Pursuing truth and justice for Superman, Batman creators
Published 12:00 am, Friday, August 7, 2015
When Marc Tyler Nobleman set out a decade ago to publish illustrated books about the creators of Batman and Superman, he quickly became engaged in a dogged effort to unearth fresh details about men most fans had never heard of.
“This is a topic I was so fortunate to stumble upon,” said Nobleman, a former Greenwich resident.
Bill Finger; the writer widely acknowledged as having made critical changes to the Batman character brought to him by Bob Kane, did not die a wealthy man at age 59. Working on a book about Finger’s life, Nobleman found just a few photos of his subject during a nine-month search.
“I got to this story too late and I wish someone did it while Bill was here,” Nobleman said. “But I got to the story at the right time to get some first-hand information from people in their golden years. ”
Nobleman gave a lecture to an impassioned audience at New Canaan Library this week about his ongoing effort to assure those who created Batman and Superman get credit for their legacy and his illustrated books “Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman,” and “Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.”
To Nobleman, it is wrong that the names of Batman co-creator, Finger, and Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, only have the proper weight with a small cognoscenti of comic book historians and fans.
“Whether you knew it or not when you walked in the room you’re in my army now because you know the truth,” Nobleman said. “The truth is the closest thing we mere mortals have to a super power. All you have to do is talk about it, even if you never read my book.”
While the books are illustrated and written for young people, Nobleman said he approached the task as a journalist, digging up copious documentation, interviews and other research to give the men their due.
While Nobleman has written dozens of other books, the Batman and Superman books have both won him some status as an authority both inside and beyond the insular fraternity of comic book enthusiasts for unearthing fresh information about Finger, Siegel, and Shuster.
In the case of Superman’s creators, writer Siegel and artist Shuster sold the rights to the Man of Steel for $130 in the late 1930s, and didn’t regain public credit for inventing the character until 1976.
“There is a huge disconnect between (Superman’s) fame and the story behind him,” Nobleman said. “I was drawn to the story as a fan and stayed because as a writer there was a mystery to solve.”
Finger was deprived shared credit with Bob Kane, a comic book artist who claimed to be the Dark Knight’s sole creator from Batman’s first comic appearance in 1939 onward, Nobleman said.
Nobleman told the audience that Finger deserves near total credit for transforming a more pedestrian “Batman” sketch brought to him by Kane, introducing the dark black and gray colors and the anthropomorphic cowl and black cape along with a penchant for advanced gadgets and weaponry. Nobleman said Finger also suggested Batman be a normal human being without alien or mutant powers.
Over time Finger created the Joker, Catwoman, the Penguin and the Riddler, the Batmobile, the Batcave and the noirish setting of Gotham City, Nobleman said.
“Bob had the ability to recognize other ability and he knew it wasn’t good enough,” Nobleman said. “He knew who to call, and he called his friend Bill.”
From his research, Nobleman said Finger did little before his death in 1974 to fight back as he watched Kane grow rich as the sole acknowledged creator for the increasingly lucrative Dark Knight.
“This is a name that should be on every Batman story we see,” Nobleman said of Finger. “But in his 25 years of writing Batman comics, 1,500 stories in all including the first one, Bill’s name appeared as co-creator or writer of the original writer exactly zero times. Bill was essentially a ghost for most of his career.”
In 1965, the obscure Finger gave the first of only a few interviews that outlined his role in creating Batman. It drew a swift denial by Kane, Nobleman said.
“This is not a happy story and not a story where the hero saves the day,” Nobleman said. “But because Batman is Batman and we all know him, and many of us love him, it is a story worth knowing.”
When the young Siegel and Shuster dreamed up an orphan from Krypton who crash-landed on Earth and drew super powers from the rays of the sun, they created an archetype future artists drew on to create the Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and other super heroes with fantastic and improbable powers, Nobleman said.
“Jerry was the writer and Joe was the artist and they were best friends,” Nobleman said. “They created not only a character but a genre. It is the inspiration for things still going on today.”
In his research for “Boys of Steel,” Nobleman said his passion as a fan made him press for incredible levels of historic detail when researching Siegel and Shuster’s formative years in Chicago. In Chicago, Nobleman talked the current owner to let him enter Siegel’s boyhood bedroom to take photographs. The photos enabled his illustrator, Ross MacDonald, to do more than reproduce a generic illustration of the teenaged Siegel writing on his typewriter.
In 1947, Siegel and Shuster sued National Comics in hopes of wresting back the rights they had sold to Superman, but lost the suit as well as their jobs. In 1975, the pair launched a public awareness campaign about their treatment by DC Comics which resulted in them each getting annual payments of $20,000 to increase over time and credit for creating the Man of Steel.
“They lost and lost their jobs and DC took their name off of Superman,” Nobleman said. “…Some people say they won a great victory in 1976, but they had had 35 years of hardship and suffered for their entire adult lives. They were old men by then, so it was a Pyrrhic victory.”
Nobleman said he was unsure whether the upcoming film “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” would result in a wider platform to discuss the historical issues around the creation of both superheroes.
Finger’s living descendants, his granddaughter Athena Finger and her son, have surfaced in comic book circles to express their dissatisfaction with the continued lack of credit for Bill Finger 77 years later.
“You could give her an amount of money that would change her family’s life for generations but it would be a drop in the bucket in Batman money,” Nobleman said. “But she wants the name on Batman which is the sticking point.”