Obituary: Bob Kane

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The Independent Culture
IN 1981 Les Lilley [obituary, 4 November] took his Cartoonists' Club to New York to attend the American cartoonists' annual award ceremonies, writes Denis Gifford. I stayed on a few days extra to locate and interview some of the men whose strip cartoons meant so much to me as a young reader. Among these was Bob Kane, creator of Batman [obituary by Tom Vallance, 7 November].

One big difference between American comic artists and our own was that they always signed their strips, and Kane was one whose artwork stood out right from his beginnings back in the 1930s. His big impact with me was a weekly page in a tabloid comic called Wags, a 32-page mixture of famous newspaper strips such as "Tarzan" and "Little Orphan Annie" interspersed with originals specially drawn for the comic such as Will Eisner's "Hawks of the Seas". Kane's page was called "Peter Pupp", and as you might expect this dogged hero was very much in the style of animated cartoon films of the period. Not surprising perhaps when I heard that Kane had learned his drawing techniques in the Max Fleischer film studios in New York. He worked on "Betty Boop" cartoons.

I took my rare copy of Wags to the States with me, hoping to meet one or two of its veteran cartoonists, and I showed it to Kane in his Manhattan flat. He was both delighted and surprised, as he had little left of his early work, and in fact had never seen the Wags comic before: it had been produced in the US for export to the UK.

Although, as he told me, he had always wanted to be a purely funny cartoonist, there were pre-echoes of the sinister shadows of the Batman that was to come. When Peter and his little buddy Tinymite (Batman and Robin?) landed on the Moon they came face to horrid face with Zula, supreme ruler of the lunar men: "a monstrosity because of his one eye and devil horns, a madman with a burning desire to become ruler of the entire world". Speaking in irregular lettering as befitted an alien, Zula the Great hypnotises Peter and ropes him beneath a steel roller studded with sharp spikes. "Heh! Heh!" he hehs. Suddenly a cuckoo clock chirps the hour of four. "So sorry," says Zula, "Tea-time! Won't you join me in a cup of tea?" To be continued . . . Only I don't have next week's comic.

"I got paid five dollars a page," recalled Kane, "and it cost me three dollars a page to buy the tints to stick on my drawings." Peter Pupp was drawn for a cartoonist-cum-agent called Jerry Iger. "I left that son-of- a-bitch because he wouldn't raise me to 10 dollars a page. If he had then I would have stayed with him and in time he would have owned Batman! It doesn't bear thinking about."

Kane was one of the few cartoonists to retain rights in his characters. "Not complete rights, just a part, but enough to ensure my name was always on the strip whether I drew it or not, and to be certain I was given reasonable credits on spin-offs." This meant the two Columbia film serials, the ABC Television series, and the more recent cinema features.

Kane was happy to give much credit to the late Bill Finger, a schoolmate who helped him finalise the form of Batman and who wrote many of the strips over the first 15 years. "Bill was a great fan of the pulp magazines, and used his admiration for such characters as the Shadow and Doc Savage to embroider Batman's character. He also loved the old Conrad Veidt silent film The Man Who Laughed. Veidt had been scarred by torture into wearing a permanent fixed grin. This image was evolved by Bill into the Joker, our first super-villain, despite all the later claims by Jerry Robinson, who was our art assistant at the time."

Kane called Finger the "Cecil B. De Mille of the comic strip" for his regular use of outside props such as the Statue of Liberty or a giant sewing machine.

I asked Kane how he felt when young academics wrote deep books analysing the psychology of his Batman hero. "I smile," he said. "I can't even spell psychology."