5 Ways Batman's TRUE Creator Got Screwed Out Of His Legacy
Here's a helpful note for every creative person reading this: If you make something that changes the world, there's a chance you won't actually get credit for it. That's just how it goes -- everybody knows the name Walt Disney, but nobody remembers Ub Iwerks (all he did was design Mickey Mouse).
So if you've ever read a Batman comic, or seen a Batman movie, or played a Batman video game, or EXPERIENCED ANY BATMAN STORY IN ANY MEDIUM, you've seen one name over and over again: Bob Kane. But while doing research for his book Bill The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator Of Batman, Marc Tyler Nobleman found out that the behind-the-scenes origin story of Batman is even more crushingly sad than previously believed. According to Marc ...
Bob Kane, The Official Creator Of Batman, Didn't Create Jack Squat
In 1938, Bob Kane was a young comic book artist trying to come up with a new superhero that could rival the extremely popular Superman. He got as far as sketching a bat-themed crime-fighter before clocking out for the day to drink heavily and ignore Hitler (the two most popular American pastimes of the 1930s).
"Both go great with a nice asbestos cigarette."
Kane decided to enlist the help of a friend, a freelance writer named Bill Finger, to help develop the paper-thin idea he had. This translated to getting someone else to do the bulk of the work for him.
"Bob's original vision included no story of any kind," Marc explains. "He drew the first sketches, which Bill then completely overhauled, including pointing to 'bat' in the dictionary and suggesting Batman's cowl resemble [an actual bat]." Finger also wrote Batman's "murdered parents" origin story, as well as the first stories to feature Robin, Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler, The Scarecrow, Commissioner Gordon, Gotham City, the batmobile, Batman's secret identity, and the nickname "The Dark Knight." Essentially, Bill Finger gave life to Batman in every sense of the word other than magically transporting himself into one of the comics and impregnating Martha Wayne. To reiterate, he did all of that work based on one Bob Kane illustration, which looked like this:
The best thing you can say about that design is, "At least there's no nipples."
That drawing is pretty much all Bob Kane contributed to the creation of Batman, and Bill Finger reworked it because it was so clearly, painfully stupid.
"I give Bob credit for initiating the creation of the character," Marc says. "That's it. In those days, there was no platform from which Bob could reach people regularly (they didn't do store events or TV appearances). Batman became popular because of the stories." And Bill Finger wrote all of the stories. However, the reason why so many people still haven't heard about Finger is ...
Bob Kane Was Almost Cartoonishly Evil
According to Marc, "Bob Kane did not write a single Batman story in his life." And that's fine, considering that Kane was initially meant only to provide the art ... but he also barely did that. For the first few issues, he produced much of his output by copying and/or outright tracing stuff from other publications.
"In my defense, screwing Bill Finger over takes up a lot of my day."
However, when even tracing started to feel too much like work, Kane simply hired ghost-artists. It got to the point where Bob Kane was the sole person credited on every Batman story, despite often not writing or drawing a single panel. So why does every Bat comic still include the credit "Created by Bob Kane"? In the 1940s, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman, were trying to get the rights to the character back from DC, and hoped to recruit Kane for a joint suit against the company. Faster than you can say, "Holy dick move, Batman," Kane allegedly ratted them out to DC, giving the company plenty of time to mount a legal defense, and scoring Kane a lot of points with DC.
He cashed in those points to negotiate a better deal for himself, and his new contract included a provision that Kane would always and forever be credited as the sole creator of Batman. There was presumably also a clause that stipulated he was legally allowed to shit on Bill Finger's head whenever the mood struck him.
He even dressed like a supervillain.
Impossibly, things actually managed to get worse for Finger, as Marc found in his research. In 1965, after learning that Finger had finally begun telling people that he'd created most of Batman, Kane flipped out. "Bob wrote a six-page letter for the fanzine Batmania in which he essentially called Bill a liar with 'hallucinations of grandeur,'" Marc says. Kane's argument? Finger couldn't possibly have been the creator of Batman because he wasn't officially credited as such, which is sort of like stealing someone's watch and then insisting that it never belonged to them because it is currently on your wrist.
Bill Finger Died In Poverty
Bill Finger died in 1974, shortly before his 60th birthday, alone and poor, with no obituary, no funeral, and no gravestone to mark his passing.
DC had stopped giving Finger assignments in the second half of the 1960s because Finger made the mistake of asking for health benefits like some sort of Communist. Though Finger had begun to write for DC again shortly before his death, it wasn't Batman but rather mystery stories. "He was receiving no royalties and living alone in New York," Marc says. "There was even a rumor that he was buried in a potter's field; I was relieved to find out that was not true. Still, his death got no mention in the mainstream media."
You know it's bad when "not buried like a hobo" is seen as a momentous victory.
So yeah, let that sink in -- the man most responsible for Batman, one of the most popular and well-loved brands in pop culture history, died with so little left to his name that the notion he might be buried in an unmarked pauper's grave was completely believable. In fact, there was so little left of Bill Finger when Marc started doing his research that, prior to 2006, there were only two photos of Bill in regular circulation. There are more photographs of Bigfoot.
Yes, there was that one time when writers got their own trading cards.
Though some digging did turn up more, if still scant, evidence that the man existed and was not, say, a fake person Kane invented in order to get two paychecks. "In contacting hundreds of people, many of whom were never in the comics business and had never been interviewed about Bill before, I found more than a dozen 'new' photos of Bill. With help from others, I also found two audio recordings of Bill's voice." Oh, and he also discovered that Bill Finger's real name was actually Milton.
But all of this just drives home the fact that ...
Bill Finger Revolutionized Comics, Yet Even Some Batman Fans Have Never Heard Of Him
When news of Spider-Man joining the Marvel cinematic universe came out, the first thought on everyone's minds was, "FINALLY!" The second one was probably: "Crap, I'll have to watch a third Uncle Ben die." Believe it or not, you can kind of blame Bill Finger for that. It might surprise you to learn that superheroes didn't always have tragic, believable motives like the death of a cherished loved one for wanting to fight crime. That all changed with the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
That's one small murder for crime, one lifetime of painful face-punches for crime-kind.
Before Batman, good guys in comics were mostly cliched, red-blooded Americans trying to stop gangsters, mad scientists, or the literal Devil from committing felonies. There was no other motivation beyond the compulsion to do good while wearing a fabulous costume. "[Bill] gave the first psychological reason for a masked vigilante to fight crime," according to Marc, via Men Of Tomorrow author Gerard Jones. "He created what many would consider the first superhero with a believable motive. And he wrote cinematic scripts that not only readers but also artists loved."
Of course, now all superheroes (and even most villains) are driven by some sort of personal trauma, but it all started because Finger wanted to treat comics seriously ... despite also having introduced the world to Robin, or, "Ugh, not this fucking shit again," as he is known to fans.
"In suggesting a partner for Batman, Bill Finger inadvertently created the young superhero sidekick," Marc points out. Despite how you may feel about sidekicks, the introduction of Robin led to some great Batman stories and TV shows. If that weren't enough, Bill Finger also helped create the original Green Lantern while also contributing to such titles as Superman, Superboy, Wonder Woman, and The Flash. To put it simply: If you are a fan of comic books, then you are a fan of Bill Finger ... even if this is the first time you've seen his name. That is a terrible shame, but ...
Things Are Finally Changing
Last May, at WonderCon Anaheim, after an audience member asked why Bob Kane still received all the credit for Batman's creation, a DC Comics representative claimed that the company was "good with Finger and his family." Finger's granddaughter, Athena, then released a statement (the first time she or any member of Finger's family has spoken publicly about his contribution to the creation of Batman) announcing her intention to do everything in her power to see that he finally gets the official recognition he deserves.
This seems like steps in the right direction. Two months after Athena published her statement, DC released the first-ever Batman comic with Finger's name on the cover. Even if he didn't get top billing:
After which DC presumably tried to awkwardly fist-bump Athena Finger.
So things are definitely getting better for Bill Finger, 40 years after his death. Better late than never, we suppose, and at least we can say his legacy doesn't include the most obnoxious gravestone of all time:
Marc Tyler Nobleman is the author of Bill The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator Of Batman, which was covered by NPR's All Things Considered, The Today Show online, New York Times, USA Today, Forbes, and MTV, and which led to an invitation for him to give a TED talk. It is the first-ever biography of Bill Finger, and it largely inspired a Spanish-language biography and two stage plays. Marc blogs about adventures in superhero research at Noblemania. Follow him on Twitter.
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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