Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Uncanny Origin of the Other Batman

At Midgard Comics one Saturday afternoon, I picked up something I’d long wanted to see — the reprinted pulp adventures of the Black Bat, a black-caped, hooded crime-fighter who was coincidentally almost identical to Batman.
These Sanctum Books trade editions — like those they reprint for the Shadow, Doc Savage, the Avenger, the Whisperer, the Phantom Detective and others — are smart and glossy, handsomer than the original pulp magazines.
The Black Bat’s origin — a DA who’s had acid thrown in his face by a criminal — inspired the Batman villain Two-Face’s. And the Black Bat also anticipated Marvel’s Daredevil. Tony Quinn is thought to be blind. No one knows that a secret operation has restored his sight, or that a weird side effect of the procedure has given him the ability to see in the dark. Super senses.
The adventures of a “Bat-Man” created for the pulps play a little differently than those of one created for comics. The Black Bat relies on the lethal support of his guns. You find less emphasis on spectacular physical derring-do, a slightly cagier protagonist who, because you are now aware of his thoughts, seems more anxious and less perfectly self-assured.
Seeing someone as a superman always requires an outside vantage point, a certain distance from their watchful perch on that Chrysler Building Art Deco gargoyle.
The Black Bat’s first appearance in Black Book Detective 1 was cover-dated July 1939, while Batman’s debut in Detective Comics 27 was May 1939. That means the characters were being created simultaneously and independently. Naturally, they eyed each other warily, but editor Whitney Ellsworth, who had worked for both publishers, worked out a deal — Batman would stay out of the pulps if Black Bat would stay out of the comics.
Batman lived up to his end of the agreement, but the sneakier character, the Black Bat, managed to get into comic books after all. “Tony Quinn” became “Tony Colby,” and the Black Bat became an owlish superhero called the Mask, for the first 20 issues of Exciting Comics.
I always regard the appearance of the characters as synchronicity. The fates decreed that, one way or another, we were going to have a Batman.

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