Holy evangelical conservatives, Batman!
Even the Dark Knight’s origin story has become fodder for our endless culture wars.
Last month, Marc Tyler Nobleman, an author who spent years researching the disputed origins of the Batman story, told an assembly of fifth-graders in Georgia how his work led to an obscure writer named Bill Finger finally getting credit for co-creating Batman. For the last decade, Nobleman has given presentations to rapt children all over the country based on his 2012 book, “Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-creator of Batman.”
One of the pivotal characters in the true story, Finger’s son, Fred, was gay, a fact that was relevant to Nobleman’s pursuit, as you will see in a moment.
Apparently, though, the very word “gay” has become so offensive to some social conservatives that it cannot be uttered in a room of fifth-graders without inducing moral panic. The principal of Sharon Elementary School in Forsyth County, Ga., was so unnerved by Nobleman’s description of Fred Finger that he sent a preemptive letter of apology to parents, according to Georgia Public Broadcasting: “As Mr. Nobleman chronicled the tale, he included that Mr. Finger was ‘gay,’ ” wrote Principal Brian Nelson. “This was not subject matter that we were aware that he was including nor content that we have approved for our students.”
In three subsequent talks to students at the school, Nobleman excised the word. But after he saw Nelson’s email to parents, he had a change of heart.
“He apologized as if I had hurt people,” Nobleman told Georgia Public Broadcasting. “And when I saw that, my conscience came roaring back and I said, ‘I’m done with this. I’m done acquiescing.’ ” As a result, the school canceled his final two presentations.
Who was served by this knee-jerk reaction? Certainly not the children, who were deprived of an informative and inspiring hour about one of everybody’s favorite superheroes.
You may think Florida governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” crusade against classroom discussions of sexuality is a stupid, disingenuous and cynical ploy to appeal to former President Trump’s MAGA Republican base. And it certainly is all that. But it has also inspired other states — Georgia legislators are currently grappling with a version of such a bill — and has added fuel to the backlash against LGBTQ+ civil rights, which has now reached a moment of maximum absurdity.
The idea that children on the cusp of adolescence should be shielded from any reference to sexual identities is an assault on the humanity of queer people.
“Imagine opening an email and reading the message that your sexual orientation, your family, your child, your very existence as a gay person warrants apology and an assurance that no discussion of your existence will be allowed,” wrote members of the Forsyth Coalition for Education, which the New York Times described as a nonpartisan group of parents and teachers fighting “conservative efforts to restrict what can be taught in the district.”
The kerfuffle over Batman is the result of an increasingly aggressive and well-organized campaign on the part of the religious right and MAGA Republicans to turn back the clock on the hard-won civil rights of women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people.
Years ago, Nobleman had become convinced, correctly, that Bob Kane, the man who had been credited as Batman’s sole creator, had wrongfully denied credit to Finger, starting with the character’s inception in 1939. Kane had a vague idea for a bat-like superhero. But Finger refined it; he created Batman’s iconic bat-eared cowl, his bat logo and scalloped cape. He came up with the sidekick Robin, the monikers “the Dark Knight,” “Bruce Wayne” and “Gotham City.” He created or co-created various Batman nemeses — Catwoman, the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler. His name appeared only once in Batman history, as co-writer of “The Clock King’s Crazy Crimes,” an episode of the campy 1966 “Batman” TV series.
As a result, Finger died penniless in 1974, while Kane, who died in 1988, became a rich mega-celebrity in the intensely devoted world of superhero comic fandom.
Nobleman set out to right the historical record. But he was stymied.
As far as he knew, Finger had no living heir to make the case to Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment, which owned the rights to the character. Finger’s only son, Fred, was gay. He had died of complications of AIDS in 1992, and Nobleman simply assumed that, as a gay man, he had not fathered any children. As he scoured telephone books and newspaper obituary pages, Nobleman tracked down some of Finger’s relatives, including a niece who informed him that Fred had in fact married a woman. And that he had fathered a daughter named Athena.
After years of sleuthing, Nobleman found Athena, Bill’s granddaughter. He knew he’d hit gold in 2007, when he tracked down her MySpace page and saw that she had posted a photo of her dog, Bruce Wayne.
Finally, after a years-long campaign involving fan pressure, gentle legal threats and plenty of moral outrage, in 2015 Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment acknowledged Bill Finger’s considerable contributions to the lucrative franchise. Finger, they admitted, was “instrumental in developing many of the key creative elements that enrich the Batman universe,” and they promised to give him credit on every future Batman release.
In 2017, Hulu released the documentary “Batman and Bill,” based on Nobleman’s book.
Threaded throughout the film is the family’s frustration, anger and sadness about Finger’s obscurity, which hung over them, as Athena Finger puts it, “like a dark cloud.”
In one illustrated scene, Fred Finger draws the famous Batman silhouette in sand on an Oregon beach. He spreads his father’s ashes inside the silhouette, then lets the waves wash them away.
It’s a beautiful moment in a story that ends with the dark cloud lifted, with justice served.
Will school officials stop their inane objections to the word “gay”?
We can only hope. As Batman was fond of saying, “The night is darkest before the dawn.”