Close-up of Mark Pracht. He is a white man with short dark hair and blue eyes. He is wearing a black leather jacket and has a silver hoop earring in one ear.
Unmasked man: Mark Pracht has his eyes on the backstories of some of the greatest names in comics history. Credit: Zoe McKenzie Photography

I first met Batman battling villains from the Hall of Justice with the other Super Friends, part of the Saturday morning cartoon lineup of the 1970s, and soon afterward I caught the campy reruns of the 1960s live-action TV show. This led me to scour my brother Aaron’s Bronze Age collection of DC Comics, the ones with macabre covers by the likes of Dave Cockrum and Neal Adams, like Robin hanging dead or a menacing-looking Batman seeking vengeance. 

Here I discovered the real Batman, the one envisioned by his creators Bob Kane and Bill Finger in Detective Comics #27 which debuted on March 30, 1939, a dark knight fighting for justice. While Superman was all-powerful, and Spider-Man could climb walls, Batman was just a man. A rich man, with badass training, and cool gadgets, but a man nonetheless. He had his demons, his strengths, and his failings but he was, and still is, my all-time favorite comic book hero.

The Mark of Kane
Through 12/4: Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Mon 11/21 and 11/28 7:30 PM; City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr, 773-293-3682,, $30 previews through 10/29 ($25 seniors, $12 students, and military); regular run 10/30-12/4 $34 ($29 seniors, $12 students, and military)

He is also Mark Pracht’s favorite hero, which inspired Pracht to write the play The Mark of Kane, making its world premiere at City Lit Theater, directed by City Lit artistic director Terry McCabe. Spanning eight decades, the play delves into the relationship between Kane and Finger, how Kane went on to fame and fortune and Finger languished in obscurity and poverty.

“The Bob Kane and Bill Finger story is just so fascinating,” says Pracht, who notes that the Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster story (the creators of Superman) is more like David and Goliath, the small-time artists versus a corporation, “but Bill Finger and Bob Kane is like Cain and Abel . . . artists conflicting with each other.”

While the exact facts of who created what remains unclear (the play is historical fiction based on a conflicting loose set of facts) it is generally accepted that Kane and Finger, two friends in a Bronx apartment, created the character of Batman over a few days. Kane has claimed sole creation credit and in 1939 ultimately got written credit from DC Comics in perpetuity, leaving him to decide what credit, if any, Finger received. Finger’s granddaughter, Athena (who along with her son are his only living heirs) fought to restore his legacy, which led Warner Brothers to officially recognize Finger as cocreator of Batman on film and TV projects going forward.

In reality, Finger, as a writer, claims to have contributed quite a bit, from the look of Batman to his costume, his skills as a detective, and his secret identity of Bruce Wayne. “Most of the things that we think of as Batman came out of his mind,” Pracht says. 

What contribution Bob Kane actually made, as writer and artist, to the creation of Batman, including the name itself and even the actual artwork, remains a debate. Even the characters of Robin and the Joker were allegedly mainly created by Finger, with Jerry Robinson contributing to the latter.

When the Batman TV show became a hit in the 1960s, it made Kane a millionaire. Finger (along with his writing partner Charles Sinclair) wrote a two-part episode (introducing the villain the Clock King), which became Finger’s only public credit for anything related to Batman in his lifetime.

When Batman was originally created for DC (Detective Comics), these two were just young men, happy to be making something new. This love of art for art’s sake was what drew many early comic book artists to this growing industry. Neither expected it to live much beyond a handful of issues, and no one could predict what a huge impact Batman would have on the world now over 80 years later and how many billions (gazillions?) of dollars would be made from this one character alone.

As Batman’s fame grew, so did Kane’s, who became a kind of caricature of the big-time Hollywood hotshot, Pracht notes. Kane worked hard on generating a persona. “Bob Kane had one good idea that he got untold scores of other people to work on,” Pracht says.

In contrast, fellow comic artist Jim Steranko (famous for his work on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.), who is a featured character in the play The Mark of Kane, also built a mythology around himself, though his was well-earned—Steranko not only was a seminal artist, but in his early career worked as an escape artist, illusionist, and musician. Jack Kirby, considered one of the greatest comic book creators and artists in history, claims to have created his character of Mister Miracle, an escape artist, through inspiration drawn from Steranko’s early life.

In addition to the relationship between these two men, The Mark of Kane is also about the birth of an art form as well as a multimedia empire. Like many of the great art forms, comics were rife with plagiarism, cronyism—even gangsters. (The first Batman story, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” in Detective Comics #27 was essentially a copy of the story from popular pulp comic The Shadow #113, written by Theodore Tinsley, and Kane claims to have been “inspired” by Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter design for Batman’s wings.)

Plus, as Pracht says, it is a story of “kids just making stuff up by the seat of their pants. And out of this comes these things that are so beloved and so part of our national consciousness.”

Pracht notes that for something like Batman to survive this long proves what a significant creation it was. “This art form has become so important in the American experience. Knowing these people who maybe got forgotten for a while . . . I think it behooves us to know where these characters came from. They’re important in a way I don’t think anybody really comprehended until now, almost 100 years later. We’re still going to the movies to see it, we’re still buying comic books and playing video games.”

Through this play and a lifetime collecting and appreciating comics, Pracht has considered the roles that superheroes play in our lives and our psyche. “It’s a safe way to confront ideas that are not acceptable. It’s their job to show us there is a way to stand up to things that are frightening and stand up to things that are wrong. You can still do that and be compassionate and still be thoughtful. Bill Finger says, ‘What if we tell kids that they don’t have to be an alien from another planet to be a hero?’”

And that is the core of Batman. You can be just a human being and still be a hero. And we can turn to these comic books, these disposable stories that have been derided for so long, and find inspiration and even art. “Comics are a viable and interesting art form, and it is a medium that is worth talking about as an art form,” Pracht says.

In addition to his own contribution to the comics-as-art-form movement through The Mark of Kane, Pracht will be presenting two additional world premieres of his work in what he is calling the “Four-Color Trilogy.” The second play will be called Innocence of Seduction and will be set in the 1950s during the juvenile delinquency scare and will highlight, among other things, the contribution of Black and female comic book artists as well as the creation of the Comic Code, which grew out of the moral panic of the 50s into the de facto censor for the comic industry for decades. The third play, tentatively titled The House of Ideas, will focus on two titans of the comic book industry, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and their working partnership.