Arnold Drake was a writer who co-created DC Comics characters Deadman and the Doom Patrol; both will star in a movie or TV show before long. He was also a compatriot of Bill Finger, so I interviewed Arnold for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. Arnold passed away less than a year later; this may be the last interview he gave.
The interview is transcribed (and slightly edited) from a
recording, as I did with all the interviews in this series (Jerry Robinson, Shelly Moldoff, Lew Sayre Schwartz, Alvin Schwartz, Joe Kubert, Arnold Drake, Carmine Infantino, Irwin Hasen).
What was Bill Finger’s personality like?
He was a complicated guy. (pause) You know a good deal about his talent, obviously.
Yes. There’s a lot about his Batman work but I haven’t yet found much on his texture as a man, as a person.
I never got very close to him because frankly I was kind of wary of being too close to him. The man was deeply troubled and a decent enough guy but a guy who with all of his talent really didn’t believe in himself. I stayed away because he reminded me too much of things within myself and I didn’t want to get too close to that. I tried to be friendly but I never became a friend as such. His marriage was not a good one. I don’t think his relationship with [his son] Freddie was great but I’m not even sure about that.
When you say he was troubled, in what sense?
Depression, I guess. I think he was a lifelong depressive. I think it had something to do with what in those days we used to treat as a kind of joke, which was his inability to meet a deadline. And the reason for that I think was that he was a perfectionist, which is the other side of the coin of not believing in yourself, kind of. If you’re enough of a perfectionist, you’re going to throw doubt into yourself, you have to, because we don’t any of us turn out perfect product. So you’re going to keep meeting with disappointment and no matter how happy the editor may be you walk away not feeling satisfied. And I think that that constantly happened to Bill. And I think that explains why he keep missing the dates that he had on his stuff, his deadlines, because I think he rewrote and rewrote.
Did you ever see him in a social setting?
Again, not really. He invited me into it several times and I kind of turned away from it and I’m awfully sorry now that I did. I knew some of the people he hung out with, I knew that part of town. He lived in the Village most of his life. [talks about how he knows the Village, how costs skyrocketed and upper middle class moved in and chased artists and writers out, who then moved to the East Village, and the upper middle class followed them almost instantly to the East Village and chased them out of there as well] If Bill were alive today, he would probably be living either under the Brooklyn Bridge or out in Hoboken ‘cause that’s where the artists and writers have gone, again to escape the Manhattan real estate prices.
Do you think he was proud of his Batman work?
I think he was but I think he took it for granted almost. I think he took great pride in almost anything he did. Could be wrong. He was very diligent in his fashion. Took copious notes. He had books full of notes on his characters on ideas that he had and titles that he had.
They were like notebooks?
Did you ever see his workspace or his apartment?
Do you know if he ever read fan mail about Batman?
I don’t know that the editors shared it with him. I think that there was a pretty clear attempt to keep the writers and artists from being in contact with their fans, with their audience. The fans had to find ways of knowing who they were and where they were because DC was not interested in any kind of contact. They didn’t want the writers and the artists to know each other too well. That worked to their advantage. [talks about his attempt to start a writers/artists guild] Finger was involved with us in that. He was one of the organizers in that.
Was he good at that kind of thing, organizing?
Not particularly but he was somewhat enthusiastic about it. I would guess he was a political progressive, so the idea of building a guild made sense to him. A lot of the artists were socially politically conservative. So their attitude was “We’re not workers, we’re artists. Workers join guilds, not artists.” When I would point out to them that the Screen Writers Guild—of which I’ve been a member since something like 1964—had organized all the good screenwriters and that the first ones to join were the most successful ones, they just didn’t want to listen to that kind of junk. Years later, after I left DC there was an [unintelligible]. [talked a bit about how writers/artists have made gains in last 20 years but still need to do more because they’re not organized, can be taken away from them]
Do you know if Bill was discouraged from telling people that he was writing Batman?
I don’t know. When they would give you a rate increase they would ask you not to tell other writers and artists that you had gotten the increase, so I think probably they told him they would not like him to [leave?] that around. Of course they allowed Kane to take credit over and over. He signed his work, he signed other people’s work and called it his and became famous for being the father of Batman. But he was no more the father of Batman than Finger was.
Do you think they should share credit?
Do you think Finger deserves more than Kane?
I think Finger probably does, but nevertheless I think that they should share the credit. Finger’s been established within the field. I think people know what Kane was, which was pretty phony.
Did you know him too?
I knew Bob very well.
Did you talk with him about Bill about Bill had died?
Yes. It was only after Bill died that Kane was willing to talk about how important Bill was to the Batman legend.
But never so far that he would change his contract to include Bill’s name?
No. He did make public statements. He would stand in front of a crowd of people and say Bill Finger was a major contributor, but he would not say Bill Finger was one of the creators. He just said he made an enormous contribution.
Can you think of any anecdotes about him as a person that might be interesting to younger people?
His background, like many of us from that same generation, a lot of it was in early science fiction. I’m sure he was an avid reader of Jules Verne and A. Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells and the Americans who started coming in in the 1920s in the science fiction pulps. I think he was a big science fiction pulp reader. I don’t know that he wrote any of that stuff. I got in on the tail end of it.
Were you in touch with Bill shortly before his death?
No, I’d been out of DC for a while at that time, so I was not in touch with him at that point. What did he die of?
I believe it was a heart attack. Do you remember hearing about it at the time?
I didn’t know until a little while later. It seems to me I was at his funeral, if I recall correctly. There were like three funerals within a few years of each other. Finger, and Miller, one of the editors—freelance writer who became an editor, and who was the other…
Do you know where Bill was buried?
I think he’s got a military grave but I’m not sure because I’m not sure that he served. I don’t know if Bill served or not. Do you know?
I haven’t seen that he did.
Seems to me he did not.
So you don’t know where his—
No, I don’t know where he’s buried.
Do you know anybody who would know that?
I don’t know anybody who might. Well, there’s one possibility and that’s [onetime writer/editor] George Kashdan [NOTE: neither of us knew at the time, but Kashdan had died on 6/3/06—five days earlier]. But George is in a recovery house kind of place out in California. [Arnold did lot of work for George] Bill died…Freddie came around and tried to get some money out of the company, which is disturbing to realize that they had given Finger so little and that his kid was coming around begging. I think he may have gotten a few bucks. But on his way out, he stopped to chat with me briefly, and he mentioned that he had sold some of his father’s comic book collection. And I said who did you sell it to? So he said, well, you know there are quite a few people who are beginning to collect those things. Now that was new. What year did you say Bill died?
This was probably ‘75. In ‘75, that was fairly new. Thirty years ago there weren’t too many people who were beginning to…I’m sure there were a number of people who collected it but did not think of it as being a very active area, marketplace, what have you. But when Freddie told me that, this was when I began to save comics. Up to that point, I’d been giving them to my kid who learned to read from them, and then when she was done with them, I would chuck them. But when Freddie said, no it’s beginning to be a marketplace, I started to save my stuff. I got about 800 books now.
So you don’t have the originals of your first Deadman or Doom Patrol stories?
Yes, I do. I don’t have the manuscripts. I have the original magazines.
Did Freddie look like Bill?
No he didn’t. Freddie was heavier. Bill was always pretty skinny. I don’t know that Bill ate too well. Maybe Freddie ate a little too much. Freddie died young.
I read that he died of AIDS. Do you know if that’s true?
I think that’s probably true.
Was he gay?
Do you know if Bill had siblings?
I haven’t heard of any.
I suppose you don’t know anything about Bill’s parents?
No. I assume that Bill was Jewish.
But it wasn’t a factor that manifested itself?
I don’t think he had any real religion, no. It was a period of being irreligious. First World War, the Depression, all of that that came with it made that generation ask a lot of questions. One of the questions was, why is God letting something like this happen unless maybe there is no God? So I think Bill went through that. It was the intellectual position.
What year were you born?
You’re a bit younger than him.
I think he was born in ‘14. [yes]
Are you still in touch with any of the guys from your era in the comics industry?
I’m in touch with Alvin [Schwartz], I’m in touch with George Kashdan, as I said. I’m in touch with Carmine Infantino. We have dinner every couple of weeks.
What else do I know about Bill…when Bill was looking for an idea for Batman, one of the tricks that he used was to open up the Yellow Pages in the phone book and just kind of ripple through it. Where his fingers stopped he’d say, “Piano tuner…I wonder if there’s a story in a piano tuner?” And another thing he would do is sit on a bus and drive through the city and look at the signs, the store signs. And all of these were springboards, ways of getting off the ground with something that might never occur to him otherwise. Every writer has his own tricks.
[I said shame those gimmick books gone, Arnold said Freddie might’ve sold them, was pretty desperate, I said they’d be valuable today]
Are you feeling okay?
I’ve had a little trouble with my balance. As you get older, it doesn’t get better. I don’t do a hell of a lot of walking, which is unfortunate because it used to be one of my favorite activities. Now three or four blocks is probably it for me.
[Arnold lived in Manhattan since got married 1951]
Anybody who wrote in that period as I did, they’re not wealthy. They made so much money off of us.
[Arnold relayed how he had just drawn up contract with DC about Deadman and his other characters in case they make movies/shows; he approached them, not the other way around; said his name doesn’t now appear on his creations but it will soon; if you fight for it they’ll do it; took them four months to agree; almost more adamant about the “created by” than the money itself; most concerned about Deadman and Beast Boy, his hottest characters; would be very interested to know if my book comes to pass; he has been doing interviews with people like me for well over 35 years and has collected more than 20 of them and they might form spine of book of his own]