The Unsung Hero: A Birthday Tribute To Bill Finger
In 1939, Superman kicked open the doors of a brand new genre, and an entire generation of young creators did their level best to shape the future of superheroes. In that spirit, in an office in New York, a 24-year-old artist brought his creative partner an idea — a name, really: “Bat-Man.” Beyond that, there wasn’t much to it. The artist was toying with the idea of a blonde, lantern-jawed hero in a domino mask who could fly, but his partner saw a little more to it.
Instead of the artist’s bright red costume, the writer suggested a darker color scheme, something reminiscent of The Shadow, but with a cowl designed to mimic the ears of a bat, and give him a more fearsome appearance; and instead of super-powers, he could be a man who fought crime through his own strength and wits, driven by the tragic murder of his parents to spend his life in an endless war on crime. That writer was Bill Finger, born this day in 1914, and while his name rarely appeared on the comics he created, he remains one of the most influential creators in comic book history.
If Batman was the only character that Finger had ever worked on, that would still be one of the most impressive accomplishments in comic book history. Working with artists like Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, and Sheldon Moldoff, Finger was instrumental in co-creating elements that that define him to this day — lasting elements of the story that include Robin, the Joker, Catwoman, the Penguin, the Riddler, Batman’s origin, the death of his parents in Crime Alley, the Batmobile, and more.
And beyond that early story, he’d spend the next three decades contributing to the character’s lasting legacy, writing some of the character’s most memorable adventures, including “Batman’s First Case,” described by former Detective Comics writer Mike W. Barr as “the best single Batman story of all time,” and the classic “Robin Dies At Dawn,” a thrilling epic that married the darker aspects of Batman’s story with the pop-art sci-fi elements that were so popular at the time.
But while those are the easy contributions to point to as the hallmarks of Finger’s work in comics, his legacy goes far beyond Gotham City — which, incidentally, was a city he named. On Superman, he was the writer who imported Kryptonite into the comics from its original appearance on the radio show, and his gift for compelling, emotionally gripping origin stories extended to the Man of Steel, too, as evidenced by his work alongside Wayne Boring, telling the story of “The Origin of Superman” in 1948.
He co-created Wildcat with artist Irwin Hasen, and wrote the earliest adventures of the Golden Age Green Lantern, who had been created by Martin Nodell — something that John Broome and Gil Kane paid tribute to when they created Green Lantern’s foe, the Black Hand, also known by his real name, William:
But despite the incredible amount of work that he did, and the lasting popularity of his greatest creation, Finger lived his life in relative obscurity. Outside of an occasional reference, he was rarely credited for what he’d done, and certainly never as the co-creator of Batman — a fact that wasn’t widely known until Jerry Bails revealed the truth in a fanzine published in 1965, just as Batman’s pop culture prominence was hitting its peak.
Now, though, it looks like that has finally changed. In 2015, after years of lobbying by fans and a movement spearheaded by Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ty Templeton, who told Finger’s story in an indispensable children’s book called Bill the Boy Wonder, Finger’s name was finally added as the co-creator of Batman, on television, in films, and, most fittingly, in the comics where he he made his debut.
So today, as we’re celebrating Bill Finger’s birthday and his movement from unsung hero to recognition as an incredible creator finally getting his due, take a moment to look past the heroes of your favorite stories, to the people who helped to create them. It’s certainly true that those stories and those characters can endure beyond a single voice, and that in the case of someone like Batman, they can grow to be far more than any single team could have made them, but the simple fact is that there are always people behind those stories, laying the foundations and building from them to create something bigger.
In that regard, Bill Finger was a master, and he deserves all the credit we’re giving him for a lifetime of incredible stories.
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