Batman, pop culture icon superhero, one of the forerunners of comic book characters as a whole. Dawning cape, cowl, utility belt, and purple gloves in his debut, the enigmatic character seemed to be a vengeful shadow, with an almost precognitive ability to figure out where he needs to go next. Finding the culprit and seemingly just killing them, he’s not very much like the Batman we know now. Batman’s detective skills have been written wildly different over the years, I have three examples as to how.
Detective Comics didn’t always have Batman though, what is now DC Comics released monthly issues of just detective stories. They were situational stories that didn’t have much cohesion, just the same characters in the same world with little to no connection between the stories. 27 monthly issues later, and boom. We get Lieutenant Gordon, Bruce Wayne, and of course, Batman in Detective Comics #27 released March of 1939. To summarize, the comic starts with Bruce and Gordon hanging out when Gordon gets a call about the chemical king being murdered. Bruce and Gordon head to the scene and talk to the son of the victim who discovered the body. While there Jim gets a call at the scene of the next victim being shot while on the phone. Bruce’s bat senses tingled and in comes the Batman at the scene of the murder heard on the phone with no more information than who the victim was. There, by the powers of ex machina, he finds a paper the killers had taken from the victim. There is only one person left in this corporate regime change of death. At this point, Batman has little actual detective work left to do. By the powers of comic book magic, Batman appears at the location of this scheme’s last target, preventing their capture. Batman not only saves the day but he also shamelessly kills both perpetrators. He left as soon as Gordon arrived and not one person seemed to mind.
42 years later, it’s safe to say that Batman has gone through some significant changes for sure, with his grim stories getting darker. Detective work generally increased as well, if you ask me it always kind of boiled down to a few things that put Bruce on the right path: interrogation, wild clues that lead to jackpots of evidence, and good old ex machina. In Detective Comics #500, released March of 1981, Phantom Stranger poses Bruce with a moment of closure. He offers to take Bruce to another Earth where he could save his parents there from the tragedy that created him. In short, this whole issue is ex machina. The case here is that by this time in Bruce’s life, he’s completely solved the mystery of his parents’ death, therefore he knows all the players involved. So at this point, the Batman formula for detective work still lacked any real tension. Batman hadn’t taken a big enough L yet and Jason Todd had yet to even be a Robin just yet so the audience had no reason to think there was any tension to be had in this particular tale. 80s DC throws us a curveball and gives us a Schrodinger’s Heisenberg principle with Bruce prematurely confronting Lew Moxon, the man who put the hit out on the Waynes. This forced the crime boss to switch hitmen last minute. As fun as that may sound it really didn’t do much as far as the story was concerned. Panels after Batman found Joe Chill’s lifeless body in an apartment “desperate” Bruce rushes back to crime alley where the incident took place a few days prior to the event itself. The Waynes are leaving the theatre after seeing Zoro, and by the magic of writing, Batman sees the new hitman waiting for his moment to strike, leaping in the nick of time. His actions saved not only his family but the other version of himself that was plagued by the pain of loss. Cliche as ever really, after four decades of defining what those cliches are I’ll give DC a pass.
Fast forward another 19 years, Detective Comics has seen Bruce through a few more radical changes. The death of a Robin, the revival of a Robin, being sent to the future as a tool of a sentient sun, the list goes on. His detective work shows it has evolved a bit surely, with DNA scans, better technology, the creation of the bat family, satellite feeds, etc. These things were everything Elon Musk would have if he were Batman. In Detective Comics #750, released November of 2000, we see Bruce have a new sense of brutality in his interrogations. I picked this particular issue for a couple of specific reasons.
He’s hunting Ra’s Al Ghul and has a solid lead to find him. Talia is in Switzerland and Bruce has a hunch she may be able to help find her father. He gets this information doing his classic pitfall interrogation tactic, acting as if he’s going to throw the one being questioned to their death until they eventually break. Effective. When confronting Talia we are exposed to a new dynamic for Bruce that we have yet to actually see. Someone on the inside, as initially, Talia refuses to help Bruce. Through that, Whisper and Abbott descend upon the compound. In the struggle, Talia and Whisper end up being hit with tranquilizers while Bruce is simultaneously knocked unconscious long enough for Abbot to leave with Talia and leave Whisper behind. A fun little ex machina for Bruce to have someone he will mercilessly interrogate to not only achieve his goal but save the woman he loves. How does he do this? He takes her elixir which was, simply put, a drinkable Lazarus Pit. While she’s bound to a chair Bruce pours it on the floor, making a note to the fact that she’s over 90 years old and probably needs her next fix in the very near future. This breaks Whisper, and she spilled the location of her leader very soon after he started wasting her stash. Bruce thanks her for this by curing her of her physical addiction. Later in the comic, he proceeded to use Talia as his inside eyes in order to finally stop Ra’s from getting all of Gotham hooked on the same elixir.
These examples show some vastly different executions of Batman. They all had their own level of wit and brutality that made each specific era iconic in its own right. Modern Batman is a nice blend of self-made cliche, well-crafted ex machina, and a lot more loss these days. These things come together to make what can only be the epitome of the dark knight and a beautiful culmination of his feats that span the course of 80 years. I highly suggest picking up the last ten issues of Detective comic if you haven’t been keeping up already. DC comics is hitting a second milestone having this icon’s 1000th issue. Let’s see how these criteria here have evolved and matured over these past 8 decades.
Happy Birthday, Batman!