Lew Sayre Schwartz was an artist most associated with Batman. I interviewed Lew for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. He passed away in 2011.
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 like?
I did not know him at all.
Do you know anything about him?
Most certainly. I think Bob Kane failed to credit him along the way for the creation of Batman and always stated some regret as long as he didn’t have to put it in writing.
Do you think that they should share equal billing?
You’ve got to put it this way. I worked on many of Bill Finger’s stories. Are you familiar with what I did for Bob Kane? I worked for Bob almost seven years. Early on, most of the scripts that I got were Bill Finger’s. They were always the most imaginative; they were always the best stories. They were the most visual and creative of…I did about 115 stories between ‘47 and ‘53.
How the situation worked, which might be of interest to you, Bob Kane never liked to let anybody know that somebody else is doing the work. In my case, he was particularly interested in not letting DC know because his contract called for I think 12 stories, I’m not positive of that, and with me he did 24. I was very happy to get the work. I was very happy to remain anonymous. I never met anybody at DC. All of the guys—Shelly, Dick Sprang—I never met any of those guys. The only one I knew was Jerry Robinson and Jerry and I have been good friends for many years. And I actually replaced Jerry. What Bob would do is take my pencils and this is very interesting because for a long period of time DC has very nicely credited the artist. And there would be a little bio in Batman in the ‘50s, for example. Apparently, Bob wrote my bio and it was a lie from the beginning. It said I did backgrounds and it was a long tutelage, if you will. I mean, I never saw the guy. We’d meet occasionally, but by and large he would mail me a script and I would do the pages and send them back to him and if you’ve seen Alter Ego, look at my pencils and you’ll see that I wasn’t doing backgrounds.
Where did you live at the time?
I lived in Wilton, Connecticut. I lived in Massachusetts for a short time. I was born here. But by and large I doubled Bob’s output. In effect, at the end of the year, I was paying for myself very handsomely because he’d pay me $100 which was good money at the time, especially for a kid, and he got $500. That’s okay. I might’ve done the same thing. I was very happy to get the $100. I thought I was being very well paid. In contrast to what some of those other guys were paying people, it was good money.
Do you have a sense of what Bill Finger’s contribution was besides what you already described? What aspects of Batman’s are his legacy?
Bob always commiserated that he didn’t give Bill Finger sufficient credit. Now I can only judge from the material that I worked with that Bill Finger sent and knowing Bob Kane that it was not Bob Kane alone who created Batman. I don’t think so.
Do you think that Bill should get equal credit if that were possible?
Well, I think he should get equal credit. If you talked to Jerry Robinson, you’ll find Jerry feels the same way.
When Bob said that he felt he wasn’t giving Bill enough credit, did you believe that or do you think that was just an act?
I think that understanding Bob’s ego—and translate this properly—Bob Kane was making big money when he was 18 years old by contrast of what anybody else was making. I don’t think he ever believed it and he was always afraid to give anybody credit for fear that he would lose it. So he became a sort of minor pseudo-celebrity. Ate it all up. But mostly everybody else was doing the work. And he was fortunate with people like Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang and Shelly Moldoff and a lot of talented guys who gave him the backup. Most of my things looked like Caniff. (laughs) Be that as it may, looking back, I couldn’t believe how many stories I did, but it’s true.
You never met Bill in person?
We never met.
You guys never even talked on the phone?
Nada. Too bad. I’ve never met Shel Moldoff, never met Dick Sprang.
[tells a Mort Weisinger story, how he hated Bob, for years Mort was trying to find out who Bob had doing the work, Lew worked in art department, did Bob’s work as freelance thing but was on staff at King Features, we had a phone booth in back of room, Mort went to the trouble of finding out the number and tried to nail me and called me at least two or three times, offered to buy lunch just to nail Bob, but I wouldn’t have any part of it, first of all didn’t like his manner when he spoke to me…apparently he (Mort) doesn’t enjoy a good reputation either]
Kane was just a frightened man and feared almost forever. Last time I spoke to Kane was probably ‘93. He called me from California. He had been trying to peddle his book since the late ‘70s and nobody would buy it. Batman and Me. And I congratulated him. I said “Bob, you finally made it. Be a good guy and send me a signed copy.” Dead silence. I said “What’s a matter, Bob?” He said “Well you’re not in it.” Sometimes you don’t come up with the right response. I said, “Gee, I only worked for you for seven years. I wouldn’t expect you to remember that.”
[I said how I don’t believe some of the book even though it’s an autobio]
Oh, you can’t. I haven’t read it, I haven’t bought it, and I have no interest in taking the time.
Well, it’s out of print.
(laughs) The first time I ever went up to DC was around ‘93 when I discovered I had royalties coming to me.
Have you ever heard any stories about Bill over the years?
You gotta talk to I would think the DC people that are still left that worked there when Bill Finger worked there. What about Paul Levitz? … All my peers are gone.
Well, I just talked to Shelly Moldoff and I’m going to talk to Jerry so you guys are hanging on.
Well, we’re lucky. The miracle of modern medicine is keeping a lot of people alive.
How do you feel these days?
I’m good. I had a six-month battle with a pinched nerve but I finally hit the right doctor and he removed the problem. I can walk again and I’m getting around okay. And strangely enough I keep getting these requests for drawings.
I’m not surprised at all. Do you go to conventions?
Hardly. Once in a great while.
Who were your best friends in the industry?
Well, my mentor was Caniff. And I was very close to Stan Drake and Alex Raymond and I guess Mort Walker and that whole crew. Dik Browne. Dik Browne’s daughter Sally is my younger son’s godmother.
[I tell Lew he was part of the golden age of comics, he said it was not the newspapers]
I would have never ever said to Caniff that I was drawing Batman.
He didn’t even know?
In those days, working in the books was not exactly a class act. If you read through that Alter Ego piece—it’s tedious but there’s a lot there—I went into the film business and became a writer and director and producer. But all of my cartoon experience really had to do with growing up understanding sequential art, which is what film is.
I really appreciate your time.
It’s okay. I’m happy to be helpful. I would’ve loved—I heard Bill was a very sweet, very laid back guy, and he took a lot of crap from a lot of people unfortunately, and he was not well treated.
[said I’ll let him know if the book goes anywhere]
For Bill Finger’s memory, it would be very nice. It’s extraordinary that Batman even more so than Superman seems to continue to go on. … It’s inconceivable to me that Bob would’ve done anything by himself. I think the credit would be long overdue. He was apparently a very sweet guy and he got the shaft. He died a poor man, as were the circumstances surrounding Siegel and Shuster.
Did you know them, too?
Oh yeah. I was at Bob’s apartment the day they tried to get Bob to join the lawsuit.
Oh, you mean they came over? It was just the four of you?
Bob’s father was a very wise old Jewish guy and he said, “Listen, let them do what they want. But you’re doing good. Don’t touch it.” And his father was right.
So he said that once they were gone?
So there were five of you guys there?
Well, I didn’t sit in on the thing, I was in the other room. I knew them. That was the big day. They won. They won $2 million, the lawyers took a million, they split the other million, and three years later they were broke.
You’re talking about in the ‘40s, right?
Yeah. That was a lot of money in the ‘40s.
Do you know if Bill ever stuck up for himself or tried to get credit?
I don’t think so. What I knew about him, and Jerry would know better, he just did his job. Fortunately, he did it damn well. It’s funny because I got out of the comic business for a living in the mid-50s but I remember those scripts like it was yesterday.
Let me know if you make a hit.