Photo by Michael Ventura
When the latest Batman movie reached the big screen earlier this year, Marc Tyler Nobleman got emotional. It wasn’t because the Bethesda author loved the movie. He didn’t. It was the opening credits that got him.
The name Bill Finger appeared, making Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice the first Batman film to credit the dominant creative force behind all that’s closely identified with the Caped Crusader—from his menacing costume to the plot lines that gave rise to famous characters such as Robin, the Penguin, the Joker, Catwoman and even Bruce Wayne. “To see Bill Finger finally get the credit he deserved was something I was pushing towards but never counting on,” says Nobleman, 44. “It was a moment that overtook me.”
Nobleman spent the better part of the past decade writing Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. The biography, illustrated in comic book style by Ty Templeton, tells a tale of betrayal involving two friends in the Bronx who developed the iconic superhero in the late 1930s. One of them, cartoonist Bob Kane, grabbed credit as the sole creator of Batman. The other, Finger, died poor and alone in January 1974, just before his 60th birthday. Getting Finger proper recognition became a crusade for Nobleman—an effort that will be chronicled in a documentary that’s scheduled for release later this year.
Nobleman’s passion for superheroes and their creators dates back to 1978, when he was 6 years old and Superman, starring Christopher Reeve, hit the theater in his hometown of Cheshire, Connecticut. He remembers sitting wide-eyed in the front row with his parents by his side. Soon after, his father bought him a Superman comic, and Nobleman was hooked on all superheroes unleashed by the publisher now known as DC Comics.
The fascination lasted until high school, when Nobleman took a break because, he says, “frankly, I didn’t think it would help my reputation with the girls.” But he got back into comics as a student at Brandeis University, where he recalls reading about Finger for the first time, possibly in a pop culture magazine.
After an early career marketing children’s books, freelancing as a cartoonist and dabbling in screenplay writing, Nobleman became a full-time author, writing mostly nonfiction books that were sold to schools. But given his love of superheroes, writing about them eventually followed. First came Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, the story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Then Nobleman turned his attention to Finger, determined to write the first book about the creation of Batman.
Nobleman set out to find any of Finger’s relatives, friends or former colleagues. “I had this hourglass before my eyes, people in their 80s and 90s who knew Bill Finger, people that I had to reach,” Nobleman says. “It took many fruitless hours to find just one cool thing.”
Mark Tyler Nobelman’s books on the creation of Batman (below) and Superman (above)
As Bill the Boy Wonder unfolds, readers learn that Kane, a freelance cartoonist, was asked in 1939 by an editor to create a superhero that would rival Superman, which had debuted the previous year. Kane sketched an image of a character he called “The Bat-Man,” but it wasn’t working. He turned to Finger, an acquaintance he had worked with on a few obscure comic book features. Finger revamped the character’s Superman-like costume and began shaping a backstory that would set the superhero apart from the Man of Steel. Unlike Superman, Batman would be a mortal, vulnerable and without super-powers.
Kane’s editor loved the look and concept, and Kane negotiated a deal without telling anyone about Finger’s role, Nobleman says. Instead, Kane hired Finger to write Batman stories anonymously, a common arrangement at the time. The superhero became a smash hit, and at age 25, Finger left his job as a shoe salesman to write Batman stories for modest pay.
It’s unclear if Finger ever lobbied for a byline, but Kane never offered him one, Nobleman says. In fact, when Finger spoke out publicly later in life about his contributions to Batman, Kane accused him of exaggerating his role. In a 1972 interview published in the book Creators of Superheroes, Finger concluded that Kane had duped him.
The reason Finger didn’t push more aggressively for credit early on may have had something to do with the Depression-era mindset, Nobleman says. Jobs were tough to come by at the time, and Finger may have been grateful to even get a writing gig. He was also working in a medium that was largely disparaged as disposable. “Even the most optimistic creators would not have expected these characters to keep getting more popular with each passing year,” Nobleman says.
Still, Finger’s reluctance to stand his ground makes him a flawed hero, Nobleman says. “It’s important for children to know that we are all multilayered, and we can be successful at one thing and fail at another,” Nobleman says. He and his wife, Daniela, have two children, Lara, 12, and Rafael, 8.
After Finger died, several comic book industry insiders pushed to set the record straight. A prestigious award was established in Finger’s honor in 2005 to recognize comic writers who didn’t get their due. But Nobleman wanted his book to thrust Finger further into the spotlight. “Most of all, I wanted the book to be a springboard for an entire campaign, to apply pressure and change things,” he says. “I wanted to find things that no one else had found.”
And he did. He uncovered Finger’s real first name: Milton, a common Jewish name that Finger ditched to avoid discriminatory hiring practices. Nobleman also busted a myth about Finger’s final resting place, discovering that he was not buried in a potter’s field, as was rumored for decades, but instead that his ashes were scattered by his son, Fred, in the shape of a bat on a beach in Oregon. Most startling, Nobleman learned that Bill Finger had a living heir.
Most Batman fans had assumed that Bill Finger’s family line came to an end when Fred died in 1992. After all, Fred was Bill Finger’s only child, and he was gay. But it turns out Fred was once married and had a daughter named Athena who was born two years after her grandfather died. She was living in Florida when Nobleman tracked her down in 2007. At his urging, Athena contacted DC Comics. Soon after, she began receiving modest reprint royalties from the company.
Once Bill the Boy Wonder was published in 2012, Nobleman traveled the world to speak at schools, conferences, Rotary clubs, synagogues and other venues to share all that he’d learned. He delivered a TED Talk and snagged a guest spot on the popular “Fat Man on Batman” podcast.
Meanwhile, Nobleman stayed in touch with Athena Finger, encouraging her all along to defend her grandfather’s legacy. On Sept. 18, 2015, after much negotiating, the publisher and the Finger family announced that Bill Finger’s name would appear on the Batman credits. The financial terms of the arrangement were not made public, but Nobleman said the family was “pleased” with the outcome.
The Hollywood Reporter, which first reported the story, and other media outlets credited Nobleman as a force in raising Bill Finger’s profile. Now, in the Gotham television series, Batman comics, and this year’s Batman film, fans see: “Created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger.”
“People used to say don’t even bother trying. It’s never going to happen,” Nobleman says, “so seeing it finally happen was one of the most emotional moments of my life.”