Dodano: 22 May 2013
The author of the article is Konrad Dębowski – a longtime comic book fan, editor of evil-manga.com and student of Cultural Studies at the AGH UST in Cracow, Poland.
Every day dozens of Jewish immigrants’ children would enter the immense edifice of DeWitt Clinton High School to obtain education in this prestigious institution. Among its graduates are Nobel laureates, famous actors and politicians. But for such comic book fans as ourselves Will Eisner, Stanley Lieber, Robert Kahn, Bill Finger, Julius Schwartz or Mort Weisinger are much more interesting. Because they are responsible for shaping American superhero comics. When discussing Batman, we should concentrate on two of them in particular.
Robert Kahn, son of an engraver and printer Herman, was born in 1915. From a very early age he showed interest and skill in arts. He would draw with chalk on pavements and walls, with a pencil in notebooks and textbooks. Like many beginner artists, he would also copy comic strips from newspapers. He was no different from most kids of his time and was fascinated by emerging popular culture: pulp fiction and movies. Robert’s imagination was particularly influenced by the story of Zorro and the film starring Douglas Fairbanks based on this tale – to such an extent that when he founded his “gang”, it was called “Zorros”.Unfortunately all this fun cost Bob a broken arm and a shattered drawing hand, which never fully recovered. In high school he was very handsome, and he did not hesitate to take advantage of it. Will Eisner admits that at first he befriended Kane just to hang out with pretty girls. After graduation they went their separate ways, and met again some time later, while trying to sell their comic strips to Jerry Iger’s magazine. None of them was successful at first. Comics boom was to come several years later. At the age of eighteen Kahn officially changed his name to Bob Kane, convinced that less Jewish-sounding name will help to advance his career. Because fame and career was what he was really after. Disheartened, he started to look for manual jobs. After a short stint at a weaving workshop and six months out of work he has found employment in Max Fleischer Studios, where his painstaking job was to copy frames of animated films. He was still trying to sell his comics, but despite being a decent artist, he could not write good scripts. As will Eisner put it delicately, “Bob was not an intellectual type”. He was also difficult to work with. Due to his hunger for fame and desire to see his name in print, he did not enjoy working with a mass of “nameless” artists, who produced comic books at the time.
Bill Finger was a couple of years olden than Kane. He was an eloquent, well-read, but unfulfilled artist, with a tendency to get depressed and drown his sorrows in alcohol. He wanted to write science-fiction novels, short stories and even pulp fiction, but he married early and at the age of 24 he already had a son and an obligation to provide for his family. He could not afford to risk such an unreliable profession as his friends. He started selling shoes, which paid a modest, but regular salary. One night, at a boozy party, he met Bob Kane, who was introducing himself as an acclaimed artist in need of a collaborator for writing comic book scripts. Bill saw this as an opportunity. Their arrangement was very unfair towards Finger. He was to help coming up with ideas and writing, while Kane would draw and contact the publisher. What is more, it was Kane’s name that would appear on the cover. Of course, Bill would receive a check for the agreed sum every week. It may seem unfair, but such an agreement was not unheard of at the time. Thanks to the collaboration with Finger, new job offers appeared. The duo published their comics in several magazines. The were often adaptations and pastiches of more popular characters and titles. Rusty and his Pals, an adventure story resembling Terry and the Pirates, was published by Vin Sullivan from National Periodical Publications. In 1938 they also published the first issue of Action Comics with a story about Superman. After the incredible success of the superhero, Sullivan started a search for a flagship character for Detective Comics magazine. During a friendly get-together Bob Kane promised to have a new superhero ready for Monday. The game was really worth the candle, because despite raging economic crisis Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were earning 800 dollars a week each, which was almost twenty times more than low-ranking artists like Kane or Finger.
The new superhero
There are several accounts of how Batman really came to be, and they vary greatly. Bill Finger talked about this only towards the end of his life, and Bob Kane in interviews and his autobiography gave several contradictory versions. I would like to present the most probable course of events of that fateful weekend.
Bob Kane, inspired by Superman, winged aliens form Flash Gordon (Hawkmen) and his childhood idol – Zorro, created Bird-man. He was blond and wore blue “underpants” over a red costume (reversed version of Superman’s costume), had mechanical wings (inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci’s designs) and a mask covering his eyes. Kane has drawn his in a dynamic pose, swinging on a line. The composition of the drawing was a copy of one of Flash Gordon‘s frames by Alex Raymond. Bill Finger was not happy with the concept. He thought it was too close to Superman, wings looked more like a bat than a bird, and bright colours were not suitable for the profile of Detective Comics. The wings, however, gave him another idea. Having looked up an illustration of a bat in Webster dictionary, he decided to make his “ears” longer, give him a sort of a hood instead of the mask – to make him look more sinister and mysterious. He replaced wings with a cape shaped like bat’s wings at the bottom and added gloves, so that the character would not leave fingerprints. He also suggested that the entire costume was dark (black with grey) to allow the hero to blend in with the background at night. On Monday morning Bob Kane handed redone sketches to the editor and thus The Bat-Man was born.
Bob Kane and his secret collaborators
The first problems appeared when it was time to negotiate the contract. Although Kane was “not an intellectual type”, he did have some knowledge about how to do business and a father in publishing industry. He knew how much popular artists earned and that publishers are money-grubbing bloodsuckers. This is why despite transferring copyrights to the publishers, he made sure the contract guaranteed that every comic book featuring Batman will be signed with Bob Kane’s name only. After signing the contract he met with Finger and told him about the successful conclusion, not mentioning, however, long-term conditions. Finger, happy with the result, started to work on new scripts in return for his share of the rate per page. We may wonder why did Bill agree to this, when he was much more than just a silent assistant. We might suppose that it was partly due to his personality. He had a weak, gentle nature and rather low self-esteem. His lack of protest could be explained also by the fact that it was a standard practice in the business at the time: many accomplished creators of newspaper comic strips had their studios, where strips were created by a collective, but only one name was signed underneath the finished product. To this day, this his how comics are created in Japan. Of course, the greatest dream of an assistant artist was to break through and get their own strip in a newspaper. Siegel and Shuster also employed help to do Superman, but I cannot recall any instance where the ghost writer was in fact the co-creator of the character. Because Bill Finger was not only responsible for the final concept for Batman’s design and detective stories for the character. He also created his backstory and many elements of the Batman mythology used to this day. Batman’s alter ego, billionaire and playboy Bruce Wayne – Finger’s idea. Catwoman, Commissioner Gordon, Robin – Finger’s ideas. The murder of Mr and Mrs Wayne which made Bruce a vigilante – yet another Finger’s idea. Although for years Bob Kane has been trying to establish more or less probable version of the events, confirming that he alone was the creator of the character, there can be no doubt that early Batman stories were written entirely by Bill Finger. The list of ideas, plots and characters he came up with would be endless. The Joker is even more problematic, since three people claim to have created him. There are three, because Bob Kane started to employ other artists as well, to help him deal with the workload caused by the increasing demand for the Dark Knight’s adventures. He started by choosing George Roussos, Shedon Moldoff and Jerry Robinson. The latter has illustrated the first story featuring the Joker and he claims to be his creator. Kane’s work on Batman at the time started to be limited to editing. Bill Finger had many excellent ideas, but he worked very slowly and had difficulties with keeping deadlines. Some researchers indicate it could be on of the reasons why he had agreed to live in Kane’s shadow. According to his collaborators, Finger was always very meticulous and despite being very good at writing, he never found it easy, which only lowered his already fragile self-esteem and make him vulnerable to exploitation. The team of creators behind Batman was gradually joined by new writers, including – among others – Gardner Fox, a would-be lawyer, who gave the hero his utility belt so useful in fighting crime. It can be therefore concluded with some certainty, that Bob Kane did not create even one Batman story completely on his own.
Despite his efforts to keep the situation a secret, the industry soon knew than Kane does not work on Batman alone. Perhaps the publisher has learned at some point of Finger’s input in the creative process. But even if he did, the fact was concealed. Why pay high rates to two creators, when you can pay only one of them? Pure profit. Unlike Siegel and Shuster, whose studio was open and where all the creators of various Superman stories met, Bob Kane – like his hero – was much more secretive and mysterious. After the first couple issues, he would meet each of his collaborators separately, giving them materials and making sure they would not know about one another. He probably did this to prevent them from pushing up their rates. He became even more guarded, when publishers started to hire “his” artists and writers to create other comics as well as other Batman stories, without having to pay Kane. There were comics, with which Kane had absolutely nothing to do, apart from his name on the cover. The demand was much greater than the number of pages he guaranteed to produce in his contract. Soon more talented and assertive collaborators started to leave and work in their own name. Kane did not make the same mistake twice. From that moment on he was hiring people who were less talented and easier to control. He became so good at hiding them, that some still remain unknown.
Ruthless business owners
In the late ’40s Kane was to face a much more serious challenge. Siegel and Shuster’s ten-year contract was ending. They had realised that the publisher makes a fortune out of their character and how much money passes them by. They were preparing to sue National Comics to reclaim copyrights. Unaware of the provisions of Bob Kane’s contract they suggester that he joined them – as the creators of two flagship characters they had considerable leverage. According to the comic book historian Gerard Jones, Bob Kane paid Jack Liebovitz (head of the publishing house) a visit and told about these plans. Unperturbed, Liebovitz replied that he had legally binding contracts signed by all the parties, so there is nothing any court would be able to do. Then Batman’s creator claimed his contract is actually void, because he had been under-age when he had signed it. In truth, he was probably 22 or 23 at the time, but the children of Jewish immigrants were often “missing” their birth certificates, to avoid potential problems when hiring a teenager. The same thing happened to Robert Kahn, whose parents would gladly corroborate his story in court. This persuaded Liebovitz to renegotiate the contract. Bob Kane has reclaimed copyrights to Batman, secured the number of pages bought by the publisher at a price high for the time, as well as a share in profits from selling rights (e.g. for adaptations). The only condition was to keep the deal a secret. Considering his previous doings, that was not a problem. And after loosing the legal battle, Siegel and Shuster were fired by the publisher.
Kane’s lavish lifestyle
Bob Kane’s involvement in creating the comic book was decreasing. The lion share of the work was done by his former collaborator, Sheldon Maldoff, who also helped with other projects, usually signed only with Kane’s name. He agreed to such a deal, because it guaranteed regular pay. Years later he would say that it would have been nice to see his own name underneath his own work. Unfortunately, Bob was not the one to share the limelight. Thanks to the incredible popularity of the TV series starring Adam West, demand for Batman comic books spiked. Kane has renegotiated his contract again to secure even bigger share of the profits. That is when he completely withdrew from the production of the comic and abandoned his collaborators. At the same time, he became a sort of a celebrity. After all, the character he created has become a nation-wide sensation. In Billion Dollar Batman Bruce Scivally writes that Kane lived like Bruce Wayne – a millionaire with a dark secret. When DC Comics (formerly National Comics) changed the owner in 1976, Bob Kane once again made a small fortune on selling rights, negotiated his share in future adaptations and a seven-figure sum for a signature on his contract. In the ’70s he moved to Las Vegas and tried to get into TV production. Later he started to sell paintings of Batman he did at home, and he gave profits to charity. People with nasty tongues would say that he did not even paint those himself.
In 1989 he consulted on the set of Tim Burton’s Batman. The same year he published an autobiography written together with Tom Andrae. He died content with himself and his life in Los Angeles in 1998. He had been happy, although several times he had to protect his good name from the rumours of other people’s involvement in the creation of Batman, which erupted from time to time. For instance, in 1965, in a fanzine Batmania Bill Finger talked about his participation in the process. In response, Kane attacked Finger violently, saying that he is the only one responsible for the creation of the Batman character. He also claimed that he still drew about 90% of comics and that stories from the Golden Age he had drawn entirely on his own. As I have mentioned before, Kane often gave confusing explanations. Even in his autobiography he included several contradictory statements – sometimes he admits Finger’s contribution, sometimes he does not. Kane reached ultimate duplicity and cynicism in presenting himself as the sole creator of Batman when he fabricated a Hawk-man/Bat-man drawing which he allegedly had done at the age of 13, inspired by silent movies like The Bat and The Bat Whispers. As Goebbels used to say, repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth, and in this case the saying proved to be right for many years.
Finger’s sad lot
After leaving Kane’s “studio”, Bill Finger wrote scripts for various comic books. He was paid by the linage and hardly ever credited. With Mart Dellon (real name Martin Nodell) he created Green Lantern, for which he was given full credit for a change. He tried his luck in writing scripts for TV and films. Nobody knows why he declined an offer to consult on the TV series about Batman. It is a real pity, since many visual elements which determine the overall style of the show were close to his vision. Finger only co-wrote two of the episodes. Years of alcohol abuse and his age influenced the quality and punctuality of his work. When in 1968 alongside other elderly veterans working for DC Comics he tried to fight for their right to healthcare and other social benefits, they simply stopped sending commissions his way. His style of writing was outdated and DC had plenty of potential successors. He was never heard of after that. Bill Finger died in 1974, lonely, poor and forgotten. His name appeared officially for the first time in connection with the issue of Batman’s authorship only in the ’60s. In the letters column of a Batman issue, the editor Julius Schwartz mentions him as the creator of the Riddler. Unfortunately, as long as Bill Finger lived, he was not credited in any of the published Batman comic books. Due to the provisions of Kane’s contract, Finger’s name did not appear in feature films, animations, or any other works from the franchise. He was given proper credit as the co- creator of the character only in reprinted collections of the old stories from the ’70s. Only after Bill Finger’s death did Bob Kane mention him and then sometimes admit his participation in creating one of the icons of popular culture.
Nothing new on the Western Front
Whether it was remorse or a cynical attempt to whitewash his reputation, we will never know. And it does not really matter, because with deliberate actions Bob Kane managed to ruin his colleague’s life. On he was not the only culprit. He was followed closely by the comic book industry, merciless for artist without a strong sense of business, regardless of their contribution to the establishment of the company and future profits. On the other hand, Harry Donnenfeld’s (the first owner’s) buddies from his gangster past, who did time after confessing to his crimes, had been guaranteed lifelong jobs in DC Comics. Sadly, after almost 70 years not much has changed. Most artists live off salary per page and royalties. Many have no health insurance or social benefits. Once in a while we hear that an artist popular 20 or 30 years ago lies alone in a hospital somewhere, or lives in poverty. Lawsuits with heirs of Siegel, Shuster and Jack Kirby drag on to this day. Contracts signed with Alan Moore for Watchmen and V for Vendetta in the ’80s were supposed to introduce a change for the better. Unfortunately, greed prevailed once again and due to a staggering amount of ill will on the part of the publisher, Moore stopped writing superhero comics altogether and for years has been a vocal critic of DC Comics and corporations in general. In the ’90s inadequate salaries and reluctance to allow artists to retain copyrights prompted leading Marvel creators to establish Image Comics. Nowadays more and more popular artists leave to pursue their own projects, or work in film and TV. It is an immense loss for the superhero genre, and the entire medium, when the best ones leave. The artistic dimension becomes less relevant in the face of real-life dramas caused by the greed of corporate management and the lack of solidarity on the part of such people as Bob Kane. They are the ones responsible for destroying lives and careers of many comic book creators. And Bill Finger was among those, who had lost the most – he did not live to see his greatness acknowledged and recognised.
- Jones, Gerard. Men of Tomorrow: Geeks Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book. New York: Basic Books, 2004
- Scivally, Bruce. Billion Dollar Batman. Henry Gray Publishing, 2011.
- Morrison, Grant. Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human. New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2012
- Baker, Bill. Alan Moore. Wywiady. Miligram & Viral, 2010
- Andelman, Bob Will Eisner – A Spirited Life, M Press 2005