Friday, November 30, 2007

The Secret Secret Origin of Batman.

Tell me if you heard this story before: A wealthy young man whose family is a victim of crime with the help of the family butler puts on a dark costume inspired by bats and seeks justice. His secret hide-out is a cave.

Or maybe you’re familiar with how a hero gains the inspiration for his identity: “he must become a figure of sinister import to all of these people. A strange Nemesis that would eventually become a legendary terror to all of crimedom...he glanced at the oil lamp burning on a table. Then he swung around, suddenly tense. In the shadows above his head there came a slithering, flapping sort of sound.”

…”leaped back instinctively as something brushed past his cheek.
Again the flapping of wings--a weird rustling sound. Terror overcame him
for an instant as something brushed against his hair, caught in a tangled
lock. Something that seemed unspeakably evil.”

“He reached up, tore at it with fingers that had suddenly grown frantic.
He flung the thing aside. As he did so he saw that it was a bat. An insectivorous
mammal, with its wings formed by a membrane stretched between the tiny
elongated fingers, legs and tail.”

“As the creature hovered above the lamp for an instant it cast a huge
shadow upon the cabin wall.”

"’That's it!…. ‘I'll call myself…’"

If you’re thinking it’s Batman, you’d be wrong.

The first is the story of The Human Bat who first appeared in Britain in THE FUNNY WONDER, March 1899! It’s the story of John Holloway whose father is swindled out of his wealth and title. Holloway is given the masquerade costume by the family valet/butler with a distinctive cape t hat allows him glide around. Another bat-winged fellow could also be found in the same magazine, the Spring-Heeled Jack. These “newspapers” seemed to be predominently proto comic strip style along the lines of how Prince Valiant has been done for decades, panels of the strip with paragraph of text under each one.

The second is the story of the Bat, a minor pulp character appearing in the pulps’ Popular Detective circa 1934. It concerns a private detective who is framed for a crime and adopts the masked identity of the Bat to fight crime. He carries a gas gun and leaves little stamps of bats on the crooks he catches. The latter was a popular motif with pulp characters and the later pulp-inspired masked men of comics.

The reason for the history lesson is that I came across a website: that discusses how struggling artist and would-be cartoonist Frank Foster created a character actually called Batman in the early 30’s and even shopped him around to the comic publishers later that decade. Imagine his surprise when just a little later, one of those publishers would come out with a title called Batman! Another coincidence on top of that is the fact that as an alternate name scribbled on the back is “Nightwing” a Batman-esque identity adopted first by Superman when in Kandor (1963) and then by Dick Grayson/Robin in the 1980s.

On the surface, it seems pretty damning for DC. Kane has a history of not only doing swipes in his artwork but also for a long time claiming sole credit despite the fact there’s heavy contributions to the story and later the art by creators Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, among others. Plus, we know Kane was in the area at the same time that Foster was working on the World’s Fair mural, the two could’ve met. The editor of that Superman story is Mort Weisinger who brought many things to Superman that were taken from the pulps such as Superman’s arctic Fortress of Solitude.

On the surface. Unfortunately, we’re dealing with an older man’s memory and his recounting doesn’t really add up to what we know. First, we can go ahead and discount the Nightwing coincidence as being just that. Weisinger didn’t start working at DC until 1941 and the writer Edmond Hamilton in 1946. As Foster claims his work was returned to him, there is no way to connect the name to either of the gentlemen responsible for creating the DC Nightwing character. And, frankly, it just seems highly unlikely in comics’ early days scrambling to reproduce the successes of Superman & Batman, an editor or creator would remember the name Nightwing and yet hold onto it for nearly two decades while various Phantoms, Ghosts, Ravens, and other dark winged birds flitter across the superhero landscape.

Despite Bob Kane’s rather dubious history, it’s also hard to lay blame at his feet. Again, there’s no direct connection. We don’t even know if the editor that he dealt with was the same as whom Foster showed his drawings to. Then you have to wonder why Kane would take time developing an idea that had already failed to sell at DC. You can put both at the World’s Fair. Dollars to donuts, probably half the people in the comic and pulp businesses in New York at the time were also at the Fair at some point.

Sure, it’s all extremely coincidental. But recall that almost simultaneously as Batman’s debut was the debut of the SECOND Black Bat character with a costume looking a lot like Batman’s with the scalloped cape and dark colors. It’s even more familiar to modern readers as Kane at Finger’s suggestion did “borrow” a design element from the Black Bat, the fins on the gloves. Batman originally wore very standard gloves that ended at his wrist. And as I stated there was another Black Bat before that one, though he didn’t wear a costume and we never learned his real name, he was just a detective called the Black Bat. And you had the Bat before that (which Finger almost had to have read and borrowed Batman’s origin scene, it’s too specific). Across the seas there was that Human Bat (though more than likely almost completely unknown over here at the time). Couple that with the Shadow and detectives and rogue heroes called the Shadow, Spider, Ghost and plethora of Green Ghosts and Phantoms, a character called Batman seems almost inevitable. More than a circumstantial case is needed.

Foster’s own faulty memory really messes the issues up. He didn’t remember the editors or people or exact dates (and no real reason he should after all that time). But, those facts are significant as this time period covered 1936-1939. Superman didn’t debut in comics until 1938! Before 1938, DC Comics might be a vehicle for some of his cartoons, but Batman would have been too different. Superman had the luxury of a sympathetic editor, space in a new book to fill and the fact that Siegel and Shuster were already doing a variety of strips for DC. Post – Superman and we’re looking at DC turning down an idea when they were looking for just such an idea and then somehow for some reason passing it off to another creator in a very short period of time.

Yet we know Foster’s Batman (as well as Siegel & Shuster’s Superman) pre-dated 1938 according to the notes. But even then there’s conflicts between history and testimony that needs reconciling. Foster described this in a 1975 interview with a Boston attorney: “ … he got me interested enough to make some ideas up. And it seems to me that in those days, and even now, that most all of the strips were the heroes of the day – such as, flying through the sky during the day and doing good deeds and so forth and so on – and I thought, well, why couldn’t that be done at night? Have a good guy do stuff at night. So, I started working, just briefly, very briefly, not too seriously, with Al Capp, and cooking up a couple of ideas. … one of the things was Batman … “

See, the site says the early drawings are 1932. Superman didn’t debut until 1938. So, who the heck is he talking about flying and such? Just what was his inspiration for the character because the obvious ones just didn’t exist according to the dates on the drawings. Mandrake the Magician was 1934, the Phantom (1936), Flash Gordon (1934). The closest thing to these drawings in the strips was Buck Rogers but it’s quite a leap from Buck Rogers to Batman, even if you have Buck’s anti-grav belt.

Doc Savage maybe? Except Doc didn’t debut until 1933. The only notable hero before this drawing is the Shadow and he was hardly flying around doing good during the daytime. Foster’s other hero on the site is of the Raven, complete with a council of agents it appears is dated the same year as the Shadow’s appearance. But, once you start looking at the pulps, the costume being tights is an anachronism.

Beginning to see the crux of the problem? Foster’s Batman not only pre-dates Kane’s, but it also conveniently pre-dates many of the evolutionary steps along the way, as if he sprung out Athena-like from Zeus’ forehead as a fully realized conceptual costumed comic mystery-man. Foster’s Walt Gibson, Lester Dent, Siegel and Shuster, Alex Raymond and Lee Falk all rolled into one. With a touch of Dave Cockrum/Gil Kane as his costume is very stylized with its design elements compared to the far more simplistic and minimalist costumes of the early mystery men. His cowl alone with the flanged eye pieces is more a design element that would be at home more than a quarter of a century later. Foster talks about his creation as if it’s in response to other characters out there which should place the drawing 1937 at the earliest, but the dates the site claims are the dates of creation would indicate that instead he was creating something truly revolutionary, the first American comic crime-fighter ever to wear a distinctive mask and skin tight costume.

Yet, in 1998, the Boston Globe did run an article on Foster and Batman. You can search for it on the archives of their website. And, as far as my research online reveals, Al Capp was indeed in Boston in the early 30’s.

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