How Much Did Batman Knock-off Dick Tracy?
Were the Picturesque Batcrooks Inspired by Chester Gould’s Gallery of Grotesques?
Mysteries swirl around the Darknight Detective. Some of the questions went unanswered to the grave with Bill Finger in 1974; others, with Bob Kane in 1998. And now only Jerry Robinson is left of the crew that ginned up the early Batman stories. But not even Robinson can lay all the mysteries to rest. One of the mysteries, however, I hope to resolve herewith. The Chester Gould connection—true or not?
The Comics Buyer’s Guide’s issue on Batman (no. 1328, dated April 30, 1999) included an interview with Jerry Robinson, who, in assisting Bob Kane with art chores on the early Batman stuff, was involved in the creation of both Robin the Boy Wonder and the Joker, a key Batman villain. The question of who created whom, or what, has hung over these characters for a generation. Kane says he created the Joker; Robinson says he did. Kane says he created Robin; Robinson admits he didn’t create the Boy Wonder but says he named the character and devised his costume. And he says the same thing in the first part of the recent two-part interview in The Comics Journal (no. 271 in October 2005). Bill Finger, the writer who should have been given at least as much credit for Batman as Kane, isn’t around and hasn’t been around, so there’s no other witness we can consult. It’s one man’s word against another’s without letup. Or one man’s recollection against another’s. And memory is forever fallible. Still, considering Kane’s larger-than-life ego, I’m tempted to discount his claim as being just so much more hot air. But that is entirely beside the point at hand.
At hand is something else altogether. Related, perhaps, but wholly different. The question is: To what extent were both Robin and the Joker inspired by Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy? Were Kane and company more-or-less under the spell of Gould’s strip? The Joker and Two-face and the Penguin and the Riddler—all smack of Gould grotesques like Pruneface and Flattop and the like. Most witnesses nod in agreement on this matter: Obviously, Kane and his cohorts were imitating Gould. And Kane himself (in Batman and Me, p. 105) seems to agree. He says Dick Tracy “inspired us to create an equally weird set of villains for Batman.”
Maybe, maybe not. In any case, prompted by a desire to Find the Truth So Help Me, I decided to examine the Gould connection a little more closely.
Robin, I always thought, was Junior Tracy in tights. And Jay Maeder agrees. In his book on the Gould oeuvre called Dick Tracy: The Official Biography (Penguin Books, 1990), Maeder says: “Kane usually acknowledged that he had lifted the premise straight from Dick Tracy” (p. 22). What’s more, Maeder says “Gould invented the comic tradition of the Boy Sidekick” with Junior Tracy, who arrived on September 8, 1932. Robin didn’t show up until years later—in Detective Comics no. 38, cover-dated April 1940. Yes, the first of these two kid sidekicks was clearly Junior. But it’s not certain that Junior directly inspired Robin.
In CBG, Robinson says Robin was conjured up in order to give Batman somebody to talk to. It’s an old dilemma in comics, and the solution was fairly threadbare by even 1940. Give the protagonist a sidekick. Spud, Hotshot Charlie, Happy Easter, and so on. “I’m sure it was Bill’s idea for adding a boy,” Robinson told Gary Groth in The Comics Journal (no. 171, p. 82). “That I would attribute to Bill without question. When I came in they were already discussing possible names. So I joined the discussion of the creation. There was nothing on paper yet, nothing but the idea of adding a sidekick. And I know that was Bill’s idea to add a sidekick from the discussion that ensued. The impetus came from Bill’s wanting to extend the parameters of the story potential and of the drama. He saw that adding a sidekick would enhance the drama. Also, it enlarged the readership identification. The younger kids could then identify with Robin, which they couldn’t with Batman, and the older ones with Batman. It extended the appeal on a lot of levels.”
At first, Robinson says, Kane and Finger were going to call the new kid Mercury or some such moniker from a long list they had of mythological characters, but Robinson offered “Robin” based upon his affection for Robin Hood. “I had been given a Robin Hood book illustrated by N.C. Wyeth,” he said, “—full-plate tip-in [illustrations]. I remembered those because I had pored over them so many times as a kid. I had a vision of Robin Hood just as Wyeth drew him in his costume, and that’s what I quickly sketched out when I suggested [the name] Robin, which they seemed to like, and then showed them the costume. And if you look at it, it’s Wyeth’s costume, from my memory, because I didn’t have the book to look at. But it is pretty accurate: the fake mail pants, the red vest, upon which I added the little ‘R’ to correspond with Batman’s bat on his chest.”
With that, the deal was done. Robin—named and costumed. No mention of Junior Tracy, though, even if Junior was the first kid sidekick in popular literature.
Grotesque villains are another somewhat more complicated matter. Dick Tracy is famous for them. So is Batman. Again, which came first seems decisive. Tracy is older by almost a decade; clearly, Gould’s grotesques, because they were first, inspired Kane.
It’s always assumed that any copycatting had to be on the comic book side: newspaper cartoonists in those days didn’t stoop to reading comic books. And comic book creators, most of whom aspired to greater things, like syndication with a comic strip of their own, looked to newspaper comic strips for two kinds of inspiration: strip cartoonists were living proof that fame and fortune awaited if you could get yourself syndicated, and the material they trafficked in seemed somehow better and therefore more imitatable than comic book material. So obviously, the usual assumption runs, Kane and company borrowed from Gould. Well, maybe, maybe not.
Tracy achieved early fame for its realistic depiction of criminal brutality. Lots of bloodshed and sadistic cruelty. And lots of references in the strip to real crooks in the news. Gould tucked Al Capone and John Dillinger into the strip as Big Boy and Boris Arson. Arson escapes from prison by using a Dillinger-inspired dodge: carving a pistol out of a potato and then dying it black with iodine. But he doesn’t look anything like Dillinger. Then came Stooge Viller, who looked like Edward G. Robinson in one of the decade’s numerous Hollywood gangster flicks. And then along came wicked Steve the Tramp, who later reformed. Others included Doc Hump, Larceny Lu, Stud Bronzen, Jojo Niddle, Scardol, and Professor Emirc. Unsavory types, no question. But not grotesques. And the point of comparison between Batman and Dick Tracy is with grotesques—characters who look like their names, or whose names suggest their personalities. The Joker, the Penguin, Pruneface, Clay Face, Two-face, Flattop, Shoulders, the Riddler, Itchy, B-B Eyes, etc. When did the first of those show up?
That’s easy to discern with Batman, who debuted in a May 1939 issue of Detective Comics (no. 27). The first grotesque in the Batman canon is the Joker, who shows up in the inaugural issue of Batman Comics in the spring of 1940; and then comes Clay Face, who appears in Detective Comics no. 40, cover-dated June 1940. Both are grotesques. When did comparable (or copyable) characters show up in Dick Tracy? Surprisingly, not in time to inspire the Joker.
Grotesques were not a distinctive feature of the strip until the 1940s. (See the Timeline charts at the end.) That’s when Flattop and Pruneface and the like came along. Still, the strip was on the scene long before the Batman comic books. Was there anything in it before the Joker’s debut that Kane and/or Robinson might have been imitating?
Probably the earliest grotesque in Tracy was Doc Hump who was operating fiendishly on his canine cohorts in late 1934. Next was “the Blank,” whose name was Ankle Redrum (“murder” spelled backwards); he wore a cheesecloth mask that acted to blur his facial features, which had been horribly disfigured in an accident of some sort. He bowed onto Tracy’s stage in October 1937. Both earlier than the Joker. But probably too early to inspire the Joker. Professor Emirc (“crime” spelled backwards) in Tracy was an ugly cuss and might be considered another precursor to the grotesques of the forties; he arrived in the fall of 1939, early enough to coincide, perhaps, with the creation of the Joker—or, at least, to be a fresh memory when Kane or Robinson started looking for a memorable antagonist for Batman. They were looking for someone like Emirc or Stooge Viller (who had returned in October 1939 to plague Tracy again). Or Big Boy, Gould’s stand-in for Al Capone. Big Boy came back a couple times to haunt Tracy, and Kane and company were looking for someone like that. A worthy opponent. Someone who would come back again and again.
Batman’s first “name” villain had been Dr. Death, who showed up for Batman’s third adventure (July 1939). He might have been inspired by Gould’s Doc Hump, but that’s hard to say without actual testimony: by July 1939, Doc Hump was almost five years in Tracy’s past. He might have been too far back to be even a distant memory in Kane’s mind or Robinson’s. Besides, by 1939, they had other models.
What Kane and company came up with as a memorable opponent for Batman was the Joker. How they came up with it depends upon whose story you like best.
Robinson’s Story. With Batman coming into his own at the end of 1939 and about to star in his own book (which would be released with a spring 1940 cover-date) as well as in Detective Comics, they needed more Darknight Detective stories. Bill Finger was a slow worker, Robinson remembers, and obviously couldn’t produce enough stories to sustain both Detective and Batman comic books, so Robinson, who had aspired to be a writer when in high school and was now attending Columbia U. and taking writing courses, volunteered to try a story, probably in early 1940. One night, he says, he went home in great excitement to come up with something. According to Robinson in CBG, what he was seeking, the thing that prompted his creation of the Joker, was the need for “a more important adversary” for Batman. “Many of the great heroes of literature had protagonists to pit their strengths and brains against ... formidable adversaries. ... I wanted a memorable character with some contradiction in his nature—a contradiction in terms.”
The Joker’s name, oddly, came first as Robinson recalls: “The stories I liked best that I wrote for the highschool paper had twist endings and humor. My affinity for humor led me to a villain with a sense of humor. An interesting combination. [And containing a contradiction in terms—a crook with a sense of humor.—RCH] Then I needed a unique name for the villain. The Joker must have come from my association with cards, which I loved to play. It was about 1 a.m. when I began searching for a deck of cards. I eventually found one and fortunately it had the classic clown Joker image. That was just the kind of image I was looking for: the perfect visage for the Joker. And it combined the concept of the character—a villain with a touch of humor.”
He based the visualization of the Joker on the image on the playing card, retaining the chalk-white complexion. When he presented his idea to Kane and Finger, they liked it so much that Kane persuaded Robinson to let Finger, the star writer of the team, write the origin story that Robinson had initially volunteered to do. “Bill was an experienced writer,” Robinson said, “and it was a sensible decision to have him write the story.”
Nothing in this about Chester Gould. Robinson had to have been reading Dick Tracy: at the time, it was a popular strip and ran on the front page of the Sunday comics in The New York Daily News. Robinson couldn’t have avoided the strip—even if he’d wanted to. But, as we’ve seen, Dick Tracy at the time didn’t number any conspicuous grotesques like the Joker in the cast. So whether Robinson was reading Dick Tracy or not doesn’t matter.
That’s Robinson’s version.
Kane’s story, which he said is supported by E. Nelson Bridwell’s report of Finger’s recollection, begins with Kane wanting to create a worthy antagonist for Batman. Kane came up with the Joker playing card and the concept of a joke-playing villain. He says he showed his sketches based upon the playing card to Finger, who “liked the idea of a compulsive practical joker, and we kicked around ideas about a maniacal killer who would play life-and-death jokes on Batman, and that would test his mettle and ability to outwit his foe.” About a week later, Kane says, Finger came into the studio with a photograph of Conrad Veidt, an actor, made up for his role in a movie called “The Man Who Laughs.” Finger thought Veidt’s visage was a better image for the Joker than the clownish creation that had come from Kane’s pen, and Kane agreed. Robinson’s playing card Joker came in after this, Kane maintains—Robinson’s contribution was to put Veidt’s face on the Joker playing card as a calling card for their new villain. But this took place after the Joker was invented, Kane says.
Robinson’s version of the Joker’s creation can be incorporated into Kane’s—albeit with a shoe-horn. When Robinson volunteered to write the story, Kane may not have taken the youth’s intentions seriously, and so he forgot that Robinson was on the assignment. Meanwhile, he and Finger went ahead with their discussion of what might be a “memorable” villain. He may have also forgotten that Robinson brought the Joker to them. What he remembered was Finger bringing in the Veidt photograph, which Finger could well have done after Robinson came up with the character and the playing card image—as a way of affirming the rightness of the concept by way of contributing to the visualization of the character. And Kane remembered using Veidt’s visage on a playing card. Maybe it fits. But an internal contradiction betrays Kane: he says he conjured up with the notion of the Joker playing card; and then he says Robinson’s playing card came after the Veidt inspiration. By offering contradictory theories, Kane reveals that one of them is made up. Which one?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. We can’t escape the fundamental fact that both Kane and Robinson claim to have invented the joke-playing villain and the playing card image. Clearly, both could not have done it. And considering Kane’s cavalier treatment of Finger, I’d opt every time not to believe anything Kane said when the utterance tended to elevate his reputation above that of his collaborators. Self-aggrandizement was Kane’s forte, not creative imagination.
Fine. But Chester Gould doesn’t figure in Kane’s version either. No surprise: as I said, the Gould gallery of grotesques was yet to come. His work was probably not at all inspirational for the Batman team at this moment—for the creation of the Joker, that is—or, for that matter, for Clay Face, who shows up that June. The Blank might have inspired this character, but the Blank, by this time, was over two years in the past. Another perhaps too distant character for anything but subliminal inspiration. And that, of course, could have happened. But speculation about conscious thought-processes is hazardous enough without my wandering into the caverns of the subconscious. It seems clear that neither the Joker nor Clay Face could have been inspired by Gould’s grotesques. Later maybe—for the Penguin and Two-face and maybe the Riddler and a few others I suppose—maybe then Kane and company took a leaf from Gould’s 1940s scrapbook. But not for the Joker: his creation was simply too early.
The Penguin may have been inspired by Gould. The Penguin was the next grotesque villain in the Batman tales after Clay Face, and the Penguin shows up in Detective no. 58, cover-dated December 1941. By then, Gould had started introducing the kinds of crooks that he would soon become celebrated for. Deafy Sweetfellow, a criminal who is hard of hearing, showed up in October 1940, a year before the Penguin. And Little Face came along in July 1941; the Mole, in November 1941. The latter would be too late to inflame the imaginations of the Batman team: for the Penguin’s debut in a December-dated comic book—which doubtless hit the newsstands in early November—Kane’s crew would probably have been scripting in August or September. At that time, they would have seen Little Face and Deafy, but not the Mole.
So what do we have here? Well, even though the concept of Gould’s grotesques as criminals echoes in Kane’s roster of rogues, the latter probably was not as frequently inspired by the former as Kane remembered. It’s uncharacteristically gracious of Kane to nod in Gould’s direction. Maybe Kane was, in a backhanded and perhaps nearly subconscious way, thanking Gould for Batman’s jaw, which had become squarer and squarer as the months rolled on. Batman’s profile surely evoked Tracy’s eventually, but not in the early years. In those years, Batman’s profile wasn’t all that razor-edged. Despite the alleged imitation in Batman, (1) most of the most picturesque of Gould’s grotesques came after Kane and company invented the few they deployed, and (2) there weren’t that many grotesques in the Batman oeuvre, popular opinion to the contrary notwithstanding. The best of them—the Joker and the Penguin—appeared often. But the only others of significant notoriety were Clay Face and Two-face. Clay Face came before Gould’s gallery. But Two-face could have been inspired by Little Face or the Mole. Neither Clay Face nor Two-face appeared very often in the early years. Robin may have been a knock-off of Junior Tracy, but we can’t be certain. Chronological sequence alone is not sufficient proof. Even so, there wasn’t as much copying in the Batstudio as legend would have us believe.
The foregoing is a revised and up-dated version of an essay that appeared in The Comics Journal in 1999. For more about Chester Gould and the invention of Dick Tracy, click here to be transported to another Hindsight file.