Comic book fans have always been accustomed to seeing one name listed as the creator of Batman: Bob Kane. But it was sort of an open secret within the deeper comics community that Batman had a co-creator, and his name was Bill Finger. In reality, both men contributed to the creation of one of the greatest characters of all time, back in 1939, but only one of them got any credit. It wasn’t until 2015 that Finger received any official credit by Batman’s owners, DC Comics and Warner Brothers. And the new documentary from local filmmakers Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce (The Art of the Steal) finally tells the untold story of Bill Finger and Batman.
The documentary is largely based on the research of author Marc Tyler Nobleman, who wrote Bill The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, a biography of Bill Finger. Before Nobleman’s work, not much was known about Finger or his life beyond a few interviews he had given to comics fans and journalist over the years. It took a decade of research in order to fully tell this story, and it takes surprising twists and turns over the course of its runtime.
While I am a lifelong Batman fan, this story is compelling for non-fans as well. The combination of history and mystery surrounding one of the biggest pop culture icons ever makes it positively addicting. And the tragedy of Bill Finger’s place as a lost figure in the real life history of Batman is as compelling as any superhero storyline could ever be largely because like those stories, this is also a quest for justice and standing up for the powerless.
And all credit goes to Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce for crafting the story into a compelling cinematic experience. It is easy to imagine this story as a book or a podcast, but the challenge of making a film when there is literally no known footage of the central figure is daunting (when Nobleman started his research, there were only two known photographs of Bill Finger!). But Nobleman himself is the entry point. His passion and optimistic enthusiasm in his quest to learn more about this hidden history, which later becomes a quest to see if DC Comics would credit Bill, radiates off the screen. Having him as a guide to this incredible journey goes a long way to make this an exciting watch.
The filmmakers also utilize comic book style art to illustrate some of the stories and events told within the film to great effect. The animation is perfectly suited to the information being shared, and never takes away from the emotions the film is trying to portray. And the talking head interviews from those who knew Finger personally as well as other well-known comic book industry figures are both fascinating, and at times, wildly entertaining.
In many ways, Batman & Bill is similar to Argott and Joyce's previous collaboration, The Art of the Steal, about the legal struggles around the Barnes Foundation and Albert C. Barnes’ will. Both are stories that involve decades of history and complicated legal matters, but are expressed on screen in a way that is not only easily understood, but intimately connected to the creators and their impact on the public consumers of their art.
I had the pleasure of seeing Batman & Bill last night on the big screen at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute with Argott, Joyce, and Nobleman in attendance. In a Q&A, the collaborative team discussed the filming process as well as some of the research. Nobleman was also asked to elaborate on his time working with Kevin Smith, who is featured in the film and supportive of the cause.
Although Kane does not come across in the best light, considering he was largely responsible for Finger's lack of credit. the filmmakers make a concerted effort to allow Bob Kane to explain himself in his own words using archival footage and recordings. As Joyce put it, it is better to allow Kane seal his own fate rather than have others speak to his thoughts on the subject. There was also a question regarding reactions from the Kane family and whether or not they have received pushback from his descendants. Although unfortunately, the film isn't slated for a theatrical release it does have the distinction of being the first original documentary for Hulu. You can support this wonderful film when it premieres on Hulu this Saturday, May 6th. I highly recommend you do.