"Batman's biggest secret is not Bruce Wayne," author Marc Tyler Nobleman told the audience as he previewed his new book "Bill, the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman" at Comic-Con International in San Diego.
Nobleman's book, the result of five years of research, tells the story of Bill Finger, one of the most influential and least-known creators in comic book history, dispelling a number of myths and rumors about Batman's origin. "Official" creator Bob Kane (contractually identified as sole creator on all Batman materials) was quick to claim that Batman was entirely his creation. Nobleman begs to differ, stating unequivocally, "Everything creative that you can name about Batman, everything that has endured, is Bill Finger. Even his costume; Bill was the writer, but Bill designed the costume, too. He was a very visual writer; artists loved him for that. So the pointy ears, the dark color scheme, the scalloped cape -- that's all Bill. Bob Kane said as much in his autobiography."
Many creators, Jerry Robinson and Carmine Infantino among them, assert that Finger's role was much larger than Kane ever acknowledged. Kane's original conception of Batman was described by him as a man in a red bodystocking with a Lone Ranger-style black mask and cumbersome rigid bat-wings attached to the underside his arms. It was Finger who suggested that Batman ought to look like a bat, looking up "bat" in the dictionary and showed Kane the accompanying illustration. From that, Finger suggested the design of the costume.
Finger also wrote the stories that introduced Robin, Catwoman, the Joker, the Penguin, the Batmobile, the Batcave and Gotham City, as well as Batman's origin story. Beyond the Dark Knight, the Golden Age writer also co-created Green Lantern with Mart Nodell and wrote stories for several other DC characters including Superman, where he created Lana Lang. Fonger was also the only Batman writer to also write a script for the Batman TV show (a two-part episode, "The Clock King's Crazy Crimes.") Even so, most modern fans have never heard of Bill Finger.
When Nobleman began writing "Bill, the Boy Wonder," there were only two known photos of Finger, neither of which gave a clear image of his face. Through his research, Nobleman was able to discover several more, including Finger's high school yearbook photo, the result of having learned that Finger's first name was not Bill, or even William, but Milton, which he hated and never used. This led to additional information, eventually culminating in the discovery of Finger's heir.
Among comic fans who are aware of Bill Finger's contributions to comics, there are a number of rumors circulating about him. According to frequently repeated stories, Bill Finger was allegedly an alcoholic who died in abject poverty, was buried in a potter's field (an unmarked grave in a cemetery run by the state for unclaimed bodies of indigents), leaving no family. The truth is, he was not an alcoholic, he had three heart attacks before he died, and his body was not left unclaimed. His remains were cremated and the ashes scattered on a beach in Oregon by his son, Fred, who spread them on the shore in the shape of a bat.
One thing Nobleman emphasized in his presentation is that DC Comics is not the villain of the story; as soon as the company learned that Finger was the actual writer of the Batman comics, they hired him directly, bypassing Kane. They routinely credit Finger as writer on comics they can identify as his work, though they can't list him as co-creator of the character. In later years, DC paid royalties to Fred, and after he passed away in the '90s, his royalties were transferred to his partner, and from him to another man who falsely claimed to be related to Bill. Later, when it was discovered that Fred had a daughter named Athena, they severed payments to that man and began paying royalties to her. Due to the terms of the contract signed with Bob Kane before they knew of Finger's existence, DC is legally prevented from ever publicly acknowledging his role in creating Batman, but the company has for years acknowledged the fact of Finger's contributions by means of regular financial payments to his estate, as well as by giving as much credit as they legally could.
"In 1985, DC published a comic book shaped book called '50 Who Made DC Great,'" Nobleman said. "It's worth checking out; it's a fun kind of thing that they don't do anymore. In that, every person got their own page; so Bob Kane's page is subtitled 'Batman Takes Wing,' and opposite is Bill Finger; his page is subtitled 'The Dark Knight Detective Emerges.' What I thought was really telling about these two bios is that neither one uses the term 'creator' or 'co-creator.' They tell what they did, but don't label it. Even Bob Kane, who legally is supposed to be credited as creator of Batman. So DC wants to tell the story, they want people to know what Bill did, but legally, they can't."
According to Nobleman, there are two primary "villains" in the story; Bob Kane, and Bill himself. There's a reason the book is titled "Bill, the Boy Wonder" -- Bill Finger was a very boyish character, quietly submitting to the demands of Kane, handing over his paycheck to his parents and generally not standing up for himself professionally. When he finally began to claim some credit for his work, Kane publicly attacked him and accused him of lying. Later, after Finger's death, Kane grudgingly conceded that his contributions to Batman were significant. Kane expressed regret at not giving Finger more credit for his work, but stopped short of calling him a co-creator. Of course, he rescinded even that acknowledgment posthumously; his own tombstone, a display of self-aggrandizement, declares Kane to be divinely inspired and the true Bruce Wayne -- a name that Finger had come up with.
"Bill, the Boy Wonder" is illustrated by Ty Templeton, artist on the '90s Batman comic "Batman: The Animated Adventures," and is on sale now.