From the fleet of Batmobiles that were parked across the street of the San Diego Convention Center, to the masses packed into Hall H to check out early footage of Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” the influence of DC Comics’ two biggest icons loomed large over Comic-Con International in San Diego, as per usual. But it was in one of the smaller panel rooms at the convention center where a lively conservation about the creators behind Superman and Batman took place.
The panel, “Siegel and Shuster and Finger,” was about recognizing the historical importance of creators Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and Bill Finger. Moderated by comics historian Mark Evanier, panelists Larry Tye, author of the recently-released “Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero” and Marc Tyler Nobleman, who wrote “Bill The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman,” discussed the role the three men had in forming the backbone of the modern superhero comic industry.
Evanier introduced the authors by noting they had both done in-depth research for their respective books, surpassing anything previous authors had done on their subjects, whether it was finding new relatives and friends to talk to, or unearthing new data, facts and photos. Evanier talked about the link between Finger and Siegel & Shuster, calling the creators “men who did not receive rewards or recognition commensurate with their contribution to the field.”
Evanier told of the only time he met Bill Finger, in 1973 at the DC offices. He said when he found out who it was, he introduced himself and said he had plagiarized Finger many times in writing at DC. Evanier said the two “had a wonderfully detailed two minute conversation about how to get a cab in New York,” with Evanier stating he wished he could have spoken more with the comics legend.
Evanier then told the audience about the first time he met Jerry Siegel, at a comic book club event he organized when he was 16. Evanier said Siegel paid admission to get in and introduced himself as “Jerry Siegel, the man that invented Superman.” Siegel was proud of his creation, but also very humble, as evidenced by the fact that he had paid admission to get in to Evanier’s event. The two became friends after that.
Evanier recalled “a time when the people at DC not only didn’t recognize [Siegel], didn’t put his name on the work. Some of them up there really hated him and were angry at him.” He compared Siegel’s treatment by DC to the scene in “Oliver Twist” where the boy asks for more gruel, refusing to suffer in silence. The difference was that in Charles Dickens’ tale, the people the boy was requesting food from weren’t multi-millionaires.
Asked why he had chosen Superman as a subject for his novel, as well the men who created him, Tye said he has previously written about great people in politics, sports and American culture and felt Siegel and Shuster were a good fit. “The real reason I wanted to do it, was that I wanted to be 10 years old again.”
Tye talked about uncovering a 100-page autobiography written by Siegel he found looking through a mass of legal documents. In the autobiography, Siegel talks about being bullied and wishing he could fly away.
“As he describes in his memoir, his was really the story of a bullied kid who was trying desperately to escape his circumstances, and the only way he could do it was by taking a pencil and pad of paper…and creating his own fantasy world,” said Tye. Finding the autobiography, the author feels, adds a new twist to the origin of the creation of Superman.
Tye also told a story about running into someone who possessed a 1938 Joe Shuster illustration — drawn before “Action Comics” #1 was published — of the person who became the basis for Superman. Shuster ran into the person and asked if he could sketch him, saying he looked like what-would-eventually-be Superman. Tye’s hope is that the priceless piece of art will eventually find its way into a museum.
Conversation then shifted to Nobleman and his Bill Finger book. The author said he had already written a book on Siegel and Shuster in the same format (“Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman”), and writing about Batman’s creator was a natural companion.
“The difference was, there was a lot more digging to do,” Nobleman said, adding that it was worth the extra work as he wanted to do his part to help the legacy of Finger survive.
One of the first challenges Nobleman encountered was finding images of Finger, with only two previously-used images of Finger; one was a profile, and the other was half in shadows. So he started digging and ended up with 500 images from mostly private, non-comics-related, sources. He said his compulsiveness helped him with the project, and thanked the book’s illustrator, Ty Templeton (“Batman: The Animated Series” comic) for putting up with him.
Asked what surprised him the most during the course of his research, Nobleman replied, “Everything that doesn’t have to do with Batman. What I found that was startling was his family, that he even had anyone that was still around.”
Finger’s only son, Fred, was gay and passed away in 1992. “What I was told by many was, that was the end of the Finger line,” Nobleman said. “It turns out that Fred actually had a daughter. He was gay his whole life, but in the 70s — things happened, it was the crazy 70s.”
The discussion turned to how Fred Finger used to get money from DC, who had paid his medical expenses. Fred had AIDS and was apparently very likely suffering from serious dementia when he signed away his money to the person looking after him, cutting his daughter out. When that man who had been getting the Batman money passed away, it got passed along again.
“The money was going to a man who had nothing to do with the family,” said Nobleman.
Nobleman eventually contacted Bill Finger’s previously unknown heir. She knew who her grandfather was, but hadn’t ever contacted DC about receiving royalties. Since conversing with Nobleman, however, she has spoken with the publisher.
As talk turned to Bob Kane, Evanier didn’t mince words, referring to him a “charming conman” and describing an evening, years ago, “where I got a lot of truth out of him because he was drinking vodka the entire time.” Evanier said it was the first time he heard who Dick Sprang was — the legendary ghost artist on the early days of Batman.
Despite his story, Evanier asked the question of whether or not it’s fair to dismiss Kane’s contributions to the Batman legacy simply because of his personality, which rubbed some fellow creators the wrong way. He and Nobleman discussed the tricky history of the character.
When Finger and Kane produced the first sketch of what Batman in 1939, they weren’t taking notes on who had what idea, in a room all by themselves. Their word is all we have, said Nobleman, but Finger’s story never wavered. “As you know, towards the end of Bob’s life, the stories started to align. Bob started to give Bill more and more credit for what had happened.
“I didn’t know Bob personally, I’m not going to disparage him,” Nobleman continued. “I would honestly say that — creatively, Bill’s 99% of Batman and Bob’s 1%. But if you’re talking about getting Batman to the masses, from a business perspective, that was Bob.”
Evanier played devil’s advocate, saying it was a normal business procedure at the time for comic strips to only feature the creator’s name on it, even though many others did the work, citing Alex Raymond’s “Flash Gordon,” Hal Foster’s “Prince Valiant” and Bud Fisher’s “Uncle Jeff.”
“What would be wrong with seeing the Batman/Bob Kane story through the same prism?,” he asked.
“That’s a great question,” Nobleman responded. “My feeling is that that’s one of the perils of being a historian. It’s hard, sometimes, to separate your modern perspective with the reality of the time that you’re writing about. So, in those days, it was accepted.
“But as a modern person who is in the arts, and who takes creator-rights very seriously, I can’t separate that because there were people back then that did share credit. He didn’t just not mention Bill in public, but when Bill came out — Bob not only denied it, he insulted him publicly. For me, there’s no excuse for that.”
Nobleman told of an interview that Finger did with a fanzine, “after 25 years of anonymity,” where he finally explained his Batman contributions.
“It was very plain-stated. Bill said what he did without hostility toward Bob. Bob responded really, really uncivilly and attacked Bill, and said Bill’s basically lying.” Nobleman said Finger was professional even after hearing about Bob’s attack, inviting him over for dinner to jog his memory.
The conversation then turned to what Tye called the “original sin” of Siegel and Shuster, selling the Superman rights for $130, calling it a great story that sets up sympathy.
“I think that a certain amount of sympathy is warranted. But the reality from the lawsuits from the heirs shows that over the first 10 years of Superman being produced, the salaries that Jerry and Joe were earning in today’s dollars, over those 10 years, would be $5 million. These were guys who were taken out of obscurity after five years of no one publishing their comic book… they were given jobs that paid them well.”
Shuster was looked after by DC, who gave him a job simply drawing heads later in his career, and then supervising the art when the palsy in his hand go too bad and his eyesight was failing. Shuster simply went along with what Siegel was doing when it came to the lawsuit.
“I think it is understandable that they filed a lawsuit and tried to reclaim the rights. But it’s less understandable that when they agreed in the settlement to that lawsuit, [they] promised to never file another lawsuit — they just couldn’t help themselves but to file another lawsuit,” Tye said.
“The truth is, when you read all the documents, you come away wanting to throw your hands up in the air, and say, on one hand, Jerry and Joe were not these two guys who were entirely taken advantage of. They were given a decent deal. On the other hand, Jack Liebowtiz and Harry Donnenfield, were two old pornographers — they certainly were no angels in this either. They bought the right for $130 dollars and made hundreds of millions, and today, you could say billions off [Superman].”
Tye stressed the importance of “a judge with the wisdom of Solomon” ensuring that the character of Superman is saved and not ripped apart between different parties in lawsuits.
“In the interest of full-disclosure, I’m a witness in the Superman case,”
Evanier declared, moving the conversation to the rumored Superman-porn Shuster had allegedly made.
“Joe later on was drawing pornographic figures that looked like a whole lot like — with whips and chains — Jimmy Olson, Lois Lane and Superman,” Tye said “I think that’s a tribute to the kind of difficulties, financially that Joe was having — that he was having to make a buck anyway he could”.
Evanier said that in all these creators’ battles, there’s certain amount of survival you have to consider, especially when discussing men who came out of the depression. “I remember that moment when the people at DC Comics thought they would win the PR battle with Siegel and Shuster and they put on the news, this story cut, back and forth with a DC exec and a blind artist in his little apartment,” Evanier recalled. “You can’t win that argument.”
Evanier talked about Siegel’s final days, and how he was just starting to get the recognition he deserved, like a Superman stamp in Canada and a congratulations letter from Bill Clinton. “He was so pleased with the recognition, and that Time Warner was going to fly him to England to sign cells,” Evanier said. “But he passed away before it happened.”
“With all the Jerry Siegel discussion, Joe Shuster tends to get lost in this,” Tye said, describing how after he passed away, Shuster’s apartment was full of stereos and goods he could never use.
“He had to over-indulge. He was losing the two things that mattered to him most, which were his ability to see and his ability to hold his hand in a steady way. I think he got dragged into a lot of things. What Joe wanted at the end of his life was a little happiness. We should also say that Joe Shuster was a really good guy who never quite got justice at the end.”