The 10 Greatest Batman Stories By Uncredited Creator Bill Finger
This Saturday, February 8, marks the 100th birthday of Bill Finger, one of the true unsung heroes of comic books. In the decades of his comic book career, Finger was one of the most prominent writers of the Golden and Silver Ages, contributing to characters like Superman and Green Lantern, but it’s his role as the co-creator of Batman where he made his biggest impact as the man directly responsible for Batman’s costume and origin, as well as co-creating characters like Robin, the Joker and Catwoman — and he did it without ever receiving credit on the printed page.
So to honor the occasion, we’d suggest that you take a little time this weekend to sit down and read through some of Finger’s stories to see just how much he shaped one of the greatest characters of all time. And to help with that, I’ve rounded up ten of my favorites from his work on the Dark Knight. These are Bill Finger’s Best Batman Stories.
The Batman: Who He Is And How He Came To Be (1939)
As much as I love Batman, it’s hard to argue that the earliest Batman stories weren’t pretty directly inspired by the Shadow. The gun-toting hero who was secretly a millionaire, the supernatural and “Yellow Peril” villains, even the fact that he was flying around in an autogyro, those were all things lifted from Lamont Cranston’s adventures. In Detective Comics #33, however, six months after creating him, Finger and Kane distinguished Batman from other vigilantes in the simplest way possible: by giving him an origin.
Arguably the most important story in Batman history, “Who He Is and How He Came To Be” is a mere two pages, but has laid groundwork with powerful imagery that has remained virtually unchanged for 75 years. The mugger in the alley, the murder of the Waynes, the oath sworn by candlelight and the bat coming through the window as an omen, it’s all here, simple and effective, the beginning of Batman as a psychologically compelling figure and the idea of turning the fear he felt as a child against the criminals who caused it. Other creators — including Finger himself, naturally — have tinkered with the origin since, but these elements remain for one very good reason: It shows us why Batman fights.
The Four Horsemen Of Crime (1947)
As much as the high points of Finger’s work were often marked by a revealing look at the psychology of his characters (something that’s going to come up pretty often on this countdown), it’s important to remember that a lot of his work was fueled by imaginative ways to just cut loose and have fun. Case in point, Finger and Jim Mooney’s “The Four Horsemen of Crime,” from Batman #43, which already scores points by having a title that’s equal parts Biblical apocalypse and Ric Flair.
The premise for this one is full-on fan-fiction, as the mob hijacks a time machine and pits Batman against four of the greatest criminals in history: gangster John Dillinger, Wild West outlaw Jesse James, pirate captain William Kidd, and Genghis Khan. Admittedly, that last one isn’t quite the “robber-king” that Finger refers to him as, what with being the ruler of an empire that encompassed, you know, the largest land empire in history, but still, it’s pretty exciting to imagine how they’d stack up against the world’s greatest crimefighter. Naturally, it turns out to be a hoax — this is one of the rare occasions where Professor Nichols’ time machine doesn’t actually work — but Batman’s clever solutions and willingness to jump right into slugging it out with historical figures returned from the dead make it one of the most fun stories of the era.
The New Crimes Of Two-Face (1952)
Speaking of those dark, psychological stories, this one gets downright brutal. At the time, Harvey Dent had been cured of being Two-Face (both physically and mentally), but Finger and Lew Sayre Schwartz decided in Batman #68 that the time was right for a second person to fill the role. Enter Paul Sloane, an actor hired to play Harvey Dent in a film based on his criminal career who was horrifically scarred in an on-set accident and let the flip of a coin decide whether he’d follow in his subject’s footsteps.
Even though it has all the earmarks of a story of its era — Sloane immediately sets about committing two-themed crimes like robbing a movie theater’s double feature and stealing a two-handed sword — the story has a lot of incredibly sophisticated stuff going on, dealing with the theme of an actor who loses himself in his role and a hero who can’t just punch out the bad guy and send him to jail, but has to somehow figure out how to help him regain his sanity. Plus, it has one of the better examples of Batman straight up cheating to win.
Two things of note about this story: First, while Finger was profoundly influential (particularly on Grant Morrison, who used many of his stories for inspiration during his run on Batman, Batman Inc. and Batman & Robin), this particular story directly inspired Ed Brubaker, Tommy Castillo and Wade von Grawbadger’s “Dead Reckoning,” one of the best and most underrated Batman stories in recent memory. It hasn’t been collected, but fortunately, it’s available digitally. Second, the original version of this story had Sloane scarred when a crook pretending to be an actor threw acid in his face, mirroring Harvey Dent’s disfigurement. When it was reprinted in 1962 for an Annual, however, those panels were deemed to not fit the Comics Code, and were replaced with one where a Klieg light overheated, exploding and sending red-hot broken glass directly into Sloane’s face, which is way more violent and horrifying than the original.
The Clock King’s Crazy Crimes (1966)
One of the important things to note about Bill Finger’s career is that after co-creating Batman in 1939, he remained a vital part of the character’s evolution for decades after, and when Batman reached new heights of pop-culture popularity with the TV show, Finger was right there with him. It makes a lot of sense that he was, too — Finger was, after all, the man who came up with Robin, and the deathtraps that made up every cliffhanger on the small screen were one of his favorite plot devices in the comics.
Both show up in his contribution to the show, the two-parter where Adam West’s Batman battled Walter Slezak as the Clock King. There’s a lot to love in this one, like Batman and Robin being trapped in a giant hourglass and one of the rare times when a villain attacks Wayne Manor, but I love the idea of the Clock King posing as an artist and using a cacophonous “modern art” piece that makes so much noise that it covers its actual purpose, sawing a giant hole from an art gallery into the target of a robbery next door. Batman, of course, discovers the ruse by taking a picture of the Clock King and drawing a beret and glasses on it with a grease pencil. The World’s Greatest Detective, everyone.
The Man Who Ended Batman’s Career (1957)
A lot of Finger’s stories involved Batman being attacked mentally. Even before he co-created the Scarecrow, Finger had made the idea of weaponized fear had a part of Batman’s gimmick since the very beginning. It was a theme that he returned to time and time again, twisting it around to assault Batman once he’d been established as a physical powerhouse who was more than the equal of any two-fisted thug. In Detective Comics #247, he and Sheldon Moldoff produced an awesome take on this idea that holds up as a great adventure story.
The idea is simple: In order to counteract the fear that Batman inspires and that gives him such an edge in the war on crime, Professor Milo concocts a “phobia liquid” that makes Batman afraid of bats — so much so that the sight of his own costume or a batarang cripples him. Batman’s solution? Not to give up, but to continue fighting crime under another identity, attempting to power through until Robin basically has to tie him down and force him to conquer his fear by relentless exposure to it. It wasn’t the first time Finger would take Batman on a mind-bending adventure, but it’s definitely one of the best.
Batman’s First Case (1959)
When I interviewed him last year, long-time Batman writer Mike W. Barr cited Finger and Moldoff’s “Batman’s First Case” as the single best Batman story of all time, and from the guy who wrote “Fear For Sale,” easily in my top five, that’s pretty high praise. As Barr said then, “it’s got everything in it that you want from a Batman story. It’s got deathtraps, it’s got a colorful villain, it’s got the origin reprised, it’s got all kinds of giant props in it.” He’s not wrong, either — it’s a stellar example of not just Finger’s style, but how he’d add to the legend and tweak it as he went to create exciting new stories.
Admittedly, a run-of-the-mill crook deciding to become a clock-themed supervillain because Batman made him “do time” in prison is a bit of a groaner, but the template of the criminal returning from the past to take his revenge is one that writers have gone back to time and time again, and it’s just as thrilling here as it ever was. The really interesting thing, though, is the way Finger sets up Batman as a rookie by showing his mistakes, a piece of the puzzle that was seen pretty rarely back then, but that exploded in popularity in the wake of Year One.
One of the most compelling bits, in fact, comes from one of those moments, where Batman is duped into thinking a crook is surrendering because he was injured trying to escape. Unlike the other moments, this one isn’t shown to be a mistake on Batman’s part, instead being painted as an evil man taking advantage of someone compelled to do the right thing. Between that and the scene that shows Batman talking to crooks who actually did reform after he apprehended them, there’s a compassion and hope to this story that really makes it feel like Batman is accomplishing more than just trouncing the villain of the month.
The First Batman (1956)
“Batman’s First Case” was hardly the only time Finger and Moldoff would shade in the miissing pieces of Batman’s past, and the most famous by far was in Detective Comics #235, where they revealed that Thomas Wayne was the “first Batman.” With this story, Finger changed the entire conceit of Batman’s origin — it wasn’t a random mugging that took the life of Batman’s parents, but rather a calculated, premeditated murder carried out at the behest of a gangster that Thomas had defied. Crimefighting, it seems, ran in the family. The element of a mental challenge was there, too, though, as Batman was confronted with the man who ordered the murder of the Waynes, but who couldn’t remember doing it thanks to a convenient bout of amnesia. The climax, where Batman puts on his father’s old costume and terrifies Lew Moxon to the point where his memory comes back in a flood of terror, is to this day one of the most affecting and harrowing scenes in Batman history.
This particular story has floated in and out of continuity over the years — and really, what hasn’t? — but it’s one that creators love going back to. In addition to inspiring stories from creators like Barr and Morrison, it was used as the basis for “Chill of the Night,” one of the most highly regarded episodes of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, as wel as being the cornerstone of Len Wein, Jim Aparo and John Byrne’s indispensable Untold Legend of the Batman.
The Joker (1940)
This is the story that introduced the Joker. I’m not really sure I need to elaborate here.
Okay, maybe a little bit. In addition to introducing one of the greatest villains in comics (and, depending on who you ask, the entirety of modern fiction), Finger and Jerry Robinson’s story from Batman #1 is just beautifully structured. There’s no origin story here, the Joker just arrives fully formed, warning Gotham City of his murders a full day in advance before sneaking past whatever security measures the police and Batman set up, leaving his victims poisoned with their faces twisted into a hideous grin. It’s amazingly compelling — despite its Golden Age trappings, it holds up even today, and it’s easy to see why the Joker rose above contemporaries like Dr. Death and the Mad Monk to become the Batman villain.
As you might expect, this is another endlessly influential story. In addition to having a huge impact on The Dark Knight, the story’s been retold several times, notably in Englehart and Rogers’ “The Laughing Fish” (also adapted wonderfully into animation), and a more strict retelling in Brubaker and Mahnke’s The Man Who Laughs. Both are well worth reading and stand out as a couple of the all-time greats, but Finger and Robinson’s story is a truly timeless classic that formed the foundation.
The Joker Returns (1940)
So here’s the weird thing: The Joker’s first and second appearances are actually in the same comic, Batman #1. You could almost lump them together as the same story if they weren’t separated by the story of Hugo Strange’s Monster Men and the first appearance of Catwoman, also scripted by Finger, but they’re pretty distinct stories, although “The Joker Returns” is certainly a direct sequel to the first. Clearly, they knew they were onto something with this guy.
It’s a great one, too. While “The Joker” shows the Clown Prince of Crime’s calculating, sinister side, “The Joker Returns” amped him up as a terrifying and ruthlessly murderous villain. This is the story where he goes after Batman with a hatchet and a battle axe, sweating and yelling and swearing revenge, climaxing in a fight scene where he stabs himself in the chest with a poisoned switchblade, but somehow refusing to die even after Batman leaves his body for the police to find. It’s a brutal, violent and utterly thrilling story, and if you’ve ever wondered exactly where Christopher Nolan got his version of the character for the big screen, it’s pretty much all right here, 70 years before The Dark Knight made it to theaters.
Robin Dies At Dawn (1963)
“Robin Dies At Dawn” is one of the single best Batman stories ever printed. In a lot of ways, it’s also the perfect Bill Finger story, capturing so much of what he brought to Batman, so much of what I’ve been celebrating in this list, in a single story. The psychology, the strangeness, the unexpected twists, the relationship between Batman and Robin. If you can only read one Bill Finger story, this is the one.
That might seem like a weird recommendation when you consider that it has so much of the stuff that Batman fans have actively avoided in the years since it was published. It’s one of the last epics of the “Sci Fi Batman” era that saw the Caped Crusader traveling to alien worlds, and it’s full of the weirdness of the Silver Age. There’s a panel where Batman dresses up as a gorilla, for instance, because he’s fighting a gang of robbers who also dress up like gorillas. In that respect, it’s undeniably silly, but that only enhances the heart of this story rather than detracting from it. Besides, are you going to tell Bill Finger that Batman shouldn’t be weird sometimes?
The premise involves Batman undergoing a hallucinogenic isolation experiment designed to simulate space travel (he did that sort of thing back then), envisioning himself on a hostile alien world where everything turns against him, climaxing with a vision of Robin dying at the hands of a monster. It’s such a psychological blow that Batman loses his edge, too concerned with the well-being of his partner to fight crime, deciding that he’ll retire before he gets either of them killed, only to be forced back into action by a crime wave.
It’s no accident that Finger, the man who wrote Batman’s origin and defined him as someone motivated by the loss of his family, would return to that theme again for a story where Batman was almost defeated by the idea that he could lose the family he’d built as an adult. While the origin is the fear of a child, the fear that mom and dad could be taken away and leave you alone, “Robin Dies At Dawn” is the fear of an adult, of a parent who dreads nothing so much as outliving his child. For all the gorilla suits and alien planets, that’s the heart of this story, and it’s harrowing. The simple line “I must put away my Batman costume and retire from crimefighting,” lifted and twisted into a sinister refrain by Morrison 40 years later, is brutally effective. It’s everything great about Batman, and everything great about Bill Finger.