Friday, August 5

The Shadow vol. 9 (b), Partners of Peril (July 2007)

By Theodore Tinsley writing as Maxwell Grant (originally published in The Shadow Magazine, 1 November 1936)

Partners in an industrial chemical manufacturing plant seal a secret deal to allow one of them to buy the others out. One – then a second – is murdered! Safes are broken into in search of unknown documents. A mysterious black-cloaked figure contronts a perpetrator on a rooftop above one of the crime-scenes. In a climax, one of the business partners is trapped beneath a clear glass dome to be gassed to death – but the black-cloaked crimefighter saves him by jumping under the dome with him and stuffing cloth into the gas tube to block the poison's entry. It turns out that the mastermind of the murders was the partner who was already buying his fellows' interest out – but who would rather have the business scott free and not pay up!

Sound familiar? If you've read the very first Batman story from Detective Comics #27 (May 1939), it's called “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” But two and a half years earlier the very same plot elements had first appeared in the 1 November 1936 issue of The Shadow Magazine. As the the two text pages included in this ninth volume of the Shadow reprint series – “The Shadowy Origins of Batman” by Will Murray and “Spotlight on The Shadow: Foreshadowing The Batman” by Anthony Tollin – demonstrate, when Bill Finger wrote the very first of what would become many exploits of “The Bat-Man” (as he was styled in that story) – he depended so heavily on Partners of Peril as to constitute plagiarism. Neither Murray and Tollin, nor Finger's peer, comic book artist Jerry Robinson who provides the foreword to this volume, put it so bluntly, and in doing so I don't mean to sound impertinent and disrespectful of one of the many comic book creators of the early years who for one reason or another never got due recognition and reward for their accomplishment during their own lifetime. Finger would in 1974 die poor and unacknowledged for his great contribution to the creation of one of the icons of twentieth-century pop culture, which far outstripped that of the “Bob Kane” who to this very day still gets sole creator billing for Batman. “I'm astounded to learn how much Bill's first Batman script borrowed from that novel,” wrote Robinson (p. 4). There are mitigating circumstances (although my students better not ever try using what I'm about to write against me!). For one thing, as Robinson continued, “Of course, at the time, Bill was just beginning his career, and struggling to shift from humor to adventure strips …” (p. 4). Moreover, in those heady days when superhero comics were just being born, there was no way that anyone could know that Batman would become one of the most popular comic book – cultural – heroes ever. Sure, they were hoping to duplicate the sensation caused by the appearance a year before of Superman in Action Comics #1 – but so was every other writer and artist and their uncle and literally the janitor down the hall as the comic book business exploded, and there was no way to know that this particular story would not become just more forgotten detritus such as was appearing and disappearing as quickly as the presses could churn them out. And even if they hit paydirt, comics (as were the pulps themselves) were considered disposable entertaintment – bought for a dime, read, and discarded. Why put a whole lot of original effort into what could have been a one-off six-page story, soon forgotten? But it wasn't. And to his credit, Finger, who would go on to write many, many, many other comic book stories, sharing in the creation of such heroes as the original Green Lantern and Wildcat and developing a reputation as “the most inventive scriptwriter in comics” (Robinson, p. 4), “freely admitted that his 'first script was a take-off on a Shadow story'” (Tollin, p. 132).

Of course, there is a lot more to this adventure of The Shadow than what I described above. We are, after all, talking about a sixty-odd-page story in prose as opposed to a six-page comic book story. I would venture to say that I have more words in the preceding paragraph than are contained in the whole of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” There are many more characters making their appearance – both among The Shadow's allies (including Detective Joe Cardona who is a major participant, along with the seemingly everpresent Harry Vincent; Commissioner Ralph Weston appears briefly along with The Shadow in his guise of playboy Lamont Cranston in a scene near the beginning that somewhat parallels our introduction to Commissioner James Gordon and playboy Bruce Wayne in that first Batman tale) and among the bad guys. Indeed there is a whole separate plot involving a separate group of villains engaging in espionage that adds to the difficulty of the investigators in getting to the root of the mysterious deaths of the former business partners, and elaboration of those partners' problematic relationships that casts further confusion as to who's doing what and for what motivation. The true climax of the story is not the ingenuous glass-bell gas-chamber – in fact in the Shadow story that ends up being a refuge for the hero and the intended victims (one of the partners and his son) when all outside the chamber are gassed – but the story continues to an explosive end with an overly elaborate deathtrap scene that The Shadow barely, for all his swiftness, rescues Cardona and a damsel in distress from. “Overly elaborate”? – The explosives depended on a photoelectric cell above the door to a warehouse being struck by a searchlight wielded by the mastermind. The Shadow was fully aware of this as he ran right by the cell and into the building. I'm sure readers 75 years ago were just like me – “Why doesn't he just hang his cloak over the sensor?!” – Let's all repeat, “It's pulp!” (Actually, I generally don't like that “excuse” when dealing with comic book snafus, but I've quickly found that if you're going to read pulp fiction on its own terms and enjoy it [ahem! – The Spider! – ahem!], you just gotta keep that mantra going.)

Besides the connection to the birth of the Batman, this particular Shadow novel is significant for another reason. It is the first that was not written by Walter B. Gibson. After several years churning out two adventures a month, Gibson needed a bit of relief. So the publishers hired another pulp writer, Theodore Tinsley, to contribute a few each year. He would eventually write 27 stories. He did a masterful job of reproducing Gibson's style. Frankly, had I not known this was a different writer going in I never would have detected it. Apparently there are little “tells,” but overall this story read just like a Shadow story should, and Gibson himself praised the result.

Tinsley also wrote one of the other stories included in this volume. Yes, Gibson wrote the “lead” reprint, which I've not yet read – Lingo, from the 1 April 1935 issue, which is included because in this story The Shadow makes use of a boomerang weapon that is seen as being the prototype for the Batarang – but at the very end is a non-Shadow short story originally published in another Street and Smith publication, The Whisperer of July 1937, entitled “The Grim Joker.” Yes. That Joker. Sort of. “[A] white-faced crime boss,” although “there is no concrete evidence to suggest … [direct influence in the development] of DC Comics' Joker” (Tollin, p. 133). But Tinsley used similar playing-cards-based motifs for both villains and plot devices in other pulp stories, so I'd be surprised if there is no connection.

As do those of the comic books themselves, the roots of the Batman go back to the pulps, indeed to the most popular pulp hero of them all, The Shadow.

Cheers!

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