Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Centenary of BATSOWL, the British Batman of 1918

Next year marks the 80th anniversary of Batman since his debut in Detective Comics No.27 in 1939. However, the notion of costumed 'bat-men' didn't originate with Bob Kane and Bill Finger's creation. One such earlier character was Batsowl, who starred in a series of prose stories in the British comic Illustrated Chips in 1918, and who made his debut exactly 100 years ago this week.

I'm not suggesting for a moment that there was any connection of course. Bob Kane was born in 1915, Bill Finger in 1914, so it's highly unlikely they'd have seen a British comic when they were infants. However, there are some interesting similarities between the two characters, not least being the costume, as you can see from the header illustration above.

Like Batman, Batsowl's other identity was a wealthy figure. In this case, an Earl, Desmond Devance...
He also had a secret underground laboratory, not dissimilar to the Batcave...

...and his appearance struck terror into people...

Sadly, like most British comics of the time, Batsowl is uncredited. I don't know how long the serial ran as I only have one episode, which is the one I'm showing here. It's from Illustrated Chips No.1477, dated December 21st 1918. This was one of the comics presented as a facsimile in 1972 in the Six Comics of World War One collection. (More info about those comics here.) 
It's highly likely that both Batman and Batsowl were both partially influenced by The Phantom of the Opera, written in 1909, and The Scarlet Pimpernel (which was adapted as a very popular London play in 1905).

Click on the image below to see the page larger and read this chapter of Batsowl to see the 'British Batman' for yourselves...
As Rebellion bought the rights to Illustrated Chips and many other comics recently it seems they may own the copyright to Batsowl. Could he return in the pages of 2000AD as Black Max has this week? Who knows? Maybe one day...



9 comments:

Guy Lawley said...

An amazing tale... thanks very much for posting this, Lew!
I will spread the word. A nice Xmas present for many of my friends.
I’m sure you’ve seen the pulp short story The Bat Man from a 1936 issue of Spicy Detective Stories...
Published by Harry Donenfeld (shortly before he bought into Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson’s comics business).
No crime fighting, no secret ID, no wealthy young hero... but a great illustration of a Bat Man.
Somewhat more likely to have influenced Kane and Finger...
And raises the possibility that Harry D himself might have spotted the story and liked the name, passed it on to Kane as an idea.
Not that anyone has ever suggested that as far as I know.
The Bat Man can be found bu googling; has been scanned and put online.
Anyway I love this British precursor.
Thanks again!

Lew Stringer said...

I hadn't seen the 1936 pulp story, Guy. Thanks for that info.

Apparently there were a few characters around before Batsowl who were dressed as bats. I don't know if they were wealthy socialites in a dual identity though, which is the closest thing to the Batman concept for me.

ramapith said...

There's the great Gottfredson Mickey Mouse story from 1934, "The Bat Bandit of Inferno Gulch," about a supervillain in the Wild West: Don Jollio, the wealthy rancher, was secretly the bank-robbing "Bat," Dead-Eye Jake. He wore a sort of proto-Batman costume in the role; then affected a much stronger Mexican accent when in his civilian identity (as the Bat, he just talked like a typical cowboy).

Kane read Gottfredson, that much is for sure—his Peter Pupp was highly derivative of the Mickey strip. Maybe this was an influence?

Guy Lawley said...

I’m glad you mentioned the Scarlet Pimpernel, as that seems like a major source for so much of that stuff.

Lew Stringer said...

I've had to delete your link, Guy, as that site appears to contain complete issues of comics that are not in the public domain, such as 2000AD etc.

Guy Lawley said...

Crikey!
I was not aware of that.
It came up on a Google search.
Other people have put the whole Spicy Detective story online.
My assumption was that it is out of copyright.
Hope that’s correct.

Lew Stringer said...

Spicy Detective might be public domain now but some other stuff on there isn't so I didn't want to give anyone the opportunity of supporting piracy.

Unknown said...

Lew, regarding those predecessors:

The Human Bat, a.k.a. John Holloway, son of the 17th Earl of Fingall, whose winged cape that permitted flight had been given to him by his father's manservant to wear at formal dinners - definitely sounds like a wealthy socialite to me! Debuted in The Funny Wonder in March 1899.

The Winged Man, alter ego's name unrevealed as far as I know, but he was an inventor with a manservant, so probably wealthy but not a socialite. Debuted in The Wonder in 1913.

Lew Stringer said...

Fascinating! Definitely a trend then. Suddenly Batman doesn't seem so special, does he? Thanks for the info!

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