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Comic Books, Film
This is one of those odd, tragic stories that you see so often in the comics industry… a particular injustice that was the final contemptuous boot in the ass to a talent that the comics industry had already beat like a piñata for most of his career.
Probably you already know about Batman, Bob Kane, and Bill Finger. But it bears repeating that the lion’s share of the creative work on the character of Batman– his world, his methods and equipment, his background, his origin, his supporting cast, most of his villains, etc., etc.– Bill Finger made all that stuff up, created it out of nothing. Not Bob Kane. Despite the fact that legally, DC is required to note “Batman created by Bob Kane” on all its Batman books. And all the Batman TV shows and movies and everything else too.
Finger didn’t draw the Batman stories, and there’s an argument to be made that in comics the artist deserves a creator credit for characters as well. But if you look at Kane’s original sketch of “The Bat-Man” you can see how little he had. A blond guy in a red suit and a domino mask, wearing bat-wings hooked to his wrists. That’s it.
Kane got that far on his own and stalled, so he went to his writer buddy Bill Finger… and Finger suggested the wings become a cape, the mask become a bat-eared cowl, and the whole thing should be much darker. Gothic. Halloween-esque. Perhaps most importantly of all, he suggested that Batman NOT be super-powered, but rather a man who trained himself to be the world’s greatest crimefighter.
That’s the character that sold. The re-designed, Bill Finger version. Once the deal was made, Kane recruited Finger to write the stories, then jacked him on the contract… and the rest is history. A history that took a long time to get out to the public, but inside comics, everyone knew who the real creator of Batman was.
But between Bob Kane’s constant effort to deny anyone else any credit on Batman– beyond the legal restrictions, Kane also frequently lied about it in interviews for decades– and the comics industry’s standard work-made-for-hire policies that relegated all creative people to the status of bond slaves in the vineyard, any chance for Bill Finger to enjoy any fame or fortune from his creation was strangled in its crib. This despite the fact that to this day, the character of Batman enjoys planet-wide popularity… among comics and non-comics people alike.
The injustices done to Bill Finger are so emblematic of everything crappy that the comics industry did to creative people for most of its history that today there is actually the Bill Finger Award, designed specifically to try to remedy those injustices and celebrate the talented comics writers who never got the credit they deserved.
All this is stuff that most of you reading this probably knew. But there was one final injustice done to Finger that I always wondered about. I noticed it when I was a kid and in all the years since, no one ever seemed to know anything about it. I finally dug it out, over the last couple of weeks, and here it is for all of you.
It’s the story of the last thing Bill Finger ever wrote for Batman, and the character he created for it that is still in use today…. in comics and television both. The Clock King.
One afternoon in the early 1970s, watching an afternoon rerun of the Adam West Batman TV show, I just about levitated with shock when I saw the writing credits on the Clock King two-parter.
It was scripted by Bill Finger and Charles Sinclair.
Bill Finger! Even then, at age thirteen, I knew who Bill Finger was– I had been taking a crash course in DC’s Golden Age thanks to their 80-Page Giants and 100-page Super-Spectaculars, and Bill Finger’s name figured prominently in many of those books.
What’s more, there had been a lengthy article by Carmine Infantino about Bill Finger on the inside cover of the Famous First Edition reprint of Batman #1, listing his many contributions to the Batman legend (of course, leaving out all the stuff about how Finger subsequently got screwed out of any credit or royalties. Still, considering he wasn’t really legally allowed to spill the beans, Infantino did pretty well at getting the point across.)
Knowing Finger had written the episode I was watching gave it a special added interest. I paid more attention than I normally would have, trying to see past the schticky 1960s camp and catch a glimpse of the REAL Batman underneath.
Here’s a quick recap, for those of you that haven’t seen it in a while. A gimmicked clock knocks out everyone in Hummert’s jewelry store with a gas bomb so crooks can rob it. From this, Commissioner Gordon figures the Clock King is back and calls in Batman and Robin. Meanwhile, the Clock King is gloating about his success and tells his minions to prepare for phase two. “I plan every move like a timetable, as my archenemies Batman and Robin will soon find out to their detriment. Thinking. Every minute… every second… thinking.”
The second phase involves the Clock King masquerading as a Pop Art painter, “Progress Pigment,” in order to loot an art gallery of the masterpieces in its vault.
This whole sequence is very much a satire of Warhol and The Factory, right down to the “pop art paintings” used as set dressing, and it’s worth noting how little Clock King thinks of the new stuff– he’s there to get the REAL paintings. The older, legitimate ones. But the idea of a secret safecracking device disguised as a sculpture, and of a villain in disguise to fool civilians at some kind of exhibition, are classic Golden Age Batman riffs.
Batman and Robin analyze a watch Clock King dropped at the scene, and deduce from the particular properties of the dust that the crooks are hiding out in an old watch factory. They catch up to the gang but get captured, and the Clock King puts them in a giant hourglass to suffocate. (Bill Finger signature items like detective work with SCIENCE! and a giant prop? Check and check.) The Clock King can’t stay to watch, because he’s on a timetable. His parting shot is a classic, though, with a pun so bad it’s worthy of the 1940s Robin. “Some people kill time, but this time, time is going to kill you.”
The Dynamic Duo escape, but are stymied as to Clock King’s next move. While they’re trying to puzzle it out in the Batcave, Clock King and his Second Hands are robbing Bruce Wayne’s collection of antique pocketwatches.
Eventually Batman and Robin track Clock King to the Gotham Clock Tower, where they prevent him from using the life-sized metal sculptured figures that strike the hour as a staging weapon to rob a super-valuable cesium clock.
A big fight ensues and the Caped Crusaders put the gang away. The end.
As Batman episodes go, it’s one of the smarter ones. Sure, there’s silly bits in it– the “Batburgers” scene is a little over-the-top– but the Pop Art satire is sharp and dead-on, and there’s actual detective work involving real-life clockmaker’s trivia, as opposed to Batman just pulling random facts out of his butt. We just watched it again here last week, and my memory did not fail me. It does kind of have that Golden Age vibe.
The reason is simple– it’s based on a real Bill Finger-written Golden Age comic. Several, in fact.
Lots of people think that the Clock King originated as a Green Arrow villain, and there are several online Bat-encyclopedias that state outright that this is the case.
But that’s where depending solely on Google will fool you. It’s true that the Arrow did fight a guy named “Clock King,” but it was a totally different kind of character. The Batman version, the one created by Bill Finger, actually started as a Robin villain in the Boy Wonder’s solo series that ran in Star-Spangled Comics. Originally, he was just called the Clock.
In fact, he was a recurring villain. Robin went up against him several times.
Now, it was fairly common practice for writers to recycle stories, back in the Golden Age. (Someone in the back is snarking off about how DC clearly still does it, given all their reboots and origin retellings. Yeah, I went there. But moving on….)
Anyway, Finger went back to one of his Clock stories and re-did it as a Batman story, a few years later. Here’s the original with Robin solo…
And the retooled Dynamic Duo version.
This is the story that Finger went back to for the TV show. (Note that the plot point of the dropped-watch clue made it all the way through to the television version.) Of course there were a lot of additions and revisions, but the skeleton is there.
Now, here’s the crazy part. That pair of Batman episodes, “The Clock King’s Crazy Crimes” and “The Clock King Gets Crowned,” were the very last Batman stories Bill Finger ever wrote.
–and nobody noticed.
Nobody at ABC made the connection. Nobody at DC seemed to care if Finger was even still working, after they had quietly frozen him out of writing Batman comics a couple of years earlier. Nobody on either the television or comics side thought it was worthy of note that Batman’s actual creator was writing for the Batman TV show… not even to try and milk it for a little publicity and goose the ratings.
Certainly, the Batman TV production staff themselves were completely oblivious to it; the writing job had come through Charles Sinclair’s friendship with producer Howie Horowitz. Sinclair had partnered with Finger on a number of TV and movie scripts, and it was that experience that got the pair a Batman assignment.
About the experience, Charles Sinclair said, “Bill was not going around with ‘Hi, I’m the creator of Batman’ tattooed on his forehead, I’ll tell you that… there was not a lot of respect for it. Forget it. They were not particularly interested in it. We did the one and we were not welcomed back in, shall we say, to do another.”
Pardon me for editorializing, but if I was a TV producer making thousands of dollars a week off Batman, I think I’d be a bit less of a douchebag to the guy that, y’know, invented the concept. But that’s me.
About Bill Finger’s attitude toward seeing his creation on the screen, Sinclair had this to say: “Bill was very excited, as I am, as any writer is, where something you create hits big. But Bill was the type of person who gets stepped on a bit. He was not pushy like Kane was. He didn’t have that Mike Todd spark of flag-waving and glory for himself. Bill was not about to rush into court and say, ‘What the hell kind of billing is this? I want my name up there too. And besides, I want to get paid for it.’ ….Oh, that was one other thing. Because I usually turned up the deals, like the Warner Brothers thing, I initiated it, I found it, that sort of stuff– when it comes to the credits, it says ‘by Charles Sinclair and Bill Finger.’ And when we got to Batman, Bill, I could see, was slightly uncomfortable about something, and then I figured out what the hell it was. He’s the guy that had the Batman connection, so I said to him, ‘Bill, I have an idea about this thing. Let’s put your name in the credits first and mine second.’ And he beamed all over the place. He didn’t want to put it to me, but he was absolutely enchanted, and that’s the way the thing is credited.”
So there you go. That’s the story of Bill Finger’s completely unnoticed last Batman story ever. Almost didn’t even get top billing on it, except his partner felt bad for him.
Stepped on, indeed.
And for years afterward it still went unnoticed. The Clock King got revived, both for TV and for comics. But Finger went uncredited.
If anyone thought about the character’s origins at all, they probably assumed he was original to the Batman TV show, like King Tut or the Bookworm.
To me that’s one of the saddest stories in comics. Think about it. Bill Finger creates a comics sensation, never gets any credit or royalties or even personal acknowledgement, and after years of writing stories that would lay the foundation for dozens of other guys to get rich, he’s unceremoniously kicked off the thing because someone decides he’s not cool any more. So then by sheer coincidence he lands a gig writing a TV version of the same character, that’s hitting just as big on TV as the comics version had hit on newsstands twenty-five years previously… and he gets kicked off that version because the cool kids don’t like him there, either.
What a weird way to go out on your signature comics character. Getting a work-for-hire gig to do one episode of the show that’s become a phenomenon, not because you created it, but because the producer’s a friend of a friend. And you wouldn’t even have got top billing if your pal hadn’t taken pity on you.
I love comic books, but when I think about the way the industry has treated its greatest talents for most of our history, it makes me throw up in my mouth a little.
I’m very much indebted to Marc Tyler Nobleman for his assistance with this column. I would never have managed the research without his help. The best thank-you I can think of is to tell you all to go get his books…. but I’d tell you to anyway because they’re great. Both his biography of Bill Finger, Bill the Boy Wonder, and also its companion volume, Boys of Steel, chronicling the lives of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, are terrific additions to any comics fan’s library.
Thanks also to my old friend Kurt Mitchell for letting me raid his Alter Ego back issues for the Sinclair interview, and to Jim MacQuarrie for putting me in touch with Mr. Nobleman in the first place.
Because, unlike some TV producers and comics publishers I could name, I like to give credit where it’s due.
See you next week.
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