Doctor Death

BATMAN'S
FIRST SUPER-VILLAIN

 
Right out of the box, in early 1937, Detective Comics editor Vin Sullivan had one major challenge: coming up with enough story material to keep the artists working on the title busy and filling up the 68 pages of each and every issue. When Sullivan learned that an old school pal who had become a lawyer just couldn't find any work (the US economy was in a deep recession), he asked him to have a try at writing comic book scripts.
 
And that is how Gardner Francis Cooper Fox came on board of Detective Comics and entered the business of being a comic book writer - ultimately to become one of the most prolific of his trade ever.

"When Shelley Mayer (...) needed someone to crank out superheroes in a hurry, Vin put him on to his old friend. Gardner discovered that gimmicky heroes and breakneck action stories flowed out of him like water. Too many words, not enough plot, but always something going on." (Jones, 2004)

When Detective Comics #29 and with it the third appearance of the new and successful Batman was looming, Bill Finger (who had scripted the first two Batman stories) found himself behind most of his deadlines. So Vin Sullivan turned to his old friend Fox (who had been writing for Detective Comics since issue 4) and asked him to come up with a Batman script on the double.

 
 
In his previous two adventures the Batman had pretty much been a hardboiled vigilante who grappled with ordinary criminals and gangsters. What was extraordinary about the character was his surreal costume, and 28-year old Gardner Fox intended to close the gap and inject a similarly fantastic element into the story itself.
 

  Whereas Finger had dealt with 6 pages previously, this was now up to 10 as of this issue, but this was certainly no problem for Fox who jumped straight into his story about "Doctor Karl Hellfern, later to be more widely known as Doctor Death!"

This was an instant departure from thieves and gangsters who were out to steal documents or jewellery and who went by names such as Alfred Stryker or Frenchy Blake - here was a much more refined criminal (a doctor, after all) whose name signalled both a mystery and a terrible threat at the same time... clearly, this was an evil mastermind, not just some street level criminal.

It set a decisively new tone - and changed the gameplay for Batman forever as Gardner Fox plotted the vigilante against his first true villain with a masterplan: Doctor Death. The story itself has its fair share of contrived coincidences and lapses of logic (as indeed many of Fox's comic book stories do) but the plot induces an astonishing number of defining elements for the first time - pillars of the Batman mythos which subsequent writers would revisit time and time again.

 
Doctor Karl Hellfern has completed his experiments on producing a death bringing pollen extract and is now ready to blackmail the wealthy of the world by threatening to use his invention on them. However, he is acutely aware of the fact that he needs to eliminate the Batman before seeing his actual scheme go through successfully, and for such purposes Doctor Death is assisted by a large East Indian manservant named Jabah.
 
However, Doctor Death's attempt to set a trap for the Batman by averting him of an imminent murder fails - Jabah (who tells Batman that "Doctor Death sends his greetings"...) shoots and wounds the Batman but the masked vigilante in turn uses his choking gas pellets and is thus able to make his getaway. Doctor Death decides to go ahead with his murderous plans nonetheless but is found out by the Batman and drops a test tube with a highly flammable substance, and as the flames blaze around him in his laboratory he begins to laugh madly.  
 
The Batman turns from the scene and solemnly remarks -- "Death... to Doctor Death" ... the final panel, however, asks "BUT IS IT DEATH TO THIS ARCH CRIMINAL ? FOLLOW THE FURTHER AMAZING AND UNIQUE ADVENTURES OF THE BAT-MAN"
 

  Not surprisingly, therefore, Detective Comics #30 reveals that Doctor Death managed to escape the flames through a hidden trapdoor, albeit at the price of now having a hideously disfigured face. With a new accomplice, a Cossack named Mikhail, Doctor Death is successful in claiming a victim in his extortion scheme, but Batman defeats the Doctor's plans in the end and turns him over to the police.

Over the course of a mere two consecutive issues of Detective Comics Gardner Fox set up and used plot elements which would become pivotal and defining for the Batman and his world - and the superhero mythos in general.

Literally first off - in panel one of the story - readers sense that this time around the Batman will have to face not just a criminal but a foe, one who is as much outside of the regular and the ordinary as indeed the Batman himself.

 
The signal token for this is having a chosen name - not just a false name, but one that carries symbolic meaning, and it works precisely the same way for both sides involved. It is not Bruce Wayne against Doctor Karl Hellfern - no, it's Batman versus Doctor Death.
 
This was, of course, a well established device in pulp fiction, where both the heroes and the evil villains assumed almost trademark names - and not surprisingly, there was indeed a pulp magazine Doctor Death published by Dell in 1935 (it only lasted for three issues) featuring as main character an archetypal mad scientist by that name. So whilst Gardner Fox was - like others - once again borrowing heavily from pulp fiction (including the idea of giving Batman a utlity belt (introduced by Fox in Detective Comics #29) which according to Tollin (2007) came straight from the Shadow pulps), his use of this source of inspiration produced novel effects in the still young medium of comic books.

Only one month prior to Detective Comics #29 Jerry Siegel had introduced Superman's first "supervillain" in Action Comics #13 (June 1939): the "Ultra-Humanite", a criminal mastermind who has a crippled body but a highly advanced intellect and who is set on gaining world domination.

 
 
So in terms of pure chronology Siegel beat Fox to introducing the concept to the world of comic books that superheroes are only really put to the test by supervillains. It is likely that Fox knew about the Ultra-Humanite, but his version of a mad scientist villain would, with hindsight, fit the Darknight Detective's world like a glove.
 

Being an unscrupulous scientist with a narrow field of specialization rather than the "most agile and learned brain on Earth" (as Siegel described the Ultra-Humanite) gave him that tinge of actually being possible in the real world - a trait which has come to set apart Batman from virtually all superheroes. Rather than going for superlatives Fox instinctively knew where to hold back and where to go all out: Shakespeare may have been right that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, but when it comes down to villainous threats, Doctor Death is just the ticket. It is almost a shame that the distinction of being the first ever comic book supervillain goes to the ultra-lame Ultra-Humanite and not Doctor Death.

Another important point was Doctor Hellfern being acutely aware of the fact that the Batman poses a real threat to his plans and therefore needs to be taken care of first. As simple as this plot device may be, it is in fact a fundamental cornerstone of the superhero comic book genre which has driven countless storylines. Its importance lies in the effect of creating a relationship between the hero and the villain and taking the conflict to a meta level where the villain is not just a common criminal, but rather a supervillain challenging the superhero who is the one and only standing between him and the success of his nefarious plans. Gardner Fox could hardly have foreseen it, but ultimately this would even turn into the confrontation being the actual purpose of the villain, so that he might prove himself superior to the hero - and even further down the road it would lead to a complex and existential interaction between the antagonists: what, after all, is the Joker without a Batman, and possibly vice versa too?

Amother important trait of the supervillain introduced into the world of Batman with Doctor Death is the diabolical scheme, the evil masterplan. In the case of Dr Hellfern the ultimate goal is unclear, but his blackmailing scheme takes on a sinister quality by way of the means applied if his threats are ignored. Later updates of Doctor Death would illustrate fully the gruesome potential Hellfern's chemical threats can take on - ultimately making him a dabbler in chemical warfare and mass destruction. But even in the somewhat sketchy narrative style of Gardner Fox Doctor Death clearly is the first real "Batman villain" (as he, typically, also sets out to do away with the Caped Crusader) - the first in what would become a long line of characters.

The story per se is neither consistent nor truly gripping, but the details which Fox worked into it make it fly all the same as he also underlines the importance of Batman's special equipment and readers learn for the first time what the Batman actually puts away in his utility be.

"Gardner Fox was (...) not the greatest writer, but very capable and reliable, a good plot man." (long-time DC editor Julius Schwartz, in Schwartz & Thomsen, 2000)

 

GARDNER FOX

Gardner Francis Cooper Fox (May 20th 1911 - December 24th 1986) was a prolific comic book writer and creator who is estimated to have written over 4,000 stories for the medium - plus an average of three books per year between 1944 and 1982. He received a law degree from St. John's College (New York) and was admitted to the New York bar in 1935, but as the ill economic effects of the Great Depression continued to be felt he began writing for DC Comics under editor Vin Sullivan (an old school friend) as of mid-1937. His first story featured Speed Saunders in Detective Comics #4 (September 1937) and throughout the following years Fox would contribute stories to nearly every book in the DC Golden Age lineup. He was a master when it came to defining the specifics of a certain character and providing that persona with a unique aura, and his ingenuity was virtually second to none. On the storytelling level, the quality of his output was less consistent. Fox created or co-created several well-known Golden Age comic book characters, such as The Sandman (1939), The Flash (1940) and Hawkman (1940), and came up with the concept of the Justice Society of America - the first comic book superhero team - in late 1940. From 1947 to 1950 Fox also wrote stories for EC Comics and their famous line of horror comics such as Crypt of Terror and Vault of Horror. Following the crackdown on the comic book industry in the wake of Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent in the mid-1950s, Julius Schwartz called in Gardner Fox to assist with the revival of DC's Golden Age heroes. The two men revamped the characters, giving them new costumes and backgrounds, and Fox introduced the concept that the Golden Age heroes existed on a parallel Earth in The Flash #123 in September 1961 - setting up the DC multiverse.

 
Very importantly Fox also casts the mould for the return of countless villains from what seemed to be certain death - in this case thanks to a hidden trap door. And whilst Fox thus shows that the death of villains in comic books should never be taken to be a permanent departure, the "return from the dead" more often than not comes at a price - in this case in the form of a hideously disfigured face.

The end for Doctor Death's evil schemes as well as himself comes rather humiliatingly in Detective Comics #30: The Batman simply ties him up and leaves him to be picked up by the police, complete with a card reading "MEET DOCTOR DEATH..."

 
  Doctor Death was Batman's first real villainous antagonist, the first to make a comeback (even though previously presume dead), and the first to then disappear for more than just one generation of readers before finally being unearthed and rediscovered many years later.

In the case of Doctor Death it took 43 years, to be exact. As the year 1982 rolled around, DC was bringing Batman and Detective Comics closer by having storylines continue from one title into the other, and at the same time writer Gerry Conway revisited the Darknight Detective's first year and the villains he encountered back in 1939.

And so Doctor Death was reintroduced to the Batman Universe in Batman #345 (March 1982), with the story continued and concluded fourteen days later in Detective Comics #512 (March 1982).

 
In "Calling Doctor Death" (Batman #345) Conway updates the original 1939 tale and illustrates nicely the potential the character has - aspects which came across as being slightly (if not outright) cheesy in Fox's storytelling are now seen to be viciously threatening; while Doctor Death is depicted as being a paraplegic bound to a wheelchair, his modus operandi as well as his weapon - a deadly super-allergen dust - remain the same.
 
Conway introduces Dr Karl Hellfern as a society Doctor Feelgood who pampers the perceived little medical worries of many rich and wealthy of Gotham but who actually is about to set into action his plans - calling himself Doctor Death - of extortion by releasing his deadly super-allergen dust all over Gotham.

And just as he did back in 1939, Hellfern wants no interference from Batman (who was sidekickless back then but now has Robin fighting crime with him) and focuses first on taking Gotham's vigilante out of the game - permanently.

 
 
 

  However, the Darknight Detective escapes and rounds up Doctor Death and his antidote to the allergen dust he has already been spraying all over Gotham. Ironically, when Gotham is then covered from the air with the antidote this causes a temporary allergic reaction in Hellfern himself. The exact fate of Doctor Death is not depicted, although readers can infer that he will be imprisoned.

In a clever and brilliantly executed bow to the history of the Batman universe and mythology, Gerry Conway took the underlying potential of Doctor Death and turned him and his evil plot of mass destruction into a well paced, well rounded and well told Batman story which worked on every level - and the mysterious figure of Dr Karl Hellfern was well suited to Gene Colan's shadowy and horroresque style.

Conway had Hellfern bound to a wheelchair, and Colan's rendition of the wheelchair's deadly gadgets was every bit as intriguing and menacing as his previous rendition of Harker's famous wheelchair in Marvel's Tomb of Dracula.

Interesting as Conway's revival of Doctor Death was, it was only a very brief return to the limelights of the Batman Universe for Dr Karl Hellfern - after Batman #345 and Detective Comics #512 he once again returned to his previous state of limbo.

 
He remained there for another 21 years until writer Dylan Horrocks had him reappear again, albeit this time facing Batgirl in her own title.
 
in "Death in a Bottle" (Batgirl #42, September 2003) Batgirl and Batman together come across a Russian Mafia arms dealer who is in possession of a soda bottle labelled Doctor Death. Upon inspection of its contents Alfred discovers that it contains a poison lethal enough to kill the entire city. Tracking down the possible sources of the bottle leads to - Doctor Death, who is seeking to auction off his poison to the highest bidder.

The story continues through Batgirl #44 and is concluded later in issue #50 (May 2004) when Doctor Death is once more arrested and taken away by the police - by now seemingly the routine way for him to bow out.

Unlike Gene Colan, who back in 1982 more or less followed the 1939 visuals while adding the depth of his shadowy pencilling style, artist Adrian Sibar changed the appearance of Doctor Death significantly, portraying him as a bald, gnome-like man who wears a lab coat and an oxygen mask.

 
 
From there on, Doctor Death did not have to wait just quite as long for his next appearance, which came about in Batman #692 (December 2009) and following issues as writer/artist Tony S. Daniel had him join forces with Black Mask. Portrayed as a mad scientist in the truest sense of the word, the plans of Doctor Death now seem reduced, to all intent and purpose, to simply see his lethal products successfully in action, whilst his true underlying motives other than a seemingly endless contempt for living beings remain blurred. The visuals are once again evolved, now portraying Doctor Death as someone clad in a thick overcoat, wearing a hat and gloves and, most importantly, a gas mask.
 
 
This makes him become faceless and therefore all the more menacing. In Streets of Gotham #18-20 (February-April 2011), writer Paul Dini and artist Dustin Nguyen hark back to his roots (including an hommage to the 1939 cover of Detective Comics #30) and portray him as a character who feels he has evolved and improved and, having learned from his previous mistakes and defeats, is now confident that he can get back at the Batman and finally defeat him.  

 
An interesting take both in terms of characterization and visuals, Doctor Death was upgraded to be portrayed as a major destructive force in the Batman Universe, unlocking the potential the character had by definition always carried through his modus operandi.
 
When writer Scott Snyder kicked off an eleven part story arc called "Zero Year" in Batman #21 (September 2013) - which was to serve as a "re-imagination" of the formative years of Bruce Wayne and his early days of waging war on crime as the Batman in the context of DC's "New 52" - he set up the Red Hood Gang (introduced in Batman: The Killing Joke [June 1988] and based on the Jokers' origin as "the Man under the Red Hood" from Detective Comics #168 [February 1951]) and Edward Nygma a.k.a. The Riddler (first featured in Detective Comics #140 [October 1948]) as the Darknight Detective's first antagonists. However, in Batman #25, (January 2014) Snyder also brought back Doctor Death - as well as his alter ego Dr Karl Hellfern who, however, was now portrayed as a former scientific researcher with Wayne Industries.
 
 
During his bone-related research work Hellfern was trying to come up with a formula which would inject self-healing and strengthening characteristics into human bone tissue (the motive for which is later discovered to lie with the death of his son from wounds to the skull which he suffered during a covert military operation in Nigeria).
 
As Hellfern's experiments turn nasty he is let go by Wayne Industries but continues his work in illegal laboratories, and when the Riddler takes over Gotham he talks Hellfern into using his substance on himself. The problem with this is that it induces uncontrollable bone growth and distortion.

The resulting depiction of Doctor Death by artist Greg Capullo has no resemblance to any of the previous visuals and, while certainly dramatic, turns Doctor Death into a ghoul more than anything else. As such he loses much of his down to earth and therefore ultimately very real threat, although his capability of transfering his condition by blood contamination (e.g. through a scratch or, more likely, a stab wound from his elongated boney fingers) certainly makes him a formidable foe and threat.

 
 
This time around, the end is rather more final than in his previous bowing outs: in Batman #29 (May 2014) Doctor Death is hit by shrapnel from an explosion, and the resulting violent "healing" reaction from his bone structure has his body virtually exploding.

It would definitely seem like the end for Doctor Death - but then he already had readers thinking that back in 1939, in Detective Comics #29 ...

 

 

Bibliography

JONES Gerard (2004) Men of Tomorrow, Basic Books / Perseus

SCHWARTZ Julius & Brian M. Thomsen (2000) Man of Two Worlds, Harper

 
 
 

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The illustrations presented here are copyright material. Their reproduction for the review purposes of this website is considered fair use as set out by the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. par. 107.


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first uploaded to the web 1 September 2014

 

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