It’s never too early to learn what a cesspool of shady business practices and money-driven infighting the industry responsible for creating and promoting your favorite noble champions of justice really was.
That’s the thought that kept running through my head as I made my way through Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, author Marc Tyler Nobleman’s follow-up to his 2008 Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.
Like his previous work, Boy Wonder is a non-fiction picture book aimed at children. At least in presentation; I can’t imagine very young children being as interested in it as grown-ups though, and for grown-ups, there’s an excellent all-prose, six-page article marked “Author’s Note” at the end, fleshing out the more simplified story that fills the bulk of the page count with plenty of detail and discussing Nobleman’s process of research for the book.
The story of the late Bill Finger — who is, of course, the Bill in the title — doesn’t quite fit into a picture book format as easily as that of young Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. There are a lot of similarities between the creators of Superman and the uncredited co-creator of Batman, including their backgrounds, the settings their stories occurred in, the impact of their creation and their unfortunate lack of participation in the rewards of that success, but Finger’s story is a lot more complicated than that of the boys from Cleveland, and lacks the natural melodrama of their hard-luck childhood and the epiphany nature of their hero’s inception (as presented in Boys of Steel, following Siegel’s own accounts, Superman’s transformation from a concept the young writer toyed with over the years into the world’s first superhero came in a sort of fever dream fit of inspiration one night).
That’s not a criticism, just an observation. I’m a grown-up, after all, and so are all of you, so whether little kids will dig this book as much as they might dig, say, Ralph Cosentino’s Batman: The Story of the Dark Knight or Nobleman’s Boys of Steel isn’t a terribly pressing concern.
As for us grown-ups interested in comics, though, this is another fine book.
Nobleman’s artistic collaborator here is the prolific comics writer, artist and cartoonist Ty Templeton, rather than someone who’s main career focus is book illustration. He’s a great choice, although the huge size of the images versus that of the average comic book panel — where Templeton’s art is usually seen — can render it a somewhat difficult to recognize, as does the subject matter: Men in street clothes, hanging out in restaurants, studios and parks, rather than guys in costumes fighting on rooftops.
Not that Templeton doesn’t get to draw Batman here. He draws Bob Kane’s conception of “The Bat-Man,” who looked like Carl Burgos’ Human Torch with bat-wings (below, he draws a two-page spread of the Wayne family meeting Joe Chill in an alley, another two-page spread of Batman and Robin and their rouges gallery and another of the Dynamic Duo battling atop a toaster, doing a pretty incredible impersonation of Golden Age Batman art of the sort Bob Kane initiated and Dick Sprang perfected.
Although a picture book, Nobleman and Templeton’s Boy Wonder (the nickname Kane gave Finger before it was applied to Robin), is constructed in a way that closely resembles a comic book, with inset illustrations appearing like panels within other panels created by the borders of the page, the narration appearing in comic-like narration boxes, and the occasional borders between two illustrations suggesting a very close-up view of a grid of panels in a comic book. It’s a pretty subtle effect, really.
Nobleman introduces us to young Milton Finger, who had a series of unsuccessful and unfulfilling jobs until he met cartoonist Bob Kane at a party. When an editor at “the compay that would become DC Comics” told Kane he wanted another Superman-like “superhero sensation,” Kane promised to deliver one within a few days, and he turned to his friend Finger for help.
It was Finger who came up with a darker color scheme, a cowl with bat-ears, a scalloped cape instead of wings, pupil-less white eyes and the idea that the character should be a regular, hurt-able human being and a good guy who looked menacing rather than cheerful, two things to better contrast him with Superman.
Finger also, Nobleman writes, came up with the tragic origin story, the secret identity, the name of the city the comic was set in, the words “Batmobile” and “Batcave,” and Robin, and he “concocted memorable rogues almost as regularly as some people compiled grocery lists.”
Kane, of course, got all of the official credit, and still does, due to legal agreements with DC.
The focus of Nobleman’s book is not only on revealing Finger’s role, but the very gradual way in which fans learned of who Finger was and how much he contributed to the creation and maintenance of Batman, from Julius Schwartz saying Finger wrote “most of the classic Batman adventures of the past two decades” in 1964, fan Jerry Bails’ article uncovering Finger’s involvement, to later, posthumous statements made by DC and Kane himself to the 2005 creation of Bill Finger Awards for Excellence in Comics Writing.
“Will his name ever be added to every Batman story?” Nobleman asks in the penultimate line of the book, before answering “Batmanians are keeping their Fingers crossed.”
Whether he does or not (and here’s hoping he does), and whenever it happens, Nobleman and Templeton have made a pretty strong, bold and persuasive argument that Finger deserves it…one simple enough for a child to understand. Should a child care about who created his favorite superheroes, and whether those creators and publishers behave in a way that their creations would find admirable of distasteful.
Sadly, too few grown-ups seem to care.
Bill The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, by Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ty Templeton, Charlesbridge, , 48 pages
…Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I better go get to work on The First Man on Paradise Island: Dr. William Moulton Marston and the Creation of Wonder Woman before Nobleman beats me to it…
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