Ask Chris #164: Bob Kane Is Just The Worst
Q: How do you square what happened to Bill Finger with your love of Batman? Is it a problem? — @MikeFromNowhere
A: You know, it is and it isn’t. I think the record will show that outside of a few years here and there where I just wasn’t interested in what was going on in the comics, there has been very little that has stood in the way of my love of Batman. It is river deep, mountain high for me and Batman, and at this point, I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to change that. But at the same time, there are those moments where I’ll be reading one of my favorite stories, or watching Batman: The Animated Series or Brave and the Bold, and that damn “Batman created by Bob Kane” credit comes up, and I’m just angry about it for the rest of the day.
Jack Kirby said it best, Mike. Comics’ll break your heart.
For those of you out there who may not know why David Uzumeri and I spit out the words “Bob Kane” like we just drank sour milk, the short version is that the guy credited with creating Batman was probably the person who did the least amount of work in that creation, while the people who did the heavy lifting never even got to put their names on the stories they created. It’s not just Bill Finger, of course — Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, Sheldon Moldoff, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, all those guys got screwed by Kane one way or the other — but while most of those guys thankfully lived long enough to be recognized for their work, Finger, the co-creator of Batman, died in obscurity without ever getting to claim his creation. Even today, you could read Batman comics for years and never see his name.
To be fair to everyone involved, I want to stress that this is in no way the fault of DC Comics. I’m pretty sure that everyone working over there would be more than happy to give Finger the credit he deserves, but thanks to Kane’s contract that specified that he would be credited as the sole creator of Batman until the end of time, they can’t. And the main reason for that, judging by reports from most of the people concerned, is that Finger was a great writer but an awful businessman, and Kane was a moderately talented artist who happened to be an evil genius.
There are plenty of examples, but the best one (aside from the infamous Clown Painting Story) might be the one about how Siegel and Shuster tried to get the rights to Superman back from DC, as recounted in Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s Comic Book Comics:
Immediately ratting out Siegel and Shuster is one thing, and that “fat page rate” that he got for comics he never drew is infuriating, but the kicker is that bit about how he signed his contract when he was underage. It’s a lie that persists to this day, and often shows up in articles where people who don’t bother to do their research breathlessly explain how Kane (and only Kane) created Batman at the tender age of 18. They keep on printing that, even though he was born in 1915 and only co-created Batman to capitalize on the rush for superheroes after Superman’s debut in 1939, largely because Kane stuck with that lie all the way to his death.
Marc Tyler Nobleman wrote a great book illustrated by long-time Batman artist Ty Templeton about Finger called Bill the Boy Wonder — and he did it as a children’s book in an effort to make sure Batman fans know what’s up as early as possible — that has a pretty interesting breakdown of just who it was that did what. If I have to grit my teeth and give Kane even the slightest amount of credit, I will say that he was the one who wrote the word “BAT-MAN” down on a piece of paper and drew a character wearing a red suit with a domino mask, blonde hair and a pair of bat wings. All Finger really did was come up with the color scheme, the costume, the cape, the cowl, the idea that he shouldn’t have any superpowers, the origin story about his parents being shot in an alley, the idea that he’s a detective, the words “Batmobile” and “Gotham City,” Robin, the Joker, Catwoman, and a few other minor elements.
In the ’60s, when fandom was in full swing and Finger actually started to be recognized for his role in creating Batman, Kane wrote a letter straight up calling Finger a liar with “hallucinations of grandeur,” with his “evidence” — and oh, this f**king guy — being that if he had, why, he’d have a creator credit, now wouldn’t he?
The truth is that Bill Finger is taking credit for much more than he deserves, and I refute much of his statements here in print The fact is that I conceived the “Batman” figure and costume entirely by myself’ even before I called Bill in to help me write the “Batman.” I created the title, masthead, the format and concept, as well as the Batman figure and costume. Robin, the boy wonder, was also my idea, not Bill’s.
The only proof I need to back my statement is that if Bill co-authored and conceived the idea, either with me or before me, then he would most certainly have a by-line on the strip along with my name, the same as Siegel and Schuster had as creators of Superman. However, it remains obvious that my name appears on the strip alone, proving that I created the idea first and then called Bill in later, after my publisher okayed my original creation.
Oddly enough, in 1989 — in the same book where he falsified the dates on some sketches to make it appear that he created Batman in 1934 — Kane said this about Finger:
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.’”
The difference? In 1989, Finger was dead, and so Kane could say whatever the hell he wanted without having to worry about ever actually sharing any credit. Finally, in 1998, when Kane died, he did finally credit a co-creator, and he even did it on his actual tombstone. According to Bob Kane he did have a collaborator on Batman: God Himself.
F**k. That. Guy. For. Ever. Seriously, when it comes to the greatest supervillain in Batman’s history, the Joker is a distant second behind Bob Kane.
So getting back to the original question, yes. It bothers me a lot that every single story about this character that I love, a character that stands for justice above all else, is legally obliged to be stamped with Kane’s name and legally prohibited from carrying Bill Finger’s — and while it helps, no amount of Steranko slapping can ever really stop that. But at the same time, Batman, to me, is more than just the two dudes who created him.
That might sound weird, and I don’t want to minimize the importance of creators — the people behind the characters are the entire reason I love those characters so much, after all — but the Batman that I love isn’t just Bob Kane and Bill Finger. It’s Frank Miller and Grant Morrison, Dave Mazzucchelli and Chris Burnham, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis, Bob Haney and Jim Aparo, Irv Novick and Ernie Chan, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle, Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, Rick Burchett and Michael Lark, Alan Brennert and Dick Giordano, Kelley Puckett and Mike Parobeck, Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, Adam West and Burt Ward, William Dozier and Christopher Nolan, and a hundred more beyond that. And those same people have worked at cross purposes, and they’ve done things I don’t like, within the story and outside of it in the real world where things actualy matter. For all of the flaws in the system, that’s one of the great things about having these characters that are meant to be serialized forever, that you can see so many different takes on a character and see what’s consistent, what rings true and what doesn’t. You get to choose what they mean to you, and sometimes that inspires people.
Besides, if there’s one good thing about Kane taking the credit for creators like Finger, Robinson, Moldoff and Sprang, it’s that he didn’t actually do much of the work. His name’s on it, but when you look at who built Batman, there’s a lot more of Bill Finger than there ever was of Kane.