Though somewhat disputed as to just how much each person contributed to the creation of the character and backstory of The Batman, both Robert Kane (born Robert Kahn; 1915-1998), as credited in the first story, and Milton Bill Finger (1914-1974), not credited, invented the character. The two had actually teamed up during the several years before the creation of Batman, working on a variety of comics. On each, Kane had led the way as cartoonist and illustrator with Finger as ideas man and writer. Friends as well as business partners, Kane drew, while Finger wrote. “I suppose that I must have printers ink in my blood, for as far back as I can recall I had a pencil in my hand and am sure that I must be the champion doodler of all times,” Kane recalled. Kane loved pulp magazines and the movies, while Finger loved and knew just about everything that Kane did. Even more importantly, Finger also knew well the great literature and mythologies of Western civilization. He especially loved science fiction. Kane, however, possessed the entrepreneurial and marketing talents of the team.
When D.C. Comics expressed interested in a big-name superhero to counter the astoundingly popular Superman at Action Comics, Kane immediately designed Batman. At this point, the history of the moment is unclear as to what transpired over the period of just one weekend. Kane remembered that he was sharing a drink with Vincent Sullivan of DC Comics on a Friday afternoon in early 1939. When Kane pulled out some of his own drawings to show Sullivan, Sullivan encouraged Kane to start working on superheroes. “There’s a character called Superman by Siegel and Shuster, and they are making $800 a week apiece.” Kane, shocked by the amount of money being earned, exclaimed, “My god, if I could make that kind of money!” Kane promised a superhero to match Superman by the following Monday. Sitting at his drawing desk, he claimed to have had a Eureka! Moment. “Then, POW! It came to me in a flash — like the old cliché of an electric light bulb lighting up over a cartoon character’s head when he has a brainstorm.” Kane claimed to have at that moment remembered a drawing he had made in January 1934, at the age of thirteen, of a man flying Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter. Believing that daVinci had brilliantly captured the image of flight, the young Kane redrew the character, giving him rigid wings and changing his original title for the sketch, “bird-man,” to “bat-man.” Inspired by the film, The Mark of Zorro, Kane continued, he decided to make his Bat-man wear a mask, thus allowing him to live two lives. In one, he would fight crime. In the other, he would be an aristocratic playboy. As Kane explained:
The mask is intriguing and it makes a man much bolder. The world can’t see him but he sees everything. He has more courage, hiding behind the mask. Zorro always wore a mask, and the Scarlet Pimpernel too.
Further, he would make the symbol of the Bat something dark and mysterious, a signal representing justice, left at each crime scene. Kane claimed that this idea had come from another film of the era, The Bat Whispers, itself a remake of a silent film, The Bat. Not surprisingly, Kane believed that horror films as well as the pulp hero, The Shadow, had shaped The Bat-man as well. Third, Kane decided that since Superman was superhuman, his Bat-man would be utterly and supremely human. In his own recollections, Kane never explained if all of these ideas had percolated over six years, or if they spontaneously erupted in his head over that weekend in 1939.
Sometime over that weekend, Kane contacted his sometime writing partner, Bill Finger, to discuss the character. The two had attended DeWitt Clinton High School—interestingly enough, the home of many emerging comic book writers and artists—but Finger had become a shoe salesman after high school. His greatest ambition, however, was to ascend the ranks as a writer in the world of the pulps. Though bitterly keeping his main job as a salesman, he wrote for Kane on the side throughout 1938 and 1939. Kane remembered:
One day I called Bill and said, “I have a new character called the Bat-Man and I’ve made some crude, elementary sketches I’d like you to look at.” He came over and I showed him the drawings. At the time, I only had a small domino mask, like the one Robin later wore, on Batman’s face. Bill said, “Why not make him look more like a bat and put a hood on him, and take the eyeballs out and just put slits for eyes to make him look more mysterious?” At this point, the Bat-Man wore a red union suit; the wings, trunks, and mask were black. I thought that red and black would be a good combination. Bill said that the costume was too bright: “Color it dark gray to make it look more ominous.” The cape looked like two stiff bat wings attached to his arms. As Bill and I talked, we realized that these wings would get cumbersome when Bat-Man was in action, and changed them into a cape, scalloped to look like bat wings when he was fighting or swinging down on a rope. Also, he didn’t have any gloves on, and we added them so that he wouldn’t leave fingerprints.
Finger had a similar—but not identical—recollection of that weekend. Kane
had an idea for a character called Batman, and he’d like me to see the drawings. I went over to Kane’s, and he had drawn a character who looked very much like Superman with kind of… reddish tights, I believe, with boots… no gloves, no gauntlets… with a small domino mask, swinging on a rope… he had two stiff wings sticking out, looking like bat wings. And under it was a big sign… Batman.
After some discussion, Finger grabbed a dictionary, and the two looked up an image of a bat. The two, then, worked on Batman’s design, mixing the image of the bat from the dictionary with images of their own beloved pulp heroes, The Shadow, The Phantom, and Doc Savage. Even the original and now famous Detective Comics 27 cover with Batman swooping down on a criminal came directly—“swiped” in comic artist lingo—from panel 5 of a January 17, 1937, Sunday comic page of Flash Gordon. Finger, too, wrote the script for the first story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” mimicking a Shadow story.
My first script was a take-off on a Shadow story. But I didn’t want Batman to be a superman; I wanted Batman to be hurt. Everything he did was based on athletics, on using his astute wits and acute observation. 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.
Indeed, “mimicking” might be too tame, but “plagiarizing” might be too strong, however. To be sure, though, this first six-page Batman story carefully followed the same plot as “Partners in Peril,” a Shadow story that appeared in the November 1, 1936 pulp magazine of the same name. Interestingly, however, Theodore Tinsley, not William Gibson, wrote the story, though he did so under the name of Gibson. Regardless, Finger’s script followed Tinsley/Gibson/Grant’s almost exactly.
Editor’s Note: This essay is the second in a series about Batman.
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1 Kane, quoted in Jim Steranko, The Steranko History of Comics (Reading, PA: Supergraphics, 1970), 44.
2 The Steranko History of Comics, 44.
3 Bob Kane with Tom Andrae, Batman and Me (Forestville, CA: Eclipse Book, 1989), 35. See also, a 1994 interview with Vin Sullivan, “Vin Sullivan: Present at the Creation,” Alter-Ego 27 (August 2003): 23. At the time of the interview, Sullivan was 83. His memory is good, but clearly not perfect. Sullivan had been the first cover artist for Detective Comics, having drawn the cover for issue no. 1, with the pulp-inspired Asian evil mastermind, Francophobe, and cult leader, Fang Gow.
4 The 1934 picture is reproduced on page 34 of Batman and Me. Kane discussed this with Paul Sann in the 1960s. See Paul Sann, Fads, Follies, and Delusions (New York: Crown, 1967), 8.
5 Batman and Me, 36.
6 Batman and Me, 37.
7 Kane, quoted in Sann, Fads, Follies, and Delusions, 8.
8 Batman and Me, 38.
9 Batman and Me, 38.
10 Batman and Me, 41.
11 The Steranko History of Comics, 44. See also, Paul Levitz, The Golden Age of D.C. Comics, 1935-1956 (Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2015), 28ff.
12 The Steranko History of Comics, 44.
13 Arlen Schumer, “The Bat-man Cover Story: The Tale of Bob Kane’s Darknight Detective That Could Have Been,” Alter-Ego 2 (Summer 1999), 4-5.
14 Finger, quoted in The Steranko History of Comics, 45.
15 See “Partners in Peril.” The story, along with excellent commentaries by Anthony Tollin and Will Murray, has been reprinted in Walter B. Gibson and Theodore Tinsley writing as Maxwell Grant, “Lingo” and “Partners in Peril,” Two Classic Adventures of The Shadow (Encinitas, CA: Nostalgia Ventures, 2007). As Murray notes in his commentary, Gibson later wrote a Batman story, featured in the five-hundredth issue of Detective Comics. In it, “he wrote it so that with a few minor changes, Bruce Wayne could become Lamont Cranston and Batman transmuted into—The Shadow!” (71). Given their pulp backgrounds, the similarities of Wayne and Cranston should not be surprising. That Gibson wrote a Batman story, however, makes for a beautiful and rare historical symmetry.
Editor’s Note: The featured image is a photo of Robert Kane (left) and a photo of Bill Finger (right).