Ten years ago, the Internet might have actually surprised you. On September 26, 2003, regular readers of Comic Book Resources clicked on Mark Millar’s regular “The Column” and stopped.
Simply titled “Orson Welles and the Bat-Man,” Millar’s column on that day halted coffee cups in midair. Millar detailed (for the first time) a newly-discovered cache of scripts, notes, and photos that revealed that Orson Welles wanted to make a Batman film in 1946.
Millar listed actors, experts, and pre-production images detailing an astounding vision of what might have been.The forum boards exploded with nerdthusiasm. In an inverse response of the Batfleck decision, it was all could you imagine? followed by they should do this now! If you’ve never read the article, or were too young to have seen it, go read it now. Trust me. I’ll wait for you.
So the whole thing was a hoax. The art was supplied by Bryan Hitch and it seems like even the editors were in on it. I won’t get into the particulars; maybe CBR can get the outspoken Millar to run a decade-later tell-all. People were upset, but forgave Millar because it was such a brilliant lie. Gregory Peck as Batman? Basil Rathbone as The Joker?!? Back then in 2003, before real Hollywood stars were begging to get Marvel franchises, this was a lie we believed could (and should) have been real, even as just an imaginary possibility. The hoax was Millar’s last column for CBR. Now, ten years later, Millar is making movies and comics that he retains ownership of. And he is still generating controversy.
But that’s not why I’m writing this. I found something of my own that is not a hoax, but reminded me of Millar’s. Ten years ago, when I read that column, I was starting my own long research into the book that would become Super Boys (St. Martin’s, 2013). I was really excited about Millar’s discovery — and disappointed when I found out it was fake. I’m not Mark Millar’s biggest fan (though the first 6 issues of Enemy of the State are perfect comics — up there with Avengers Annual #10), but the Bat-hoax was really inspirational for some reason. Millar’s story made me think that there could be – had to be – real stories and secrets out there. In my book, I ended up finding plenty of unbelievable things (I think) about Siegel and Shuster, the creators of Superman – stories about a mysterious ghost writer, a religious cult, the real Lois Lane, the FBI, secret military work by Jerry, a bulletproof man, a detective who dies named Corrigan, and tons of other secrets – but this post is about Batman. Because I did find something pretty crazy about him, too.
We all know that Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two young Clevelanders who sold ALL OF THEIR RIGHTS AWAY TO SUPERMAN for $130 in 1938, but who continued to chronicle his adventures for ten years. The story of Batman’s creation is very different. As the company sought to capitalize on Superman’s success, the story goes that in early 1939, editor Vin Sullivan gave a young cartoonist named Bob Kane a weekend to create a new superhero. Kane allegedly returned with a sketch of Batman, who then debuted in Detective Comics #27, carrying a gun and wearing purple gloves. Kane’s story also differs because he collaborated with (or outright stole from) a shy writer named Bill Finger, who wrote the early stories in obscurity. For the definitive word on Finger, see Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ty Templeton’s excellent book, Bill: The Boy Wonder and Marc’s additional blog postings here. Kane, due to some slick legal maneuvering and coincidence (he was supposedly under eighteen when he signed his first Batman contract) was able to negotiate a new deal that made him rich.
Obviously, Siegel and Shuster, who sold their caped guy for $130, didn’t much like Batman. They were jealous of Kane’s sweet deal while they fought for $10 raises. In fact, Jerry and Joe thought that their own publisher was deliberately flooding the market with superheroes like Batman to hurt Superman because they were scared of a Jerry and Joe lawsuit. Batman was getting really popular — Jerry himself was drawn into a cameo role (see image) in Batman #13. And though Superman was certainly indebted to the culture around him, he was more of an original concept while Batman relied heavily on existing film and pulp sources, both in content (“The Black Bat”) and visually (Kane’s numerous swipes). This has been documented elsewhere.
In doing research for my book, I attempted to read everything Siegel and Shuster created. One night, eyes closing from too much reading (and probably on a weekend because I had no life), I was at my desk looking at a fading scan of a “Doctor Occult” panel – when I froze:
The panel I saw (pictured first) depicts a shadowy figure with bat wings drawn by Joe Shuster whom Jerry names a “Bat-Man!” This story was created in 1937 and published in the January 1938 issue of More Fun #28. The panel below it is the official 1939 Batman from Detective Comics, though in a reversed composition, with the same spelling of “Bat-man!”
A year later.
The two panels have visual similarities, but here’s where it gets really interesting: two issues after the Doctor Occult story in More Fun, Kane himself began contributing to the magazine, meaning that he surely must have been familiar with Siegel and Shuster’s work. And the editor on More Fun in who gave Kane his first work there? None other than Vin Sullivan, the man who would then allegedly ask Kane to pitch a new superhero to him, just like Siegel and Shuster’s.
Was Kane (or Sullivan himself?) inspired by the creators of Superman to create Batman? Without further proof (or a time platform), we can’t say for sure. Siegel and Shuster’s version (a vampire) certainly has nothing to do with Kane and Finger’s vigilante human hero who stalks the night for evildoers. But the visual similarities, the spelling, and the aligning coincidences of writer, job, date, and editor, are at least worth a pause.
Ten years ago, the top two comics in September sales were Batman and JLA/Avengers. We like Batman in combinations. We like mixing and matching him, the human, against all the other gods and aliens because conflict helps us define him. Batman is where we find our common ground in superheroes. It’s why Superman vs. Batman is being worked on as we speak. We want to see the underdog; we want to see us.
In his original column, Millar talks about comics stories being respected as emotional narratives worthy of Hollywood:
The superhero is sixty-four years old this year, but it’s only now (and maybe not even now) that he’s attaining some kind of mainstream respectability. Crime, horror, romance and even science-fiction have touched The Academy’s hearts over the years and been lauded as adult or sophisticated in a way that we’ll probably never achieve and the reasons for this are twofold.
The Dark Knight (a Batman film) changed that. That isn’t a coincidence, I think. It had to be Batman. But Millar goes on:
The first is that superheroes look silly in a way that even cowboys don’t. I love them and always will, but Joe Public can’t suppress a smirk when he sees Ben Affleck dressed as the banned fifth member of the Village People.
There you go again. Say what you want about Millar, but he knows our industry, and our culture, very well.
A hoax is a lie that pretends to be the truth. Superheroes are all about that disguise, with their masks and capes and flashy outer underwear. The same goes sometimes for the writers who work on them, struggling in a difficult system of freelancing, corporate ownership, and gaining new readers by any means possible. But it also goes for readers, historians, and fans hungry for connections and truth. Facts and images don’t lie, but they can be read in different ways sometimes. When it comes to superheroes (and I love them too) we want that truth so badly that we take it and make it any way we can — as fiction, history, or an imaginative combination of the two. Isn’t that what they really are anyway?
Jerry and Joe, though they certainly resented Batman, never seem to have mentioned this peculiar panel of a “Bat-man” during their lives – maybe they dismissed it as coincidence, or simply just forgot about it. Or was it something else entirely?
What do you think?