Thursday, July 21, 2005

Bill Finger and Batman

John at Trawlerman's Song put up this post linking to an NPR interview with the late Bob Kane, the officially credited creator of Batman and, alluding to the title of the recent Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale movie, advised listening to it to hear how Batman really began.

I'm glad he did and thank him for it. It's an interesting listen. Unfortunately for NPR listeners, though, it's not so much how Batman was really created as how Bob Kane really wanted everyone to think Batman was created.

It's a testament to Kane's ego and selfishness that he made it through that ten-minute interview without once mentioning the name of writer Bill Finger. That's only a small example, though, of Kane's lifelong pattern of behavior since the moment Batman first appeared in 1939, with a few weak exceptions briefly in the time around when he was on NPR, though he returned to form for the interview itself .

For 66 years and counting, every appearance of Batman has carried the words "Batman created by Bob Kane." It certainly should read "Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger," but never will, thanks to the "iron-clad guarantee" in the contract that Wizard magazine says was produced by the lawyers employed by Kane's "well-to-do New York family with enough money...to nail down Kane's interest in the character." [For the excellent and informative Wizard article, see this page and scroll down.]

That description of Kane's family's affluence conflicts with Kane's repeated description of himself in the NPR interview as "a poor kid from the Bronx." Who to believe? Well, Kane in that interview also says at the time he submitted Batman to DC (then National) Comics, he was 18. He was born, according to some conflicting accounts, on October 24 of either 1915 or 1916. If he wasn't born until 1916 and was 18 at the time of meeting he describes with editor Vincent Sullivan, that meeting couldn't have been later than 1935. But Kane tells interviewer Terry Gross that "the period when I spoke to Vincent Sullivan was 1939. It was about a year later [than the creation of Superman]." So Kane's account is at best unreliable.

Of course, the point ultimately isn't Kane's age or economic background but how Batman was created and by whom. Numerous sources describe Bill Finger as having played a crucial role. See, for instance, the Wikipedia article (apparently drawing on the Gerard Jones book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, & the Birth of the Comic Book, which I just ordered used from Amazon for $2 plus shipping), this Philadelphia Daily News article, and the books and articles from which excerpts appear here, including the Wizard article mentioned above. Consider also these press releases announcing and awarding the Bill Finger Excellence in Writing Award.

Bob Kane's own 1989 autobiography, Batman & Me, recognized this, but that was in contrast to his usual behavior. In 1965, in response to a subsequent fanzine article resulting from Finger's participation in a panel discussion at a comics convention, Kane sent an angry letter to the fanzine Batmania, in which he insisted he was the sole creator of Batman, accused Finger of delusions of grandeur, and pretty much called Finger a glorified typist.

24 years later, and 15 after Finger's death, Kane in his book gave Finger credit for several of the key contributions in defining Batman's costume, characteristics, and identity. Without Bill Finger's contributions right from the beginning, the character of Batman would have been something entirely different, probably wouldn't have lasted a couple of years, and certainly wouldn't today be a major character, let alone anything like DC's second highest-profile character and an American icon. Yet because it was Bob Kane whom editor Vincent Sullivan commissioned and Finger who was subcontracted by Kane, Kane maintained even in the 1989 book that Finger "came into the strip after I had created Bat-Man."

Consider: in Kane's original conception, Bat-Man would wear--along with black trunks and black mask-- a union suit costume of not gray but red . He would wear no gloves. He would have no cape as such but instead big fake bat-wings attached to the back of his arms. There would be no cowl, no hood with bat-ears, but instead just a little mask like Robin ended up wearing, through which Kane's hero's eyeballs would be visible, unlike the blank slits for eyes in the Batman costume we came to know. All the changes away from Kane's original conception toward what the world came to know came from Bill Finger--those with the mask, at least, before the character was ever published.

What kind of personality or tactics this superhero might have had is unclear. Kane said, "I made Batman a superhero-vigilante....Bill turned him into a scientific detective."

Kane's dishonesty is strikingly illustrated in that NPR interview when he speaks of the origin of the name Bruce Wayne, as if he came up with it: "Well, it's an alliteration of Bob Kane. Bruce Wayne. Alliteration." Yeah, "Bob" and "Bruce" each begin with the letter B. But do you think maybe another concept he was grasping for was "rhyming"? Never mind, though. He goes on, developing the theme of his naming his hero Bruce Wayne: "I wanted it to sound...I wanted to be Bruce Wayne in my revelry and in my daydreams. Instead of a poor kid, I imagined I'd like to be a rich playboy and fight crime at night because I hate all injustices in the world." The last bit makes me a little ill, but we'll return to his hating all injustices in the world in minute.

Look, did, in fact, Bob Kane name Bruce Wayne? He did not. In Batman & Me, Kane writes, "The alliteration of the names - Bruce Wayne - Bob Kane - was probably one reason Bill came up with the name." Got that? "Bill came up with the name." [Emphasis added, obviously.] And it turns out Kane is just speculating on the alliteration (rhyming?) idea: "probably one reason." What ego!

Now that we've got the acknowledgment from Kane that Finger came up with the name for Batman's alter ego, let's look at how Finger himself described the idea's genesis, according to TheBatSquad.net's quotation from Jim Steranko's History of the Comics, vol. 1. "Bruce Wayne's first name came from Robert Bruce, the Scottish patriot. Wayne, being a playboy, was a man of gentry. I searched for a name that would suggest colonialism. I tried Adams, Hancock...then I thought of Mad Anthony Wayne." Doesn't mention Kane's name in there. So NPR's Terry Gross asks Kane about the name Bruce Wayne, and he a. neglects again to mention Bill Finger's name and b. gives her a load of BS.

(It now seems pretty much undisputed that Finger himself came up with the Penguin, Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, the Batmobile, the Batcave, the Batplane, the Batsignal, and the phrases "Dynamic Duo" and "Gotham City." Those are all in addition to his role in creating the actual Batman character.)

Perhaps the most disgustingly hypocritical comment from Bob Kane in his latter days comes from Tales of the Dark Knight by Mark Cotta Vaz. "I regret that I did not give Bill a byline, which he richly deserved, but somehow the policy in those days was to give credit only to the original creator and not to the writers who came in after the fact." Setting aside the question of what precisely Kane could be said to have created without Bill Finger, Kane had a contract guaranteeing him exclusive and perpetual credit. "Somehow the policy was..."? What chutzpah! Kane profited handsomely from Batman and died in 1998. Bill Finger struggled his whole life and died in 1974. Throughout Finger's lifetime, Bob "I-hate-all-injustices-in-the-world" Kane denied him credit, adopting his phony posture of a generous spirit only after Finger was long dead and no threat to his own role as Batman's sole creator.

How did Batman begin? Bob Kane had an opportunity and a starting point. Bill Finger had the creative wherewithal to make from that a character that captured people's imagination.

6 Comments:

Blogger trawlerman said...

Steve,

At the risk of making this an all-out love-fest, I'll be leaving yet another comment of reciprocal thanks.
Thanks for the kind words, but, more importantly, thanks for the history lesson. I was very ignorant of all of this, even though I vaguely knew the name Bill Finger and that he had something to do with early Batman stories. I feel kind of dirty having linked to Kane's interview now, even though I'm very glad that it became the impetus of this very informative post.
Thanks for all the time that you obviously put into this post. I, at least, am more knowledgeable now.

-john.

2:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to let you know there is another piece to the Batman saga. Where did the original Boy Wonder Originate from? Let me introduce myself , My name is Sharon Kahn and There was someone else that was never rocognized in this story. The Boy Wonder,AKA My Dad, Melvin Kahn deceased since 2001. Bob Drew of his likness and also took him on signings as The Boy Wonder. It always bothered me that Bob never took the time for his family. But now since they are both gone I thought someone would like to no

10:34 PM  
Blogger JPW said...

Came here via Peter Lynn's blog - great article. I was dimly aware of Finger but certainly have always laboured under the impression that Batman was the sole and total brianchild of Kane. Thanks for the edification.

2:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is all fantastic stuff and both a history lesson and a warning to creative individuals. On occassion my family gets emails from people asking if we are related to Bill Finger. Although we have the Finger name we know of no
relation to Bill. It is a shame Bill missed out on his due credit these many years the true fans will know the
truth in time.

Steven Finger
Maspeth, NY

6:11 PM  
Anonymous Zuracech Lordum said...

"I am vengeance, I am the night, I am Batman!". Sadly, Finger's name has disappeared into the dark depths of history and any amount of vengeance cannot change things. Still, history should be corrected.

Without Finger, Batman would have been nothing.

Wait, correction: Without Finger he would have been "Birdman" (see the wikipedia article). Nothing more needs to be said.

2:01 PM  
Blogger Steve Ely said...

Teresa Nielsen Hayden is an editor at Tor Books, the proprietor of the popular blog Making Light, and the author of a comment on that blog that included a stinging rebuke to someone who said of one novel's title, "It's sooooo bad it makes me ill."

"No, it doesn't," she said, "You're just pretending. And while we're on the subject? That's a junior high school trope. If that's the best you can come up with in the way of gratuitous insults, I can't imagine that you're a very good writer."

Ouch. Somehow I remembered expressing here my [figurative, I suppose] disgust with Bob Kane's pretensions to justice-loving with a similar phrasing at the end of the paragraph above discussing Kane's claim that the naming of Bruce Wayne was due to alliteration with his own name.

Me: "The last bit makes me a little ill, but we'll return to his hating all injustices in the world in minute." ["...in minute"? Who proofreads this crap, anyway?]

Accomplished editor, to another guilty of same phrasing: "No, it doesn't....That's a junior high school trope. If that's the best you can come up with....I can't imagine that you're a very good writer."

What can I say? Guilty as charged. No idea what I was thinking, and no excuse. It's just sickening. So to speak.

12:40 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home