It’s 1955. The life of a superhero is often a lonely one. And, though heroes and heroines periodically form super teams, more often than not super individuals must retreat back to their secret civilian identities and singularly bear the burden of keeping their identities super secret. There are exceptions to this rule: obviously right off the bat Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Dick Grayson (Robin) knew of each other’s secret identity, and Clark Kent (Superman) and Bruce Wayne have similarly known of each other’s crime-fighting persona since they took a cruise together back in 1952.
But what of companionship? Both Bruce and Clark have difficulty finding steady girlfriends. Bruce, too dedicated to his crusade against crime, hardly has time to meet a romantic partner except during Catwoman encounters. And Clark, who only has eyes for Lois Lane, finds himself in a continual battle for supremacy with his own super-identity. Superman provides stiff competition.
So, I refer to what Johnny Cash once said — or will say 13 years in the future if it’s 1955 — “You know, the man’s best friend is his dog, if he’s got nothing else.” Let’s talk about the first appearances of Superman’s and Batman’s best friends, the super dogs Krypto and Ace the Bat-Hound. I’ll try not to make this too “ruff.”
Super Dogs: A Shiny Bulletproof Coat
The first of the super dogs to hit magazine racks was Krypto back in Adventure Comics #210, with a cover date of March 1955. Written by Otto Binder with pencils by Curt Swan, Krypto retroactively worked his way into a young Clark Kent’s heart in this issue’s Superboy story. For the uninitiated, Superboy stories from the ’50s told stories of Superman’s youth growing up in Smallville. This proves that even in 1955 prequels were popular.
The story opens on the Smallville dog catcher rounding up strays, one of whom breaks out of the dog catcher’s truck by smashing through a wall. An overworked Superboy re-catches the mutts and fixes the dog catcher’s vehicle. But after completing this good deed, Superboy notes that one of the dogs escaped him. There’s no time to waste finding the mutt, though, since a young Clark must help his father out at the store.
But, quite early on in Clark’s shift, burglars make off with the contents of his father’s cash register. Clark is just about to change into his super garb when a dog rushes the robbers. Thinking the dog a mad stray, the thieves open fire. But, they’re alarmed when the bullets bounce off of the angry canine. Clark is able to discreetly disarm the thugs, and eventually police assistance arrives.
Super Dogs: It’s A Bird, It’s A Plane, It’s Superboy Chasing A Flying Dog … ?
Shortly after the police arrive, the bulletproof dog literally takes off and Superboy pursues. And, after sensing with his super-intelligence “for a dog, that is,” that Superboy is confused, the mutt leads Superboy to a crashed green rocket very similar to the vessel that brought Clark (Kal-El) to Earth. A letter signed by Jor-El states that Krypto was both the initial test pilot for the prototype of the rocket that brought Kal-El to Earth and Kal-El’s pet.
Super Dogs: Lost Dog/Kryptonian Test Pilot
The rest of the issue involves Superboy doing damage control for a frisky Krypto. Krypto uses a steel beam from a bridge as a toy. Superboy fixes it. Krypto tears the wing off of an airplane. Superboy fixes it.
Eventually, Superboy chains his dog up on a remote island. But one morning when he takes Krypto off leash, the super dog again takes flight. Unfortunately, this time Krypto makes a beeline for deep space. Noting that to super dogs the universe must be like a gigantic backyard, a sombre Superboy hopes that Krypto might “come back once in awhile, j-just to say hello.”
Super Dogs: His Bat-Bark Is Worse Than His Bat-Bite
Shortly after the slightly heartbreaking end to Superboy’s interaction with super dogs, three months after to be precise, a similar story, written by Bill Finger and penciled by Sheldon Moldoff, appeared in Batman #92 (cover date June 1955). On patrol in the Batmobile, Robin spots a dog drowning in a river. After saving the dog, the dynamic duo bring him back to the Batcave and decide to put an ad for the lost dog in the paper (giving Bruce Wayne as the contact).
The problem apparently in hand, Batman and Robin respond to a call from police headquarters, but their furry companion chases the Batmobile on its route. Realizing that the dog, advertised in the paper as being under the care of Bruce Wayne, will give away their secret identities, Batman and Robin pick the dog up, Robin holding it while Batman meets with Commissioner Gordon. Robin fashions a mask for the lost dog, Ace, recognizable without his mask because of a distinctive mark on his head.
The masked canine helps Batman and Robin apprehend an escaped convict who, during his protest at being bitten, calls the dog a Bat-Hound. Batman and Robin agree that this would be a good name for the dog if he were able to join their team.
Super Dogs: An Ace Crime-Fighter
But the next day, Bruce gets a call about the lost dog’s owner. A neighbour identifies the dog as belonging to John Wilker. Bruce and Dick go to Wilker’s house but it appears to have been the scene of a struggle. Further investigation finds that Mr. Wilker hasn’t reported to work for two days. Before long, the dynamic trio is on the case.
After performing a few crime-fighting and philanthropic deeds (including saving a lost boy from a drainpipe), the trio responds to a burglary at a paper mill. Ace has a strong reaction, starting to growl almost as soon as he arrives. Batman determines that the thugs who robbed the mill must be the same ones who kidnapped Mr. Wilker. They follow Ace the Bat-Hound, following the criminals’ scent, to the Eastern Printing Ink Company.
Finding the thugs, but caught flat-footed when the gangsters threaten Mr. Wilker, Batman, Robin, and Ace are all subdued. The crooks reveal that Mr. Wilker, a professional engraver, was kidnapped so that he could help them print counterfeit money.
The crooks move Batman and Robin, bound hand and foot, to a cabin on the outskirts of town. Ace, knocked out by a thug back at the Eastern Printing Ink Company, is unexpected to provide help.
Super Dogs: A Suspicious Snapshot
Luckily, Batman and Robin are able to MacGyver an improvised Batsignal using Batman’s chest emblem and an old lamp. They shine the signal out of the chimney of the cabin. And, the keen eyes of Ace the Bat-Hound see the signal. Ace rushes to the rescue and chews through the ropes that bind Batman and Robin. The reunited trio take on the thugs.
As the fight ends, Mr. Wilker unmasks the Bat-Hound and finds that it’s his own dog, who’s supposed to be in the care of Bruce Wayne. An on-the-scene reporter asks Batman if this means that Batman is secretly Bruce Wayne. But, Batman produces a snapshot showing Bruce Wayne giving the dog to him. Batman claims that Bruce Wayne gave him the dog in order to help track down Wilker. Robin, on the other hand, knows that the snapshot is a photo of Bruce with their trusty butler Alfred wearing the Batsuit as a disguise.
The dynamic duo thank Mr. Wilker for his dog’s help. Robin tells Ace that his position as Bat-Hound is open should he ever want it again.
Super Dogs: Final Thoughts
It’s interesting to note that Batman #92 hit magazine racks just three months after Adventure Comics #210. It seems that Bill Finger must have been responding to something, whether it was DC’s demands or fan reaction, when he wrote his super dog story.
I don’t have any sales figures for Adventure Comics #210. But, I imagine that stories about dogs have always sold well, especially to a mid-’50s readership intent upon analogizing everything to the nuclear family. And, because sales for one super dog were probably very good, the powers that be might have thought that, in the unpredictable and ever-changing medium that comicbooks represent, super dogs were the new standard. Either way, these stories represent important milestones in both Batman’s and Superman’s rise in becoming DC’s flagship characters.
For my money, I think the better superhero tale is the Batman one. But, in terms of heartstring-tugging moments, it’s tough to beat Superboy lamenting the loss of his space-faring super doggy, the only tie he has with his home planet. A sad ending indeed for anyone who has lost a pet, super or otherwise.