Pop culture fans have a tendency to deify not only the characters they come to love, but also their creators. A choice few, like George Lucas, J.K. Rowling and Stan Lee, have become just as beloved as the worlds and heroes they created. But what if the lore of creation fed to fans wasn't always as true as believed?
Take the case of Batman and his "creator" Bob Kane. Ask even casual fans the name of the person who created The Dark Knight, who debuted way back in Detective Comics #27 (1939), and Kane's name will likely come forth because of his distinctive signature on the comic books covers and his creator title on every single animated series, or film, featuring the character. Except that's just not the whole truth.
In Hulu's new documentary, Batman & Bill, documentarians Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce follow the 10-year odyssey of author Marc Tyler Nobleman's discovery, and personal quest, to clarify to the world that writer Milton "Bill" Finger is actually the co-creator of Batman. The film charts how Nobleman's research for a children's book on the character and creator uncovered a breadcrumb trail of stories and documentation that revealed Bob Kane's squelching the truth of Finger's early shaping, and writing of the character in favor of a perpetuated lone creator mythos. Like a justice-seeking hero from the comics he adores, Nobleman chased the real story like it was a 60 Minutes expose in hopes of restoring Finger's legacy, in of all things a children's book, after finding out Finger died penniless and alone in 1974.
As absorbing as any whodunit and as rewarding as any triumphant comic book ending, Batman & Bill ends up revealing that true heroes are often everyday people who see a wrong and do everything they can to make it right. In an exclusive sit down with married filmmakers Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce, we talk about the long road this story had to take to not only officially rectify Batman's creative origins, but finally get completed as a film.
When did you guys first meet Marc Tyler Nobleman, and determine his Bill Finger quest would make a great doc?
Sheena M. Joyce: We met after a screening at the New York Film Festival, and we hit it off. He was in the process of writing his book [Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman] at the time. It's so funny because the way he described his work and his process and all of this research, we thought he was making this epic tome. And then it's a kid's book. Now Marc will correct me and say it's for kid's of all ages, which I get, but the level of research that Marc did for a kid's book was staggering. It shows not just his investment, but his obsession, and that was fascinating for us. It's also a story right in front of you that you don't know that much about, and we got to explore it in an emotional and entertaining way.
Don Argott: And I think one of the things Marc saw in us as filmmakers helping to tell the story was that it was an outlet to tell the whole story. Even if he's writing a book [about it], I don't think it would have garnered the attention in the same way.
Unlike most docs, this film started and stopped quite a bit along the way. Was that frustrating or just necessary?
Don: What appealed to us, and what happened with this story, and it's a shame all stories can't be this way where you can look back, but this was the perfect hybrid of something that happened in the past but was also completing itself. We came in five years ago and then stopped it because Marc had to do his thing. There needed to be a separation between what he was in the middle of, and what he uncovered.
Sheena: And five years ago, one of the problems was because Marc was trying to get Athena [Bill's granddaughter] to mount this lawsuit [against DC Entertainment], it wasn't happening. For us as filmmakers, as great Bill Finger's story is and needed to be told, we knew that we couldn't tell a two-act film. The third act was this big question mark and unfortunately, in a situation like this with intellectual property and copyright laws, they can go on for 40 years. But it all happened in a perfect way where Marc uncovered all of this stuff. He never gave up and was so passionate about it. He would give us updates.
So you just would get updates and then go back to shooting when something important happened?
Sheena: Yes, we were lucky to capture it in stages. We were there when Marc first met Athena which was amazing. We could then give it a little distance and perspective and revisit it when Athena's sister came into the picture to help her out and it became more of a family story. Concurrently, we also grew up with Marc's family getting to see his daughter grow up too, which was wonderful.
Honestly, when Nobleman's name comes up and you watch his story unfold, it's like his name was fated for this passion project.
Don: Yes! You don't even want to highlight that because it's too much. (Laughs)
Sheena: You know, Marc's wife is one of my favorite parts of the film. She's so great and funny in the way she describes his journey becoming a family affair. Time became a benefit for us too in that Marc was so in it in the beginning that he did kind of walk that fanatic line that might push people away a little bit. But as the years go on, he got a perspective on it from when he was so deep in the fight. It was nice to have him through that journey, and then he could be more reflective about the lengths he went to uncover this story.
You have these wonderful, original animations that run through the film that portray key moments in both Marc and Bill's lives. It's a perfect thematic choice considering the medium the film is about but how did they come into being?
Sheena: We knew early on that we wanted an animation component but it was a fine line to walk between what is appropriate, emotional, effective and cheesy. We waited until we had most of the film cut and we were giving the animators scenes as we were shaping the film because it was easier for us to be able to tell a moment we didn't have coverage for, or we could use it as device in a way that could highlight something our footage, or photographs or a talking head couldn't do.
Don: We've never used an animation component in any of our films before. We've been making docs for a long time. The way in which you tell documentaries keeps evolving, and as a filmmaker you're always trying to challenge yourself to make it more interesting and not rely on the same talking heads, archival footage or recreations. We really wanted to find the middle ground and not use animation where it felt like a cartoon.
Sheena: Or we were ripping pages out of the existing comics. We had this idea to animation Bill's portion of the story in one style, and Marc's in another. I don't want to say it's just as much Marc's story as Bill's but to give him his own stamp was a way to differentiate their stories.
Let's talk about the fans who might be angry to learn that Bob Kane willfully buried Bill's importance to Batman in terms of his early look, the formative narrative, and even the creation of characters like The Joker. Kane passed away in 1998 so there's no rebuttal from him, his family or DC executives in this film. Are you resigned to that?
Sheena: Well, Bob Kane's well-represented and there's no editing for dramatic effect. It was him in his own words so that's a big part of it. Also because the story had gone on so long, there were many people who had been involved with DC over the years who were not attached to them right now, and they had intimate knowledge of situation and we could get their perspective. We may not have the current administration commenting but I feel we represented their side.
What's been the feedback from Batman and Kane fans so far?
Sheena: We really haven't heard because our film hasn't been there yet. We'll see.
This long odyssey actually ends with a happy ending for Nobleman and Finger's family with Bill getting co-creator status on everything Batman related from now on. What's the ellipsis with Marc now in terms of your on-going relationship?
Don: We stay in touch with him. The geography is difficult but we stay in touch via social media and email, and press for the film now. It's funny crafting an ending that is satisfying and truthful is tricky. There's been many incarnations of this ending as Marc will not stop and we have his wife saying that. It's the beginning of the next phase. Like, our original ending had more of a coda in Poe Park where he goes back talking about a Bill Finger plaque. It was great and had a nice feeling, but it left you feeling ... different than the now uplifting, heroic ending.
Sheena: Exactly. It doesn't get better than seeing Bill's name on the [theater]screen and seeing Marc realize that. I get choked up just thinking about it. It's one thing for Athena and her family to realize that and go to the [Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice] premiere and be recognized in that way. But for Marc - much like Bill worked behind-the-scenes for so many years - to sit in a dark theater and witness it, that's all he wanted.
So what's your next obsession we can look forward to seeing as a documentary?
Don: The next thing is a John DeLorean documentary, DeLorean. We started that five years ago and it came to us and went away and then came back years later. We've been on it for the last few months.
Sheena: A little like Bob Kane, I don't know if anyone truly knew him. There were so many different sides to him that you wonder who was the real John DeLorean.
Batman & Bill is now available on Hulu.