The Dark Knight's Dark Secret

During the closing credits of the summer's blockbuster film, The Dark Knight Rises, the screen displays the following title: "Based upon Batman characters created by Bob Kane." Similar declarations appear on every Batman film, TV show, video game and comic book. These statements are, at best, only half truths.

Batman was created by two men. One, Bob Kane, found wealth and fame in his creation and has subsequently been identified as the character's sole creator. The other, Bill Finger, has never received official credit for his role in the character's origin or shared in the wealth generated by the licensing it has produced.

Author Marc Tyler Nobleman hopes to change that. His recent picture book, Bill: The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, is the first to focus on Finger's life story. Nobleman had previously written a similar illustrated book on Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and then turned his attention to the next great comic book superhero: Batman.

Following the runaway success of Superman in 1938, DC Comics (then known as National Periodical Publications) was looking for a follow-up superhero title. On a Friday in late 1938, DC editor Vin Sullivan asked artist Kane for help. Over the weekend, Kane got together with his friend, writer Finger, to work through ideas.

The details of who created which aspects of Batman's characterization remain murky, with Kane telling different versions at different times, and Finger only mentioning his involvement late in his life. Most accounts credit Kane with the original notion of a bird-like or bat-like character with wings and a red suit. Nobleman contends, however, that most of the central elements of Batman's mythos can be attributed to Finger: the gray and black costume, the bat-like cowl, the batmobile and many of the colorful villains that Batman faced. More significantly, Finger wrote the early Batman stories and created the tale of the character's tragic origin.

Finger received no credit as a writer in the original Batman comic books, a fairly common practice at the time. In addition to relying on Finger's scripting, Kane also used uncredited ghost artists. Although the details of the arrangement are a matter of speculation, at some point -- perhaps as early as 1946 -- Kane struck a deal with DC Comics to be identified as the creator of Batman.

The launch of the "Batman" television program in 1966 made Kane a great deal of money and turned him into something of a small-scale celebrity. Finger scripted one episode of the show, but otherwise saw none of the reward from the character's growing popularity.

Finger's role in the creation of Batman was finally brought to light during his appearance at an early comic book convention in New York in 1965. Later that year, comic book historian Jerry Bails published an article titled, "If the Truth Be Known or 'A Finger in Every Plot!'" in a relatively obscure fanzine that described Finger's contributions to Batman's origin. Kane wrote a response in another fan magazine contradicting Finger's claims, stating "I, Bob Kane, am the sole creator of 'Batman.'"

Finger died in 1974, a few weeks before his 60th birthday, with his work on Batman still officially unrecognized and little known outside the insular world of comic book fandom. Kane passed away in 1998 at age 83.

When Nobleman set out to write an illustrated book about Finger's life, he sought photo references to allow the book's illustrator, Ty Templeton, to bring Finger to life. Industry insiders told Nobleman only two photos of Finger existed. He was also told that Finger had no living heir to receive any royalties from Finger's creations. During his research for the book, Nobleman discovered that neither of these points was true.

Knowledge@Wharton sat down with Nobleman to discuss Finger's life and legacy -- and what lessons his story has for creative artists today. An edited version of that conversation follows.

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