Everyone knows that Batman fights for justice. Until recently, though, only die-hard fans knew about the grave injustice in the Dark Knight’s own past. Artist Bob Kane, despite receiving sole credit (and payment) as creator, wasn’t the only person responsible for Bruce Wayne: writer Bill Finger had invented most of the crime-fighter’s coolest stuff. The controversy and conflicted lasted for 75 years, but in 2015, DC Comics and Warner Bros. finally agreed to grant Finger co-creator credit.
Yet, there was no undoing the damage already done. A new Hulu documentary, Batman & Bill, chronicles how Bill Finger created a legend and died penniless and forgotten, and how Finger’s heirs, along with writer Marc Tyler Nobleman, finally righted this wrong. It also shines a light on the systemic injustices in Golden Age and Silver Age comics publishing, in which many other brilliant creators were shafted. But most of all, it makes you think about the meaning of Batman in a whole new way.
The documentary’s most compelling when it focuses on the relationship between Kane and Finger, two men who couldn’t have been more different. Kane, who died in 1998, was a brash, boastful figure, one who saw his creation—and its popularity—as an extension of himself. A classic showman, he greeted fans wearing sharp suits or Bat-cowls, sold original oil paintings of Bats (which the documentary claims were painted by other artists), and wrote a grandiose autobiography. Even when he wasn’t around fans, he preened; the documentary makes much of archival footage and audio recordings of Kane extolling his own genius.
Meanwhile, Finger was … well, a total nerd. He obsessively researched weird facts, and kept a giant notebook full of scraps and notes that he could use in the next Batman comic—information gleaned from riding the bus for hours on end, staring out at the city and recording what he saw. Batman’s tragic backstory sprang from his own dark imagination, as did most of the hero’s other defining traits, and even feverish gimmicks like having Batman fight on giant typewriters or dodge giant pennies. But that creativity came with isolation: He made only one appearance at a 1965 convention, and did almost no interviews.
So which one of these men was the heart of Batman? Bob Kane’s gravestone insists that “Bob Kane, Bruce Wayne, Batman—they are one and the same,” and that Kane “infused his dual identity character with his own attributes.” Batman & Bill, on the other hand, argues that Finger, with his eye for strangeness and his penchant for avoiding the limelight, was Bruce Wayne’s real spiritual father.
But with a cultural icon like Batman, who historically has reflected the zeitgeist rather than steering it, that discussion depends on which version of Batman you’re talking about. It’s no accident that Kane seized the moment when Bats became a TV star in 1966, and again when Tim Burton made him a movie juggernaut in 1989. Kane’s larger-than-life personality and big talk were the perfect match for the giant media phenomenon who sailed through kaleidoscopic pop art and dark-camp lunacy. But there are many beloved versions of Batman , that range from grim to glam.
With a cultural icon like Batman, who historically has reflected the zeitgeist rather than steering it, any discussion depends on which version of Batman you’re talking about.
And as Batman & Bill continues, it becomes obvious that Kane only understood part of what made Batman great. Again and again he trumpet’s the hero’s surface elements, the cool car and the awesome gear. But that surface is built on a foundation that Finger constructed. It was Finger, not Kane, who obsessively built the tiny details that, along with the core of Bruce Wayne’s motivations, became the substrate for one of comics’ most enduring and adaptable heroes. Even if you still believe that Kane, not Finger, came up with the cape, the cowl, the billionaire alter ego, the origin story, the Batmobile, and most of the supporting cast, those things are just the trappings—they’re not why people keep falling in love with Batman.
Batman’s great strength is that he’s always recognizably Batman, with his thirst for justice and his single-minded focus, whether he’s in a dark alley or a day-glo soundstage. And the range of weirdness that Batman can live within feels like the work of a geeky introvert who kept a giant book of random facts and observations. (Not to mention that the best Batman stories are often where he wins by being a total geek—by figuring stuff out or by using knowledge, rather than batarangs, against his foes)
Recognizing Finger as the unsung co-creator of Batman doesn’t just right a longstanding wrong. As Batman & Bill shows, this long-deserved recognition also helps us to understand what kind of mind really built Gotham City. (Fair warning: Batman & Bill is about 20 minutes too long, with some slow parts, and needless repetition. But it’s still a highly compelling documentary.) Finally seeing a portrait of the shadowy figure behind Batman is like getting to know the real Bruce Wayne, for the very first time.