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How Batman Creator Bill Finger Was Forgotten

The campaign to get an unheralded Jewish comic book hero get his due

Marjorie Ingall
January 29, 2014
Cover image of Bill the Boy Wonder, Marc Tyler Nobleman's 2012 children's book. (Illustration by Ty Templeton)
Cover image of Bill the Boy Wonder, Marc Tyler Nobleman's 2012 children's book. (Illustration by Ty Templeton)

In 2012, I called Bill the Boy Wonder, by Marc Tyler Nobleman, one of the year’s best Jewish children’s books. And it is! The book is about the essential role of a writer named Bill Finger in the creation of Batman. Nobleman lays out the way Finger came up with Batman’s and Robin’s origin stories, gave Bruce Wayne his name, gave Batman his cape and hood, named Gotham City, wrote the first comic and much more.

But you’ve probably never heard of him. Bob Kane, the man the world considers Batman’s creator, suppressed information about Finger’s integral role. (As the blog Comics Alliance put it, “When it comes to the greatest supervillain in Batman’s history, the Joker is a distant second behind Bob Kane.”)

Kane (born Robert Kahn) and Finger (born Milton Finger) were contemporaries at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Both were the children of Jewish immigrants; both changed their names because of prejudice toward Jewish writers and artists. Though Finger wrote the first Batman (then Bat-Man) comic, Kane was the salesman and hustler and face of the studio. He sold the publishing rights without including Finger in the deal. Finger, a modest man, never strove to receive credit or royalties. And for most of his life, Kane insisted he was Batman’s sole creator.

But heroically nerdy comic book readers uncovered the truth. For years, Kane fought back hard. He said Finger had “hallucinations of grandeur.” He insisted that the only proof he needed of his role as Batman’s sole creator was his byline. “[I]f Bill co-authored and conceived the idea, either with me or before me, then he would most certainly have a by-line [sic] on the strip along with my name,” Kane wrote in a 1965 letter to a fanzine editor. “However, it remains obvious that my name appears on the strip alone, proving that I created the idea first and then called Bill in later.” Kane concluded: “There is an old saying, ‘To the victor belongs the spoils,’ and after it is said and done about who does what on the Batman assembly line…I am assured that in the folklore of legendary comic history of our times, I know that Bob Kane will be remembered as the creator of ‘Batman’ and no one else.”

After Finger’s death in 1974, however, Kane recanted a bit. In his 1989 memoir, he wrote, “I must admit that Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved. He was an unsung hero … I never thought of giving him a by-line and he never asked for one. I often tell my wife “If I could go back 15 years, before he died, I would like to say, ‘I’ll put your name on it now, you deserve it.’”

Perhaps Kane’s family disagreed; when Kane’s tombstone was erected in 1998, it read:

“GOD bestowed a dream upon Bob Kane. Blessed with divine inspiration and a rich imagination, Bob created a legacy known as BATMAN…a “Hand of God” creation…Bob Kane, Bruce Wayne, Batman – they are one and the same. Bob infused his dual identity character with his own attributes: goodness, kindness, compassion, sensitivity, generosity, intelligence, integrity, courage, purity of spirit, a love of all mankind. Batman is known as the ‘Dark Knight”, [sic] but through his deeds he walks in the Light of a Higher Power, as did his creator – Bob Kane.”

Veyizmir. How goyish. Now, Jack Kirby, HE had a Jewish tombstone!

Today, all true comic book aficionados know about Finger’s essential role in Batman’s mythos. Finger was posthumously inducted into the Jack Kirby and Will Eisner Halls of Fame, and Comic-Con established the Bill Finger Award, given annually to two people—one living and one dead—who “have produced a significant body of work in the comics field.”

But the wider public still has no clue. Nobleman is trying to change that. February 8th marks the 100th anniversary of Finger’s birth (as well as the 75th anniversary of the creation of Batman), and Nobleman is leading a movement to ask Google to create a Google Doodle in Finger’s honor. (Jeez, if the ZAMBONI gets a Google Doodle, Bill Finger certainly should!)

To support Nobleman’s efforts, email [email protected]

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.