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As Batman turns 80, remembering the story of long-unrecognized co-creator Bill Finger

Batman's first appearance

Batman’s first appearance in May 1939, on the cover of "Detective Comics" number 27. Batman was created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, though Finger’s contribution would go unrecognized for decades.

This year, DC Comics celebrates the story of Batman, a versatile superhero character who has become an icon of American comic book culture. Eighty years ago this month, Bob Kane (born Robert Kahn) and Milton “Bill” Finger, two Jewish New Yorkers, collaborated to develop the character and his world. However, Kane took complete credit for Batman’s creation for decades. Finger finally got recognition for his work in 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” movie. Sadly, he had already been dead for 42 years.

Finger’s story is an infamous, albeit tragic one in comics, but its significance can resonate with artists and writers in other fields as well. It is important to remember Finger this year not only for his incredible artistic achievements, but also because his story is a cautionary tale for creators. For avid Batman fans like myself, it is a time when we can be grateful to a man who contributed so much to the comic universe we adore. Perhaps more importantly, it is a time when we can recognize the importance of giving credit where credit is due.

I remember Finger’s work well. I have reprintings of early Batman stories that I’ve read dozens of times, not just for their historical significance but because they are thrilling comics. Kane’s art and designs were important, but it was Finger who successfully blended the optimism of Superman with gritty detective storytelling in “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” Batman’s first appearance. It was Finger who crafted Bruce Wayne’s origin as a young, lonely orphan, determined to change the world for the better with his actions. It was Finger whose stories have resonated with Batman fans for almost a century now and have been retold again and again — because they are truly great, and they speak to something within all of us who want justice, fairness and a good adventure.

In the early days of comics, an artist would receive total credit for his creation. Kane asked Finger to help him develop Batman’s character solely as a writer, so Finger didn’t receive any credit as creator. In the years that followed, Kane would become a celebrity while Finger suffered financially until his death in 1974. 

The writer’s tragic lack of acknowledgement from DC Comics serves as an admonition to those who might otherwise help their colleagues with projects without worrying about official recognition, or would agree to sell their work to a corporate entity without realizing what they were signing away. People like Finger need to protect themselves from people like Kane — and they should be aware of the copyright laws in place to help them do this.

Sometimes, Batman stories can make wrong and right appear so simple and powerful. A classic opener for a story in Gotham City is a tormented soul screaming for help as he is about to be mugged — only to be rescued by the Batman, who arrives just in time. Life is not usually like this. Normally, we do not have dramatic examples of heroes who save us from the troubles of our lives. However, Batman can serve as a representation of what is good in the world — a representation of those courageous souls who work to make our lives better. 

Finger was not rescued by a hero like Batman during his lifetime, but people like Marc Tyler Nobleman, who campaigned tirelessly with Finger’s granddaughter Athena to eventually get Finger credit for his creations remind us of Batman’s spirit — the spirit of protecting the innocent and fighting for truth and justice. 

On the 80th anniversary of the Batman, let’s remember that we all have opportunities to be heroes. The world needs more of them for people like Bill Finger.

Joel Grebler, 18, is a senior at Whitfield School and lives in Clayton. This fall, he plans to attend college at University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where he hopes to major in illustration and/or creative writing.