The greatest crime in the history of Batman isn’t a murder or a robbery or a fiendish plot to poison the Gotham Reservoir, but a missing persons case. The victim? A relatively obscure figure in comic book history by the name of Bill Finger. The villain? Not Two-Face or The Penguin or even the Clown Prince of Crime, but none other than the creator of Batman himself, Bob Kane.
Yes, Bob Kane – you know he invented Batman, right? After all, that assertion, complete with Kane’s boxed-in signature with the exaggerated “O”, has appeared everywhere the Dark Knight himself has skulked since he first appeared in Detective Comics #27 in May, 1939. Of course, as first conceived by Kane, Batman looked a little different.
Up against a hard deadline after having been commissioned by publishers National Comics Publications (later DC Comics) to create a new superhero following the astounding success of Superman, Kane reached out to his colleague, Bill Finger, for a little last-minute help.
It was Finger who suggested the cowl and scalloped cape that would define Batman’s iconic look. He also ended up writing the Dark Knight’s first appearance, and Kane asked him to keep contributing thereafter. Over the course of some 1500 Batman strips, Finger created, contributed to or named Bruce Wayne, Gotham City, Commissioner Gordon, Robin the Boy Wonder, The Joker, Catwoman, the Batmobile, the Bat Cave and countless other elements integral to the Batman mythos.
But Kane had negotiated a contract with the publisher that stipulated that only he would receive creative credit for Batman. Finger, like other contributing creators including Jerry Nelson and Dick Sprang, worked anonymously.
The situation continued until 1965 when Finger, speaking on a panel at an early comics convention, publicly attested to his creative contributions to the Caped Crusader. Kane, on hearing of this, dashed off an angry, multi-page open letter denying all of Finger’s claims. As far as he – and the world – was concerned, the sole architect of the Batman franchise was Bob Kane.
The next year saw the launch of the beloved Batman TV series, and Kane’s fortunes went through the roof. As for Finger? He languished in obscurity. Though he managed to eke out something of a living as a screenwriter, when he died in 1974 he was in abject poverty, and was reportedly buried in an unmarked grave in a potter’s field. He was only 59.
Conversely, when Kane shuffled off the mortal coil in 1998 at the age of 83, his grave was very much marked. It is, by any measure, a staggering injustice, and one worthy of the wrath of the Dark Knight himself.
Unfortunately, Batman isn’t real (sorry kids). However, writer and comic historian Marc Tyler Nobleman is, and the new documentary Batman & Bill, directed by Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce (Rock School, Last Days Here), follows his driven attempts to get Finger’s authorship of Batman publicly and officially acknowledged by DC and their parent company, Warner Bros.
In this David and Goliath story, Nobleman displays the investigative skills of the World’s Greatest Detective as he tracks down evidence, speaks to experts, interviews witnesses and, together with Finger’s granddaughter, Athena, lobbies DC and Warner to get Bill his due.
What really hits home is the brutal irony of the situation: not only that the origins of the world’s most popular superhero are rooted in such injustice, but that the financial value of the character outweighs the human values the character embodies.
Forget about Kane’s odious, relentless self-aggrandising for a second (it’s hard, but try): for Bat-fans around the world, the Caped Crusader is a symbol of justice, resilience, determination and sheer human potential. For the powers that be at DC and Warner, Batman means Bat-billions – at the box office, in merchandise sales, in licensing, branding and more. Crediting Finger might seem like a small, humane and noble gesture, but it opens up the possibility that other, equally maligned comics creators – or, these days, their estates – might try for a piece of the multi-billion-dollar superhero pie.
The sad truth is that Finger wasn’t alone in being sidelined. The history of comics is littered with genius creators who felt they were ripped off by the companies who published their works.
While their most famous creation may stand for truth, justice and the American way, Superman scribes Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster fought legal battle after legal battle to reclaim their ownership of the Man of Steel, with the latest (but probably not last) clash happening in 2010, long after both men had passed on.
Legendary artist Jack Kirby can lay claim to having co-founded the Marvel Universe with Stan Lee, but from 2009 to 2014, his children fought a grim legal battle with Marvel Comics over the copyright of many of his characters. And why not? In box office alone, his co-creations have earned some $7.4 billion to date.
Even more modern creators, like Watchmen and V for Vendetta writer Alan Moore, feel hard done by – Moore is famous not only for his medium-redefining writing, but his ongoing public stoushes with DC over what he feels are onerous contractual terms for much of his superhero work.
While costumed heroes may be paragons of virtue and champions of the downtrodden, the stories behind them, and the forces that control them, are all too often beholden to mere lucre.
It’s enough to make a Caped Crusader cry.
Batman & Bill is streaming now at SBS On Demand.
Listen to The Playlist reflect on Stan Lee, and discuss 'Batman and Bill'