NYCC: The Iconicism of The Batman and The Spirit

Danny Fingeroth led a panel at New York Comic Con to talk about two of comic's most iconic characters and their creators. Batman and The Spirit are about as different as Bob Kane and Will Eisner were, but the two creators knew each other and the characters were crafted at the same time and bore many similar influences. The panel consisted of film producer and comics writer Michael Uslan, writer and former editor Denny O'Neil, writer and former DC President Paul Levitz and comics historian N.C. Christopher Couch, who edited Eisner at Kitchen Sink Press for many years.

"Eisner and Kane knew each other, though Eisner was not complementary to Kane, who thought the man a poor artist," Levitz said. "The two overlapped at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. They had worked on the school magazine and sold early humor pieces to 'Wow, What a Magazine!' At the time there was a small community of people aspiring to be cartoonists. Will would have said that he was better than Bob, though he wasn't in the Society of Illustrators world."

After the Eisner and Iger Studio was formed, Kane sold work through them in 1936-37, and Michael Uslan argued that this was a key time as Kane was transitioning from doing what he called "Mickey Mouse redux" stuff to adventure stories that had more of a Roy Crane and Milton Caniff influence like "Clip Carson" and "Rusty and His Pals."

Fingeroth raised the issue of Bob Kane's father, because the general history is that Kane managed to make a proper deal on the rights to Batman while Superman creators Siegel and Schuster were mistreated. "At the beginning none of them worked for much. It's not as simple as Kane had a good deal and Siegel and Schuster had a bad deal, but there were better deals than others," Levitz said. "Eisner and Joe Simon were very good businessmen."

Denny O'Neil brought up how writer Bill Finger fit into the rights situation. "There were two models at the time. You were either a direct contractee for company or worked for a shop," Levitz explained. "The people who worked for Eisner and Iger never owned anything. That was the deal. It was not ideal. Guys who worked for Simon and Kirby's shop had no piece of what they worked on. Siegel and Schuster came to DC as a team. Bill Finger wrote directly for DC including some early 'Green Lantern' stories, but on Batman he wrote for and was paid by Bob. That was the deal. I wish it hadn't been done that way or turned out that way. I think there were points in Bob's life where he wished it didn't turn out that way.

"For those who are students of business, the judge's ruling in the Kirby trial is important. The judge makes it clear that it's not about what's right, it's about the rules of business," Levitz continued. "At the time, I think Bill was happy to get that dollar a page and Bob was happy to make five to distribute it, but in the end, Bob did well and Bill did not. That's sad."

The conversation then turned to how Eisner managed to own "The Spirit." "When comic books began, newspaper syndicates owned comic strips. Cartoonists made good money, but they didn't necessarily own the rights," Couch said, mentioning how Alex Raymond was told he couldn't return to drawing "Flash Gordon" after coming home from World War II. "Eisner knew that if you were tough, you could own the rights, as Bill Watterson, Al Capp and many others have done over the years, and the syndicate knew that Eisner could produce good work on deadline."

"Cartoonists who did well in business had that as a priority. Most guys came into comics because they wanted to draw," Levitz said. "Only a handful found the business side interesting." He named Eisner, Joe Simon and Joe Kubert as three guys with three very different personalities who were interested in the puzzle that the business offered them. As a writer who was also interested in the business side of things, Levitz compared himself to Denny O'Neil. "[O'Neil] was an infinitely more important writer in the history of the field and a great editor, but he was concerned about making a good living, being treated fairly and making sure others were treated fairly. The intricacies of the business didn't interest him."

"For the Golden Age artists and writers, virtually to a man, they had no idea that this was a true art form. They were trying to pay bills during the Depression and the war," Uslan said. When he asked Joe Simon what happened to their original artwork from that period, Simon told him "they rested their coffee on it, put out their cigarettes on it, used it to soak up spilled ink, because they had no idea it was of any value." Uslan thinks that the fact that they didn't think the work was of any value or worth is reflected in the lack of concern that they had in the business deals in the Golden and Silver ages.

Couch pointed out that Eisner, perhaps alone among his contemporaries, saw comics as an art form.

When Fingeroth asked the the panelists to compare Batman and the Spirit, O'Neil pointed out they come from very different places though they're very similar in that they're human. "I always thought that Colt was born tough," O'Neil said. "Batman had do to exercise, but Colt was a tough Irish guy from the neighborhood."

The mask was a convention for Eisner, but O'Neil argued that many of the stories are closer to Yiddish short stories than the Shadow. "What I responded to was first the art, but mostly the humanity," O'Neil said. "Will's favorite story was Gerhard Shnobble, one of the great things our medium has produced. Batman is very different. Everyone has probably heard that Finger was inspired by the Shadow and then later Batman has become this self-made existential hero. The Spirit is almost incidental."

Uslan said that he always thought of Colt as Jewish and had his name changed. At the same time, he never thought that Batman was Jewish. Couch said he once made the same comment to Eisner who responded, "That's the kind of editor I like to have."

"Batman's not just not Jewish, he's also a Republican," O'Neil said. "I would like to have him on my side, but I wouldn't want to hang out with him. The Spirit is closer to a private eye, which comes from the pulps, but the stories are about little people with human problems. They had a reputation for violence, but if you read them, they weren't that violent."

"'The Spirit' was a newspaper strip. It was intended to be something for people of all ages to respond to," Levitz pointed out. "[Eisner] might create a Gerhard Shnobble or something with sexuality and a double entendre character where if you can enjoy it, great, and if you're eight, you'll miss. That wasn't going on with Batman. It was not intended to be a family experience in the same way."

"It was a newspaper feature and designed to be read that way," according to Couch. "Eisner saw the covers as puzzles and did seasonal stories and was very conscious of serving the newspaper market and its readers."

Levitz told the story of one writer who worked for both DC and Eisner's studio, and who received royalties from DC for his work on "Blackhawks" but not for the "The Spirit" reprints. When Levitz raised the issue with Eisner, "Will thought about it for a minute, shrugged, and said, 'Well, his stories weren't that good and he was late some of the time.' Comics have a tendency to black and white the mythology. Bob, because he used ghost writers and artists for many years, gets tarred with a brush, but it wasn't that uncommon and it's not dissimilar to what others from Walt Disney to Will Eisner did."

O'Neil mentioned that in newspaper strips it was commonplace to use ghost writers or artists who were not acknowledged.

"When I was a kid, someone wrote an article in the 'Batmania' fanzine exposing to fans for the first time that there was a guy, Bill Finger, who wrote Challengers and Blackhawks and he co-created Batman and listed his contributions," Uslan recounted. "Kane sent a blistering letter that they printed in a later issue. It was as vitriolic as anything I'd been exposed to as a kid, denying that Finger had anything to do with Batman and it was the tenor of that letter which made him a villain."

When Fingeroth asked why one character caught on in a major way and the other didn't, the question was met by silence. "There were two reasons," Levitz finally answered. "One, that 'The Spirit' stopped. Second, that one of the things that makes Batman such a great character is how many different interpretations have been great. Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams. Frank Miller. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. There's something intrinsic to the character which enables it to be interpreted in many ways. 'The Spirit was great when Eisner was present. He didn't always write or draw it, but when he wasn't involved, it didn't have magic."

Uslan compared it to Superman and Captain Marvel. "You can never go home again, and some of the greatest artists and writers have tried," he said.

"There's a cut off point for some creations. No one's been able to make The Shadow and Doc Savage, for example, work for a contemporary audience," O'Neil stated.

"'The Spirit' ended because Will didn't want anyone else to do it," Levitz said. "There's a dichotomy between letting a character die with you and letting it live on. Superman and Batman survive because creative control passed into the hands of a business. Whether you want to argue about business practices and how they've dealt with creative people, they were interested in continuing [these characters]. Will wasn't interested in anyone else's vision."

There was little time for questions, but one fan asked if there was any truth to the rumor that Kane was underage when he originally signed his contract with DC and thus able to negotiate for a better deal later. "None of this matters," Levitz said, very clear about his feelings.

"This was the Depression. Child labor was not illegal," Levitz said. "What matters is that they went into their rooms and came up with something we're still talking about seventy years later. Were they perfect human beings? No. Did they have redeeming qualities? Yes. There are a handful of us that have read the files and know the details, but what matters is that years later, you're here in this room giving a damn. That's a miracle. A historian cared, whether that's Chris or E.L. Doctorow asking Jules Feiffer to make 'The Great Comic Book Heroes.' Decades after it was created, Denny can reinvent Batman for a new time.

"There are stories," Levitz said, "but the magic is that we still care."

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