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Two weeks from Friday, The Dark Knight Rises, the third installment of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series, will open in the United States. If this film does anywhere near the box office its predecessor, The Dark Knight, did, the three films will gross 2 billion dollars. Batman is big business.

In the credits of that movie, it will say “Batman created by Bob Kane.” Indeed, Kane appeared in the Michael Keaton/Jack Nicholson Batman film a generation ago.  His heirs will see some major coin this summer.

It’s nice to see a writer make so much dough for a character, right? The problem is, Bob Kane was not the only creator of Batman. It could be argued, in fact, that he wasn’t the more important of the two creators, as so much of the Batman backstory–the Bruce Wayne identity, the Batcave, most of the inventions, and the villains like The Joker and Catwoman–were the work of his silent partner, a man named Bill Finger, the Tesla to Kane’s Edison.

For years, Finger toiled in obscurity. Denied credit for his contributions, he was also denied money when the checks started rolling in. It’s a sad story, a tale of intellectual property theft, of friendship betrayed, of withheld credit. And at last, there is a book chronicling the story, an illustrated book by Marc Tyler Nobleman. Don’t let the pictures fool you; Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman is well-researched, well-executed stuff, and the cautionary tale Nobleman tells should be read by young and old

I sat down with Nobleman for a quick Q&A.

 

 

The way that I read the Batman creation story is: Bob Kane, who was still Bob Kahn at the time, shows up at Bill Finger’s apartment off the Grand Concourse with a shitty picture of what no one on earth would recognize as Batman.  Finger’s creative juices start flowing.  He suggests improvements to the uniform, and comes up with pretty much the entire backstory: the name Bruce Wayne, the parents getting murdered, the Batcave, etc, as well as most of the villains, including the Joker and Catwoman.  Kane uses all his ideas, pays him a few shekels, and goes on to basically become playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne, dicking over Finger bigtime in the process.  How close am I?

It was doubloons, but otherwise you’ve nailed it.

Well, a couple of wee tweaks worth noting: Finger wasn’t yet living on the Grand Concourse in 1939, and as far as we know, his contribution that fateful first weekend was purely visual (secret identity, backstory, etc., all came later that year). In other words, you essentially nailed it.

 

Why did Finger not take Kane to task earlier?  Was it some defect of character, or…?

I asked those who knew Finger if they knew of any instances where he confronted Kane; some had a vague feeling that he had but none knew for sure, and certainly none had any documentation. The only known proof that Finger did challenge Kane is a piece of personal correspondence that I was lucky to come across; I quote it in the book and will post it in its entirety after the book releases. I was so glad to discover it because it shows a side of Finger that even I wasn’t sure existed. But yes, I do consider it a character flaw that Finger ostensibly did not speak up for himself enough to change his life for the better.

 

“Fingered” is now a verb meaning “to have someone else steal credit.”  Please elaborate.

You’ve again nailed it. But again, much as I admire Finger and wrote the book to pay tribute to him, I feel that he is complicit in his lack of credit.

 

Why do you think more people don’t know about Bill Finger?

No matter how famous the superhero, comic book creators are simply not household names, with the possible exception of Stan Lee. In the person-on-the-street interviews in the book trailer, I ask who created Batman. None of the 20+ people named Finger, I think only one named Kane, and about four or five said Lee. (Not all responses are shown.) But one of the heartening things about my previous superhero book Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman has been watching how the book has done its small part to bestow a bit more celebrity to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; it’s so rewarding to speak in schools and hear kids name-dropping them as if they were Katy Perry or Jeremy Lin.

 

Finger was also instrumental in creating Green Lantern.  On a scale of one to ten, how disappointed would he have been in that green turd of a movie (his name was nowhere in the credits, BTW)?

Finger co-created the original Green Lantern (not the one who appeared in that movie), yet I think he would have been in agreement with your assessment. Who with even a halfway-developed sense of story wouldn’t be?

 

What drew you to the Finger story?

The fact that so many comics fans are Finger fans yet no one had yet devoted a stand-alone book to him. His story was long overdue to be told even before he died in 1974.

 

Why did you choose to approach this as a YA/illustrated book?  Did you always envision the finished product that way?

As with Boys of Steel, I wanted to create a book accessible to all ages. I want anyone who’s interested in Batman to have the chance to learn as a young person what the true story is and take it with him/her as she grows up. It is, after all, a cautionary tale. I wanted it be a picture book from conception.

 

How was it, working with an artist?

It’s always a valuable experience. I learn a lot from the process. Ty Templeton was an absolute charm to work with—creative, flexible, passionate.

 

You’re more of a DC guy than a Marvel guy, yes?

Yes. But that didn’t stop me from seeing The Avengers opening day.

 

I thought it was profoundly mediocre.  You?

As noted, I’m not a Marvel guy but do see some of the Marvel movies. I found Avengers draggy and talky, though I did like most of what Tony Stark said and almost everything Hulk-related, especially the surprising random punch of Thor. I saw it with seven friends, two of whom (who aren’t comics people) walked out halfway through.

Who’s your favorite superhero?

Superman. But my favorite Super Friend was Aquaman.

 

Mine too!  If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

The power to add Finger’s name to the official Batman credit line.

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Greg Olear GREG OLEAR is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and founding editor of The Weeklings.

8 Responses to “Finger Painting: An Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman”

  1. Fascinating, Greg. I knew nothing about this, so I’m glad Nobleman, and you here, are bringing this story to light.

    The descriptions of Finger remind me in some ways of the older, unlauded comic book editor who befriends the main characters in Chabon’s novelAdventures of Kavalier and Clay. There are likely countless Bill Finger’s who got the raw end of the deal in the heyday of comic books, and who continue to in the current heyday of comic book films.

    Yet one more reason to always brainstorm alone.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Nat.

      Finger was an odd duck because he seemed not to mind being dicked over. It was very weird. Definitely worth reading about. A fascinating story.

  2. Jim Dougan says:

    A whole interview on the co-creators of Batman and no mention of Jerry Robinson, who was the actual artist who co-created the Joker (and others) with Finger? That’s a demerit, sir.

    And The Avengers “profoundly mediocre”? Two demerits. :-)

    • Greg Olear says:

      I’m by no means an expert, but I’m pretty sure Robinson had a storied career, and was well-compensated. Unlike Finger, who died broke. (Marc can confirm).

      As for “Avengers”…the first hour was so so so slow. It wasn’t terrible, just not great. I pretty much agree with Marc’s review entirely.

      Thanks for reading/commenting!

  3. Jim D. says:

    Robinson did indeed have a long career, but his notoriety was in large part based on his later work. And his willingness to speak up for himself. Finger certainly got the shit end of the stick, but Robinson’s contributions don’t have to be overlooked to tell that story.

    Just finished Fathermucker BTW, and was gonna tell everyone to read it!

  4. Thanks Greg! And friends! Jim, Jerry Robinson was more than gracious with his time during my research, and is indeed in the book as a dominant creative force.

  5. jmblaine says:

    I had heard bits of this story through the years
    - lots of stories of stealing intellectual property
    floating around Nashville — but never this fleshed out.

    Thanks, Greg.
    I’m a big comic book fan as well.
    I will certainly check this out.

    By the way, The Aquaman comic
    by Mike Doughty is really fun.
    Also, the new book
    Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellant?

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