Saturday, April 30, 2011

My first public story: "Frankenstory"

The first story I wrote for public consumption beyond my parents and coerced friends was a play.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I combined my favorite elements of the novel
Frankenstein, the 1931 film of the same name, and a bit of Bride of Frankenstein, plus plenty of fully original material, into a full-length script. (My mom recalls hearing many a hot, late night the beep-beep my Smith-Corona word processor made for every word not in its dictionary—and the play included the word "Frankenstein" a lot.)

Like Frankenstein's "monster" itself, my story was a patchwork.


So I called it Frankenstory.


Nineteen years ago today, it debuted at Brandeis University. (Three days later, it closed. As planned.)

Meet the original 1992 cast:


Note: No actual conga scenes appeared in the play.

Frankenstein would not have said his monster was one of his greatest creations; its imperfections frustrated and then scared him so deeply that he spurned it.

My little play—which, all told, consumed a year of my lifehad plenty of imperfections, and trying to stage it was scary at times, but it will always remain among my top five most personal projects, no matter how many books I ultimately write.

And despite the review from the student newspaper. Smiley face.


Thursday, April 28, 2011

Jerry Robinson in "The New Yorker"

The corresponding text is announcing that he's giving a talk tonight at the School of Visual Arts.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Creator of “Creators of the Superheroes”

Academic, author, and all-around class act Thomas Andrae kindly sent me a copy of his new book Creators of the Superheroes. He’s been working hard on this project for several years, and readers will reap the payoff.

The book is a loving tribute to what could be called the Significant Seven, the pantheon of comics creators: Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, Jack Kirby, and Will Eisner. I, of course, took special interest in the sections on Siegel, Shuster, Finger, and Robinson.

Several photos were new to me, such as the one of young and surprisingly handsome Shuster on page 18 and another of Shuster and Robinson (alongside their lovely ladies) on page 26.

It will be no surprise to Tom or anyone else who knows me that I was disappointed to read, on page 57, “Batman was the creation of Bob Kane…” with no mention of Finger. Tom co-wrote Kane's 1989 autobiography and pushed for Kane to include as much as possible about Finger. (I cringe to imagine how that book would've read without Tom's involvement.) And Finger is given ample space (and credit) later in this book. Yet to set the tone, I still wish Finger’s name had been included in that initial line about creation.

I was also surprised to see the infamous “1934” Kane sketches reproduced on page 59 with no discussion about their almost certain forgery. I’m not saying Kane didn’t draw them; I am saying (and am not the first to say) that he did not draw them in 1934.

Kane was notorious for taking credit for others’ work, but he did give Finger credit for designing Batman’s now-iconic costume…which both men agreed happened in 1939. Therefore, it does not make sense that Kane in 1934 could've drawn sketches featuring the bat-motif. (In other words, if Kane had designed this look in 1934, why wouldn’t he have used it in 1939? But again, he credits Finger with that design…) General consensus is that Kane deceptively created these sketches in 1939 (or beyond) to retroactively “prove” the design was his. He didn’t seem to realize he was contradicting himself.

The book includes some colorful quotations that I've seen in only one other source before, which means Tom really dug in his research. One example: how Finger’s peers called him the “Cecil B. DeMille of the Comics. Another: Finger’s sharp response when asked if a particular story from years earlier was written by him or by Don Cameron: “It must have been me. Don Cameron never wrote this badly” (both page 77).

I noticed several inaccuracies. One is in the recap of the 1965 New York comic book convention (page 80), at which Finger first appeared on a panel of comics creators. It states that Finger described to the audience how he helped design Batman, and also that he invented most of the villains, neither of which are in the panel transcript that ran in its entirety in Alter Ego #20 (1/03). These are honest inferences and might be considered smaller points with lesser characters or creators, but with regard to Finger and Batman, the all-important is who did what when and who knew what when.

For me, the book’s biggest selling point is the interview with Finger (conducted in 1972) that runs from page 85 to 89. It is a bigger deal than the average reader may realize because it was recently rediscovered and has not been published before. That makes this the first “new” Finger interview since his death! That’s quite significant yet Tom doesn’t toot his own horn and announce that. You should, Tom! Put that in a reprint!

(On a side note, the 28-minute interview was on audio tape. Tom transcribed it and most generously sent me that transcription before his book was out. We’d both gotten ahold of it independently, but he was the first with the stamina to decode the recording, which was of fairly poor quality.)

Of the parts of the book I have read thus far, my favorite is probably Tom’s original interview with Jerry Robinson, beginning on page 93. No seismic revelations but quite a lot of good moments, made better by Robinson’s dependable eloquence. And Tom asked some great questions I haven’t seen other interviewers cover with Robinson.

One of the most fun novelties of the book is the fact that it reprints in full the first (which became the last) Wonder Man story, published in 1939 and almost immediately afterward litigated out of existence.

Congratulations, Tom. Thanks for sharing. Despite my quibbles noted above, which I relay in the name of scholarship, the book will be invaluable for comic fans and researchers alike.

Monday, April 25, 2011

From whom was Robin hatched?

In spring, hence now, robins return. Ergo, from whose mind was Robin the Boy Wonder sprung?

When I passed along excerpts from articles and interviews addressing Robin’s creation to Robin-N-More blogger J.L. Bell, he synthesized a characteristically thoughtful post about it.

My conclusion nearly overlaps with J.L.’s. I believe Bill Finger most likely came up with the idea for a sidekick (though Kane took full credit and Finger himself modestly categorized Robin as a “group” creation), early Batman ghost artist Jerry Robinson was responsible for the name (inspired by Robin Hood, not himself) and costume, and Finger crafted the origin. J.L.'s theory that an editor suggested making the sidekick a boy seems plausible, though I rarely rule out Finger.

Finger was the primary Batman writer at the time, so even casting aside the particular personalities involved, it just makes sense that he’d be the one to start a campaign for a partner (no matter the age). It’s not easy to write a solo character. Even the marooned man Tom Hanks played in Cast Away had a volleyball to talk to.

Among the various interviews in which Robinson gives Robin credit to Finger, my favorite is from Alter Ego #39 (1/03). In that, Robinson said he is “positive” Robin was Finger’s idea. Of course, memory isn’t infallible, but Robinson is one of the few still alive with the authority to be trusted.

In a 1989 magazine publication called Comics Interview Super Special: Batman—Real Origins of the Dark Knight, Kane was quoted as follows: “Robin was mine, it wasn’t even Bill Finger’s” (page 16).

Kane probably didn’t realize that his “wasn’t even” was both defensive and revealing. It seems that Kane’s conscience was admitting that so much of Batman was Finger’s while his ego was holding on to the idea that at least this component (a significant one, of course) was Kane’s.

In that same publication, Kane was also quoted as saying, “I came up with Riddler and Joker, maybe Penguin was mine—time erodes memory” (page 17). I'd wager it was not time affecting memory but rather intentional manipulation, with that breezy "maybe" thrown in to diffuse the disreputable nature of Kane's brazen and perpetual idea-grab. That said, I do allow that there may have been a small degree of truth in Kane's statement, at least in his own mind, because memory (as mentioned above) is indeed notoriously unreliable.

In either case, various sources suggests that none of these three classic villains came from Kane. It’s a subject for other posts, but in short, I believe that Joker was a co-production of Finger and Robinson while Finger alone has been credited for the concepts of both Penguin and Riddler.

Kane had an explanation for where he got the idea for Penguin, but Finger’s son Fred (among others) said the character came from Bill—and of Kane and Finger, only one was known for stretching the truth when it came to credit.

As for Riddler, no less respected an editor than Julie Schwartz gave Finger credit for Riddler—in print and in a Batman comic, no less (Batman #169 [2/65]).

This was while Kane was still alive.

Poignantly, while Finger was, too.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Filming resumes

First two interviews shot: December 2008.

Third: April 2011 (much later than I expected in December 2008!).

Plus much more, including Bill Finger’s granddaughter reading aloud Bill’s last known comic book script...



Saturday, April 23, 2011

Ashlawn Elementary, Arlington, Virginia






It’s always an honor for me to speak at a school, and there’s a special hue to it when it’s a school that a child I already know attends, particularly if it’s the child of a best friend.


Sometimes I don’t know that I know anyone at a school I present at until I’ve left the premises. What often happens: that night, a friend from camp or high school or BBYO (the Jewish youth group I belonged to in high school) e-mails me “I didn’t know you were going to speak at my son/daughter’s school!” Likewise, I didn’t know that your son/daughter was going to be at my school!

However, when speaking at Ashlawn Elementary in Arlington, Virginia on 4/11/11, I did know in advance that the audience would include a young man I know, and I playfully took advantage of it (with advanced permission from his mom). I incorporated this third grader into my PowerPoint on not one but three slides. He laughed and his classmates applauded. I’m told he loved this but I still can’t help but feel that—even though his parents assured me otherwise—he might’ve been a little embarrassed. In any case, I do believe his dominant feeling was positive.

Cherry shell on the soft-serve cone: Ashlawn went up, up, and away in selling my books, including the display they set up for them.


Ashlawn was one of three dynamic Arlington schools I spoke at in a two-day period, the other two being Barrett and Patrick Henry. Thank you to all!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Ditto that

I consider myself meticulous (sometimes overly so) when it comes to research. So sometimes I’m just as surprised to realize what I’ve overlooked as I am to see what I discover.

Case in point: Jerry Bails’s 1965 fanzine article “If the Truth Be Known or A Finger in Every Plot,” which I’ve already mentioned on this blog.


The only way I’ve seen it reproduced is black type on white background, and I never thought twice about the accuracy of that.


It will most likely be visible in a scene in my 2012 book about Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator, original writer, and motif designer of Batman. Therefore, I included an image of it in the extensive group of visual references I gathered for our illustrator, Ty Templeton. Luckily, Ty thought a step further than I did.

He asked “[Was the fanzine a] magazine, a mimeographed and stapled set of papers, a folded newsprint?”


I asked Jerry’s widow Jean, who (understandably) didn’t know, which sent me asking others who are various kinds of experts on the era or the subject.


One said it had not black but rather purple “ditto printing.” I was then directed to a fanzine collector who has an original copy.
He responded almost instantly but he didn’t e-mail me a scan. He mailed me his original. And so promptly that I received it the next day. And so now I know that the article actually looked like this:

Not only is the printing purple but the paper blue.

Yes, this kind soul mailed a stranger his only copy of an irreplaceable piece of pop culture history. Trust and kindness of this magnitude balances out for people who are like this.

Had my book shown this fanzine page in black and white, it would not have been a factual goof of significance. But as I always say, I don’t care how small the detail; if I can get it right, I want to.

Monday, April 18, 2011

From castoff to savior

Let me tell you a short story.

A baby boy is placed in a vessel and sent away so he will spared from certain doom. He is found by another family and raised without knowing his true heritage. As an adult, he learns who he really is—and becomes a hero to the masses.

Who am I talking about?

If you ask this in a Jewish setting, as I have numerous times, the answer will immediately be “Moses.”


If you ask this in various other settings, you may well get another answer: “Superman.”

We don't know if Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster consciously embedded Superman with a Moses allegory. They don't mention it in any known interview. But it sure is fun to delineate the similarities.

Happy Passover.

And, as it happens, happy 73rd anniversary of the first appearance of Superman. Today in 1938, Action Comics #1 debuted.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The first line of "Boys of Steel" you never read

In several drafts of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, the first line was not "Most days, Jerry Siegel slipped into the halls of his high school staring at the floor."


Rather it was "In the thrilling days of yesteryear, comic strips were printed twice as big as they are now. Movies cost ten cents. And heroes were everywhere."

I quite like it. It has atmosphere. But there is something it lacks, which is why I ultimately changed it. Guesses? Other thoughts?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Look, up in the sky...it's a bird...it's a cow...

I've explored the multitude of book covers that manage to show Superman without showing Superman.

Another super-cover phenomenon is the multitude of book covers that pay tribute to and/or spoof
Action Comics #1, the comic book in which Superman debuted. That image is not necessarily mainstream but is certainly very well known among pop culturists.

Most of the homages I've seen are on the covers of other comics. But this new one shows it may be more mainstream than I've believed...

Friday, April 8, 2011

Bibliography avalanche

I plowed until the wee hours aiming to wrap up the bibliography for my picture book biography on Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator of Batman.

Sure turned out to be a lot of material considering this is a guy who has never been the focus of his own book before, gave only a handful of known interviews in his lifetime, and didn't get
even an obituary in the mainstream media:

And this visual doesn't include the original research—the people I interviewed and the documents I uncovered (which are scanned in, mercifully reducing the heft...by a little, anyway).

After I finished
(not to mention before I started):


Great ideas for schools #9: Redesign the mascot contest

When I was a lad of 11, I found myself at an elementary school without a mascot. However, panic did not ensue. In fact, I probably didn't realize we were missing a mascot until the school ran a contest to create one.

Any student could enter, only one could win. (This was back in the days when schools received little or no pressure to abolish any form of competition.)


I made a logical choice for a Connecticut school: I drew a toucan. (And even though I didn't eat Froot Loops, you may notice a similarity there...) Then again, plenty of elementary schools have Vikings or griffins, so geographical plausibility isn't a prerequisite.


In any case, somehow, I won.



My toucan was plastered on T-shirts, notebooks, maybe mugs? This was circa 1982.

Circa 1995, my alma mater called me at work in New York City. The person had a "you better sit down" vibe in her voice.

The news: the school had decided to retire my mascot and hold a contest for a new generation. I think she thought I was going to melt into tears. Actually, I was thrilled, and also touched that they took the time to track me down to tell me.


And I later heard the winner was a bulldog. (Meaning the winning mascot, not the winning artist.)


Which
does make sense for a Northeastern school.

Monday, April 4, 2011

When people die before you reach them

Like, I presume, many people who have written nonfiction, I’ve developed a relationship with some of the people I’ve written about. That includes some who were dead before I started.

Everyone I research becomes famous in my mind, no matter the nature of their story. (In other words, some are not household names, so they’re not famous beyond my mind.) When I first connect with a person I’ve written about or want to write about, I’m usually a bit starstruck. (Many people assume it works the other way around.)

Yet when I am writing about someone who is deceased, I sometimes feel this futile sense of sadness that I will never get to meet him or her. The sadness is more acute the more recently the person died. That’s because it’s compounded with the feeling that I could have reached them if I’d started just a bit earlier.

Once, a person died within a few days of the day someone else suggested I speak with him. Another time I began looking for someone in January 2010 and didn’t find the trail until January 2011, at which point I learned she had died in March 2010. If only I’d gotten to her immediately after starting…

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Screenplay terminology: “story by” vs. “screenplay by” vs. “written by”

Here is one of my favorite entries from my book What's the Difference?: How to Tell Things Apart that Are Confusingly Close, modified only slightly from its publication version:

What’s the difference between “STORY BY,” “SCREENPLAY BY, and “WRITTEN BY” in film credits?

Hollywood filmmaking is a collaborative art that begins even before the first scene is shot. Even before the actors are hired. Yes, even before merchandising rights are sold. A screenwriter will tell you that, creditwise, he’s probably going to be screwed in one of two ways. One, either his name will stay on a film he originated or wrote an early draft for although subsequent writers rewrote it so much (and often, so badly) that none of his work remains. Or two, he’ll be the rewrite guy who molds the screenplay into brilliance but who won’t get credit due to one of the following policies, each of which carries its own formulas of just how much of a script a person needs to contribute (and when) to earn that particular credit.


A “story by” credit is given to the person or team who came up with the essence of a film (such as the plot or main characters) and who may have written a treatment, but who didn’t write the screenplay. Similarly, a “screen story by” credit goes to a person or team who adapted other material such as a novel, a TV show, or a news article for film and made it substantially different from the source.


A “screenplay by” credit is given to the person or team who wrote the scenes and dialogue of a screenplay but didn’t generate the idea for the story.


A “written by” credit is given to the person or team who both conceived of the story and wrote the screenplay. It usually merges “story by” and “screenplay by.”


RELATED TERMS:


“And”
indicates multiple writers or writing teams who contributed but did not collaborate directly—they may never have even met. Examples are “Andrew Douglas and Justin Goldstein” or “Mike Fox and Bethany Kant and Rachel Loonin.”


An ampersand (&) indicates multiple people or teams who wrote together. Examples are “Darren Sapper & Matt Small” or “Kevin Alansky & Rachel Fremont and Seth Kessler & Dara Neumann.” (Here, Alansky and Fremont wrote together, Kessler and Neumann wrote together, but the two pairs did not make it a foursome.) You might also see a team and an individual such as “Mike Chasen & Randi Skylar and Chris Campagnuolo.”

Friday, April 1, 2011

My notes are not laminated

SoMIRAC is neither a robot character from an Adult Swim cartoon nor a rare, recently discovered rash caused by daisy dust. Rather it is the State of Maryland International Reading Association Council Conference, which I was honored to participate in on 3/31/11.

The attendees were educators and attendance was robust; the parking lot was so full that my space was practically in Delaware, and my two sessions had full turnouts.

My first session was on how to draw a reader into a piece of writing (fiction or nonfiction) and the other was on the language of cartoons and the value of using humor as a teaching tool.


I spilled water over my notes in only the first session.

(Better than over my netbook, which was just a few inches farther.)

My second talk ended at 2:45. I signed books for about an hour starting at 4:10, then stuck around to be one of twelve authors featured in the evening event. I was told it would be fun, and I was told right. It wasn't quite a panel and it wasn't quite like anything I'd done before.

Seated alphabetically on stage, from Jennifer Allison to Susan Stockdale, we passed the mike, each taking up to five minutes to casually introduce ourselves and our work. All were entertaining in their own right, and some approaches were really funny; I especially liked Jennifer's, Jay Asher's, and Kevin O'Malley's. (Kevin deftly sketched an animal character for each of us as we spoke.)


Then the authors dispersed to twelve tables to have up-close time with the audience, which had been randomly pre-divided into groups of about ten.

The capper was an ice cream social in one of the hotel restaurants; its style could be described as "neon noir."

This was a good conference.

Great communication from the organizers, great lineup of people.

They sold out of
Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and my newer Scholastic vocabulary cartoon book; they sold a bunch of Vanished: True Stories of the Missing.

I found the attendees to be engaged, enthusiastic, and appreciative.

And the ice cream was no slouch, either.
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