Bill Finger, Batman, and the Future of America

New York City, 1938. A young cartoonist named Bob Kane is attending a party where he serendipitously crosses paths with a fellow Dewitt Clinton High School alumni by the name of Bill Finger. Kane had recently been asked by his employer, the company that would one day be known as DC Comics, to create something in the vein of its latest successful character, Superman. Kane was tasked with creating the next super-hero, and his solution to this, according to some, was a character named Birdman. He asked Finger, an aspiring writer, to give him a hand in fleshing out the character. Some say that it was Finger who later approached Kane about going in a different direction for their character, a darker direction, and calling the character “Bat-Man.”

Finger designed Batman’s costume. He christened Gotham City. He orchestrated the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, introduced the chaotic Clown Prince of Crime known as the Joker, and injected new life and purpose into Batman’s world with the creation of Robin, the Boy Wonder. Finger can also lay claim to creating or co-creating the Penguin, the Riddler, Scarecrow and the Calendar Man. Batman is arguably more Bill Finger’s character than anyone else’s, and yet most people outside of the fanboy community will never know of his existence. While Bob Kane went on to become synonymous with the Batman franchise, his name plastered across every movie, cartoon, video game and comic book that carries the Dark Knight Detective’s visage, Finger’s name has always been kept off. He was never given any credit for his role in Batman’s creation, nor was he made financially secure by creating one of the greatest pop culture icons in American history. In fact, he was so broke that when he died there wasn’t even a headstone for his grave. This kind of cruel injustice is enough to make you want to don a cape and cowl at night.

And yet, this kind of scenario has been playing out since the very beginning of super-hero comics. Brilliant people such as Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created or co-created astounding worlds and characters, only to have all credit and compensation go to someone who might not have even been an equal contributor. We still see it today as people within these large publishing companies that have no idea how to create art or write fiction make good money while many comic book professionals and veterans continue to struggle to get by. And even then, this is a microcosm of a much larger, pervasive problem that is effecting the arts as a whole. If you’re an artist in this world, you have to choose between creative integrity and making money; for the most part, you can’t have both. There are a few exceptions to that rule where people have come up from behind, made a name for themselves, and went on to earn great wealth with their own creations on their own terms. But these examples are usually tied to being in the right place at the right time (the British Revolution in comics in the ‘80s, the Image revolution of the ‘90s), in addition to working hard and displaying originality. There are also many who were geniuses that wound up with neither creative control nor wealth, such as Bill Finger.

Meanwhile, at the educational level, art programs in schools constantly face the chopping block as soon as it comes time to tighten budgets. I suppose learning to play an instrument or write a poem are seen as things that are taught just for fun, things that students can be doing on their own time. And I’m sure there would still be students who would be bright enough and curious enough to pursue the arts in their own time, provided they are being exposed to it enough at home, but that can’t be the new standard for our children. They can’t grow up being spoon-fed Justin Beiber, Miley Cyrus, Jersey Shore, and Cocoa Pebbles all day and think that shit is our art because they aren’t being exposed to anything but basic math and basic reading (and if the GOP had their way, Bible studies) at school. We’ll never get any more awesome super-heroes that way; just more soulless corporate merchandise. Art and advertising will become synonymous. The uncreative “haves” will make the world over into themselves.

The reason I’m dredging up all this doom and gloom is because we’re closing in on another presidential election in America, and we need to start thinking about what direction we want to go in as a country. It’s clear to most people by now, even republicans, that President Barack Obama will be re-elected. For me, with this inevitability playing a factor as well as my general disappointment in his presidency and with the democratic party as a whole, I have been wrestling with the idea lately of just not voting in this latest election. My roommate Paul tried to dissuade me of this recently, saying that while it is a “lesser of two evils” situation when voting for a president in this country, the few precious degrees that the needle tilts toward the left when a democrat is in office is demonstrably better for the country than the degrees that it tilts to the right, which are lately marked by scandal, illegal wars, economic collapse and gruesome intolerance.

I agreed that this was true, but my feeling was still that at the end of the day, when all was said and done, the system isn’t put in place for us, it’s put in place for the rich. It seems like so much of our government is propped up by crony capitalism that the changes that are made in favor of the middle class and the poor are simply watered down concessions. Paul believes that those concessions, while watered down, are at least something of value and are worth voting for. I feel that my vote is my word and I have to take responsibility for it, and if you as a candidate want my vote, you have to do something more impressive than just being less of a shit than the next guy.

Paul also said that he feels that within our lifetime, we will start to see major changes in the way that our government is conducted. People are getting smarter and better organized, and soon crony capitalism and corporate tyranny will begin to wither away. This was something that I agreed with as well, under the condition that people in our society, especially people with power, begin to act with more compassion and empathy for their fellow human beings. People in government and people in the boardroom have got to somehow make the decision not to be flat-out evil. They have to want everyone to have an equal chance, and they have to maybe eschew a few bonus checks so that the people who work under them can feed their families. Compassion is sorely lacking in this country right now, and I think one of the reasons is because it has become routine to abuse those whose position it is in our society to nurture compassion, and to inspire and enlighten the populace, namely artists. Artists make us feel things, they link us together in human experiences that transcend the boundaries of wealth and status. They can also give us a look inside other cultures and allows us to become more tolerant and accepting of them. If we want the country to move into a brighter, fairer, more tolerant future, we need to give the arts and our artists the appreciation that they deserve.

More than 7 decades ago, a shoe salesman from the Bronx was asked at a party if he’d like to help create the next super-hero. He gave us the Batman, a hero that stood for using great wealth to help those who couldn’t help themselves, and for overcoming the limitations that your environment and your society has put upon you. He is a super-hero with no superpowers, only a strong will, a sense of duty, and a faith in the overall good of mankind. Anybody can be Batman, anybody can be a hero. Bill Finger gave us this and we turned away as he was rewarded with near-poverty and relentless obscurity. It’s time for us to step up, start being the heroes we know we can be, and encourage those in power to do the same.

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Mike Greear is a journalism graduate from the University of West Florida currently living in New York City. During his time as an undergraduate, he reported on everything from Presidential campaign stops to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, eventually working his way up to being the editor-in-chief of the University of West Florida’s student newspaper, The Voyager. Since graduating, he worked briefly as a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat in New Hampshire, reporting on crime and municipal stories in the city of Rochester as well as interviewing Republican primary candidates, before returning to Florida and freelancing for the Pensacola News Journal. He now resides in Long Island City, writing weekly columns for and hoping to break into the comics scene.

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1 Comment

  1. Ryan C. says:

    Thanks for this article, it really speaks to a lot of my own concerns about what’s going on in America at the moment and a sick, sort of “lost” feeling that’s been eating away at the pit of my stomach since I started getting back into comics a couple years back after a long absence. What I found, to my shock, was a lot of so-called “fans” out there who were openly cheering the big companies for ripping off the likes of Bill finger, Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, etc., even though the moral bankruptcy of the “Big two” was being highlighted by writers on the internet more than ever. When it really sunk home, though, was when I noticed folks on twitter and other social media outlets cheerleading for Marvel to “get the rights back” from other Hollywood studios for characters like Spider-Man, Daredevil, etc. after the success of “The Avengers.” When I had the “nerve” to point out that maybe those who want Marvel to “get their rights back” should show 1/10th of that concern for former Marvel creators getting their rights back, and maybe giving some of that “Avengers” cash to Jack Kirby, I was accused of being “stuck in the past” and “fighting battles for creator’s rights that have already been won.”

    Yeah, they’ve been “won” alright — by Marvel and DC. If DC were doing to Neil Gaiman even half of what they’ve done to Alan Moore, for instance, the level of rage among the Gaiman faithful would be deafening. If Marvel were stiffing Joss Whedon the way they stiffed Kirby, there would be an organized boycott of epic proportions. But for the average comics creator today, the work-for-hire deals they sign are far more iron-clad and creator-unfriendly than at any time since the 1970s, precisely because the “Big Two” never know what the next box office sensation to come from their IP farms — that’s all that comics publishing is to them at this point — will be, and they want to make sure they own everything lock, stock, and barrel before it hits the printed page.

    What was doubly depressing, though, was to find that this open cheering for Marvel and DC’s shoddy business ethics wasn;t necessarily coming from only right-wingers and “might makes right” Randians and the like, but from people I know to be “good liberals,” as well, and it made me reflect on what’s been lost in American culture — namely, that this used to be a society that rooted for the so-called “underdog,” the “little guy,” the “average Joe,” and that folks like that used to have something called the Democratic Party that defended their ideals and interests. Now, and this really goes back to the Clinton years but has definitely solidified itself under Barack Obama, what we have is a Democratic Party that pays lip service to all that same old rhetoric, but is really every bit as in bed with Wall Street banking interests and big business as the Republicans are, and everyone knows it. Which is not to say that Mitt Romney still isn;t several orders of magnitude more noxious than Obama. Of course he is. But it doesn’t mean that Obama’s watered-down, hollowed-out, sold-out Democrats are actually worthy of support, either, just because they’re a little less openly antagonistic to the middle and working classes than the Republicans are.

    To bring the point home fully, it seems to me that Romney wants to give us the standard work-for-hire deal of a Kirby or a Ditko where we just eanr our page rate and go try to make it after that on our own, while Obama and the Democrats might offer us a deal more akin to what Alan Moore was given on “Watchmen” where they promise us some stake in things and ownership of our work but don’t intend to actually deliver on that promise and just hope their rhetoric sounds nice enough to placate us into accepting their deal.

    For what it’s worth, I hope any readers of this article and these comments will give serious thought and consideration to supporting candidates like Jill Stein of the Green Party or Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party, who openly have a plan to break our free from the strangelhold of corporate interests that are killing our democracy. An Obama re-election is all but certain at this point anyway, so now is as good a time as any for those of us disgusted with the status quo “big tow” parties (and publishers!) to register our disgust at the polls and make it clear that we’re eager and willing to support worthy alternatives to said system.

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