Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Fingering through the dictionary

The story goes that back in 1939, cartoonist Bob Kane called writer Bill Finger with a barebones idea for a new character name of Batman. (Some say Kane didn’t get past calling him Birdman or Bird-Man, but that’s a topic for another post.)

The story continues that Finger went over to Kane’s apartment to help Kane improve the character. Seeing Kane’s design (which you’ll read more about in my upcoming book), Finger said it didn’t look intimidating enough to merit the “bat” motif.


So he pulled a dictionary from the shelf to show Kane the picture of “bat,” after which he (Finger) suggested that this character rock a cowl with pointy ears, like the real deal.


Inspired by pop culture writer/designer Arlen Schumer, I wanted to pinpoint just what stippled drawing Finger and Kane would most likely have been referring to; Schumer hunted that bat for an article for Alter Ego (reprinted in The Comic Book Artist Collection, volume 1) and found this:


To pull tight the timeline, I contacted Merriam-Webster. The company confirmed that the most recent edition in 1939 was the 1937. Upon request, they kindly e-mailed me scans of various angles including the cover, spine, and “bat” spread. I wanted these so I could pass on the authenticity to the illustrator of my book.

Here's the cover:


Here’s the spread:


But a throwaway detail in this Finger/Kane dictionary story has long tripped me up.

The location of the dictionary.


No, not that it was on a shelf.


That it was in Kane's apartment.


As Will Eisner said and multiple others echoed in their own words, “Bob wasn’t an intellectual.”


This is not to imply that only intellectuals own dictionaries. But it doesn't take a detective to figure out that Finger, a voracious reader in continual pursuit of self-education, was more likely than Kane to have one at the ready.


On 6/19/07, I asked early and pivotal Batman artist Jerry Robinson if he thought Finger would’ve gone to Kane’s apartment that day, or vice versa. Jerry wasn’t there but he met and began working with both men later that same year, the first year of Batman, so he knew them as well if not better than most at the time.


I didn’t indicate what I was getting at by asking, yet Jerry was a bound ahead. He said that if a dictionary was on hand, the apartment had to be Finger’s.


Which had been my hunch as well.


Only one other source I’ve found has Kane going to Finger’s for that fateful costume fitting—an article by Gerard Jones, author of Men of Tomorrow, that ran in The Times (London) in 2005.


I don’t know if that was an intentional flip-flop on Jones’s part; it’s unlikely any firm proof exists, so perhaps he was simply making the same assumption Robinson and I did.

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