On Tuesday night, Marc Tyler Nobleman spoke at New York City’s 92Y, a well-known community arts center. For those unfamiliar, Nobleman is the author of Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, a book that serves as the culmination of more than a decade of research and an intense fight to secure Bill Finger a co-creator byline on Batman properties across all media.
For decades, Bob Kane was the only person credited for the creation of the Batman. However, as Nobleman argued at 92Y, Bill Finger was the man who did most of the work. Indeed, while the concept of the Batman was Kane’s idea, his original conception of the Dark Knight was a man in a domino mask and bright red spandex suit that had stiff bat wings attached to the arms. Finger was the one who made the wings less literal by turning them into a cape, created the signature long-eared cowl, and darkened the suit’s color palette to turn Batman into a figure that would truly strike fear into the hearts of criminals from the shadows. Finger wrote 25 years’ worth of Batman stories but never got his name in a single book. Indeed, Nobleman revealed that Finger was even the man who came up with the now-synonymous nickname “the Dark Knight.”
Throughout the night, Nobleman was engaging, humorous, and reverent as he spoke about Finger. At one point, he proclaimed himself obsessive as he related an anecdote about some of the research he conducted during the creation of Bill the Boy Wonder. He paid a visit to the New York apartment building where Finger’s first wife, Portia, had lived till her death in 1990. He waited in front of the door waiting for someone to let him in so he could speak to some tenants who had lived in the building long enough to have known Portia. When he finally got inside, he found himself sitting with two septuagenarians dressed in nightgowns at 6 o’clock in the evening. He got what he wanted– they related stories about Portia to him for several hours. However, at that point, Nobleman had to wonder: “Was this perverse?” The audience laughed uproariously in reply.
Nobleman’s talk was packed with revelation after revelation, and the fruits of his labor were astounding. When he first started working on his book, there were only two known photos of Bill Finger in existence. However, within a year’s time, Nobleman had found about a dozen more. The source of the first of these valuable images was a singular discovery in and of herself: Lyn, Bill Finger’s second wife. Until Nobleman reached out to her, the general public did not know that Finger had ever remarried after divorcing Portia. Lyn provided countless stories about Finger to Nobleman, and ultimately set him down a path to discover even more interesting facts about Finger’s legacy.
For a long time, the rumor was that after his lonely death, Finger had been buried in a potter’s field, where unclaimed bodies are laid to rest with little ceremony and no marker to represent their place in the world. Luckily, however, this was not the case. Nobleman learned that Finger’s only son Fred had taken his father’s ashes to a beach in Oregon. He scattered those ashes along the sand in the shape of a bat symbol. Nobleman already knew that Fred had died in 1992. At first glance, this seemed like a dead end for Nobleman’s research, but Fred’s will mentioned the transference of DC Comics royalties, which Nobleman had not known existed up until that point.
Nobleman traced the movements of Finger’s royalties through a dizzying array of individuals outside the Finger family until he finally reached Judy and Eric Flam, who were Bill Finger’s cousins. It was at this point that Nobleman had his final big break. Eric revealed to Nobleman that Fred Finger, despite being gay, had had a biological daughter named Athena. When Nobleman reached out to her, Athena said she knew about her grandfather’s legacy, but thought the matter was too daunting to pursue. However, Nobleman gave her a nudge and Athena reached out to DC in 2007. Within a month of first contact, she started receiving royalty checks for Bill’s work.
Bill the Boy Wonder was released in 2012. Nobleman has discussed his research on outlets such as Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast and on NPR radio. Then, in 2015, Nobleman’s hard work finally paid off. Athena was invited to DC offices to closed door discussions which ultimately resulted in Batman’s creator credits being changed to “Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger.” The Atom insert from Dark Knight III that was pre-released to press in October was the first appearance of the new credit line and FOX’s Gotham TV show swiftly followed.
So where does all this leave Bob Kane? According to Nobleman, towards the end of his life Kane seemed to harbor some guilt about the way he had treated Finger. In Batman and Me, Kane’s autobiography, the Batman co-creator admits that Finger had done the brunt of the work on Batman’s costume design and even wishes that he would have given him credit from the start, though that wish never materialized into actionable change before Kane’s death in 1998.
If Nobleman appears biased, that’s because he is by his own admission. During the Q&A portion of the panel, an elderly woman accosted Nobleman for framing Kane as a liar. Allegedly, she was a close friend of Kane and his family, and found Nobleman’s accusations unfounded and not in keeping with Kane’s good nature. Admirably, Nobleman kept his cool under pressure and defused the tension in the situation. He said that he did not want to complicate anyone’s personal relationships. However, he also stuck to his guns, insisting that Kane’s business practices ultimately cheated Finger out of what he was due. In the end, Nobleman said that any argument that builds up Bill will, by its nature, tear down Bob.
In conclusion, Marc said he was happy to have had a chance to interview so many people who personally knew Bill Finger, as a majority of those he spoke to during his research have now passed. He is happy that Finger is finally getting the recognition he deserves. When asked if there were still any loose ends he’d like to see tied, he mentioned that he is pushing for the installation of a Bill Finger memorial in New York City, the prototypical Gotham. Ultimately though, he believes that “in history, no story ends with a period.” There’s always something new waiting around the corner.