Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Response to one belief that Bill Finger should NOT be credited for Batman

In his article "The Man Behind the Mask: On the Creation of Batman—and Rewriting Authorship Itself" (posted on 11/18/16), writer Sean P. Carlin explains why he feels that adding Bill Finger's name to the Batman credit line after 76 years is unjust.


No surprise, I disagree. My reasons why, counterpoint by point (key parts bolded):

SPC: 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.

MTN: Batman was not a work-for-hire, though you may not be implying that he was. Upon learning how much the Superman co-creators were making, Bob boasted to Vin that for that kind of money, he could come up with a new superhero over the weekend.


"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"

Bob did not write a single Batman story in his life.


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). 

Hardly anecdotal, and not at all conflicting. That's something that struck me during my research for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman—though at first the story seems controversial, when you take a step back it actually isn't because there is virtually no dispute over any of the contributions that have been ascribed (partially or fully) to Bill. Even Bob himself credited Bill for a significant amount of the mythos (even the costume); see his autobiography Batman & Me.

But Bob, of course, had a history of being an unreliable source; therefore, when he DID give credit to someone other than himself, it carries more weight.

In 2006, I individually interviewed eight creators from the Golden Age who all knew Bill and Bob personally (Jerry Robinson, Shelly Moldoff, Lew Sayre Schwartz, Alvin Schwartz, Joe Kubert, Arnold Drake, Carmine Infantino, Irwin Hasen). All of their accounts of who did what aligned, and none had anything to gain by lying. (All, sadly, have since died.) You can read those interviews (plus a few more) here.

Incidentally, I commented on that Susan Karlin article within a day or two of it posting; both my comments and statements made by DC Comics historian Steve KortĂ© have since been removed—but not before I documented them on my blog. It seems safe to say that DC requested the removal of Steve's statements because DC recognized that those statements were incorrect


The only proof-positive documentation we have is Kane's contract with DC, which names him sole creator. 

Since we know of no one outside of DC Comics top brass who has seen this contract, it cannot be considered "proof-positive." 


folkloric characters like Batman are influenced by and evolved through the creative input of untold artists

Of course every character that endures long enough to be written/drawn by anyone other than its creator(s) will be reinterpreted on some level. However, a character is CREATED only once, by the person or persons who were in the room on day 1. In this case, that is Bill Finger and Bob Kane.


back in the early days, credit attribution didn't necessarily mean a whole lot

This was true for many but not all; obviously credit meant a lot to Bob Kane. 


"I think it sets a bad precedent," I finally answered.

The 2015 Bill Finger announcement was the biggest case of a comics creator receiving belated or posthumous credit, but it was not the first. At least as far back as the early 2000s, DC comic books began to include previously unidentified creators of certain superheroes (for example, Paul Norris was credited for Aquaman for the first time in #7 of his 2003 series, issue dated 8/03). Some if not all of these changes were likely due to behind-closed-door negotiations between DC and creators or their heirs. These negotiations were not publicized so as not to embolden other creators or heirs who had not yet pursued equal treatment. Shortly before his death in 2007, Arnold Drake (Deadman, Doom Patrol, Beast Boy) told me that this had happened with him. In 2011, Carmine Infantino told me of a similar situation (and died two years later).


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.

If Bill Finger was one of them, he didn't explicitly confirm this in any of his four known interviews (Bails 1965, Fagan 1965, Steranko 1970, Porfirio 1972). It is telling that Bill did not out himself—fan-turned-detective-turned-crusader Jerry Bails did, in 1965. (By the way, this is both a compliment to and a criticism of Bill, but that's another story.)


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.

We need "no more"—what is already documented is enough. See Bob's book, the aforementioned four interviews with Bill, the interviews with the Golden Agers who worked with both, 1960s letter column comments by editor Julie Schwartz, and numerous other instances in DC publications—for starters. Again, aside from Bob taking credit for ideas and characters that even he later credited Bill for, no one else I know of (and I consulted 200+ people in comics, Bill's family, etc.) has disputed Bill's contributions to Batman. The issue has not been "who did what" since before 1965.


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 conflicting statements from the people involved, many if not most of them now deceased. 

Again, aside from Bob contradicting himself over years, I found no conflicting statements either in print or in the original interviews I conducted in 2006. Fanboys were not repeating falsehoods.


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. 

Again, that's been happening for years. So because it's now happened for Bill—by far the most high profile of such cases—speaks to the viability of the matter. DC would not add Bill's name to Batman simply to appease fanboys, not least of which because it may well have prompted other heirs who didn't know about the quieter cases like Arnold Drake's to file a claim. The company credited Bill because pressure was finally applied resting on proof that had been present for decades.


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. 

Contracts in every industry are renegotiated all the time. Just because something was once signed does not mean it is valid forevermore—otherwise, as but one example, slavery would still be legal in the United States.


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.

Again, since said contract has not been publicly shared, it cannot be said that DC breached it. I am the supporter you refer to, and the "hotly disputed" phrase refers specifically to the Joker, and previously to Robin—not to Bill's role overall. (As I say in my book, Bob said he and Bill created the Joker, Jerry Robinson said HE and Bill created the Joker…so the constant is Bill. That is all I meant by "disputed.")


The resolution to the Kane/Finger dispute isn't justice; quite the opposite, in fact. 

This is subjective, of course, but to me and legions of fans (not to mention legions more who are not Batman fans but have been won over by this story through my talks across four continents and twice as many years), this is most certainly justice. Perhaps even Bob's family thinks so; as you noted, they've made no public statement in the 14 months since the announcement. 


But even if not, the Bill Finger credit resolution exemplifies the essence of what Batman himself stands for—defending the underdog, even if he is no longer here to benefit from it, but more importantly, and quite simply, righting a wrong.

On this Thanksgiving Eve, I give thanks for Bill, thanks to you for listening, and thanks for a country in which a dialogue like the above is possible.

3 comments:

Sean Carlin said...

Mark,

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 to my post, 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 the 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 altogether. 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

Sean Carlin said...

And, Marc, apologies for misspelling your name above!

Bob Rivard said...

I have yet to read the post you are taking issue with, so I'm contributing my own thoughts here, which may very well coincide with his. Kane promised Sullivan a superhero, Kane delivered one, and Sullivan bought it. DC paid Kane. DC didn't know or care what if any assistants Kane used on his own dime. That much is fact.

What Kane did to inspire, beg, cajole, or pay for ideas he could use is open to debate. Kane was using Finger to ghostwrite earlier strips, so no doubt he turned to "his" writer to work on the new assignment, and he likely paid him for it. What if he had turned to a wife, his mother, a neighbor kid, a barber, for their opinions on the costume? Are they creators now? Finger lifted the script of "The Case of The Chemical Syndicate" practically intact from a Shadow story. Does Walter B. Gibson get creator credit?

I don't argue that Finger didn't contribute amazing stories and great ideas. But sometimes, when you're just a hired part of the construction crew, you don't get to put your name on the building no matter how great a job you do.

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