This Day in Jewish History

1974: The Man Who Co-created Batman Dies, Unsung and Broke

Dawn of Justice, finally: More than 75 years after Batman's 'birth' and 40 years after Bill Finger's death, his role in creating the Caped Crusader is clear.

Batman and Robin, from the original TV show, 1966. Left: Robin, a.k.a. the Boy Wonder, played by Burt Ward; right, Batman, a.k.a. the Caped Crusader, played by Adam West.
Greenway Productions, Wikimedia Commons

On January 18, 1974, Bill Finger died. It would be another 40 years, however, after his death, apparently bankrupt and largely anonymous, before he received public credit as the co-creator of Batman. That came more than 75 years after the spike-eared superhero's debut.

The story of Bill Finger, and the struggle of his fans and admirers for justice and recognition for his contribution to arguably the most successful of American comic book heroes, could itself serve as a comic book plot.

Milton Finger was born in Denver, Colorado, although his family moved soon after to the Bronx, New York. His parents were Louis and Tessie Finger. Louis was an Austrian-born Jew who, until the Great Depression, owned a tailor shop. Tessie was born in New York.

Bill, as Milton called himself, graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx, in 1933. His parents wanted him to be a doctor, while his aspiration was to be a writer, and he in fact began writing novels and short stories. By 1938, however, he was married with a son, and had begun working in a shoe store.

Toward the end of that year, Finger met Robert Kane at a party. Kane (1915-1998), who had also attended DeWitt Clinton two years behind Finger, was already working for Detective Comics as an artist. “Superman” had debuted a half-year earlier, and the company was looking to capitalize on the series’ success with new superheroes.

Painting him black

Kane was already thinking of a character he called Bat-Man, and Finger agreed to meet with him over the weekend to brainstorm. To Kane’s suggestion to dress Batman in red, like Superman, Finger countered with the idea of using dark colors. He also proposed key elements in his costume, including the masked cowl, gloves, and, in place of the wings suggested by Kane, a long cape.

It was Finger too, who gave Batman his civilian name of “Bruce Wayne,” and after the comic books had taken off, it was also he who came up with Wayne’s origin story, in which as a child, Bruce had seen both his parents shot to death during a hold-up in the street, and thereafter swore “to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”

Batman premiered in May 1939, with story by Finger and art by Kane, and was an almost instant success. But in the contract signed by Kane with the publisher, he was guaranteed sole credit as the character’s creator.

Kane is sorry, rather late

At some point, Finger left Bob Kane’s studio and began working directly for the publisher, where he continued writing the stories for Batman, as well as sometimes Superman. In 1940, he worked with Martin Nodell on creating the crime fighter called “Green Lantern.”

Finger even wrote two episodes of the hit 1960s TV series “Batman,” but it continued to be Kane, and Kane alone, who was credited as the creator of the character, with the money and fame that attended that status.

Only very late in life, and in a low-key manner, did Finger begin speaking publicly about the role in “Batman’s” origin. Kane’s initial response, in 1965, was a declaration that, “I, Bob Kane, am the sole creator of ‘Batman.’” 

Twenty-four years later, when Kane wrote his memoir, he finally acknowledged that Bill Finger was “an unsung hero,” and that, “I often tell my wife, if I could go back fifteen years, before he died, I would like to say, 'I'll put your name on it now.”

The truth about Bill Finger became better known after Marc Tyler Nobleman published his book “Bill: The Boy Wonder; The Secret Co-Creator of Batman,” in 2012. It was Nobleman who tracked down Finger’s closest living heir, his granddaughter Athena Finger, who was born two years after his death, and encouraged her to press DC Comics to recognize her grandfather’s part in the making of “Batman.”

She did, and in October 2015, Bill Finger began to receive co-credit with Kane as creator of Batman in the comic books, as well as in the TV show “Gotham.” He will also receive due credit in the upcoming film “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

Batman v Superman Dawn of Justice | official IMAX Trailer #2 YouTube
Batman, original series: "Hi Diddle Riddle" - The Riddler Sues Batman.