Jun 20, 2012

Bill (Finger) the Boy Wonder: Five Questions with Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ty Templeton

One of my most popular articles on this site is my Reclaiming History feature on Bill Finger, whom I call the real creator of Batman. To sum up, much of what made Batman popular was conceived and designed by Finger, and Bob Kane not only took all the credit and all the money, but made it so that DC can't credit Finger. It's a tale that's not told anywhere near enough, to the point that even comic fans don't know who Bill Finger is.

This July sees the release of Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, written by Marc Tyler Nobleman and drawn by Ty Templeton. It's got a cover price of $17.95, and an edition has been shipping on Amazon for the last month now.

I caught up with Marc and Ty and gave them five questions each about Bill Finger and about Bill the Boy Wonder. Read on for Marc and Ty talking about Batman's secret co-creator.

Comics Cube: What does Bill Finger mean to you as a fan and/or as a creator?

Marc Tyler Nobleman: He is the prime mind behind arguably the world’s most successful superhero and I’d estimate one of the world’s top five most popular fictional characters ever. In the few known interviews he gave, he did not come across as hostile, or bitter, or beaten. He seemed smart and jovial—making him even more sympathetic. Like any of us, he had flaws—apparent low self-esteem, habitual lateness with deadlines, money troubles—but all of that is very human. What he had that is superhuman was the ability to produce such a rich, enduring body of work and do so without receiving the recognition he so deserved.

Ty Templeton: Bill Finger meant the world to me as a fan. I'm old enough that I was reading Batman before we all knew about Bill. And in the 70s, when we first started hearing about him, I figured out quickly that I was as much a Bill Finger fan as I was a Batman fan. It was around the same time I realized that who I THOUGHT was Bob Kane, was actually Dick Sprang (the "good" Batman artist when I was a kid). So as a life long Batmaniac (I don't like the sound of "Batmanian" which was the official word for it), I've been a life long Bill Finger Freak. Finger is tied with Kirby and Lee and Adams and O'Neil as the biggest influence on my young comic fan brain. I've been in love with giant props, and amazing escapes, and tricky solutions since I can remember.

From Ty's site: the page where Kane
designs Bat-Man.
In your opinion, if you were doling out percentages, how much of Batman is Kane and how much is Finger?

Marc: Creatively, 97% Bill. He designed the costume, wrote the first story, wrote the first stories of most of the supporting characters (Robin, Joker, Catwoman, etc.), wrote Batman’s groundbreaking origin, developed the bat-motif (Batmobile, Batcave, etc.), named Gotham City/Bruce Wayne/Dick Grayson…whereas Bob did not write a single Batman story in his lifetime and farmed out so much of the art to ghosts. Some believe Bob didn’t even choose the name “Batman.” Yet Bob chose Bill to work on Batman. So in that sense, maybe Bob does deserve a higher percentage…

Ty: I'd say if we had to split it just between those two, it's something like 70% for Finger and 30% for Kane. But if we can include Jerry Robinson and Dick Sprang, then I'd lessen Kane's contribution to about 10% of the overall world of Batman. I'm only scoring him that high because he came up with the name. In fact, as the series continued, I'd start scoring Bob Kane in the negatives, because he became detrimental to the success of Batman by the early sixties.

Is there no definitive answer as to who came up with the name "Batman"?

Marc: I don't believe so. I give Kane that credit in my book because that is what Bill said in an interview, but people including Gerard Jones think Bob didn't even do that.

Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman also by Nobleman
What were some of the difficulties or challenges you had working on this book?

Frankly, almost nothing was easy! The first challenge was finding people who could flesh out Bill. He was born in 1914 so most of his contemporaries are gone. However, early in my research, I found two critical—and lucid—ones, both in their eighties: Bill’s longtime friend/writing partner Charles Sinclair and Bill’s second wife Lyn Simmons; they became two of the three people to whom I dedicated the book. Once I found people who knew Bill personally, the challenge then became relying on memory, though both Charles and Lyn had what seemed like superb recall. It was also really tough to find “new” photos of Bill to supplement the surprisingly few that had already been published. The people I suspected would have photos were not always the ones who did; for example, neither Charles nor Lyn had any! And of the many other challenges, the one worth closing on is the need to adhere to fair use in showing Batman images. We were as careful with this book as I was with my previous picture book, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.

Ty: We weren't allowed to use Batman or his supporting cast on more than three pages out of a forty two page book. I totally understand from a legal point why we can't use Batman's image, it doesn't belong to us...but it would have made telling the story so much easier.

What does working on this book personally mean to you?

Marc: It has been the biggest honor and thrill of my career. I was a DC superheroes kid, and still am. To do my small part to preserve Bill Finger’s legacy is something I have taken as a serious responsibility. His story is sadly ironic: an underdog story played out over the backdrop of Batman, a champion of underdogs. I am passionate about people getting credit for their work; perhaps more so because I’m a creator myself. I wanted to write about Bill because his is a compelling (if tragic) story, and it hasn’t been told in its own book before, but also because Bill is long overdue for justice. When you introduce such a story to young people, it will hopefully empower them to avoid a similar situation in their own lives—and perhaps even to fight for some other underdog. In writing this book, I was hoping to help Bill and to help (and at times create) his fans, too.

Ty: Personally, I'm going to go with pride. I've long been a crusader for truth and justice (probably because of the moral underpinning Batman and characters like him installed in me as a child), and I'm proud that I got to be one of the folks creating the FIRST book ever written about Bill Finger.

Let's say that there were many books in the market about Bill Finger. What sets your book apart?

Marc: Great question! Well, no matter how many others may come down the pike, mine will always be the first.  But more to the point, my book reveals much about the man (such as his given first name and what happened to his body after he died) that only people outside of comics knew. It also contains never-published photos and the only known example of Bill’s handwriting, which has a poignant behind-the-scenes story of its own. It is the result of five years’ of original research and includes information from many who are no longer with us. Biggest of all: it reveals how I found Bill’s lone, previously unknown heir, born two years after he died, who is the best person to take the baton from me!

We can say that all day, but it won't be true. We're currently the first and ONLY book ever done about Bill. If there were a half dozen books out on the subject though (and there should be), we'd be the only one told in comic book form. Our story is told in artwork, and captions and panels and word balloons, in the format that Bill Finger worked in. If you're going to tribute the Beatles, you write a song. If you're going to tribute the Great Bill Finger, you create his biography as a comic book, and an all ages one at that...so that young and old can hear this story and admire Finger's work, and start to feel that burning dislike of Bob Kane that is the birthright of all Batman fans. And one last note: This project was started by Marc Tyler Nobleman, and I was asked to come aboard after it was already under way. So I want to toss in a comment of thanks to Marc for starting this off. It's needed being done for so long, but Marc was the one who needed doing it the most. Comic fans owe Marc a big thanks for this.

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