Growing up reading comics, writer Marc Tyler Nobleman learned the foundations of his own moral compass. From Batman, he learned both the importance of justice and the addictive nature of some good old-fashioned detective work. Both of those would serve him well later in life, as he set out to solve a mystery, right a wrong, and shine a light on Bill Finger, the man who co-created Batman… but who, over the course of the Dark Knight’s long history, received little to no credit for it.
Finger’s story and contributions are the heart of Hulu’s new original documentary, Batman & Bill. Nobleman, having written a young adult biography of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, turned his attention toward the beginnings of DC’s other costumed juggernaut. What Nobleman found was a grave injustice he soon became obsessed with trying to rectify.
Since his first appearance in 1939’s Detective Comics #27, every Batman story has included the byline “Batman created by Bob Kane.” That byline was legally obligated by the contract Kane negotiated with DC for his creation, or so the story goes. There’s just one problem with that. According to many of the people who were there in the early days of Batman, the Dark Knight was just as much a creation, if not more so, of writer Finger. He helped create the look and concept of Batman, as well as characters such as Robin, the Joker, the Penguin, Commissioner Gordon, Catwoman, and Batman staples such as the Batcave and Batmobile. He even named Gotham City. Any element that comes to mind when you think of Batman, there’s a good chance Finger either created it outright, or at least had a hand in it.
So how is it possible that Batman’s co-creator could have been relegated to obscurity for nearly 80 years? Batman & Bill follows Nobleman’s investigation, which begins as research for his book Bill the Boy Wonder and soon becomes a personal crusade to get Finger the credit he deserves.
The first half of the documentary is dedicated to telling the story of Finger himself: a quiet, hard-working writer who had plenty of talent, but neither the outgoing charisma nor the business acumen of his Batman partner Kane. In chronicling Finger’s expansive contributions to the Batman mythology, Batman & Bill interviews comics legends like Carmine Infantino, who worked with Finger during the Golden Age of comics, and latter-day talents like Spawn creator Todd MacFarlane and filmmaker/comics writer Kevin Smith.
It’s soon clear that Finger’s Batman legacy, at least among comics professionals, was one of the worst-kept secrets in the industry’s history. But to the general public, Batman was created by Kane. After all, that’s what it said right there on the page and movie screen. Meanwhile, Finger died alone in his Manhattan apartment in 1974. He wouldn’t get to see his creation’s ascension to the very top of the pop-culture pyramid thanks to a run of hit movies that continues to this day.
The second half of Batman & Bill follows Nobleman’s efforts to convince DC Comics (and parent company Warner Bros.) to give Finger the co-creator credit that was his by right. As merely an interested third party, however, Nobleman had no standing to try and make this happen. He needed to find an heir. So he set out tracing Finger’s family line, through two wives, to a son, down to grandchildren and great-grandchildren still alive today. Here Batman & Bill explores their own experiences with Finger’s sad legacy of erasure, what Finger’s granddaughter calls “a dark cloud” that followed her family and seemed impossible to banish.
While the entire film is fascinating, it’s in this back half that it becomes truly emotional, putting a human face to the injustice of Finger’s ill treatment. We won’t spoil the ending here for any who don’t know how things turned out, but as the closing minutes of Batman & Bill unfold, many viewers will likely be ready to storm the offices of DC Comics themselves and demand justice.
Batman & Bill has the same qualities as many of the best Batman tales over the years. It’s got secret identities, mysteries, injustices demanding to be brought into the light, and even a conniving villain determined to steamroll the meek for his own personal gain. (Suffice to say, Kane does not fare well in this documentary.) With a mixture of archival photographs, beautiful animated sequences, and interviews with both comics insiders and Finger’s own family, Batman & Bill is a must-watch for comics fans and a gripping real-life story even for those who couldn’t tell Dick Grayson from Dick Clark.