Among the many facets of Batman that writer Bill Finger contributed to as the uncredited co-creator of one of the world’s most iconic superheroes was his unwavering commitment to justice. And as the new Hulu documentary “Batman & Bill” reveals, 75 years after he refined Bob Kane’s concept and four decades after his passing, Finger’s legacy finally achieved a little justice himself.
In the late 1930s, Kane had been tasked with creating a superheroic follow-up to DC Comics’ precursor National Comics’ smash-sensation Superman, and he turned to his acquaintance Finger to help shape his bat-winged concept. Finger’s dramatic overhaul included a moodier costume color scheme, the scalloped cape and point-eared cowl and a Sherlockian mastery of detective skills, along with later mythic additions like the Batmobile, the Batcave and several members of the Dark Knight’s enduring rogue’s gallery.
But Kane negotiated a shrewd deal — including a perpetual byline and profit participation, both rarities in their day — and the artist’s flair for self-promotion left Finger in the shadows as Batman’s principal ghostwriter. His flair for storytelling, his obsessive compilation of files of research for story springboards and seemingly ceaseless output allowed Finger to become one of the most prolific comics writers of his generation — he was employed by nearly every major publisher from the ’30s to the ’70s, he co-created the Golden Age Green Lantern, and he wrote for other media including film, radio, TV and pulp fiction.
But it was Kane — ferociously protecting his proclaimed status as Batman’s “sole” creator for decades — who collected the fame, the glory and ultimately the riches that flowed from the Caped Crusader’s ever-increasing popularity, while Finger labored in relative obscurity (though his significant contributions to Batman were an open secret among comics professionals) until his passing in 1974 at age 59.
And that might have been the end of Finger’s legacy, at least on a public level, until writer Marc Tyler Nobleman became intrigued by Finger’s story and set out to learn more about his enigmatic life while writing the biography-graphic novel hybrid “Bill the Boy Wonder.” As a result, Nobleman’s journalistic detective work unearthed an unexpected plot twist: Finger had a little-known son from an early first marriage, and while his offspring Fred had also died prematurely, he had fathered another generation: Bill’s granddaughter Athena.
With the emergence of an heir came a cause, and a quest. “Batman and Bill” chronicles the long and twisting path that Athena Finger, with much prompting and assistance from Nobleman, followed in the course of trying to earn a formal, long-denied co-creator credit from Batman’s ownership, DC Comics and their corporate parent Warner Bros. The documentary debuts on Hulu on May 5, and in the wake of her own adventure into fighting for justice for her grandfather, Athena Finger joined CBR to reflect on her journey.
CBR: This is a story comics fans been aware of for years and years and years. To see how it played out was fascinating and a great relief for people who have been rooting for your family. It was a big decision to move forward with this fight — what turned it in your mind? Your family was very divided about going up against a corporate giant like Warner Bros.
Athena Finger: It’s not something that we didn’t want to do, it’s just that we didn’t know which avenues and things like that to take. So when I was younger, it was kind of a dead issue. It wasn’t until Marc Nobleman brought me into it and wrote the book about Bill. It was like, “You should really do something about this.”
I was hesitant for a long time because of what I had been told for so long, that it was a dead issue, it was never going to be corrected, there was nothing I could really do, the whole gambit of excuses, basically. He really pushed me. It was a process, of course.
Again, timing was the other factor: it wasn’t right away when we were like, “Oh, we should do this.” It was seeing how things played out, seeing what kind of support we could get in every avenue as far as, not just within the corporate world, but also within the fanbase, and within my own family.
So there were a lot of moving parts. Once we saw that there really was an opportunity that we could fight it and hopefully get it corrected, it needed to feel like the timing was right. And again, timing with the 75th anniversary and things like that. Knowing that we only had a small window of time left. So everything played into it. It was a time. It was the timing.
It was interesting for me to your journey where the people at DC embraced you as a member of the family right away. That industry is, first and foremost, comprised of fans. So that must have been fun for you, to get brought into the fold.
It was. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t grow up in the comic book world. I didn’t grow up reading comics. It wasn’t part of my culture growing up, even though I was part of this amazing connection to the comic world. I was fascinated by that. I was like, ”Wow!”
When I called them and said who I was, there was a whole other slew of things going on behind the curtain, but “Here I am, and you’ve known about me. Let’s make it right.” So [former DC Comics executive] Paul Levitz was very welcoming when I first came into the scene. He took me on a tour of DC’s office when we were still in New York. It was like, “You need to be part of this. People want to see the Finger family,” and things like that.
So he brought me into it. He made me feel very comfortable with coming into something that was very new and different for me, and kind of intimidating and scary. Because again, it wasn’t my culture. I was creating art, I wasn’t reading other people’s art. That helped a lot.
Then having me come to the premieres, and start meeting more people, and then with the book coming out, it just kind of opened up the whole avenue for me to really come out and say, “Hey, we’re here! We’re going to represent Bill, and we’re going to talk about all this great stuff, and really push his story for everyone to know what the true history behind Batman is.”
When you got to know your grandfather and his work better through this process, what kind of blew you away by his accomplishments, even though his back was always against a wall, it seemed? He did so much.
He did! And that’s what I didn’t really know, is that he did so much other than just write for comics. He dabbled in everything, as far as like TV, radio, movies — just everything. Whatever he could produce, he was producing it. Which is awesome: he really was a pioneer for that generation to be able to branch out into other mediums other that just stuff in your one cubbyhole, right?
So I thought that was amazing, and that he was really trying to get it, and it was more than he needed the work. I don’t think he really looked at it as, “I’m going to try and branch out to everything and show everyone that you can do it. That’s something that a lot of people don’t tend to do. They usually get fixated in their one area. He tried everything. He wanted to push his own limits, apparently.
In a way, this also brought you closer to your dad, which must have been very gratifying for you — and difficult, at times.
My dad passed away right before I turned 16, so it’s not that it brought us closer, it kind of just, I really wish he was here. He’s missing out on what he really wanted for his dad. So it’s difficult. It is a time of celebration, but, again, he’s not here. So I can’t really share those moments with him.
As a result of the victory, tell me about that first time you got to see that creator credit that you guys fought so hard to get. What was that experience was like?
It was amazing. The first time I officially saw it was on “Robot Chicken.” They beat everyone to it, which is awesome. I love that show. It’s hilarious. I thought it was more of a true welcoming of him into getting his recognition, that it wasn’t something Batman per se, even though it was a superhero episode — that’s why they did that. But I think because more people are going to follow that better in the comic world, or the cartoon world, I think that was really like, “Yes, it’s not just ‘Gotham’ — it’s everywhere.”
Tell me about the perks of meeting some of the people who admire Batman, and admire your grandfather’s contribution to Batman — from like Christian Bale and Ben Affleck to some of the most legendary comic book creators. What’s that experience been like?
It’s been amazing. I’ve met so many wonderful people, in and out of the business, who have shown me the way, made it a little less intimidating and scary for me to come into this world. People like Michael Uslan, Travis Langley, of course Marc Nobleman. He really was like, “You need to get out there now!”
Some of the celebrities: I did get to meet Christian Bale, and I got to meet Christopher Nolan, and other actors, which is great. I like meeting people who are a little more in the craft, like Allen Bellman. He and I are friends and we see each other. He lives close to where I live, so we try to connect whenever he’s around. There’s so many — people who are really, truly in the industry. Danny Fingeroth is another one.
These people have been so welcoming and accepting of me, and the cause, really. They really wanted to see Bill get the credit and the recognition that he deserves, so having these people who really get it really was amazing.
It was a long road. Are you satisfied where you ended up, personally, at the end of it?
It definitely was a huge advancement in my life, obviously. It allowed me to free up a lot of my mental energy. I used to refer to it as “the family curse.” It kind of was. It was this dark cloud that would follow me around; “Your grandfather did this great thing, but nobody knows about him.”
So once that was resolved, I really got to be able to focus on other things. Things that I want to do in the future that are related to having Bill’s name attached to certain things that are going to help people who are going into the industry, or who are already in the industry.
Do you have access to just about every kind of Batman merchandise you could ever want?
Oh no! No — you would think I would, but no. I still have to buy my own DVDs, OK?
You have a son.
I do. He’s 14.
Creative as well?
He’s a musician. He plays music. He’s on that side. He gets that from his dad.
What was interesting to him, do you think, in this whole process, for him to learn the family history and to see what came of this particular story?
He had a similar situation, he was much younger, before the book came out. When I was young and I would try to tell people about Bill’s story, I always got questioned. They think Batman, they think big money, they think it’s everywhere. So a lot of the time people questioned, like, “You’re lying, what are you talking about?”
He went through a similar thing, and then the book came out, and he’s like, look, “I’m telling the truth”. So now people were like, “Oh, you’re not full of it — you actually are speaking truth. This is really what’s going on.”
So he had a little bit of an advantage, where he was still young enough to see the transition, and then not have people question him about, “What are you talking about? You should be in California with millions of dollars living in a mansion.” Kids think that. So he got to have the benefit of saying “No, I’m telling the truth, and here’s proof.” So he’s been able to enjoy that. He’s been able to say, “This is real. Yay, I can actually celebrate what my great grandfather did, and not have people question or call me a liar or anything like that.”
He’s of an age: is he into Batman at all?
He’s not into comics. I stand corrected — he is reading “The Walking Dead.” It’s like his new obsession. But again, it wasn’t part of my culture growing up, so it wasn’t really something that I presented to him. We’ve had comics around the house. When I would go on tours and stuff they would give me comic books, and send me books, and things like that. But it’s not the go-to.
He wants to pick up his guitar and play guitar, so that’s kind of what he did. But he’s loving it. He gets to go to all the cons, he gets to go to premieres. He gets to meet people. He gets to experience all the stuff. We’re kind of doing it together, which is really nice. It’s new and different for me also.
What was your feeling about the character of Batman as you knew him, before Marc really came into your life? And what do you think about that creation now?
I’ve always liked the Batman character. I always watched the cartoons, and the movies, and things like that. It’s so cliché, but the real human factor in the character is always appealing. The conflicts and the personal struggles that he would go through — more so as an adult you see that.
When you’re a kid, my first true exposure to Batman I would have to say it probably “Super Friends,” the cartoon in the ’70s and ’60s, and then the “Batman” TV show reruns and things like that. So as a child, I was more exposed to the lighter side, instead of this darker side that came out later on, like in ’89 when I was a little older. I was a preteen then, so I got to see more of what the true character was supposed to look like by that time.
I liked that side of it more. I thought it fit more than the lighter, funnier, but they did what they did. It’s what I was exposed to — watching the progression, and the different branches, and learning more about how they have different universes, and different storylines, and all that. Because I didn’t read it, I didn’t know.
So it was a real learning process throughout the years. I’ve had friends in high school and stuff try to expose me a little more. But it was more of an appreciation for what Bill did, more than like really getting into the character.
At this stage of the game, we’re in a really interesting place with creator rights, corporate ownerships, things like that. Would you encourage other people who found themselves in your situation to pursue it?
Of course. Of course! You should always fight for what is right — always. If you did something and someone is taking that away from you, no, that’s not right. Go fight them.
Has anybody reached out to you for guidance as to how you accomplished it?
No, but that’s one of the things that I’d like to work on, hopefully in the near future, is a non-profit type of organization for people who are either just coming into it, or who are already in it, but are having a hard time.
Artists aren’t so contract-savvy and negotiation-savvy or even people-savvy, so they need an outlet or someone that they can turn to that can help them with those things. How do you negotiate a contract? How do you even learn a contract? How to you read it? It’s a different type of language. So that’s something that I’d like to try to get implemented for artists, to have a resource where they can go.
It’s totally true — in 1939 and now.
I’ve heard it across the board. It hasn’t changed in 75-plus years, and it’s the way that they practice business with the artist. It’s not right. It needs to be redone, but that’s just my opinion. I don’t run a corporation.
“Batman and Bill” is available now on Hulu.