Should October 24 be a day of celebration in the comics world?
That happens to be the birthday of Bob Kane, the co-creator of Batman. Kane, who died in 1998, helped bring to life one of the most popular characters in popular culture. That type of achievement should merit an annual parade being thrown in one's honor.
Except that according to nearly all accounts, the man who reaped the greatest rewards for the creation of the Dark Knight did so at the expense of others. To say Kane's legacy is complicated is to massively understate things.
As a young man in the 1930s, Kane toiled at the Eisner & Iger Studio, a sort-of comic book factory that packaged comic books to serve the high demand for the then-fledgling comics industry. After Superman became a blockbuster hit for DC Comics, Kane had an idea for a different type of superhero – The Bat-Man. Inspired by various pulp heroes, the character would be an instant hit upon his debut in Detective Comics #27.
Kane's early vision of the character included red tights and a winged costume. It was Bill Finger, who worked at Kane's studio as a ghostwriter, who would help create the visual aesthetic that would define Batman for all time. The cowl, the cape, and the darker color scheme for the costume all came from Finger. He came up with Gotham City, the Batcave, and the Batmobile, as well as Robin, Catwoman, and Commissioner Gordon. Finger even came up with the origin story of Bruce Wayne.
You tell me: Remove all those elements, and is the Bat-Man still Batman?
Kane was the rare Golden Age comics pro who had the foresight to negotiate a contract that earned him royalties. Because of that, from Batman's very first appearance in 'Tec #27 – in which he was credited as Rob't Kane – he always received creator credit and income. His contract with DC was one of the most lucrative in the industry at the time.
What did Bill Finger get? Not a damn thing, besides his daily page rate.
Finger's story is one of comics' true tragedies. Despite his incredibly important contributions, he died penniless in 1974. It wasn't until much later, thanks to folks in the comics press and author Marc Tyler Nobleman, who wrote the Finger biographical graphic novel Bill the Boy Wonder, that Finger received his proper due for his work in bringing Batman to life.
It was during the mid-'60s that Kane reached a crucial moment in his story, a moment where he could have done what his beloved Caped Crusader would be expected to do: the right thing. In 1965, after Finger made an appearance at one of the earliest comics fan conventions and discussed his role in creating Batman, Kane wrote a scathing letter to the Batmania fanzine denouncing Finger. The full letter is reprinted on Twomorrows.com. Here's a screengrab of a key part in the letter:
He not only didn't give Finger his due but issued as categorical a denial as was possible. Kane not only failed to do the right thing, he essentially called the man he once considered a friend a liar.
Kane spent decades basically coasting on others' efforts to enjoy a cushy existence. While he did actually work on the Batman comic strip in the 1940s, for the next 15-20 years guys like Dick Sprang and Shelly Moldoff worked as ghost artists drawing the pages that Kane would sign his name to. To be fair, this was not an uncommon industry practice at the time. But Kane certainly seemed to take it further than most.
Take the story that legendary Silver Age inker and Kane "ghost" Joe Giella told me during an interview for the BTP podcast on the 80th anniversary of Batman. Giella explained how Kane asked him to help out on a weekend TV show Kane hosted in the 1960s on which he would draw comics characters. According to Giella, Kane asked him to do a light pencil drawing beforehand that Kane would then trace over with a marker, letting the audience believe the drawing was all his.
Kane used so many "ghost artists" throughout his career, any original drawing or painting that comes to market as being done by "Bob Kane" is held up to great scrutiny by collectors. People simply don't trust that he did the work he signed his name to.
Years later, Kane made a stunning admission in his autobiography (mostly written by someone else, naturally) that if he could do it all over again, he would give Finger his due credit on Batman.
"Now that my long-time friend and collaborator is gone, I must admit that Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved," Kane wrote with Tom Andrae in Batman and Me. "He was an unsung hero. I often tell my wife, if I could go back fifteen years, before he died, I would like to say, 'I'll put your name on it now. You deserve it.'"
Bill Finger had been dead for more than 15 years at that point. Too little, too late.
Kane's refusal to share the credit for his work on Batman wasn't just relegated to Finger. DC Comics has taken a lot of heat over the years for its seeming refusal to grant men like Finger and Jerry Robinson (widely known to have helped create the Joker) co-creator credit. But Kane's contract reportedly called for Kane and only Kane to get credit for Batman, and he did not hesitate to protect himself. Was it fear of losing money or his place in comics history? If it was the latter, it appears that damage is already done. The irony is that Kane could have helped his own cause if he had shown any inclination to give Finger official recognition during Kane's lifetime.
There are some who may want to compare Kane to his old pal Stan Lee, but it's not the same situation. Did Stan take too much credit for his work in creating so many Marvel heroes alongside Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko? Very likely. Could he have done more to ensure journalists gave proper credit to his co-creators? Undoubtedly. But what Lee didn't do was outright deny the contributions of Kirby, Ditko, Don Heck, and others. That's what Kane did. He lied about Finger's contributions to Batman. And even though creator credits wasn't the issue then that it is now, it still seems ... wrong.
So what are we supposed to do with that? I know it's considered a societal norm not to speak ill of the dead. But are we really supposed to celebrate and honor a man whose actions in real life stand in such stark contrast to the heroic ideals displayed by the character he helped create? That is the conundrum of Bob Kane. Perhaps the real lesson in all this is to be very careful before deifying any creators of something you love ... because it's very possible you don't know the whole story.
Like just about everyone else, I'm a huge Batman fan. I wish I could celebrate Kane's birthday, but I think instead I'll just rewatch the documentary Batman & Bill.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.
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