Legacies: The Tragedies Behind DC’s Best and Brightest

by Kelly Gaines
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For many fans of superhero comics, the heartbreaking passing of Stan Lee made the world stand still for a moment. The elderly creator lived a life most creatives only dream about – making amazing things and sharing them with the world. Lee passed away recently having cemented his legacy as an artistic force and editorial voice for multiple generations. The mark he has left for both Marvel and DC fans is undeniable.

Unfortunately, Lee is one of very few groundbreaking comic creators granted the blessing of living a full life with the credit, praise, and security he deserved. When we think of our favorite heroes- the risks taken and the stories that changed fiction- it’s difficult to come to terms with the severe mistreatment, loss, and personal tragedy that followed the brilliant minds of their creators. DC’s biggest heroes aimed to teach readers about truth, justice, and equality- concepts many of their creators had to fight for in their lifetimes- and some did not live to see.


The Secrets and Lies of the Family that Created Wonder Woman

The Marston Family

Psychologist and professor Dr. William Moulton Marston was a brilliant and strange man. The Harvard educated doctor spent his time teaching students at Tufts University about human nature and emotion. His theories were wildly progressive for the world of 1920’s America but his home life was downright scandalous. Marston had been married to his wife, Elizabeth Holloway, for 15 years. Elizabeth was a force of nature in her own right. One of three women to graduate from The Boston University School of Law in 1918, Elizabeth was well-read, well-educated, and an intellectual equal to, if not surpassing, her husband in every regard. She collaborated with Marston on his work often, even making observations that assisted him in creating the earliest incarnations of the lie detector test. Marston, ever the progressive thinker, respected and appreciated his wife’s intelligence with an openness uncommon for the time. They were a perfect match.

In 1925, the Marston’s life and legacy changed course when William met a young student named Olive Byrne. Olive was a bright student- boldly curious and sharp-witted. Shortly after meeting Marston, she became his assistant. Or at least, that was the narrative Marston gave colleagues and friends. In reality, with Elizabeth’s consent, Olive was William’s romantic partner. She lived with him and Elizabeth in their home, worked beside him to conduct studies and demonstrations, and expanded his horizons with newer (and kinkier) ideas. She and Elizabeth were even pregnant at the same time, giving birth to children who would grow up under the same roof. Olive’s children were legally adopted by Marston, a decision that would eventually haunt his biological adopted children.

As Marston’s complex family grew, William had taken on a new passion. After observing how intently his children read comic books, Marston took steps to contact DC publisher Max Gaines. Gaines invited Marston on as a consultant to create a new superhero, one that would utilize the doctor’s theories and ideals. According to Marston family members, Elizabeth listened to her husband contemplate the new hero for a while before making a suggestion- why not make a female superhero? To Elizabeth, a super woman made every bit as much sense as a Superman. With a little prodding, Gaines approved Marston’s idea and Wonder Woman was brought to life.

Olive Byrne and Elizabeth Marston have never been credited as co-creators of Wonder Woman, but both women were deeply involved in her golden age. Elizabeth edited drafts of each issue. Her love of art, literature, and classical style shaped everything from Diana’s backstory to dialogue. There are surviving copies of these early scripts still carrying Elizabeth’s notes, many of which were written in Latin and Greek. Olive played an important role as well. Her fresh ideas and experiences inspired many of Marston’s story-lines, especially in scenes exploring the power of dominance, submission, and female leadership. Even more telling, Olive had a particular set of accessories that would become indicative of the character- metal bracelets worn on both wrists.

The Marston’s worked on Wonder Woman with passionate enthusiasm. Even when William became ill and was no longer writing the books, Elizabeth and Olive continued writing to the editors to make suggestions and criticisms. Sadly, on May 2, 1947, William passed away after a short battle with cancer. He was only 53. Elizabeth and Olive remained a family unit. It’s suggested that Elizabeth promised William she would look after Olive when he was gone, but there is little to suggest the women’s relationship was purely a bond of obligation. They carried on, raising their children and protecting Marston’s legacy, as a united force.

Though William had taken steps to protect the secret of his family life, rumors spread. The Marston children were often made fun of by classmates who referred to them as “the bastard Marston’s”. William died having never openly claimed Olive’s children as biologically his. As a result, the children were never given the closure of an honest reconciliation with the man they suspected was more than just an adoptive parent. As Wonder Woman became an icon of integrity, wielding her lasso of truth to dispense justice, Marston’s children felt suffocated by the weight of a secret their father never told them. Eventually, Elizabeth admitted in confidence to Olive’s son, Don, that Marston was his biological father. Don was an adult by that time and Elizabeth asked him to keep his knowledge of the truth from Olive. She did not believe Olive could handle the weight of knowing the truth was out. Though he was now in on the secret, Don’s daughter would later say that her father never seemed to come to terms with the years of hidden truth. In many ways, the family that championed the lie detector and built their legacy around a heroine of truth allowed lies to cast a permanent shadow on their family history.


Batman’s Co-Creator, Bill Finger, was Denied Justice by Bob Kane

If you ask a savvy comic book reader who created Batman, there’s a good chance they’ll answer one way: Bob Kane. It’s the obvious answer. Kane’s name appears on every book, at the beginning of every movie and TV series, and served years as a convention and premiere staple. That’s exactly the way Kane wanted it. From the moment Batman was published, Bob Kane had his eyes on two things; not creativity, artistic vision, or heroic ideals- he wanted money and fame. Fortunately for Bob, that’s exactly what he got; but for his creative partner and friend, Bill Finger, the legacy of Batman would bring far less reward. Bob made sure of it. 

This much we know to be true: Bob Kane told DC he’d come up with another superhero to increase sales. He went home, came up with the name ‘Bat-Man’, and drew a sketch of a man in a red jumpsuit with stiff black wings and a small mask. He was at least smart enough to realize that this unremarkable doodle wasn’t going to cut it, so he called someone to help- his friend Bill Finger. Bill was a dedicated writer with pride in his craft. The name was good, but everything else about the character had to change. Bill reworked Bob’s design by suggesting a bat-ear cowl instead of just a mask. He thought the stiff wings looked ridiculous and suggested a scalloped cape instead. The red had to go as well. Bill thought a creature of the night should wear dark colors.

Kane made the changes and brought the character to DC. He sold the idea for a small sum on the condition that his name would always be attached. Kane split the initial profit with Bill having mentioned nothing about credit or royalties. Bill, a freelance writer, thought nothing of it. In the coming months, he worked with Bob, and write the bulk of Batman’s first books. Kane brought his finished product into DC, collected payment, and ensured Bill was paid as any other ghostwriter.

The problem was, Bill was no ordinary ghostwriter. He wasn’t bringing someone else’s vision and ideas to life, he was supplying his own. Bill is acknowledged to have been the driving creative force on the following:

  • The ‘Bruce Wayne’ persona
  • The name ‘Gotham City’
  • Robin
  • The Joker
  • Catwoman
  • The Wayne Family backstory
  • The Penguin
  • Two-Face
  • The Riddler
  • The Bat-Cave
  • The Bat Mobile

Finger also mastermind the plots and designs of many early books and utilized over-sized props and other gimmicks. Writers who knew Bill said he would often ride around New York with a notebook, observing and recording anything he could use in Batman for hours on end. One of Kane and Finger’s colleagues, Jerry Robinson, later remarked on the depth of Bill’s contribution to the Batman mythos. “[Bill] had more to do with the molding of Batman than Bob. He just did so many things at the beginning, … creating almost all the other characters, … the whole persona, the whole temper.” Though by this time most of DC’s staff knew about Bill, the book continued to be published as a creation of Bob Kane.

At an early comic convention, Finger sat on a panel and spoke honestly to fans about his work and contributions. His claims posed a threat to Bob’s status as the genius behind Batman. He symbolically disavowed Finger, writing a scathing letter to eager Batman fans denying Bill had any serious involvement with the character. That stance, faulty and dishonest, would be the story Kane stuck to for the rest of Bill Finger’s life.

In fact, the only Batman credit Bill ever saw in his lifetime was on an episode of the Adam West TV show. His collaborator on the episode, Charles Sinclair, spoke about Bill’s heartbreaking reaction to seeing his name on screen in the 2017 documentary Batman and Bill. According to Sinclair, Bill asked him nervously for top billing in the episode credits (meaning Bill’s name would be listed first under ‘writers’). Sinclair agreed, not realizing at the moment what an important question it was to Bill. On the day it aired, Sinclair took Bill to see the episode in the studio’s client viewing room, which he thought would be much more appropriate than the small black and white TV in Bill’s apartment. He remarked that while he wasn’t sure Bill was crying exactly, he could see tears in his eyes as a genuine moment of joy and pride flooded through Bill when his name appeared beneath ‘Batman’. His friend was overwhelmed, it seemed, by the simple honor of seeing his name attached to the character at all. It was the first and last time Bill would ever experience that feeling.

In 1974, Sinclair was the person to find Bill Finger’s body when he passed away at 59. Bill died alone in his Manhattan apartment after struggling to make ends meet for years. Sinclair said that on the day he went to check on Bill, he found him dead on the couch- black and white TV playing static and eviction notices attached to his door. Meanwhile, Bob Kane was riding high on the lifestyle Batman bought him, working to cement himself alongside Stan Lee as a comic industry icon. How he reacted to the death of Bill Finger is unknown. What we do know is that while Bill struggled, dying broke, alone, and facing eviction, Bob Kane was unconcerned. He did nothing to help his friend, if he even cared to look.

Over a decade after Bill’s death, in 1989, Bob made the only statement he ever would allowing Bill the credit that was rightfully his.  “Now that my long-time friend and collaborator is gone, I must admit that Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved. He was an unsung hero … I often tell my wife, if I could go back fifteen years, before he died, I would like to say. ‘I’ll put your name on it now. You deserve it.'”

In spite of this, when Kane passed away, he did so tightly gripping the reigns of the Batman legacy- a fact made evident by his headstone.

Bill Finger’s name would not appear on Batman as a co-creator until 2015, over 40 years after his death. With the exemplary help of writer Mark Noble, Bill’s granddaughter, Athena Finger, would later campaign for Bill’s cause. As the only heir to Finger’s legacy, she challenged DC to put her grandfather’s name in Batman V. Superman and won. Now, Bill Finger is listed beneath Bob Kane on all Batman content.


The Shocking Loss of Dwayne McDuffie

Static Shock was a favorite in my household as a child. My brothers and I watched every episode of the Saturday cartoon religiously. It was funny, imaginative, and had characters that looked like us- not sidekicks or comic relief characters- but main, pivotal parts of the show. That was important. Of course, we loved Justice League, Batman Beyond, and other superhero shows too, but without Static, something critical and humanizing would have been missing in our formative years. Without the mind of Dwayne McDuffie, the show may never have existed.

Milestone Comics was before my time (by a year). The DC imprint launched in 1993 and was the first major comic imprint to feature minority characters in multiple roles that were written and drawn by a mostly minority staff. Milestone was an imprint where writers and artists didn’t have to be a token and could express stories through the lens of their own experience. In 1993, this had never been done before- certainly not at a publisher as huge as DC. The concept was simple. Milestone’s staff was comprised of mostly black, Asian, and Latino writers and artists who had been lifelong comic fans and wanted the chance to tell stories featuring more relatable characters. It was, in a very literal sense, a milestone- one that would offer the next generation of minority comic readers a chance to see complex heroes with backgrounds and problems they experienced day to day. 

McDuffie was a driving force behind Milestone. He and co-founders Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle worked passionately on what they considered to be their wildest dreams coming to fruition. Milestone’s line-up included Static, Blood Syndicate, Icon & Rocket, and Hardware. In McDuffie’s own words, the characters they created were complex and thought-provoking, breaking the pattern of problematic minority portrayals in comics.

If you do a black character or a female character or an Asian character, then they aren’t just that character. They represent that race or that sex, and they can’t be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people. You know, Superman isn’t all white people and neither is Lex Luthor. We knew we had to present a range of characters within each ethnic group, which means that we couldn’t do just one book. We had to do a series of books and we had to present a view of the world that’s wider than the world we’ve seen before.”

McDuffie’s vision was admirable, and through the dedication of himself and the Milestone team, the books took off. Unfortunately, no creative group is without their conflicts. As McDuffie looked to take the books in more controversial directions, he began to find himself at odds with friend and collaborator Denys Cowan as well as DC’s editorial staff. Tensions came to a head after McDuffie published a critique about DC’s treatment and alleged censorship of Milestone. Funds from DC began to dry up, and the frustrated teammates broke apart.

It would be years before Milestone recaptured the public’s attention. In 2010, DC published Milestone Forever, a limited series featuring some of their better-known characters. The team began talking about a relaunch of Milestone, putting their previous issues aside to see whether or not the imprint’s spark could be re-lit. It was a ‘getting the band back together’ story for the ages, fueled by eagerness and excitement on all sides. Despite numerous setbacks, McDuffie and his friends had drive, passion, and unbreakable hope. There was no way of knowing at the time that McDuffie would not live to see the future of Milestone. The band would never be completely back together again. 

On February 21, 2011, just one day after his 49th birthday, Dwayne McDuffie passed away unexpectedly after suffering a heart attack. He survived to go into emergency heart surgery, and even had the chance to contact his friends beforehand but passed away during the operation. The news devastated the Milestone team, some of whom recalled that just the night before, McDuffie had sent them designs for a Static action figure in a flurry of excitement about their upcoming plans. The loss sent shock-waves through both comic book and animation communities, both of which considered McDuffie a respected writer and friend. Today, Milestone’s original creators still hope to preserve McDuffie’s legacy and promoting fair representation and opportunities in the industry. As of 2018, a relaunch of Milestone is still planned featuring four of their classic titles.  


Why Jerry Siegel Needed to Create a Hero

At this point in comic history, the horrible mistreatment of Superman’s creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, is common knowledge. The men were nearly robbed of their creation and legacy by the publishers they had made wealthy. They were loyal friends, uncharacteristic for many of the golden age creators that found themselves in difficult legal situations. Siegel and Shuster remained a team, determined to receive justice together or not at all. For Jerry Siegel, going up against DC was not the first time he grappled with injustice. On June 2nd, 1932, when Jerry was still a teenager, his father was attacked by a thief attempting to rob his store. Jerry’s father had a heart attack and died during the struggle. Young Jerry struggled to come to terms with the loss. The unexpected passing, as far as he was concerned, was caused by the thief’s disregard for the law. His father’s attacker would never be caught.

Around the same time, Jerry and his new friend Joe began to write stories together. Their hope was to get a comic published by one of the major New York papers. In their initial Superman story, Siegel and Shuster wrote the super-powered man to be a villain. Jerry felt that something wasn’t quite right about that decision, and suggested that it might be a better story to make a hero. Wouldn’t it be something if there was someone out there who could save us? Wouldn’t it be nice to know we’re not alone? Jerry was never very forthcoming in talking about the loss of his father, but the fingerprints of the memory are evident in many of the original Superman stories. Superman fights for the vulnerable, handling crooks and criminals with unchallenged confidence. He is exactly the hero Jerry’s father needed that day in 1932. Jerry understood personally how terrifying an unfair world could be. The hero he created represented a chance for the ordinary man- hope that help was on the way.

We may associate the loss of parents with Batman more so than Superman, but looking back at his creation and the lifelong fight his creators put up to keep him, the heroes roots dig deep into one of the darkest moments of a young man’s life. Jerry and Joe exemplified the characteristics they gave their hero- loyalty, honesty, bravery, resilience, and integrity- not for public image, but because they were first-hand witnesses to the hardship of a world in which people did not try to be their best. Siegel and Shuster changed the image of a hero in the public consciousness forever by creating the hero their dangerous world needed.

Iconic comic book heroes have redefined the way the world thinks of morality, loss, and overcoming tragedy. The fabric of these stories is no mistake. They reflect the complex lives of their creators, lives that unfortunately did not always gain the respect and security they deserved. Telling their stories and remembering their contributions is important to ensuring that future creators avoid the same terrible treatment and are afforded a fair chance at recognition and credit for the work we admire.



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