By Frank L. Packard
Superheroes didn’t come into being in a vacuum. The tropes of the genre slowly evolved long before comics were invented. I’ve talked about the Scarlet Pimpernel, who was probably the first time a hero took on on a secret identity and much else. But I recently discovered another source, one that further refined the tropes that showed up in the early superhero comics: The Adventures of Jimmie Dale.
Jimmie Dale is a wealthy man-about-New-York, heir to his father’s fortune made from the development of office safes. But, Jimmie (as you’ve guessed) isn’t just a rich playboy. He also masquerades at the Grey Seal, the slickest thief in New York, known for emptying safes (usually from his father’s company) and leaving a gray sticker to mark his passage. The Grey Seal takes his orders from a mysterious woman, who sends him information on what to steal, and the crime hides that fact that he is actually helping others out: his real objective isn’t the flashy item he stole, but often something small and innocuous that saves someone from ruin.
Packard invented or expanded on may tropes of the superhero. Dale is probably the first superhero character to wear a mask.* He also had a special sanctum, in this case a cheap room on the Bowery that he rents in a second alter ego: the dope fiend Larry the Bat.
The first novel is a series of adventures where the Grey Seal returns after a hiatus as his mysterious mentor tells him what he need to do. One story invents the common trope of a superhero protecting his identity, as one of the woman’s letters is stolen along with Jimmie’s purse. The stories are cleverly plotted, though sometimes they don’t play fair according to how stories are supposed to to now.
The series first appeared in magazines and then was collected into books between their introduction and 1935. A silent serial was made in 1917, now lost.
Author Frank L. Packard had written several successful mysteries before Jimmy Dale, and continued to put out books throughout the 20s and 30s.
It’s certainly likely that Bob Kane and Bill Finger knew about Jimmie Dale when they created Batman in 1939 and with a major character named “Larry the Bat,” you kind of wonder how much of an influence it is. I’d never come across Jimmie Dale in reading about the history of comics. Bob Kane never seemed to mention it, though Kane was well-known for downplaying influences. One point is that the Grey Seal had a small domino mask which he could keep in his pocket and Kane’s original concept of Batman used the same mask. Probably a coincidence, but It would seem likely he knew about Jimmie Dale, since he was still appearing in adventures in Kane’s teen years.
In any case, the books faded from the popular culture mindset in the 30s. The comic books preferred to create new characters and as time went by, Jimmie Dale and the Grey Seal were forgotten. The stories are still first-class adventures, though, and work seeking out.
* Zorro showed up five years later.