The Power of Babel
When the Detective Chimp made his first appearance in the pages of Adventures of Rex the Wonder Dog #4, the character was, unsurprisingly, not to be taken particularly seriously. The year was 1952, placing the character’s debut a full four years before Barry Allen’s first appearance and the official start of the Silver Age of Comics. A super-intelligent chimpanzee sporting a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat, Detective Chimp was used extremely casually for many years, often as a diversion or for a fun team up with a more well known character, but buried beneath the silly exterior there was a kernel of mythological significance that would surface eventually, over 50 years later.
The details of Detective Chimp’s origin have changed or been retconned on occasion through the years, but the general arc has remained largely in tact. Originally a regular chimpanzee named Bobo – a human-given name, as his true chimp-name is both unknown and largely unpronounceable – he was taken from the jungle by a man named Fred Thorpe, who would incorporate him into a travelling carnival act. In the act, Bobo would “deduce” facts about volunteers via signals given to him by Thorpe. While touring to Florida, the act crossed the path of Rex the Wonder Dog, who freed Bobo and led him to the Fountain of Youth which, in addition to granting its eponymous eternal youth, also gave Bobo genius-level intellect and the ability to speak to any animal (including humans) in their native language.
Moving on from the carnival act, Detective Chimp began working professionally as a private investigator, teaming up with police as well as various superheroes. He was a member of the Bureau of Amplified Animals, as well as the Croatoan Society, a detective team which included, among others, Terri Thirteen and the Elongated Man. He would later become a founding member and the tactician of the Shadowpact, a group of lesser-known magical heroes who faced an out of control Spectre during the Day of Vengeance.
But despite his relative success as a detective, the Chimp’s professional agency went under, as he was unable to legally enforce the payment of his bills due to his status as a non-human. This was a primary factor that led to one of Detective Chimp’s most well-known character traits: alcoholism. Dismayed by his failed business and his own intellectual superiority, Detective Chimp withdrew from the world, seeking consolation in binge drinking. It is heavily implied that he effectively took up residence in the Oblivion Bar – an establishment run and used by magic-users which exists in a pocket dimension. It was from his usual seat in this bar that he would eventually cross paths with Ragman and Enchantress and form the Shadowpact.
Up until the formation of that team, however, Detective Chimp’s career both as an investigator and as a fictional character is less than spectacular. A curiosity, certainly, but he does not seem to carry much mythological significance. But in order to appreciate his role within the DC Universe, we must first take a detour through a totally different, though tangentially related mythology: the Bible.
Told within the Book of Genesis is the story of the Tower of Babel, the biblical etiology which describes the fracturing of human culture and language. In the story, which takes place after the Great Flood, the people of Earth were united by a single language, a single culture, and a single geographical location. Able to work together, they attempted to build a massive tower to house all of humanity. God, seeing that united “nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them” splits humanity into many different languages so that they cannot communicate with each other, and subsequently stop building the tower, spreading out across the world. In effect, what the tale of the Tower of Babel suggests is the age old cliché that divided we fall; of course, within the context of the Bible, this is meant to be seen as a good thing, for reasons that escape me.
In terms of how this particular story relates to the mythology of the Detective Chimp, the connection isn’t necessarily self-evident, but it is in there nonetheless. Beginning with the most obvious: one of the Detective Chimp’s defining supersimian abilities is his complete knowledge and mastery of language. He can communicate fluently with any living being not via telepathy or empathy as some others do (ie. Aquaman and Raven, respectively) but by speaking in their native language. Taking into account the fact that the evidence seems to suggest that the ultimate deity of the DC Universe – the being known as the Presence, whose agents the Spectre, Phantom Stranger, and Zauriel all have ties to Heaven and divine power – appears, for all intents and purposes to be the Judeo-Christian God, then it follows that biblical mythology is part of the world, and therefore the Detective Chimp’s linguistic power is a direct mythological contravention of God’s intervention at the Tower of Babel.
So what does that mean?
If the moral of the Tower of Babel is, to put it crudely, that there is strength in unity (be it cultural strength, moral strength, logistical strength, etc.) and that the confusion and alienation of linguistic barriers keeps that unity – and therefore that strength – at bay, then surely a creature with the ability to transcend those barriers represents that potential unified strength. In 2005, over 50 years after the Detective Chimp’s comic book debut, he finally realized his mythological potential during the Day of Vengeance miniseries leading into Infinite Crisis. With an untethered Spectre wreaking havoc on the world of magic, Detective Chimp is finally stirred from his alcoholic slumber and puts together a rag-tag team of magical heroes who, despite being woefully outmatched, must stop the divine Spirit of Vengeance and save the magical world. And most importantly, they do.
This challenge is almost literally an allegorical rematch of the Tower of Babel. The Spectre, as the Spirit of Vengeance, wields the nearly insurmountable power of God; an instrument of divine vengeance that acts on behalf of the Presence. Detective Chimp, on the other hand, embodies the unified strength of the human race in the tale of Babel, who, by God’s own admission, can accomplish anything if they share a collective understanding and goal. The Chimp embodies this symbolism through his linguistic powers, but he demonstrates it through his leadership of the Shadowpact. They are heroes who, on their own, are at best second-tier players, but together with a unified resolve they manage not only to fight the Spectre to a stalemate, they defeat Eclipso, the ultimate architect of the crisis.
Ultimately, the mythology of the Detective Chimp is about overcoming obstacles. More specifically, it is about overcoming those obstacles cooperatively. The Chimp’s leadership role in the Shadowpact was a product of others helping to guide and focus him, and the result was the team overcoming the Spectre and Eclipso, and Detective Chimp overcoming his “failure” as a crimefighter. And following the events of the Day of Vengeance, the Shadowpact remained together, and it was their influence that gave Detective Chimp the strength to fight his addiction to alcohol. It took a long time for the narrative of the DC Universe to uncover this mythological resonance, but the seeds of it were there from the start. In the most unlikely of circumstances, the intertextual convergence of biblical mythology and the mythos of the DC Universe makes the Detective Chimp a fascinatingly powerful corner of the mythology – one that was more than worth the long wait.