Imagine this: It’s the summer of 1989. You are sitting in a theater. An ice-cold beverage is in the drink holder. An inhumanly large bucket of popcorn is balanced on your left knee, and box of your candy of choice is balanced on your right.
On the screen, two thugs are on a rooftop counting a wad of cash they have just stolen from a bunch of tourists. In the background, a creature with a cape like bat-wings alights on the roof top. Only, it isn’t a cape! They really are wings–large, ungainly wings. As the creature walks towards our unsuspecting criminals, more details of his costume becomes clear–the bright red tunic and tights, the greenish black boots and shorts that match the color of his wings. He quickly defeats the crooks and ends the fight by holding one of them over the ledge of a building. We finally get a look at the hero’s face. We see that it is Michael Keaton, his blue eyes glaring out from behind a domino mask, his dyed-blonde hair swaying gently in the breeze.
“W-who are you?” the fearful robber yelps.
Keaton snarls in return, “I’m Batman,”
That might not seem like the Batman you know, but that was the Batman Bob Kane first came up with when DC Comics asked him to come up with a superhero to follow in Superman’s success. Luckily, Kane decided to run it by a writer he hired the year before for his fledgling studio. This writer talked Kane out of the solid, unmovable wings and instead suggested a flowing, scalloped cape that would make it easier for the character to fight crime. The writer also suggest that bright red wasn’t a good color for a urban vigilante who works at night, and suggested a dark blue and grey color scheme. Instead of the domino mask, the writer suggested a cowl that covered the characters head.
That writer was Bill Finger and he would go on to write a good chunk of Batman stories for the next 20+ years. He would have a hand in creating most of the Batman mythos, including, but not limited to: Commissioner Gordon, Gotham City, Joker, Robin, Penguin, the Batcave, the Batmobile, Riddler, Catwoman, Two-Face, Scarecrow and Clayface.
But unless you were the savviest of savvy comic book fan, you might never know this. For decades, Bob Kane claimed to be the sole creative influence on Batman. Even though most of the work was done by Finger and other members of his studio.
Comic book companies are typically the villains when it comes to withholding credits from creators. But Bill Finger shows us a case where his fellow creator was the bad guy. And Finger was not his only victim.
If you are looking for excuses as to why Bob Kane would not give credit to his co-creators, you can find a lot during the Golden Age of Comics. Today, you can pick up a comic book off of the shelf and see a list of all the people who created it, from the writer to the colorist, from the penciller to the assistant editor. Back in the Golden Age, almost no creator was credited. As a matter of fact, for a number of companies, the stories were done by outside studios where writers and artist created the content that the publishers bought. Bob Kane started out in one of them–the Eisner Iger Studio.
But these excuses didn’t really apply with Kane and Batman. From his very first contract with DC, he demanded sole credit for creating the character in exchange for handing over the rights. Finger was left out in the cold. There would be no credit sent to Finger nor any of Kane’s other ghost artists on the book, DC was contractually bound not to credit them even if they wanted to.
And yes, I did say ghost artists. Most comic’s historians say that Kane only fully provided the artwork for the first year of the book. From then on he provided pencil breakdowns for his finisher, Jerry Robinson to do, with George Roussos doing the backgrounds. Robinson had staked a claim to being instrumental in the creation of the Joker–a claim Kane often snidely dismissed. In 1943, when the Batman comic strip came out, Kane went over to do that and left the comic book to other ghost artists such as Fred Ray, Jack Burnley, Dick Sprang and Win Mortimer. Bob kept the full credit for drawing the comic even though all he really did is touch up Batman and Robin so it looked more like his art.
The use of assistants and ghost artists was not all that uncommon. Joe Shuster relied on them to help them out with his Superman stories as his eyesight started to fail. Others would hire kids and art students to help in the tedious jobs of drawing–filling black spaces on the page, drawing backgrounds, etc. But few artists went to the extent or the extreme that Bob Kane did.
Bob Kane’s use of ghost writers and artists was a poorly kept secret inside the comic book industry, but it wasn’t until the 1960s when the fan community started to become more organized through the start of conventions and fanzines. It was through this quasi-underground way that fans became savvy to who did what on Batman. Bob Kane could have used this dawning of knowledge to clear the air and finally give credit where credit was due. He didn’t. Instead, he aggressively pushed back against the fact that he had any help creating Batman.
Kane famously replied to the fanzine Batmania in September 14, 1965 after they started spreading the word of Bill Finger’s work on Batman through opinion pieces and reports from Finger’s convention appearances. He vehemently stated that he and he alone created Batman. The long letter is at once threatening (“I challenge Bill to repeat those statements in front of me.,” “I ought to sue you for misrepresentation and distortion of the truth about your “Finger Article” that blatantly intimates that Bill Finger was the true creator behind Batman, and not Bob Kane”), indignant (“I am sick and tired of opinionated people, like yourself, who throughout the years have written distorted and untrue stories about how Batman was created and by whom, receiving their information from unreliable sources, when it would have been much easier to get the true story simply by contacting me, the one and only creator of Batman”), and demeaning (he calls Finger a “typist”). It is also hilarious as he uses, more than once, the fact that Bill Finger does not have a byline on the comic book–a byline Kane did not allow him to have–as proof that Finger had nothing to do with creating the character.
The fact that such a big and important creator such as Kane would take the time to chastise the writers of a mimeographed fanzine might seem odd to some of you reading this. That is, until you realized what came on television shortly after that letter. The Batman TV series made its debut on January of 1966, so Bob Kane’s letter was an extreme case of damage control. That fanzine article might have been the spark that fanned a flame of a controversy that Kane neither wanted or needed. With the TV show, he was set to get more credit, praise and money–three things he did not want to share with any one. The last thing he needed was Time finding out about that article and chasing down Bill Finger and write about his contributions to the character.
This is ironic considering the only time Kane addressed Finger’s contributions in a positive way came after one of the most successful adaptations of Batman into another medium. After Tim Burton’s Batman broke so many records in the summer of 1989, Kane wrote his autobiography, Batman & Me with Tom Andrae. In it, he comes as close as he ever would to naming Bill Finger as Batman’s co-creator:
“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 … 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.'”
This is the text book definition of “too little, too late.” As Kane mentions, Finger had been dead for over 15 years at the time. Kane making this half-hearted confession does Finger no good. And there was nothing to stop Kane from asking DC Comics to list Finger as his co-creator from 1989 on. Yes, it would have been too late, but it would have been a great gesture. But Kane never did insist upon that from then until he died in 1998.
It took until 2015 for Bill Finger to get his just due for co-creating Batman, thanks to the efforts of writer Marc Tyler Nobleman and his book, Bill, the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. Nobleman would go on to find Bill’s last living descendant, his granddaughter Athena, and he would help her petition DC Comics to get Finger the credit he deserved.
Finger’s profile as Batman co-creator was also raise by the 2017 Hulu documentary Batman & Bill and the yearly Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing, which is given out to writers who have not received the proper recognition for their work.
NEXT TIME: We’ll talk about how the Superman film help Siegel and Shuster get the credit and the money they deserved.