Thursday, November 16, 2017

The highly personal reasons I was wrong about the third season of "Twin Peaks"

This post contains spoilers about my life.

I wrote some pretty snarky stuff about the third season of Twin Peaks, which is to be released on DVD December 5, 2017. In particular, I singled out the character commonly referred to as “Dougie Cooper,” whom I called “Stupor Cooper,” for special derision. 

Basically, I saw the character as everything that was wrong with the third season of Twin Peaks. Boy was I ever wrong. Dougie Cooper isn’t just the best character in the Twin Peaks revival, he might be the best Twin Peaks character ever. The reasons for this are highly personal, even painful.

As I was watching it, the third season of Twin Peaks was a frustrating, annoying experience. I even spent a few weeks writing and creating the voice over for a parody video in which I was going to make fun of the people doing explainer videos, and make fun of Lynch and Frost for what seemed to me to be capricious, artsy (as opposed to artful) choices that were preventing us spending time in the presence of the characters we loved from the original iteration of the show, in particular the amazing Agent Dale Cooper.

What we got in Agent Cooper’s place was Dougie Cooper, who wandered and stumbled his way through the show, repeating the last word he’d heard or scribbling lines on paper that would later be interpreted by others as some amazing insights. The repetition got to be unbearable, especially in those moments when it appeared that Agent Cooper was going to come back to us, that Dougie was going to finally “snap out of it” and get back to Twin Peaks for a reunion with Hawk and Lucy and Andy and (dare to hope!) Audrey and so on. 

I think now that part of why I resented Dougie Cooper so much is because, well, I have been Dougie Cooper. For awhile. Stumbling through my life confused, befuddled by my place in the world, by my purpose—misunderstanding what I was supposed to be doing. And, more importantly, who I was supposed to be.

Part of me understood that I was living a life that was full of very important benefits and comforts and safety, but that I was still not fully present for lack of a better word. There was something wrong with the way I was living. I needed to change. I needed to wake up! I’ve often had the feeling that all I was doing was mimicking what I saw other people doing without fully understanding the motives behind those actions. Not only that—I have to rely on others to point me in the correct direction—even to the point that I need someone to grab me before I LITERALLY walked into a wall.

When Agent Cooper finally made his appearance, breaking out of the Dougie Cooper stupor, I got very emotional. It wasn’t just the Twin Peaks theme playing in the background, and it wasn’t just his “I AM the FBI” line. I think it was a part of me recognizing that I was in the process of changing.

Change is difficult, and painful.

I love to engage with great art. It’s exciting to encounter something that’s worth the time it takes to actually decipher, to understand the full implications of the point the creator is attempting to get across. Most mass produced entertainment is disposable, and there are multiple reasons for this, both nefarious and benign. On the one hand, the megaconglomerates that produce most of the entertainment we consume have an incentive to keep us interested in as many things as possible, so we’ll keep spending money. On the other hand, most of us have such busy lives that we don’t have the time to devote ourselves to contemplating what a capital-A Artist is trying to tell us.

What David Lynch and Mark Frost showed us with the latest iteration of Twin Peaks was that they are in fact real artists, with some poignant things to say about the way we live our lives.

I’m optimistic enough to believe that there is more great art being produced today than at any point in history. In fact, there’s so much great art being produced that I won’t have the opportunity to engage with even a fraction of it. But what is rare is that I find something that actually helps me to understand my place in the world, and to offer an aspirational message that I can overcome my own stupid limitations.

I don’t consider most of what is popular to be great art. Superhero movies, for instance, don’t speak to me on an emotional level, even if I can appreciate the engineering that goes into them. Maybe you consider them to be great art—and that’s okay with me! It only proves my point that there’s a lot of great art out there!

I was wrong about the third season of Twin Peaks. It wasn’t what I wanted, but in a weird way it was actually what I needed.

I’m not sure that I even care, at this point, what actually happened when Agent Cooper and Diane crossed over. That was a choice that Agent Cooper made after coming out of his stupor—once he’d rediscovered himself he made the decision to continue on with his quest to rescue Laura Palmer. In the process, Cooper became another iteration of himself. And that iteration was the type of guy who kicks rednecks in the balls and drops their guns in boiling grease.

He wasn’t the Cooper that we all knew and loved. Who will I become once I’ve finally stuck that fork in the outlet? Who will you become when you evolve?

In addition to be difficult and painful, change is… unpredictable. Great art explores uncomfortable subjects, thoroughly and honestly. The third season of Twin Peaks did that, even if it made me very uncomfortable watching.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Billy Joel's "Piano Man" is full of nightmare visions if you take it literally

When I was a small child, my mother was a huge Billy Joel fan. She listened to his albums just about every single day; as such, I developed a very high tolerance for his music. This tolerance remains with me to this day, at least through An Innocent Man.

But, I had some trouble with some of his songs. I was very literal minded. “Piano Man,” in particular, was problematic for me. That song was full of terrible booby traps that completely befuddled my seven year-old self. The lyrics were… well, if you took the song literally, the lyrics were bizarre, even hateful.

Very early in the song we get the following line:

There’s an old man sitting next to me, making love to his tonic and gin.

I knew what “making love” meant. I didn’t see this line as metaphorical, so I thought that the old man was literally making love to a glass with tonic and gin in it. This struck me as something that might happen in a bar in a Steely Dan song (I was and remain a big fan of theirs and spent a lot of time listening to them)—but what in the heck was Billy Joel doing singing about that?

But given the fact that “Captain Jack” appears on the same record, I figured that in fact Mr Joel had “gone there.” Weird. Strange. Disturbing.

Then it gets slightly more disturbing:

He says son can you play me a memory,
I’m not really sure how it goes
But it’s sad and it’s sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man’s clothes

Now this is a very poet and elegant (“polegant”) way of saying that the man was younger when he knew the song. But the way my literal mind took it was that he’d stolen the clothes of someone younger, and had worn them, but for some reason he’d forgotten what he’d heard while he was wearing this younger man’s clothes.

That’s just flat-out weird.


Now Paul is a real estate novelist

Who writes novels about real estate? Is that like a J. K. Huysmans kind of thing? (Full disclosure: I didn’t know who J. K. Huysmans was when I was seven.) Seemed a very niche market to me.

The waitress is practicing politics

Wha—? She’s running for office?

I did understand the “They’re sharing a drink they call loneliness” line, though.

For me, the worst line came very near the end:

And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
And say, ‘Man, what are you doin’ here?’

That sounded absolutely horrible to me. I didn’t understand that “bread” meant money, that they were tipping him because they liked his playing, and that they were asking him “what are you doin’ here?” because they thought he could do better.

Instead, I thought they hated his playing, and they were stuffing actual bread, as in slices of white bread, into his tip jar to prevent anyone actually tipping him. And that “Man, what are you doin’ here?” was a threatening question. “Why are you here? Why don’t you get out? WE DON’T WANT YOU IN HERE!”

I was afraid for the Piano Man, who was playing in a very bizarre, strange, hateful place, full of menacingly odd people.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

What is wrong with Twin Peaks? The revival is going disastrously, sadly wrong.

Actually, it’s not a total disaster. There’s plenty to like about it. There was a lot of fun to be had watching Cooper escape the Black Lodge, for example. The scene in which we meet Wally Brando was inspired. I liked the scene in which the new Sheriff Truman’s wife ranted about the leak, and the bucket. I liked the glass box in the first few episodes, but I don’t like what they’ve done with the glass box since (basically nothing, except to show an image of Bob Cooper inside it, or something). There were images in the “atomic bomb” sequence that were full of creative energy and life. Matthew Lillard’s Ray Wise-inspired performance as the highly emotional “zone” visitor and accused murderer William Hastings was very good. I always like seeing Jane Adams in anything, and she’s been very good here, but outside of revealing that she performs comedy on open mic nights her character, coroner Constance Talbot, hasn’t had all that much to do.

What does it say about the Twin Peaks revival that the Wally Brando scene has been the best moment so far?

The show is also making some very bad narrative decisions. While the pace is turgid, the storyline is unfocused and undisciplined. It focuses on exactly the wrong or the least interesting aspects of what’s going on—then glosses over the truly interesting stuff. For instance, two episodes ago we learned that Hastings had a BLOG in which he was BLOGGING for crying out loud about ACTUALLY VISITING THE  BLACK LODGE (which he called “the zone” and meeting Major Briggs [“the Major”]). And we learn about this from basically a throw-away line from Albert, who’s reading a report on the discovery of Major Briggs’s decapitated body. Then Agent Tammy Preston talks to him and he tells, not shows, about visiting the Black Lodge, describing meeting the Major in a scene that’s so beautiful and scary—yet we only get his reaction to it, not the scene itself. Lillard breaks down admirably, Leland Palmer-style, but the viewer is still left with the feeling that… we should be seeing this, not hearing about it.

The problem with that lack of narrative focus was compounded by last week’s episode’s visit to the spot where Hastings et al visited “the zone.” Agents Cole, Albert, Preston, and Diane (why oh why did Diane have to turn out to be a real person and not just the name of Cooper’s personal tape recorder???) and Detective Dave Macklay bring Hastings to a run-down, skeevy looking area with dilapidated buildings, dust, and weeds— a perfect spot for Lynch creepiness. Hastings points to the building and Albert and Gordon walk up to it. Then Gordon has a vision.


Why would anyone, even Gordon Cole, be able to just walk up to that building and see the Woodsmen standing on a staircase like that? Could anyone just walk up to that spot and see Woodsmen? There’s not much sense that this other place, if it is the Black Lodge, is anything particularly special.

Then a Woodsman sneaks into Macklay’s car and explodes Hastings’ head. Which prompts some dry humor from Lynch, as his Gordon deadpans, “He’s dead.” The scene doesn’t have nearly the impact it should—there’s very little sense of menace—because the viewer never gets the sense that this is grounded in anything other than a desire to explain stuff.

And speaking of explaining stuff… How about that note from Major Briggs? The show was essentially twiddling its thumbs and decided, “Well, things have to move forward now…” and so came up with the note telling the Sheriff, Hawk, and Bobby to go visit a certain place at a certain time. And then Hawk had a scroll (at least Lynch and his co-writer, Mark Frost) had enough cheek to have Hawk say something about the scroll never changing but always being current—it’s what the Native Americans call a Factitious Scroll) revealing that when they go to that place there’s going to be BLACK FIRE for crying out loud. So we have that to look forward to while we…

…Watch Stupor Cooper stumble around and repeat the last few words he’s heard. Over and over. Eventually it’s going to become what? Endearing? Funny?

Stupor Cooper is an annoyance on many levels. In my previous Twin Peaks post, I hoped that Stupor Cooper wouldn’t win the show. So far, unfortunately, he has. This has gone on way too long. First of all, what casino just gives someone over $400K (in cash!) without taking some kind of information from them? Wouldn’t they put the winner’s name and face all over, to help drum up business?

Still not funny.

Beyond that—if you knew someone who was stumbling around in a stupor, who was barely verbal, would you wait three or four days to take them to the hospital, the way Dougie’s wife did? Let’s leave all that stuff aside. Let’s even leave aside the fact that the Stupor Cooper joke has completely worn out (David Lynch’s sense of humor often tends toward “dad jokes” and very dry, deadpan stuff, so I can see why this appealed to him and I can even see having Stupor Cooper for maybe two or three episodes). What really hurts about this is, this is probably the last Twin Peaks we’re going to get, ever.

We’ve gone since 1992 without seeing Cooper. Cooper has been trapped in the Black Lodge for 25 years. And now that he’s back, he’s in a complete stupor?

I want Agent Dale Cooper. I didn’t subscribe to Showtime (seriously, I added Showtime to my Amazon Prime for one reason and one reason only, and it wasn’t so I could watch that documentary about how the Tim Burton-Nicolas Cage Superman movie didn’t get made) to watch my beloved Agent Cooper stumbling around like a moron for—however many episodes it’s been.

And Bob Cooper’s even worse.

Bob was a deeply disturbing creation. Maybe the scariest character ever to appear on network television. Do you remember when Sarah Palmer had that vision of Bob in the second episode of the original series? Damn that was scary. Unfortunately the actor who portrayed Bob has passed away, and the revival has done some interesting and occasionally inspired things to bring him into the storyline.

Now THIS was a scary moment.

But what the show really needed to do was to give us a truly disturbing antagonist. Someone or something that could measure up to Bob. They’ve tried with the Woodsmen, and it hasn’t worked for me. But that would be okay if there was a single force that made us feel like there were actually high stakes involved. A character that you would not, under any circumstances, want to see out of the corner of your eye. I think that’s what they tried to do with Bob Cooper.

They gave the evil Cooper long stringy hair and dressed him vaguely like Bob, but so far it hasn’t come across (they also, at one point when Bob Cooper was in prison, had his mirror image twist slightly so that it became Bob-ish). He can apparently cause sirens to go off in a prison by dialing a few numbers on a phone. He’s got the protection of the Woodsmen, who saved his life after Ray shot him. But none of what we’ve seen captures the sense of dread that the original Bob inspired. This Bob Cooper just seems so uninspired. Even the scene in which he killed Darya felt mundane. It could have appeared in an episode of "Arrow."

When the original Twin Peaks series began the viewers became invested in the proceedings in part because there was a sense that the creators were discovering all this stuff along with us. There was a real sense of wonder to the show. The pace, roughly one day per episode, was such that we had time to process everything that was happening in Twin Peaks. And there was a sense that this was an odd little town with a lot of secrets, most of which were fairly routine (extramarital affairs), tawdry (prostitution, drug-running) and then, eventually… really horrible (incest, child prostitution). Meanwhile we were also learning that there were actual supernatural forces at work, on top of everything else. It’s incredible that they were able to strike a balance so that everything worked together so elegantly.

I cared as much about Pete Martell, Hawk, and Major Briggs as about Agent Cooper and “The Little Man from Another Place” who later came to be known as the Arm. This time around there are no new characters to take their place (do you care about Bobby’s and Shelly’s daughter? How about Beverly?

My friend Michael has suggested that this new revival feels like a fan film to him, and I think that’s an accurate way of looking at it. Lynch and Frost are coming across like a pair of very enthusiastic fans who absorbed all of the events memorized all the characters and their back stories, kept copious notes when Windom Earle told Rusty about the White Lodge and Black Lodge—but did not absorb any of the emotion and heart of the show. This story isn’t doing anything to advance the world of Twin Peaks. It’s so bogged down in trying to explain the mythology (even to the extent that it might have actually presented an “origin” of Bob) that, for all its creativity, it feels hollow and lifeless. There’s nothing here to build on for a potential future series or film or book. It feels like it was put together by a team of Stupor Coopers, just repeating the last few words they heard, over and over again, trying to show what’s going on but in the process forgetting everything that made the original so special in the first place.

Where is Invitation to Love??

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Steve Ditko as Baron Mordo

FYI: This post contains “spoilers” regarding the Doctor Strange movie and the final chapter of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's famous Eternity storyline. This shouldn’t bother you, as great art can’t be “spoiled” (everyone knows that Macbeth creates Frankenstein’s monster, but that doesn’t stop us from re-reading Gulliver’s Travels) but, regardless, you’ve been warned.

Dr. Strange was the first Marvel movie I’ve watched all the way through since the first Avengers film, which was so terrible, fatuous, and stupid it put me off the MCU entirely, once and for all I thought. I gave Civil War a chance on Netflix, and made it about twenty minutes in—those twenty minutes embodied everything I hated about Marvel movies.

I expected to spend maybe twenty minutes on Dr. Strange, which is also streaming on Netflix. To my astonishment I ended up watching the entire film and actually enjoying it. For a huge budget blockbuster film it actually exhibits some creativity and genuine trippiness. In many ways, although it deviates from the original Lee/Ditko source material, it captures its spirit. The ending, with the confrontation between Dr. Strange and Dormammu was reminiscent of the classic panels from Strange Tales #146, in which Dormammu battled Eternity as Strange dealt with the consequences. It was a lot of fun seeing that brought to life.

How beautiful this is!

The biggest of the movie’s improvements on the original Lee/Ditko source material is the portrayal of Baron Mordo. Actually in the movie he’s not yet a Baron, I guess—they just call him Mordo. It helps first and foremost that the Intellectual Property is embodied by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has a compelling presence and is a good actor besides. At the start of the movie he’s a faithful follower of the Ancient One and a partner and friend to Strange. But when he learns that the Ancient One has been taking energy from Dormammu’s Dark Dimension, and that faith is shaken. Then, when Strange bends time to trap himself and Dormammu in a Groundhog Day-style loop—despite repeated warnings that YOU SHOULD NEVER MESS WITH TIME—Mordo walks away from Strange. As far as Mordo is concerned, Strange has committed a serious breach and while he might have saved the day this time, his actions could lead to devastating consequences down the line.

Mordo, then, is a rigidly moral and uncompromising man who believes that one should stick to their principles, regardless of the cost.

The reasons why Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko left Marvel are not entirely clear and the source of a great deal of conjecture. In one version Ditko, an Objectivist, didn’t think that Doctor Strange’s mystical world was worth exploring, when there were so many horrible if mundane things happening here in reality, where A should equal A. Another version of the story is that Ditko didn’t appreciate Stan Lee’s re-writing his suggested dialogue on the Spider-Man stories he, Ditko, was plotting and drawing. Ditko, apparently, wanted Spider-Man to be a more aspirational figure, as opposed to a “realistic” one. Ditko believed that heroes should be figures that we look up to, not figures that reflect our own weaknesses.

But remember: in the early 1960s there were no royalties or bonuses for comics creators. Stan Lee, as a "company man," was doing all right for himself. Ditko, as a freelancer, wasn't. And Ditko, seeing his comics creations make tons of money for Marvel, and seeing them be licensed as TV shows, felt he was entitled to a greater cut of the proceeds. He also wanted to be fairly credited for his role in creating the work.

Whatever the specifics, Steve Ditko did not believe he was being treated fairly by Marvel. Rather than compromise his principles, he walked.

Despite the fact that Ditko was a smashing success with Doctor Strange, and, especially, Spider-Man, he left Marvel to strike out on his own, doing work for hire at DC and getting a pittance at Charlton in exchange for full creative control. In fact, Ditko’s material at Charlton featuring Blue Beetle and the Question is among his best work.

I don’t know if the creator’s of the Doctor Strange film had this in mind, but it’s easy to see the similarities between Movie Mordo and Steve Ditko. When Stan Lee I mean Doctor Strange is willing to bend the rule to achieve some success, Mordo sees this not as a success to be savored but as a failure to be ashamed of, and he refuses to play along. Disappointed and disillusioned, he strikes out on his own, to chart his own path.

Steve Ditko has stuck to his own principles throughout his career, unwilling to “cash in” on his past successes. It’s interesting to consider whether or not the filmmakers at Marvel Studios—many of whom surely know their Marvel history—decided to use him as a model for one of Doctor Strange’s top villains.

One of the few recent photos of comics legend Steve Ditko?

Live It Down available now!

Duke Redmond, former professional wrestler, lives a solitary life in Los Angeles in 1976. His body is broken and battered from years of entertaining the masses during wrestling's golden age of the 1950s and '60s, when he wrestled as the flamboyant heel "Duke Continental."

Sara Sota, the widow of Duke's former colleague Larry, known in the ring as "Steele Trapp," asks Duke to look into the circumstances of Larry's death. Duke has no reason to think that Larry's death is anything other than a suicide, because after all, wrestlers don't die of old age, or natural causes. And Duke himself has occasionally thought of putting an end to his own miserable suffering, for which he self-medicates. Nevertheless, Duke begins looking into Larry's death and soon begins uncovering information that suggests maybe Larry didn't go crazy and kill himself.

Then, Duke's niece Honeysuckle shows up unannounced from Iowa, declaring her intention to enroll in classes at UCLA. Duke reluctantly makes room for her in his cramped one-bedroom apartment. But she hasn't come into town to study; she wants to be a dancer. Her attempts to create a new life for herself bring her to the attention of a porno producer who wants to use her in his latest endeavor which will be distributed using the freshest entertainment technology-- videotape.

This is the premise of my crime novel, Live It Down, which is available now for the kindle for $2.99 and print for $8.99. The first chapter is below. If you're interested in professional wrestling, porno, the 1970s, or feeling good all the time, give it a read.

Jose couldn’t remember a time in his life when he didn’t instinctively know that things were totally cracked the fuck up. But every so often and just for the hell of it the world gave him unnecessary verification. This time it was Larry Sota’s suicide that did it. The poor, stupid bastard just could not or would not see that everything doesn’t always fit together the way you think. Look close and you can see the cracks.
James’ and Marco’s deaths weren’t part of any conspiracy. They had nothing to do with Larry or anything Larry might have done and they damn sure didn’t have anything to do with Jose. The only thing all four men had in common was that they’d made the unfortunate decision, in the long ago murky past, to entertain the masses as professional wrestlers. And that decision, made mostly of their own volition, led to many other bad decisions. Decisions that always seemed reasonable and even rational at the time, but were in fact monumentally cracked the fuck up.
Training is hard. You lift weights, you spar, you practice your moves, you perform. Well, your body gets tired and sore, so what do you do? Give it time to recover, or take something to ease the pain and give you a little boost so you can keep going the next day? And while you’re turning that over in your mind you might also want to ask yourself: What are the other guys doing? You know, the guys who are after your spot on the card? That’s right, and if you’ve got any sense at all you’ll take that goddam Dianabol yourself; just enough to keep up. Then maybe a little more, just to get that edge. And you know what, if the Dianabol works that well, imagine what uppers will do for you. Then pretty soon you start to realize that uppers are nice, but what you really need is cocaine, then the cocaine isn’t enough so you try a little heroin—right between the toes so no one can see the telltale marks; this is entertainment for the whole fucking family, you know. And all of that, the drugs plus the alcohol you drink between matches and at the parties is doing nothing but good for you. You don’t even notice the cuts and bruises, the pulled muscles, the concussions. You just keep on, and you and every other poor stupid bastard who came before you thinks it’s never going to end.
Then all of a sudden it does end, and you’re nothing at thirty-five. And those drugs that helped keep you going, easing the pain and speeding your recovery? Turns out those motherfuckers have made your body too old and decrepit to do anything at all. Oh, and those blows to the head that rang your bell and made you see stars? You thought you were just shaking them off, but guess what? They’ve made you too goddam stupid to learn to do anything else.
If James and Marco could be said to have been murdered by anything, it was the lifestyle. By signing on and getting into the business they’d condemned themselves. Wrestlers don’t die of old age. They don’t die of natural causes. There was Artie Haley, whose brain hemorrhaged while he was driving, and he plowed his goddam car into a schoolbus when he was thirty-one. Jeff Parker had a heart attack while sitting on a public toilet, injecting heroin into a vein in his ankle when he was thirty-eight. Danny Marshall got shanked in prison at thirty-five. Joe Masur got it into his head that he could fly, and jumped off the roof of his house when he was thirty-six. Chris Thomas was crushed by an overweight prostitute when he was thirty-three. Eddie Stark had a heart attack while walking up a flight of stairs at forty-six. Poor Lincoln Holler had fallen into a coma five years before, when he was forty.
And now add Larry Sota to the list. Went crazy; completely batshit crazy. Convinced beyond all reason—and totally immune to any sensible argument—that some mysterious someone was out to get him, at fifty. Christ, what took him so long? Fifty is a ripe old age. Comparatively, he was one of the lucky ones. Then he went and proved just how fucked up the world is by tying a noose around his neck—hell, not even a real noose, with a proper goddam loop, but just one half-assed knot (Jose shuddered to think about how painful that must have been, how determined Larry must have been to end his own fucking life when the coroner said that he’d spent at least an hour on that rope; shit, after forty-five minutes wouldn’t you just say, Enough’s enough, I’ll try it again tomorrow?) and ending everything himself.
“I’m gonna die,” he’d said. Poor deluded, batshit crazy Larry (hey; maybe that wasn’t such a bad wrestling name) had called Jose almost out of the blue, after seven years, and slurred “I’m gonna die. You’re gonna die.”
“What’re you talking about, old friend?” Jose had tried to sound comforting, but he knew there was no comforting the man who owned that pathetic voice on the other end of the phone line.
“They got James,” he’d said. “They got Marco.”
Jose had heard about James and Marco. “They died, Larry, but that’s got nothing to do with you.” He’d taken a drink from his can of Pabst.
“It’s because of what we did!” Larry had whined. Deep voice, but the man whined.
“That night. The night, it was...” his voice trailed off, vaguely. “Back in Kansas.”
Jose had been in Kansas only four times in his life; the last time was nineteen years before. Half his lifetime before. He’d smiled at the memory.
 “That was an... interesting night,” he’d said.
Larry gasped. “It’s getting us all killed!” he said.
“You can’t really believe that what happened that night has something to do with Jimmy and Marco?”
“He’s doing it in order—”
“Who is ‘he’?”
Larry had ignored Jose’s question. “The order that we went that night. First it was James... Then Marco... Then, oh gawd, it was—”
Jose had heard Larry sobbing on the other end of the line. In response he had laughed lightly. Didn’t want to belittle the poor man, who was obviously batshit crazy, but still. “Larry, you’re letting this get to you. It’s too bad about Jimmy and Marco, but for god’s sake, it’s got nothing to do with you, or with me...”
“You’re after me,” Larry had asserted.
Now Jose really laughed, he couldn’t help himself. “I’m not after you, Larry, my friend. I assure you, I’m not after you.”
But that’s not what Larry had meant. He wasn’t accusing Jose; he was warning him. “They’ll come for me next, and when they do, you get yourself ready,” he’d said.
“Christ, Larry, first it was ‘they,’ then ‘he,’ now it’s back to ‘they,’ which is—”
“I’m getting myself ready,” and Larry’s voice sounded clear for the first time during the call. Cold and calculating, like an accountant toting up column A. “I’ve set up a will. I’m getting everything in order. Talked to my kids for the first time in almost a year. I told my son I love him for the first time—” and the coldness left his voice again, and he was sobbing.
Whether Jose had thought the man was crazy or not—and clearly he was crazy—was beside the point now; Larry was hurting real bad, and there was not one goddam thing Jose could do for him. It made him a little resentful. We’re dying before our time? Wrestlers do not die of old age. He couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud, but goddammit Larry knew that as well as Jose did. None of them would be able to live down their pasts. Try telling me something I don’t already fucking know.
 He’d wished Larry hadn’t called, and he didn’t want to continue the conversation. “Hey, listen, Larry, thanks for the call, and the warning and all that, but I really got to get going now. Why don’t you give me a call later this week?” Maybe when you clear your head and stop with all this insane bullshit. Then: “Maybe we can get together. You’re still up in Pasadena, right?”
“Maybe you can come to my funeral,” Larry had said. “Maybe you’ll get the chance before they hold yours.” The line went dead.
Then, two days later, Larry went dead. For god’s sake, he killed himself. To ensure he wouldn’t die of old age? To pre-empt whatever he thought was coming?
The call to Jose was his fucking suicide note, and Jose hadn’t done anything about it. Not one goddam thing. He could have told someone. He could have called someone. Larry had a wife, maybe he could have called her. Maybe Duke. Hadn’t Duke worked at the VA Hospital for awhile? Might have been able to get Larry some help.
That was why Jose couldn’t bring himself to go to the funeral. Sure as hell wasn’t Jose’s fault, but Jose had a sort of flaw in his character and he felt guilty. Crazy as he was, Larry had reached out to him, but Jose had turned away. Had hung up and finished watching Barnaby Jones, or some bullshit like that, killed off a can of Pabst and then opened another one. Had spared poor batshit crazy Larry about five seconds of thought before going to sleep that night, but didn’t think of him again until he’d gotten the invitation to Larry’s funeral.
He should have told someone about that call. But he didn’t.
Jose didn’t believe that Jimmy and Marco had been killed because of what happened that night in Kansas. He was no psychiatrist, but it seemed obvious to him that Larry must have felt guilty about that for a long time, and Jimmy’s and Marco’s untimely but hardly unexpected deaths had given him an excuse to dig at himself about it. But goddam, there was no reason for that guilt shit. The girl had wanted it. She’d wanted all of them. Lots of girls had hot pants for wrestlers. Today they were called groupies or starfuckers or whatever. Jose couldn’t remember all the strange he’d gotten out on the road. And plenty of them went with more than one guy in one night.
It was true, that night was unique. And that girl was unique. She’d taken on five of them, all by her sweet little self. For Larry’s sake, he cast his mind back. He tried to remember specific details. What about that night, that event, that wild young girl, could have caused Larry so much fucking grief? The answer was simple: Nothing. But to someone who’d had one too many concussions, and taken one too many uppers, that didn’t matter. And if it hadn’t been about that night, Larry would have made it about something else.
But then the night of the funeral Jose got another phone call, and goddammit he just couldn’t help himself. He started to wonder if maybe Larry wasn’t so batshit crazy after all.

Duke Continental's embarassing headshot from 1963 plays an important part in the book.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Twin Peaks: Don't let Stupor Cooper win!

Cool poster.

The original Twin Peaks was an exciting, unique program that, even in its lesser moments (there were quite a few!) still felt special—even important. This despite the fact that it was a network TV show, and the network suits were messing with it, especially in the second season, when they forced Lynch, Frost, and et. al. to explicitly reveal Laura Palmer’s killer. Those couple of episodes, in which Leland Bob horribly murdered Laura’s cousin Maddie, featured some of the series’ most indelible moments. Whatever Ray Wise was paid it wasn’t enough.

After that, the show began to really develop/explore the mythology of the Black Lodge, going into surprising detail about what was actually happening between this reality and that one. The final episode was half Black Lodge—that stuff was brilliant. Maybe the best portrayal of dreaming ever captured in any work of art. The other stuff, with Doc Hayward seeming to kill Ben Horne, the stuff with the Miss Twin Peaks competition, Annie’s kidnapping, the Nadine Hurley stuff, the stuff with Audrey and the bank bomb, etc, doesn’t make much sense— even less sense than Twin Peaks usually made.

There was a sense that the show was becoming even more remote. The current season seems to be taking everything that might have been accessible about the show and jettisoning it in favor of, uhm, I don’t know.

Apparently, Lynch and Frost wrote the new season as one long 18-hour movie, and Lynch directed everything, then broke the result into one hour chunks. And it shows. None of the episodes feel like individual works. So I’m not sure how fair it is to judge based on what’s happened so far. I’m also not entirely sure what’s been happening so far. It seems to be moving at a simultaneously turgid and breakneck pace. Some things are set up and then completely dropped, presumably to be picked up again later (the stuff with Principal Hastings, for instance, the stuff with Ben Horne’s new secretary Beverly Page), while other things are set up and then paid off almost immediately (the glass box).

It was fun seeing Cooper make it out of the Black Lodge. But since he’s appeared in Las Vegas, taking over the life of “Dougie”, he’s been in a complete stupor. And Stupor Cooper’s storyline is completely inane. Las Vegas is the real world, not the Black Lodge. Someone in such a near-catatonic state would be taken to a doctor by—the people at the casino, his wife, his co-workers—SOMEBODY, for crying out loud. And by the way, I’ve never won $425,000 playing the slots over and over, but do they really just give you he money in cash without taking your information, especially your social security number?

This was a major problem for Twin Peaks, especially in the second half of the second season: It completely lost interest in “reality,” and the non-Black Lodge stuff became, essentially, one damn thing after another storytelling. The “reality” stuff needs to be grounded for the Black Lodge stuff to have any impact. If Stupor Cooper could walk around in such a catatonic state in the real world, then there’s no reason for all the Black Lodge stuff.

Bob Cooper is kind of fun, but again, it seems that Lynch and Frost aren’t all that interested in how the real world works. How is Bob Cooper able to dial into government computer systems? He’s been Bob Cooper for twenty-five years, presumably doing this stuff, so why hasn’t he been caught? How does someone like him stay off the radar? Is it just because he seems to associate entirely with loathsome, depraved rednecks? Since the original Twin Peaks aired the PATRIOT Act has passed, and Obama’s NSA has spied on and “unmasked” millions of Americans. How did Bob Cooper evade that?

Bob Cooper: How has he been able to elude capture for 25 years? Where is the NSA?

What the new show needs is more grounding. Where is Big Ed Hurley? Where is Invitation to Love? The stuff with Wally Brando was a lot of fun (and the best use of Michael Cera since Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), as was the stuff with the new Sheriff Truman’s wife ranting about the leaky pipes and the bucket. We need more of those moments—and they need to connect to something. 

Matthew Lillard as Principal Hastings has been very good. Hastings has apparently committed a horrible act of brutality without his knowledge or consent, and Lillard has portrayed that confusion and sadness in a surprisingly moving way. Hopefully we’ll get more with Jane Adams’s Constance Talbot, the joking Buckhorn, South Dakota crime scene investigator. The other cameos haven’t made much of an impression on me as yet. But, again, this is an 18-hour movie, not a TV series. Except for the terrible Brett Gelman, who couldn’t get a series on Adult Swim, so he very publicly announced that he was leaving the network because of “the misogyny of their policies.”

The original Twin Peaks premiered in April, 1990. It opened with the discovery of the body of Laura Palmer, the beautiful blond high school girl, wrapped in plastic after having been dumped by the side of a lake. As the series wore on, viewers learned that Laura Palmer was promiscuous, took photos for a skin mag called Flesh World, had an abortion, was a drug addict and so on and so on. Imagine the Mary Sue and Jezebel think pieces that would inspire—the woman whose body is a commodity (packaged in plastic!) who is punished for the sin of exploring her own sexuality. On top of that, Twin Peaks is full of attractive, young women in peril. And the scene in which Maddie is killed is harrowing.

If Twin Peaks were to begin today, it would be think-pieced out of existence. People like Brett Gelman would stroke their chins and complain on social media that David Lynch and everyone else involved in the endeavor hates women. Also, there’s the fact that the Black Lodge stuff borrows heavily from Native American folklore—in other words, it’s cultural appropriation.

Lynch subtly addressed some of this in the scene between his Gordon Cole character and David Duchovny’s Denise Bryson. Cole plans on taking the young, attractive FBI agent Tammy Preston with him to investigate the appearance/arrest of Bob Cooper, and Bryson mentions that Cole has gotten into trouble or nearly gotten into trouble with attractive young women before—a nod to the fact that, indeed, the show and the Fire Walk With Me film experienced some criticism of the portrayal and representation of its female characters. It’s a funny scene, but it’s also a bit sad. In 1990, an artist could be messy, could follow their muse to wherever “problematic” places it might take them—even to a certain extent on network TV. If Twin Peaks were just starting today, none of the artistry and uniqueness would matter to the think-piecers and the social media mobs. If it doesn’t advance their preferred (leftist) narrative, it must be strangled before it can build any momentum.

So my question is, why is Brett Gelman on the show at all? And what do other SJW’s think of it? Actually, scratch that, I don’t really care.

At this point, five episodes in, Twin Peaks is a frustrating, fun experience. Stupor Cooper definitely needs to snap out of it (there was one moment, at the breakfast table when he took a drink of coffee, that I thought he was going to snap out of it, but, alas). I mentioned earlier that I want to see Big Ed, and Invitation to Love, but what the show is really missing is AGENT DALE COOPER, the real Cooper, not Bob Cooper or, most especially, Stupor Cooper. 

Stupor Cooper: Please snap out of it!

It’s entirely possible that it will end up being more fun than frustrating, but I’ll only know that after having watched the full eighteen hours. I understand why Showtime is releasing it as a weekly series. For crying out loud, I added Showtime to my Amazon Prime just so I could watch the show, meaning they’re going to get at least four months’ worth of subscription fees from me. But if ever there was a show that needed to be “binge watched” it’s this.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hulu's "Batman & Bill" documentary-- more #BigFinger propaganda

Bob Kane lived the high life after "creating" Batman. Bill Finger died alone in diminished circumstances. It's an exceptionally sad and unfair story. 

Hulu’s “Batman & Bill” documentary opens with the author Marc Tyler Nobleman speaking to a group of children, spreading propaganda. Allegedly telling the whole story and correcting history, but in fact re-writing it to for his own aggrandizement.

Ostensibly about one of Batman’s “co-creators,” “Batman & Bill” ends up being a monument to the nobility, passion, and heroism of Nobleman himself. The David taking on the Time/Warner Goliath for the most noble of reasons—simply to gain creator credit for an unjustly forgotten visionary. If you don’t believe that Nobleman isn’t a noble man, don’t worry—his own wife interviews that he’s a “persistent” “detective” who is a “very brave person.” And: “He’s also very righteous and he wants to do right in the world.” Nobleman himself says that getting credit for Finger was part of a “higher moral obligation.” 

What starts this noble man on his quest is his desire to write a book about Finger and the creation of Batman. Before he gets started people tell him that there’s just not enough material there. But he knows different, and it’s not long before Nobleman is “uncovering a big superhero secret that should have been blown wide decades ago.”

He confides that “I had a couple of people who told me that ‘What you are trying to do will never happen.’” And while he’s relating that particular bit of information the on-screen animation shows Nobleman putting on a dark trench coat, then walking out of his house as he casts a shadow on the walkway before him. That shadow—and I am not making this up—has pointy bat-ears. This is because Nobleman sees himself as a Batman figure: “The parallel was not lost on me [of course it wasn’t!] that Bill made Batman a detective, and I was a detective in search of Bill’s legacy…” He says that his quest “became addictive.” 

Nobleman shows us some home movies in which he asks his daughter What’s my job? “Bill Finger,” she replies. What do I do? he continues. “Bill Finger” is her answer. It’s meant to be a cutesy-poo moment but it’s actually a biting commentary on Nobleman’s seemingly blind monomania. (At one point he’s shown harassing Batman cosplayers at San Diego Comic Con. “Do you know who Bill Finger is?” he badgers them. It would have been nice if one of them had asked him, “Do you know who Theodore Tinsley is?”) “Bill Finger” was, in fact, his job. “Bill Finger” made Nobleman a noble man. “There has to be someone who stands up and leads the charge,” he says at another point. Nobleman is just that rare and singular person. 

Nobleman actually comes across as self-aggrandizing, vainglorious, and grandiose as Bob Kane. And Bob Kane comes off very, very badly indeed. It’s difficult to like Kane, to be honest. He owned and ran the studio that produced the original Batman stories for National Comics, but his actual participation in the creation of those stories was—well, it wasn’t as singular as his single credit byline would have you believe. He was just part of a group that put those comics packages together. He had the sense and wherewithal to negotiate with National directly, but in fact what Kane did at his studio wasn’t particularly unusual. Almost every studio that was producing work for publishers in that era was bylined by a single creator, if in fact it had a byline at all. The difference is that most of the characters produced by those studios went nowhere. National, which would later become DC, was able to exploit the Intellectual Property to build it into the inescapable juggernaut that it is today.

The Shadow isn't mentioned once in "Batman & Bill." I wonder why?

The story is, roughly, that Kane either on his own initiative or at the behest of National Comics was inspired to create a new superhero, because Siegel and Shuster were making $800 a week from Superman. In 1939 that was big money. So Kane drew a picture of a man in red long underwear, a domino mask, and batwings. Kane either originally called this guy “Bird-Man,” or he actually wrote “Bat-Man” on it. He showed the image to Finger, an employee of Kane’s studio, who suggested Kane change the wings to a scalloped cape, make the long underwear darker, and give him a cowl with bat-ears on it. Kane took the revised drawing to National and made a deal to produce comics featuring the character, which National would publish.

The film suggests that there was no formal written agreement between Kane and Finger regarding the character “Bat-Man,” or the writing work that Finger did on the character. This is important because Finger’s heirs were able to use this as leverage to suggest that Time/Warner might not have ANY claim on the character. During this section of the film the cover of a copy of the 1976 Copyright Act appears—it would have been nice to get some clarification as to why and how a law passed in 1976 would have any bearing on events from 1939. But then again, this documentary isn’t about imparting any real information. It’s about chronicling the efforts of a noble man. That said, I have written extensively about copyright law as it pertains to comics, to Superman in particular, so feel free to read my past work on the subject for far more information than you’ll get from the documentary.

“Bat-Man” appears in Detective Comics #27, cover dated May 1939, in a story called “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” That story was written by Bill Finger, and illustrated by Bob Kane. Actually, it was swiped by Bill Finger. It was in fact nothing more than a re-writing of a Shadow novel originally published in 1936 called “Partners of Peril.” I’ve already documented some of Bill Finger’s extensive creative swiping. You can read about the actual origins of the cowl, the scalloped gloves, the utility belt, the Joker, Two-Face, the Batmobile, the Batcave, the parents-shot-by-a-street-tough-while-leaving-a-theater origin story, and so on there.

None of this information appears in “Batman & Bill.” The pulp magazines that let’s say “inspired” Bill Finger get not a single mention. The viewer is led to believe that Finger, an avid pulp magazine reader, simply came up with all of his contributions out of thin air. There is absolutely no context whatsoever given to Batman’s “creation” story. This is a glaring omission that assumes that the history of Batman starts in 1939 and casts Finger in borrowed robes. He was obviously a talented guy, but there were precedents for just about everything that Finger contributed to Batman. Precedents that are so remarkably similar that it’s very, very difficult to believe that Finger didn’t swipe them.

That said, Kane fights hard to assume all the credit for Batman’s “creation” on his own. When Finger appears at a comic book convention in the 1960s and Jerry Robinson, who worked in Kane’s studio at the time of Bat-Man’s creation, points out in a fanzine that Finger deserved some credit in Batman’s creation, Kane pens a self-serving editorial in another fanzine, essentially giving himself sole credit. It also appears that Kane might have attempted to buttress his story of being solely responsible for Bat-Man’s creation by scribbling a character with a scalloped cape, a cowl with bat-ears, and a bat-symbol on his chest, and dating it “1/17/1934.”

Who knows? Maybe it’s authentic. Pulp adventure magazines were selling hundreds of thousands of copies a month—maybe Kane was inspired by them the way Finger was, years later.

Kane also has a painfully self-aggrandizing headstone made—it’s almost the Hulu documentary of headstones, casting its subject as an exceptionally noble man.

As Nobleman says of Kane, “He had a chance to take the high road or…the low road. And he took the VERY LOW road.” Luckily, detective Nobleman is on the case. For a detective, however, he seems to be exceptionally uncurious about Finger’s inspirations. Also, strangely, in 2007, when he learns of the existence of Bill Finger’s granddaughter, it doesn’t occur to him to search Myspace for her. And it’s not entirely clear why it was so hard to track her and her father down when Finger’s family had made an effort to get Finger credit around the time of Tim Burton’s original 1989 film. But, again, this movie isn’t particularly about imparting information. 

(Actually, the parts about Finger's son and granddaughter are kind of touching, and the documentary wisely moves away from Nobleman for at least part of that. But it still can't help itself, and ends with a bit in which Nobleman goes to the movies to see Batman V Superman and gets a little misty-eyed when he sees that "Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger" credit on the big screen. We don't get his reaction to the rest of that cinematic classic, however.)

Nobleman’s book about Finger is published, which leads to a TED Talk, an interview on NPR, and an appearance on Kevin Smith’s podcast. All of which contribute to “raising an army… a groundswell of support.” He’s growing the #BigFinger movement. For too long there’s been a myth of Bob Kane! The only way to correct it is to construct a myth of Bill Finger!

And that’s what this movie is really about.

Finger clearly deserves at least as much credit as Kane for Batman’s creation. But the story is a lot more complex than this shallow and inadvertently amusing film makes it appear. Some acknowledgement of Finger’s “inspiration” would have been welcome. But it would open up some very thorny questions about the nature of creativity, inspiration, and plagiarism. For instance, shouldn’t Shadow writer Theodore Tinsley get a credit as well, considering he’s the author of the story that Finger swiped when he put together that first Bat-Man story? Shouldn’t Tinsley get a co-creator credit on the Joker, considering he wrote a “Bulldog” Drummond story about a clown gangster called “the Joker”? 

Most interestingly, how has modern copyright law affected creativity? If a “Bat-Man” were to be created today, would its “creators” be able to actually get away with it, or would the publishers of all the characters that “inspired” it sue? How directly can you lift something that has "inspired" you, and how much do you have to do to "transform" what has inspired you? (As Krusty the Clown once said, "If this is anyone but Steve Allen, you're stealing my bit!")

The documentary notes that Batman is one of the most recognizable "characters" in the world. Nobleman's noble quest has taken him all over, but no matter where he goes, he tells us, everyone knows what "Batman" is. Superheroes are a major part of the culture now, and Batman is one of the biggest, if not the biggest. It has inspired a lot of loyalty. Exploring the real story of it's creation would expose exactly what it is that people are pledging that loyalty to.

Kevin Smith interviews that Batman is “a character that people build their moral compass upon.” Considering that Batman is a piece of corporate Intellectual Property that was cobbled together from scraps that were lifted whole cloth from other, largely forgotten pulp characters whose writers are more forgotten than Finger ever was, it makes you wonder just which direction that compass is pointing.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Bill Finger-- the plagiarist who "created" Batman

On May 6, Hulu will be debuting a documentary called “Batman and Bill,” created to document writer Bill Finger’s contributions to the Intellectual Property currently known as “Batman.” Someone at a site called Fansided offers this description:

Bob Kane has always been given sole credit, but Finger also had a major hand in creating and co-creating some of the Dark Knight’s most lasting characteristics.

Here’s the trailer:

Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of the book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, can be seen at one point intoning, “Bill Finger was the dominant creative force… of Batman.” At the Television Critic’s Association press tour back in January, Nobleman said,

“Bob Kane’s version of the story had been told for 6 decades…and that was wrong, and I wanted to tell the story from the right perspective.”

He also claims that regarding Batman, “creatively it was 98% Bill.” He goes on to analogize:

“The example I like to give is if you just stop a random grandmother on the street and say name something that you know about Batman, she’ll know something, everyone knows something, and whatever that person says will be a Bill Finger contribution. He was that pervasive in the creation of Batman.”

Well, let’s look at this. Because it’s largely revisionist, ahistorical bullshit.

If the trailer’s any indication, they’re going to liken Finger to a superhero, and Bob Kane, who owned the studio that produced Batman for National Comics, as a villain—a glory hound who took credit for other peoples’ work. And he did sign his name to everything his studio produced, giving the impression that he was the sole auteur behind those comics.

But in fact, Finger himself took credit for other people’s work. He just wasn’t a glory hound. Which I suppose is why he’s seen as such a “hero” today-- who can't sympathize with the boss who takes credit for the work of an underling?

Almost everything that the fictive “random grandmother” referenced above knows about Batman was stolen from other characters. Most notably The Shadow.

I’ve already written about how much the comics stole from the pulp magazines in their early days. Batman, in fact, was one of the worst examples of this institutionalized theft.

In 2007, Nostalgia Ventures published a reprint of Partners of Peril (buy it!), a novel featuring the hero The Shadow. The Shadow appeared in his own pulp magazine, each issue of which contained a novel of varying quality. Most of these novels were written by a man called Walter Gibson. Peril was written by Theodore Tinsley. Tinsley deserves at least as much credit for Batman’s creation as Finger does.

Finger cagily admitted that, “My first [Batman] script was a take-off on a Shadow story.” Which is putting it mildly. Finger lifted Peril whole cloth, taking almost every major story beat and cramming them into six pages.

But what the hell—it’s just one story, right? Actually, Finger did more than just swipe this one story. He stole almost every element he contributed to Batman from other pulp sources.

The Shadow volume that reprints Peril also features three essays discussing the extent of the theft in the “creation” of Batman. In one, “The Shadowy Origins of Batman,” Will Murray quotes Finger as saying, “I was very much influenced by The Shadow and Doc Savage, The Phantom, things of that sort… We discussed Batman’s potential. My idea was to have Batman be a combination of Douglas Fairbanks, Sherlock Holmes, The Shadow, and Doc Savage as well.” In his Foreword, Jerry Robinson, who worked in Kane’s studio, says that “Bill Finger was a devoted fan of ‘Maxwell Grant’ [the house pseudonym for The Shadow’s authors].” Murray quotes Kane as saying, “…Bill had it down pat… He was a pulp reader. As a matter of fact, I read all the pulps that Bill Finger read. He’d give me his magazines and I did read them. I was influenced by Doc Savage and the pulps, to some extent.”

Finger was an avid reader of the pulp magazines of the 1930s—which were soon to lose their cultural dominance. In part because of the influence of the comics.

For years, comics fans have gotten big laughs over the story of Kane’s original conception of the character who would grow to become the Intellectual Property now known as Batman.

The Man of Steel had cornered the market on BLUE tights and BLACK hair, so Kane decided to give his new hero RED tights and BLONDE hair, plus a Phantom-style domino mask.

Mimicking the HAWKMAN characters seen in Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (pictured left and right), Kane would add a pair of mechanical wings, and call his creation... “BIRD-MAN.”

“Red tights and blond hair”? LOL amirite? What a dummy. It’s a good thing Finger was there to, well, to list off a bunch of characteristics of other pulp characters.

Then, as recorded in The Steranko History of Comics, Finger recalls, "I got Webster's Dictionary off the shelf and was hoping they had a drawing of a BAT, and sure enough it did. I said,

'Notice the ears! Why don't we duplicate the ears?' I suggested [Bob] draw what looked like a cowl. I had suggested he bring the nosepiece down and make him mysterious and not show any eyes at all. I didn't like the wings, so I suggested he make a cape and scallop the edges so it would flow out behind him when he ran and would look like bat wings. He didn't have any gloves on. We gave him gloves.”

Finger claims that he turned “Bird-Man” into “Batman,” or actually it’s spelled “Bat-Man” in those early stories. He gave him a cowl and a cape and made the color scheme darker. And he gave him gloves. Not the scalloped gloves, however—in Bat-Man’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 he had a pair of little dress gloves, and then in his second appearance in Detective Comics #28, he went gloveless. The gloves issue is kind of interesting, because it leads into something that Murray mentions in his essay:

“At virtually the same time, a nearly identical hero emerged in a pulp called Black Book Detective. Norman A. Daniels created the black-cloaked crimebuster under the house name ‘G. Wayman Jones.’ Like Batman, the Black Bat wore an ebony hood a long bat-ribbed cloak. ‘There was a lawsuit almost pending,’ Finger recalled. ‘They were ready to sue us and we were ready to sue them. It was just one of those wild coincidences.’ Inexplicably, Batman soon took to wearing the finned gauntlets first worn by the Black Bat.”

There’s a lot of ironic richness in that paragraph. First of all, it’s ironic that Finger, who totally plagiarized Partners of Peril for the first Bat-Man story, would suggest that the Bat-Man gang might sue someone for stealing their ideas.

Second, Murray deliberately obfuscates the timing of the Black Bat’s appearance. “At virtually the same time,” he writes. The “same time” as what? The “creation” of Bat-Man? Bat-Man's first appearance in print?

Wikipedia notes that there was a “first Black Bat” who appeared in pulp magazines (and remember, Finger was an avid pulp magazine fan and reader) between 1933 and 1934. The title of that particular pulp was Black Bat Detective Mysteries. (Interestingly, Wikipedia notes that the great Murray Leinster wrote those stories. I guess if you’re going to swipe, swipe from the best!)

Wikipedia then says that the “second Black Bat” appeared in July 1939. (Actually, Wikipedia isn’t clear on whether that’s the cover date or the date the issue appeared on stands. But it looks like it was the cover date, meaning that it probably appeared three months earlier, so May 1939.) Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 was cover-dated May 1939 and released in March 1939. Which means that the Bat-Man team and the Black Bat team must have been working on their stories simultaneously. Parallel thinking, right? Two independent groups of creative people coming up with remarkably similar ideas at roughly the same time!

Except, there was that “first Black Bat” from six years before.

And get a load of the Black Bat’s origin story:

Tony Quinn was a district attorney until an angry criminal threw acid into his face leaving him blinded and scarred. Quinn vowed revenge and began to train his other senses and his body. He later secretly received an eye transplant from a slain police officer. His new eyes allowed him not only to see, but he now had night vision due to his time spent as a blind man.  
Tony decided to use his new ability to become a costumed hero known as the Black Bat. He carried twin .45s and often would leave a bat shaped scar on his victims. Black Bat used a secret crime lab and drove a heavily modified car. Law officers were against his vigilante activities and tried to deduce his identity. One officer in particular, Captain McGrath, believed Tony and the Black Bat were one and the same and tried to prove it.

That’s essentially the Batman villain Two-Face’s origin story. Two-Face was of course “created” by Finger and Kane. The “secret crime lab” was a “bat cave.” The “heavily modified car” is the Batmobile.

And the Black Bat had those finned gloves. And Will Murray has the audacity to claim that it’s just so “inexplicable” that Batman’s “creators” would steal that element for their own character. This is in the same essay in which Murray notes that Finger stole the “utility belt” from The Shadow, and stole the “Bat-signal” from another pulp character called the Phantom Detective. He also notes that,

“The coincidences did not end there. In the same month Batman was being created, the Phantom Detective battled a Batman-like foe called the Bat in The Yacht Club Murders, dated January 1939. This Bat wore a whalebone-ribbed cloak, face-concealing mask and Shadow-style slouch hat.”

"Dated January 1939" means that it actually appeared on the stands earlier, maybe in November 1938. That’s plenty of time for the Bat-Man “creators” to do their swipe—for Kane to do his “Bird-Man” drawing, and Finger to add his touches—the original source material was probably available for purchase at the very same time!

Yet Murray calls it a “coincidence.” That the fact that Bat-Man would appropriate the Black Bat’s finned gloves was “inexplicable.” In his essay “Spotlight on the Shadow: FORESHADOWING THE BATMAN,” Anthony Tollin makes this “inexplicable” claim:

“While his initial Batman story was lifted from Partners of Peril, Bill Finger quickly developed into one of comics’ most innovative scriptwriters.”

In his Foreword, Robinson also works hard to convince readers that Finger didn’t steal everything he ever wrote:

“I’m astounded to learn how much of Bill’s first Batman script borrowed from that novel [Peril]. Of course, at the time, Bill was just beginning his career, and struggling to shift from humor to adventure strips, just as Bob Kane was with the art. Bill was fast becoming the most inventive scriptwriter in comics, and would soon create Green Lantern with Martin Nodell and Wildcat with Irwin Hansen.”

“Wildcat” was of course another Shadow knock off. And Finger’s original Green Lantern (who was apparently created by Nodell, with Finger being brought in to write scripts after his creation) was the one with the green cape and the red tights who carried a railroad lantern around. His weakness was wood.

You can read those first few years worth of Bat-Man and Green Lantern stories if you like. They’re available in DC Archive editions. There’s also the paperback Batman Chronicles books. You can see how “innovative” they feel to you. Sadly, it’s impossible to know just how much Finger, and all the other Golden Age creators, stole outright from the pulps. The Shadow stories are still being reprinted, as are Doc Savage’s. A few other small outlets are bringing out other pulp material. But it would take a dedicated scholar years to sift through everything to find all the swipes.

But we do know of one more major swipe that Finger and the rest of Kane’s studio committed. The Joker was also cobbled together from other sources. The Shadow volume reprinting Peril also features another Tinsley story, “The Grim Joker,” featuring another pulp character called “Bulldog” Black. In Tollin’s essay, he notes,

“Three years before the ‘Clown Prince of Crime’ debuted in Batman #1, police detective Bulldog Black encountered a white-faced crime boss called The Joker in the July 1937 issue of The Whisperer (whose alter ego as Police Commissioner James Gordon was borrowed by Bill Finger for Batman’s police contact).”

Did you just read that? A criminal boss with a white face called THE JOKER appeared in a pulp three years prior to Batman #1, in a magazine that featured a character whose real name was “James Gordon,” which is the name of the Commissioner in Gotham City.

For crying out loud did Bill Finger EVER have an original thought???

Not only that, in March 1939—the very same month that “Bat-Man” debuted in Detective Comics #27—The Shadow Magazine published a story called Death's Harlequin, featuring a villain described as “a living corpse in the costume of a gay Harlequin! With a wide-muzzled gun. And a jeering laugh that made the silence in the room crawl with menace.”

And of course we’ve all seen the still of the great actor Conrad Veidt in the classic film The Man Who Laughs. There’s not a single original element in the Joker.

In his Foreword, Robinson, who’s credited as “Joker-creator” in the bio, notes that,

“Bill Finger was comics’ best writer, but he was a slow, meticulous craftsman who spent lots of time doing research. Artists loved his scripts because he was the most visual writer in the business, and frequently included photo reference with his scripts so we could see exactly what he had in mind.”

Yeah, I’ll bet. It takes a long time to read a story in a pulp magazine and then convert it into thirty-six panels.

One could argue, and I’m sure that many people would, that Finger’s use of those elements was "transformative." Plus, you could argue that the elements that Finger stole from these other characters were each in and of themselves small—even though taken together they add up to one whole stolen piece of Intellectual Property. (Batman is a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, comprised of elements stolen from other characters.)

However, you could also argue that by swiping so much from other characters, Batman hopelessly undermined those other characters. Since his pulp magazine heyday it’s been impossible for The Shadow to gain any real traction. Why read about this dark avenger of the night with his face covered and a long flowing coat when you could read about this masked avenger of the night with a dark costume and a cloak?

In the trailer for the Hulu documentary, Cop Out and Jersey Girl director Kevin Smith, says that there was a lot of reluctance in the comic book industry when it came to correcting the story of Batman’s creation. I think that’s probably true, although not for the reasons that Smith might think.

The full story of Batman’s “creation” would reveal the extent of Finger’s appropriation. Maybe the reason he was so reluctant to put his own name on it, at least at first, was because he knew just how much of "Bat-Man" and his iconography and associated characters he’d stolen.

Then, as the character took off and all the characters from which he’d stolen fell by the cultural wayside, Finger might have wanted some credit. He’d gotten away with stealing—now was the time to get his name out there. But it was too late. Kane’s name was on everything. And this is somehow seen as an “injustice.”

This post took on a much darker tone than I’d originally intended. Artists are influenced by everything they see. They appropriate from a wide range of sources to create something new. This has gone on for millennia. Homer swiped. The Bible is full of swipes. Shakespeare swiped. Rimbaud swiped. Nabokov swiped. I can't think of any comics artist that hasn't swiped. Remix culture and mashups are perfectly valid artistic techniques that have produced some wonderful, enriching material. What frosts me about this movement to turn Finger into some sort of “visionary” “creator” is that it deliberately ignores the fact that almost nothing that he allegedly contributed came from him. “Batman” isn’t a unique character. He’s not even a character, actually—he’s Intellectual Property.

Which brings me to the other aspect of this story that really frosts me. The weaponization of copyright. Thanks to collusion between huge corporate Intellectual Property owners and governments all over the world, the kind of swiping that Finger committed in helping to “create” Batman could never happen today. Artists aren’t free to use elements within the culture in the same way that they have for generations. They aren’t free to appropriate to create transformative works. Try it yourself. “Batman” appeared shortly after the first appearance of a character called “The Bat.” They took that villainous character and made him a hero, and slapped the word “Man” on the end. Try creating a villain called “Batman-Man” today and see how far you get before WB lawyers come calling.

See how far you’d get if you took Batman’s origin and grafted it onto a villain that you yourself “created,” the way Finger and Kane did with Two-Face.

And now, those elements that Finger and Kane swiped are locked into the Intellectual Property known as "Batman." The movement to give Finger his "due" is a distraction from the fact that he, and just about every comics creator of that era, stole almost everything they "created" from the pulps.

It’s shocking just how much of the Golden Age of comics was stolen from the pulps that had appeared just a few years before. Those pulps were seen as ephemera. The comics, too, were looked at in that way, in the early going. They just wanted to churn out stories—they weren’t giving much thought to posterity. But today we’re in a situation where so much of our popular culture is built around comics. Which means that our modern popular culture was stolen. The movement to get “credit” for Bill Finger represents a larger, and extremely depressing flaw in our culture. It’s a way for some to congratulate themselves for their empathy and insight and knowledge (as Nobleman menacingly says above, "I wanted to tell the story from the right perspective"), without fully understanding what’s really happening, and ignoring our history while pretending to celebrate it.

UPDATE 5/3/2017: Razorfist's review of a new Batman/Shadow crossover comic makes some of the same points I did: