Pop quiz: Who created Batman?
Even if you think you know the answer, it’s very possible your information is outdated.
In 1939, illustrator Bob Kane (1915–1998) was tasked by DC Comics editor Vin Sullivan to devise a character for Detective Comics that could complement—and ideally capitalize on the success of—the costumed hero who had the year earlier made his debut in the pages of Action Comics: Superman. Inspired in equal measure by Leonardo da Vinci’s 1485 design sketches of an “ornithopter,” a 1930 mystery movie entitled The Bat Whispers, and the 1920 silent film The Mark of Zorro starring Douglas Fairbanks, the commercially savvy Kane managed in short order to assemble the Bat-Man “from an assortment of pop culture debris that together transcended the sum of its parts” (Grant Morrison, Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us about Being Human, [New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011], 17). Part nocturnal predator, part avenging angel—with a secret identity as a millionaire playboy, to boot—Batman was the Gothic (k)night to Superman’s sunny savior of the day. An enduring icon had, against astronomical odds, been created, albeit removed from a narrative framework:
“‘When I created the Batman,’ admitted Bob Kane, ‘I wasn’t thinking of story. I was thinking, I have to come up with a character who’s different,’ and as an artist he was clearly more concerned with pictures than plot. [Writer Bill] Finger, however, was a born story man, blessed with enough pictorial sense to realize what would work in comics” (Les Daniels, Batman: The Complete History, [San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999], 23).
Finger, a friend and former high-school classmate of Kane’s, further fleshed out the character, whom he saw “as a combination of Alexandre Dumas’s swashbuckler D’Artagnan from The Three Musketeers (1844) and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes” (ibid.), and wrote countless Batman scripts in the years that followed. By even Kane’s own admission, Finger embellished and contributed to many aspects of the mythos (including rechristening what was initially New York as “Gotham City”), yet was never credited as co-creator of Batman: “Bob Kane had made his deal with DC Comics on his own, and Finger was merely Kane’s employee” (ibid., 31).
There are those who regard Finger’s lack of shared attribution as a miscarriage of justice, many of whom have identified the supervillain responsible as Kane himself, who, over the course of his lifetime, both vehemently defended his proprietary creatorship of Batman against “conjectures,” “misrepresentation,” and “distortions of the truth” and expressed misgivings about his business arrangement with Finger:
“‘I always felt rather badly that I never gave him a byline,’ said Kane recently. ‘He was the unsung hero’” (ibid.).
Whatever Kane’s mixed feelings on the matter may have been, the case against him is often openly biased (one argument, artlessly and unambiguously titled “Bob Kane Is Just the Worst,” boldly asserts, in the face of undisputed indication to the contrary, “that the guy credited with creating Batman was probably [emphasis mine] the person who did the least amount of work in that creation”) and, more saliently, is built on anecdotal evidence at best—i.e., conflicting and contradictory recollections, some of them secondhand, and most issued years after the fact. We can speculate all we like, but we don’t really know who created what; even for DC’s in-house historian, “delineating specific contributions has become increasingly difficult” (Susan Karlin, “Who Really Created Batman? A DC Comics Historian Weighs in on the Controversy,” FastCo.Create, July 21, 2014). The only proof-positive documentation we have is Kane’s contract with DC, which names him sole creator. Hence the reason, even if you don’t read comics, you’ve seen Kane credited—by himself—for the creation of Batman in the movies of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher and Christopher Nolan.
If, however, you’ve seen one of the Batman movies from this year—Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman or the animated Adam West/Burt Ward reunion Return of the Caped Crusaders—you may have noticed Finger now receives, over three-quarters of a century after participating in the character’s inception, co-creator credit alongside Kane. Finger is also acknowledged on the current television series Gotham, as well as in the pages of the ongoing comic-book adventures of Batman, as part of an agreement DC Entertainment reached last year with Finger’s estate.
“How do you feel about that?” my wife asked me at the time, knowing my lifelong love of the character (“Batman” was the first word I could read and write).
I sighed deeply. This is a somewhat embarrassing admission for a screenwriter/author like myself, but when it comes to the issue of creator credit for Batman, I’ve never particularly cared—I don’t have a horse in the race, as they say. Somebody got the ball rolling, I knew—and that somebody has been officially acknowledged, up until recently, as Kane—but folkloric characters like Batman are influenced by and evolved through the creative input of untold artists, including, in this case, Kane and Finger’s contemporaries Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, and Gardner Fox (who himself later claimed to have authored scripts imputed to Finger)—not to mention Carmine Infantino (in the sixties) and Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams (the seventies) and Frank Miller and Tim Burton (the eighties) and Chuck Dixon and Paul Dini (the nineties) and Scott Snyder and Christopher Nolan (the new millennium). Besides which, back in the early days, credit attribution didn’t necessarily mean a whole lot, alas, as Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster didn’t share in much if any of the wealth generated from their seminal brainchild. At that time, you were a hired hand for a corporate entity that owned the copyright on any intellectual properties you produced for them, which was true of Kane and Batman, as well. (Thankfully, those lopsided practices have been reformed in the intervening years.)
Furthermore, the Kane/Finger dispute isn’t the only high-profile instance of he-said/she-said in the comics industry. Prolific writer Stan Lee has been dogged throughout his career (and never more so than now on account of Marvel’s stratospheric movie success) with allegations that he marginalized, to put it diplomatically, the roles of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in the creation of the X-Men and Spider-Man, respectively. “The men kept few written records from the time,” Abraham Riesman wrote in a profile of Lee for Vulture, “and the debate over how much credit Lee deserves is the single most controversial matter in the history of comics.” There are those that feel strongly about this subject—I know a guy that manages a comic-book shop in the Bronx who froths rabidly at the very mention of Stan Lee (take my advice: Don’t get him started)—though Lee remains a celebrated figure, a pop icon even, among the general audiences that delight in the ubiquitous superheroes he had a hand in bringing to life. The controversy has had remarkable staying power probably because firsthand accounts, from the likes of Lee and Kirby, of the genesis of those characters are, frustratingly, incompatible and irreconcilable. Somebody—or everybody—isn’t telling the whole truth, and in the absence of credible documentation that can be reviewed and arbitrated by a neutral party, there’s no knowing for certain how to apportion credit for the conception of what have become both billion-dollar corporate agents and pop-cultural idols. Which brings us back to the question of finally formally recognizing Finger as a co-creator of Batman.
“I think it sets a bad precedent,” I finally answered. “As much as time can shed new light on matters of history and put them into clearer perspective, it can also distort them, too. Success breeds resentment, and there may have been people that appreciably augmented the Batman mythos who maybe felt, as the years went on, they were entitled to a bigger piece of that multibillion-dollar pie. And for all I know they were, from a subjectively creative standpoint, but objectively not a contractual one. And we have no more proof now as to what Finger contributed—no heretofore undisclosed records or testimony have been newly presented for consideration—and it’s like DC got harangued into crediting him despite the explicit stipulations of the contract they had with Kane, right or wrong.
“And what I find troubling about that is it treats creatorship credit like it’s open to interpretation—like if enough fanboys in enough comic stores say it enough times, it becomes fact. And we don’t know the facts—those have been, regrettably, either muddled by time or lost to history. We have rumors that have been filtered through a decades-long game of telephone. We have conflicting statements from the people involved, many if not most of them now deceased. And we certainly have the court of public opinion, which never fails to make itself heard. But their ruling isn’t sufficient enough to settle the matter. DC puts Finger’s name next to Kane’s after seventy-five years, and they open the floodgates for the heirs of other artists to make similar claims on a given IP. And we just don’t know enough to say with reasonable certainty who deserves official credit.
“Imagine, for instance, some scholar decides that Christopher Marlowe is rightfully entitled to co-authorship acknowledgment on the works of Shakespeare? And then based on that assertion, a publisher acquiesces? Does that settle the matter, or merely create confusion—since other publishers may or may not follow suit, depending—thereby undermining our trust in the institution of authorship itself?”
That was the exact example I pulled out of a hat, by the way: Marlowe and Shakespeare. It was given no forethought; it was merely the first example that popped into my brain. So you can imagine my surprise when, just last month, it was announced that a forthcoming edition of the complete works of Shakespeare from Oxford University Press will officially acknowledge Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI trilogy—a four-century-long “oversight” corrected at last. That is, of course, assuming Marlowe was a proper co-author; if the issue of his contributions to Henry VI has at least been subjected to far more stringent, peer-reviewed academic analysis than Finger’s role in Batman, the conclusions are possibly even more questionable, given that we have zero firsthand, secondhand, or even hundredth-hand testimony to corroborate it, merely a subjective syntactic examination of the text itself. Now, I’m admittedly not well-versed in the intricacies of any of those studies, but I do know that for every scholar that identifies Marlowe’s voice in the text, there’s another of commensurate authority that disputes the interpretation and offers an equally compelling defense of their opposing position. And another 400 years of exhaustive analysis isn’t going to definitively resolve the debate—unless of course we at long last develop TARDIS technology in that time. Putting Marlowe’s name on those plays, however well-intentioned (and possibly, for all I know, even justified), only serves to validate scholarly supposition, it seems to me, and not his impossible-to-determine co-authorship of those works.
“Carol Rutter, a professor of Shakespeare and performance studies at the University of Warwick…. told the BBC, ‘I believe Shakespeare collaborated with all kinds of people … but I would be very surprised if Marlowe was one of them’” (Rebecca Hersher, “Christopher Marlowe Officially Credited as Co-Author of 3 Shakespeare Plays,” NPR.org, October 24, 2016).
Exactly. No work of art is forged in a cultural vacuum, and writers in particular depend on the direct feedback and developmental insights of agents, editors, and colleagues; does that make them all entitled to an acknowledgment of co-authorship? The legendary Algonquin Round Table was founded in the spirit of creative collaboration, yet Dorothy Parker made no claim to the writings of Robert Benchley. Truman Capote is believed by some to be the true author of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; how long before someone publishes an edition with his name on the cover? There are a great many who still insist it was William Goldman (The Princess Bride) who wrote Good Will Hunting, and not Oscar-winning screenwriters Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, despite Goldman’s explicit and repeated denials. A relatively inexperienced eighteen-year-old Mary Shelley cooked up Frankenstein on a creative retreat with Percy Shelley and Lord Byron; who’s to say they didn’t contribute essential ideas to her immortal narrative? Steven Spielberg is long rumored to have been the actual director of Poltergeist, and not Tobe Hooper as officially credited on-screen; I re-watched the movie recently for the first time since the eighties, and it certainly feels Spielbergian. What if future editions of any of those books or films are amended to reflect the supposed—and often unconfirmed, unproven, unacknowledged, and in some cases even outright refuted—creative influence and/or participation of those besides the historically and publicly accepted authors/screenwriters/directors, if only because it feels like they must have had a hand in them? Because that’s not truth—it’s “truthiness.”
We know for a fact that Alexandre Dumas was the James Patterson of his day: Auguste Maquet indisputably co-wrote many of Dumas’ most celebrated works, including The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, but his arrangement was one of monetary compensation (he died a wealthy man, incidentally), not shared creative attribution—and history has thus far honored that accord. We don’t deny Maquet’s contributions to those lasting works, just as we don’t deny Finger’s on Batman, but a deal was a deal, and it’s not our place to reconsider—and even rewrite—the terms of a creative contract long after those who entered into it have left this earth. Authorship is sacrosanct, and challenging it should carry a heavy burden of proof. The Marlowe argument hasn’t met such a standard, in light of the lack of a sufficiently preponderant scholarly consensus; and in Finger’s case, DC posthumously breached its contractual agreement with Kane based on “hotly disputed” hearsay, to borrow the phrasing of one of Bill Finger’s supporters, something any creator of content should regard as cause for alarm, not celebration. The resolution to the Kane/Finger dispute isn’t justice; quite the opposite, in fact. And if we’re going to call into question the exclusive creatorship of works whose officially recognized composers are no longer around to defend their claim to it, we’d better make goddamn sure we’ve submitted for thorough scrutiny an overwhelmingly persuasive petition before we make alterations to the historical record—and, by extension, to the legacy of an artist who brought beauty and meaning into our world through his or her act of creation.
And that may very well mean some people deserving of credit never get their due; we don’t know. But that’s precisely the point: We don’t know; we can’t ever really know. And just as we wouldn’t dare alter the text of a beloved literary work—even and especially one in the public domain—so too should we pay the same respect to the name on the title page, which is often the only official documentation, incomplete though it may very possibly be, left behind to let us know who to thank for the characters and stories we hold so dear.