Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Bill Finger-- the plagiarist who "created" Batman

On May 6, Hulu will be debuting a documentary called “Batman and Bill,” created to document writer Bill Finger’s contributions to the Intellectual Property currently known as “Batman.” Someone at a site called Fansided offers this description:

Bob Kane has always been given sole credit, but Finger also had a major hand in creating and co-creating some of the Dark Knight’s most lasting characteristics.

Here’s the trailer:

Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of the book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, can be seen at one point intoning, “Bill Finger was the dominant creative force… of Batman.” At the Television Critic’s Association press tour back in January, Nobleman said,

“Bob Kane’s version of the story had been told for 6 decades…and that was wrong, and I wanted to tell the story from the right perspective.”

He also claims that regarding Batman, “creatively it was 98% Bill.” He goes on to analogize:

“The example I like to give is if you just stop a random grandmother on the street and say name something that you know about Batman, she’ll know something, everyone knows something, and whatever that person says will be a Bill Finger contribution. He was that pervasive in the creation of Batman.”

Well, let’s look at this. Because it’s largely revisionist, ahistorical bullshit.

If the trailer’s any indication, they’re going to liken Finger to a superhero, and Bob Kane, who owned the studio that produced Batman for National Comics, as a villain—a glory hound who took credit for other peoples’ work. And he did sign his name to everything his studio produced, giving the impression that he was the sole auteur behind those comics.

But in fact, Finger himself took credit for other people’s work. He just wasn’t a glory hound. Which I suppose is why he’s seen as such a “hero” today-- who can't sympathize with the boss who takes credit for the work of an underling?

Almost everything that the fictive “random grandmother” referenced above knows about Batman was stolen from other characters. Most notably The Shadow.

I’ve already written about how much the comics stole from the pulp magazines in their early days. Batman, in fact, was one of the worst examples of this institutionalized theft.

In 2007, Nostalgia Ventures published a reprint of Partners of Peril (buy it!), a novel featuring the hero The Shadow. The Shadow appeared in his own pulp magazine, each issue of which contained a novel of varying quality. Most of these novels were written by a man called Walter Gibson. Peril was written by Theodore Tinsley. Tinsley deserves at least as much credit for Batman’s creation as Finger does.

Finger cagily admitted that, “My first [Batman] script was a take-off on a Shadow story.” Which is putting it mildly. Finger lifted Peril whole cloth, taking almost every major story beat and cramming them into six pages.

But what the hell—it’s just one story, right? Actually, Finger did more than just swipe this one story. He stole almost every element he contributed to Batman from other pulp sources.

The Shadow volume that reprints Peril also features three essays discussing the extent of the theft in the “creation” of Batman. In one, “The Shadowy Origins of Batman,” Will Murray quotes Finger as saying, “I was very much influenced by The Shadow and Doc Savage, The Phantom, things of that sort… We discussed Batman’s potential. My idea was to have Batman be a combination of Douglas Fairbanks, Sherlock Holmes, The Shadow, and Doc Savage as well.” In his Foreword, Jerry Robinson, who worked in Kane’s studio, says that “Bill Finger was a devoted fan of ‘Maxwell Grant’ [the house pseudonym for The Shadow’s authors].” Murray quotes Kane as saying, “…Bill had it down pat… He was a pulp reader. As a matter of fact, I read all the pulps that Bill Finger read. He’d give me his magazines and I did read them. I was influenced by Doc Savage and the pulps, to some extent.”

Finger was an avid reader of the pulp magazines of the 1930s—which were soon to lose their cultural dominance. In part because of the influence of the comics.

For years, comics fans have gotten big laughs over the story of Kane’s original conception of the character who would grow to become the Intellectual Property now known as Batman.

The Man of Steel had cornered the market on BLUE tights and BLACK hair, so Kane decided to give his new hero RED tights and BLONDE hair, plus a Phantom-style domino mask.

Mimicking the HAWKMAN characters seen in Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (pictured left and right), Kane would add a pair of mechanical wings, and call his creation... “BIRD-MAN.”

“Red tights and blond hair”? LOL amirite? What a dummy. It’s a good thing Finger was there to, well, to list off a bunch of characteristics of other pulp characters.

Then, as recorded in The Steranko History of Comics, Finger recalls, "I got Webster's Dictionary off the shelf and was hoping they had a drawing of a BAT, and sure enough it did. I said,

'Notice the ears! Why don't we duplicate the ears?' I suggested [Bob] draw what looked like a cowl. I had suggested he bring the nosepiece down and make him mysterious and not show any eyes at all. I didn't like the wings, so I suggested he make a cape and scallop the edges so it would flow out behind him when he ran and would look like bat wings. He didn't have any gloves on. We gave him gloves.”

Finger claims that he turned “Bird-Man” into “Batman,” or actually it’s spelled “Bat-Man” in those early stories. He gave him a cowl and a cape and made the color scheme darker. And he gave him gloves. Not the scalloped gloves, however—in Bat-Man’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 he had a pair of little dress gloves, and then in his second appearance in Detective Comics #28, he went gloveless. The gloves issue is kind of interesting, because it leads into something that Murray mentions in his essay:

“At virtually the same time, a nearly identical hero emerged in a pulp called Black Book Detective. Norman A. Daniels created the black-cloaked crimebuster under the house name ‘G. Wayman Jones.’ Like Batman, the Black Bat wore an ebony hood a long bat-ribbed cloak. ‘There was a lawsuit almost pending,’ Finger recalled. ‘They were ready to sue us and we were ready to sue them. It was just one of those wild coincidences.’ Inexplicably, Batman soon took to wearing the finned gauntlets first worn by the Black Bat.”

There’s a lot of ironic richness in that paragraph. First of all, it’s ironic that Finger, who totally plagiarized Partners of Peril for the first Bat-Man story, would suggest that the Bat-Man gang might sue someone for stealing their ideas.

Second, Murray deliberately obfuscates the timing of the Black Bat’s appearance. “At virtually the same time,” he writes. The “same time” as what? The “creation” of Bat-Man? Bat-Man's first appearance in print?

Wikipedia notes that there was a “first Black Bat” who appeared in pulp magazines (and remember, Finger was an avid pulp magazine fan and reader) between 1933 and 1934. The title of that particular pulp was Black Bat Detective Mysteries. (Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that the great Murray Leinster wrote those stories. I guess if you’re going to swipe, swipe from the best!)

Wikipedia then says that the “second Black Bat” appeared in July 1939. (Actually, Wikipedia isn’t clear on whether that’s the cover date or the date the issue appeared on stands. But it looks like it was the cover date, meaning that it probably appeared three months earlier, so May 1939.) Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 was cover-dated May 1939 and released in March 1939. Which means that the Bat-Man team and the Black Bat team must have been working on their stories simultaneously. Parallel thinking, right? Two independent groups of creative people coming up with remarkably similar ideas at roughly the same time!

Except, there was that “first Black Bat” from six years before.

And get a load of the Black Bat’s origin story:

Tony Quinn was a district attorney until an angry criminal threw acid into his face leaving him blinded and scarred. Quinn vowed revenge and began to train his other senses and his body. He later secretly received an eye transplant from a slain police officer. His new eyes allowed him not only to see, but he now had night vision due to his time spent as a blind man.  
Tony decided to use his new ability to become a costumed hero known as the Black Bat. He carried twin .45s and often would leave a bat shaped scar on his victims. Black Bat used a secret crime lab and drove a heavily modified car. Law officers were against his vigilante activities and tried to deduce his identity. One officer in particular, Captain McGrath, believed Tony and the Black Bat were one and the same and tried to prove it.

That’s essentially the Batman villain Two-Face’s origin story. Two-Face was of course “created” by Finger and Kane. The “secret crime lab” was a “bat cave.” The “heavily modified car” is the Batmobile.

And the Black Bat had those finned gloves. And Will Murray has the audacity to claim that it’s just so “inexplicable” that Batman’s “creators” would steal that element for their own character. This is in the same essay in which Murray notes that Finger stole the “utility belt” from The Shadow, and stole the “Bat-signal” from another pulp character called the Phantom Detective. He also notes that,

“The coincidences did not end there. In the same month Batman was being created, the Phantom Detective battled a Batman-like foe called the Bat in The Yacht Club Murders, dated January 1939. This Bat wore a whalebone-ribbed cloak, face-concealing mask and Shadow-style slouch hat.”

"Dated January 1939" means that it actually appeared on the stands earlier, maybe in November 1938. That’s plenty of time for the Bat-Man “creators” to do their swipe—for Kane to do his “Bird-Man” drawing, and Finger to add his touches—the original source material was probably available for purchase at the very same time!

Yet Murray calls it a “coincidence.” That the fact that Bat-Man would appropriate the Black Bat’s finned gloves was “inexplicable.” In his essay “Spotlight on the Shadow: FORESHADOWING THE BATMAN,” Anthony Tollin makes this “inexplicable” claim:

“While his initial Batman story was lifted from Partners of Peril, Bill Finger quickly developed into one of comics’ most innovative scriptwriters.”

In his Foreword, Robinson also works hard to convince readers that Finger didn’t steal everything he ever wrote:

“I’m astounded to learn how much of Bill’s first Batman script borrowed from that novel [Peril]. Of course, at the time, Bill was just beginning his career, and struggling to shift from humor to adventure strips, just as Bob Kane was with the art. Bill was fast becoming the most inventive scriptwriter in comics, and would soon create Green Lantern with Martin Nodell and Wildcat with Irwin Hansen.”

“Wildcat” was of course another Shadow knock off. And Finger’s original Green Lantern (who was apparently created by Nodell, with Finger being brought in to write scripts after his creation) was the one with the green cape and the red tights who carried a railroad lantern around. His weakness was wood.

You can read those first few years worth of Bat-Man and Green Lantern stories if you like. They’re available in DC Archive editions. There’s also the paperback Batman Chronicles books. You can see how “innovative” they feel to you. Sadly, it’s impossible to know just how much Finger, and all the other Golden Age creators, stole outright from the pulps. The Shadow stories are still being reprinted, as are Doc Savage’s. A few other small outlets are bringing out other pulp material. But it would take a dedicated scholar years to sift through everything to find all the swipes.

But we do know of one more major swipe that Finger and the rest of Kane’s studio committed. The Joker was also cobbled together from other sources. The Shadow volume reprinting Peril also features another Tinsley story, “The Grim Joker,” featuring another pulp character called “Bulldog” Black. In Tollin’s essay, he notes,

“Three years before the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ debuted in Batman #1, police detective Bulldog Black encountered a white-faced crime boss called The Joker in the July 1937 issue of The Whisperer (whose alter ego as Police Commissioner James Gordon was borrowed by Bill Finger for Batman’s police contact).”

Did you just read that? A criminal boss with a white face called THE JOKER appeared in a pulp three years prior to Batman #1, in a magazine that featured a character whose real name was “James Gordon,” which is the name of the Commissioner in Gotham City.

For crying out loud did Bill Finger EVER have an original thought???

Not only that, in March 1939—the very same month that “Bat-Man” debuted in Detective Comics #27—The Shadow Magazine published a story called Death's Harlequin, featuring a villain described as “a living corpse in the costume of a gay Harlequin! With a wide-muzzled gun. And a jeering laugh that made the silence in the room crawl with menace.”

And of course we’ve all seen the still of the great actor Conrad Veidt in the classic film The Man Who Laughs. There’s not a single original element in the Joker.

In his Foreword, Robinson, who’s credited as “Joker-creator” in the bio, notes that,

“Bill Finger was comics’ best writer, but he was a slow, meticulous craftsman who spent lots of time doing research. Artists loved his scripts because he was the most visual writer in the business, and frequently included photo reference with his scripts so we could see exactly what he had in mind.”

Yeah, I’ll bet. It takes a long time to read a story in a pulp magazine and then convert it into thirty-six panels.

One could argue, and I’m sure that many people would, that Finger’s use of those elements was "transformative." Plus, you could argue that the elements that Finger stole from these other characters were each in and of themselves small—even though taken together they add up to one whole stolen piece of Intellectual Property. (Batman is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, comprised of elements stolen from other characters.)

However, you could also argue that by swiping so much from other characters, Batman hopelessly undermined those other characters. Since his pulp magazine heyday it’s been impossible for The Shadow to gain any real traction. Why read about this dark avenger of the night with his face covered and a long flowing coat when you could read about this masked avenger of the night with a dark costume and a cloak?

In the trailer for the Hulu documentary, Cop Out and Jersey Girl director Kevin Smith, says that there was a lot of reluctance in the comic book industry when it came to correcting the story of Batman’s creation. I think that’s probably true, although not for the reasons that Smith might think.

The full story of Batman’s “creation” would reveal the extent of Finger’s appropriation. Maybe the reason he was so reluctant to put his own name on it, at least at first, was because he knew just how much of "Bat-Man" and his iconography and associated characters he’d stolen.

Then, as the character took off and all the characters from which he’d stolen fell by the cultural wayside, Finger might have wanted some credit. He’d gotten away with stealing—now was the time to get his name out there. But it was too late. Kane’s name was on everything. And this is somehow seen as an “injustice.”

This post took on a much darker tone than I’d originally intended. Artists are influenced by everything they see. They appropriate from a wide range of sources to create something new. This has gone on for millennia. Homer swiped. The Bible is full of swipes. Shakespeare swiped. Rimbaud swiped. Nabokov swiped. I can't think of any comics artist that hasn't swiped. Remix culture and mashups are perfectly valid artistic techniques that have produced some wonderful, enriching material. What frosts me about this movement to turn Finger into some sort of “visionary” “creator” is that it deliberately ignores the fact that almost nothing that he allegedly contributed came from him. “Batman” isn’t a unique character. He’s not even a character, actually—he’s Intellectual Property.

Which brings me to the other aspect of this story that really frosts me. The weaponization of copyright. Thanks to collusion between huge corporate Intellectual Property owners and governments all over the world, the kind of swiping that Finger committed in helping to “create” Batman could never happen today. Artists aren’t free to use elements within the culture in the same way that they have for generations. They aren’t free to appropriate to create transformative works. Try it yourself. “Batman” appeared shortly after the first appearance of a character called “The Bat.” They took that villainous character and made him a hero, and slapped the word “Man” on the end. Try creating a villain called “Batman-Man” today and see how far you get before WB lawyers come calling.

See how far you’d get if you took Batman’s origin and grafted it onto a villain that you yourself “created,” the way Finger and Kane did with Two-Face.

And now, those elements that Finger and Kane swiped are locked into the Intellectual Property known as "Batman." The movement to give Finger his "due" is a distraction from the fact that he, and just about every comics creator of that era, stole almost everything they "created" from the pulps.

It’s shocking just how much of the Golden Age of comics was stolen from the pulps that had appeared just a few years before. Those pulps were seen as ephemera. The comics, too, were looked at in that way, in the early going. They just wanted to churn out stories—they weren’t giving much thought to posterity. But today we’re in a situation where so much of our popular culture is built around comics. Which means that our modern popular culture was stolen. The movement to get “credit” for Bill Finger represents a larger, and extremely depressing flaw in our culture. It’s a way for some to congratulate themselves for their empathy and insight and knowledge (as Nobleman menacingly says above, "I wanted to tell the story from the right perspective"), without fully understanding what’s really happening, and ignoring our history while pretending to celebrate it.


david colton said...

Ironic that many of the points made here -- so over the top angrily -- have appeared elsewhere. Does that make Ricky Sprague a 'plagiarist' ?

Ricky Sprague said...

I cited my sources and didn't try to take credit for anyone else's work, so, no, it doesn't make me a plagiarist.

david colton said...

Finger merely used concepts that were everywhere. Is Darth Vader a ripoff of Dr.Doom? Oh wait, what about the Man in the Iron Mask? To follow your logic, no one created Batman because everyone did. At some point the person who puts the pieces together wins.

Ricky Sprague said...

Here’s something else, from an essay called “Disposable Heroes: Pulpdom’s Forgotten Crimebusters” by Mark Trost. It’s about a character called Dodo Temple, who appeared in a story called “Satan’s Bloody Pawn,” in the April 1936 issue of a pulp magazine called “Detective Tales.”

“Dodo saw the night 15 years ago when he and his mother and father had stepped out of a moving picture theater laughing and chattering about the comedy they had just seen. Fifty feet from the theater death had swooped down upon them, death that spat at them with fiery tongues from the darkness on all sides. HIs father’s curse and moan, his mother’s shrill scream. The hot irons that had seared through his own immature body… He remember the black figure that bulked like a giant around him. Remembered the callous snarl that had saved his own life. ‘Don’t waste any time on that kid, he’s as dead as a dodo.’ Days later he came out of that darkness to find himself an orphan.”

The essay is reprinted in a book called “The Best of Blood ’N’ Thunder,” which is highly recommended:

It might be impossible to catalog all the sources that Kane and Finger swiped from in “creating” Bat-Man. I always just assumed that Kane and Finger were “inspired” by the Shadow and Zorro. I had no idea just how shady Batman’s creation really was. I’m glad that people have been examining this long before I started looking at it seriously.

And I addressed your "Finger merely used concepts that were everywhere" point in the original post. Artists have done that since the beginning of time. When you come right down to it, the only person who ever actually "created" anything was a caveman called Ook. But even he swiped a couple of cave drawings from Gog.

TSOG said...

Not having read any original Shadow material, I'm only now starting to find out how "direct" the inspiration is.

I have been reading the Black Bat stories and recently finished one from 1942 in which the antagonist is frequently referred to Red Hood. That's almost a decade before The more famous version appeared but I couldn't help but wonder...

JanArrah said...

The Batman Archives and Chronicles are both out of print now.. but DC is doing large Omnibus editions and then breaking those down into 2 smaller trades for each omnibus. Most of the issues can also be purchased for .99 off comixology.

Anonymous said...

Bill Finger and other writers took heavy influence from popular Pulp Serials of the time, who would have thunk it? That's not remotely the same thing as taking sole credit (and payment) for another person's work as Kane did to Finger. Had Bill Finger taken credit from the Shadow's creator then your comparison might stand.

George Lucas took heavy inspiration for Star Wars from Kurosawa films and pulp sci-fi serials such as Flash Gordon and the Princess of Mars. Does that make George Lucas a 'plagerist'.