The stories of how comics are made are half the reason we pay so much attention to the brightest and most talented creators out there today. We want to be able to say we have been paying attention to an artist right from the beginning, or that a writer has had his breakthrough arc on a particular series. Much of this idea runs parallel to following the hottest underground bands in the music business. When Simon and Kirby created Captain America or when Jack teamed up with Stan Lee to create the Marvel Universe, there was no telling the effect superheroes would have on the culture.
Marc Tyler Nobleman has written many books about comic book history. He joins Earth Prime Time today to tell us about his new book, Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, drawn by Ty Templeton, and how Bill’s legacy affects the comic market today.
DIGBOSTON: Marc, thanks for taking the time to talk with us about your book today. I don’t think I’m overstating by saying this is an important book for Batman fans or Batmanians. Has the Bill Finger story always been interesting to you?
Marc Tyler Nobleman: I don’t remember when I learned the “Batman created by Bob Kane” credit was inaccurate, other than that it was sometime after college. Soon after I sold the manuscript for my first superhero picture book, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, Bill’s story grabbed me as a natural (not to mention more heartbreaking) follow-up.
In a sense, his story is even more important—Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster lived long enough to win back credit and compensation for their icon, but Bill Finger didn’t.
There has not been much coverage of this topic beyond the comic book convention scene crowd. Comic book historians and other creators certainly know a bit about the story, but for the first time you are presenting the information so that there is less mystery surrounding the origin of Batman’s creation. Why did you want to write this book?
For the reason you just stated! Comics diehards indeed know the name Bill Finger, but his contribution to pop culture is so significant that I feel the mainstream should know the back story, too. That’s also why I wrote it as a picture book for older readers.
I want kids to grow up knowing the truth about Batman’s creation rather than learning about it (like me), as an adult—if at all.
I love that this is both a children’s book and also a comics history book. Why did you choose to target the children’s book market and what lessons are to be learned? As a bar-stool comics historian myself, I can carry the message about Bill while feeling better informed!
To elaborate, it is indeed appropriate for people as young as six or seven, but I wrote it for all ages. We’ve all heard the phrase, “You can’t judge a book by its cover;” but I also say, “You can’t judge a book by its thickness.”
Just because it takes only 15 minutes to read doesn’t mean it didn’t take much longer than 15 minutes to write.
My Author’s Note, in particular, is quite sophisticated in terms of subject matter. I wanted to show adults and older kids what kind of research can go into a book like that … and show that not everything is findable with Google!
Getting “fingered” is a comic book term used in the comic book industry for when you feel you aren’t getting enough credit for something you have creative input on. The question I always ask, with no point of reference, is how different was it back then? How could this have gone so far and for so many years without Bill speaking up about getting proper credit? Was the paycheck on work for hire good enough?
It was admittedly quite different. It was not uncommon for one name to be on a property even though more than one person was doing the actual creating. There was little outside scrutiny, at least nothing unified.
In writing this book, one of the biggest questions I wanted to answer was just what you posed: Why didn’t Bill speak up, or if he did, why didn’t it help him?
I suspect Bill was content simply to get a paycheck, though I know lack of credit did gnaw at him. I also suspect he might have felt people would not believe him if he did challenge Bob’s sole credit. After all, it was one man’s word against another’s, and Bob had a big head start. I did find one instance of Bill standing up to Bob in a personal letter posted on my blog, noblemania.blogspot.com. But I do not know what, if anything, happened next.
Stan Lee is thankfully with us, and is actively doing interviews and recalling much of the early days of the comic book industry. If he’s not the last of that generation, he is arguably the most important living creator today in his advanced age. The late Jack Kirby also had the same problems with Stan and Marvel, but with one major difference. Most of the Kirby Estate arguments are over rights and royalties. In this case, Jack’s name is still on the artwork and artists have much to owe to the King. How is it that Bill Finger acted as a ghost-writer for Batman? Was Bob Kane a bully or a business man?
I wouldn’t describe Bob with either term. He was too self-absorbed to come across as a bully and not bright enough on his own to be called a businessman. He had good business advice, however. One word that comes to mind is charlatan. As for how Bill acted as ghostwriter, as discussed above, that was fairly common at the time. Bob knew Bill could write and had good ideas so he brought him into the fold. Bill accepted Bob’s terms though; as we stated previously, modern comics fans and historians continue to grapple with why he settled for less than he deserved.
From fanzines to family interviews and exhaustive research outlined in the Author’s Note in the back of the book, you’ve done more Bathomework than perhaps anyone on this subject. How long did this book take to research and did you find it satisfying to get to the bottom of the mysteries of Bill’s living heirs?
The book took five years of research. This was on and off, of course. But given that no one else had dug too deep into Bill’s back-story, I felt I owed it not only to comics fans but to Bill himself to do a thorough job. Yes, I was surprised, thrilled, and honored to find out as much as I did.
The book became a crusade with two purposes—tell people the truth and (hopefully) help the family, too.
Can of worms time! Any reaction to the Shuster Estate losing the Superman rights to DC Comics?
Of course I find this disappointing, but it’s a complicated issue. Creatively and emotionally, I believe Jerry and Joe should have reaped tremendously from Superman, but they did sign a contract. Jerry was convinced Superman would be a hit as early as 1936, but even he could not truly know just how staggeringly successful. It means there is more room to be generous/fair. They asked to renegotiate the year of Superman’s debut (before anyone knew if he would have staying power) and were perpetually rebuffed.
I feel Jerry and Joe’s families deserve equal reward from Superman.
Marc will be local for the following speaking engagements, please join him with your kids to learn more about Bill, Batman, Superman and more! Follow his blog at noblemania for updates and behind the scenes research of his great books.
[Wed. 11/7/12 - CenterStage New England Writer’s Series, Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, MA; full day includes class visits at Fitchburg Arts Academy, “Meet and Greet” with members of the campus Education Club (future teachers), 7 p.m. presentation/book signing for the public]
[Thu. 11/8/12 - CenterStage New England Writer’s Series, Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, MA; talk to undergraduate class “Illustrated Book and Graphic Novel”]
[Thu. 11/8/12 - Brandeis University; presentation, 4 p.m.]
BUT WAIT…THERE’S MORE! CHECK OUT LEAGUEPODCAST.COM — BOSTON’S COMIC BOOK AND POP CULTURE PODCAST — “Thinking about Comics since 2009″!
League of Ordinary Gentlemen Podcast Episode #131 — “Can I Wine UT? “
The gents talk about their epic Halloween Party, which saw Jaush the Odinson take home $500. Plus, Rhode Island Comic-con, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Combat Jacks and the real Luigi? Direct Download / Mp3 Stream (opens in new window).
Join Clay and Stefan from Forces of Geek hosting Star Trek’s Q, John Delancie, at Rhode Island Comic Con this Saturday!
“Q” & A with JOHN DELANCIE (Star Trek:TNG, Q) panel at RHODE ISLAND COMIC CON -
[THIS SAT. 11/3/12 - 11 AM, Providence Convention Center. [Facebook Event]