Batman & Bill (2017 documentary) — a review

Batman&Bill

While it has become difficult for me to watch any documentary these days without thinking about the brilliant Fred Armisen/Bill Hader mockumentary series on IFC, Documentary Now!, I will still watch one when the subject matter appeals to me.

You know what subjects appeal to me, of course. Just read the titles of my posts here and you’ll know that superhero fiction, on the page or the screen, is a huge component of my personal interest filter. I learned to read at an early age due to, at least in part, my love of comic books. My earliest writing projects were superhero inspired. At this stage of my life, I’m unlikely to change. This stuff is just in my blood.

I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the creators of the superheroes I loved when I was a kid. I was more interested in the finished product. But, I knew they were created. I assumed that Stan Lee created the entire Marvel Comics lineup (a touchy subject for another post). I also knew that Siegel & Shuster were credited with the creation of Superman, and that Bob Kane created Batman.

This documentary, Batman & Bill, is largely about the statement “Bob Kane created Batman.” As it turns out, this is only partially true.

Despite my bona fides as a comic book geek, I’m no comic book historian. My first knowledge of Bill Finger came after I purchased a couple of the early Batman appearances for my Kindle Fire. This was just a few years ago. I noticed the name “Bill Finger” listed as author alongside Bob Kane.

Who in hell is Bill Finger?” I asked aloud. No one answered because I was alone at the time.

That must have been the extent of my curiosity on the subject because I never bothered to find out who Bill Finger was. More than likely, I was distracted by something shiny and forgot about it until later.

But, now, thanks to this documentary, I know. He was the original co-creator of Batman.

I don’t use the word alleged anywhere, because this fact is not in doubt. After watching the documentary, it becomes obvious that Finger’s contribution to the creation of Batman was the worst-kept secret in the comic book business. Roy Thomas, Carmine Infantino, and Jerry Robinson—three comic book luminaries whose names I recognize— are shown in interviews talking about Finger’s involvement in creating the Batman mythos. Bob Kane himself, in his “autobiography” Batman & Me, admitted that Bill Finger was “a contributing force on Batman right from the beginning.”

Much of the Batman mythos can be traced back to Finger, including the name Bruce Wayne, the cowl and cape (instead of Kane’s original idea for a domino mask like Robin’s, Superman-like red tights and stiff, fixed wings), and the fact that Batman is a scientific detective rather than just a superhero vigilante. Many of the characters associated with Batman were also, at the very least, co-created by him, including the Joker, Robin and Catwoman. He even gets credit for such things as the name Gotham City, the giant Lincoln penny we’ve always seen in the Batcave, and—oh yeah—the Batcave and Batmobile. Much of what identifies Batman to this day appeared in those early appearances that were written by Finger.

This Hulu documentary was based largely on the book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-creator of Batman, by Marc Tyler Nobleman. Nobleman is also featured in the film and given the lion’s share of the credit for ultimately getting Bill Finger his own belated credit. Nobleman became obsessed with the subject of Finger, who was thought to have died penniless and to have been buried in a potter’s field in an unmarked grave. As Nobleman did the research for his book, he discovered that Finger had married twice and had one son, Fred, who was gay and died of AIDS in 1992. It seemed that Finger had no living heirs until Nobleman discovered that Fred had been married and fathered a daughter, Athena, who also had a son. These were the heirs that Nobleman could fight for.

I’m not taking any credit away from Nobleman, but, in the end, he didn’t have to fight alone. Athena Finger’s half-sister happened to be a lawyer, and she got other lawyers involved, and then—Biff! Bop! Whammo!—Bill Finger finally got the credit he was due. Not just on my Kindle, but at the beginning of the movie Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice and on the second season of the television series Gotham, and in everything from that point on.

I don’t know if the living heirs of Bill Finger are seeing any financial benefits from this. It’s not really the focus of the documentary, and, honestly, I don’t care. The important thing is that Finger is acknowledged as one of Batman’s creators. It’s a shame that it couldn’t have happened during his lifetime, but this is the sort of thing that the phrase “better late than never” was coined for.

A little afternote that was also mentioned in the doc. My innate skepticism makes me doubt the truth of this, but the documentary purports that Finger did not, in fact, end up in an unmarked pauper’s grave. Instead, his son Fred had him cremated and took the ashes with him to Oregon, where he spread them out on the beach in the shape of a bat.

This is a nice thing to believe, even if there’s no one living to corroborate it. I think I’ll just let the matter drop. After all, until very recently, I also believed that Bob Kane was the sole creator of Batman.

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