06 January 2009

The Boston Roots of Superman and Batman?

There's a series called "Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed" at Comics Should Be Good! because the comic-book culture seems to pass on legends as freely as old Hollywood publicists.

I plan to spend a few days raising my own questions about some widely accepted lore that's gathered around classic comic books. But first I'll commend other folks' debunkings.

I'll start with Boston's claim to be the birthplace of both Superman and Batman. "What??!!!" you say, in true comics fashion. "Didn't Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster create Superman while living in Cleveland, as described in Marc Tyler Nodelman's Boys of Steel? Weren't Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the creators of Batman, working in New York when they set out to create another costumed hero?"

Well, yes. But men from Boston have disputed those claims and offered evidence for us to weigh.

About 1970 and again about 1997, a man named Mayo Kaan (1914-2002) promoted himself as the inspiration and model for Superman in 1936, two years before the character debuted in Action Comics, #1. He claimed Siegel and Shuster traveled to Boston in that year to sketch him. Kaan showed and sold photos of himself dressed in an unmistakable tight blue costume, such as the one here, courtesy of the Superman Super site.

However, as that site also points out, Kaan's photographs proved to be his debunking. Because some of them show him standing in front of Boston's Hatch Shell, the semihemispherical stage where the Boston Pops perform each Fourth of July. And the Hatch Shell wasn't built until 1940.

When challenged by DC Comics and people looking out for Siegel and Shuster, Kaan passed up the opportunity to explain that as Superman he'd been able to fly into the future. In fact, he apparently didn't offer any explanation at all. But he maintained his claim until he died, and in 2005 his family was still insisting on his role in comic-book history, according to this Boston Globe article.

As for Batman, in 1975 a man named Frank D. Foster II (1909-1995) went to a law firm to set down his recollections of creating Batman. Foster grew up in Arlington and went to art school in Boston before moving to Greenwich Village in the early 1930s. His son has offered a look at that interview and a set of his father's sketches bearing the date 1932 at OriginalBatman.com.

Here I'm relying on Cash Gorman's Hero Goggles blog, which gets this year's special recognition for Batman research from Oz and Ends. In addition to analyzing the Foster claim, Gorman also describes published precursors to Batman, including a rich man dressing up as a bat to take revenge on criminals in 1899. So the notion of a bat-themed crime-fighter wasn't that original to begin with.

Gorman points out how in the 1975 interview Foster spoke of being inspired by comic strips featuring

heroes of the day--such as, flying through the sky during the day and doing good deeds and so forth and so on--and I thought, well why couldn’t that be done at night? Have a good guy do stuff at night.
Foster dated that recollection to the late 1920s. The lawyers weren't able to elicit an explanation for the later date on the sketches.

Whether it was the 1920s or 1932, Foster recalled his creation occurred well before Batman's debut in 1939. But that was also before Superman appeared in 1938, or even Flash Gordon in 1934. Which raises the question of what comics heroes Foster saw “flying through the sky...doing good deeds and so forth.”

The details of Foster's recollection are so vague that it's impossible to disprove them, unlike Kaan's photos. But the fact that he was trying to emulate published comics with a man in a mask and skintight costume suggests that he really created his sketches in the late 1930s, when a lot of other artists were also trying to break into the newly hot comic-book industry.

TOMORROW: Captain Marvel, Jr., and the King.

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