INTERVIEW: MARC TYLER NOBLEMAN & ATHENA FINGER ON BATMAN AND BILL
Hulu’s Bill Finger Documentary
For years, Bob Kane has been credited as Batman’s creator. As time passed, rumors swirled that the Caped Crusader had another father. Who was this man? Batman & Bill tells the story of the uncredited creator of Batman, and a crusade to bring him justice.
By Abbie Bernstein
Batman is one of the most iconic characters ever created. But who originally created him? Ask people with only a very general knowledge of comics and they know the Caped Crusader is a member of the DC Comics stable of superheroes. Ask someone more knowledgeable, and you’ll perhaps be told that Batman, who made his first appearance in 1939’s DETECTIVE COMICS #27, was the brainchild of artist Bob Kane.
The truth is that Batman was created by writer Bill Finger as well as artist Kane. However, the contributions of Finger, who died in 1974, were largely ignored and even deliberately downplayed over the years.
Then, in 2012, writers Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ty Templeton brought forth their book BILL THE BOY WONDER: THE SECRET CO-CREATOR OF BATMAN. Producers Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce met Nobleman, who also wrote BOYS OF STEEL: CREATORS OF SUPERMAN, while he was working on BILL THE BOY WONDER. The producing team decided Finger’s story would make a great documentary. The result is the film BATMAN AND BILL, which combines interviews, archival footage and even animation to tell a tale that is part family secret drama, part legal thriller and, of course, part comic book triumph. BATMAN AND BILL began streaming on Hulu in May.
Nobleman and Finger’s granddaughter Athena Finger are both present at Hulu’s Q&A session for BATMAN AND BILL at the Television Critics Association (TCA) press tour in Pasadena, California. After the panel ends, both stick around for some follow-up questions. This interview combines comments from the panel and the following private discussion.
Nobleman says that he didn’t set out to write about the origins of Batman.
“It was really just a question of where the story is. So I didn’t start with Batman. I just started with, ‘Where is there a good story in comics?’ I was a DC fan as a kid. That’s what I gravitated towards first, and stayed with, so it was always going to be a DC character. And I did look into a few other characters, but really, there needs to be more than a character that people like, there’s got to be a good back story. And sometimes a character is just created by a guy at a desk.”
Research led Nobleman to an earlier investigation into the genesis of the Caped Crusader.
“I didn’t discover Bill Finger. I discovered a lot about him that hadn’t been published, but the man who brought Bill to light was Jerry Balls, back in the ‘60s. He was a fan who did some detective work of his own and he figured out that Bob Kane, who up ‘til that point had been the only name on every single Batman story for a quarter-century, could not have been doing that by himself. So Jerry interviewed Bill. This was way before social media, of course, and there were no major news outlets that were interested. So instead, Jerry, who was such an enterprising guy, wrote up a two-page article and mailed it out to Batman fans all over the country, and that’s how word began to spread.”
But how did Balls know that Bill Finger was Batman’s original writer, as opposed to someone else entirely?
“This is going to sound so quaint,” Nobleman replies. “He wrote letters to DC Comics and said, ‘Who’s writing all these stories?’ And they wrote back and told him. It’s that simple. And then he found Bill on his own, probably just looking him up in the New York City phone book.”
There are very few actual images of Finger from his life. Nobleman says,
“That was one of the main things that I loved about Don and Sheena when I was first introduced to them, as far as [their credentials to make BATMAN AND BILL] as storytellers and filmmakers. If you’re familiar with one of their previous films, THE ART OF THE STEAL, they build a story around a man who left almost no footage or photos behind, and you walk out of that film feeling like you know this guy, and you don’t realize that you’ve seen so little of him. So I thought if anybody could bring Bill Finger back to life visually, it would be these guys.”
From the research, Nobleman says it appears that,
“Creatively, it was ninety-eight percent Bill and one percent Bob, and the rest is in the ether. We don’t know. It was so much more Bill from the get-go, creatively. Bob Kane had financial advice that served him well. But as far as the major elements of Batman, the example I like to give – it’s probably even in the film, because I say it so much – if you just stop a random grandmother on the street and say, ‘Name something you know about Batman,’ first of all, she’ll know something. Everybody knows something. And whatever that person says will be a Bill Finger contribution. He was that pervasive in the creation of Batman.”
Detective Comics #27 (1939)
In 2010, the Batman debut Detective Comics #27, sold for $1,075,500.
So why did Kane wind up with the lion’s share of the credit?
“A lot of it has to do with the times. This was a different era, where often comic strips and sometimes comic books were created by a team of people, but one person got the credit, the person who started what they call the shop or the studio. But there are exceptions to that. Superman was one of the big ones. [Joe] Schuster and [Jerry] Siegel had their names on the property from the beginning, so it isn’t like that was the only way things had to be done.
“So part of it was that Bob Kane at the beginning was more dominant in a business sense, but that was because he was getting pressure from his father and his father’s associates. He wasn’t a self-starter in that way. And Bill was a man who was desperate to create. And this is at the end of the Depression. He’s getting a chance to write for a living. Half the country was out of work, period, and this man was doing something that he wanted to do. So I think he was a little bit more willing to compromise in ways that we now look at as unacceptable. People get indignant that Bill did not apparently do more on his own behalf. Or if he did, it wasn’t documented. We still don’t know exactly how much he did. But whatever he did didn’t pay off for him, because he died with nothing. You want to believe this guy who created a big fighter like Batman would fight for himself, and there are signs of that, but largely it was a man who wanted to write for a living, was given a chance to do that, and he took it.”
Kane arguably comes off less than heroic in BATMAN AND BILL, but Nobleman cautions against categorizing him as a villain.
“You know, it’s very easy to paint them in those simplistic terms, because we’re talking about a comic book story. He did unscrupulous things, he did things that I think are immoral. Was he a full-on villain? I mean, in the film, yes, he would be sort of the villain, but Bill’s not blameless, either. I feel Bill needed to be more on his own behalf. He’s not a full-on villain, either, but he is responsible to some extent in his own fate. But Bob does come across as almost a Dr. Evil type. He’s almost a parody of himself, when you see the way he talks about himself.”
Athena Finger never got to meet Bill, her paternal grandfather.
“I never questioned the stories that my father told me about Bill,” she relates. “It was just something that was part of our family, and something wonderful that he had created. My dad basically told me limited [information], as far as the type of person he was. I know that he was very concerned with his writing, and it was basically who he was – he was a writer, and that’s what he did. He was consumed with research, and making sure that it was perfect.
Growing up, though, it was really hard. We didn’t have all the social media and Wiki and all these other outlets to get information out there. When I would try to talk to people or tell people what my family history was, they would question it. With a big name like Batman, they expect to see a lot of glitz and glamour around it. But my life was very normal. I was a normal child in a normal suburban life. So for many years, I actually stopped talking about it, because I didn’t have physical proof to show with his name attached to anything.”
Batman and Bill, Released May 6, 2017
There is very little memorabilia left from Finger’s work on Batman, Nobleman explains.
“He died in ’74 and he used to keep what he called ‘gimmick books,’ which were those black and white composition books. He would furiously jot story ideas down in them, and he was very generous with them, too. He would share them with other writers and that was the way he was. When he died, Athena’s dad Fred brought those books to DC Comics and said, ‘Would you like to incorporate these into the archives?’ And DC said, ‘No.’ So he threw them out. It’s heartbreaking. And there’s other stuff like that. So the only things that we know that survive of Bill physically are a couple of scripts –”
Athena, you have one of those scripts, right?
“I do,” Finger affirms. “I have the very last one that he submitted to DC.”
Unlike Nobleman, who is a passionate comics fan, Finger says with a laugh,
“It’s not really my medium. It wasn’t part of my family. My mom didn’t grow up with comics, she didn’t read comics. I didn’t grow up with my father, so I wasn’t there for him to expose me to that side. So like I said, I grew up with a very suburban, kind of upscale family, and I was creating art myself.
Of course I love Batman. Out of all of them, I would definitely say he’s my favorite.”
As a college math teacher, does Finger get students who audit her class because her grandfather co-created Batman?
“It’s very rare that I have a student who comes up to me and says that they Googled me. So I always tell my students, know who you’re in front of. So Google your professors, Google people that you’re working with, Google people. And so they all pull out their phones,” she laughs, “and they’ll Google me and you’ll see a couple going, ‘Are you kidding? This is who’s standing in front of me right now?’ So I get my students to look at it a little more. I did have a group of students that I went into depth with the story, just to give them a little inspiration because they were students that were part of a bridge program, so they needed a little bit of uplifting ‘You can do it’ type of story. So they really got into it. They were fascinated with the story and how Bill didn’t get credit and how we’re moving along to get him credit and things like that.
But you know what? I was really surprised by how many people in the comic world really knew the true story about what Bill had contributed to that Batman mythos, so that was an amazing thing for me, because it really allowed me to talk about my family and not have this concern that people were going to question whether I was telling the truth or not. So that was a big one for me, just the amount of people who actually did know the truth.”
In addition to his nonfiction forays into the genesis of comics, Nobleman has also written several children’s books. What will he do next?
“I’m always looking for a good story, and I have a bunch of stuff in the works coming out, not superhero-related. I do like untold stories, and I like the chance to be able to contribute, not just regurgitate other people’s research, but ideally changes what we know about history. Obviously, that’s a tall order – can’t always get that.”
Hulu documentary “BATMAN AND BILL” - Interview with the Creators
Interview writers of the Bill Finger Documentary on Hulu, co-creator of Batman in 1939.