The Long-Lost Creator of the Batman Mythos: Bill Finger’s Story
In 2018, superheroes and comic book characters have dominated modern popular culture. During what seems to be the golden era of superhero movies, it’s hard to escape them. Where once before obscure characters -- like Thor or Star-Lord -- have now become household names, very few comic book characters are as well-known or loved as Batman. Having featured in a countless number of movies, television shows and comic books over the years, Batman has become a cultural icon across the globe. Since his first appearance in 1939, every piece of Batman media has featured the credit line, “Created by Bob Kane.” That was until the 2016 film “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” listed another name alongside Kane’s for the first time on the big screen. The name was Bill Finger, the long-lost co-creator of the Batman mythos.
Take yourself back to 1939, when freelance artist Bob Kane was tasked by Vin Sullivan, editor of National Comics (later known as DC Comics), to create a new superhero character. Sullivan was looking to cash in on the massive runaway success of National’s character Superman, who first appeared in comics only a year prior. As the story goes, according to Kane, he went away for the weekend and returned with the idea of an orphaned billionaire playboy turned caped crusader, which Sullivan latched onto immediately. Kane sold Batman to National Comics on the condition that he was listed as the sole creator of the character in perpetuity, which was unheard of at the time. As Batman’s popularity grew over the years, Kane became increasingly wealthy and a well-known name amongst comic book fans. However, that isn’t the whole story.
When Kane went away for the weekend, he came up with the name for Batman as well as an unused design for the character. Wanting a second opinion, Kane reached out to his high school friend and aspiring writer Milton “Bill” Finger. While Finger liked the name, he completely changed Kane’s design and gave Batman the look we know today. After the pitch meeting with National, Kane met with Finger again to inform him their success. However, since Kane’s was the only name on the contract, he would be the only one to receive royalties. Out of fairness, Kane agreed to pay Finger his share with money out of his earnings. Unfortunately, the agreement was never put into writing, and Finger never saw a cent.
Finger would go on to ghost write Batman stories up into the mid 1960’s, either with Kane or for DC Comics directly. During his writing tenure, Finger was responsible for the unaccredited creation of many key players and pieces in the Batman universe. Some of Finger’s important contributions include Batman’s origin story, his alter-ego Bruce Wayne, his nickname “The Dark Knight,” his sidekick Robin, the Batmobile, the Batcave, his arch-nemesis The Joker, and his occasional love interest Catwoman, as well as Commissioner Gordan, The Riddler and The Scarecrow. Despite all of this, the only writing credit that Finger received for Batman in his lifetime was an episode of the 1960’s Batman television show, “The Clock King’s Crazy Crimes,” which he co-wrote with friend Charles Sinclair.
Eventually, the truth came out. Finger attended the first official New York Comic Con in 1965 and sat on a panel with other comic book creators where he revealed the role he played in Batman’s creation. Finger’s story gained exposure in a two-page article titled “If the truth be known, or a Finger in every plot!,” written and distributed by pop culturist Jerry Bails. Kane caught wind of Finger’s appearance not long after and replied in the form of a printed letter to Batman fan magazine, “Batmania,” where he labeled his old friend a fraud. Finger, who by this time was deeply in debt, continued to write for various projects in and outside of comic books until his death in 1974, when he was found alone in his apartment by friend Charles Sinclair.
In his 1989 autobiography “Batman and Me,” Kane spoke about his former friend, saying, "Now that my long-time friend and collaborator is gone, I must admit that Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved. He was an unsung hero ... I often tell my wife, if I could go back fifteen years, before he died, I would like to say. 'I'll put your name on it now. You deserve it.'"
Many failed attempts were made over the years by Finger’s family to get him recognition for his work, including a request from his second wife Lyn Simmons to have his name listed in the credits of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film.
Finger remained largely unknown, even to Batman fans, until writer Marc Tyler Nobleman began investigating the late author’s life for a book being written about him. Nobleman went in search of Finger’s family to help fill in the gaps and give him credit. While Finger’s autopsy report claimed no relatives were present, Nobleman discovered that Finger had a son, Fred. Unfortunately, Fred, who was an outspoken proponent of his father, had died in 1992. Nobleman learned that Fred was also homosexual, leading him to believe that Fred had no children before his death. The trail was starting to go cold.
However, after receiving new information from Finger’s nephew, Nobleman discovered Fred indeed had a daughter, Athena, who was born two years after Finger’s death. Nobleman met with Athena and convinced her to meet with DC about getting recognition for her grandfather. DC in turn welcomed Athena with open arms, cut her a check and invited her to the premiere of “The Dark Knight” with all expenses paid. It wasn’t until around 2012 that DC offered her more money. This time, however, she had to sign away her rights to her grandfather’s claim. With encouragement from Nobleman, Athena rejected the money and took DC to court.
It took years of litigation before a settlement was reached. A major turning point in the case was the unearthing of recorded interviews with Bob Kane during the writing of his autobiography. During one of the interviews, Tom Andrae, Kane’s co-writer, asked Kane to what extent Finger contributed to Batman’s creation.
“Bill was responsible for 50 to 75 percent,” Kane bluntly responded.
Finally, in 2015, DC issued a statement informing the public that Finger would be listed as co-creator on any piece of Batman media henceforth. So, 2016’s “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” became the first ever Batman film to feature the credit line “Created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger.”
It was widely rumored for years that Finger was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in a potter’s field. However, Fred did come to claim his father’s remains the day after his autopsy. According to his father’s wishes, Fred had his father cremated and took his remains to the coast of Oregon to be scattered. It’s been said that Fred poured his father’s remains out on the beach and drew a shape of a bat around them before they washed into the ocean.
Written by Cal Stevens
Batman & Bill. Directed by Don Argott, Sheena M. Joyce. Performance by Thomas
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