Friday, October 21, 2016

Bill Finger in "New York Times" crossword…sort of

A year ago today, Bill Finger was first officially credited as co-creator in a Batman comic book.

(Also a year ago today, Bob Kane received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.)

And today, the New York Times crossword acknowledges that there is a Bill. See 14 down.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Interview: Françoise Brun-Cottan (voice of Tuffy/Nibbles in 1950s "Tom and Jerry")

You know Tom. You know Jerry. And you know that little gray mouse in a diaper, although you probably don't remember (if you ever knew) that his name is Tuffy/Nibbles. He started as Jerry's acquaintance and was later turned into his nephew. In the 1950s, he was voiced by Françoise Brun-Cottan. Her Wikipedia entry states that "little is known" about her.

That won't do.

How old were you when you got a voice role in Tom and Jerry animated shorts?

I believe I was 5. I don't have actual production dates or salary receipts, but I'm paying social security by 1950.

Between the shorts and the comics, your character has gone back and forth between two names, Nibbles and Tuffy; what was his name when you did him?

I've always thought of it as Tuffy. But maybe that was just more fun.

How did you get the job?

My mother was dropped off at home by someone who worked at Metro [Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer]. When he heard my French accent and high-pitched voice, he said he thought it might be perfect for some animations his pals Hanna and Barbera were putting together to challenge Disney.

Did your mother also work at M-G-M?

She did on and off as an extra. [Her name was Monique Chantal.] Everything in the IMDb bio—name, countries, birth dates—is incorrect except the movie titles. It's a very post-WWII/Eastern European story and for a few years she gave French lessons (though she was Romanian), did walk-ons, and modeled her hands and shoes to keep me and my grandmother in food. I remember meeting Danny Kaye on a set and being quite alarmed by him at the time. He shapeshifted so easily, in much the same way but not as benignly as Robin Williams. Years later I had other occasions to meet him and he was totally charming.

Where were you living at the time?

In an unincorporated area of Hollywood, not far from Park La Brea.

Where did you record the shorts?

At M-G-M in Culver City.

Nibbles's first appearance was in "The Milky Waif" (1946).

Were you already a fan of the cartoons? If not, what did you think about them once you were working on them?

Clueless about cartoons. I'd just come over from France. I had to memorize the lines as I couldn't read yet. The process itself was total fun.

It appears you voiced the character from 1952-58. Do you know anything about whoever voiced him prior to you (if, indeed, he spoke prior to you)?

Actually, I think I started in 1949 or '50. Certainly by '51. Stopped by '56.

Any funny anecdotes about your Tom and Jerry experience?

The man who voiced the king [who appeared in the "Two Mouseketeers" series of four shorts: "The Two Mouseketeers" (1952), "Touché, Pussy Cat!" (1954), "Tom and Chérie" (1955), "Royal Cat Nap" (1958)] was—in memory—very tall and large. He was great. I had to stand on a stool so I could reach the mic.


In the '50s, I would think Tom and Jerry was known primarily among adults because the shorts were shown before movies aimed at adults. What did your friends at the time think about you doing this?

When I stopped doing any theatrical work, I pretty much didn't talk about it again until my late teens.

Do you remember what you earned per episode, and did it increase over time?

Sorry, I don't know.

Were you working other voice acting jobs at the time?

No other voicing work than Tom and Jerry. However, I was doing work as an extra and getting larger and larger parts. I was one of the street urchins with Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. In the street scene, I'm the one holding on to his pocket who says "I got" ["I Got Rhythm"]. [There is, of course, another Tom and Jerry/Gene Kelly connection: Gene and Jerry dance together in Anchors Aweigh.]

 Françoise is the one in the muted pink dress 
with puffy pink short sleeves.
On the braids crisis-crossed over her head: 
"OMG how I hated those."

Though the income was important in the beginning, it was all just a lark with a little pressure to "focus" until I met Frank Capra. He was casting for Here Comes the Groom and tested me for one of the orphan parts. He totally became smitten and tried to make me look like an urchin, putting soot on my face. But I still projected radiant health, even with missing front teeth. I suspect I made him laugh. I remember the first test, where he sat on a stool across from me and asked me to say the same lines with different emotions—teary, joking, fearful. Given massive recent losses I had in my life then (which we won't go into), it was the first time I realized how far one could dig inside to reflect or hide emotions. I did not get the part but he kept me around for a few days just for "good luck." Also my grandmother, whom he called "Mon Generale."

What ended your stint on Tom and Jerry?

In 1954 my mother married her second husband, the wonderful man and screenwriter Franklin Coen. After I'd had a birthday party in one of the studio's screen rooms, I casually commented that the next year I wanted a bigger party. Within a week, all scheduled screen tests were cancelled. I'd already missed a lot of schooling and Frank and my mom did not want to raise an entitled ignoramus. I was seriously in the running for The Bad Seed, my accent pretty much gone by then. Never would have been near as good as Patty McCormack. I wasn't happy, but there wasn't anything I could do about it.

What are you doing these days?

I'm basically retired and only taking on short work projects. I volunteer at my local elementary school, raise as much of the produce as I can eat on a small urban farm, and talk to whoever is interested about the value of using qualitative research methods to inform the design of technologies and of organizational change. You can find out much, much more on LinkedIn. You can read publications on (You actually might enjoy the first few chapters of my Ph.D. where I report on a "field ethnography" of Hollywood. The casual tone there—unlike the rest of the bloody thing—was allowed because I actually did poke a big hole in a very respected anthropologist's work on Hollywood, Hortense Powdermaker's Hollywood, the Dream Factory.)

Where do you live?

Portland, OR.

If you have children, any stories about their reactions when they learned of your Tom and Jerry connection?

She'd have to tell you that. I can't remember when she learned of it.

Have you appeared at a pop culture convention to meet fans and sign autographs? If not, would you be open to it?

I haven't. I might do, depending on what, where, and when.

Do you have a favorite short you were in?

"The Two Mouseketeers."

Do you have any mementos from the experience such as photos from the recording studio, a script, pay stubs, etc.?

Only a 78 of one of the sessions at Metro. And a cel.

Have you been interviewed about this before?


What did you think when you first heard from me?

Well, it was odd. Steve Portigal [consultant who has a professional connection to Françoise] forwarded your request [not finding a direct route to
Françoise, I asked several who might have one]. So I thought it might have to do with doing, or writing about, ethnographic project work. But anyone in that world wanting to know how to reach me would probably get a message to me via LinkedIn.

Or [I thought] it might have to do with storytelling; Steve is putting together a book with war stories.

But I actually hoped against hope you might be an agent who somehow got a copy of a treatment my brother and I wrote about American and Israeli fundamentalists trying to raise a pure red heifer (this, by the way, is true; see The New Yorker) to start the end days, an Islamic plot to blow up the Al-Aqsa Mosque in order to blame Israel, and environmentalists headed for the Norwegian seed bank.

It's a political comedy. (You don't happen to know Bill Maher or Seth MacFarlane? My old employer and friend Michael Douglas doesn't have a sense of humor about these things.)

I've had agents fall over laughing but say it will never get made. Ah well, Cuckoo's Nest took ten years.

You worked for Michael Douglas?

From 1976 to '84. Officially, started as a reader right after
Cuckoo's Nest (the production company was called Bigstick Productions). There were three of us, including Michael. Became Director of Project Development around Romancing the Stone and we had grand offices at the Burbank Studios. It was supposed to be half-time work while I was supposed to be writing a thesis [but] became a 6+ year detour. I'd hate to tell you the projects we turned down because Michael didn't want to do science fiction. His prerogative, for sure. Can't say his bio suffered. :>)

How do you look back on your Tom and Jerry experience?

It was mainly a lot of fun. Hanging around the lot was a lot of fun. Missing school was fun.

If the experience changed your life in any way, how?

It helped prepare me for later stints in the biz. See LinkedIn for details.

Anything you'd like to add?

Wish I got residuals.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

"Batman & Bill" documentary sneak preview at New York Comic Con 2016

On 9/18/15, mere hours after DC Comics announced that the company would officially add Bill Finger's name to the Batman credit line, I updated Don Argott and Sheena Joyce, the filmmakers with whom I'd started a Bill Finger documentary four years earlier.

On New Year's Eve, Don and Sheena confirmed solid interest for us to pick up where we left off…with Hulu.

From February to July 2016, we did just that.

Just over a year after that historic credit announcement, on 10/6/16, opening day of New York Comic Con, "the largest pop culture event on the East Coast," Hulu gave attendees and press a sneak peek of Batman & Bill followed by a panel with Don, Sheena, Bill's granddaughter Athena Finger, his great-grandson Benjamin, Finger legal counsel Alethia Bess Mariotta, Batman movie producer Michael Uslan, and myself, skillfully moderated by Rich Sands, executive editor of TV Guide.

This Batman project moved at Flash speed, at least by filmmaking standards.

Our NYCC day started with hair and makeup. Here is me either just before or just after…can you tell which?

I feel what's left of my hair is beyond repair so we didn't even try, but I was a good candidate for foundation, as I believe it's called. That is the After photo.

We took a Batvan from the hotel to the show, passing a league of Hulu-hired Batmen who were not solving mysteries but setting one up.

 front row: Benjamin, Alethia, Athena
second row: Sheena, Don

photo courtesy of Shiva Kalipersad

Outside the con, Athena had a quick team-up with a young attendee emblazoned with an apt emblem.

We were led from the car through the bowels of the Javits Center—women in heels on wheels, men on foot.

The green room was Batcave black.

The panel assembled.

The 30-minute sneak preview in progress.

The room held 800—and while one side section wasn't full, it was a great turnout. The panel ended too quickly.

 photo courtesy of Julian Voloj

photo courtesy of Benjamin Cruz

The reaction in the room and later in the press was humbling.

The Wall Street Journal covered it.

Newsarama live-blogged it.

Bleeding Cool offered one of the most moving comments: "I know it was only the first day, but on Thursday I'm pretty sure I witnessed the most heroic thing to happen at NYCC 2016."

Thank you to Hulu for supporting the film and organizing the event, Perry Seaman and his team at Hulu for being so enthusiastic and accommodating, Don and Sheena for making a film that has exceeded high expectations, the Finger family for embracing this legacy with gusto, NYCC for giving us the real estate, Michael Uslan for his ongoing advocacy for Bill Finger, Rich Sands for moderating, and Batfans for showing up…plus for being my collective sidekick on this nine-year push for justice.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

"Inspired me not only as a student but as a writer"

Humbling feedback and other straight talk from the middle school students of Westfield Community School in Illinois after my presentation there:

  • You digging in deeper and being so interested made me want to be an author and have an imagination. It was incredible how much you cared about what you were doing. Most people in my classes hate books but it's just amazing when you see someone care about it. It seems worth trying and caring as well.
  • I can't believe you changed the copyright on all the Batman books and met Bill Finger's family! I hope I will change the world as much as you did. :)
  • Your presentation was the most greatest presentation I have ever seen. It was super cool how you were determined to get Bill Finger's name as the real creator of Batman and also you never stopped when people were afraid to talk. You were brave and bold.
  • Marc, you were the best author ever to come in and talk about the books. When I walked out of the gym, I was really sad that it was over. I wanted the presentation to go on and on and on. I hope you liked the trumpet performance because the one in the middle was my brother. I hope to see you again!
  • Thanks for being so nice. Please come again and tell us more.
  • I loved your visit. I am a big superhero fan myself. I found your research incredible. I love how you never gave up. It really inspired me not only as a student, but as a writer.
  • I liked your presentation, but I wish Bob Kane would have been there to respond.
  • You are DaBomb dot com in real life.
  • Great job. It was the best and the most exciting assembly we have had.
  • You have inspired so many kids about how you had a dream and it came true because of hard work and research.
  • I hope that you have inspired other people besides me to research more. You also inspired me to fight for what I believe in even if it is hard. When I grow up I want to do something amazing like you did for the designer of Batman.
  • I think what you do is very interesting because I would not have the time to do all that research!
  • Well, you did it again, Marc. Just want to say thank you for coming to Westfield Community School.
  • He was very funny and sounds cool! He was loud which made me excited because he actually wasn't boring like a lot of people.
  • I enjoyed listening about your books. The reason I wouldn't want to purchase your books is because I don't need to! My brother has a ton of your books so I can just read them whenever I want.
  • You opened up everybody's mind to trying new things and getting creative. I bet so many of the kids you talked to thought they couldn't do something just because they're a kid. Thank you again for being so kind and such an inspiration!
  • It was very interesting and I went home and started making comic strips but the jokes in them are mostly inside jokes.
  • I love the way that you used research for your books. I would definitely want to read your books, maybe somewhere near the future.
  • I thought your presentation was quite lovely. I really enjoyed your visit. You are very welcome to come again.

Thank you all. I very well might!

Friday, September 30, 2016

What I learned while making a documentary

In 2015, DC Comics began officially crediting Bill Finger as the co-creator of Batman. It was a story 76 years in the unmaking.

And a documentary five years in the making.

In 2011, a production company and I had begun working on what is now called Batman and Bill, a documentary about my efforts to get Bill Finger that credit. We did marathon interview sessions in 2011 and 2016; in 2016, that consisted of interviews for three days, five to seven hours per day (and the first two of those days started two days after I got back from a month-long trip to Asia).

In the process, I learned a lot about filmmaking and storytelling in general, largely from co-directors Don Argott and Sheena Joyce.


  • If interviewing someone near a fridge, you might have to unplug it so the camera doesn't pick up its hum. To ensure you don't forget to plug it back in before you leave, put your car keys in it. Similarly, the third and final 2016 interview session was on a particularly hot July day, and because the air conditioning blows audibly, we had to shut it off.
  • Strive for variety: don't film too many interviews/scenes in the same room; shoot some scenes from multiple angles; if interviewing one person in different scenarios but on the same day, have the person change clothes sometimes.

  • Record room tone—the sound of a space when no one is talking. Apparently, not all relative silence is the same and filmmakers need to have those different room tones on hand to lay down at certain moments.
  • When filming a still image (i.e. a book cover), linger on it longer than may seem necessary.
  • When a person sits next to the camera to interview someone who is on camera, no one should stand next to the interviewer so as not to divert the gaze of the interviewee.
  • At times, Don would film me in my office with the main lights off. Even though he sometimes turned on small spotlights and sometimes natural light was present, it still seemed too dark to me, but it doesn't appear that way on film.


  • Documentaries tend to be more engaging when they are following a story that has a current component and can be resolved on film (as opposed to telling a story completely in the past where the resolution is already documented somewhere).
  • The on-screen text that identifies the name/title of a character or other information is called a "lower third." There is no standard on how often to re-identify people who speak multiple times throughout a documentary. If someone first appears at the beginning and then not again for 30 minutes or more, it is probably better to re-identify them. It can get tricky if the film has many talking heads. If you re-identify too little, it may confuse the viewer. If you re-identify too much, it may distract the viewer.

It's been an honor to work with Don and Sheena and their team, which included Demian Fenton and Alexandra Orton. They are all so good at what they do. They believed in Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman even before the book came out. I am very protective of my little slice of Bill's story and found myself trusting this crew quickly and for the duration. In doing their own original research and putting in the time to develop a deep grasp of the intricacies of the story, they leaped over my expectations. And no detail was insignificant.

I will be praising them more in the future.

I've watched various docs and mini-docs on superheroes and Batman in particular:

  • "Legends of the Dark Knight: The History of Batman" (2005)
  • "Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story" (sometimes referred to as "Batman and Me: A Devotion to Destiny, The Bob Kane Story"; an extra on the 2008 DVD Batman: Gotham Knight)
  • Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics (2010)

Of course Bill was not given proper weight in any of them.

We had to make up for decades of neglect.

titles I proposed for our film:

  • The Batman Betrayal
  • Batman's Biggest Secret
  • Man and Batman
  • The Uncaped Crusader
  • Batman's Fingerprints
  • Batman Man
  • The Batmaniac
  • Finger Writing
  • Finger Pointing
  • Finger at Bat
  • Batman and Nobleman
  • Fighting for Bill Finger
  • Batman and Robbin' (kidding)
  • Giving Kane the Finger (even more kidding)

title the filmmakers proposed that I really liked:

  • Batman Created By

Both the book and the film were long, uncertain processes. I embarked on both with no guarantee that either would see the light of day (or the dark of a cinema): I wrote the book on spec (not under contract) and we started the film in 2011 before we knew if Bill would get credit. For a spell, no credit = no movie.

At one point, someone observed that a documentary with any penguins in it is more likely to be a hit, the most notable example being March of the Penguins (2005). Well, ours has a penguin. To be precise, a Penguin.

In closing:

I agree: no one wants a dumbass documentary. How would you feel about a kickass documentary?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

My biggest audience in Illinois

On 9/14-15/16, I had the pleasure of speaking at three schools in District 300 in Illinois, less than an hour outside of Chicago: 

  • Westfield Community School in Algonquin
  • Carpentersville Middle School in Carpentersville
  • Dundee Highlands Elementary School in West Dundee

I loved all three.

Westfield welcomed me with a trio of trumpeteers who played the theme from Superman: The Movie.

This has happened before but it's so special that it felt like the first time again. I was especially impressed that the three student musicians all volunteered. It can be intimidating to perform in front of your peers, particularly in the social upheaval that can be middle school. Thanks again, guys!

Some Westfielders also gave me (but really Bill Finger) a standing ovation, which speaks highly of these kids. I give their empathy a standing ovation right back.

Carpentersville…the student body is divided into groups named for superheroes. I have encountered countless capes on my school visits but this was a first.

Another first, or perhaps more accurately, a record: the assembly included the whole school…1,250 kids.

 That's not a tubular ghost. 
That's the glare of the LCD projector.

I am fairly sure that is the largest crowd I've spoken to. So of course this was the one day in recent memory on which I had a ragged throat, but a bit of mind-over-matter and a steady supply of Ricola kept my voice workable throughout.

Dundee Highlands was such a sweet capper to the trip. The kids were impeccably behaved and engaged and one of the staff told me a wacky story afterward that I hope to cover here soon…pending photos she provides.

Thank you again to all three schools. Hope to be back before long!

I consider speaking in schools a perk of the author life, and a perk-within-the-perk of hitting the road is discovering what history is nearby. Earlier that week, I spoke in Pennsylvania and learned only once there that I was less than 30 minutes from both the location of the Johnstown flood (which I wrote about light-years ago) and the field where United 93 crashed. (The day of my talk happened to be the day after the 15th anniversary of 9/11.) Unfortunately, I did not have time to visit either memorial site.

However, in IL, I discovered I was a picturesque 20-minute drive from a town called Woodstock, which boasts an eclectic threesome of pop culture attractions:

  • the 1993 Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day was filmed there
  • Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould lived there
  • an orchard constructed a Batman-themed corn maze (which was closed for the day by the time I got there)

I had a blast hunting the idyllic town square for the various commemorative Groundhog Day plates.

 Toward the bottom of this photo, on the sidewalk,
you can see a small plaque. The next two photos
get you closer.

 Squint and you can see a sign on the building in this and 
the next picture, then close-up in the picture after that.

Oh, speaking of Groundhog Day

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Bill Finger's official credit: the one-year anniversary

Yesterday was Batman Day (third annual). Today is Bill Finger Dayone year since he got official credit. To paraphrase Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, this Bill is no longer past due.

It has been an exhilarating and sometimes bewildering 365 days.

Thank you to Ross Pearsall at Super-Team Family: The Lost Issues for helping me mark this first anniversary in such a memorable way

9/19/16 addendum from Ross: "The cover has been up only a day and stats indicate it is already the second-most-clicked [behind a Justice League of America/Spider-Man cover that was used in a YouTube video] in the blog's history."
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