During the closing credits of the summer’s blockbuster film, The Dark Knight Rises, the screen displays the following title: “Based upon Batman characters created by Bob Kane.” Similar declarations appear on every Batman film, TV show, video game and comic book. These statements are, at best, only half truths.
Batman was created by two men. One, Bob Kane, found wealth and fame in his creation and has subsequently been identified as the character’s sole creator. The other, Bill Finger, has never received official credit for his role in the character’s origin or shared in the wealth generated by the licensing it has produced.
Author Marc Tyler Nobleman hopes to change that. His recent picture book, Bill: The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, is the first to focus on Finger’s life story. Nobleman had previously written a similar illustrated book on Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and then turned his attention to the next great comic book superhero: Batman.
Following the runaway success of Superman in 1938, the company that would later be known as DC Comics was looking for a follow-up superhero title. On a Friday in late 1938, DC editor Vin Sullivan asked artist Kane for help. Over the weekend, Kane got together with his friend, writer Finger, to work through ideas.
The details of who created which aspects of Batman’s characterization remain murky, with Kane telling different versions at different times, and Finger only mentioning his involvement late in his life. Most accounts credit Kane with the original notion of a bird-like or bat-like character with wings and a red suit. Nobleman contends, however, that most of the central elements of Batman’s mythos can be attributed to Finger: the gray and black costume, the bat-like cowl, the batmobile and many of the colorful villains that Batman faced. More significantly, Finger wrote the early Batman stories and created the tale of the character’s tragic origin.
Finger received no credit as a writer in the original Batman comic books, a fairly common practice at the time. In addition to relying on Finger’s scripting, Kane also used uncredited ghost artists. Although the details of the arrangement are a matter of speculation, at some point — perhaps as early as 1946 — Kane struck a deal with DC Comics to be identified as the creator of Batman.
The launch of the “Batman” television program in 1966 made Kane a great deal of money and turned him into something of a small-scale celebrity. Finger scripted one episode of the show, but otherwise saw none of the reward from the character’s growing popularity.
Finger’s role in the creation of Batman was finally brought to light during his appearance at an early comic book convention in New York in 1965. Later that year, comic book historian Jerry Bails published an article titled, “If the Truth Be Known or ‘A Finger in Every Plot!'” in a relatively obscure fanzine that described Finger’s contributions to Batman’s origin. Kane wrote a response in another fan magazine contradicting Finger’s claims, stating “I, Bob Kane, am the sole creator of ‘Batman.'”
Finger died in 1974, a few weeks before his 60th birthday, with his work on Batman still officially unrecognized and little known outside the insular world of comic book fandom. Kane passed away in 1998 at age 83.
When Nobleman set out to write an illustrated book about Finger’s life, he sought photo references to allow the book’s illustrator, Ty Templeton, to bring Finger to life. Industry insiders told Nobleman only two photos of Finger existed. He was also told that Finger had no living heir to receive any royalties from Finger’s creations. During his research for the book, Nobleman discovered that neither of these points was true.
Knowledge at Wharton sat down with Nobleman to discuss Finger’s life and legacy — and what lessons his story has for creative artists today. An edited version of that conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: What got you interested in telling Bill Finger’s story?
Marc Tyler Nobleman: As a writer, I’m drawn to stories that haven’t been told in their own book before. And as a lifelong superhero fan, it was natural for me to follow up a book about the creators of Superman with a book about the creation of Batman.
Those are the only two DC characters that, I think, could sustain a book in this format. From a commercial perspective, it’s nice to have the only book on your topic. From a narrative perspective, the Bill Finger story is fantastic. It’s important, it’s heartbreaking and it’s a cautionary tale.
Knowledge at Wharton: Why is Bill Finger’s story important?
Nobleman: Some would call him the greatest martyr in comics history. He created a character that by some sources is the most lucrative superhero of all time and possibly one of the most recognizable fictional characters of the modern era, yet he died poor and unknown, without a proper obituary or funeral.
There’s a huge disconnect between his contribution to culture and his legacy. It’s a cautionary tale for anybody who wants to be in the creative arts. You need to know how important it is to protect your intellectual property.
Knowledge at Wharton: You assert that Bill Finger was responsible for virtually all of the mythos and iconography of Batman. What are examples of some of the things you credit Finger for?
Nobleman: He designed the costume. Even though he’s known as the writer, he was actually the visual architect. Bill wrote the first story. Bill also wrote the first stories of Robin, Joker, Catwoman, Penguin and most of the supporting characters that are now almost as famous in their own right as Batman. Bill was the main proponent of the bat motif. He first wrote about the batmobile. He was not the only person who came up with the batcave as a concept, but he was the one that first put it in a comic book and called it the batcave.
Most importantly, he created Batman’s origin, which is, I think, the reason Batman has endured. There were so many characters that came out in the wake of Superman and many of them are long forgotten. Batman survived, I think, because there was a difference in his origin: He had a psychological reason to do what he was doing. Bill brought that to comics.
Knowledge at Wharton: Why tell the story of Bill Finger’s life through a picture book — which uses large, full-page illustrations with panels of narrative text — as opposed to a regular biography?
Nobleman: My background is in writing for younger people. I wanted young people to know that when they see “Batman created by Bob Kane” on a credit line — whether it’s in a comic or a video game or a movie — that it is not the whole truth.
But my intention was to write it not simplistically. The author’s note [at the back of the book that describes the contributions of Bill Finger to Batman and outlines the search for the details of Finger’s life] is not aimed at very young people. There is something for everyone in the book.
Knowledge at Wharton: Why not do a comic book then?
Nobleman: That was too obvious. I also wanted to validate these stories in the mainstream. If I’m doing a comic book story in a comic book, it’s marginalizing it again. I want to show that Bill Finger’s story could be of interest to people who couldn’t care less about superheroes.
Knowledge at Wharton: Was the research for the book primarily motivated by the desire to find more photos of Bill Finger, since you knew you were publishing an illustrated book?
Nobleman: Yes, that was what started it. And once I started to find other interesting nuggets, I realized that there was more to this story that needs to be told.
Knowledge at Wharton: For example, you found out his first name wasn’t Bill; it was Milton.
Nobleman: Yes. And that was a total fluke. I was told his name [was Bill]; why would I think it’s anything else? It was only an offhanded comment from his second wife that produced that fact. And that led to me finding his yearbook photo, which is the earliest known photo of Bill.
Knowledge at Wharton: What was the most surprising thing you uncovered in your research?
Nobleman: By far it’s that Bill has a living heir. When I started the project, I was told that he had only one child, Fred, who died in 1992. Fred was gay, so I prematurely presumed what others had told me — that this was the end of the bloodline. Again, it was an off-the-cuff comment from one of the people in the research that clued me in that Fred had a daughter in 1976, which changed the whole scope of the project.
And it will hopefully help me facilitate my real goal: to see justice done for this man. I knew that my book would be one small part of it. But if there’s someone who is actually in a position to change the character’s credit line, that would be significant. I can’t do that; I’m not family. [Bill’s granddaughter Athena] might be able to do that.
Knowledge at Wharton: So much of this tale is the story of two individuals: Bob Kane and Bill Finger. It’s easy to make Bob Kane out as the bad guy and Bill Finger as the martyred hero. Is that accurate, or is it overly simplistic?
Nobleman: It’s a complicated situation. I talked to a lot of people who knew Bob and Bill personally. And none of them — literally none — framed Bob’s legacy in a positive light, to put it delicately. I feel he did something that was hugely unethical. He started it when that [type of practice] was rampant, when lots of people were taking credit for other people’s work — it was just part of the relationship that writers and artists had in the day.
Knowledge at Wharton: In addition to using Bill Finger as an uncredited author, Bob Kane often used ghost illustrators as well. Yet, as you mention, that was a common practice back then.
Nobleman: It was. However, there were other examples where that wasn’t the case. [Superman creators] Siegel and Shuster were a partnership, and both of their names were on the property from the beginning.
Obviously, I get asked if Bob Kane was a villain. I try to talk about it from a historian’s perspective, not my personal opinion. I try to say, “This is what he did. What do you think — ethically?” We’re talking about a certain level of ethics that the average person would agree to: We don’t lie, we don’t steal. Well, he did those things.
The reason I ultimately characterize Bob as a villain is that when Bill came forward and told the truth — not with hostility, not with bitterness, not attacking Bob, but just saying in plain language, “This is what I did” — Bob lashed back at him and called Bill a liar. It’s inexcusable that he would do that.
Knowledge at Wharton: Although didn’t Kane change his position on this in his later years? Late in life, Kane wrote: “I never thought of giving him a byline. He never asked for one. I often tell my wife if I could go back 13 or 14 years before he died, I’d like to say, ‘I’ll put your name on it now. You deserve it.'”
Nobleman: It’s a huge asset to me as a writer for this story that he did that. But it came 15 years after Bill died. It comes across to me as very hollow. I think it’s an old man coming to terms with his conscience and not wanting to die thinking that he followed through on this deception his whole life. But if he really believed those words, he could have contacted DC and changed the credit line right then and there. He did it so [long] after Bill died because he didn’t think there was anybody who would come forward and fight for credit.
Knowledge at Wharton: You have Kane, who was flamboyant and wanted the attention, and Finger, who was introverted and reserved and wanted a job with a steady income during hard economic times. Couldn’t you argue that both men got what they wanted in this relationship?
Nobleman: Yes, that argument certainly could be made. And the fact that there’s only one documented instance of Bill standing up to Bob certainly reinforces that. But having spoken to so many people who knew Bill personally, I saw a different side of Bill. He was not complacent about this. He didn’t think this was OK. Maybe he just felt that it had gone on too long or he was stuck, or if he spoke up he would lose his main source of income. I think he might have felt trapped, which doesn’t excuse him from not standing up for himself, but I understand the motivation. And there was a side of Bill in his personal life that was much stronger, I think. Professionally he was deferential; he would allow himself to get run over by editors at times.
It’s very easy for us to judge previous eras through our modern perspective. [Bill] was a smart guy. He knew better than to take this for as many years as he did. But he was living in an era where it took a certain type of person to really take that step and do something different. He might have been a creative genius, but maybe not a revolutionary or a rabble rouser. It doesn’t detract from his creative contribution.
Knowledge at Wharton: We see a lot of instances where there are teams that include both an extrovert and an introvert that complement each other’s talents. Did Bill Finger, in some ways, need someone like a Bob Kane? Is there a symbiotic relationship between these two that in some ways was beneficial to both of them, even if not optimal for Finger?
Nobleman: At the very beginning, yes, but no very quickly after that. I give Bill 99% of the creative credit for Batman. But I give Bob much more than 50% of the business success for Batman, at least at the beginning. Bob was the one who got it out there. But he got out someone else’s idea, and he took credit for it.
Don’t forget that Bill worked for Bob for just about a year or two. After that, DC Comics, then called National, found out that Bob was not writing these stories, and DC hired Bill away from Bob. They didn’t work together after about 1941. So in that sense, Bill didn’t need Bob. Bill was known as the best scripter in the business, and he was getting hired to write not just Batman but Superman, Green Lantern,and other characters. Bob got Bill in the door, but we all have a mentor or we all have our big break. But that big break doesn’t sustain your whole career. Bill did not need Bob after the beginning.
Knowledge at Wharton: When you finally tracked down Bill Finger’s granddaughter Athena, what was her reaction? The author’s note at the end of your book makes it seem that she was a bit reticent to take this on.
Nobleman: She was completely surprised, but was very willing to help me out in any way she could. At the beginning, when I said, “This is your birthright. I think that you might want to contact DC, let them know you’re out there and see what can be done,” she at first didn’t want to do that. She said, “It’s not necessary.” Some people would immediately see dollar signs and say, “What’s in this for me? Maybe I can get rich from this.” She wasn’t like that. She just said, “I just don’t think it’s something that I want to pursue.” But I nudged her. I said, “It’s just a phone call. I think you owe it to yourself to do that.” I know I’m just a stranger saying that to her, but somehow it worked, and she did call DC. They verified her identity with a birth certificate and began routing the minimal royalties for reprints that were being produced on Bill’s behalf to her.
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think Bill Finger would have thought about your book?
Nobleman: I have to remind myself that he is from a different generation, which I think was more humble, more modest than people today. He might not have felt that he deserved it or needed it. But I think on some level, he would have been proud that someone recognized his accomplishment.
Knowledge at Wharton: When the “Batman” television show debuted in 1966, did that have an impact on his work or his life?
Nobleman: It had two impacts. First, [Bill] was the only comic book writer to write a script for the TV show. I don’t think that had a long term impact, but it’s interesting to note.
It was also really the beginning of the end for Bill, because that’s when Bob probably locked in this contract and became wealthy. Bill died less than a decade after the show debuted, and he also stopped writing Batman comics at that time. So I think the show pushed out a lot of the old guilt and put Bob on this pseudo-celebrity tract. He was more out there at that point, marginalizing Bill.
That was a bad period for Bill because the show came out, Bob called Bill a liar publicly, and Bill stopped writing Batman comics. It was just the beginning of a nine-year, sad slope down to the end.
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you think Bill would have thought about Batman as we know him now after Frank Miller’s 1986 comic book Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and the movies by Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan?
Nobleman: Hopefully he would have seen that this is the Batman he created, a dark vigilante. There’s more subtext now and the characterization is more textured, but this is the dark Batman that The Dark Knight Returns and the first Tim Burton movie went back to. For 20 years, Batman was kind of silly. And when it reverted back to this darkness it was really going back to Bill Finger’s Batman. I would assume that Bill would see these movies and recognize his stamp on Batman.
Knowledge at Wharton: There have been long, drawn out intellectual property battles over the rights to many popular comic book heroes that were originally created by writers and artists for a modest page rate and are now multi-million dollar properties. Was Bob Kane simply ahead of the curve in understanding that there was a valuable property beyond the daily work of creating the stories?
Nobleman: What I say in my book, and it’s really the only time that I put forward an opinion about Bob, is that his greatest talent was the ability to recognize other talent. I think he just had great business advice, and he was smart enough to take it. For me, he’s a perplexing example of success — to be that successful and essentially do very little to earn it is not something that I can relate to.
Knowledge at Wharton: This seems to be more than merely a journalistic endeavor for you. The book is out, but you seem to have larger, ongoing goals. Can you explain what those are?
Nobleman: A lot of people say, “What’s this little crazy glint in your eye? Why is this so important to you? Why are you spending so much time on Bill when he’s dead? What about all the creators who are still alive who are suffering?” That’s completely valid, but we’re all only one person. I’m not saying Bill is more important than they are. But they’re still alive. They can still speak for themselves … and there are still fans who know them. Bill is gone. I believe you don’t defend a friend only if he’s in the room. Just because Bill’s gone doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. This is a cultural icon. It’s not right for it to not be correct on the credit line. It’s not right.
I believe that Bill’s name deserves to be on Batman. And, truthfully, it deserves to be first. Some would even say that it deserves to be there by itself. I would say Bob Kane’s name should be there, but second, for sure — and in a smaller font [laughs]. That was my original goal for this book: to see that maybe this book will develop a groundswell of support or it will do something that DC can’t do, which is tell the story.
I have other goals as well. I would love the family to have financial support from the character. I think they deserve that. And I would like for there to be a memorial or installation of some kind in Bill’s honor in New York, which would become a destination for Batman fans to pay tribute to Bill — specifically in Poe Park, which is where Bob and Bill would meet and brainstorm ideas in the early days. I’m working on that. It’s already a historic site because Edgar Allan Poe lived there. It would just seem apropos to put something there.