Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hulu's "Batman & Bill" documentary-- more #BigFinger propaganda

Bob Kane lived the high life after "creating" Batman. Bill Finger died alone in diminished circumstances. It's an exceptionally sad and unfair story. 

Hulu’s “Batman & Bill” documentary opens with the author Marc Tyler Nobleman speaking to a group of children, spreading propaganda. Allegedly telling the whole story and correcting history, but in fact re-writing it to for his own aggrandizement.

Ostensibly about one of Batman’s “co-creators,” “Batman & Bill” ends up being a monument to the nobility, passion, and heroism of Nobleman himself. The David taking on the Time/Warner Goliath for the most noble of reasons—simply to gain creator credit for an unjustly forgotten visionary. If you don’t believe that Nobleman isn’t a noble man, don’t worry—his own wife interviews that he’s a “persistent” “detective” who is a “very brave person.” And: “He’s also very righteous and he wants to do right in the world.” Nobleman himself says that getting credit for Finger was part of a “higher moral obligation.” 

What starts this noble man on his quest is his desire to write a book about Finger and the creation of Batman. Before he gets started people tell him that there’s just not enough material there. But he knows different, and it’s not long before Nobleman is “uncovering a big superhero secret that should have been blown wide decades ago.”

He confides that “I had a couple of people who told me that ‘What you are trying to do will never happen.’” And while he’s relating that particular bit of information the on-screen animation shows Nobleman putting on a dark trench coat, then walking out of his house as he casts a shadow on the walkway before him. That shadow—and I am not making this up—has pointy bat-ears. This is because Nobleman sees himself as a Batman figure: “The parallel was not lost on me [of course it wasn’t!] that Bill made Batman a detective, and I was a detective in search of Bill’s legacy…” He says that his quest “became addictive.” 

Nobleman shows us some home movies in which he asks his daughter What’s my job? “Bill Finger,” she replies. What do I do? he continues. “Bill Finger” is her answer. It’s meant to be a cutesy-poo moment but it’s actually a biting commentary on Nobleman’s seemingly blind monomania. (At one point he’s shown harassing Batman cosplayers at San Diego Comic Con. “Do you know who Bill Finger is?” he badgers them. It would have been nice if one of them had asked him, “Do you know who Theodore Tinsley is?”) “Bill Finger” was, in fact, his job. “Bill Finger” made Nobleman a noble man. “There has to be someone who stands up and leads the charge,” he says at another point. Nobleman is just that rare and singular person. 

Nobleman actually comes across as self-aggrandizing, vainglorious, and grandiose as Bob Kane. And Bob Kane comes off very, very badly indeed. It’s difficult to like Kane, to be honest. He owned and ran the studio that produced the original Batman stories for National Comics, but his actual participation in the creation of those stories was—well, it wasn’t as singular as his single credit byline would have you believe. He was just part of a group that put those comics packages together. He had the sense and wherewithal to negotiate with National directly, but in fact what Kane did at his studio wasn’t particularly unusual. Almost every studio that was producing work for publishers in that era was bylined by a single creator, if in fact it had a byline at all. The difference is that most of the characters produced by those studios went nowhere. National, which would later become DC, was able to exploit the Intellectual Property to build it into the inescapable juggernaut that it is today.

The Shadow isn't mentioned once in "Batman & Bill." I wonder why?

The story is, roughly, that Kane either on his own initiative or at the behest of National Comics was inspired to create a new superhero, because Siegel and Shuster were making $800 a week from Superman. In 1939 that was big money. So Kane drew a picture of a man in red long underwear, a domino mask, and batwings. Kane either originally called this guy “Bird-Man,” or he actually wrote “Bat-Man” on it. He showed the image to Finger, an employee of Kane’s studio, who suggested Kane change the wings to a scalloped cape, make the long underwear darker, and give him a cowl with bat-ears on it. Kane took the revised drawing to National and made a deal to produce comics featuring the character, which National would publish.

The film suggests that there was no formal written agreement between Kane and Finger regarding the character “Bat-Man,” or the writing work that Finger did on the character. This is important because Finger’s heirs were able to use this as leverage to suggest that Time/Warner might not have ANY claim on the character. During this section of the film the cover of a copy of the 1976 Copyright Act appears—it would have been nice to get some clarification as to why and how a law passed in 1976 would have any bearing on events from 1939. But then again, this documentary isn’t about imparting any real information. It’s about chronicling the efforts of a noble man. That said, I have written extensively about copyright law as it pertains to comics, to Superman in particular, so feel free to read my past work on the subject for far more information than you’ll get from the documentary.

“Bat-Man” appears in Detective Comics #27, cover dated May 1939, in a story called “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” That story was written by Bill Finger, and illustrated by Bob Kane. Actually, it was swiped by Bill Finger. It was in fact nothing more than a re-writing of a Shadow novel originally published in 1936 called “Partners of Peril.” I’ve already documented some of Bill Finger’s extensive creative swiping. You can read about the actual origins of the cowl, the scalloped gloves, the utility belt, the Joker, Two-Face, the Batmobile, the Batcave, the parents-shot-by-a-street-tough-while-leaving-a-theater origin story, and so on there.

None of this information appears in “Batman & Bill.” The pulp magazines that let’s say “inspired” Bill Finger get not a single mention. The viewer is led to believe that Finger, an avid pulp magazine reader, simply came up with all of his contributions out of thin air. There is absolutely no context whatsoever given to Batman’s “creation” story. This is a glaring omission that assumes that the history of Batman starts in 1939 and casts Finger in borrowed robes. He was obviously a talented guy, but there were precedents for just about everything that Finger contributed to Batman. Precedents that are so remarkably similar that it’s very, very difficult to believe that Finger didn’t swipe them.

That said, Kane fights hard to assume all the credit for Batman’s “creation” on his own. When Finger appears at a comic book convention in the 1960s and Jerry Robinson, who worked in Kane’s studio at the time of Bat-Man’s creation, points out in a fanzine that Finger deserved some credit in Batman’s creation, Kane pens a self-serving editorial in another fanzine, essentially giving himself sole credit. It also appears that Kane might have attempted to buttress his story of being solely responsible for Bat-Man’s creation by scribbling a character with a scalloped cape, a cowl with bat-ears, and a bat-symbol on his chest, and dating it “1/17/1934.”

Who knows? Maybe it’s authentic. Pulp adventure magazines were selling hundreds of thousands of copies a month—maybe Kane was inspired by them the way Finger was, years later.

Kane also has a painfully self-aggrandizing headstone made—it’s almost the Hulu documentary of headstones, casting its subject as an exceptionally noble man.

As Nobleman says of Kane, “He had a chance to take the high road or…the low road. And he took the VERY LOW road.” Luckily, detective Nobleman is on the case. For a detective, however, he seems to be exceptionally uncurious about Finger’s inspirations. Also, strangely, in 2007, when he learns of the existence of Bill Finger’s granddaughter, it doesn’t occur to him to search Myspace for her. And it’s not entirely clear why it was so hard to track her and her father down when Finger’s family had made an effort to get Finger credit around the time of Tim Burton’s original 1989 film. But, again, this movie isn’t particularly about imparting information. 

(Actually, the parts about Finger's son and granddaughter are kind of touching, and the documentary wisely moves away from Nobleman for at least part of that. But it still can't help itself, and ends with a bit in which Nobleman goes to the movies to see Batman V Superman and gets a little misty-eyed when he sees that "Batman created by Bob Kane with Bill Finger" credit on the big screen. We don't get his reaction to the rest of that cinematic classic, however.)

Nobleman’s book about Finger is published, which leads to a TED Talk, an interview on NPR, and an appearance on Kevin Smith’s podcast. All of which contribute to “raising an army… a groundswell of support.” He’s growing the #BigFinger movement. For too long there’s been a myth of Bob Kane! The only way to correct it is to construct a myth of Bill Finger!

And that’s what this movie is really about.

Finger clearly deserves at least as much credit as Kane for Batman’s creation. But the story is a lot more complex than this shallow and inadvertently amusing film makes it appear. Some acknowledgement of Finger’s “inspiration” would have been welcome. But it would open up some very thorny questions about the nature of creativity, inspiration, and plagiarism. For instance, shouldn’t Shadow writer Theodore Tinsley get a credit as well, considering he’s the author of the story that Finger swiped when he put together that first Bat-Man story? Shouldn’t Tinsley get a co-creator credit on the Joker, considering he wrote a “Bulldog” Drummond story about a clown gangster called “the Joker”? 

Most interestingly, how has modern copyright law affected creativity? If a “Bat-Man” were to be created today, would its “creators” be able to actually get away with it, or would the publishers of all the characters that “inspired” it sue? How directly can you lift something that has "inspired" you, and how much do you have to do to "transform" what has inspired you? (As Krusty the Clown once said, "If this is anyone but Steve Allen, you're stealing my bit!")

The documentary notes that Batman is one of the most recognizable "characters" in the world. Nobleman's noble quest has taken him all over, but no matter where he goes, he tells us, everyone knows what "Batman" is. Superheroes are a major part of the culture now, and Batman is one of the biggest, if not the biggest. It has inspired a lot of loyalty. Exploring the real story of it's creation would expose exactly what it is that people are pledging that loyalty to.

Kevin Smith interviews that Batman is “a character that people build their moral compass upon.” Considering that Batman is a piece of corporate Intellectual Property that was cobbled together from scraps that were lifted whole cloth from other, largely forgotten pulp characters whose writers are more forgotten than Finger ever was, it makes you wonder just which direction that compass is pointing.