Exactly how much of The Bat-man came from Bob Kane and how much came from Bill Finger remains in doubt and, fascinatingly, remains a point of contention among historians, biographers, and, especially, comic fans. In his 1989 memoir, Batman and Me, Kane presents himself in the narrative as the main creator, but after describing the creation, he added:

Bill Finger was a contributing force to Batman right from the beginning. He wrote most of the great stories and was influential in setting the style and genre other writers would emulate. We called him the “Cecil B. De Mille of the comics.” He would write a script by getting a photograph of a giant prop or something he could make into a giant prop — the Statue of Liberty, a giant typewriter or sewing machine — and that would generate the idea for a story. He would then build the story around that prop. He felt that it looked grandiose to have tiny figures fighting on those giant props. He was a good mystery writer because of his interest in the pulps. I made Batman a superhero-vigilante when I first created him. Bill turned him into a scientific detective.[1]

Despite the praise for his former contributor, Kane also noted that Finger was almost always tardy and late with assignments, often “dead tired, with excuses.”[2] Kane believed him to be, ultimately, a depressed and pathetic character, bitter that he had not made a greater name for himself. In the form of an apology for not having given more credit to Finger during the man’s life time, Kane wrote:

Now that my long-time friend and collaborator is gone, I must admit that Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved. He was an unsung hero. Because he came into the strip after I had created Batman, he did not get a by-line. Only later, in the seventies, after he was no longer writing the strip and some of his stories were reprinted, did he receive credit. I never thought of giving him a by-line and he never asked for one. I often tell my wife, if I could go back fifteen years, before he died, I would like to say, “I’ll put your name on it now. You deserve it.” Today they put everybody’s name on a strip, even the letterers, color artists, and inkers. But in the early days, only the originators put their names on strips, regardless of whether they had ghost-writers or ghost-artists doing their features. Superman, for example, carried both Siegel and Shuster’s names because they had collaborated in creating him.[3]

When Kane and Finger met for the last time in 1974, Kane thought he looked terrible, reflecting, he feared, “a great talent wasted.”[4]

Still keeping the narrative that he, Kane, had created the Bat-man, his 1989 reflections contradict much of what he had said publicly over the previous half century. In the November-December 1946 issue of Real Fact Comics—a sort of inhouse advertisement for DC to be distributed publicly—the author, presumably Kane himself, told “The True Story of Batman and Robin,” claiming that he had been the sole creator of Batman, Robin, and the Joker. The comic ends with Batman and Robin, standing small but proud on the artist’s desk, stating, “And, thank you, Bob Kane, for bringing us to life!”[5] This black and white creation narrative began to break down in the middle 1960s. For the first time in print, DC Comics recognized Finger’s role in its own publications in early 1964. “Invigorated by our ‘new look’ policy, Bob Kane—Batman’s originator—has fashioned an extraordinary art job for “Gotham Gang Line-Up,” inspired by the swell script of Bill Finger, who has written most of the classic Batman adventures of the past two decades.”[6] Though it still named Kane as the originator, DC had never before acknowledged Finger’s role openly. In truth, though, this “New Look” was a part of DC’s strategy to get Kane out of the way, now viewing him far more as a hindrance than a help. By 1968, Carmen Infantino remembered, “Kane was finished. But in the old contract, he had the right to do so many pages. The contract said he got paid for so many pages, and that was my way of getting rid of him eventually, by the way.” To remove him, DC had to pay a steep price. “DC paid him a lot of money to go away, and I got better artists to draw Batman once Kane was no longer under contract.” As Infantino viewed it, Kane never drew anything, anyway. When he was asked to draw something, he always had an excuse to delay a day or two, presumably hiring out the art. But, pretending that he did the art himself cost valuable time for all involved. If anything, Kane became nothing but a joke at the DC offices, and no one respected him or his original contributions. When Kane balked, the editor Julie Schwartz replied with cruel finality: “You know we’re saving your ass.”[7]

A year later, a fan publication, Batmania, came out fighting for Finger. Provocatively entitled, “If the Truth Be Known: A Finger in Every Plot,” Jerry Bails’s article claimed:

Bill is the man who first put words in the mouth of the Guardian of Gotham. He worked from the very beginning with Bob Kane in shaping and reshaping Comicdom’s first truly mortal costumed character. The cowl and the dialogue that give rise to the final form of Batman’s famous costume. The action poses of the early Batman that Bob executed so well were very often suggested by ‘swipes’ supplied by writer Bill Finger. The most famous ‘swipe’ of all, taken from The Man Who Laughed gave rise to the infamous archvillain, the Joker. Bill also created all the other principals and supporting characters of the early strip: Robin, of course, but also Commissioner Gordon (who appeared in the first Batman story), Alfred, the Penguin, and the Catwoman.[8]

In the unlikely case that the reader might miss the point, Bails ended the piece by throwing down the gauntlet. “When fans clamor for a return to the Days of Old when Batman was a mystery man who battled the underworld in action-packed, human-interest yarns, they are clamoring—if the truth be known—for a return of the Batman as created by Bill Finger!”[9]

Bob Kane responded immediately. “The Truth: All hogwash!,” he wrote. “I, Bob Kane, am the sole creator of ‘Batman.’ I created ‘Batman’ in 1939, and it appeared, if memory serves me correctly, in Detective Comics as a six or eight page story, and I signed the first strip, Robert Kane.”[10] If Bill Finger has said different, Kane continued, he should “repeat those statements in front of me,” as they are “fraudulent and entirely untrue.” Further, he claimed, he conceived every aspect of Batman: “the title, masthead, the format and concept, as well as the Batman figure and costume. Robin the boy wonder was my idea… not Bill’s.”[11] Finger, he conceded, might have created some very secondary characters, but nothing essential to the overall mythos. Still furious, Kane bellowed that he ought to sue the author, Jerry Bails. “Your article is completely misleading, loaded with untruths fed to you by Finger’s hallucinations of grandeur.”[12]

The controversy refused to die after 1965, however, and many continued to ask who had created what. Finger passed away in 1974, and several in the comic business did defend Kane. Bizarrely, DC ran a comic two years after Finger’s death mocking him. Entitled “Through the Wringer,” the story, written by David V. Reed, portrayed the life of Bill Finger (named Phil Binger) as a manipulative conman and ne’er-do-well slacker. A self promotor—always claiming to be a ‘first-string writer’—the only thing he “wrote” well were the lies and excuses for his failures. The story even suggested that Finger’s death might merely be an excuse for his many failures.[13] It ends with the devil playing a fiddle:

So Phil’s final story was really a zinger,
And one assuredly destined to linger,
But if, as was said, he wasn’t actually dead,
That was certainly Binger’s dead ringer.[14]

While few agreed with Kane’s dealings with Finger, several respected industry notables, such as Batman illustrator, Carmen Infantino, have leveled accusations against Finger as well. “Bill was really a con man in his own way. He always needed money desperately,” and in addition to begging money off of others, he complained frequently about his ex wife and his son.[15]

Since the controversy first emerged in 1964, however, most scholars and writers have acknowledged Batman as co-created by Kane and Finger. The comic book historian and artist, Jim Steranko, stated blatantly in 1970 that Batman was “the offspring of Bob Kane and Bill Finger.” Steranko made no mention of the controversy, however, and plainly stated that Finger was the co-creator.[16] In his memoirs, long-time DC comics editor, Julius Schwartz, remembered that Kane was infamous for farming out his work to others but always claiming the work as his own. Once, when Schwartz had demanded that Kane redraw some better action poses of Batman, the art came back but was clearly not done by Kane. By agreement, DC had to pay Kane for the work, but Schwartz decided to question him on the matter. After some discussion, Kane finally admitted that he had hired someone else to rework the art because of his own “lack… of… talent.”[17] Even Thomas Andrae who co-authored Kane’s autobiography, wrote that “it was Finger who made Batman a great detective writing what are perhaps the most finely plotted stories in the superhero genre.”[18]

Kane died in 1998, but DC did not finally credit Finger with any official creation of Batman until 2016, four decades after the death of Finger and nearly two after the death of Kane. DC now lists Batman as created by “Bob Kane with Bill Finger.”[19] In September 2015, DC Comics released this statement to The Hollywood Reporter:

“DC Entertainment and the family of Bill Finger are pleased to announce that they have reached an agreement that recognizes Mr. Finger’s significant contributions to the Batman family of characters. “Bill Finger was instrumental in developing many of the key creative elements that enrich the Batman universe, and we look forward to building on our acknowledgement of his significant role in DC Comics’ history,” stated Diane Nelson, President of DC Entertainment. “As part of our acknowledgement of those contributions,” Nelson continued, “we are pleased to confirm today that Bill Finger will be receiving credit in the Warner Bros. television series Gotham beginning later this season, and in the forthcoming motion picture Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.[20]

Even prior to this, DC Comics had been giving Finger more exposure and credit. In the re-issue of the first Batman comic, Detective Comics 27, for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the character, DC gave Finger secondary credit on the cover.[21] As of November 2015, DC began writing “Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger” on all Batman and Batman-related comics as well.[22]

While there is no excuse for Kane having lied in his 1965 open letter or for having fudged the truth in his 1989 autobiography, there is some defense of his using his name exclusively when dealing with Batman in publications. Sadly, such a muddled state of recognizing who created who and what was a central feature of the earliest comic superheroes. In a world of pseudonyms, artistic entrepreneurship, and personal studios, one person might well serve as the public name for three or four others. And, one person might even write under a variety of names, thus keeping interest in his work intense rather than overwhelming. Writers trying to make a career in New York City were legion because of the intense competition in the pulps as well as in the slicks (magazines), while good artists were relatively rare. New York, of course, housed innumerable fine artists and an equally uncountable number of commercial artists, but comics demanded artists who not only understood the limits and physics of the human (and extra-human) form, but who could produce a huge quantity of art with relatively acceptable and consistent quality. The same was even more true of editors, who more often than not served as vital figures in the creation and maintenance of publications. During the 1930s, strong editors made, thwarted, and broke writing careers. When Superman appeared, pulp editors were in a strong position, writers in a weak one, and artists in a new and precarious one.[23] While in a relatively good position to capitalize on the new super-hero comics market, pulp publishers, editors, and writers still had to create and then navigate the new market, one that demanded consistency.

There is no evidence, for example, that Kane treated his own employees—his “ghost artists,” as he sometimes referred to them—poorly.[24] “I worked for Bob Kane as a ghost from ’53 to ’67,” Sheldon Moldoff remembered. “DC didn’t know that I was involved; that was the handshape agreement I had with Bob.”[25] As Moldoff recalled, Kane said to him: “You do the work and don’t say anything, Shelly, and you’ve got steady work.”[26] To be sure, Moldoff remained faithful to Kane and their agreement, thankful to have so much work, noting that the money meant more than the credit at the time.[27] Admittedly, he noted, Kane was never a great artist, though he “did impart a flavor and a feeling.”[28] In the end, though, Kane betrayed him, firing him in 1967 after failing to live up to several promises to Moldoff regarding possible television projects. When Kane and Moldoff parted ways in 1967, Kane not only never contacted Moldoff again, but he left him out of his memoirs entirely. Kane had even once assured Moldoff that he was his “best friend.”[29]

During the rise of the pulps, it was quite common for authors to write and publish under a common pseudonym or real name. Whether it was the Hardy Boys under Franklin W. Dixon, or The Shadow under Maxwell Grant, many artists and writers served, essentially, as “shops.”[30] To this day, for example, though Tom Clancy has died, his name appears as the primary author on all novels dealing with his fictional universe, though Mark Greaney has inherited primary responsibility for Jack Ryan and his fictional life and times. It would also not be too much of a stretch to compare the situation to soda pop, commonly referred to generically across the American Middle West as “Coke,” or photocopying machines referred to as “Xerox machines.” When asked about the relationship of Bob Kane to those he hired, Vin Sullivan responded, tellingly, “I don’t recall. Since that time, a lot of the fellas had their own writers, you might say, or writers would get with the artists.” Further, he claimed, whatever he might have said to Kane to encourage him to create Batman, he was only concerned, ultimately, with the quality of the final product. “If the finished product was assembled by two or three people, it didn’t matter to me as long as it was a good-looking page.”[31] For better or worse, this was simply the convention of the time.

Yet, whatever excuses one might make for Kane’s behavior and business decisions, he ended his career in comics with a nasty reputation, as noted above. Those who knew him, for the most part, believed him a talentless hack, a conman, whose only real skill was manipulation. By the mid 1960s, DC was more than ready to push him out, even paying him a million dollars to exit quietly.[32]

Editor’s Note: This essay is the third in a series about Batman.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Batman and Me, 43.

[2] Batman and Me, 43.

[3] Batman and Me, 44.

[4] Batman and Me, 44.

[5] “The True Story of Batman & Robin,” Real Fact Comics (DC Comics), November-December 1946, reprinted at Bill Jourdain, “Real Fact or Fiction?,” January 3, 2009; and in Arlen Schumer, “Real Facts and True Lies: The True Story Behind ‘The True Story of Batman and Robin,” Alter Ego 2 (Spring 1998), 122-124.

[6] “Batman’s Hot-Line,” Detective Comics #327 (May 1964).

[7] Jim Amash, Carmine Infantino: Penciler, Publisher, Provocateur (Raleigh, North Carolina: Twomorrows, 2010), 86.

[8] Jerry G. Bails, “If the Truth Be Known: A Finger in Every Plot,” Batmania (September 1965), 39-40.

[9] Bails, “If the Truth Be Known,” 40.

[10] Bob Kane, “An Open Letter to All Batmanians Everywhere,” September 14, 1965, reprinted in Comic Book Artist (Winter 1999).

[11] Kane, “An Open Letter.”

[12] Kane, “An Open Letter.”

[13] David V. Reed, “Through the Wringer,” Amazing World of DC Comics (January 1976). By any measure, this story was simply cruel.

[14] Reed, “Through the Wringer.”

[15] Infantino quoted in Jim Amash, Carmine Infantino: Penciler, Publisher, Provocateur (Raleigh, NC: Twomorrows, 2010), 104.

[16] Jim Steranko, The Steranko History of Comics (Reading, PA: Supergraphics, 1970), 44.

[17] Julius Schwartz with Brian M. Thomsen, A Man of Two Worlds: My Life in Science Fiction and Comics (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 119. Schwartz’s autobiography is not only insightful, but, at times, gut-wrenchingly funny. It is the necessary complement to Frank Gruber’s memoir of his time writing pulp fiction, The Pulp Jungle, cited in some detail below. One must also read the equally insightful but less gushing, Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC (New York: DeCapo Press, 2017) by Reed Tucker.

[18] Thomas Andrae, “Origins of the Dark Knight: A Conversation with Batman Artists Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson,” in Robert M. Overstreet, The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, 1989-1990 (New York: House of Collectables, 1989), A-73.

[19] See, especially, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Warner Brothers Films, 2016).

[20] DC Statement released to The Hollywood Reporter, September 18, 2015, “DC Entertainment To Give Classic Batman Writer Credit in ‘Gotham’ and ‘Batman v Superman’.”

[21] Batman Detective Comics 27, Special Edition (DC Comics, 2014).

[22] The first Detective Comics issue to state “Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger” was Detective Comics 46 (Volume 2), issued November 4, 2015; and Batman 46 (Volume 2), issued November 11, 2015.

[23] Gerard Jones writes tellingly and expertly on the confusion around and surrounding artists, writers, editors, owners, publishers, and creators in his beautifully rendered Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic (2004).

[24] An interview with Bob Kane, “Origins of the Dark Knight,” A78.

[25] Interview with Sheldon Moldoff by Shel Dorf, “May I Was Just Loyal,” Alter Ego 3 (June 2006), 16.

[26] Sheldon Moldoff quoting Bob Kane in “May I Was Just Loyal,” Alter Ego 3 (June 2006), 16.

[27] Sheldon Moldoff interview with Roy Thomas, “A Moon… A Bat… A Hawk,” Alter Ego 3 (Spring 2000), 5-6.

[28] Moldoff, “May I Was Just Loyal,” Alter Ego 3 (June 2006), 16.

[29] Sheldon Moldoff by Shel Dorf, “May I Was Just Loyal,” Alter Ego 3 (June 2006), 19-20.

[30] On the “shop” system, see interview with Will Eisner, “The Shop System,” The Comics Journal (December 2002-June 2003), 64-69.

[31] “Vin Sullivan: Present at the Creation,” Alter-Ego 27 (August 2003): 23.

[32] See, for example, Jim Amash, Carmine Infantino: Penciler, Publisher, Provocateur (Raleigh, NC: Twomorrows, 2010), 87, 103.

Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail from a photo of Robert Kane holding an illustration of Batman and Robin.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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