Before Batman: looking back at Detective Comics #1 80 years later

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Mar 2, 2017

Hindsight is 20/20, but even so, the series that would spawn the World's Greatest Detective had a rocky start. This month marks 80 years of DC Comics' namesake, Detective Comics, and we've already given you a look at some of its most memorable covers, but now we're looking back at the stories in the very first issue of the legendary series.

There's a lot to unpack in this anthology, with detectives of all kinds busting human traffickers, jewel thieves, cattle rustlers and enemy spies, among other things. There are classic detective tales, westerns and gag-filled cartoons, and being published in 1937, there's a fair bit of racism and xenophobia as is clearly shown by the cover. Most of these stories have largely been forgotten, but it's still worth looking back at the comics of yesteryear to understand how far the art form has come and the foundation upon which the modern stories were built.

So get out your magnifying glass and check out the stories below and stay tuned to Syfy Wire for more coverage of Detective Comics' 80th anniversary.

Speed Saunders and the River Patrol

The lead story in Detective Comics' first issue stars Cyril 'Speed' Saunders, a square-jawed, no-nonsense sleuth who has the rather odd job description of being "a special operative in a unit of the river patrol." Just about to sit down with his pipe and book, Speed is called in by the chief of the harbor police (what city this is taking place in is not specified) to talk to a man who makes his living raking the bay who discovered four bodies on his daily trawl. The bodies were tactfully identified by the coroner as "real oriental Chinamen" and so naturally, Speed's first course of action is to live at the docks for a few weeks and see if anything comes up. He eventually notices a schooner that never moves and has a young boy row him out to it so he can investigate. Promptly discovered, he's tossed off the boat by Cap'n Scum (no seriously) and his crew. Speed then commandeers a boat — which the river patrol somehow doesn't make readily available to its special operatives — and trails them, and catches them making a deal for trafficking Chinese men into the country. They'd just been throwing the sick ones over board. Speed somehow singlehandedly forces the entire crew to take the boat into port, and immediately asks the chief for a vacation.

Speed was a regular feature in Detective Comics for more than 50 issues before being retired and went on a number of adventures across the country, eventually leaving the harbor behind to become a private investigator. He was later revealed (retconned) to be the cousin of the first Hawkgirl, cementing his many mysteries as having taken place within DC continuity.

Cosmo, the Phantom of Disguise

Another regular feature of the first few years of Detective Comics, Cosmo was a detective who specialized in the use of disguises. In his debut adventure, we're introduced to a wealthy gem collector named Gregory Dillingwater who receives a note informing him that his recently purchased pearls will be stolen the week of the 15th. The note is signed 'Taro,' the alias of a notorious jewel thief who had been giving the police the runaround through his clever use of disguises. Described as "the cleverest gem thief on two continents" (which two? Who knows!), the police are baffled as to what to do about Taro, until they suddenly, completely without prompting, realize that they should call Cosmo! Taro has the ingenious idea to disguise himself as one of the police officers patrolling Dillingwater's home, which doesn't actually help at all, as Taro disguises himself as a fruit peddler and walks right in. He then knocks out the butler and takes his place to poison Dillingwater, but somehow Cosmo switched places with him and subdues Taro. Eat your heart out, Dana Carvey.

Bret Lawton

Bret Lawton is a guy with no real backstory to speak of, but we meet him while he's hanging out in Jan's hotel in Panama and gets a message that Jan says is from his girl. Jan's wrong, though: it's from Tim, Bret's old pal who owns a mine in Peru. Bret sprints passed a palm tree, smokes a cigarette on a boat, then finds himself in Peru! Tim informs Bret about a couple of mysterious murders of his employees, and despite Bret's best gumshoeing, he comes up clueless. Then, someone else is murdered and he connects the dots to another abandoned mine in the Andes, which he heads off to with Tim.

This is the first multi-part story in the issue, and so we're left hanging wondering what the Incan priest staring at them is up to, but the next issue's answers are pretty much complete nonsense, and Bret didn't ever get any other stories. But the question on everyone's minds right now is probably: is he a long-lost ancestor of the Suicide Squad's Floyd Lawton, aka Deadshot? Their vaguely similar facial hair is all the confirmation my head-canon needs.

The Claws of the Red Dragon

"Claws of the Red Dragon" is the story that the issue gets its cover from and was serialized over the first eight issues. As the cover suggests, this is a pretty problematic story by modern standards — filled as it is with xenophobia towards Chinese people — but the first part's biggest offense is that it's painfully boring.

This tale stars Bruce Nelson, a terribly unobservant sleuth who decides to check out a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco, because that was apparently a novel sight back then. He enters and the restaurant is completely empty of both customers and staff, and instead of just leaving, Nelson decides to sit there and get irritated about it. Eventually a staff of horrible Chinese caricatures emerges from the shadows and heavily hints that he should go, but instead he gets more uppity, apparently unable to recognize a front business if his life depended on it. Eventually a couple of other customers appear and are served, which makes Nelson even angrier, and then all three of them have bags tossed over their heads and we're left with a sense of dread that we'll have to read another part in a month.

Gumshoe Gus

After a story that takes itself as seriously as "Claws of the Red Dragon," this goofy tale is a perfectly-timed palate cleanser. Gumshoe Gus is easily the most cartoony tale so far, with a style reminiscent of Beetle Bailey or Popeye. Gus is a blustering buffoon of a cop who talks a big game with not a lot of skills to back it up. Here he's interrupted from his story of he broke up Louie th' Lump's gang and sent on an assignment to protect the jewels of Mrs. Gotlotz at a shindig she's throwing. He accosts the butler upon arriving, stares down his own reflection and mistakenly knocks out he police chief. Classic Gus.

Bart Regan, Spy

The longest-running of any of the features in 'Tec's debut issue came from none other than Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the guys who created Superman. Bart Regan's story begins with him storming into his boss' office, furious that he's been fired as a federal agent. But he isn't being fired, it's all a ruse and he's actually about to become a spy! Sadly, that means he has to break up with his fiancé Sally. He calls her and says he doesn't love her anymore, but she's not buying it, so she heads to his place, where she sees him leaving in a taxi. She tails him to his first spy assignment, a gala where he's supposed to suss out an enemy spy while posing as a military officer. Sally confronts him and almost blows his cover before following him to a hotel and then getting in a fight with the taxi driver for not paying her fare. It's a fairly lighthearted and clever little tale that is fun to read keeping in mind the dynamic that would arise between Lois and Clark from the same creators in the years following.

Eagle-Eyed Jake

Eagle-Eyed Jake is another comedic entry in the roster, a tale of an amateur sleuth named Jake "who took a course by mail" to become a detective, much to the amusement of everyone else. The whole thing is told through a cheeky, rhyming narration that accompanies the stumpy, beady-eyed character illustrations. The plot involves a woman who declares her pearls stolen (that's the third "missing pearls" story this issue for those keeping score) and has the police and several "high-priced sleuths" on the case, all of whom fail to solve it. Finally they're left with no choice but to turn to Jake, who solves it by declaring that there were never any pearls, she just wanted to be in the paper. And it turns out, he was right! Good work, Jake.

Buck Marshall, Range Detective

In a bit of a change of setting, this is a Wild West tale which has Buck Marshall summoned to somewhere in the west that isn't Texas by his friend "the Sheriff" to help with some cattle rustling problems. The local ranch has had some calves stolen and branded, and being a big fan of the Falcon, Buck goes undercover as Sam Wilson to find out what's going on. He gets a job repairing a fence along the border of the two competing ranches, where he hears a gunshot. Upon locating the body he finds a horseshoe nearby, hidden in a bush, leading him to believe that the killer's horse would have a new shoe. He takes the body and the information back into town and the killer tries to make a break for it, but is shot by the Sheriff.

Slam Bradley

Because there wasn't enough racism toward Chinese people in "Claws of the Red Dragon," this story gives readers more offensive caricatures than you know what to do with. Slam Bradley is a muscle-bound freelance strongman who we meet beating up on a bunch of Chinese men for no reason in particular when he's interrupted by the police who bring him back to the station for an assignment. The daughter of an owner of a chain of department stores needs someone to guard her valuable poodle, which Slam refuses and passes the gig off on Shorty. As Shorty is escorting her through Chinatown, the woman gets out of the car to buy an antique she sees in a window and disappears into the store. Shorty gets Slam and he beats up a bunch of horrible stereotypes for a while to get her back. A painfully racist story to finish off the debut issue.