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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Tag Archives: Alexander Dumas

My colleague Ed Adams observes an improbable shift in Victorian literature in which “war epic becomes largely a province of childhood and a pleasure reserved for children—or for adults relaxing into a juvenile mood” (49). Superhero comics share the same audience—or they did for their first half-century. Sanitized violence dominated the genre from its inception in 1938 through the mid-80s when the Comics Code increasingly lost its control over the industry. Once Kent Williams painted Wolverine’s claws punching through the eyeballs of a random thug in the non-Code-approved Havok & Wolverine: Meltdown, the genre could no longer be defined entirely by its pubescent audience.

But superhero comics did achieve their defining success in the juvenile market, and the character type may be especially adapted to adolescent readers. Captain Marvel creators Bill Parker and C. C. Beck reflected their intended audience through their leading character’s alter ego, twelve-year-old Billy Batson in Whiz Comics #2.

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Since puberty typically occurs for girls between the ages of ten and fourteen, and for boys between twelve and sixteen, Parker selected an especially representative age. Every time Billy transforms into the hypermasculine superhero, he enacts a pre-pubescent wish-fulfilment. The puberty metaphor, never far below the surface text, extends across the genre’s decades of publications. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko developed it further in 1962 by featuring a teenaged superhero as a title character. After being bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker declares: “What’s happening to me? I feel—different! As though my entire body is charged with some sort of fantastic energy!” Spider-Man’s readers may have experienced their bodies’ transformations too.

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Developmental psychology also provides additional parallels. David Elkind introduced the concept of adolescent egocentrism, a developmental stage that includes the “imaginary audience” and the “personal fable,” a belief in one’s invulnerability, omnipotence, and uniqueness—traits that describe most superheroes. One textbook makes the analogy explicit:

“Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, stand aside! Because of the personal fable, many adolescents become action heroes, at least in their own minds. If the imaginary audience puts adolescents on stage, the personal fable justifies being there. […] It also includes the common adolescent belief that one is all but invulnerable, like Superman or Wonder Woman.”

Fredric Wertham described a similar “Superman complex,” reporting to the 1954 Senate subcommittee juvenile delinquency that comics “arouse in children phantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune.” Wertham argued that the complex was harmful to children’s ethical development, but a 2006 study found that the fable’s omnipotence correlated with self-worth and effective coping; uniqueness with depression and suicide; and invulnerability with both negative and positive adaptational outcomes.

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Whatever its developmental effects, the personal fable could also increase reader identification with the superhero character type, providing a further explanation for the popularity of the genre with its original age group.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development provides another explanation. Kohlberg outlined six stages, placing twelve-year-olds at the intersection of three. Most children leave stage four by the age of twelve, expanding interpersonal relationships to the rigid upholding of social laws that characterizes stage four conventionality. Twelve is also the earliest age that stage five reasoning appears—though Kohlberg estimates that less than a quarter of adults achieve it or a stage six level of post-conventionality. Superheroes, however, do. As a character type, the superhero evaluates morality independently of governments and legal systems, relying instead on personal judgement based on universal principles. Superman, observes Reynolds, displays “moral loyalty to the state, though not necessarily the letter of its laws” and is willing “to act clandestinely and even illegally” to achieve it (15–16).

Superheroes are independent moral agents, devoted to a higher good which they alone can define. This is also the general definition of “hero” that coalesced in the first half of the nineteenth century. German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel praises “heroes” such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon as

“thinkers with insight into what is needed and timely. They see the very truth of their age and their world, the next genus, so to speak, which is already formed in the womb of time. It is theirs to know this new universal, the necessary next stage of their world, to make it their own aim and put all their energy into it. The world-historical persons, the heroes of their age, must therefore be recognized as its seers – their words and deeds are the best of the age.”

Hegel’s 1820s’ lectures on the philosophy of history were published in 1837, six years after his death, and four years before Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle’s On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, in which Carlyle proposed his “Great Men” theory:

“Find in any country the Ablest Man that exists there; raise him to the supreme place, and loyally reverence him: you have a perfect government for that country; no ballot-box, parliamentary eloquence, voting, constitution-building, or other machinery whatsoever can improve it a whit. It is in the perfect state; an ideal country.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed it in his Representative Men:

“Mankind have in all ages attached themselves to a few persons who either by the quality of that idea they embodied or by the largeness of their reception were entitled to the position of leaders and law-givers. […] The great, or such as hold of nature and transcend fashions by their fidelity to universal ideas, are saviors from these federal errors, and defend us from our contemporaries.”

Hegel, Carlyle, and Emerson also share assumptions that Ed Adams links to the popularity of the epic: “that wars were the most important of historical events; and that individuals possessed the agency to determine their outcomes” (34). Beginning in the early nineteenth century, that tradition shifted to juvenile fiction, as authors such as Carlyle and Tennyson rescued “modern faith in heroes by self-consciously appealing to primitive, childish beliefs” (52). The great man of epic history began its transformation into children’s adventure hero in 1844, when French novelist Alexander Dumas described the titular hero of The Count of Monte Cristo as one of a new breed who “by the force of their adventurous genius” is “above the laws of society.” Siegel and Shuster drew on the same hero type a century later, transforming so-called great men into the comics genre of superheroes.

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count of monte cristo comic

My favorite sandwich as a teenager was named after an Alexander Dumas hero. I still order it at the Greek diner down the street, preferably with curly fries. You take your basic grilled ham and cheese, throw in a couple turkey slices, dunk it in egg batter, and fry, and be sure to have some jam sauce for dipping.

Restaurant reviewer Thadius Van Landingham declares it “a sandwich engulfed in controversy” and “clouded origins.” Some say it’s just a disguised croque monsieur (literally “Mr. Crunch”) served in Paris cafes since 1910. Faux New Orleans restaurants in Disneyland have featured it since 1966 (the year I was born), but the recipe had been wandering American cookbooks since the 30s—though under different aliases. San Francisco and San Diego both claim the monte cristo unmasked in their restaurants first, but L.A. offers a more likely origin story, either at the Brown Derby or Gordon’s, since both catered to the Hollywood crowd. The Son of Monte Cristo, sequel to The Count of Monte Cristo, premiered in 1940, and the rechristened Mr. Crunch debuted on the Gordon’s menu in 1941—I’m guessing as an advertising gimmick.


The monte cristo does not appear in Alexander Dumas’ Great Dictionary of Cuisine, his posthumous masterwork. “Novelist or cook,” wrote an early admirer, “Dumas is a master, and the two vocations appear to go hand in hand, or, rather, to be joined in one.” His bacon roties (“toasties”) may be a relative of the monte cristo (“Dice a pound of bacon and a slice of ham. Dry out and drain. Mix with parsley, scallions, 4 egg yolks, coarse pepper. Spread on slices of bread. fry.”), but a distant one.

Cookbooks annoy me because there’s usually only one author on the cover, while the work must require whole kitchen staffs of ghostwriters—plus all the uncredited friends and relatives and untold predecessors who knowingly or unknowingly contribute the first drafts of recipes. But Dumas’ culinary dictionary may be the only of his 200-300 books he wrote himself. Even his most famous novels were collaborations. A kitchen of hired assistants cooked up plots and pages for him to spice up and finalize to his tastes. Superman co-creator Joe Shuster employed a studio of artists to similar effect. Auguste Maquet, Dumas’ most prominent sous-chef de aventure, worked for him through the 1840s, unofficially co-authoring both The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Bob Kane claimed similarly sole authorship of Batman because writer Bill Finger received his paychecks from him not DC. Maquet sued, but the French courts preferred Dumas’s lone wolf tale. Finger (a prolific plagiarist himself) stayed in the kitchen. Neither Dumas nor Kane served up anything of much flavor without their collaborators.


But The Count of Monte Cristo continues to be served across genres. If Maquet was the plotter, then he mixed both the first convicted-of-a-crime-he-didn’t-commit and revenge-is-best-served-cold recipes. They’re massive chapters in any contemporary dictionnaire de aventure, spanning in comics from Batman to V for Vendetta to Oldboy manga. The framed fugitive Edmond Dantès is also literature’s first secret identity hero and chameleon-like master-of-disguise.  Like “Alexander Dumas” on the cover, the Count is only the first ingredient in a tossed salad of Dantès’ aliases, ranging from priest to bank clerk to Sinbad the Sailor. Also, like a comic book, the novel wasn’t a novel—it was a serial, published in eighteen monthly installments beginning in 1844. It was already an international hit when the Count jumped the channel into English two years later.


Dumas was a bit of mixed salad himself. His father was Haitian. In the U.S., even abolitionists had trouble believing such a “mulatto” could produce Literature, thinking Frederick Douglass’ editors ghosted his 1845 Narrative of the Life. The last U.S. Presidential election had turned on Polk’s determination to annex Texas as a slave state. France vacillated on slavery, abolishing it for the first time in 1794 (“all men, irrespective of colour, living in the colonies are French citizens and will enjoy all the rights provided by the Constitution”—essentially the opposite of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision), and again while The Count of Monte Cristo was sailing to American book stores—where it would sellout despite its clouded origins.

I imagine it was Dumas, not Maquet, who decided the Count would marry Haydée, the Turkish princess he bought from a slave trader. Louis Hayward, star of The Son of Monte Cristo, doesn’t look particularly mixed, but that’s a U.S. film (and, according to the synopsis, he’s not actually their son anyway). I dipped into some French comics in preparation for my visit and was pleasantly startled by some racial differences. Tarou, Robert Dansler’s 1949 Tarzan knock-off, is, unlike Burrough’s eugenically thoroughbred aristocrat Lord Greystoke, half African, and better still, Mozam is an “African Jungle Lord” drawn non-racistly African (though I fear “mozam” may literally be “nonsense”).

The Count, who’s taken for French, Arab, Roman and Greek, claims no nation and no race. “I am,” he declares, “a cosmopolite.” His shapeshifting ability to “adopt all customs, speak all languages” is a product of his mixed nature, elevating him to the superhuman level of angels, those “invisible beings” whom God sometimes allows “to assume a material form.” The only significant obstacle to his goals is his mortality, “for all the rest I have reduced to mathematical terms. What men call the chances of fate—namely, ruin, change, circumstances—I have fully anticipated, and if any of these should overtake me, yet it will not overwhelm me. Unless I die, I shall always be what I am.”

The monte cristo, declares Van Landingham, “is a jumble of contradictions,” both sweet and savory, a sugary breakfast yet a meaty lunch. It’s a fitting tribute to the contradictory Mr. Dumas and his hero. So far I have seen no monte cristos on French menus, but Mr. Crunch is common. However, I see now that it is his wife, croque Madame, that includes an egg and so is the direct parent of the American superhero sandwich. 

monte cristo sandwich

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Carl kruger “I, Carl Kruger, will be dictator of the world!” bellows Bob Kane’s stumpy Napoleon knock-off in Detective Comics No. 33. It’s 1939, so the name and the zeppelins flew in from Nazi Germany, but Carl says he wants to be “Another Napoleon,” France’s most loved/hated ubermensch.


George Bernard Shaw ranked Napoleon up there with Cromwell and Julius Caesar, “one of those chance attempts at the Superman which occur from time to time in spite of the interference of Man’s blundering institutions.” Nietzsche’s grandmother liked the little guy too (she and little Friedrich lived near some historic battles sites in Saxony). Grown-up Nietzsche listed him among “the worthiest of individuals,” “the more profound and comprehensive men” of the century. “I am apart from all the world,” Bonaparte declared, “and accept conditions from nobody.” When Mrs. Bonaparte accused him of adultery, the emperor bellowed: “I have the right to answer all accusations against me with an eternal ‘That’s me!’”—a line I suspect a true ubermensch would have known not to try.

Since Napoleon’s 1821 autopsy, his adulterous penis has been apart from the rest of his body. A recent researcher said it looks like “a little baby’s finger.”Nietzsche never discusses Napoleon’s penis size, just his dickish will-to-power. He had the manly “instincts of a warrior,” which Nietzsche credits “for the fact that in Europe the man has again become master over the businessman and the philistine.”He liked his supermanly ego too. After an early military victory in Italy, Napoleon “realized that I was a superior being and conceived the ambition of performing great things which hitherto had filled my thoughts only as a fantastic dream.”

Carl’s fantastic dream involves a dirigible of doom, only a slight variation on Napoleon’s supervillainous vision. Except Nietzsche and Shaw saw Napoleon as an evolutionary step forward, a superheroic step up from the villainy of the masses. Baroness Orczy agrees. She calls the French Revolution a “surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate.” Only a superheroic Napoleon could restore order to such egalitarian chaos.

Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel answers the same call, plucking his aristocratic cousins from the guillotine-mouthed mob. Orczy’s family lost its fortunes when Hungarian peasants stormed their estate, so the exiled baroness had a reason to craft a Napoleonic hero—a man with “superhuman effort” and “superhuman cunning” and “almost superhuman strength of will.” Jerry Siegel transformed the foppish half of Sir Percy into Clark Kent, but Superman stole from him too: “the man’s muscles seemed made of steel, and his energy was almost supernatural.”

Orczy published The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1904, but Sir Percy wasn’t the first Napoleon-inspired superhero pulled into the gravity of post-revolutionary France. Orczy opens her novel in 1792, two years after the storming of the Bastille. Alexander Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo opens in 1810, during Napoleon’s decade reign, when the author was eight-years-old. Dumas’ father had been a friend and general to Napoleon (campaigning with him in Italy while the future emperor suffered his superior being epiphany), and the two were so close that General Dumas was welcome in his emperor’s boudoir while his emperor was naked in bed with Josephine.

The friendship didn’t last though, and Dumas’s father lingered unransomed as an Italian prisoner-of-war. When a friend burst into Dumas’s boudoir with an idea for a play about Napoleon, Dumas refused: “The injuries Bonaparte had inflicted on my family made me inclined to be unjust toward Napoleon.” Then the friend, a proud Bonapartist, and his friend’s lover, one of Napoleon’s former mistresses and current star actress who enjoyed entertaining guests topless, locked Dumas in her apartment until he completed the 24-scene Napoleon.

Edmond Dantès, Dumas’s self-declared Count, owes his creation to Napoleon too—and not just because Dumas had traveled around the Island of Monte Cristo with Napoleon’s nephew. The Count looks down at humanity, that “race of crocodiles,” from Napoleon’s superhuman height. According to Shaw, Napoleon regarded “mankind as a troublesome pack of hounds only worth keeping for the sport of hunting with them.” A character also likens Monte Cristo to Byron’s Manfred—another proto-ubermensch, born the year after the deposed Napoleon began his finale exile—“who, disinherited of their patrimony, have achieved one by the force of their adventurous genius, which has placed them above the laws of society.”

Dantès is falsely accused of treason, the crime Alfred Burrage reuses for The Spring-Heeled Jack Library series, published in 1904 but set in 1804, the year Napoleon claimed the throne. Of course Dantès is accused of betraying Napoleon, and the English lieutenant Bertram Wraydon of aiding him. Thus the dashing but disinherited young heir turns to a life of superheroic vengeance, complete with a proto-Batman alter ego, costume, secret sanctum, and a superpowered jumping range of thirty feet. Russell Thorndyke sets Dr. Syn: A Smuggler Tale of Romney Marsh sometime before the 1805 naval battle of Trafalgar, while “coast watchmen swept the broad bend of the Channel for the French men-o’-war.” Syn is a mild-mannered vicar and ex-pirate who leads a semi-altruistic smuggling gang and town protectors as the masked Scarecrow. The alias is designed to inspire fear in his foes, “as the name of Napoleon was changed to Boney for the frightening of children by tyrannical nurses in England, so the title of the Scarecrow bore the like qualities on Romney Marsh, for it meant that the power of the smugglers was behind it, and would be used to force obedience to the Scarecrow’s behests.”

Even Isabel Allende can’t resist the Napoleonic allure. The majority of her Zorro prequel is set in Spain between 1810-15 as the nation, fearing “Napoleon will convert Spain into a satellite of France,” overthrew Napoleon’s brother Joseph who Napoleon had plopped on the throne after invading the peninsula. The young Zorro-to-be gains his superheroic education—including swordplay and the art of playing the effeminate fop—as the new democracy “approved a liberal constitution based on the principles of the French Revolution.”

Those principles were in turn based on the American Revolution, which the French monarchy had backed and in the process bankrupted itself, plunging France into financial ruin and then revolutionary headhunting. It’s a paradoxical foundation for democracy, but then our view of those founding principles weren’t always so egalitarian. The narrator of Owen Wister’s The Virginian—riding across bookstore shelves as the Scarlet Pimpernel first pranced across stage—explains:

“It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the ETERNAL INEQUALITY of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy. We had seen little men artificially held up in high places, and great men artificially held down in low places, and our own justice-loving hearts abhorred this violence to human nature. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, ‘Let the best man win, whoever he is.’ Let the best man win! That is America’s word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing.”

And the best men, it turns out, are true aristocrats like Bruce Wayne, while little men like Napoleon-wannabe Carl Kruger end up in plane wreckage by the final panels of Detective Comics No. 33. Even Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov—a man who “wanted to become a Napoleon” and murders to prove he’s of a class of “superior” persons to “whom the law does not apply”—repents for “following his example.” It turns out that even in Czar-ruled Russia, a “sickly, stupid, ill-natured” pawnbroker is more than a “louse” or “black-beetle.” Unless you’re Napoleon. He and the above-the-law supermen he inspired are both products of democracy and its worst enemies.

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Who created the Joker?

Standard answers boil down to some combination of Bob Kane and his assistants, writer Bill Finger and artist Jerry Robinson. According to Kane though, Robinson “had absolutely nothing to do with it” because Robinson’s contribution—the Joker playing card used in Batman No. 1—was added after Kane and Finger already thought up the character. Robinson, however, claimed “the concept was mine,” including both the playing card and the “outline of the persona and what should happen in the first story.”

They were both wrong.

The Joker was Finger’s idea, and I know because he stole it.

Kane and Robinson agree that Finger handed Kane a photograph of Conrad Veidt from the 1928 film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs which Kane used to draw the Joker. A clown-faced ad for a Coney Island attraction has gotten some credit too. But Finger’s kept his primary source hidden.

The Joker’s first appearance begins with a death threat: “Tonight at precisely twelve o’clock midnight I will kill Henry Claridge…”

Henry Claridge, frantic with fear, calls the police.

CLARIDGE: “You’ve got to protect me!”

POLICE CHIEF: “Don’t worry, Mr. Claridge.”

Time drags on—seconds minutes then the fatal hour twelve o’clock.

CLARIDGE: “I’m still alive! I’m not dead! I’m safe! I’m SAAAAGH! Aaghh!”

The Joker has fulfilled his threat. Claridge is dead!! Slowly the facial muscles pull the  dead man’s mouth into a repellent ghastly grin. The sign of death from the Joker!

CHIEF: “It’s—it’s horrible!”

OFFICER: “Grotesque! The Joker brings death to his victims with a smile!”

The Joker repeats the pattern a page later: “At ten o’clock that fiend will kill Jay Wilde!”

The toll of time—the fatal hour!


WILDE: “Ten! It’s going to happen now! The clock is ticking my life away!”

A strangled scream—death!

JOKER: “Are you so happy that you smile for joy, eh? I’m glad I have brought you so much cheer!”

My son was ten the first time he flipped through my Batman Chronicles reprint, half the age of students in my superhero class who looked equally disturbed. It struck a nerve in 1940 too. Kane’s DC editors rescued the Joker from death to keep a recurring character—one who would become the most famous supervillain in comic books.

But he wasn’t new to pulp fiction. His first joke was published a quarter century earlier:

Cocantin had just noticed that Favraux held in his hands a yellow envelope similar to the one that contained Judex’s earlier message.

The banker unsealed it. Scanning every word, he read it aloud:

If before the stroke of ten tonight, you don’t relinquish half of your ill-gotten fortune to the Public Assistance, it will be too late. You will be punished mercilessly.”

And it was signed: JUDEX!

“The joke continues,” emphasized Cocantin with a humorous smile.

“It has lasted for too long,” scolded the banker while raising his eyebrows.

“Don’t be upset, Monsieur Favraux,” implored Cocantin. “. . . .This sinister joke will soon collapse due to my efforts. . . . I reassure you, Monsieur. I will look after you!”

. . . The monumental clock on one of the room’s panels displayed two minutes before ten o’clock. . . . Instinctively, his eyes sought the clock. The hands had almost reached the time foretold by Judex. . . .  Fear shook his mortal frame. . . .

The clock struck ten o’clock. Favraux’s face contracted in a hideous convulsion. . . . As a frightful moan escaped his throat, he collapsed. He had been struck down!

Judex had kept his word!

In the commotion, guests ran to Favraux’s side. . . . The facial features of the gilded banker were frozen in a grotesque grimace of superhuman fright.

Swap a few names–“the Joker” and “Judex,”“Favraux” and “Claridge” or “Wilde,” “Cocantin” and the Police Chief—and the scene is the same as the ones in Batman No. 1. Except it was written in 1916 when Bill Finger was only two years old. It’s by Arthur Bernéde from his novelization of director Louis Feuillade’s film serial Judex. The French magazine Le Petit Parisien published installments with the theatrical release of each weekly chapter.

Feuillade’s previous serial had brought the villain Fantomas to screen, but the title character of Judex—often cited as an influence on the cloaked and slouch-hatted Shadow who in turn influenced Batman—is the hero, a “judge” taking revenge on a corrupt banker (who, we later learn, isn’t really dead). When Finger supplied his boss with the Veidt photo, he was filling in details for “the joker” of Bernéde’s text.

It’s possible Robinson drew his playing card independently—stranger coincidences happen. It’s a greater leap to think Robinson handed it to Finger first, triggering Finger’s memory of the “joke” in Judex. Either way, Bernéde’s contribution outweighs all others. Kane even drew him with Judex’s hat and white face of the 1916 magazine illustration.


I have no idea if Bill Finger ever saw Judex, but according to Robinson he was a voracious reader “who spent lots of time doing research.” Robinson also called him his “cultural mentor,” describing him as “extremely well read” and a “student of pulps and radio drama” as well as “Dumas and Shakespeare.”

Bernéde and Feuillade, avid researchers themselves, read Alexander Dumas too. Judex’s destruction of Favraux’s ill-gotten fortune as well as imprisoning him until he acknowledges his wrong-doing—that’s the  Cliff Notes version of The Count of Monte Cristo, the fate suffered by one of the three men who falsely imprisoned Dantès before he assumed the guise of the vengeance-seeking Count.

But neither Dumas nor Feuillade originated Bernéde’s joker scene. The silent picture includes little of the banker and the detective’s dialogue (neither of the “joke” references) and when Favraux collapses on screen, Feuillade supplies no close-up.  The “grotesque grimace” exists only in Bernéde’s novelization, the version of Judex Finger could have easily accessed.

Bernéde figures in Batman’s origin too. When Kane needed an explanation for his hero’s “lone battle against the evil forces of society,” Bill Finger retconned a pair of murdered parents and a vow of vengeance. “I swear by the spirits of my parents,” cries the kneeling Bruce Wayne, “to avenge their death by spending my life warring on criminals.” The young Judex kneels before his own father’s body, as his surviving mother demands the same vow: “your father was murdered by a crook named Favraux. Swear before him that you will avenge his death . . . .”

This isn’t the first time Finger borrowed heavily from another writer. Will Murray details Finger’s use of Theodore Tinsley’s 1936 Shadow novella, Partners of Peril, for Bat-man’s first adventure in Detective Comics No. 27. “Finger did not simply draw inspiration from this thunderous tale,” writes Murray, “he adapted it outright! It’s the same story . . . . Only the character names have been changed.”

The Joker’s real name is Arthur Bernéde.

Arthur Bernéde

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