Skulls in the Stars

Johnston McCulley’s The Bat Strikes Again and Again!


Name this scene:

Yet he was one man working alone against the crooks and the corrupt politicians who went hand in glove with the evil forces of the underworld.  For that reason he must become a figure of sinister import to all of these people.  A strange Nemesis that would eventually become a legendary terror to all of crimedom.

He was still thinking.  Just what the character would be that he intended to assume was still vague in his mind.  He only knew that it would have to be some nubilous creature of the night that lurked in the shadows.

He glanced at the oil lamp burning on a table.  Then he swung around, suddenly tense.  In the shadows above his head there came a slithering, flapping sort of sound.

He reached up, tore at it with fingers that had suddenly grown frantic.  He flung the thing aside.  As he did so he saw that it was a bat.  An insectivorous mammal, with its wings formed by a membrane stretched between the tiny elongated fingers, legs and tail.

As the creature hovered above the lamp for an instant it cast a huge shadow upon the cabin wall.

“That’s it!”

If you guessed “Batman”, you’re half right!  The scene is from “The Bat Strikes!”, a serial published in 1934 in Popular Detective by an author using the pseudonym “C.K.M. Scanlon”; Batman would not appear in Detective Comics until 1939.  A total of four stories about “The Bat” were published in 1934, and then the character (and author) vanished as mysteriously as he appeared.  Recently, Altus Press reprinted the serials in the volume, The Bat Strikes Again and Again!:

Though I cannot say that The Bat is the most interesting or well-written pulp fiction I’ve read, it is a fascinating look at the almost completely unknown prehistory of one of comics’ greatest character!

The Bat isn’t even the only batlike character to appear before Batman; apparently, bats were on the mind of many writers of that era.  In 1933 and 1934, science fiction writer Murray Leinster wrote six stories about “The Black Bat” which appeared in Black Bat Detective Mysteries.  In 1939, appearing essentially simultaneously with Batman, another series of “Black Bat” stories were published in Thrilling Publications, with lead author Norman Daniels.  This latter set of stories nearly led to lawsuits between D.C. and Thrilling, with each side claiming the other was a copy.  Bob Kane, the creator of Batman, himself credited the movie The Bat Whispers (1930), featuring an unheroic murderous “Bat”, as his inspiration.  Nevertheless, the similarities between Batman and The Bat are so striking it seems reasonable to assume that Kane was at least indirectly influenced by the earlier character.

“The Bat Strikes” opens with an investigative journalist named Dawson Clade on death row, on the eve of his execution.  Clade is innocent, having been framed by the network of criminals and corrupt politicians he was investigating.  The governor is willing to grant clemency, but is murdered himself just as he sets pen to the stay of execution.  In a series of events, Clade is freed, and his execution faked.  Now free to hunt down those who tried to kill him, he chooses The Bat as his identity, as described at the beginning of the post.  The first three serials of The Bat describe how he brings the criminals who framed him to justice.

The Bat’s methods are both similar and quite dissimilar to his more famous counterpart.  Like Batman, The Bat uses theatrical methods to unnerve his opponents and put them off-balance.  The Bat employs remote radios to speak to his victims remotely, and decorates their homes with luminescent paint.  He uses underworld contacts to gather information against his enemies, and sets them up so the police can catch them.  His personal attire and weapons, however, are very different from Batman: he dresses in street clothes, with only a black hood emblazoned with a white bat as a disguise.  Instead of a utility belt, his personal tools are a vapor gun which sprays knockout gas — and a handgun!

Like Batman, The Bat communicates with the police, and in particular has a close relation with one officer.  For The Bat, this officer is Detective Sergeant Jim Burdoon, who is constantly trying to incarcerate the vigilante.

The stories are charming, though rather crudely written.  Especially galling is The Bat’s infuriatingly self-destructive theatrics.  Take these passages, for instance:

“Are you where you can hear me, Bat?”

“I hear you,” the Bat’s deep voice answered.

“Good! Thanks, Bat!  Want to have a little personal talk with me face to face?”

“We’d better not, Burdoon.  If you knew my identity it would spoil everything.”

But then, a chapter later,


They all turned at the sound of the voice.  In the doorway of the bedchamber stood the Bat, automatic held ready, his eyes gleaming.

“I am the Bat, Burdoon.  Here we are, face to face, as you wished.”

This appearance sparks off a multi-chapter chase in which The Bat is nearly busted several times!  Now, if you were a costumed vigilante, and the police officer trying to arrest you asks for a face to face chat, would you: (a) meet him face to face, or (b) not meet him?  The Bat takes pointless risks at times which make him seem psychologically self-destructive.

As I said, I enjoyed the stories.  The first three very nicely serve as a trilogy which ties up The Bat’s original quest to incarcerate his framers.  The writing style is crude, and the plots barely make sense, but the tales are entertaining, though people fascinated by pulp history will get the most out of them.

I’d love to tell you about the fourth story, but it cuts out half-way through my copy!  The officially listed page count online is much more than my book, so I assume that I got a defective copy — I’ll have to contact them about that…

I should note that the book includes an introduction by pulp fiction author and scholar Will Murray, who discusses the history of The Bat and argues quite strongly that the author was none other than Johnston McCulley, who was the author of the Zorro tales.  So maybe the creator of The Bat influenced Batman in another way — Bob Kane was also supposedly inspired by the Zorro movies!