Was Batman a Plagiarism?

A recent article by Austin Mace at Screenrant highlights comments made decades ago by Batman co-creator Bill Finger regarding Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27, published in May 1939. 

According to Finger, that story, entitled The Case of the Chemical Syndicate, was a direct plagiarism of Partners of Peril, a novel featuring the superhero The Shadow, that was published in November 1936.

The similarities are incredibly obvious. In both stories, the protagonist are very similar heroes, both escape from a dome filled with poison gas using a handkerchief, and some of the interior illustrations were traced by artist Bob Kane for the Batman story.

The main difference between the two is that The Shadow’s story featured some 60 pages of text, while Batman’s featured only six pages of comic panels. 

Still, the similarities were enough that Walter B. Gibson, the creator of The Shadow, referred to Batman as a “clowned-up version of The Shadow.”

Of course, The Shadow wasn’t the only source of inspiration for Batman. Kane has often cited everything from flying machines sketched by Leonardo Da Vinci to Zorro as other sources they drew from.

However, this raises an interesting question: Is Batman a plagiarism? The answer to that gets a lot more complicated.

Ethical and Legal Questions

To be clear, these are not new allegations against Finger and Kane. In fact, this has been well-known trivia among comic buffs for many decades.

Reprints of Partners of Peril even included the tagline “the novel that inspired Batman!” on the cover and featured a foreword by Jerry Robinson, who is credited with creating the Batman antagonist The Joker (as well as other characters in Batman lore).

All this has been very well known for a long time, and none of it is particularly disputed or controversial today. 

However, the ethics and legality of it don’t get a great deal of discussion. 

Through our modern lens, this kind of copying can seem insane. Ethically, this type of copying would be seen as plagiarism and the creators would be treated accordingly, especially given that some of the images were traced.

We’ve seen this first hand Nick Simmons and his Incarnate book, Greg Land and his work on the new Alien series and Butch Hartman with a commissioned piece.

These days, comic artists and comic fans do not tolerate this kind of copying. If this took place in 2022, there’s little doubt that Kane and Finger would be called out as plagiarists and likely become pariahs in the comic community.

But, it didn’t happen in 2022. It happened in 1939. The publishing world was different then, and both The Shadow and Batman existed at the time when pulp magazines were at their peak of popularity. These publications were inexpensive, mass-produced and with very quick turnaround times. In short, they were meant to be all but completely disposable.

This type of copying was very common. Different series would often run similar stories and, as comics grew as a format, they often copied from pulp stories as well. In short, what Finger and Kane did may not have been the norm, but it wasn’t rare either. 

This is highlighted by the fact that, according to the Screenrant article, Batman himself was copied by the pulp chain Thrilling with the creation of their new character, The Black Bat, which debuted just months after batman.

According to Mace, that copying “narrowly avoided a lawsuit” but, instead, Finger opted to instead do some more copying of his own and copied the glove The Black Bat used for Batman. 

That, in turn, brings us to the legal issues, which are also more complex. Though the Copyright Act of 1909 did protect derivative works, the doctrine of invisibility made it so that you needed the “copyright proprietor”, or the owner of the entire copyright, to file the lawsuit. A licensee alone couldn’t file a case. Often times, such owners couldn’t be bothered, especially over such seemingly temporary works.

That doctrine was done away with in the Copyright Act of 1976 but, even with action being much easier to take, we still don’t see many lawsuits over these kinds of issues today.

In short, it was a very different time legally and ethically. Fans had lower expectations of originality, and copyright lawsuits were even fewer and farther between in this space.

As such, a new character was created and has gone on to be one of the most iconic superheroes of all time, generating billions of dollars in revenue across print, television and film. All from a first story that copied heavily from another successful character.

Where We Are Today

Though Batman’s first story was a close copy of The Shadow’s tale, Batman clearly went on to become a very different character and distance himself from The Shadow in many ways.

Though the characters still have many similarities, including both being wealthy playboy-type characters that protect a New York City (or a stand in), the two characters have gone in different directions. One key difference of note is that Batman no longer uses firearms or kills criminals, something The Shadow does and early Batman did as well. 

In the 1970s, DC Comics obtained the rights to The Shadow character (though it’s since been resold) and published several runs of his comics between then and the early 90s. During that time, The Shadow and Batman shared a couple of stories, with Batman acknowledging that The Shadow was his biggest influence.

That, in turn, is where we are today. The copycat origins of Batman are largely forgotten and left behind, something that is made as an inside reference when the two share a story with each other.

However, the bigger story may be the fact that Batman has remained culturally relevant and even important for more than 80 years. The Shadow, on the other hand, has not fared as well.

Though the character still makes appearances, including a 2017 series entitled the Shadow and Batman, which was co-published by Dynamite Entertainment and DC Comics, his only modern film came out in 1994 and didn’t perform well enough to be turned into a franchise.

Why that happened is tough to say. But it’s safe to say that the public simply liked Batman better, likely, in large part, to the things that make him different from The Shadow as a character.

Bottom Line

When looking back at stories like this one, it’s always important to put things in context. Plagiarism, after all, deals with the ethical norms surrounding copying and citation. Those norms tell us what we need to cite, when to cite it and how to cite it. 

Those norms, however, change over time and change over medium. If this story had happened today, it likely would have resulted in an outcry from the community. It likely wouldn’t have caused a legal response, but only because such lawsuits over comics are so rare. 

Still, a legal response would likely have been unnecessary. The community pressure alone would have been enough to bring Batman’s run to an early end.

That’s not to say that one approach is better or worse. Many great characters have been created under more modern standards, it’s just to note that the standards change and, with it, so too must the best practices shift as well.

As a result, Batman may have moved well past his copycat roots, but he’ll never be able to completely escape. Even if no one else remembers, The Shadow knows…