Ask Chris #298: Putting The Detectives In ‘Detective’
Q: Generally, what's the difference between Batman and Detective Comics? I've heard right now Detective is going to focus more on the Batman Family, has that always been true? -- Anonymous, via tumblr
A: This is a very interesting question, because it doesn't just have to do with how the Batman titles work. It has to do with how every character with multiple monthly titles works, and the question of whether it's necessary to make those multiple titles distinct or just have them form a single ongoing narrative. It's something that you can see approached in almost every way you can approach it across multiple characters and creative teams from different eras, from Superman and Spider-Man to the X-Men, and it has a lot to do with how the approach to superheroic storytelling has changed over the past 75 years.
But let's be real here. If you've read this column before, then you already know that we're mostly just going to be talking about how it works for Batman.
So to answer your second question first, yes: Traditionally speaking, Detective Comics is the book that widens the scope beyond just focusing on Batman, which has been the case for as long as there's been a Detective Comics --- even longer, in fact, than there's been a Batman.
See, much like Action Comics, or All-Star, or Adventure Comics, or Marvel Comics, or USA Comics, or virtually any other title that made its debut back in the Golden Age, Detective started out as an anthology title. After #27 rolled around, of course, Batman quickly became the most popular feature, but it was a long time before the book fully gave up on those roots and switched over to only featuring Batman --- a lot longer, if memory serves, than it took Action Comics to become an exclusively Superman-themed title.
As for why, well, if you were in the market for a comic that only had Batman stories, there was Batman. Detective, if for no other reason than by virtue of its more generic title, was able to cast a much wider net, with stuff like hard-hitting private eye Slam Bradley, the super-powered policeman that is the Martian Manhunter, the relatively crime-focused Human Target, and Simon and Kirby's Boy Commandos, which admittedly stretched the definition of "detective" to its breaking point.
Eventually, though, somebody at DC realized that nobody was really showing up to a book that always had Batman on the cover for stories about Roy Raymond. In 1969, with Batmania finally (Bruce) waning with the cancellation of the TV series, the Elongated Man departed from the pages of Detective Comics to make room for more Robin and Batgirl stories.
It was a short-lived departure, as these things go, and there were a few other backups that popped up here and there --- the biggest stretch of the era probably being that time the Atom showed up and was billed as "The World's Smallest Sleuth," but none of them really stuck. Then, in 1978, during a time when 'Tec had been knocked back to being bimonthly, it officially became a Batman Family book once again, picking up from the short-lived Batman Family after the infamous DC Implosion. They even changed the logo on the cover from "Batman's Detective Comics" to the one you can see above.
Admittedly, though, the definition of "Batman Family" was a little weird at times.
I mean, as much as I don't want to, I'm willing to give you Man-Bat. The Demon, on the other hand?
Anyway, while the cover treatment was short-lived, the backups stuck around for a while, until they finally went out with a pretty huge bang in Detective Comics #500. That issue's probably best known for Alan Brennert and Dick Giordano's "To Kill A Legend," a strong contender for the Best Batman Story Ever Written, and Len Wein and Walt Simonson's "Once Upon A Time," but it also featured Wein and Jim Aparo's "The Too Many Cooks Caper." It's exactly the kind of story you'd expect from the 500th issue of a book called Detective Comics, built around the murder of a cop that ends up being investigated by all of his friends, who just happen to be the detective characters who had appeared in the comic over the past 43 years.
Slam Bradley, Roy Raymond, Captain Compass, Jason Bard, Pow-Wow Smith, the Human Target, Mysto, it's the entire bunch of 'em. Well, all of them except J'onn J'onzz and the Elongated Man, I mean, but since he had a solo story later in the issue (from Mike W. Barr and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, no less), I think it's okay.
But while that might've marked the end of the regular backups, it certainly wasn't the last time that Detective would be used to put the spotlight onto the larger Batman Family. From 2000 to 2003, backup stories made a brief return, including "Trail of the Catwoman," a Slam Bradley story by Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke that served as a prelude to their relaunch of Catwoman. And, perhaps even more notably, 2009 saw Batwoman taking over the lead role, marking the first time in 70 years that Batman didn't have the starring role in Detective.
So yeah, the Rebirth-era book's focus on the larger Batman Family is far from unprecedented. But even when Batman was the star, even when they were focused on Batman as a solo character operating without his extended gaggle of sidekicks, there have still been attempts at making those core titles feel distinct.
Which brings us back around to your first question: what's the difference between Batman and Detective? And what that difference is --- and whether there's a difference at all --- usually just comes down to the creators on the books and the editorial direction behind them.
For a long time --- for most of the character's history, even --- there hasn't really been much of one to speak of. The only major distinction was the one we've already talked about, in that Detective had space for other characters, while Batman remained more focused. Other than that, the stories were essentially interchangeable. If you wanted something that felt really different, you had to go to Brave and the Bold, which served as the team-up book that mixed Batman in with the rest of the DC Universe --- and, since it was usually being produced by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo, it was also the source of some of the weirdest Batman stories ever printed.
What, you don't remember that time Batman died and the Atom reanimated his corpse by jumping around on his brain to make him punch out criminals until he came back to life? Because that thing oughtta be taught in schools.
Anyway, there were different approaches that popped up here and there over the years, but by the time we got to the early '90s, it started to feel like it was necessary to make them feel more distinct. Thanks to the overwhelming popularity of the character and the shift to the defined weekly release schedule that came with the rise of direct-market comic book stores, characters like Batman and Superman (and Spider-Man, for example) could support a new issue every week. And while Superman mostly just stuck to telling a single episodic story across four or five titles, Batman was a little different.
Incidentally, Superman wasn't always like that. When the franchise was rebooted after Crisis, Superman was relaunched as the flagship book that was meant to redefine the character, with the newly retitled Adventures of Superman serving as the secondary book to fill out the rest of the story, and Action Comics rebranded as a team-up book. It wasn't until after the Action Comics Weekly era, where DC took what was arguably its last real stab at a superhero anthology title, that the book settled into the regular weekly episodes that would carry it through "The Death and Return of Superman" and the Electric Blue era, lasting up through the soft reboot in 1999 and a concerted (if short-lived) attempt to give each title its own flavor. Y'know, just in case you were curious.
As for how it worked for the Batman books, well, it's probably better to take the word of someone who was actually there. Here's what Alan Grant said about it in his introduction to the Shadow of the Bat: The Last Arkham paperback, originally printed in 1995 but handily included in the version that came out just a few weeks ago:
We were in upstate New York on one of our biannual Batman retreats, planning future stories, continuity, annuals, and one-shots. Batman maestro Dennis O'Neil, never one to stand on ceremony, began the meeting briskly: "We want to publish another regular Batman comic. Alan -- you'll be the writer. Norm -- you're the artist. Anybody have any good ideas for a title?"
Doug Moench and I did, and so Shadow of the Bat was born. We needed a new angle for the comic -- Batman monthly ran the regular continuity stories, Detective Comics was more "what Batman did on his nights off from the monthly," and Legends of the Dark Knight focused on events in our hero's past. So what would be different about Shadow? The title provided it: the shadow of the Bat would fall on various heroes or villains, putting someone new under the spotlight in each story arc.
Of course, that didn't quite stick. As the decade went on, crossovers drove the line, and by the time we got to 1999 and No Man's Land, the books had become the same kind of interchangeable titles that you saw in the Superman books. Four part stories by a single creative team would pretty frequently just run through one issue of each comic, and let me tell you, that made trying to put those things together from back issue boxes a real pain.
Once NML was over, though, the Batman titles were relaunched with a new direction that actually seemed to last. Legends of the Dark Knight went back to focusing on the past, and Shadow was replaced with Gotham Knights, which served as that era's Batman Family book, and those two core titles were given a very strong identity: Batman is the superhero book, and Detective is the crime book. For certain nebulous values of "crime" that usually still include people with mind-control hats and ice guns.
For Batman, it's a distinction that seems to have lasted --- and if you need proof, you don't really need to look any further than the past five years on the book and Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's pretty relentless dedication to going as far over the top as they possibly could. Before that, it's where Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert launched the run that involved ninja man-bats and the Club of Heroes. And before that, it's where we had "Hush," which, for all its flaws, is about as much of a superhero comic as you can get.
For Detective, it's been a little less consistent, largely because there always seems to be something else filling its role. I mean, really, when Gotham Central's around, nobody else really needs to focus on street-level super-crime.
Point being, despite its status as the comic that gave us Batman and ended up having the whole darn company named after it --- maybe even because of that --- Detective has always been a little more adaptable than its counterpart. There have been plenty of times when the books have told the same sort of story, but Detective putting the focus onto another aspect of Batman is nothing new.
And it's also really good right now.