Batman 75: Bill Finger – The Man Who Co-Created Batman
Have you heard? 2014 is the 75 year anniversary of Batman’s first appearance in the comics! In fact, according to Superman: An Unauthorized Biography (available here) and Caped Crusader (due next year) author Glen Weldon’s Twitter feed from yesterday:
However, did you know that originally Batman was supposed to look a lot like this:
That was drawn by artist Ty Templeton earlier this year to highlight Bill Finger’s contributions to the Batman mythos. Wait, who the heck is this Bill Finger guy, who would have turned 100 this year were he still alive? Bob Kane created Batman. Everyone knows that. Well, define “created.”
Here’s how it went down: in 1939, National Publications (early version of DC) was riding high on Superman, which had debuted a year prior. So, they sent out a request to all of their writers: give us another Superman! Bob Kane had worked with several publishers by that point, creating funny animals (Peter Pupp) and adventure stories (Rusty and His Pals). He heard National’s call, and in brainstorming a new Superman he came up with the idea of a superhero named Bat-Man. As depicted by Templeton, Kane’s early character designs kind of looked Superman with a different color design, blonde hair, and giant black bat wings affixed to his back:
Kane showed his designs to Bill Finger, an up and comer then serving as a ghost writer (meaning he wrote the dialogue and story, didn’t draw) for Kane’s Rusty and Clip Carson strips. To begin with, Finger suggested completely dropping any notion of this character being supernatural, but instead a normal man who trained himself to be the world’s greatest detective. He then suggested changes to every single aspect of Finger’s drawing – drop the red in the suit, replace it with grey, convert the domino mask into a bat-shaped cowl with slits for eyes to look more mysterious, convert the wings to a flowing cape, and add gloves so he won’t leave behind fingerprints. To put it another way, Finger suggested all the changes that made him into the Batman we know today. Moreover, it was actually Finger who wrote the story for Batman’s first appearance, in Detective Comics #27. In so doing, he’s the one who created the name Bruce Wayne, a combination of the names Robert Bruce (a 14th century Scottish king/warrior instrumental in the fight against England for independence) and Mad Anthony Wayne (a fiery United States military leader during the Revolutionary War). Plus, he also created and named Commissioner Gordon.
This is not to say Bob Kane contributed nothing to the creation of his famous character or that Finger’s contributions were entirely original. Kane and Finger both were lifting their ideas from Lee Falk’s comic strip The Phantom, The Mark of Zorro (1920) and The Bat Whispers (1930) films, and pulp heroes like Doc Savage, The Shadow, and Sherlock Holmes. As Glen Weldon alluded to with the “75 years ago today a costumed killer began his murder spree” portion of his tweet, in those early days Batman was a straight up murderer, ala any number of pulp characters from the era.
So, it’s not exactly like there had never been anything like Batman pre-Bob Kane and Bill Finger. However, there hadn’t been a character in that exact costume, with a civilian name of Bruce Wayne, and working with a police commissioner whose last name was Gordon. How that came about is mostly Bob Kane had a name (Bat-Man) and a crude drawing, and Bill Finger took it from there. At the very least, they co-created the character together just as Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster co-created Superman. However, whereas those two were partners Finger was under Kane’s thumb, who had no issue with taking sole credit for all of the work. Finger, after all, was just Kane’s ghost writer. That’s how ghost writing works – work for pay, not credit. So, when Kane first showed the finished version of Batman to National he did so without Bill, and subsequently negotiated with National as if he were the only involved party in the creation of the character. The 20-year contract he signed with National to produce Batman stories stipulated that all Batman comics would carry a Bob Kane byline (or, as it turns out, at least include his name on the title page of each story).
This pattern of behavior would continue with Bob Kane for the rest of his career. By 1946, Kane had ceased doing any of his own drawing, hiring Lew S. Schwartz to ghost draw for him from 1946 to 1953 and Sheldon Moldoff from 1953 to 1967. Kane survived long enough to even pose for the following picture on the set of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman:
Sadly, Finger died in 1974 at the age of 59, and it was only after his passing that Kane finally acknowledged his contributions to the co-creation of Batman. Before he left working for Kane Finger also created or co-created Robin, the Batmobile and Batcave, the Penguin, Calender Man, and was at least around for the earliest stories of villains like the Riddler and The Joker. Finger later wrote for film and TV, even penning the Clock King two-parter from the second season of the Adam West Batman show.
Here’s what Carmine Infantino said about Bill Finger on the inside cover of the Famous First Edition reprint of Batman #1: