Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Bill Finger Blast from the Past

I occasionally get asked about a Bill Finger article I wrote back in (that long already?) 2002 when I was at Wizard magazine. As thems was the days of print and there's no easily accessible Web version, well…here you go. Enjoy.

Bill is often referred to as "Batman's uncredited co-creator," a label that I think fits. Since this article was published, Shelly Moldoff, Martin Nodell and Jerry Robinson have all left us. I'm glad we were able to get their comments on the record before they passed away.

Sub: The comics all say ‘Batman created by Bob Kane.’ So why do so many people think Batman’s uncredited father was Bill Finger?

By Jim McLauchlin

The one mystery the Dark Knight Detective can’t solve? The riddle of his own creation.

Crack open the cover to any Batman comic—Batman, Detective Comics, World’s Finest, whatever—and you’ll find one commonality: The phrase “Batman created by Bob Kane.”

But there are those who will tell you that this simple statement of seeming fact is every bit as fictional as Bat-tale it introduces. At the very least, they’ll tell you the statement is incomplete. Oh, they’ll admit, sometimes grudgingly, that Kane should be there. But they’ll also tell you that you wouldn’t be reading the book today—Hell, you probably even wouldn’t have heard of Batman—were it not for the contributions of another man.
Bill Finger.

Haven’t heard of him? You’re not alone. Bill Finger’s cautionary tale is not well known, but it’s every bit as compelling as that of Batman himself.

“We’re all attracted to tragedy, and he’s a tragic figure,” says current Detective Comics writer Ed Brubaker. “He did so much so well for so long! He was the most inventive guy on the book, worked on it for decades, and in the end, it got him nothing.”

Just what did Finger do? At the very least, he wrote Batman tales for over 20 years, introducing the character in Detective Comics #27, penning the first Robin story in Detective #38, and introducing the Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Bat-Mite, and the very Batcave itself. At the most, he may have insured that Batman existed at all.

DC Comics (then called National Periodical Publications) saw it had a hit on its hands when Superman debuted in 1938. The order came down to editors Whitney Ellsworth and Vin Sullivan: Bring us another long underwear-type. Bob Kane, a 22-year-old cartoonist doing some humor strips for the publisher at the time, drew up something called “The Batman.” Kane’s design was influenced by Superman, Zorro, a silent film called “The Bat,” and a Leonardo da Vinci design of a flying machine. Kane’s original Batman wore red tights with a Zorro-styled mask, and had two stiff-looking wings mounted to the back of the costume. The mish-mashed combination didn’t wow anyone, Kane included.

Kane wasn’t sure if his design would pass muster, so he decided to call an old high school classmate for a friendly chat and a second opinion, a man he knew to be a creative sort. He called Bill Finger.

The 25-year-old Finger came over to Kane’s apartment and agreed the design needed work. He set to that work immediately. Pulling a dictionary off Kane’s shelf, he opened to a picture of a bat. “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?’” Kane recounts in his 1989 autobiography, Batman & Me.

Batman’s domino mask changed into a full cowl. Finger also suggested making the color scheme darker. “Color it dark gray to make it look more ominous,” Kane recalls him saying. Finger also got rid of the wings, evolving them into Batman’s now-famous cape. In mere hours, the Batman we all know today was born of Finger’s tinkering with Kane’s awkward design. If Kane was indeed Batman’s father, Finger was at least the doctor who delivered the baby—and probably prevented a stillbirth.

DC loved Batman and immediately commissioned Kane to produce it. Kane, knowing Finger was up to the task and knowing Finger desperately wanted to be a writer, sub-contracted Finger to write Batman’s first story for Detective Comics #27. Kane also did something else: He got a contract.

Kane came from a well-to-do family with enough money to employ lawyers to nail down Kane’s interest in the character. Kane secured an ownership percentage in Batman, and an ironclad legal guarantee that for now and forever, all Batman tales would start with the tag “Batman created by Bob Kane.”

Finger came from a poor background, and in fact had been bedridden for months with a case of scarlet fever as a child. It was there in bed, with nowhere to go, that he fell in love with reading. He devoured books by the dozens, and it became his lifelong dream to one day become a writer himself. When Kane made his fateful call to Finger, Finger was barely scraping by with a low-paying job as a shoe salesman. Given the opportunity to write for a living, he leapt at the chance. For the first six Batman stories, Finger was Kane’s employee, nothing more. It wasn’t until the seventh script that Finger got paid via DC. They may not have even known he existed at the time.

Batman was booming and Kane, realizing where his financial interests lay, hired a stable of artists to produce more material. The work was very collaborative. One day, Kane mentioned to Finger that Batman needed a boy sidekick. Finger said that he’d dream one up, and went out for a sandwich. By the time he returned, Kane and inker Jerry Robinson had already nailed a name: Robin. Finger then wrote the first Robin tale.

Similarly, Finger “found” the Joker for Kane to draw. Accounts vary as to if Kane or Robinson came up with the notion of the psychotic villain, but it was definitely Finger who delivered the visual. “Bill came in with a photograph of Conrad Veidt, who played in a movie called ‘The Man Who Laughs,’” Kane relays in Batman & Me. “‘Here’s a picture of the Joker character,’ Bill exclaimed. ‘Copy it and I’ll write the first Joker story.’”

Kane, “a superb copyist” in his own words, copied; and Bill Finger wrote the Joker’s first two stories, in Batman #1 and #2. But every story, regardless of who wrote it, drew it, or came up with a new character, came out with the same byline: “By Bob Kane,” as per Kane’s contract.

“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,” Kane says in Batman & Me. “I never thought of giving [Finger] a byline, and he never asked for one.” Still, as the originator and a co-owner, Kane enjoyed healthy bonuses based on sales. Finger made his script rate of $12 a page, and still lived with his parents, helping his poor family make ends meet.

Finger wanted too desperately to be a writer, and would do anything to remain in his position, and rise above poverty. “He was so overwhelmed that he was getting steady jobs that he never thought of anything else,” says Sheldon Moldoff, an artist who ghosted for Kane for 16 years. “He just wanted to be a writer. Bill was so happy he was working, he didn’t think about royalties, rights, any of that. He was very grateful to Bob.”

Perhaps too grateful. Golden Age artist Martin Nodell once visited Kane’s apartment with Finger in tow. “We rang the bell, and Bob Kane came to the door,” Nodell recalls. “When Bill entered the room, it was if he was greeting the king. Bill was bowing down, his hands out, just to say hello. That, in essence, was the way it was. Bill felt as if he had to condescend before Kane.”

The love was not returned. “Bob Kane never was a nice guy,” Moldoff says flatly. “He had a tremendous ego. If I came up with an idea, he had no problem stealing it and claiming it as his own. Was Bob generous to Bill Finger? No. Was he nice with him? No. Bob wasn’t nice to anybody.”

Finger, on the other hand, was known for his kindness and generosity. Jerry Robinson was only 17 years old, consumed by school all day and drawing all night, when he started in the Kane studio. Finger took the youngster under his wing. “Bill was very much my cultural mentor,” Robinson remembers. “He exposed me to potential. He brought me to museums, to fine movies, that inspired us both.”

Finger’s love of learning, born of his bedridden childhood, never stopped. “I don’t think he had a college education of any kind, but he was very auto-didactic, always self-teaching,” said 15-year Batman Editor Denny O’Neil, who credits Finger with mentoring him when O’Neil began his career in 1965. “He made notes constantly. He was very observational.”

Finger was famous for taking his job seriously. He kept huge files of articles clipped from newspapers and Popular Science. Whenever Batman needed a way out of a tough situation, Finger could refer to his files and find one. The technical wonders of the Batcave, with its computers, submarine pens, and Giant Penny, sprang from the imagination and files of Finger. Other comic writers of the time surely knew his importance. A Golden Age Green Lantern villain with a huge book of tricks he pulled his crimes from was named “William Hand,” an obvious riff on Bill Finger’s name.

But Finger was more than just a book of tricks. “He was one of the guys who showed us how to do this work in this new medium,” O’Neil maintains. “Comics were really brand-new at the time—The umbilical cord hadn’t even been cut. And Bill really understood, almost instinctually, how to do it. He really had a handle on writing for comics. I’ve seen some of [Superman co-creator] Jerry Siegel’s original scripts, and it was these two guys, Siegel and Finger, who really first understood writing for comics. They taught the next generation.”

But that which made Finger great was also his downfall. Finger cared too much about his work, and refused to turn in a script until it was perfect. For a poor man who never made much money…this was a problem.

“Bill was the greatest comics writer of his time, and maybe since,” says Jerry Robinson. “But he was not a natural writer. Things didn’t flow from his pen. He really struggled every time.”

Finger once delivered a first page of a script stapled to a bunch of blank pages to an editor, hurriedly grabbing his check and bolting the office before his editor could see that the work wasn’t finished. Missing deadlines led to lack of income, which led to paralyzing fear, alcoholism, and more missed deadlines. By the mid-1950s, Kane had moved to California and was comfortably out of comics, with a massive studio producing work in his name. Finger still struggled, with both deadlines and money.

“The second Batman story he ever did for me [in the early ’60s], I made him sign a little note that went roughly as follows: ‘I, William Finger, will not ask for the check for this story until I’ve completed it,’” says longtime DC Editor Julius Schwartz. “He had a habit of always needing money, and before he’d finish a story, he’d ask for a check. And he was invariably late.”

By the mid-1960s, things were changing. New editors were coming in at DC, and Kane hadn’t been personally involved for years. Finger’s assignments dwindled away, and he fell off editors’ radar. Finger, once known as the best writer in comics, became almost an urban legend to new editors. He’d occasionally be seen haunting a bar, but no one would give him an assignment, fearing certain deadline problems. By 1965, Finger was out of comics. He resurfaced very briefly writing mystery stories at DC in the early ’70s, but at the time of his death in 1974, Bill Finger had lost the only thing that really mattered to him. He wasn’t a writer anymore.

All that’s left today of Finger is his place in history—a place that’s largely misplaced. His contributions are lost to the mists of time, and the fact that Bob Kane had the power of an ironclad contract on his side.

“It’s impossible to tell exactly who created what anymore,” says Denny O’Neil. “The truth is, it’s 60 years since, and nobody really kept notes then. But I’ve spent a lot of time looking at Batman history. It was my main professional concern for 15 years. And near as I have been able to learn, Bill’s contributions were considerable.”

Even Michael Uslan, the producer of the “Batman” movies and a close personal friend of Kane’s, agrees. “It was such a great creative effort by so many people over so many decades that really ‘created’ Batman,” Uslan says. “But you still have to look at Bill Finger as one of the two essentials. It’s Kane-and-Finger—and I say that in one breath—who were there at the beginning.”

Even Kane could give Finger his due. “I must admit that Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved. He was an unsung hero,” Kane wrote in Batman & Me, which he dedicated, among others, to Bill Finger. “I ran into Bill a year before he died in 1974. Bill was disheartened by the lack of major accomplishments in his career. He felt that he had not used his creative potential to its fullest and that success had passed him by.”

But crafting Batman is a major accomplishment, and more people are learning of the man behind Batman’s mask. Julius Schwartz has long been an advocate of getting Finger the credit he is due. O’Neil, too. “I certainly think he deserved more that what he got, both in terms of credit and in terms of money,” O’Neil says. “There was no way for me to get him money, because of the legalities involved. It may not be fair, but it is the law.”

Official credit may be out of the question. “Short of adding his name to the credits, which I don’t think can legally be done, I don’t think there’s anything DC can do,” says comic writer and historian Mark Waid. “The Bob Kane estate is protected. Bob Kane’s selfishness continues from beyond the grave.”

Kane grew rich off of Batman and lived a comfortable life until he passed away in 1998. Finger died an unfulfilled man, never enjoying the late-life accolades or money that did eventually come to Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

“Siegel and Shuster are looked at as these guys who really got screwed until later in life. Bill Finger is like them, except he never got un-screwed,” says Ed Brubaker.

And Finger has left something more behind than just Batman for other creators to follow. “It’s a different scene,” Brubaker says. “If you write Batman right now and create a new character, regardless of the fact that Bob Kane created the comic, you would get money for that character. Chuck Dixon got money when they used Bane in the ‘Batman and Robin’ movie. These things are in place now because of creators like Bill Finger. The business is more human now.”

Finger also has a final, more chilling legacy, according to Brubaker. “The greatest thing, but also the most f---ed thing about Bill Finger is that if you’re ever in a situation where you’re worried that you’re not getting proper credit for what you’re doing, you can say to your editor, ‘Hey, I’m feeling like Bill Finger over here. And I don’t want to get Fingered.’ And they’ll understand. Everybody gets it. I guarantee it.”

Jim McLauchlin urges you to think about Bill Finger, just a little bit, next time you read a Batman comic.

“Bill Finger” sidebar

Sub: ‘Batman’ inker Jerry Robinson, there in 1939, is still going strong today

It’s been 55 years since Jerry Robinson drew Batman. But it feels as fresh as yesterday.

“I’ve gone through a number of stages in my career,” the 80-year-old artist says today. “But that stage endures, as Batman does.”

Robinson got a job inking Bob Kane’s pencils at the tender age of 17 in 1939, when he entered Columbia University as a freshman. He continued working on Batman until 1947, collaborating with Kane, Bill Finger, and others—even though the creators had little idea just what they were creating.

“We certainly didn’t have any thought that this would be popular in 60 years, or even if it would endure at all,” Robinson recollects. “But we did have the feeling that were creating a new means of communication with comics.”

Robinson has communicated in many venues in his career. He worked at Atlas Comics in the ’50s, and in 1960, started a 30-year stint as a political cartoonist with the nationally syndicated “Still Life” and “Life With Robinson.” He also taught at New York’s School of Visual Arts and Pratt Institute for 10 years. But people always know him as “the Batman guy.”

“I’ve been invited around the world to many comic conventions and festivals,” he says. “A lot of it stems from my Batman days, of course.”

Robinson has visited 43 countries, and in 1978, formed Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate, a firm that represents 550 artists in 50 different countries, syndicating their work worldwide. One creator in particular, he has special fondness for.

“Bill Finger deserves co-credit for the creation of Batman, simple as that,” he states. “It’s nice to see that more people are learning about him today. But I wish something could have happened for him in his lifetime.” —JM

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I particularly appreciated the analogy to preventing a stillbirth and have shared it with a link here on Twitter and Facebook.

    Is your Wizard article on Bill online anywhere?

    Dr. Travis Langley