By Mike Dobuski
The world was once again treated with a trip to Gotham City with this past March’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. While the film received mixed reviews from critics, its profitability cannot be diminished having raked in over $166 million opening weekend. What many Fordham moviegoers may not realize, however, is the blockbuster’s inherent link to our very own borough: the Bronx.
Milton Finger, the creator of “Batman,” was born to parents Louis and Tessie in 1914 in Denver, Colorado. Before the end of the decade, the Finger family, which included Milton’s two sisters, Emily and Gilda, moved to the Bronx.
Milton’s father started his own tailor shop and Milton began to attend Dewitt Clinton High School, which is still in operation today on Mosholu Parkway. The school was also attended by Stan Lee, another great figure in comic books. The next few years were difficult for the Finger family. Milton’s father lost his business during the Great Depression, and money was hard to come by.
Milton graduated from high school in 1933 and changed his name to Bill because of the increased discrimination that Jewish residents were facing in New York in the early 1930s. Whereas “Milton” was a traditional Jewish name, “Bill” was much more likely to be hired given the social climate of the time.
His mother and father pressured him to become a doctor, but Bill had other plans. After working a string of odd jobs to support his family, Bill Finger settled into relatively stable employment as a shoe salesman in 1939. After work, however, Bill honed his true passion: writing and illustrating adventure stories. He and his friend Bob Kane, published a number of comic books throughout the 1930s and 40s, including stories for strips such as Rusty and Clip Carson. None of those stories received as much attention, however, as the one that appeared in issue No. 27 of Detective Comics in April of 1939. The character was drawn up in response to National Comic’s introduction of Superman the previous year, and was named simply: Batman.
The Batman who protected the streets of Gotham City in 1939 was very different from the one portrayed on film by Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck. Kane and Finger spent a great deal of time during those early days in Poe Park on Grand Concourse fleshing out the various aspects of Batman’s backstory and character. At Bill Finger’s request, the tortured hero’s costume was changed from its original red to a more sinister black. It was also Finger’s idea to make Gotham’s Dark Knight a human, as opposed to the more colorful Superman, who was an alien. Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of the 2012 children’s book “Bill The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman,” had this to say about Finger’s contributions to the story of Batman: “Bill thought that Batman should be a human being who could be hurt. A superhero without superpowers. Someone anyone could be.” Other ideas that Finger came up with while working in the Bronx include the Batmobile and the name of Batman’s hometown, Gotham City.
Vin Sullivan was an editor for National Allied Comics, which would eventually become DC Comics, when Kane showed him the first character outline and sketches for Batman. Though both Finger and Kane collaborated on the character of Batman, it was Kane who received the lion’s share of the credit. In fact, during the first 25 years of Batman comics, Finger’s name was only mentioned once, namely because Kane never offered him a byline.
In 1964, Finger’s story began to come to light after an editor at a comic book convention introduced him as “a Batman writer from the very first.” Not long after, Finger sat down for an interview in which he revealed his work on Batman for the first time on record. His creation was one of only two superhero comics to be published regularly since the 1930s, and not long after the interview, reprints of his original Batman stories began to feature his name alongside Kane’s. He continued to write for Batman until 1965, when he transitioned to writing for mystery comics. He died in his sleep on Jan. 18th, 1974, just a month before his 60th birthday.
“I’m sure there are plenty of stories of people who have lived in the Bronx who have done prolific things,” says communications major Adam Seighman, FCRH ‘17. “It’s a big city and I think it’s hard to recognize sometimes smaller figures who have done important things.”
Though Kane initially called the story of Finger’s involvement in the creation of Batman overblown, in 1989 he formally announced Finger had never received the true recognition he deserved. Kane did not, however, adjust the part of his contract that stipulated that he be listed as the sole creator of Batman.
Today, Poe Park, where much of the early work on Batman was done, is less than a mile’s walk from Fordham’s campus and the Bill Finger Awards for Excellence in Comic Book Writing are awarded annually.