Okay, this story seemed at first to be a pretty silly and stupid invisibility tale, but it leads down a fascinating historical rabbit hole. So follow along…
The setting: the city, late at night. A young couple in love are walking to the subway after leaving a party, when a voice from the shadows says, “Stick ’em up!” A robber, at gunpoint, demands their valuables.
After a hopeless glance up and down the street, the young man gave up his wallet, watch and gold stickpin. The girl was forced to give her pocketbook, earrings and silver bracelets. She fumbled nervously. Impatiently, the gunman clutched at the locket around her neck.
“Oh, not that!” gasped the girl. ”I’ve had it all my life-please-“
“Shut up!” growled the bandit. “I take what I want. I’ll 1have that locket, too-“
Does this scene sound familiar? You might be thinking that a young Bruce Wayne should also be present, and that this is the origin story of Batman! But it is not; let’s continue:
“Shut up!” growled the bandit. “I take what I want. I’ll 1have that locket, too-”
”I dont think you will!” said another voice. The gunman whirled, tensely, ready to shoot. He saw nothing to shoot at. But something like a steel hand grasped his wrist and twisted it sharply. He dropped his gun with a cry of agony.
“Rat! Preying on people like a vulture-” said the ghostly voice again, from empty air.
Something like an iron fist cracked against the bandit’s jaw, snapping his head back. The gunman tried to run away, but an unseen fist struck him in Whichever direction he tried. Again and again blows landed till the robber dropped unconscious, with blood streaming from his battered face.
The scene you are reading is from “The Invisible Robinhood,” written by Eando Binder, which appeared in the May 1939 issue of Fantastic Adventures, indeed the very first issue of that magazine!
As we will see, “The Invisible Robinhood” is really one of the earliest superhero adventures out there — and in fact appeared at almost the same time as Batman! Some spoilers given in the post.
The story is written by Eando Binder, and if that name sounds somewhat odd, that’s understandable: it was the pen name of brothers Earl and Otto Binder, i.e. “E and O.” By the time of “The Invisible Robinhood,” Otto had apparently taken over all the writing, with Earl acting as his literary agent. But we will refer to “Eando Binder” throughout this post.
Binder was quite prolific, writing over a dozen novels and countless short stories during his lifetime. In 1939, Eando published a story called “I, Robot,” about a sentient robot that is unjustly accused of murder and goes on the run. The robot was named Adam Link and would go on to be featured in ten stories from 1939 to 1942. If the title “I, Robot” sounds familiar, it is of course also the title of Isaac Asimov’s famous collection of stories about robots. Asimov admitted to being inspired by Adam Link’s adventures, though it was the publisher’s choice to steal the title of Eando’s story, ignoring Asimov’s objections. So we can credit Eando Binder for inspiring one of the most famous series of science fiction stories of all time!
What about “The Invisible Robinhood”? The story is about a man named Lyle Trent who discovers the power of invisibility in a laboratory accident, and decides to use this power to terrorize criminals. As he later explains it to the journalist Marne he enlists to spread the word:
“But that’s just pecking at it. I want to go after bigger and bigger game. And I want all those who indulge in shady and criminal dealings to know that an invisible man can expose their every scheme. To know that I may be at their elbow at any moment — listening, watching! I want to put the fear of me into every guilty heart in the city and country! Can you write me up that way, Marne?”
This also sounds very much like Batman, or the earlier crimefighter The Shadow, who first appeared in July of 1930. But let’s come back to that comparison!
Lyle Trent works his way up from stopping street crime, to attacking organized crime and even corrupt politicians. Along the way, Eando clearly couldn’t help but throw some mockery at the sort of advertisements that would appear in the magazine alongside his story:
Up in a small office perched like an eyrie on the 44th floor of the office building, “Doc” Hobson rubbed his hands gleefully. He opened the last envelope, took out the dollar bill enclosed, and tossed the coupon on the floor with hundreds of others.
The discarded coupon read—“Please send me the 56-page booklet on How To Grow New Luxuriant Hair, even though completely bald, with the scalp massage method, by Dr. Fred Hobson, world-famous authority on this method. I enclose herewith a dollar bill. My name is—”
There were spaces then for name and address, with a heavy-print note at the bottom stating a moneyback-in-five-days guarantee, if not satisfactory. “The laugh is, we don’t even send ’em a booklet!” chortled Hobson, raising his hand to pat his own bald head. “I’d like to use the method myself—if I knew it! Now come on, Kirby, and help me pack these bills together in bundles of a hundred.”
But how does Lyle manage his invisibility? As he explains it to Leda, the unrequited love of his life, the secret came through a laboratory accident:
“Oh, slightly. But that explosion was really the key to my researches. It was caused by the transfer of light-energy through a shield of solid metal. I won’t go into detail, Leda, but when a light photon hits an atom, an electron in the atom jumps to a new orbit. When the electron jumps back, the photon is released. The photon, if given enough stimulus, will jump from atom to atom, and will eventually work its way through solid matter. And almost at its original speed of light.”
This explanation is largely incoherent, but appears to be based on the physics of the photoelectric effect, in which electrons can be ejected from a metal surface when illuminated by light. For years, scientists could not explain some of their experimental observations, which did not agree with physicists’ understanding of the wave nature of light. In 1905, Albert Einstein correctly argued that these observations could be understood if light has both a wave and a particle aspect to it, and the particle aspect manifests in the photoelectric effect. The term “photon” was coined in 1926 by the chemist Gilbert N. Lewis as a name for this particle of light, and it has stuck ever since.
What Lyle seems to be suggesting here is that he has found a way to propel photons through a material as if the material were not even there, somehow using the photoelectric effect to do it. As he elaborates,
“I have a modification of that first crude shield completely surrounding my body. It’s really a flexible, ventilated metal mesh, not very heavy, with interstices so fine that the human eye cannot see them. I can breathe comfortably, perspire normally and move freely. But you can’t see either me or my suit of mesh. The mesh carries a certain fine electric current, from special batteries at my waist, which kicks the light photons along as they arrive. For instance, a light photon striking my back is kicked right through my body to my front, and there radiated — as though I hadn’t been in its way in the first place.
“And that’s the reason I’m invisible, because light goes through me, even more perfectly than light penetrates glass.”
It is the use of metals, and the discussion of electricity and photons, that makes me think Eando is referring to the photoelectric effect, but it’s such a confusing explanation that it’s hard to say for sure! Apparently the editor of the magazine also found Lyle’s explanation a little bewildering, because he added a footnote to the description:
This is a very logical means of invisibility. Photons, recently discovered, are corpuscles of light energy, which like radio, travel in wave lengths, rather than like the waves of the sea, i.e., they are associated mathematical quantities. Photons, or Light Quanta, as they were formerly called, are ejected from alkaline metals at high speed, depending upon the frequency of the light. Einstein has shown that a photon has kinetic energy, which therefore would theoretically react as Lyle Trent’s discovery revealed to him. Provided the metallic ejection medium was present, the result would be invisible through lack of interception of the light quanta.”
The reference to the “alkaline metals,” which include strontium and radium, may also suggest the use of radioactivity to somehow achieve this invisibility.
So Lyle Trent uses his invisibility to terrorize the criminal underworld. He dedicates his life to this cause and gives up and hope of a relationship with Leda; this conflict between personal life and public heroism would eventually become a common superhero trope. But, in what would be yet another superhero trope, he has a secret reason for not pursuing love:
“Marne” said the unseen man in a low, harsh voice, “you’ve never seen me, and you’ve often wondered why, I know. You know the story of the accident at Leyden that gave me the secret of invisibility. Look!—”
A switch snapped. With startling abruptness, Marne saw a figure before him. It was completely sheathed in what looked like fine chain-mail. The gauntleted hands reached up to unfasten the helmetlike hood.
Marne gasped. The face revealed was hideous. Great burn-scars obliterated what had once been a strong, handsome face. There was little nose or hair. Only purple folds of lumpy scar-tissue.
“Leda does not know,” said Lyle Trent, replacing the hood.
This reminds me of the much later classic 1990 Sam Raimi movie Darkman, about a scientist who is disfigured when his laboratory is destroyed by criminals, and who vows vengeance upon them. Of course, the idea of a laboratory accident creating a superhero is now ubiquitous.
Let’s talk more about comic book inspirations in the context of “The Invisible Robinhood.” So Eando’s story came out in the May 1939 issue of Fantastic Adventures. It so happens that Batman, created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, made his first appearance in the May 1939 issue of Detective Comics! The issue dates are usually ahead of the actual publication dates — for example, the first Batman issue was published in March of 1939 — but it seems that the two tales were published very much simultaneously.
Most people are familiar with Batman’s origin story now — a young Bruce Wayne was with his parents when they were accosted by a mugger, who demanded Martha Wayne’s necklace, which led to both parents being shot and Bruce deciding to strike fear into the heart of the criminal underworld. As I’ve already noted, this story is strikingly similar to the description at the beginning of “The Invisible Robinhood!” Here’s a Batman panel for comparison:
But this origin story did not appear until Detective Comics 32, the November 1939 issue! I can’t help but wonder if Bob Kane and Bill Finger were inspired by Eando Binder’s dramatic scene at the beginning of “The Invisible Robinhood.”
The story of “The Invisible Robinhood,” and the character’s very name, are not terribly compelling, but they represent another early example of a superhero. And the Invisible Robinhood would make at least one more appearance, in the May 1941 issue of Fantastic Adventures!
Considering it is another story about invisibility, we’ll talk about it in a future post!