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Books

Batman's Biggest Secret (No, It's Not Bruce Wayne)

Originally published on Mon August 13, 2012 3:41 pm

Batman has many secrets — the best-known one, of course, being his millionaire alter ego, Bruce Wayne. But that may not be the Dark Knight's biggest secret.

Since the 1930s, only one man has been given credit for creating the caped crusader and his home city of Gotham. Bob Kane's name appears in the credits of all the movies, the campy TV show and the associated merchandise, from video games and action figures to sheets and underwear.

But what if Bob Kane didn't do it all by himself?

"Bill Finger is the uncredited co-creator of Batman," author Marc Tyler Nobleman tells NPR's Guy Raz. "His name never appeared on a Batman story in his lifetime, but he was responsible for just about everything enduring about Batman."

DC Comics had commissioned Kane to come up with a superhero to rival the newly created Superman. After meeting at a party, Kane enlisted Finger, then a struggling artist and writer, to help. Nobleman tells the story of Batman's birth in his new book, Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.

"Bill Finger named Gotham City," Nobleman says. "He named Bruce Wayne." Finger, who was mainly a writer, was responsible for designing Batman's iconic cape and cowl costume, Nobleman says. In fact, he says, some people believe that Kane didn't even come up with the idea of Batman on his own.

"There are some that feel ... that his character was Birdman, and it was actually Bill who said, 'Let's go with Batman.' "

The list goes on. Robin? "Bill was the one who said Batman needs ... someone to talk to," Nobleman says. "And through that, Robin evolved, and Bill wrote the first Robin story."

The Joker? "That's also hotly disputed. It was definitely a group effort, but I give Bill ... the majority of the credit," Nobleman says. "He wrote the first story, he came up with the look, although someone else drew it."

Batman was a revolutionary figure in the world of early superhero comics; he wasn't an alien or a mutant, and he had no superhuman powers. He was just a regular human who happened to have a very good reason to transform himself into a vigilante crime fighter: As a child, he witnessed the murder of his parents by a mugger on a Gotham street.

"Bill Finger came up with that story, and that was unprecedented at the time," Nobleman says. "That was more depth than anyone had ever applied to a comic book character before."

Nobleman gives 99 percent of the credit for Batman to Finger. "But if you're looking at it from a business perspective, then the numbers shift," he says. "Bob was the one who got it sold and was the one who was the face of Batman for many years, but that's because he orchestrated that in his contract. Bill was not a promoter."

No documentation or contract survives relating to Finger and Kane's business relationship — but when Kane proposed that he put his own name on the character they created together, Nobleman says, Finger accepted. "Partly because that's what was done at the time, but also partly because it was the end of the Depression and if you could get any work in your chosen field in the arts, you'd take it."

Kane grew rich on Batman profits — money that Finger barely shared in. "This is going to sound like I'm milking this," Nobleman says, "but he literally died alone, poor ... and unheralded. No obituary ran for him, he didn't have a funeral and he doesn't even have a gravestone."

Finger wasn't completely forgotten, but he's never gotten credit as the co-creator of Batman. "Bob Kane is the only person credited on any Batman story in any medium," Nobleman says. DC Comics puts Finger's name on the specific scripts he wrote, but it doesn't recognize his influence on the creation of the character, he says.

"They have a contract with the Kane estate and they don't want to jeopardize that," he says.

But Finger is a hero to many comics fans. "Fans ... refused to let this injustice stand," Nobleman says, "but no one ever did anything formally for him."

Until Jerry Robinson — a friend of Finger's and one of the earliest Batman ghostwriters — created an award in his honor. The Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing is given out each year at San Diego Comic-Con to two writers, one living and one deceased, who have not been properly recognized for their work.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Almost everything you know about Batman - the cape, the mask, Gotham, Bruce Wayne, et cetera. Almost all of it is because of one man. And that man is not Bob Kane, who is credited as the writer behind the iconic superhero. Now, if you've seen "The Dark Knight Rises," there it is in the credits: Based on the character by Bob Kane. The name not there is that of Bill Finger.

He's the subject of a new picture book called "Bill, the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman" written by Marc Tyler Nobleman who joins me now. Welcome.

MARC TYLER NOBLEMAN: Thank you.

RAZ: So who was Bill Finger? Tell me about him.

NOBLEMAN: Bill Finger is the uncredited cocreator of Batman. His name never appeared on a Batman story in his lifetime, but he was responsible for just about everything enduring about Batman. I challenge people to name something about Batman that didn't come from Bill. And most of the time, no matter whether you're a hardcore fan or a person on the street, whatever you say first will be a Bill Finger contribution.

RAZ: OK. We all know about Bob Kane, the guy who we're led to believe is the sole creator of Batman. But let me test you on it. Gotham City.

NOBLEMAN: Bill Finger named it.

RAZ: He named it. He created Gotham City.

NOBLEMAN: Bill Finger named Gotham City.

RAZ: Bruce Wayne.

NOBLEMAN: Named - he named Bruce Wayne.

RAZ: Batman, the actual Batman character.

NOBLEMAN: Bill designed the costume. Even though he's the writer, he also was the visual architect. Bob Kane admitted that and explained that in detail in his autobiography.

RAZ: Bob Kane came up with the idea for a Batman.

NOBLEMAN: Well, even that is disputed. Bob said that he came up with the name Batman, and there are some that feel he didn't even do that much, that his character was called Birdman, and it was actually Bill who said, let's go with Batman.

RAZ: OK. What about Robin?

NOBLEMAN: Bill was the one who said Batman needs a - needs someone to talk to. And as a writer myself, that makes perfect sense. When you're writing a character who's alone all the time, that's very difficult. So Bill said he needs someone to talk to. And through that, Robin evolved, and Bill wrote the first Robin story.

RAZ: The Joker?

NOBLEMAN: Well, that's also hotly disputed. It was definitely a group effort, but I give Bill a lot of the - you know, the majority of the credit. He wrote the first story. He came up with the look, although someone else drew it. And, yeah, I would give Bill more than half the credit for The Joker.

RAZ: OK. The thing about Batman that was revolutionary at the time was that he was not born with these superhero powers, these, you know, otherworldly powers, like Superman. He was just a regular human being who worked out and worked his mind and became a superhero. And that was because of his backstory, because Bruce Wayne as a kid sees his parents get killed by a mugger.

NOBLEMAN: Yes. Yeah. Actually, that is what I attribute to Batman's longevity, is the fact that Bill added a - what was considered a novelistic background.

RAZ: It was Bill's - Bill Finger came up with that story.

NOBLEMAN: This is Bill. Bill Finger came up with that story. And that was unprecedented at the time. Most comic book characters before Batman had no reason to do what they were doing. They were just doing good for good's sake. But Batman had a psychological reason. That was more depth than anyone had ever applied to a comic book character before.

RAZ: How did Bill Finger hook up with Bob Kane, the guy who is credited as the person behind Batman?

NOBLEMAN: Bob and Bill actually both went to the same high school, DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx, but they apparently did not know each other there. They met at a party in 1938, which was five years after Bill graduated. And Bob was already working for the company that became DC Comics doing smaller stories. And he saw Bill's potential and had Bill write stories for him.

RAZ: This is in the late 1930s.

NOBLEMAN: This is probably about 1938. And then Batman debuted in 1939.

RAZ: And what was the agreement between them? I mean, Bob Kane said: Listen, write this stuff for me, and by the way, you're not going to get credit?

NOBLEMAN: Well, you know, unfortunately, no known documentation survives between the two of them. These were young guys. This was an era when there wasn't such an awareness of creator's rights. So they probably didn't sit down and write anything down for posterity. There was no contract.

But apparently, Bob did say to Bill, we're going to do this character for DC. You'll write it, I'll have my name on it, and that'll be the arrangement. And Bill agreed, partly because that's what was done at the time, but also partly because it was the end of the Depression. And if you could get any work in your chosen field of - in the arts, you'd take it.

RAZ: So he kind of just accepted this.

NOBLEMAN: He did accept it, one of his fatal flaws.

RAZ: Your book, I should mention, it's not a nonfiction narrative. It is a graphic - essentially, a picture book.

NOBLEMAN: Well, you know, it's both. I call it a picture book for older readers. It looks more like a picture book than a traditional graphic novel. But it's got elements of both.

RAZ: Why did you decide to do it this way rather than writing a straightforward biography?

NOBLEMAN: I wanted to start on the ground level. I wanted people to grow up knowing the story behind Batman. So I wanted it to be accessible to young people but also be engaging for an older audience.

RAZ: So Bill Finger has been mentioned before. There were articles about him toward the end of his life. He died in 1974. But to this day, he is not credited as the cocreator, right? If you see the recent movie, the Christopher Nolan movie, Bob Kane is still credited at the end of that movie.

NOBLEMAN: Yes. Bob Kane is the only person credited on any Batman story in any medium. DC Comics doesn't officially credit Bill Finger as a cocreator, but they do credit him as a writer for any story that he wrote that they reprint. But, for example, "The Dark Knight," well, all three of the Christopher Nolan movies take a lot of their influence from Bill Finger, but they don't put his name in the credits on any level. They won't say based on the material written by Bill Finger. They don't even say that the Dark Knight was first used in a story that Bill Finger wrote. That, they should have done, I think.

RAZ: Why don't they do that?

NOBLEMAN: Anything they do that edges toward giving Bill official credit will raise the red flag to the Kane estate. And they have a contract with the Kane estate, and they don't want to jeopardize that.

RAZ: The Christopher Nolan Batman is the Bill Finger Batman.

NOBLEMAN: I would say so.

RAZ: We don't know for sure, but we have to assume that Bob Kane or his family made a lot of money off Batman.

NOBLEMAN: Yes.

RAZ: Did Bill Finger?

NOBLEMAN: No. Bill made almost nothing. He literally died alone, poor - I mean poor is probably an understatement. He really was living paycheck to paycheck, and even that was a stretch, and unheralded. No obituary ran for him. He didn't have a funeral, and he doesn't even have a gravestone. It's a heartbreaking end to a the man who created such a cultural force.

There are royalties being paid out to his family after the fact, but that's for reprints. It's not what I call Batman Money with all caps. It's not a share of the profit of Batman. It's money for his stories, which is great, but not nearly enough.

RAZ: When you kind of put it all into perspective, do you see villains in the Bill Finger story, you know, in a way that you would see them in a Batman story, or is it more complicated than that, just like Batman is?

NOBLEMAN: Well, you know, it's an easy parallel to make, and it comes up almost all the time when I speak. And Bob Kane is clearly a villain here. But Bill is not blameless. As I said at the beginning, one of his flaws - we all have them - was that he did not stand up for himself in the way that a lot of people today think he should have. But that's using a modern hindsight. You can't always do that. It's not always fair to apply what would happen today to what happened 70 years ago.

RAZ: Marc Tyler Nobleman is the author of the new picture book. It's called "Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman." Marc, thanks.

NOBLEMAN: Thanks, Guy. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.