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Review: Holy Bat-Signal! The Mark of Kane Shines Searchlight on Creation of Batman

Terry McCabe directs the first play in Mark Pracht's comic book trilogy at Chicago's City Lit Theater.

Todd Wojcik and Annie Hogan in The Mark of Kane.
(© Steve Graue)

The Mark of Kane has a fascinating story and colorful characters exploring an iconic piece of American popular culture, Batman. Without question, there's a lot of theatrical red meat here, but it's not particularly well-cooked in this world premiere by Mark Pracht, staged by City Lit artistic director Terry McCabe. It's vital enough to hold audience attention, but it's not as good as it might be, or needs to be, if it's going to have a future.

The title character, based on the real-life Bob Kane, claimed he was the sole creator of Batman, the comic book franchise that made him rich and famous. In fact, he wasn't the only creator, although by contract he received sole credit in perpetuity. A mediocre artist, he drew relatively little of Batman and wrote none of it, relying instead on a team of "ghosts," chief among them writer Milton "Bill" Finger, the real creative genius behind the character. The Mark of Kane deals with the Batman-comic backstory, centering on the fraught Kane-Finger relationship, and offering a glimpse into the slightly shady early comic book industry.    

The play is written and presented like a comic book, which is good and bad. It's a highly episodic story told in two acts and 18 brief scenes, each akin to a few comic-book panels. The scenes sketch emotions, actions, and characters in bold, bald strokes with little subtlety, just like a comic book. From the moment we meet Kane and Finger, we know that Kane (Josh Zagoren) is a sometimes-charming, self-aggrandizing four-flusher and that the less-assured, unaggressive Finger (Todd Wojcik) will be his foil. Projected photo-murals — created by scenic and lighting designer G. "Max" Maxin IV — provide large-scale comic book style backgrounds for each scene.

That's all fine to a point — a bigger commercial production certainly would take advantage of the opportunities thus created — but Kane and Finger deserve more depth and nuance, and The Mark of Kane robs itself of its own best opportunities to provide it. It's an epic, spanning 1939-2006 (years after Kane and Finger died), introducing many secondary figures who mostly are undeveloped as characters and appear in only one or two scenes. It takes 13 actors to portray the play's 24 characters, all of them based on actual people.

This isn't efficient, tidy, or cost-effective playwriting, so it would behoove Pracht to condense and trim. The Mark of Kane doesn't need four characters to narrate the story, looking back from the 2006 Comic Con International convention in San Diego. It doesn't need two scenes that briefly introduce Kane's and Finger's parents to contrast the emotional environments they provided Bob and Bill. There are better ways to do that, especially with regard to the alcoholic Finger who actually is the protagonist. The narrative needs more time/date stamps, too. At one point, it jumps from the 1940s to the 1960s without a hint.

The play really leaps to life midway through Act 1, when Kane and Finger work out the details of the first Batman story, published in 1939 when they were in their mid-20s. Their creative juices are exciting, and more such scenes would add value. Soon after, Kane cuts his exclusive credit deal with a thug publisher, and tells Finger, "I'm going to make sure you're taken care of, but you work for me." Presumably, he told all his ghosts the same thing, but we never see him working with his ghosts, we don't know how well he paid them, we don't see him as the boss actually working in the studio. The entire early comic-book industry was sketchy, with artists and writers often working for multiple titles and publishers at the same time. Audiences would be totally absorbed by this, if more of it were portrayed.

The Mark of Kane is part of a Pracht comic-book trilogy, with part two next year at City Lit and part three in 2024, so all the more reason to lay deeper groundwork with The Mark of Kane. Part two will be about Frederic Wertham's notorious muckraking book, Seduction of the Innocent, which nearly shut down the comic-book industry in the mid-1950s, while part three will chronicle the stupendous rise of Marvel Comics, with Stan Lee as a character.

This is an exciting, ambitious project for a smaller Off-Loop theater such as City Lit. It's already been blessed with a good deal of local media attention, and it's likely to draw a large and enthusiastic audience. One hopes that close collaborators Pracht and McCabe will not stop with popular success alone, but will hunker in the Batcave to strengthen the entire trilogy.


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