KC Column: Creation Comforts

KC Carlsonby KC Carlson

Often in comic books, especially when it comes to superhero comics, credit for creation is talked about in two different ways. One is the common-sense, often folkloreian manner of determining who created a character: either based on a series of tales handed down through the years by those who were there, or by comics historians who have studied the early works and can determine artist styles and quirks or certain writer tics (like placement of punctuation or use of verbs or adjectives, or even the number of exclamation marks used!!!). The other is whoever the lawyers say created something. Of the two, I believe the latter is the more arcane and mysterious choice.

Oddly and often, the least likely way of determining creation is the claim of the creator(s) themselves. Welcome to superhero comics books… And lawyers-gotta love ‘em!

Fans love to argue who “really” created a character, but ultimately, what matters is not who was first – because as I’m going to tell you, that’s a complicated and sometimes unanswerable question – but how good the stories were. A great character might be forgotten, or a bad one made interesting, or a good one completely reworked by a later writer or artist to tell fascinating stories that the original creator might disown. In a collaborative, building-upon-layers-of-history genre like superhero comics, “who created him” is often nothing but the answer to the trivia question.

The Unsung Heroes Behind Batman

Detective Comics #27

Detective Comics #27

Probably the oldest and most documented case of creator confusion revolves around one of the biggest and most popular superheroes – Batman. Pretty much anybody who’s ever read a Batman comic book or seen one of the Batman films knows that Bob Kane created Batman. His “Batman created by Bob Kane” credit line is right there. But that’s not the whole story.

Today, most comic fans are aware of the contributions of writer Bill Finger, whom Kane originally hired to ghost write. Finger became a member of Kane’s studio in 1938. According to most accounts (including, occasionally, Kane’s), Kane came up with the bare-bones concept of a character named Bat-Man after National/DC’s earlier success with Superman – basically a guy in a superhero suit, like Superman’s. Kane’s Batman originally had a domino mask and wings. Later, Finger added many suggestions to Kane’s concept, including the now familiar cape and cowl. Finger also came up with the Bruce Wayne secret identity and refined Batman’s character from Kane’s vague vigilante into the more science-based detective that we know today. Finger also wrote the first two Batman stories (in Detective Comics) that Kane illustrated.

Kane gets the official credit for creating Batman because he negotiated for it. When Kane signed over the rights to the character to DC, he made it part of the agreement that he would always be officially credited as the creator of Batman, even though National/DC would have ownership. And Finger would be left out in the cold, despite the fact that he wrote many, many great Batman stories over the years. Finger introduced even more Bat-mythos into the series, including the Batcave and Batmobile, as well as coining the name “Gotham City” and helping Kane refine the Robin character and origin. He also may have been involved in the invention of the Joker, another character whose actual creation is under dispute, as artist Jerry Robinson was greatly involved as well, while Kane has claimed that he and Finger co-created the Joker. DC (or their lawyers) has never publicly weighed in on the matter. Robinson was also largely involved with creating the visual for Robin and claims to have named the character, based on the Robin Hood legends.

For many years, most comics fans just assumed that Bob Kane did all the work on the Batman stories, because of this credit line. In reality, many artists and writers worked on the series over the early years including writers Finger, Gardner Fox, Ed Hamilton, Alvin Schwartz, David Vern Reed, Ed “France” Herron, and John Broome; and artists Robinson, George Roussos, Sheldon Moldoff, Joe Giella, Dick Sprang, Stan Kaye, Jim Mooney, Win Mortimer, Mort Meskin, Lew Sayre Schwartz, Charles Paris, Jack Burnley, and even Curt Swan. A few of these folks, including Moldoff and Schwartz, worked directly for Kane as “ghost” artists, and DC didn’t “officially” know of the work of these creators for many years. Others like Sprang, Mortimer, and Mooney worked on stories assigned by DC editors and never worked directly with Kane. By the time of 1964′s “New Look” Batman, the game was largely over when artists with distinctive and easily identifiable art styles – like Carmine Infantino – began working on stories for Detective Comics, alternating with stories by “Kane” (usually actually Moldoff and Giella and written by Fox, Broome, Herron, or even Finger).

Over the years, historians have pretty much determined that Kane probably never directly wrote a Batman script, and the few, early stories that actually feature artwork by Kane are largely made up of “swipes” (Kane copying other artists’ work). See this wonderful illustrated article by “Robby Reed” at Dial B for Blog for more information. Although, to be fair, Finger also was known to swipe as well – most of The Case of the Chemical Syndicate (the first Batman story) was lifted almost whole from a Shadow pulp story called Partners in Peril, according to Shadow and Bat-scholar Anthony Tollin.

Finger died in 1974, mostly unknown to the general public, but the stories of the injustices in his career were well-traveled throughout the comics industry. Editor Julie Schwartz did occasionally mention him in the Batman and Detective letter columns (where Schwartz would begin to credit his writers and artists long before their names actually appeared on the stories they produced). Eventually, Finger’s legacy and career began to be documented by the early fanzines. As new generations of creators finally entered the field in the late 60s and early 70s, these younger creators began to acknowledge their heroes of the past by subtly slipping their names into the background elements of then-current stories. Thus, we would see occasional references in Batman stories to crimes being committed “at the corner of Finger and Robinson”. These days, the Finger River and Robinson Park are permanent geographic areas of Gotham City. Also, in 2005, the San Diego Comic Con International established the annual Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing, where “each year, we select two writers who favored us with important, inspirational work that has somehow not quite received its rightful recognition,” according to committee chairman Mark Evanier. The award was created at the instigation of Jerry Robinson.

When Does Creation Happen?

Creation of characters and concepts is something that is largely indefinable and most certainly difficult to itemize, although corporate lawyers often spend their entire careers trying to do so. Sometimes characters are dreamed up in editorial meetings or on the phone between writers and editors. Or between writers and artists. Or between different writers. Or spouses. Oft time it happens spontaneously – countless characters have probably been conceived at comics conventions, scrawled on bar napkins, or lost forever the next morning when the principals realize that no one was writing anything down and all was lost in a drunken haze. Sometimes a writer is given a sketch by an artist of a character that he was doodling as a warm-up for the day, with a note “See anything in this?” Or even occasionally a throwaway drawing on the back of an art board. (This one probably doesn’t happen much anymore because the actual art boards – when still used – don’t really travel around much anymore.) Occasionally fans have created characters. An idea or two has been picked up off the internet or a fan letter, and quietly bought and paid for by the corporate lawyers, before seeing print. DC’s various Dial H For Hero concepts have created dozens of characters.

Fortress Lad

Fortress Lad

Some characters, like Fortress Lad of Legion of Super-Heroes fame, are even created as a joke. When DC editor Mark Waid discovered that his upcoming Secret Origin story for the Legion Clubhouse had been killed by editorial fiat at virtually the last second because it messed with established Superman lore, he needed a replacement story in a hurry. I just happened to walk into his office right after the story was killed on a Friday afternoon and Mark’s head was about to explode. “What am I going to do?” he moaned. “I need a new origin!” So as a joke (and because I knew that Mark had a hammer in his desk drawer and might use it on himself), I suggested that the origin of the LSH Clubhouse was that it originally came from a planet were all the buildings were living creatures. I said this for the following reasons: 1) Virtually all the origins of the individual Legionnaires were that they came from a planet where everybody had the same super-power (the lamest origin in comics, repeated ad-nauseum), 2) It was in my contract at DC to say as many stupid things as possible, and I was way behind my quota that week, 3) I thought that this might actually make Mark’s head explode and then I would be the new Legion editor! Bwah-ha-ha!, and 4) I never expected Mark to take me seriously.

Mark took me seriously. His eyes got all glassy and he ran out of the room screaming “That’s it!” As this was Mark’s usual behavior at the time, I went home and thought nothing more of it.

Until my home phone rang late Sunday night. It was Mark. Here’s the transcript of the entire call:

KC: Hello?

MW: Higuy,how’sitgoing? It’sMark. GerryJonesisjustfinishinguptheoriginofFortressLad. IsitOKifwesay”FortressLadcreatedbyKCCarlson”onthesplashpage?

KC: What?

MW: OK! Thanks! *CLICK*

And that’s the behind-the-scenes origin of Fortress Lad. No, really! (Still waiting for the action figure.) I am also pretty convinced that Mark credited me so that he and Gerry Jones wouldn’t be directly blamed for this ludicrous concept. Note that today, this story is best remembered for being the first appearance of Arm-Fall-Off Boy, who is much better known than he should be, and far more popular that Fortress Lad ever was. (sigh.)

Personally, I think that a lot of comic character creation will always be largely impossible to codify, simply because the medium is so gregarious. Nobody really works in a vacuum – most people enjoy working and talking to one another, and hopefully, there is a certain level of trust between collaborators. Also, the field is one in which it is very hard to keep a secret. So there’s a lot of loose talk.

When you really look at it, the vast majority of characters that are created never really hit it big. Often new characters have a tendency to hit hard with a really good first impression, then fade away after a short period of time as the creator’s interest in the character wanes. Or the character ceases to thrive after the creator leaves, or sometimes the character just winds itself down after a few months or years. Maybe the new character doesn’t have a big enough fan base to sustain it over an extended period of time. Throwing out new characters is part of the job, but when praise or fame or large sums of money get involved, accurately designating credit becomes a matter of dispute, especially if some years have passed.

That’s complicated further by another comic trend: Many characters are refined and fleshed-out by artists and writers who aren’t the original creators. How to account for that?

Some Case Studies

Suicide Squad #6

Suicide Squad #6

Consider the case of Deadshot. Originally a throwaway assassin character in a 1950 Batman story by “Bob Kane” (actually written by David Vern Reed and drawn by Lew Sayre Schwartz), this tuxedoed one-shot Batman villain was quickly forgotten for 27 years. He was revived in the 70s by writer Steve Engleheart and given his distinctive red-and-white outfit by artist Marshall Rogers in a one-off appearance in Detective Comics #473 in the middle of the classic Boss Thorne/Dr. Hugo Strange/Silver St. Cloud storyline (later collected as Batman: Strange Apparitions). Apparently, this caught the eye of writer John Ostrander, as Deadshot was a charter member of his Suicide Squad in 1986 (in the Legends miniseries). Under Ostrander’s deft characterization, Deadshot became a fully-fleshed out character and subsequently, a fan favorite. Currently, Deadshot is a lynchpin character in Gail Simone’s wonderfully creepy Secret Six.

So, who should get credit for creating Deadshot? The character who exists today is fundamentally different than the 1950s original, who was usually credited to someone other than his inventors. His distinctive costume and signature “look” was first seen in the Engleheart and Rogers story. Yet the character really took off under Ostrander’s treatment.

Act II of a Great Career

Detective Comics #359

Detective Comics #359

Oracle (aka Barbara Gordon, DC’s second Batgirl character) also has an interesting history. The original Bat-Girl (Bette Kane) first appeared in Batman #139 in 1961 in a story credited to Bob Kane (but actually drawn by Sheldon Moldoff). The niece of the original Batwoman, Kathy Kane, Bat-Girl only appeared seven times before being swept out of the Bat-books with the other “silly” early Silver Age characters (Batwoman, Bat-Mite and Ace the Bat-Hound), when editor Julius Schwartz initiated sweeping changes with his “new look” Batman in 1964.

The Barbara Gordon Batgirl first appeared in Detective Comics #359 (January 1967, but actually on sale on November 29, 1966), in a story written by Gardner Fox and illustrated by Carmine Infantino. Although some TV references claim the character was created for the TV show, the real truth is somewhat more complicated. Historian Michael Eury did the research for his excellent Batcave Companion (TwoMorrows, 2009) and revealed that the concept of “a” Batgirl was indeed suggested by the TV show’s executive producer, William Dozer. He also came up with the concept that she was the daughter of Police Commissioner Gordon, but artist Infantino designed the character and Fox and Schwartz dreamed up the rest of the character’s details while plotting that first story. The TV version of the character, as memorably portrayed by the dance-trained Yvonne Craig, debuted on September 14, 1967, in the third season premiere.

The comic book Batgirl outlasted the TV version by several years, as the show was canceled in March of 1968. The comic career of Barbara Gordon was fairly long, running until 1988, when the character was officially retired in the Batgirl Special one-shot, the only comic to be published under her own name at the time. Previously, Batgirl ran only as a mostly undistinguished back-up feature in Detective Comics, was a co-star in Batman Family (mostly teamed up with Robin Dick Grayson), and appeared as a guest-star in several of DC’s other titles. (Most of these early back-ups are collected in Showcase Presents Batgirl.) Despite the lack of her own title, Batgirl was one of DC’s most popular female characters, featured in much licensing product at the time.

Then there was 1988′s Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. Generally considered by fans as one of the best Joker stories ever, it also features the horrendously brutal crippling of Barbara Gordon, who is then photographed to torture her father, Commissioner James Gordon. Adding to the brutality is the fact that the scene is portrayed as merely a plot device to further the conflict between Batman and the Joker. (See the Women in Refrigerators website for more details.)

Suicide Squad #49

Suicide Squad #49

Bad as this was (on several different levels), a very angry Batgirl fan used the event to redeem Barbara Gordon’s heroic career. Writer and former DC editor Kim Yale discussed the awful treatment of the character with her husband, comic writer John Ostrander. Together, the two of them created the then-mysterious Oracle in Suicide Squad #23, a super-hacker who anonymously offered her services to the Squad. Over the next two years, Oracle made several appearances throughout the DC Universe, slowly establishing herself as a serious information broker with exceptional computer skills. Finally, in Suicide Squad #38, Oracle is revealed as the paraplegic Barbara Gordon, firmly re-establishing the character in the DCU, and presenting her as a heroic character living with a disability. Eventually, she becomes a full member of the Suicide Squad (in #48), and in Batman: Sword of Azrael #1 (1992), in a story written by Denny O’Neil, she becomes partners once again with Batman, exclusively providing him information and subtextually establishing herself as Batman’s intellectual equal. Later, Oracle becomes a member of the Justice League. These days, she is often shown providing important intelligence to most of the DCU’s heroes, especially during those increasing times of major Crisis.

In 1996, Oracle became the centerpiece of the brilliant Birds of Prey, written by Chuck Dixon and co-featuring Black Canary. After a series of excellent one-shots and miniseries, the concept was developed into a popular, long-running series. Writer Gail Simone and artist Ed Benes later refined the series and gained even more fans. The Birds concept was eventually canceled, possibly more because of potential story points and character availability than sales. But recently, it was announced that Birds of Prey was being revived by DC with Simone and Benes and Barbara and Black Canary back for more new adventures.

So, who should be considered Batgirl’s creators? Several folks can claim initial input (Infantino, Fox, Schwartz) including a non-comics creator (Dozer). What about Oracle? Ostrander and Yale? Here’s a controversial thought – Moore and Bolland created the incident which inspired the creation of Oracle, although they had no idea at the time of how someone else would reclaim their throwing away of the character. Regarding Birds of Prey, Dixon is on record as the initial writer of the series, but the concept may have been dreamed up by one of the Bat-editors at the time. Not so cut and dried, is it?

(As an aside: Bob Greenberger informs me that while working on Batman: Year One, Frank Miller decided to name Gordon’s wife Barbara as a tribute to DC editor and writer Barbara Randall (Kesel). But when someone asked about Babs (Batgirl) Gordon, both Miller and editor Denny O’Neil had forgotten about her! Thus, Greenberger and the real Barbara had to come up with the “Babs is Gordon’s niece” cover story that is uncomfortably still in place today.)

What Was The Question?

Question #1

Question #1

Then there’s a case where a later successful revamp takes a character 180 degrees from what his original creator wanted. Created by Steve Ditko (as well as written and drawn by him) for Charlton Comics, The Question first appeared as a back-up feature in Blue Beetle #1 (June 1967). Ditko’s Question was named Vic Sage, a fairly ruthless character in comparison to his contemporaries. He was also unusually philosophical for comic heroes of the time. Ditko’s character was an adherent of Objectivism, as developed by novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, a concept much too complex to summarize here.

Later, after the Charlton characters were acquired by DC Comics, The Question was totally revamped by Denny O’Neil and Denys Cowan in a much-acclaimed series beginning in 1987 (currently being collected by DC in a series of trade paperbacks). This Question was much more Zen-like in demeanor, diametrically the opposite of Ditko’s version in temperament. Although the series started out with The Question still being Vic Sage, The Question Annual #2 retroactively changed the character’s origin and even his identity, as Sage’s real name is revealed as Charles Victor Szasz. This Question series dealt largely with the effects of corruption on the lives of regular people. The series was set in the fictional Hub City, the most impoverished and corrupt city in the DC version of America, based on the real-life East St. Louis, Illinois. This is one of the very best comic series of the late ’80s/early ’90s and should be immediately sought out.

After a half-hearted attempt by Rick Veitch to pull the character more into the mainstream DCU, The Question next appeared in the pages of 52, where it was ultimately revealed that he was dying of lung cancer. But first, he recruited and trained ex-Gotham City cop Renee Montoya to be his replacement, beginning a long, involved storyline that has to date swirled through many different DC titles and ultimately involves the development of the new Batwoman character (Kate Kane) as well as the involvement of Intergang and the new Crime Bible cult. Almost all of this development is the work of crime novelist Greg Rucka.

52 #48

52 #48

Montoya, however, has a much more involved history. The character was first developed for the various Bruce Timm-supervised animated Batman TV shows, although she first appeared in the comic books, starting with Batman #475. As someone first conceived as a simple background supporting character, the development of Montoya as an independent heroic character has been nothing short of amazing. When she is first introduced, in both the TV show and the comics, she is a beat cop, partnered with detective Harvey Bullock. In the comics, she has a featured role in the Cataclysm/No Man’s Land story arc when she and Bullock decide to stay in Gotham after a devastating earthquake seals Gotham City off from the rest of the world. Later, Montoya is promoted to full detective and is reassigned to a new partner – Crispus Allen. The two characters are featured players in the acclaimed Gotham Central title, written by Rucka and, initially, Ed Brubaker. Here, her former lover Harvey Dent outs her as a lesbian and then frames her for murder, turning her life and career upside down.

Eventually, her partner Allen is embroiled in a situation with a corrupt crime scene investigator named Jim Corrigan (strangely not the Spectre), who blackmails Allen. He eventually clears himself, but Montoya becomes obsessed with bringing down the corrupt Corrigan. Corrigan ultimately kills Allen, setting off Montoya, who intends to get revenge by tracking down Corrigan and killing him. After a brutal confrontation, and holding Corrigan at gunpoint, she finds that she cannot pull the trigger. She quits the GCPD the next day, broken and disillusioned. (Later, Allen is resurrected as the new Spectre but is forced to pass judgment on his own son, who has killed Corrigan in revenge.) Montoya is now an alcoholic ex-cop who takes up the mantle of the Question after he dies.

So who created the Question? Or perhaps the actual Question is – Which Question? There are three separate variations on the character, each developed by very independent and unique creators.

IN PART TWO (in two weeks) – Some Marvel stories, including Stan & Jack and Stan & Steve. More on building on other creators’ work. Wolverine! Why basing your character on your wife doesn’t always guarantee your claim of creating your character. Why the Rock Star Age of Comics affects everything we used to know about comics. And a little bit about Jerry & Joe.

KC Carlson has been working in comics since 1972, where, at the age of 16, he worked at the local magazine distributor, stripping the covers off unsold comics to return to the publishers. Since then, he has worked for DC Comics, Westfield Comics, Capital City Distribution, and many other places, continuing to destroy comics at every step. He’s still waiting for royalties for creating Fortress Lad. (I need new shoelaces!)

Many thanks to Bob Greenberger for aid above and beyond.

The comics covers used in this column come from the Grand Comics Database.

The art for Fortress Lad was done by Curt Swan & Kurt Schaffenberger comes from Secret Origins #46.

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  1. KC on What It Means to Create a Character » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] latest Westfield column covers the question of what it means to create a character, and how creator credits can differ [...]

  2. Chuck Dixon Says:

    K.C!
    Good article. And thanks for the kind words.
    It was Jordan Gorfinkel who created the BoP concept.
    But how was Gail’s version “more popular” when it sold more when I was writing it?

  3. KC Says:

    Hi Chuck!

    Thanks for confirming the info on Gorf!

    As for the rest, I don’t have access to sales figures so I can’t really speak to that. When I said the series gained more fans, I guess I was referring more about the general fan buzz to Gail (and Ed’s) run, something hard to track exactly because by then DC had dumped their lettercols. Or else I foolishly fell prey to the memory-trick of things that happened more recently just seem more popular. Everybody that followed you built on your rock-solid foundation in developing Birds into an intriguing concept.

    Hey, now that DC and Marvel are claiming they’re actually going to be telling stories about real heroes again, I hope that you can somehow find your way back to some of your old concepts and series (if you want to, that is.) Although is sounds like the Civil War is keeping you pretty busy these days!

  4. Westfield Comics Blog » KC Column – Creation Comforts 2 Says:

    [...] is a continuation of the exploration of character creation in comic books. Part one appears here.  If you haven’t read that yet, you may want to. Then come back here for [...]