Marc Tyler Nobleman is a man on a mission.
The author followed-up his 2008 picture book biography of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuter, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, with Bill the Boy Wonder, another Golden Age comic book creator biography in the same format. Released last July — the same month as The Dark Knight Rises debuted in theaters — the book, with illustrations from comics vet Ty Templeton, tells the story of Bill Finger, dubbed by Nobleman "the secret co-creator of Batman."
Since the book's release, Nobleman has continued to promote the late writer's cause through his blog and at speaking events across the country, including one last week in New York City. The crux of his thesis is that there's no greater disconnect between the fame of a creation and the obscurity of its creator than Batman and Finger, and he hopes to change that.
"Batman, by some accounts, is the most lucrative superhero of all time," Nobleman told Newsarama. "Yet not only does the average person not know the name Bill Finger, even fans know very little about him."
Finger, who died in 1974 at the age of 59, is widely accepted within the comic book industry as the co-creator of Batman in 1939, along with his collaborator, artist Bob Kane. Yet while Kane, who passed away in 1998, has long been credited for his role in the inception of the character, Finger has remained mostly anonymous for decades — not even receiving a byline in his lifetime for the stories he wrote. Beyond Batman himself, Finger is also considered a co-creator for many parts of what's now a multimedia empire, including Robin (with Kane and Jerry Robinson), Catwoman (with Kane) and the Riddler (with Dick Sprang).
Nobleman said that creatively, Batman is about "99 percent Bill Finger," but the writer suffered from a lack of business savvy compared to Kane. In Bill the Boy Wonder, Kane is depicted as devising the rough idea of Batman and first visual, while Finger smoothed out nearly all of the pertinent details of what became a pop-culture icon.
Even though the book has been out for nearly a year, Nobleman said he's still researching his subject, and continues to find new sources of information on Finger. While writing the book, Nobleman encountered Finger's only living heir, his granddaughter Athena, who he said he convinced to contact DC about potential royalties for Finger's stories. Nobleman said Athena was initially hesitant, thinking it was "just too big" of an issue to broach.
"I said, 'Well, that's the point. Batman's huge, and your grandfather didn't benefit from it, and neither did your father. Is this going to be the legacy of the Finger family? That nobody fights for this credit?'"
Shortly after contacting DC in 2007, Athena did start receiving royalty checks for reprints of Finger-written stories, according to Nobleman — nothing major, he said, but more than she expected to receive.
Litigation is a fairly common thing in the comic book industry — including the long-running dispute between Time Warner and Siegel and Shuter's heirs, last year's conflict over The Walking Dead and Todd McFarlane and Neil Gaiman's decade long court battle — and Nobleman said he wouldn't be surprised if something similar happened at some point involving Finger, who also contributed to many other DC characters, including Green Lantern, Superboy and the Challengers of the Unknown.
"To be honest, I can see something similar happening with any creator, at any point," the author said. "There's never a real barrier to that, if you have a case, and I really do think there's a case here."
Nobleman makes it clear that having Finger's name added to the "created by" credits on Batman — said to be currently impossible due to preexisting arrangements — is a priority for him, and hopes that it can happen as cleanly as possible. Finger's co-creator status has been acknowledged in the past by former DC president Paul Levitz, and Kane himself wrote in his 1989 autobiography Batman & Me that the writer "deserves" a credit.
"Things do happen without litigation," Nobleman said. "But being that Batman is a billion dollar property, it's unlikely. I hope something happens. I hope it's not something that is going to damage anybody. But I do think Bill and his family is entitled to this."
The author, who readily admits that he's not the first person to spread awareness of Finger's work, acknowledges that it's somewhat "crazy" that he's spent so much time fighting for the recognition of someone that he has never and will never meet. Yet Nobleman said that he now feels like he knows Finger, through his years of primary research.
"I did become very connected to this on an emotional level," Nobleman said. "Justice has no expiration date. You just don't give up on someone."
Part of Nobleman's campaign is counting on the universality of the story, and the fact that for decades Batman has been one of the most recognizable fictional characters with mass audiences, not just comic book fans.
"It just overpowers your prejudices, and it short-circuits anybody who says 'I don't care about superheroes,' because it's really not a story about Batman, it's a story about a real person who did something on the level that few can ever claim to have done," he said. "This kind of accomplishment is rare."