Art by Joe Shuster.
Freelance sleuth Slam Bradley enjoys a good fight, and seems to spend his evenings battling hordes of ‘celestials’ beneath the streets of Chinatown. He’s called away by the police, who have a job for him–to protect a wealthy young lady’s pet poodle. He’s furious that he was called for this, and refuses the job. Later, the woman is kidnapped, and Slam leaps to her rescue. With a little help from his sidekick, Shorty, Slam defeats the evil Chinese men who had held the woman captive and frees her.
This one is thirteen pages, like “The Claws of the Red Dragon”, but it’s much better. For all that it’s a better story, though, it’s not without problems. It’s a pretty stereotypical Yellow Peril story, and the hero is a huge jerk, much like Bart Regan, the hero of Siegel and Shuster’s other story in this issue. Shorty provides some comic relief, but he’s pretty bland and uninteresting. I’ve got to say that I prefer “Bart Regan, Spy” to “Slam Bradley”.
The first issue of Detective Comics isn’t likely to be satisfying to a modern reader–nor is the racist content likely to impress. That said, it’s worthwhile to see the two early stories by Siegel and Shuster, if you’re interested in a bit of literary history. Too, the book is a time capsule of the thirties. The advertisements are especially interesting–in this issue are ads for a crystal radio, a hi-powered (so they say) air pistol, a whoopee cushion, a pistol cigarette case, and various other items.
A reprint edition was published in 2001, called “Millennium Edition: Detective Comics 1”. This edition is likely to be cheaper than the original, so aspiring comic fans should look into it, before seeking a first edition.