Friday, January 13, 2012

The drinking problem problem

Same Bat-tale, same Bat-chatter.

Several claims about Bill Finger (uncredited co-creator of Batman) are widely repeated in circles where people know who Bill Finger is:

  • Bill was as much if not more of the creator of Batman as Bob Kane—TRUE (subjectively but widely accepted)
  • Bill was notoriously late when it came to deadlines—TRUE
  • Bill was bad at money management and often dependent on advanced checks—TRUE
  • Bill died poor, alone, and anonymously—TRUE
  • Bill has no heirs—FALSE (and much more about that to come in future posts, not to mention the book itself)
  • Bill was an alcoholic…

This one is more of a gray area, but my vote is FALSE.

I understand that this does not gibe with the presumption: a writer whose Big Idea was for all intents stolen and who then toiled most of his career without proper credit seems a prime candidate to be a boozehound—especially in an era when writers and alcohol went together on practically a romantic level.

But I don’t believe Bill drank to excess on a regular basis, and I don’t believe this is revisionist history. I interviewed most of the surviving people who knew Bill well and their statements carry infinitely more weight than reheated rumors from comics aficionados, be they fans or pros.

In 2008, Bill’s longtime writing partner Charles Sinclair (who has been consistent and balanced with most of his recollections) told me “Bill…enjoyed a drink [but] was not an alcoholic. He might’ve occasionally moved toward being borderline.”

Also in 2008, Bill’s second ex-wife Lyn Simmons said with even more conviction that Bill was not addicted to alcohol.

In an interview with writer/editor George Kashdan published in Alter Ego #93 (5/10), Kashdan said the same.

In an interview with Charles published in Alter Ego #84 (3/09), he again said he didn’t think Bill drank like an alcoholic and that he never saw Bill drink too much. He also said Jerry Robinson said that he (Jerry) didn’t think Bill had a drinking problem.

In Alter Ego #39 (8/04), Robinson himself said that anyone treated as Bill was might turn to drink, but that wasn’t the case in the beginning (meaning, presumably, that Bill wasn’t drinking when Bill and Jerry met, in 1939). I believe Jerry is elsewhere on record saying he wouldn’t classify Bill as an alcoholic, though I don’t have that handy. (Ah, the permissive beauty of a blog versus a print article!)

A possible counterpoint: In 2006, the late Jerry Bails told me “Drinking was a common out for writers, and Bill was no exception.” To my regret, I didn’t ask for elaboration, but I think he may have been speaking generally or extrapolating. In any case, Bails did not know Bill as well (or rather as long) as the others quoted here, nor did he live in the same city, and ultimately he did not say Bill was a drunk.

I do realize Bill’s network may simply be protecting their old friend, but some were critical on other issues. Therefore, I suspect that now, decades after Bill’s death, when asked about this by the first person to write a book about Bill, they would see the obligation in setting the record straight, if that was needed.

Everyone agrees Bill drank and most everyone said within safe limits, though some inconclusively. I stand by my FALSE vote and will leave it at that. (The book is for all ages so this is obviously not a topic I am addressing there.)

Part of my rationale comes from what killed Bill. It was not booze, at least not according to the Medical Examiner’s report…which you shall see here as we get closer to the book’s July publication.


Anonymous said...

In your latest post you touch on something that troubles me.

Clearly an "all-ages" book is not a place to discuss Bill's alcohol consumption.

But you've made real discoveries, and had some interviews that are likely the first and last the subjects will give.

So where IS the right place? We've already lost the entire generation of original creators. We have now lost many of their children, their colleagues, and even much of comics' "first fandom" that conducted the earliest first-person interviews with them.

So, although your picture book isn't the place for in-depth quotes or adult anecdotes, how will this valuable information ever be preserved if it isn't written down somewhere? I'm sure you've already run into too much third-hand speculation, misremembering, and fabrication.

The record of Bill (and his associates' recollections) should be as complete as possible, although it's outside the scope of your upcoming book. i hope it isn't lightly summarized and condensed into the picture book, and then lost.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Odkin, the book does not mention drinking in any way. As the post says, "The book is for all ages so this is obviously not a topic I am addressing there."

That is why I'm posting it here, so the information is preserved somewhere.

Anonymous said...

No, I understand that. But you often refer to interviews and conversations in passing. Were they transcribed? Do you ever plan to publish them in full somewhere like Alter Ego magazine?

We get snippets from you on occassion, and you'll incorporate the major facts into your picture story, but the interviews themselves are of the most value, not your use of them, no matter how entertaining that turns out to be.

Because we're talking about history here, the actual words from the actual people need preservation. If Edgar Allan Poe had interviewed Abe Lincoln for two hours, I don't care how interesting a story Poe could have written, Lincolns' actual words are more valuable.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Oh, now I see, and I agree. Yes, every interview I recorded has been transcribed and I do plan to see if ALTER EGO is interested. Roy Thomas was, I think, the very first person I contacted when I began my research.

Richard said...

In fairness, it might bear mentioning that being an alcoholic is a very particular thing, and there are other things that might be considered a "drinking problem" without being alcoholism.

There are people who, for instance, are normal and in control virtually all of the time -- but have spells of deep depression once a year, and self-medicate by going out on a wild bender. There have been plenty of writers who couldn't face sitting down at the typewriter without being drunk to calm their nerves, but didn't drink at all if they weren't writing. Both of these are forms of alcohol abuse, but neither is really alcoholism.

So if those who knew Finger say he wasn't an alcoholic and didn't regularly drink to excess, I can totally believe that and still suspect there were occasions when he hit the bottle hard.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Astute distinction, Richard. That is the impression I get; he was not addicted but did drink a fair amount. Alcoholic? As I say in the post, I don't think so. Drinking problem? Quite possibly.