The True Creator of Batman Never Got Credit, and Now His Granddaughter Fights to Correct History

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Bill Finger, two years older and an alumnus of the same Bronx high school, lived for narrative. His father, a tailor whose shop closed during the Depression, pushed him toward medicine, but Finger instead devoted himself to writing, although he'd yet to ink anything memorable -- or profitable. When Finger and Kane were introduced at a party in late 1938, the writer was supporting his young wife by working as a shoe salesman. The pair agreed to collaborate on comic ideas.

In their first skull session over Batman, Finger urged Kane to rethink his character. Like the Shadow, a Depression-era pulp crime fighter, Batman should be dark and mysterious, a creature of the night who looked more like a villain. Also, Finger thought superpowers were a cop-out. Batman should be human, more detective than invincible warrior.

Monday, Kane took the now-iconic design into his editor. The company agreed to run Batman on the spot. But according to Finger's biographer, Marc Tyler Nobleman, Kane explained to Finger that the company was going to run the character with only Kane's name on it. He'd draw it, Finger would write the stories, and Kane would pay Finger a cut.

"Bob took full credit for it," says Nobleman, whose comic biography of Finger, Bill the Boy Wonder, was published in 2012. "That situation was fairly typical in those days, that there would be one name on a property [although a team had created it]. The publishers didn't care if it was two or 200 people producing the story, as long as it was on time and they agreed to the pay rate."

Detective Comics #27 landed on newsstands in May 1939. Between the usual gangster stories and whodunits, readers found "The Case of the Chemical Syndicate." It featured Batman snooping into the murders of wealthy industrialists. The Caped Crusader uncovers a business partner behind the plot. The comic's final frames show Batman brawling with the evildoer, who topples into a vat of acid.

It was an immediate hit. In subsequent issues, Finger wrapped a vivid world around Batman. Batman would be the alter ego of a playboy socialite named Bruce Wayne. Finger invented Gotham, a noir cityscape inspired by Fritz Lang movies like M. Finger coined the Batcave, the Batmobile, and the Dark Knight. Along with a talented 17-year-old illustrator named Jerry Robinson, he cooked up a supervillain: the Joker. The pair also formulated Batman's sidekick, Robin. (Robinson was eventually hired at DC.)

"Finger came up with a lot of what we consider to be the iconic Batman stuff," explains Fred Van Lente, who along with Ryan Dunlavey wrote the Comic Book History of Comics.

By the time the printing press spat out the first issue of Batman's own comic in 1940, Kane had farmed the operation out to Finger, Robinson, and others. "Bob's name was the only one on Batman, but he wasn't writing or drawing any of it," Nobleman says.

Finger's true masterstroke was Batman's backstory. A young Bruce Wayne had watched as a mugger gunned down his parents. Racked by pain, he vowed to fight crime to feed his revenge. This was where comics took a hard turn toward literature. As historian Gerard Jones points out in his book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book, prior to Batman, superheroes had been simplistic characters, do-gooder Boy Scouts in tights.

"Bill Finger was the first to bring a novelist's questions to bear on a superhero," Jones writes. "Why would a man choose such a life? He found the answer in pain. Bill Finger... saw how the pain of loss could harden into a rage that made a man unlike other men."

Plots poured out of Finger up until 1965. In total, he was responsible for more than 1,500 Batman stories as a freelancer, earning flat fees for each script, according to Nobleman. The writer also contributed to about a dozen other series as well, including Superman, and had a hand in creating an early version of the Green Lantern.

He rode around New York City on a public bus, scribbling stories into notebooks. Plots often hinged on oversized props, like giant pennies or typewriters that created a surreal visual element. He created a gallery of evil icons: Catwoman, the Riddler, the Penguin, Scarecrow, the Mad Hatter.

Yet every comic book was stamped "Created by Bob Kane." Always hustling, Kane saw an opportunity in the late 1940s to secure his legacy. Around that time, Superman's creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, resolved to sue National (which officially would become known as DC, for Detective Comics, in the late 1960s) for complete control of Superman in 1948. According to Van Lente's book, the pair asked Kane if he would be interested in joining the suit to fight for a bigger cut of Batman.

"Not only did Kane not go along with the lawsuit idea; he turned around behind Siegel and Shuster's back and tipped off DC that the lawsuit was coming," Van Lente explains, pulling from his research.

Kane bluffed his way into a new contract. According to Men of Tomorrow, the illustrator told DC brass his original contract from 1939 was illegal because he'd been 17 when he signed it. The company caved.

Through his research and interviews with former DC employees, Jones found that the company "reportedly returned legal ownership of Batman to Kane, including rights of reversion [meaning rights would be returned to him after a period of time] and permission to veto its sale to any other company, then guaranteed him a certain number of pages per month at a staggering page rate." He also nabbed a percentage of subsidiary rights, granting him a stake if, for instance, DC sold rights to foreign publishers to sell Batman comics in other languages. The deal also stipulated that Kane would get sole credit for the character in perpetuity. The only condition, Jones writes, was that Kane couldn't talk about the deal. Specifics like the dollar amounts of Kane's contract have never been publicly revealed.

"He probably got one of the sweetest deals that any creator or cocreator got from a publisher," Van Lente says. "Finger was just shut out of it."

Their creation, however, exploded. In 1966, ABC began running the Batman TV show starring Adam West. A year later, DC was acquired by movie and television studio Warner Bros. Between 1973 and 1983, Batman and Robin were regulars on the Super Friends cartoon series, which featured other DC superheroes.

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson