Friday, September 10, 2021

Bob Kane’s claim that Leonardo da Vinci inspired Batman

Recently a fellow writer asked me about Bob Kane’s assertion that his idea for Batman’s bat-like wings/cape was in part inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine.

I knew enough offhand to say that this is an almost certainly false nugget that some Batman fans have accepted simply because it is frequently referenced online and in print. By now it’s well established that Bob and the truth were often not well acquainted. See the scene in the documentary Batman & Bill in which I dissect the suspiciously-dated 1934 sketches published in Bobs autobiography Batman & Me.

But I realized I could not say for sure when this fishy LDV claim was first floated, so I went back through my sources. 

A da Vinci name-drop does not appear in the earliest (1940) Kane bio I’ve seen nor in the preposterous fever dream origin of Batman’s creation that DC published in 1946 nor in The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer (1965) nor, conspicuously, in The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1 (1970). Up till that point, those were the primary published sources on Kane and/or comics history. Meanwhile, Bob had stated that he took some inspiration from the Winged Bird-Men of the Flash Gordon comic strip, which indeed seems more likely given Bobs interests. So I speculated that (in a bid to seem more cultured) Bob concocted the LDV connection sometime after 1970.

In my material, Bobs first known mention of da Vinci was in an unusual 1985 comic book called Fifty Who Made DC Great. (Side note: some choices have not aged well. Superman peanut butter made the list, but only two women, both actresses.) 

After that, the claim appeared in almost every book or article about the creation of Batman.

But I was missing something! The incomparable comics historian John Wells called to my attention multiple articles published on the eve of the debut of the 1966 TV show Batman in which Bob cites Leo. Here is one:

Thank you as ever, John!

It’s possible for a major detail like this to go unreported for decades—for example, so much about Bill Finger’s story. But it does seem like the kind of major detail that would have come out sooner than 1965…and it is curious that it is not mentioned in the Steranko passage that delineates other influences for Batman (Shadow, the Phantom, Doc Savage).

In other words, to quote comics language, it’s not canon. At least not from where I flit.

NOTE: There is more to my theory that did not make it into the post because I am flawed. See comment from Boswell and my reply.


Billy Hogan said...

There are a lot of comic book fans that believe that Stan Lee stole the credit for the creation of the Marvel Universe. While I think he deserves criticism for not fully crediting his co-creators, at least he promoted the talent that helped make Marvel Comics what it is. Bob Kane is in a league of his own when it comes to stealing credit. If there's a comic book hell, Kane is at the very bottom. If Stan Lee deserves to be there too, I don't think he's as far dowm.

Boswell said...

I think it's a bit misleading to say that the LDV connection went unreported on for decades, as that suggests that there was reporting but LDV wasn't mentioned. It would be more accurate to say that Batman's creation went unreported on for decades until the 1960s television show transpired. And the first time it was reported on, LDV was mentioned (and whether that was true or not, it runs counter to the narrative). Can anyone point to a pre-1965 report where the facts surrounding Batman's creation were discussed? Real Fact #5 is obviously not a report, and the "Meet the Artist" profile from Batman #1 doesn't touch on Batman's creation.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Great point, Boswell, thanks. I see that I failed to articulate my reasoning in full. In short, I focused here only on what Bob said (and when he said it), not on what Bill Finger said (and didn't say).

When it comes to trustworthiness, Bill was by far the more reliable of the two, and Bill's genesis story does not mention LDV, only a brigade of FICTIONAL influences (Shadow, Phantom, Doc Savage, etc.). Of course omitting an influence does not mean it was not valid, but it did feel conspicuous in its absence. Bill would have no obvious ulterior motive to NOT mention LDV if Bob had in fact cited LDV in '39. Further, when you factor in the number of peers who told me that Bob was not an intellectual, I perhaps a bit sloppily synthesized all this to theorize that Bob made up the LDV connection years after conception, to give Batman more gravitas. (And again, one need not be an intellectual to know anything about LDV, but I think you know what I mean.)

The 1965 article here serves as a reminder that there are almost certainly other articles about Kane/Batman buried deep in the heap of newspaper history, possibly some that predate the '66 show, and trying to compile them all would be a daunting task indeed. Perhaps the story got some ink in the 1940s when the Batman serials were released. I hope your challenge gets a reply!