Sean P Carlin

Writer of things that go bump in the night

The Man Behind the Mask: On the Creation of Batman—and Rewriting Authorship Itself

Pop quiz:  Who created Batman?

Even if you think you know the answer, it’s very possible your information is outdated.

Detective Comics no. 27, the first appearance of Batman

Detective Comics no. 27, the first appearance of Batman

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.

Michael Keaton and Bob Kane during the production of "Batman Returns" (1992)

Michael Keaton and Bob Kane during the production of “Batman Returns” (1992)

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.

Writer Stan Lee, creator of Iron Man, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four, among others

Writer Stan Lee, creator of Iron Man, the Hulk, and the Fantastic Four, among others

“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.

16 Comments

  1. Interesting post, Sean, and I get your point. I think credit probably comes down to how a collaborative relationship is defined up front. Boss/employee or partnership or ghost writer. I imagine in the olden days those “contracts” weren’t always formal. Since collaborative creative ventures are frequently fluid and tend to evolve, I would think it’s not uncommon for these relationships to morph, requiring credit for the creative process to be revisited. I don’t think I’ll have this problem. Ha ha. But interesting to think about. 🙂

    • Hey, Diana — thanks for commenting.

      Yes, I don’t think this will be quite the same issue with respect to materials published now and in the future, as nowadays these kinds of deals are formalized via ironclad contracts overseen by parties that expressly represent the business interests of writers/content creators, be them lawyers or agents or guilds or what have you. We also have far more extensive paper trails these days, with most if not all of our formal communications documented in electronic formats. Plus, as I noted, practices have changed in the intervening years — certainly those in the comics industry — allowing for a greater degree of creator-owned IPs, even amongst big publishers. All of that ensures that challenging creatorship in the future will require thorough arbitration of copious documentation.

      I do think, though, it’s a slippery slope we’re on with respect to works of the past, like Batman and Henry VI and the novels of Alexandre Dumas: If you can’t say with a reasonable degree of certainty (as in the Shakespeare/Marlowe case) or you have to void a longstanding contract (like the kind DC had with Kane, or Dumas with Maquet), you probably shouldn’t be fiddling with the historical record. I mean, Oxford acknowledges Marlowe as co-author, but what if other publishers don’t? Or what if another publisher decides Thomas Nashe was in fact the proper co-author of Henry VI, and now you’ve got competing editions that credit Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Marlowe, and Shakespeare and Nashe? Far from a consensus, now we have cultural confusion, which threatens to overshadow the value of the work itself.

      These are debates that simply cannot be resolved. And I’m not saying they’re not worth having, but like any matter that can’t be conclusively and unanimously settled — the existence of God, for instance — we need to learn to be okay with the fact that there are some things we just can’t ever know or say for certain. Changing the record is something that should be done with extreme prejudice, and that’s not something that was exercised, so far as I can tell, with respect to Finger and Marlowe’s credit attribution. But I would love to hear what others have to say…

      Sean

  2. I had no idea about all this Batman credit confusion. Very interesting. However, I agree with you: it sets a dangerous precedent and helps legitimize the flood of false claims. Slippery slope, my friend

    • Hey, Jeff — thanks for chiming in.

      What’s interesting about the controversy is that in their attempt to get Finger the proper recognition they feel he deserves, his supporters have vilified — even demonized — Kane in the process, selling themselves on a simplistic narrative (straight out of an old comic book, in a way, with its irreproachable hero and scheming villain) in which Kane did nothing more than conspire to marginalize Finger’s role in the creation of Batman and take all the credit for himself. Having been around the block a few times (and creatively collaborated on projects myself), I very much doubt it’s that simple. It’s a shame for everyone’s sake — Kane’s as much as Finger’s — that there isn’t more documentation that could put this matter to rest once and for all time. What I’d like to know is what did Kane’s estate have to say about DC’s decision? Did they have some sort of legal recourse to oppose the amendment, and, if so, did they? Or did they support it? I don’t know the answer to any of that, but I sure as hell am curious…

      Sean

  3. Well written and persuasive article, Sean. However, as a “Marlovian” (one who thinks Marlowe may well have written the whole kit and kaboodle of the Shakespeare canon), I would argue that Mr. Shakspere of Stratford was not presented as being the author until 7 years after his death, so no contractual arrange was made with Marlowe to front for him. He was effectively black-balled by an oppressive and censorious church-state. His career killed on May 30, 1593. But it’s a long story. Peter Farey shares relevant research on his Marlowe page. Two motivations drive me in my own research 1) it’s a great story 2) a fascinating mystery 3) literary “justice” … Regarding the last, concerning Marlowe’s case, unlike the others, he had a situation forced upon him. – dave

    • Dave,

      I can’t tell you how excited I am to have a student of the Shakespeare/Marlowe debate like yourself weigh-in on this. I did not, as I confessed in the piece, study the nuances of that particular dispute for this essay (there’s only so much time one can devote to a mere blog post in the midst of revising a novel!), so I can’t say with any authority how much credence the Marlovian theory deserves to be lent; I can’t argue the finer points of it. It certainly is a fascinating literary mystery, like a plot out of an Arturo Pérez-Reverte novel.

      As compelling as it is, though, it does seem, from my admittedly abecedarian perspective on the matter, to be one of those unsolvable mysteries of history, in that even the most vocal Marlovian proponents can only argue, without concrete evidence, for the possibility that Marlowe wrote (or at very least contributed substantially to) the works of Shakespeare; it can simply never be conclusively proven, I think it’s fair to say. All we can do, really, is examine the text for linguistic patterns, which is highly subjective at best. Case in point: the JonBenét Ramsey ransom note. Two decades’ worth of modern forensic analysis (and ample firsthand physical evidence) hasn’t been able to decisively authentic its authorship. Given that, how could a purely syntactic study of the text of Shakespeare (and I’m assuming the original manuscripts themselves are no longer extant?) provide the kind of proof required to amend the credit attribution of those plays, even with the questions surrounding Marlowe’s actual date of death? So, barring the possibility of irrefutable resolution to the matter, I would caution any publisher — in this case, Oxford University Press — against taking an official position on it. I’m curious: How do you feel about Oxford’s decision?

      All that said, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from further studying the controversy, if for no other reason than it keeps the names of more obscure artists — like Marlowe and Finger — alive in the cultural consciousness. At this point, over 400 years removed from his heyday, even Shakespeare himself is less an historical figure or even influential English-language playwright, to most people, than he is an abstraction — not quite to the extent of, say, Homer, but certainly less concrete than anyone of great accomplishment or repute who’s lived post–Technological Revolution, and has thusly had his photographic likeness and many of the finer points of his biography reliably preserved via firsthand documentation. Some mysteries, alas, just get lost to history. At least, in theses particular cases (Shakespeare/Marlowe and Kane/Finger), the ideas, philosophies, and ethos of the authors live on in their work, even if the precise identity of those artists can’t always be established with certainty.

      Thank you so much, David, for lending your perspective to this conversation. Please keep me in the loop on your own research, as I’m now quite taken with this literary mystery!

      Sean

      • In general agree with you Sean, but the case of Finger/Kane does not compare to Marlowe/Shakespeare, because Marlowe wasn’t obscure; he was the reigning poet-playwright of the late 80s’-early-90’s. Less than two weeks after his sudden and mysterious murder, a poet masterpiece “Venus and Adonis” appeared in print with no name on the title page, etc. It contains echoes of Hero and Leander (by Marlowe, which hadn’t yet been published). There’s a great deal of circumstantial evidence, certainly enough to prove beyond a *reasonable* doubt, that Marlowe, not Shakspere of Stratford, authored not only those poems, but also Rape of Lucrece, the promised “graver labor” of 1594. The rest is history. But I don’t expect all the works of literature to change the name from “Shakespeare” to Marlowe for two important reasons. 1) it would like changing books by Mark Twain to Samuel Clemens. Shakespeare was Marley’s adopted pen name. and 2) It would be wildly impractical. HOWEVER, the b.s. biography of Shakspere/ Shakespeare would be revised over time, but the works would remain the same, and the plays would be invested with renewed excitement as the words on the page gain deeper meaning. Such as the words from the sonnet “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state….”. I am not impressed by Oxford Press giving Marlowe “co-author” credit with “Shakespeare” obviously, because if he WAS Shakespeare, then who was he collaborating with? I think it was a publicity ploy with the new edition of Shakespeare plays coming out. They haven’t released their research yet. My own research is bearing fruit in an epic essay I’ve been working on over the years, *The Marliad*, in which I attempt to create sympathy for Marley/Marlowe as free-thinker victim of a repressive church-state. Along those lines, I recently composed some verses on the First Folio hoax of 1623. If you’re interested in reading, email me at editor[at]marlovian.com. I’d like your neophytic take on the effectiveness of my (*Hamilton* infused) rhetoric. . 😉

        • No, you’re right: The two cases don’t bear much in common, save the fact that both Marlowe and Finger were both recently granted co-authorship credits. Finger’s contributions to the Batman mythos aren’t in dispute, only the question of whether he’s entitled to shared attribution. But that’s a contractual issue — a legal matter — versus what we have with Shakespeare/Marlowe, which is a true literary and historical mystery (much more so than I realized when I plucked the example out of a hat). I never considered the possibility that Oxford put Marlowe’s name on the new edition as a cynical publicity stunt, but it certainly stands to reason; such a thing would cast their decision in a whole new light. But I didn’t give the matter full review as it was secondary to the thesis of this particular post.

          You, on the other hand, are clearly steeped in this subject — I checked out the Marlowe Lives! Association website — and I would be absolutely curious to know more about it, so I will e-mail you about reading a draft of “The Marliad.” But as someone who has himself been intermittently fascinated with a very different (and admittedly not altogether analogous) historical mystery — the Kennedy assassination — I wonder if this, too, is a rabbit hole that leads everywhere and nowhere? I don’t mean to denigrate the research or the sincere efforts to get to the truth, mind you, but is this the kind of matter that can ever be truly settled? I don’t know the answer.

          You know, prolific television producer Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue) once said that a work of art is valuable not for the answers it provides but rather the questions it raises. Perhaps, then, that’s the case here, too — that resolving the issue is subordinate to bringing awareness to it. History is a mystery, to a large extent, and the truth of it is informed as much by facts as by our (educated) interpretation of them. And just as Hamilton, in its particular way, is amending the history books with fuller, richer, more morally complex portraits of the stoic faces that grace our currency, perhaps the Marlovian theory deserves more “air time,” as it were, so folks can think it over and decide for themselves, even if the chances of cultural consensus are slim. So keep up the good work, Dave! I’ll be following your research with newfound interest…

          Sean

  4. Sean,
    I could feel your passion for this subject come right off the page. You bring up some very valid points. If the people originally working on the projects didn’t insist their names be put on the deal (whether they were allowed to or not is another story) then do we have just another case of modern times believing everyone deserves a trophy? “Well, I swept the floor around him while he wrote. It’s my story too.” Or do we have circumstances where writers didn’t know well enough to fight for their rights? Either way, you’ve educated us enough to know, if we worked on, make darn sure your name shows up somewhere. Thanks!!!

    • Thanks, Stacey, for weighing in! That’s an interesting point you raise — one I hadn’t considered in quite those cogent terms: that perhaps the posthumous-attribution pattern that’s been emerging (first with Kane/Finger and now with Shakespeare/Marlowe) is emblematic of the everyone-gets-a-trophy worldview that’s emerged since the Millennials came of age. There may very well be something to that. And I am by no means a hardliner who believes “the way it’s been is the way it should always be”; quite the contrary: I am a proud progressive who embraces the idea that oftentimes in order to move forward, the misconceptions and/or injustices of the past need to be formally and decisively rectified. But as I said in my response to Marc, if Finger himself never lobbied on his own behalf for credit (and he had ample opportunity), why are we taking up the cause?

      But taking it up we are: As you can see from some of the responses, this piece (against my expectations) yielded input from both Finger and Marlowe experts alike! Which is wonderful — I wanted the post to provoke some friendly debate, and I’ve already learned a few new things from both Dave and Marc. We should discuss these things — thoroughly — before arriving at a collective cultural conclusion as to who deserves credit for what. Because if works as impactful and immortal as Batman and Shakespeare can find their creatorship challenged decades — even centuries — after the fact, that puts everything up for debate. So, we might be wise to have some protocols in place for whatever (if anything) gets called into question next…

      Sean

    • Marc,

      I certainly couldn’t have asked for a more thorough point-by-point response, which I thank you for; I had hoped to get an opposing viewpoint here in the comments, and you are perhaps the authority of record on this particular dispute, with a clear passion for it and more-than-ample facts to support your position.

      I knew when I published this piece I was taking a controversial stance, as most who are in the know about this matter have ardently and vocally supported the case for Finger’s shared creatorship credit for years (decades, even). As you likely surmised from the post itself, my intention was not to denigrate or downplay Finger’s creative contributions to the character and mythos — far from it — only to take an objective step back and question whether he is, in fact, deserving of attribution by every meaningful metric. I think we both agree that it’s a big deal to anoint someone the co-creator of any artistic work, certainly one as culturally impactful as Batman, and, in this particular instance, so many years after the fact. And if Finger himself didn’t fight for credit or make a claim to creatorship, publicly or privately, shouldn’t that be taken into consideration? (And I’m assuming that’s the case based on your assertion that Bill didn’t “out himself,” but feel free to clarify.) For the record: I am not a Kane defender, either — not that I’ve been accused as such — though he has been, rightly or wrongly, vilified in this matter to an almost cartoonish extent as a credit-hogging huckster who proactively hid his best kept secret, Finger, from public view. I’ll let you be the judge as to whether or not that portrayal is just; I can’t speak to it except to say that surely Kane’s own misgivings, as expressed in his autobiography, paint a portrait of a more complicated man, and a more complicated business relationship, than the one of comic-shop folklore?

      Regardless, the debate, I suppose, is moot: Bill Finger’s name now sits alongside Kane’s as creator of Batman. But let’s hope it ends there. Let’s hope the next phase isn’t to get Kane’s name removed from the byline. If he had as little to do with the character’s conception as many of Finger’s supporters insist (and for the sake of argument, I’ll stipulate that they are correct), there would certainly be just cause to do it. And that’s what I find unsettling about posthumous creatorship augmentation: It sets a precedent whereby uninvolved parties — often generations removed from the artists whom they are campaigning either for or against — get to decide who gets credit for a particular work of art, altering the (admittedly very possibly inaccurate or incomplete) historical record in the process. (I’m not sure, by the way, the Thirteenth Amendment, a piece of federal legislation that affected millions of lives as well as the course of history, is an apt comparison to what was a private business contract; even if Finger’s lack of credit was an injustice, it’s a false equivalency.) That’s the larger issue that troubles me, and we’ve now seen two cases of it in a row: first Kane/Finger, and now Shakespeare/Marlowe. And if this marks the beginning of what’s about to become a pattern — one that may very well (hopefully) not come to pass — we need to establish stringent burden-of-proof criteria that must come with challenging and possibly changing the creatorship attribution of a given work of fiction. I’m not saying it should never be done — and, hell, maybe it was warranted in Finger’s case (history has spoken on that one) — but it’s a power that should be exercised extremely judiciously. That’s what I’m lobbying for.

      In closing, I absolutely echo your sentiment of thanks on this holiday weekend for Batman, for Bill, for Kane, and for a healthy culture of friendly debate. After all, we’re all fans here…

      Happy Thanksgiving, my friend,

      Sean

  5. Thought-provoking post! Had no idea about a lot of the issues you raised until I read this. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks, Jed! As you can see from some of the responses here in the comments, opinions are all over the spectrum on this matter, with supporters of both Finger and Marlowe making their cases heard. My objective wasn’t necessarily to compare the two instances — other than noting that they are both recent high-profile examples of posthumous co-authorship designation for longstanding works of fiction previously attributed to a single creator — nor to really make an argument for or against either, so much as it was to point out that this is rather quietly becoming a pattern, and maybe that’s a trend we should stop and scrutinize before it becomes commonplace (and with any luck, it won’t).

      I appreciate that you took the time to read and comment, sir!

      Sean

  6. It was refreshing to read another of your posts after some time away from catching up on the writings of my blogging friends, Sean.

    It was equally interesting to read everyone’s comments.

    That said, for all of the debate and argument and persuasion, the thoughts looming largest as I read were these:

    1. In the case of modern examples, it seems that debate only gets heated when money comes into it. In a way, that makes me sad, because I imagine the young creators (whoever they may have been) in their exuberance and naïvety having been excited about the creative process itself, with no thought of estates or legacies or film franchises. I imagine them creating or contributing because they loved the ideas, the possibilities. I imagine pats on the back and genuine outbursts of excitement: “Yeah! That’s terrific! And what if …”

    2. In the case of long deceased creators, it seems academic and moot — more a reason for people to engage in debate and one-upmanship than a case of personal stakes in the matter.

    3. It’s been a while since I’ve seen anyone use “abecedarian” in the actual flow of writing, and this brought me joy.

    • Erik! Happy New Year! So nice to have you back, old pal!

      There’s no question that no one could have foreseen, in the waning days of the Depression, that children’s characters created to fill the monthly pages of “worthless” pulp magazines would one day become billion-dollar corporate assets, and, as such, their creators — who were typically mere hired hands just happy to have the work — often didn’t adequately share in the substantial revenues their brainchildren generated over the decades that followed. It’s not the first time such bad deals have been struck in a burgeoning new media landscape: Early screenwriters (most of whom were novelists and/or playwrights churning out scripts on the side for the studios) didn’t anticipate movies ever eclipsing novels and stage plays as the preeminent form of mass entertainment, so they basically signed away their proprietary rights to the materials in favor of cash-in-hand compensation; once that bad precedent got set, however, control over the IPs — and all the power that bestows — became the exclusive and perpetual domain of the corporate entities that produced them, not the writers who created them. The Hollywood we now have today, in which the best a writer can hope for is to be a hired hand on the next Batman or Star Wars or The Fast and the Furious, can trace its lineage to a bunch of shortsighted decisions — i.e., take the money and run — that got made before anyone could fathom the immense popularity and influence the nascent medium would one day (soon) achieve. Once made, such decisions cannot be reversed, as the people with their hands on the levers of power have no incentive to share in that. So whether it was eagerness and naïveté (as in the case of many early comic-book artists) or short-term greed and lack of vision (Hollywood screenwriters), many of those who conceived some of our most cherished pop-cultural institutions didn’t commensurately partake in the wealth they have returned. Because that’s the thing about a creative business — it is a business. And business is often ugly: I can testify firsthand that working in the film industry for the last umpteen years has irreversibly poisoned many once-great friendships, trampled the collaborative spirit that inspired me to get into this business in the first place, and even taken the joy out of movies for me — perhaps permanently. (That’s a subject for another post, though.)

      But I digress. Look, writers should all be wary of bad deals, and that’s why it pays to have trusted counsel looking out for our interests, be it a lawyer or agent or what have you (and the “trusted” part is key). And even though history can’t be undone, we can certainly learn from it moving forward — and many, accordingly, have since benefited from the wisdom of the experiences of Kane and Finger, Siegel and Shuster, et al. In the particular case of Kane/Finger, though, I feel very strongly that it isn’t our place to renegotiate that deal in absentia, if for no other reason than the two men who entered into it never themselves sought to redefine its terms: Kane never saw fit to grant Finger a byline despite having expressed explicit reservations about their lopsided arrangement later in life, and Finger never petitioned for official co-creatorship acknowledgement to anyone’s awareness, per his biographer and advocate — and authority on this matter — Marc Tyler Nobleman. So, whoever’s being enriched by Finger’s newfound attribution, it certainly ain’t Finger himself, which makes me wonder if all this is really about legacy, or if it is in fact about what it’s always been about: money — somebody profiting other than the person who actually did the work. I hate to cast cynical aspersions on people whose motivations are entirely unknown to me (meaning the Finger estate), and I stipulate that many fans of Bill Finger — as emblemized by Nobleman, whose motives, like his name, seem perfectly noble — genuinely and magnanimously celebrate DC’s formal recognition of Finger’s contributions, but what, I ask, is the point in correcting an “injustice” that was never even identified as such by the perceived victim? Unless, of course, someone is benefitting financially from it…

      What can I say? Art and commerce have always been strange bedfellows.

      Hey, man — so nice to have you join the discussion! Here’s to more of that in the New Year…

      Sean

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