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After the Golden Age by Alvin Schwartz
Giving a glimpse into the formative years of comics and beyond.

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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 11/08/1999
Column 26

What was different and unique about Bill Finger may surprise everyone. Essentially, he was not a writer. He had few grammatical skills when he started out and would in his early career be responsible for devising lines such as the following from one of his early splash panels: "Johnny, the typical prototype of the average American boy. . ." -a triple redundancy which was not so uncommon in early comic book writings, particularly in the late thirties.

Jerry Siegel himself, while not among the worst grammarians when he started, improved considerably and remarkably as he matured. But Bill, who was also quick to learn and improve, without ever achieving the fluency of say a Don Cameron, possessed from the very first a gift that made him especially suited for the comics of the Golden Age. Indeed, it was a two-fold gift, one that involved a remarkable capacity for visualization, and the other aspect, a remarkable capacity for shaping a variety of strange and malignant human quirks into images of evil.

Where the rest of us wrote stories, Bill was caught up in graphic forms of character distortion that played into his sense of comics as a pictorial medium. Carried away by these elements, Bill found a means of fitting his highly specialized visualizations of evil into a depiction of crime which belonged only to his world and not the real criminal world, except incidentally. In Bob Kane's hands these creations literally became cartoons of psychotic personality defects.

Interestingly. when Whit Ellsworth went to Hollywood to take charge of the Batman serials, he didn't really recognize the poignant and special elements that the Batman idea embodied and was so put off that he turned the whole idea into a spoof of itself. But Bill had actually set the stage for his kind of nightmare imagery in much of the superhero field that was to follow.

Now Bill's unique talent required a more non-verbal and pictorial way to bring his stories together. He needed something free of the logic of the everyday. So he evolved another system of his own. In short, even more than most comics, his stories were plot-driven rather than character-driven. Bill understood that he was not writing stories of literary sensitivity although, as I shall explain, he set the groundwork for them (comics was not to see such stories until Alan Moore showed up years later) so he turned to a technique that one outstanding American short story writer pioneered. That writer was O. Henry. O Henry employed the sudden mechanical twist so effectively, it produced powerful ironies and juxtapositions, as well as quiet commentaries on life as consisting of little more than twists of fate. From O Henry, the master of the gimmick ending, Bill raised the gimmick to a new art, especially suited to comics and to the synthetic psychoses of his villains. I say synthetic because Bill's villains, Two Face, The Joker, the Penguin and a long list of other strangely damaged personalities were essentially gimmick villains, outside the categories of any clinically recognized psychopathy. They made good stories and were excellent foils for his equally unreal heroes with their utility belts and batcaves and rope-propelled imitations of flight.

But Bill's greatest creation, the Batman hero, was not unreal in the deeper sense. While literally such a hero did not exist, Batman was a powerful but oddly, twisted version of similar archetypes from the great characters of the Odyssey and the Illiad, all the way up through Beowulf and Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel. Not to mention that archetype of the great detective, Sherlock Holmes. Bill's take on these was colored by his own private dream figures that gave Batman and his main villains a perverse and mysterious penumbra. Seeming almost childish on the one hand (especially the Joker and the Penguin) they were at the same time strikingly nightmarish, an interesting reflection from Bill's own interior struggles and his efforts to come to grips with the world. Their unreality was derived from the fact that they were so often mixed with the personal.

It began, as most of us know, with Bill working in a shoe-store and starting off part-time, contriving for his friend, Bob Kane an unusual kind of crime fighter, not merely with unique detective and martial arts skills, but with the added cast of being a night figure, an heroic personality who was somehow dark and tormented, whose daytime, normal personality, was really a cloak to pursue a life essentially vengeful-out of the scarred childhood of parents lost to a vicious crime. I always suspected once I came to know Bill well that somehow, symbolically, he had contrived this method of imaginatively getting rid of his own parents whose exploitation of Bill had been noticed and talked about at the DC offices well before my arrival a few years later. It was probably Schiff who told me how Bill's parents would be waiting to grab his check as soon as he received it at the office. Bill just never talked about them.

The peculiarly obsessional feature that gave Batman his unique qualities can perhaps really be traced to Bill's own darker feelings. In the end, as many of us who knew him, believed, his subsequent marriage was in some part at least motivated by a desire to escape from home and the parental yoke. That it happened this way, unfortunately, put Bill's wife, Portia, in the position of having to play a domineering role herself, although she was not at all a domineering person. It was she who would have to look after the practical elements of their lives, manage the finances and help Bill be responsible for delivering his work on time. An almost identical situation has marked the lives of many artists, of whom, from my own experience, I can cite Jackson Pollock whose wife, herself an artist, had the problem of dealing with a man who was still trapped in the miasmas of his own childhood.

Bill's inability to meet deadlines consistently was clearly due to an angry withholding, a tendency to delay and doodle with his story idea long past its due date. . In a deeper sense, his unexpressed anger made it difficult for him to focus on a single task. Once he had his story idea complete, the mere chore of typing it became too boring. A kind of Mozartian impediment to writing the thing down tended to scatter his carefully constructed story into new plot avenues and alternate possibilities. Inevitably, he was late for his deadline He paid a price for this, but that price might have been much higher had he not been as gifted as he was. And covering it all was the aimiable, unaggressive and easily exploitable personality that most of us knew. He did favors for people, he helped other writers with ideas, was interested in current events both political and cultural and enjoyed discussions and social situations. He also managed to release some of the deeper tensions he experienced with a steady addiction to golf and the physical release it afforded him.

Since the clash of superhero and villain in Bill's world was based on essentially unreal characters, because they were derivatives of early personal conflicts, there was no way for these stories to come to a conclusion on a characterological basis. They were, in fact, resolved by gimmicks in the good O Henry manner. Well aware of this, Bill had gradually accumulated, over the years, a series of notebooks containing gimmicks that became widely known among comics creators. How often back in the Golden Age did I see other writers and even artists (since many of the gimmicks were pictorial) approaching Bill and asking to search through his gimmick books for an idea. As indeed, I did myself. And Bill was always generous. Note that these treasured collections were in no particular order; they had no organization, no headings under which types of gimmicks were listed. They were a vast grab-bag of things Bill picked up almost anywhere, such as: "When a dog's nose gets frozen, he can't smell anything. How to put pursuing dogs off the track during a getaway." Some were as brief as that, others were longer and more detailed.

Bill was, at the same time, fully aware of many of his problems. His writing deficiencies he tackled directly by reading classics and seeking out writings of literary quality. He acquired an interest in music and the fine arts and by these means managed to lift himself out of the limitations of an inadequate education. For the most part, he succeeded. His mind grew steadily in sophistication. But emotionally he still struggled with feelings of inadequacy, projected some of it on unrealizable romantic hopes, tended to resent his wife's support which only made him feel more inadequate. In that respect, this gifted man with his bottled up emotions who kept growing mentally, found himself unable to cope with the needs of his own son. I recall with some pain a visit by Bill to my home for a few days in which he brought young Freddie along. The latter was then about six years old. We all went out camping for a day, Bill, myself, my wife and kids, and Freddie. Bill at that time was already separated from Portia but had charge of Freddie because Portia needed to attend to some things where she couldn't have him along. So Bill was in charge. It seemed that under those conditions, he reverted. He seemed fond but essentially unaware of Freddie. He didn't seem to know how to pick him up and comfort him. Little things like wiping the kid's nose, tying his shoes, went unnoticed by Bill. My wife had to substitute for Portia instead. And yet, as I said, Bill was aware of his failings and really tried to get help.

Finally, he turned to a psychoanalytic clinician who turned out to be, as I discovered later, a personal friend of mine. Bill just happened to mention her name in passing, and I knew. However, I didn't say anything as Bill complained bitterly that the clinician would never talk to him, just ask him questions about his own statements- a common practise among Freudians of that day and often successful enough as success operated in those days with certain types of patients capable of accepting this self-mirroring technique. But here, unfortunately, the mix was exactly what Bill didn't need. Bill was a talker and a thinker. And he needed someone, especially a woman, to respond directly to him. He needed someone with whom he could have a direct exchange. And that, somehow, my clinician friend wasn't able to understand until too late when her silence finally drove Bill away, no better and possibly worse off than before.

By now Bill's heart was beginning to give way. He was getting little credit for his work because DC tended to see him too much in terms of his late deliveries. There was neither reward nor recognition for Bill in spite of the continuing success of his Batman creation. And with Weisinger finally in charge, instead of Schiff, he was getting ever fewer assignments, accompanied by the kind of ridicule that Weisinger always provided when he sensed any weakness or sensitivity in someone. Things reached a point where Bill could no longer work at DC. He tried other things, even radio. In fact, Bill and I worked together for a brief time on the Mark Trail radio show. He also kept trying to tackle television but couldn't really get a foothold. He worked for other comics houses. He had a brief stint in California about which I know little since by this time, I had moved to Canada and was out of contact. But in the end, Bill went back to DC, struggling as ever to get his work done, protect his now seriously ailing heart from a new heart attack, and trying to find solace in romances that on his side were more imagined than real.

His story is in fact a sad one. He had a great gift which received little recognition except among the small number of other artists and writers who worked with him. After his last fatal heart attack, I heard of the wild scramble to get hold of his gimmick book. That was all he left behind, except for a body of work that is still gaining recognition for its richness, ingenuity and colorful character portrayals.

In last week's column, I raised the question about how Bill's story might help me illustrate how, despite the disconnect between an artist and his work, there is indeed a value that inspiration at any level leaves to the rest of us. Certainly, the gimmick book was the very least of whatBill left.

He left, in fact, a very strange character in his Batman- one that seems capable of constantly recreating itself in new forms because of the unique inner struggles the strip embodied, the play of darkness and light; the hallucinatory visions that his villains consisted of and without whom many of the very distinct works by people like Moore and others on Batman could not have happened. So Bill's legacy lay in his work, and the real significance of that work, spurred by a search to find an outlet for his childhood anger, continues to grow in a tradition very much its own. So that in failing to find that outlet for himself, Bill provided the gift of his work to the rest of us.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 11/01/1999 | 11/08/1999 | 11/22/1999 >>

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