The Cruelty of Through The Wringer

I watched the Hulu documentary BATMAN AND BILL the other night, about the struggle to get credit for Batman’s co-creator Bill Finger, and it put me in the mind of this story which saw print in AMAZING WORLD OF DC COMICS #10, an issue of DC’s house-produced fanzine. I have a really strange love/hate relationship with this story, because I read it at a young age and truly loved it. It gave me an insight into how the comic books that I adored were made. but I didn’t have the context to truly understand what was going on here, and when I did find out, I was horrified. And now, I’m going to share that horror with all of you,

Here’s the thing: Bill Finger died in 1974, pretty much penniless and forgotten. And this story was produced either right at the time he was approaching his deathbed, or right after. And the whole thing is a pointed barb at Bill Finger. It’s one of the most mean-spirited and cruel comic book stories I’ve ever read.

The truth of the matter is that Bill Finger was certainly always scrambling for money, and so I can see where that might have grown annoying to his editors at DC. But let’s put this in perspective a little bit: this is the person who co-created not just Batman (even in 1974 a million dollar property) and all of his key players but also Green Lantern and Wildcat and scores of others. And if he was having to constantly ask for an advance to pay his rent, it seems like maybe that’s because the people he was working for when he came up with all of this stuff didn’t take better care of him. In Finger’s case, everybody knew what his contributions to Batman were, but nobody wanted to rock the boat of Bob Kane’s deal granting DC the rights to the character, which also granted him sole credit.

Perhaps due to Bill’s passing, wiser heads prevailed and this story was shelved. I don’t know for certain who commissioned it, though it doesn’t seem to be difficult to work out–that’s a Sergio Aragones cartoon of Cain on the splash page introducing the story, meaning that it was intended for HOUSE OF MYSTERY. And all during this era, HOUSE was edited by Joe Orlando, whom Finger did some of his last work for. So I’m guessing that Joe commissioned this tale (though it’s also possible that writer David Vern/David V. Reed came up with the idea of it, or that they hatched it together.)

ADDITION: Reader Steven Thompson points out that the Aragones version of Cain appeared regularly in PLOP, so this story was probably intended for that magazine. Same editor in any case.

ADDITION 2: Paul Levitz confirmed that this story was intended for PLOP, so I consider that the definitive statement on the matter.

And it has to be said, it’s a wonderfully told story. It certainly grabbed me as a kid. The artwork by Ramona Fradon is expressive and inviting–it’s just cartoony enough to put across the ridiculous story events. I certainly can’t hold Ramona accountable for any of this–she just did the job, and while it’s likely that she would have been able to make the Phil Binger/Bill Finger connection (it’s hardly hidden), it would have been a paycheck. Everybody else, though, I have to question. This was a shitty thing to do, especially right then.

The comic book field has a long and shameful history of not treating the people who contribute to it particularly well. And there’s also a vein of mean-spiritedness that runs through a lot of the material, especially when it comes to the depiction of the folks who toil in the field. There’s a lot of this sort of thing if you know where to look for it. But this story in particular takes the cake.

8 thoughts on “The Cruelty of Through The Wringer

  1. This story certainly made quite an impression on me when I read it in AWoDCC years ago and like you, when I found out what it was really about, it took on an entirely different meaning.

    The name David V. Reed is not one I knew, but after consulting one of the popular search engines I learned that he worked on Batman comics during the same era as Finger. So was this really a mean-spirited jab at a dying former colleague? It certainly reads that way, but is there any possibility that Bill Finger himself was in on the joke and perhaps appreciated its dark humor?

    Interestingly enough, I think I first read the Phil Binger story at around the same time that I read the “The Success Story”, which was originally published in Warren’s Eerie #13 (though I first read it in the Les Daniels/Mad Peck Comix: A History of the Comic Book In America thanks to my local library). Here it is, though I suspect you’re familiar with it:

    http://thewarriorscomicbookden.blogspot.com/2011/04/eerie-13-success-story-al-williamson.html

    I suppose these two stories and the Joe Simon/Angelo Torres “Sam Me” story that you highlighted a couple of weeks ago represent a certain subgenre of comics consisting of petty takedowns of comics creators by their peers. Are there any others? (Denton Fixx’s work for “BC Comics” in ‘Mazing Man comes to mind, but I don’t think it was so specific.)

    p.s. Ramona Fradon was/is always great, but this is probably one of my all-time favorite examples of her work.

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  2. FWIW, David Vern (“Reed”) was a Julie (B.O.) Schwartz buddy and B.O.’s last Batman writer IRC.
    Schwartz’s contempt for the comics medium and every single comic book edited by everyone except himself is well known. And while he was a great editor at his best, the Golden Age of Schwartz ended long before he retired. He ended his career editing a whole lot of dreck including possibly the most boring, dullest run of Superman comics ever. So that a good Schwartz buddy would write this, I dunno, makes sense to me. Better question: Why did DC run this, specially in a fanzine where the reader was likelier, even then, to be familiar with Finger? (Schwartz used Finger at the beginning of the former’s run on Batman. Now that I think about it, just getting rid of the crappy sci-fi stories and focusing on something more mystery/detective like as well freeing the artists from swiping Bob Kane was a lot of made the New Look as good as it was. What B.O. contributed to the stories helped, but with the first two changes, any editor maybe could have scored.)

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    1. You may be right. But Julie’s Superman books were some of the first comic books I read and loved as a lad and naturally enough, they remain sentimental favorites. Your point about his contempt for other peoples’ comics is interesting; in his memoir, (Man of Two Worlds) a fair amount of shade is thrown, particularly towards Bob Kane, but there were a few other targets as well, as I recall.

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      1. Got Schwartz’s contempt from the autobio.
        Schwartz’s Superman started great but ran out of steam after a few years, ditto his Batman. When he was good, he was among the best, but that tended to be the exception.

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      2. I can’t say that I agree with you editorially. As somebody who does and has done this job, Schwartz’s body of work and track record is pretty spectacular. Now, if you want to talk about his behavior with young ladies, that’s an entirely different story.

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  3. Tom, apropos your comment:
    Schwartz’s contempt for the. Medium is pretty clear.
    His lifetime record as an editor is awfully mixed. When he was good, he was very, very good, one of the best in modern times. When he was bad, my god. The end of his Batman and Superman runs were pretty bad, to the least. His run on GL when sales after a pretty great start was also pretty lame. Used to see Schwartz and Lee as the best editors of their times; Stan’s record remains awfully solid and, again, Schwartz’s not, solid. I mean.
    As for Schwartz and the young women, well, I’m sure it’s the same as now: Out of control sense of self-worth and entitlement. Not at all an excuse or a defense, just an observation of something disgusting.

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