Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Contract between Bill Finger and Bob Kane or Bill and DC?

Today is Batman Day. Happy 75th, Dark Knight.

I am nearly certain that a written contract between Bill and Bob regarding you never existed—thus their arrangement would have been only verbal.

These were two twentysomethings with little reason to think that what they were creating in a Bronx apartment in the infancy of superheroes would still be around in five years, let alone 75. When Batman was conceived, Superman was less than a year old so his cultural influence was unproven and his endurance (in the real world) as yet unknown. Comic books themselves were considered a low art form, if they were considered at all. It didn’t seem like anyone besides 10-year-olds was paying attention.

What about a contract between Bill and DC?

When Bill died in 1974, Fred offered DC Comics the material Bill had saved (in particular his gimmick books), but DC declined…and then Fred threw it out. Heartbreaking, but I understand. Even then, it would have been hard for a person in Fred’s position (an extension of Bill’s—that is to say marginalized) to see the historical value of storing them somewhere.

It’s highly doubtful a contract between Bill and DC was among Bill’s papers because if one had been, I’m confident Fred would have held onto it. Bill freelanced for DC, meaning any contract he signed with the company would have been work-for-hire, but Fred was savvy enough to consider that even a work-for-hire contract might somehow benefit his family in the future. I say this because Fred did petition DC for royalties, and he got them; he would have known the significance—the possibility of multiple interpretations—of a contract.

Therefore, if any contract with Bill’s name on it did exist, and any copy of it is still out there, most likely it is in the vault of the Kane estate behind a couple of underfed Dobermans.

However, either way…

…Bill started on Batman as the secret ghostwriter for Kane. Upon “discovering” Bill, DC hired him away from Bob.

When this happened seems vitally important.

The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1 states (based on Steranko’s interview with Bill himself) that Bill began to work “officially” for DC after “about a half-dozen issues.”  

“About” is, of course, imprecise.

In Alter Ego #39, Jerry Robinson recalls that it was around 1941 when DC hired Bill (and Jerry) for more money than Bob paid.

“Around” is, of course, also imprecise.

But even if we go with the conservative estimate and say it was exactly the first six issues that Bill wrote secretly for Bob—though Detective Comics #32 (10/39)—those six issues introduced Batman/Bruce Wayne (obviously) and Commissioner James Gordon (the lead character in Fox’s 2014 series Gotham). If it was one more issue, it would also include Batman’s origin (first told in Detective #33).

And if Jerry’s recollection is correct—if the transition was in 1941—we would then add the following to the list of characters/concepts Bill wrote the debuts of while under no contract with anyone:

  • Robin/Dick Grayson
  • Joker
  • Catwoman
  • Gotham City

And depending on when in 1941, we might also be able to add these:

  • Batmobile
  • Penguin
  • Scarecrow

So if Bob had a contract with DC at that time, but Bob was not producing the ideas he was getting credited for, can the person who was secretly producing them make a legal claim to them?


"T.V. Barnum" said...

Garner Fox wrote the Batman stories in Detective #30-#34,not Bill, but Bill is credited as having written the stories in #35 and after.

So there's a gap. But who wrote the origin in issue #33 - Gardner or Bill?

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

T.V. Barnum,

At least six sources, including two DC publications and Bob’s autobiography, credit Bill with the origin in Detective #33:

#1 BATMAN: THE COMPLETE HISTORY (authorized DC book), page 33: “…when Bill Finger returned in Detective #33 (November 1939) it was with the most famous Batman tale of all time, the origin story”

#2 DC COMICS: A CELEBRATION OF THE WORLD’S FAVORITE COMIC BOOK HEROES (authorized DC book), page 34: credits origin jointly to Bob and Bill

#3 BATMAN AND ME (Bob Kane’s autobiography), page 104: “Bill and I collaborated on the origin”; we know that Bob took credit for as much as he could, so when he DID credit anyone else for anything, it is especially worth paying attention to

#4 Grand Comics Database, (heavily researched by longtime comics scholars): “Contains a 2 page origin sequence, the 'original' origin. Written by Bill Finger (credit from Craig Delich and Martin O'Hearn, October, 2005).”

#5 MEN OF TOMORROW, page 350: attributes origin to Bill

#6 “November 1939, Bill Finger writes a two page origin of Batman which is pasted on to the beginning of Gardner Fox's story in Detective 33.”

#7 BATMAN CHRONICLES, VOLUME 1 credits Gardner Fox for “Dirigible” but does NOT credit Fox or anyone else with writing the two-page origin preceding it; the second telling of the origin from Batman #1 is credited to Finger; HOWEVER, since the second telling is virtually IDENTICAL to the first, DC surely would’ve credited Fox AND Finger if Fox wrote the first version; in any case, such speculation is moot given the above, particularly #s 1-3

Bob Rivard said...

Couple posters made errors here. Finger did not write Detective 29 either. Fox wrote 29-34, a total of 6 issues.

Finger wrote only the 2 page origin in #33.

Who paid Fox for 29-34? DC or Finger? I assume DC. That puts the character squarely under DC's control.

So in the Steranko book, if Finger said he was hired after about six months, he may mean 6 stories he wrote. This would coincide with 'Tec #38, coincidently the first Robin. I got the impression Finger was still working directly for Kane when Robin was created, so the DC hiring was probably shortly after that time (early 1940?)

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Good points, Bob. Agree that DC probably paid Fox. And that Finger and Kane were still working together when Robin debuted.