Monday, April 16, 2012

The Batman of 1932

Smarticulate Massachusetts man Frank D. Foster III believes Bob Kane and/or Bill Finger may have stolen the idea for Batman from his father (who passed away in 1995). Yes, Foster II created a hero whom he named Batman in 1932—seven years before the Batman you know first appeared.

Here he is:

Foster II (hereafter referred to simply as “Foster”) shopped his Batman around to publishers, but got no takers. Foster III (hereafter referred to as “Frank”) feels it is not a coincidence that Finger and Kane’s Batman came out later that decade.

I love Frank’s conviction, and his intriguing claim is certainly worthy of investigation, but for many reasons (all of which I’ve detailed for Frank), I’m convinced that his father’s character had nothing to do with the Finger/Kane Batman.

I think it is highly unlikely that Foster crossed paths with Kane and Finger, at least not with regard to Foster’s drawings. Both Finger and Kane were in high school in 1932. Finger was not involved with comics till 1938. Writers/artists were not necessarily hanging around the publishers' offices, decreasing chances of such an encounter. It’s virtually impossible that Finger in particular could’ve seen Foster’s drawings—upon Batman’s debut in 1939, Finger was an anonymous work-for-hire Kane writer that even the publisher of Batman wouldn’t know about for at least another year.

When Foster created his character in 1932, the first “official” comic book was still three years away. A publisher that passed on a submission in 1932 would almost certainly not save it till 1939—they barely saved art of comics they actually published.

Comparing dates of creation is not conclusive of theft; multiple people have similar ideas all the time. Even if Frank were to prove that his father did submit the character to a company that Kane or Finger had an association with at some point would not be conclusive by a long shot.

Every character is a distillation of characters that have come before; Batman had elements of Zorro, who had elements of the Scarlet Pimpernel, who had elements of Robin Hood...and so on back. It’s hard to argue that any one character is “unique.” At the time, numerous characters in movies and pulps already had a bat motif—Finger and Kane openly cited as one of their influences a 1930 movie called The Bat Whispers. Other people we may never know about might also have created a character called Batman pre-1939!

The bat motif was not the only trait of Foster’s character with precedent—earlier crime fighters were also non-powered and/or associated with the night, such as Zorro and the Shadow (debuted 1930), plus others who debuted later in the 1930s including the Phantom and the Crimson Avenger. The resemblance between Foster’s character and Kane/Finger's is not striking enough, in my opinion—lots of characters had masks of various kinds.

It is interesting that Foster named other ultimately unpublished characters Nightwing and Raven; DC's Nightwing and Raven did not come till the 1980s, so there was almost certainly no correlation. It’s hardly even a coincidence. Just about every animal besides the donkey has been the name of a character at one point, so Raven is not surprising; as for Nightwing, take a look at this partial list of Golden Age character names. The same words were used over and over in slightly different ways. Names alone don't mean much, which is why you can't copyright them.

Finger freely admitted that the idea to make Batman’s eyes mere slits came from the Phantom, so if the influence had been another source instead, I suspect he would have just as easily admitted that.

It is well-documented that Kane swiped other artists’ poses, so if he had seen Foster’s drawings, why didn’t he use those elements in his (Kane’s) first drawing of Batman? Besides, both Kane and Finger said the key costume elements came from Finger. And again, if Kane had been the one to come up with the look, he would have shouted it from the rooftops. (He took credit for plenty he didn’t do, so he most assuredly took credit for what little he did do.)

I am not usually one to defend Kane, but the timeline and logistics just don’t add up. Kane was a pirate—just not in this instance.

I accept the authenticity of Foster’s drawings. I accept that they came before Kane/Finger’s character. I even accept the possibility that Kane or Finger somehow saw Foster’s drawings somewhere along the way. However, as noted above, I feel the chance of that is slimmer than Batman’s eye slits.

So without written, contemporaneous proof, I believe this was a simple case of multiple creative young men hatching a marginally similar idea in the same city within a few years of each other. Happens all the time. Happening right now, somewhere. That does not, however, increase the likelihood that there was any impropriety over intellectual property.

From an aesthetic and historic perspective, I am glad Frank has shared his father’s work with the world. It is fascinating in its own right.


hobbyfan said...

Amazing. There have been far more cases of alleged plagarism in the music business in recent years. It's a pity that the elder Foster never saw his dreams realized, because this discovery would've changed the course of history had Foster's Batman been sold well before 1939. Oh, what could've been.

Great job as always, Marc.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thanks hobbyfan!

J. L. Bell said...

I recall that Foster said he created these sketches in response to seeing other heroes "flying around" in comics of some sort. But in 1932, before Flash Gordon and Superman, were there any flying heroes of that sort?

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

J.L. - Besides Icarus, the only pre-Superman flying figure that comes to mind was a one-off, but a significant one for Jerry Siegel:

Odkin said...

It's always sad to see these elaborate conspiracy theories laid out decades later by relatives with no first-hand knowledge. If the supposedly wronged artist didn't do anything about it himself for 60 years, it clearly had no merit. What does the son hope to accomplish except reflected glory, pity, or the ridiculous wish for some DC buy-off that's never going to happen?

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Odkin, in this case, Frank does truly believe his father was wronged. Yet I believe he's said he doesn't expect to receive money for this and seems only to want his father's story told.

Odkin said...

The first acknowledged super-character in comic form was the one-shot phantom magician from the Patsy comic strip by Mel Graff in 1935.

Agree with you Marc that the 1928 Amazing Stories Buck Rogers issue (although that ISN'T Buck on the cover) would have been a far more likely inspiration.