I have one complaint about the depiction of Batman in the recent slate of films. These stories downplay The Worlds’ Greatest Detective’s analytical skills by focusing on the technology and “toys” that Bruce Wayne’s fortune allow him to obtain. This week, let me suggest stories that helped to establish Batman as a premiere investigator.
5 Stories to Remind You Batman is a Detective
“The Man Behind the Red Hood,” from Detective Comics #168, 1951. Story by Bill Finger with art from Lew Sayre Schwartz and Win Mortimer.
In this issue, State University invites Batman to teach a Criminology class. He uses the opportunity to challenge the students to solve an unresolved, ten year-old case. A villain, dubbed the Red Hood, stole $1,000,000 from the Monarch Card Company and escaped down a discharge pipe. Neither his identity, nor his body, were ever discovered. The Red Hood never committed another crime.
This comic balances 50’s era camp with interesting detective work. Batman co-creator Bill Finger throws in a few entertaining twists and turns. Mistaken identities, false leads, and a shock reveal at the end should keep you engaged throughout the issue. Detective#168 also marks the first telling of The Joker’s origin story.
“One Bullet Too Many,” from Batman #217, 1969. Written by Frank Robbins with internal art by Irv Novick and cover art by Neal Adams.
This comic marks a clean break from the campy Batman stories of the 1960’s and is one of the first comics of the Bronze Age. After Robin moves out of Wayne Manor, Bruce Wayne and Alfred pack up to establish a new base of operations in a Gotham high-rise. Batman adopts a new logo; the familiar bat wings surrounded by an oval of yellow.
None of Batman’s gadgets make an appearance in this story. Batman, and his alter-ego Bruce Wayne, rely on their charisma and skill at disguise to investigate the murder of a doctor and coax the killer out of hiding. Batman’s physical prowess fails him, and a bullet wound in his arm becomes one of the key elements to solving the case. The creative use of thought bubbles in this issue reveals Batman’s mental process of working through the evidence and offers a behind-the-scenes look at what happens in an investigative mind.
“Wanted for Murder-One, the Batman,” from Batman #225, 1970. Written by Denny O’Neil with internal art by Irv Novick and cover art by Neal Adams.
“Wanted for Murder-One, the Batman” describes an elaborate scheme to frame the Caped Crusader by a confrontational talk show host. O’Neil leads us through the Batman’s investigation, challenging the reader to identify what his detective’s mind has noticed.
No author has done more to establish Batman as a Detective than Denny O’Neil. I found this issue representative of the overall quality of the run. O’Neil started with the character in Batman #217. Collaborating frequently with artist Neal Adams, the two set the tone for the Batman throughout the 70’s and beyond. O’Neil’s work has recently been collected into a single omnibus I can heartily recommend. There’s not a bad comic in the bunch.
Batman and the Monster Men, 2006. Story and Art by Matt Wagner.
In 2006, author and artist Matt Wagner went all the way back to a short story from Batman #1 to flesh it out to eight issues. The tale relates an encounter between Batman and the villainous Dr. Hugo Strange. It also includes all the characters found in the Detective’s early stories. As the story begins, Jim Gordon’s promotion to captain provides Batman with additional investigate perks. In addition, Bruce Wayne’s first love, Julie Madison, graduates from law school. Her character hopes to start a life of her own or to spend time with Bruce in pursuit of her MRS degree.
Wagner’s time on Grendel and The Shadow provide him with impactful expertise in writing for the mystery genre and detective characters. He wisely utilizes this knowledge to place Batman in the Batcave’s crime lab for a fair chunk of the story. Jim Gordon allows Batman access to the crime scene in advance of the GCPDs’ own CSI unit. Unlike the original, however, Batman doesn’t cure himself of Dr. Hugo’s monster making compound in a few scant moments. Still, in this version the World’s Greatest Detective takes care to use his mind and not only his fists, or toys, to catch the bad guy.
Batman #667-669, 2007. Written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by J.H. Williams III
In this tale, Batman and the International Club of Heroes find themselves trapped on an island. Batman, and Robin, who actually has a few nice moments to show off his detective skills too, must deduce the identity of a murderer before he kills all of its members. Writer Morrison slowly eeks out the history of the International Club of Heroes and offers up much in the way of motive and opportunity.
Leave it to Grant Morrison to pull an obscure group of heroes from the 1950’s, Detective Comics #215 to be exact, and provide them with depth they never had in the past. Exposing and detailing these characters add history and a complexity to an engrossing and human story. J.H. Williams III’s art provides a somber mood and flashes of whimsy that suddenly turn dark.
And One that Will Make You Forget
Batman: The Dark Night Returns, 1986. Written by Frank Miller, illustrated by Miller and Klaus Janson
DKR set the tone for Batman throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Stepping away from his traditional role as detective, this vision of Batman from an alternate future, relies less on his intellect and more on wrote power. This era focused on gadgets and inventions that enabled Batman to have superpowers. In DKR, a suit of armor gives him enough power to fight and defeat Superman. The recent slate of movies draw heavily from this concept, each iteration leading to a new Batmobile and other “toys.”