Posts Tagged ‘Batman & Bill’

Odds are pretty good that the 50%- or- so of my regular readers (not that there’s anything “regular” about any of us, of course!) who speak fluent “comic book-ese” are well aware of the industry’s sorry ethical history, but for the other half who are blissfully unaware of how badly outfits like Marvel and DC have put the screws to the creative geniuses who dreamed up their billion-dollar properties, the reality can be shocking : Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster selling away the rights to Superman in perpetuity for the princely sum of $130 just before they were shipped off to war because they wanted to provide a little something for their families in case they didn’t come back home; Jack Kirby’s struggles just to get back the thousands of pages of original art he drew of the hundreds of characters he invented and his family’s subsequent legal battles after his passing; Steve Ditko living in a shabby apartment above a skid-row thrift store while Spider-Man raked in a fortune — these are just a few of the more obvious and egregious economic injustices that are all too common in comics history. But no list of ignominious funnybook rip-offs is complete without mentioning the saga of Bill Finger.

Who was Bill Finger? Well, according to pretty much every first-hand account of the situation, he was co-creator of arguably the most famous (and profitable) super-hero of them all : Batman. Not that you’d know it by reading the credits in every DC comic published over the last 75 years, though, because according to them, Batman was “created by Bob Kane.” And Bob Kane died a very wealthy man thanks to that little credit line, while Bill Finger passed away in 1974, an anonymous jobbing freelancer living in reduced circumstances who took a secret to his grave that almost no one wanted to hear.

Here’s the thing : almost everything you love about Batman was Finger’s idea. Kane’s original Batman sketch was of a dude in a red costume with stiff bird-like wings and a simple domino mask, but when he turned that sketch over to Finger one fateful weekend and asked him to see what he could do with it, the then-youthful pulp and comics writer let his imagination run wild and came up with the look of the Caped Crusader’s iconic costume, his origin story as a wealthy orphaned youth waging a one-man war on crime, his fictitious home of Gotham City, his world-famous “rogues’ gallery” of villains, his secret identity of Bruce Wayne, his butler Alfred, his sidekick Robin — all fingers point to Finger for pretty much all of that.

Kane was his boss, though, and so he was the guy who ultimately took the idea to National Periodical Publications (now DC), and who subsequently arranged the deal to give himself the sole “by-line” on all Batman comics for decades to come, even though all his scripting chores were “farmed out” to Finger, and in later years much of the art was handled by the likes of legendary illustrators such as Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang. No matter. As far as the contracts with the publisher were concerned, Kane was doing it all. Even when he was doing almost none of it.

Hard-core fans knew the score, of course, as Finger’s story had been circling around the much-smaller-at-the-time convention and fanzine circuit for years, but the public at large was generally oblivious as to his silent contributions until quite recently. Author Marc Tyler Nobleman, who penned a children’s book entitled Bill : The Boy Wonder, can take a lot of credit for righting this historical wrong, since his dogged research was the “critical mass” ingredient that finally brought about the official recognition that Finger long deserved, but there were a lot of other folks, including Finger’s surviving family, who played a major part in it, as well, and all of their stories are finally given their due, as well, in the new made-for-Hulu documentary Batman & Bill, an intriguing “real-life detective story” from directors Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce that’s one of the more fascinating films of 2017 so far.

Nobleman is our suburban, middle-class, would-be Phillip Marlowe in this tale, but valuable context is provided by “expert witnesses” such as cult filmmaker/Bat-fanatic Kevin Smith, Hollywood producer/longtime fan Michael Uslan, Kane biographer Thomas Andrae, and my friend, noted comics historian Arlen Schumer, all of whom assist in laying out the basics of the “case” while our de facto “protagonist” does the legwork that eventually leads to the unearthing of a previously-unknown Bat-heir — Finger’s granddaughter, Athena, whose emergence onto the “scene” opens the legal floodgates that will eventually lead to “Batman created by Bob Kane withe Bill Finger” appearing on all comics, films, TV shows, cartoons, etc. featuring the Dark Knight.

If all of this sounds more than a little bit like a largely academic dispute among a marginal community of people with nothing better to do with their time, rest assured that Batman & Bill is constructed in such an engaging and accessible manner that even somebody who’s never seen a Bat-flick or a read a Bat-comic will find themselves inexorably drawn into the web of intrigue that Argott and Joyce expertly weave, and while Finger is long gone and obviously not able to speak for himself, the sincerity and earnestness with which others are able to speak for him paints a reasonably complete and consistently fascinating picture of the man who made Batman everything he ultimately became. If you like a good mystery, or a classic “underdog” story, or even a human-interest “docudrama,” then trust me when I say that you’ll find plenty to satisfy whet your cinematic whistle here.

Perhaps the best thing Batman & Bill has going for it, though, is that at the end of the day it’s that rarest of beasts : a truly inspirational tale of how one man’s sheer bloody-mindedness can galvanize others around him who have the power to effect change to do precisely that. Bill Finger may have been the unknown hero behind the hero everyone knows, but it took the work of a number of subsequent heroes to let the world know that. We should be thankful for each and every one of them, as well as the remarkable documentarians who recognized in their story so many essential human truths that we can all relate to.