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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 09/20/1999
Column 19

Last week, I said I'd talk about how credits were distributed at DC back in the good old Golden Years. On the face of it, of course, there weren't any. When you got your check for writing Superman or Batman, or any DC comic, there was a clause above the place for the signature in which you acknowledged that you had no right, title or interest in any of the work for which said check was payment, and that furthermore, you would never have any such rights and all belonged to (at that time) National Comics Publications. We always signed, and when the work came out, they always bore the old names- Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster on Superman, and Bob Kane on Batman. Now, I got involved with DC (after a couple of years working with Shelley Mayer and Max Gaines) and did my first Batman in 1942. The name on the masthead was Bob Kane. At the same time, I knew Bill Finger quite well and we often helped each other as we plotted various stories. Bob Kane was never around at all.

Now, if Bill was allegedly a ghost for Bob Kane, it almost seemed as if Kane were the ghost. I remember, in those days, meeting him once, when he complained that I shouldn't have put sheep in a stampede scene. This was strange because they weren't sheep, they were steers. Then, when Bob added: "You know I can't draw sheep," I was really puzzled. I hadn't the least idea what Bob could or couldn't draw, except that in general his drawing was crude and self taught. This was plain to me since I'd grown up in a family of artists and I myself had taught elementary drawing in the mid-thirties on Roosevelt's WPA program. But aside from all that, I had never really met Bob Kane at the office. We knew each other. Occasionally nodded to each other, but that sheep thing was the only thing resembling a conversation I ever had with him.

Conversation with Bob would have been difficult anyway. He spoke in monosyllables and rarely had anything to say. Not exactly a man of ideas. In fact, everyone knew that the ideas came from Finger. But how then explain Paul Levitz's recent statement that Finger was Bob's ghost? In fact, all assignments came from the editor, Jack Schiff. Finger and I (and let's not forget the excellent work of Don Cameron) gave ideas to Schiff, discussed them with him and following his okay, we wrote them. Then, Schiff handed the stuff to Kane and ordered him to draw them. At that time, there was practically no contact with Kane by the writers. So in actual fact, Kane was really OUR ghost, if the notion of ghost can be said to have any meaning in this context. Remember, Schiff wasn't working for Kane, it was the other way around.

Bob finally wound up with a real ghost of his own, Lew Schwartz, which brought about such a drastic improvement in Bob's work that Schiff spotted it immediately, and Lew was able to come out of the closet on his own.

But I understand Paul Levitz's position too. It has to do with the way Kane got control of the Batman rights all by himself. Way back, before Time-Warner appeared, under the old Donnenfeld/Jack Liebowitz regime, the company was in delicate negotiations with McClure Syndicate to turn Batman into a daily. The Kane family had gotten wind of this and made certain demands for compensation and recognition of the sort never available to DC's free lancers. As I say, it was a delicate time. National Comics didn't want to see this syndication slip away from them because of an ownership dispute. So Bob got a very good settlement out of it. Credits, percentage of the take, etc. Now since no one even thought of bringing Bill Finger in on this settlement, Bill got nothing. There was no one to speak for him, least of all his old buddy, Bob Kane. So, in the end, this binding agreement ties Paul Levitz's hands. It's true that Bill has no heirs, but there are heirs on the Kane side, and if Paul were to acknowledge and credit Bill with having made a more than major contribution to Batman, he'd have the Kane heirs to deal with. Amd that's why Time-Warner which has been reasonably generous since they took over, could not accord Bill the recognition he deserves.

But the story doesn't end there.

There's the Jerry Siegel/Joe Shuster saga. Plus the warehouse materials that were destroyed along with Jack Schiff's carefully kept records of who wrote what. And all of it happened before Time/Warner came along and made a serious effort to reconstruct the true credits from the remaining materials.

In my memoir (which those of you who haven't yet read it might care to know-is now available in paperback. A little over $10 at amazon.com and similar places). Get yuorself a copy of An Unlikely Prophet where I tell the story of how one of my Superman newspaper scripts introduces a cyclotron (known today as a particle accelerator) and has Superman expose himself to its power. Well, it's just before the bomb was ready, early 1945. The FBI rushed in and tried to prevent the script from being distributed to all the papers. They succeeded only partially. By now, most of you know that story since it's fully recounted in my memoir. But try to figure this. I had been writing the Superman strip for some years already. I had never met Jerry Siegel. And the reason I was the writer and Jerry wasn't is because Jerry was in the army. I was out with a 4F because when I tried early on to enlist in the OSF, thinking I'd be useful being dropped behind the lines to work with the resistance because I knew French, my hidden asthma took a turn for the worse and was spotted by the medics, so no war for Alvin. Aside from that, I had been a confirmed pacifist before all that. But I could not reconcile pacificism with Hitler. I knew Hitler had to be stopped and I came to understand that "there's a time for war and a time for peace." This is a subtle one, and I may deal with it in a later column, but for now, there I was talking about cyclotrons (from a 1935 piece in Popular Mechanics) and DC sent the FBI looking for Jerry Siegel.

That was a major part of the pattern, the mysterious, desperate secrecy about who wrote what. The old Donnenfeld/Liebowitz axis even hid the truth from the FBI who found Jerry in the army and learned from him that he knew nothing about it. So why didn't National Comics tell the FBI who really wrote it? Why were they so paranoid? Was it because Jerry's lawsuit had already begun and they were just closing up on everything? I don't know. In the meantime, stories broke in Newsweek and Time magazine that Superman "had the bomb first." It was still assumed that this was Jerry Siegel's work. National Comics remained secretive as the grave.

Then, on Jan 14, 1948, when the story of my first novel, The Blowtop, was written up in the NY Times Book Section, they also broke the story that I'd been anonymously writing the Superman strip for some years. So the word was out. Or part of it. Let me add that I still hadn't met Jerry Siegel, now that his legal action had begun and he wasn't around in the office. Then, sometime in the late fifties, when all that was over, I finally met him. We were working side by side in the DC bullpen, each of us working on a Superman comic book story. I never really got to know him, because I was to leave DC for good not long after. My reasons are sufficiently well-known not to need repeating here.

Fast forward to 1990. I've been away from comics for many years, without any knowledge of the changes that have occurred. Rich Morrissey, a well known comics historian, traces me through a story in the Florida press just in time to get me credits (and royalties) for the deluxe Kitchen Sink editions of the Batman newspaper strip. A new owner, Time-Warner, is really anxious to find out who wrote what. Morrissey and Martin O'Hearn have spent many months doing exegetical analysis of the scripts to track down original writers and artists.

I contacted Jack Schiff. Jack informed me that he had a record of every script and every writer in his editorial notes, carefully kept in a New Jersey warehouse. That also included the fully drawn scripts of a comic I had developed, consisting of some thirty comic book episodes, and called Hotel Skyline which DC was stockpiling for some future comic series. What happened? DC destroyed all of it. Why? I can speculate all sorts of reasons. I think, possibly, they had developed, over the years, a secretive defensive policy of revealing nothing to anyone, not even the FBI. Inbuilt paranoia.

Of course, when Time Warner took over, they made a determined and largely successful effort to locate and credit whom they could. But let's not forget that much is owed to the hardworking team of Rich Morrissey and Martin O'Hearn.

Hey-there's some strange stuff on the bomb in An Unlikely Prophet. Did I actually have a vision that it was coming? Any body have thoughts on such a possibility? I'll welcome your comments, questions and even arguments. So let's hear from you.

Alvin Schwartz

<< 09/13/1999 | 09/20/1999 | 09/27/1999 >>

Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.

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