Bill Finger was celebrated at Friday’s “Who Created Batman?” panel, part of the Comic Arts Conference, an academic conference within Comic-Con International in San Diego. Dr. Travis Langley, Professor of Psychology, moderated a diverse group of Batman insiders: Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson (granddaughter of DC Comics founder Malcom Wheeler-Nicholson), Tom Andrae (author, “Batman & Me”), Arlen Schumer (author, “The Silver Age of Comic Book Art”), Jens Robinson (CartoonArts International), Athena Finger (“The Cape Creator”), Denny O’Neil (writer and former Group Editor for Batman), Marc Tyler Nobleman (author, “Bill the Boy Wonder”), and Brad Ricca (author, “Super Boys”).
Though the panel started with a screening of a Bob Kane interview, the panelists were all skeptical regarding his claims of single-handed creation. O’Neil described the character as “not created so much as assembled. It is never the ingredient, it is the recipe.” Over the years, many people have contributed bits and pieces to the Batman mythos. O’Neil credited Finger with a large part of the creation because, “Bill Finger understood comic books before anybody, almost. He understood the visual elements, he understood the gothic elements. As far as I’m concerned, he created the Batman.”
With each man’s claim to the character established, Langley was still intent on discovering the true origin of the character, before Kane signed his contract with DC, and uncovering how Finger’s contributions were swept under the rug. Schumer compared Kane and Finger, the team behind Batman, to the partnership of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman. “Unfortunately, because Bob Kane had the lawyer father, and Bill Finger was shy. Bob Kane went in and his father made sure that his name was on it. That’s how Bill Finger ended up getting shunted away from his co-creation,” Schumer explained.
The creation of Batman went far beyond Kane’s first sketch (re-created by Schumer for a 1999 cover of “Comic Book Artist”), even beyond his first appearance in “Detective Comics” #27 in 1939. Ricca said there was nothing memorable about the character, “until you get to the origin. To me, that’s Batman.”
O’Neil revealed that Batman’s origin had not always been set in stone. “Once upon a time, it might have been possible for me to change the origin. DC was in the midst of revamping its whole line, cleaning up the continuity, and I decided not to touch it,” said O’Neil. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: it’s the best origin in comics.”
By not changing Batman’s origin, it allowed the character and his background to remain universal for readers. “The origin is primal. It taps our greatest fears. You know your parents can and will die someday,” said Ricca.
Nobleman added a historical context. “It was the first time that a comic book character had a psychological reason for doing what he was doing. Before this, there were characters doing good for good’s sake, very two-dimensional,” said Nobleman. “Batman was the first character who had a motive, and that makes him more believable.”
Schumer said it was not only Bruce Wayne’s fractured childhood, but also his lack of super powers that made Batman so appealing and enduring. “Batman does represent the kind of Great American Dream of, you can become a super hero on your own. That, I think, is a very primal element that speaks to all of us.”
Langley questioned the origin of Robin and the Joker, two figures central to the Batman canon, who both appeared for the first time in 1940. Jens Robinson said that his father, Jerry Robinson, “felt the need for a villain that could challenge Batman. Someone who could transcend the petty street toughs and crooks. So he dreamed up the concept of the Joker.” Some time later, Robinson said, his father was the first to draw the character of Robin — and while he did not initiate the concept for the character, he did choose his name, based on N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations of Robin Hood. Schumer pointed out that these two characters helped to situate Batman like a Sherlock Holmes character: Robin was his Watson, the Joker his Moriarty. These three characters also reflected the three creators that contributed to establishing the base of the Batman mythos: Bob Kane, Bill Finger, and now Jerry Robinson. “There really are so many influences; I think it’s hard to pinpoint one man or one thing,” Schumer concluded.
While not every creator involved has been properly credited for their work in making Batman the hero he is today, the enduring popularity of their creations stand as a testament to the Dark Knight’s greatness. “What’s so wonderful about the comics, in my opinion, is that there are these wonderful archetypal forces that flow through all of us, and that are reflected in these wonderful characters, and these wonderful stories, The creators, it is a collaborative effort, and sometimes people do not get the credit they deserve,” said Wheeler-Nicholson. “It’s just really great the way that these wonderful, artistic, brilliant, talented people put together these ideas in such a great way.”
Fittingly, the panel concluded with a standing ovation for Bill Finger in recognition of his contributions to the Batman mythos.