Tuesday, April 30, 2013

“Bill the Boy Wonder” secrets revealed!

Soon after Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman came out in 2008, I posted what I called a “tour” of the book, pointing out details, tricks, and other Easter eggs that even astute readers might otherwise miss.

Here is the tour for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.

As is typical for contemporary picture books, the pages aren’t numbered. (Publishers fear that could turn off readers by calling attention to their relatively short length.) So I’ll reference pages by their first few words. 

Get your copy of the book and follow along...

“Every Batman story…” (inside front cover) 

backstory – I originally envisioned this text (both white and yellow) as a teaser/cold open on the page before the title page. It’s still before the title page…

“After Milton Finger graduated…” 

design – This image is a (rotated) close-up of the scene on the title page. See little Bill?
never-published information – Bill’s given name was Milton; Bill graduated high school in 1933.
design – I wanted the three “secret identity” starbursts throughout the book to be consistent in color scheme (happened) and size (did not). 
backstory – The “first secret identity” line was intended to be a hook. People reading a book about a superhero would not be surprised to see mention of a secret identity (singular)…but it would be unusual for someone to have more than one.

“Bill loved literature…”

design – Throughout the book, Ty depicts Bill in blue and Bob in yellow. Bill liked to wear blue Oxford shirts. And the yellow stands for…

“That weekend he sketched…”

design – I love the scene in the first panel but felt the apartment looked too grand for a young artist in New York. I was (peaceably) overruled. Similarly, I felt the sidewalk in the second panel was too wide, but creative license won that one. In early drafts of the manuscript, I described the look of Bob’s character and first gave the name “Bat-Man” in the text, but once I started to lay out the book in my mind, I saw that these reveals would have a more striking impact if instead we showed them in the art.

“Wings aside…” 

design – We deliberately showed only parts of Batman rather than the whole for two reasons. First, delayed gratification: the later it comes, the greater the effect. Two, we had to be selective about showing characters owned by DC Comics: the fewer, the better.
attention to detail – That bat is a reproduction of how the drawing really looked in the 1937 Webster’s Dictionary, which would’ve been the most current edition when Bill and Bob were building Batman in 1939. (The fish, a bass, is also authentic.)

“In April 1939…” 

attention to detail – The image is based on a period photo of a newsstand. The comic covers are ones that would have been on the newsstand at approximately the same time as Detective Comics #27 (Batman’s debut). This is the first “full” appearance of Batman in the book, though I consider it too small to count.

“Bill and Bob would sit in Poe Park…” 

attention to detail – This setting is based on period photographs of Poe Park.

“Though Bill had wanted Bat-Man…” 

design – The sentence starting “Bat-Man became Batman…” makes sense in print, but requires elaboration/clarification when read aloud. 
design – This marks the second appearance of Batman, though only his head on a comic book cover. Still no big splash.

“Almost immediately Bob hired…” 

attention to detail – Those two guys standing in the background are Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who were friends with Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson (seated). 
design – This is an example of taking advantage of the medium of picture books. The fact that Bill and Jerry played darts is not significant to the larger story, but it is visually interesting so it became the setting for the information conveyed in the accompanying text. Otherwise it could’ve been another scene of guys at a desk.

“But Bill stuck…” 

attention to detail – The phrase “superstitious, cowardly hearts of criminals” is a nod to Detective Comics #33, which first presents the origin of Batman and in which Bruce Wayne says “Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts.” 
backstory – No gun is visible on purpose, though the threat is still evident.

“Steadily, silently, Bill built…” 

attention to detail – In the first sketches, Batman did not appear in this scene because the text is about Batman’s sidekick and villains.

However, in layout, I realized that we had not yet shown a whole, sizable Batman so I asked that we add him; as noted above, Batman does appear on a comic cover in two previous scenes, but in both cases, he is so miniscule that some readers may overlook him. And if kids got to this spread showing Batman’s supporting cast but still had not seen a “big” Batman, they would feel that it was either lame or an oversight. 
attention to detail – At first glance most will presume that the title of the book comes from the familiar phrase “Robin the Boy Wonder,” and that is a good thing, but on this page a more literal inspiration for the title manifests itself. It is in Bob’s 1989 autobiography where he said he referred to Bill as “boy wonder.” He, too, was not oblivious to the Robin association, even if he did indeed call Bill this back at the beginning of Batman.

“Other comics creators…” 

attention to detail – When I first saw the sketch in which both the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings are visible, I said I didn’t think that there was a ground-level vantage point (even with the lower skyline of the 1940s, when this scene took place) from which such a view existed. Upon seeing images like the one below and thereby learning I was wrong, we situated the scene on East 30th Street in an attempt at authenticity. 

backstory – I did not want the inset showing Bill shaking an editor’s hand, for two reasons. One, we already had a handshake image (Kane and editor Vin Sullivan) and I felt including a second one would dilute the (tragic) significance of the first. Two, I doubt it happened. I would guess that an editor simply called Bill to ask for a story, and it was as unceremonious as that. I was overruled, and it was okay.  
attention to detail – The gimmick book examples came from published sources and the astounding memory of Charles Sinclair.

“In 1948 Bill and his wife…” 

never-published information – Bill nicknamed his son Fred “Little Finger.” 
attention to detail – The ticket window is based on several period photographs. 
design – Originally, the text specified the way Bill snuck Fred into the museum, but after we began discussing art, it became clear to me that it would be more fun to portray the trick solely in the art.

“While his son…” 

backstory – The quotation “I’d like to return to the innocence of my childhood” was not essential, but I included it because it comes from the only known instance of Bill being mentioned/quoted in a mainstream publication (The New Yorker, 1965) in his lifetime.

“Bill was fond of writing…” 

attention to detail – The size of the plug seems disproportionately small compared to the size of the fork and plate, but we’d already gone through several sketches to get the trajectory of Batman popping out of the toaster seem plausible (ha) so the size concern was one I had to let go. 
attention to detail – If I had not caught that the absence of Batman on the earlier spread featuring the supporting characters/villains would seem like a goof, this would have been the first full-on appearance of Batman in the book.

“To get his stories…” 

attention to detail – This desk scene is, unbelievably, perhaps, based on a 1940s photograph of Bill’s workspace. Yes, I went from being told only two photos of Bill exist to having not only 11 photos but also one of his writing desk.  
attention to detail – That unassuming little paperweight is not just an illustrator flourish.

“During the first twenty-five years…” 

attention to detail – Here is the page from the 1943 story in which Bill’s name appears…sort of. Look carefully...

“In 1964 that changed…” 

backstory – Ty Templeton made up the blue-armored figure partially visible behind Julie Schwartz. I did not know this until after the book came out. I would have pushed for a glimpse of a known character, but I understand Ty wanting to limit potential intellectual property claims.

“The next summer…” 

backstory – I wanted either Bill to be wearing a tie or one other panelist not to be because I felt Bill could come off as schlubby if he were the only one that casual. I was overruled.

“Jerry also did his own…” 

attention to detail – The print over Bill’s desk…was a print over Bill’s desk. Thanks (again) to Charles Sinclair for injecting even more accuracy.

attention to detail – The image of “If the Truth Be Known…” looks that way because this scene takes place in 1965, a time when photocopies did not exist but mimeographs (in all their smudgy purple glory) did.

“Bill’s final Batman…” 

never-published information – Bill’s death date (previously reported as January 24). design – “Come Monday” deliberately repeats a construct I used for the first historic “Batman weekend” (1939).

“Now grown…” 

never-published information – Bill was cremated; Fred spread his ashes on an (Oregon) beach in an apropos shape. (No spoilers here. You have to see it for yourself.) 

“In Bob’s later years…” 

design – I did not think we needed the “Bob Kane” credit box there to identify him, and in fact worried it might be confusing, but was overruled.

“Jerry Robinson had long wanted…” 

attention to detail – This image is based on a photograph of Jerry’s home office. I asked for the TV to show a still from the credits of the 1960s TV Batman show, though it’s been “modified to fit the screen.”

“It was named…” 

attention to detail – That’s Jerry again, with Mark Evanier. We sought permission to include the Comic-Con imagery.

“From Milton to Bill…” 

backstory – I normally don’t like posing questions in my text, but could not resist the penultimate line.

copy of guestbook (last page) 

never-published information – Through a fluke both sad and fortunate, this remnant of Bill still exists.

“Bill was the greatest…” (inside back cover) 

backstory – Two of these three quotations were not my original suggestions. I had used a quotation from Lyn Simmons, Bill’s second wife, and another by another associate of Bill’s, but neither of them appear in the story proper and my editor, Alyssa Mito Pusey, felt it would be better to quote characters the reader already knew. I was hesitant at first but came to see her point…and am so glad I did. I love it this way.

I love it all this way.

Thank you, Alyssa, Ty, Martha, and the veritable flash mob of others whose knowledge and talent combined to make this a book about which I am overflowing with pride.

More Bill Finger secrets abound, if you know where to look...

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