Marc Tyler Nobleman has written over seventy books, including Boys of Steel, a picture-book biography of Superman’s co-creators. Last year, he published Bill the Boy Wonder, which explores the life of Milton, AKA Bill, Finger, Batman‘s unsung co-creator. This week, in one of this site’s most intriguing interviews, Nobleman chatted with Kidsbiographer about wordplay, his early love affair with DC Comics, and his adult quest to unearth the truth behind Finger’s role in Batman.
Kidsbiographer: In Bill the Boy Wonder, you not only relate the life story of a comic writer; you employ many of the prose strategies of the genre, including clever, punchy word play. How did Finger’s style influence your creative process during this project?
MTN: The puns based on “bat,” “Bill,” and “Finger” were indeed inspired by Finger’s own propensity for wordplay, but beyond that, the style is my own. (Normally I avoid puns! And one of the comments my Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman editor made when she was turning down Bill the Boy Wonder was that she was not fond of the puns.)
Kidsbiographer: Can you tell me more about your experiences with comics in general and Batman in particular? What role did comics play in your development as a writer?
MTN: Comics were my first love. They kept me reading voraciously as a kid, though I did make time for books, too. I read DC Comics almost exclusively, and Superman and Batman are the two anchors of that universe. I actually liked Superman better, but everyone likes Batman!
I don’t know how much comic book writing has influenced my writing, but comics books nonetheless remain a defining aspect of my development. I fondly remember the thrill of hunting through comic shops, flea markets, and assorted other places for a back issue I really wanted. These days, of course, it’s as quick and simple as an eBay search, which takes fun out of it. But I’ve replaced the quest for comics with the quest for information about comics, so it’s apropos!
Kidsbiographer: As your author’s note details, you approached countless individuals and organizations to write Bill Finger’s biography. During your research, you became involved in Finger’s continuing saga: the quest for his descendants to receive financial compensation for his role in Batman. Can you describe how it felt to find yourself become part of this extraordinary story?
MTN: It was unexpected, humbling, and transformative. I don’t think I realized that I would be a character in the story until after I wrote the manuscript. In other words, in terms of my book, I am not in the story proper but I am (obviously!) in the author’s note. And I believe the story will continue until every effort is made to get Finger official credit.
Kidsbiographer: Like most children’s biographies, Bill the Boy Wonder holds a moral for young readers. However, unlike most of its counterparts, this PB bio is not a simple lesson about working hard or staying true to one’s goals and ideals: it’s a cautionary tale about advocating for oneself and receiving credit for one’s work. In today’s culture of collaboration, with more and more educators encouraging group work in schools, this lesson seems especially timely. How have young and adult readers responded to this aspect of the biography?
MTN: When I tell young people the tragic aspects of the life of Bill Finger, the room goes quiet—truly quiet. Yes, I do it with a touch of drama, but it’s appropriate for the material. It is palpable that the students (and adults, for that matter) are moved by the story of a man who gave the culture so much yet did not fight for his name to be attached. To be clear, that is a character flaw. But the character flaw doesn’t detract from Bill’s creative impact, and THAT is what gets people fired up. Just because Bill was not aggressive professionally does not mean he does not deserve redemption. One teacher posted online that her students—the girls in particular, interestingly—were affected by the injustice in Bill’s career. It’s that kind of reaction that helps inspire people to do good in the world.
Kidsbiographer: What’s the most gratifying feedback you’ve received from young readers about Bill the Boy Wonder?
MTN: It’s always hard to pick THE most of anything. Of the many kind comments I’ve gotten from young readers, one that stands out in my memory is from a site where teachers reviewed the book, so I have not met the student in question:
“I asked one of my 5th grade students who loves superheroes and graphic novels, and is an aspiring illustrator, to read it. Almost 40 minutes later he came to me and replied, ‘Milton Finger deserves credit.’ His four words were powerful and insightful. Reading this book changed him a little bit.”
I love how the student referred to Bill by his given name, Milton, which is mentioned only on the first page. Like Batman himself, “Bill Finger” is a fabrication (Milton changed his name to Bill), so it almost feels like the student is saying that the “real” person behind “Bill Finger” should come forward to claim ownership of his creative legacy. I am probably reading into this, but just as the book about a creator apparently moved this young person, his reaction moved the book’s creator.
Kidsbiographer: Any current or future projects you’d care to discuss?
MTN: One of my next passion projects is also a true story and also involves a flying man, but not one with a cape. He was a Japanese pilot during WWII, and he did something unprecedented. Some would call him a hero, but what I love about the story is the debate that would likely inspire. Here are seven mock covers for the not-yet-a-book, plus a tease about the story itself.