Grumpy Old Fan | The man who made the Darknight Detective
All the recent talk of creator credits has reminded me of Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Throughout the character’s history, Kane has been listed officially as Batman’s sole creator, even though many comics fans, historians, and professionals recognize Finger’s indelible contributions. Kane’s singular credit comes from his own negotiations for the sale of Batman to what is now DC Comics, and it continues to this day. In fact, the most recent trailer for The Dark Knight Rises — which as usual flashes “Batman created by Bob Kane,” or something like it, in the brief glimpse of credits — reminded me that Kane had help.
Indeed, the circumstances of Batman’s creation, sale, and subsequent treatment may even comprise one of superhero comics’ great ironies. Batman is a tremendously elastic character, able to accommodate an incredible range of interpretations. Perhaps none of that would have been possible if Kane hadn’t sold the character … but he wouldn’t be the Batman we know today if Kane hadn’t listened to Bill Finger.
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From what I have read, Bob Kane came up with the basic idea. His “Bat-Man” wore a red union suit, boots, bat-wings, no gloves, and a simple domino mask. According to (among other sources, I’m sure) Les Daniels’ 1999 book Batman: The Complete History, Kane was inspired collectively by Zorro, Leonardo da Vinci’s bat-winged drawings, and the eponymous villain from The Bat Whispers.
At this point Kane had designed a hero with a black mask like Zorro’s, stiff black wings like Leonardo’s ornithopter, and red tights reminiscent of Superman’s. …Finger reached for a dictionary, found a picture of a bat, and called attention to its ears. Kane’s simple mask was transformed into a black cowl with the distinctive points that were echoed in the wings and (eventually) in the design of the gloves that Finger suggested.
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“I didn’t like [Kane’s] wings,” Finger said, “so I suggested he make a cape and scallop out the edges so it would flow out behind him when he ran and would look like bat wings.” Finger also objected to the way the eyes behind the mask appeared and urged Kane to turn them into simple white spots. “It looked more like a bat at night when the eyes glow,” conceded Kane. [...] Finger [perhaps inspired by The Phantom’s purple-gray tights] suggested that Batman’s costume be changed from red to gray. The cowl and cloak remained black, but since comics conventions demand that black objects be highlighted in blue, Batman’s uniform in effect became blue and gray.
This was the figure of Batman that was presented for editor Vin Sullivan’s approval, which it promptly received.
Batman: The Complete History, pp. 21, 23. Citing Kane’s autobiography, Finger’s Wikipedia entry asserts that Finger came up with the name “Bruce Wayne,” and further quotes Kane: “I made Batman a superhero-vigilante [but] Bill turned him into a scientific detective.”
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What gets me about this whole situation is that, at first glance, it looks like a creator’s-rights success story. Bob Kane created Batman, negotiated his own permanent credit, and apparently did well enough for himself thereafter. As far as I know, Kane was happy, and clearly DC has been happy (to say the least) to have Batman in its corporate stable. Bob Kane lets DC say “see, here is how it is supposed to be done” — except that, once you see what Finger contributed, I believe it gets a lot harder to argue that Kane should get sole credit.
But again, I don’t think it’s as simple as an official amendment to Batman’s created-by credit. For one thing, it might go against the terms of Kane’s original contract. For another, if this 1965 letter is any indication, Kane’s estate might not be too thrilled about sharing credit. Furthermore, while the core dispute might be between Kane’s estate and Finger’s heirs, DC certainly isn’t eager to reopen its records on seventy-plus years of Batman profits.
And before this descends into “how dare these bloodsuckers extort my beloved publisher,” it may not get to that point. I am far from an intellectual-property specialist, but to me a hypothetical Finger v. Kane battle hinges on the difference between Batman’s profitability with Finger’s suggestions and his profitability without them. We know that the Finger-ized Batman has, for the most part, become a license to print money (with oodles more surely on the way), but we don’t know how much difference Bill Finger made.
Let’s say Kane rejected Finger’s changes and “Batman” (or, more likely, “The Bat-Man,” as Detective #27 called him) faded away sometime in the 1940s. Let’s say further that he was brought back as part of the great Silver Age series of “revitalizations,” given a new Carmine Infantino-designed costume, and installed in the Justice League of America. Would we remember Bob Kane’s original as fondly?
I tend to think not, and (in another bit of irony) it goes back to Finger’s other lasting co-creation, Green Lantern. Artist Martin Nodell designed Alan Scott, with Finger writing the first stories, and both were listed on the feature’s byline. However, when Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps came along in the Silver Age, the original GL took a back seat.
Of course, this is all wildly speculative. What if Kane’s “unadulterated” Bat-Man were brought back as part of a Justice League/Justice Society team-up? What if the Bat-Man had become so obscure it took a 1980s Roy Thomas story to revive him? (He could have fought Two-Face, since Daniels’ book [p. 45] states that the villain was entirely Kane’s creation.) What if he were Green Arrow, bland as mayonnaise in the ‘50s and ‘60s before being “modernized” with extreme prejudice? (I know, superficially this happened, but I’m talking about the red-suited version.)
What if — and this is the biggest one of all — Kane had rejected Finger entirely, thus jeopardizing the creations of the Joker, the Batmobile, Robin, and for all we know the entire concept of the superhero’s kid sidekick? Can we trace a core element of DC’s legacy-hero structure all the way back to Bill Finger?
Maybe. I don’t know. Honestly — and this is not an express plug, I swear — I’m really looking forward to the upcoming Finger biography, Bill The Boy Wonder, for some insight.
My point is, corporately-owned superhero comics rest on a delicate balance of exploitation, homage, and creativity, and perhaps none more so than Batman. Since the dawn of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams in ’Tec #395’s immortal — pun intended — “Secret of the Waiting Graves,” writers, artists, and editors have leapt at the chance to enter that twilight world. In his introduction to Batman In The Seventies, O’Neil said, “I’d like to think that [he and Adams] were doing the stories Bill Finger and Bob Kane would have done if they had had forerunners to learn from as we learned from them.”
That last part may sound a little odd, but it goes once again to that delicate balance. The side of corporately-owned superhero comics we like to see — the one that helps mitigate the “exploitation” end — depends on the goodwill generated by that vision of a great chain of professionals, working in vast collaboration on characters who have transcended their origins and become undying pop-culture archetypes. That system has produced everything from Bane to Bat-Mite (in whose creation Finger was also apparently involved), and it doesn’t require any corporate patronage, but arguably it runs a lot easier with a deep-pocketed publisher.
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How, then, do we reconcile our affection for Batman with the less-than-ideal circumstances of his creation? Is it as simple as shrugging that although Finger got the shaft, it’s far too late for meaningful reparations? Is it enough to put a mental asterisk next to every “Batman created by Bob Kane” we see? Is it enough to spread the word far and wide, so that fans from now ‘til doomsday know what Finger (and Jerry Robinson and Gardner Fox, while we’re at it) brought to Batman?
I’m not sure it is. I believe that Batman as we know him today exists only through Bill Finger’s involvement, and I think Finger deserves to be recognized officially as his co-creator. I don’t think it’s sufficient to assert that the creation of Batman ended with Bob Kane’s original sketches, especially since that wasn’t the version which National/DC ended up buying.
Along those lines, there’s a fascinating discussion waiting to happen about the meaning of “created by.” The origins of Batman give it particularly fertile ground. If nothing else, I’ll be pondering it this summer, both when I read Bill The Boy Wonder and when I sit down for The Dark Knight Rises. I’ll be remembering Bill Finger in that theater, and I hope you will be too.