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Research peaks, rejection horrors, promotion gambles, and other adventures in publishing from a picture book author, "Nickelodeon" writer, and cartoonist.
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Of the numerous beloved people from pop culture (books, movies, TV, music) I’ve interviewed over the last few years, three seem to generate more engagement than the rest (by which I mean more comments on the blog and more emails to me):
An unlikely trio!
In the early 2000s, upon learning that I was a cartoonist as well as writer, my Scholastic editor Virginia Dooley proposed an update to a 1960s book that used cartoons to teach vocabulary. She (postal) mailed me samples from the book. The cartoons used pistols, cigarettes, and other elements you would not see in a typical children’s book today.
The book may not have been aimed at young people.
In any case, the idea was to create 180 cartoons, one for every day of the school year—new words, new gags. It seemed like a fun challenge.
Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day (grades 4-6) came out in 2005.
A keynoter at a SCBWI conference I’d attended sometime before then said that in 1945, the average schoolchild’s vocabulary consisted of 10,000 words…and now, only 2,500.
At professional development seminars where I spoke, I would tell the audience that, if nothing else, this book would help increase that number to 2,680.
After repeated requests at those professional development seminars, we did a second one for a younger age range (illustrated by the total pro Mike Moran). It came out in 2010.
In late 2013, I went looking for those cartoons Virginia sent me more than a decade ago. I didn’t remember that they were not sent digitally. But when I didn’t find them either on my computer or in my file, I asked Virginia. She also could not find or remember the source but did not think it was Scholastic.
So I took to Google. But it turns out my searches for books with “vocabulary” and “cartoon” in the title were for naught.
The title of the book, I believe, was Word-a-Day, by Mickey Bach. It came out in 1964, and it does appear that it was indeed published by Scholastic (or at least one edition was).
Apparently, Mickey Bach (1909-1994) churned out these illustrated vocab builders (they were not called vocabulary cartoons) from the 1940s to the mid-1980s.
Here are a few demonstrating why the plan was redo rather than reissue:
Beating.Heaps of thanks to the kind and resourceful Rebecca Knab of Loganberry Books for solving this mystery, especially with so little to go on.
For the second year in a row, I was invited to speak at Gregory-Portland Intermediate School in Portland, TX. And for the second year in a row, my kind host Cati Partridge sent me a thick stack of thank you letters from the students who were forced to listen to me for an hour. And for the second year in a row, I was struck by many of them. Here are some comments that stood out:
- “It takes a real man to look up that much information! If it were my opinion, you actually made history!”
- “Out of all the guest speakers, you were the best…and the most hilarious. You have inspired me to follow through with all of my dreams and goals. My first goal is to make varsity soccer and my second is to become an open heart surgeon. I think you helped a lot with making them come true.”
- “I honestly thought it was going to be another boring author, but you turned out to be really interesting! Superheroes aren’t real but I can certainly see one in you!”
- “I think your dedication to your writing is very inspiring and many other authors could learn from you. You’re a funny, awesome, and a nobleman [sic].”
- “Now you’re famous and you inspired many people in my school, including me. You are the best person I know that has good speeching [sic] skills.”
- “In Language class, we’re doing a project where we pick an author and research them. I wish I would’ve known about your books!”
- “What is it like to be a superhero…writer?”
- “I want to do what you do—investigate and look for stuff people don’t even know about. Mr. Nobleman, is all of this you do worth it?”
- “If only Bill Finger or Batman could see you now.”
- “I was stunned when my teachers told us that an author was coming to our school. I thought that our little town was finally getting recognized by people. But then I remembered that you came last year and we were already on the map thanks to you.”
- “Thank you, not just for coming to our school but for taking time out of your life to find these things out. To give credit to those who were given none and to shine light on those who were put in darkness. To me, however insignificant this letter may be, you are a hero.”
- “When my dad picked me up from school, I told him everything [you said]! He said I’ve never said I liked something at school.”
- “Halloween would have been much more boring without [Bill Finger]!”
- “You are a loyal, great, hard-working fan of superheroes. It’s almost like you’re their hero.”
As they research and write, some biographers develop a sense of identification with their subjects.
Bill Finger and I were nearly three generations apart—I remember how jarring it was when I asked someone if Bill liked the Beatles and was told he probably didn’t listen to any rock and roll—yet at times I saw myself in him, or vice versa:
- not fond of driving (Bill never had a license, I waited for six months after turning 16 to get my license)
- fond of extensive research and reference clipping
- finance management not strongest suit
- like Batman
Last week I shared some of what I have learned while in the UAE.
- Though some aspects of the culture are ancient, the country itself is only about 40 years old. Before that, a lot more of region was desert.
- Some schools have been pressured into removing World War II books or blacking out mention of Hitler and the Holocaust (not to mention Israel, which if it must be mentioned, is referred to as “the entity”).
- All pig products (and even mention of pigs in certain settings) are forbidden. However, some food stores have a back room just for expats…and just for pork.
- One international school was reprimanded for inviting the students to dress up for Halloween because the government education counsel saw no educational value in that.
- The country seems to be struggling with its identity. On the one hand, residents maintain great respect for Muslim traditions, some of which seem dangerously outdated by some non-Muslims. On the other hand, they want to attract tourists and foreign business so find themselves compromising (as a culture) at times. In the malls, you see fully covered Muslim women walking side-by-side with Western-looking women in tight T-shirts and short shorts. At airports, you may see women shedding their abayas (coverings) to reveal contemporary fashion underneath as they prepare to travel to a more religiously diverse place.
- When multiple fully covered women are in one area, children can identify their mothers by their handbags.
- At several schools, teachers asked students to welcome me by saying “Have a clap” rather than “Let’s have a round of applause.” (But that may be British rather than local custom.)
- Dubai is more liberal than Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi has more trees and green space (which must be vigorously watered) than Dubai.
- Everyone (at schools, hotels, restaurants, and so on) has been lovely to me.
Also, April 27 was a milestone in my author visit history: the first time I spoke at a school on a Sunday (when the school/work weeks begins in the UAE).
On 4/23-24/14, I participated in the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival in the United Arab Emirates; while I was here for four days of the two-week event, other featured American children’s book authors/illustrators included Peter Brown, Meghan McCarthy, and Stephen Messer.
Our appearances consisted of two types: morning talks at schools in Sharjah and an evening panel with academics from the Arab community.
Both were considerably different than any previous author experience I’ve had, and my compatriots had similar reactions.
Both of my Sharjah schools were all-girl and Arab; some authors spoke at Australian or Indian schools and/or all-boy schools. My students were about 12 and 13 years old.
Simply getting to the schools was an adventure. In my first week in the UAE, I’ve been in a lot of cars (not to mention three hotels), and none of the drivers have used GPS. I don’t recall seeing traffic lights in Sharjah. (And the hotels don’t have addresses in the sense we’re used to—no street number. Just “Corniche Street.” Or sometimes even just “near the Expo Center.”) Drivers seem to be guesstimating how to get to places.
My two schools were not only all-girl but also all-shy. I understand. I get the impression they rarely if ever have guest speakers, and almost certainly never a foreign, male guest speaker. I was surprised and impressed that the schools were open to a visitor like me.
Al Noof Government SchoolShyness aside, the students were very sweet, and at the first school, the girls did come around by the end of my hourlong talk; a few asked questions, in part thanks to their teacher’s words of encouragement (in English). She invited me to come back and even gave me her cell phone so I could give her notice.
Using humor in this context was tricky. Different culture, different sensibility. The one time I remember the girls at the second school laughing was at the end of my presentation. I was trying to make them feel comfortable enough to ask questions so I said I have children of my own and they ask me lots of questions:
It was that last one that elicited some giggles.
- “May I please stay up later?”
- “May I please have another cookie?”
- “Daddy, would you please stop talking?”
Action at A Ta'la School.
On 4/23/14, Peter and Meghan were on a panel with two Arab speakers. The topic was something like “reading and media.” Each of the four panelists spoke for about 10 minutes each. (We were told in advance that some panelists would not be sticking to the already-vague topics. It’s a cultural thing.)
One of the others on their panel was, I believe, a children’s book author as well. The last was an Egyptian psychiatrist whose focus was the prevention of predatory behavior online. Certainly important, and she was certainly well-spoken, but a strange pairing with children’s authors.
The highlight of that panel (for me as an audience member) was what turned out to be one of many “incidents” during panels at the festival. While the psychiatrist was explaining the gravity and prevalence of child endangerment via the Internet, a man in the audience began to call out at her (in Arabic). Everyone—panelists and audience members alike—had small Star Trek devices in our ears for translations (English to Arabic or vice versa, depending on what you needed).
But the translator in the back of the room could not clearly hear the shouting audience man, who continued to interrupt the psychiatrist (and therefore disrupt the room) to the point that the translator began to plead “Peter Brown, Peter Brown, I can’t work like this! Please intervene!”
Though Peter was sitting next to the psychiatrist, what he (or anyone) could have done to remedy the situation was anyone’s guess. Luckily, the psychiatrist seemed to shut down the shouting man by saying “There is a fine line between commenting and insulting.”
On 4/24/14, Peter, Meghan, and I went from Sharjah to Dubai to see the Dubai Mall, currently the world’s largest in terms of area, and Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building. When in a foreign country for the first time, ordinarily none of us would likely go to a mall, but in the UAE, it’s another story.
The mall is indeed a spectacle. It is home to a huge, shark-filled aquarium in which you can scuba dive; presumably the sharks aren’t the human-chomping kind. The mall also includes almost any store you’ve ever heard of and probably at least a couple twice because the second one didn’t know the first one existed.
Meghan and Peter looking tough in front of a model of
the mall and the tallest building.
We are American. Sorry, this is not enough.
The first Häagen-Dazs I have seen that has a menu.
A hardcover one, no less.Five times a day in Muslim communities, the call to prayer goes out. I haven’t heard it five times a day—it depends on where you are—but when I do here, it’s quite lovely. And it was even piped into the mall.
At the bottom of “At the Top” (the observation deck,
which is the highest point paying customers are allowed to go).
By association, this must be the world’s longest shadow.
(Longest manmade shadow?)
View from the 124th-floor observation deck up the rest
of the 163-floor building (and up my nose).
You could pose against a green screen to be superimposed on a scene
of peril atop the building. Fun to watch people get in position.
For a fleeting moment, not counting people in planes,
we were the highest children’s book creators in the world.
Babies may not be accompanied by adults.
That night was my panel. It was supposed to be me and two Arabs in the field, but only one showed. The topic was equally vague as the night before; it involved the importance of the book and also the development of curriculum.
Due to the disruption, Peter and Meghan’s panel didn’t get to audience questions but mine did. However, it was not like Q&A during American panels. A woman asked question that the moderator didn’t ask us to answer—the mic was passed immediately to another audience member who made a statement, then another. Only then did the moderator ask me a question—but it didn’t seem to be a question that had come from the audience. I was confused but did the best I could, and some people were nodding so I guess I didn’t waste their time completely.
A view from the panel.It was a curious honor that anyone who came to a panel about education with a focus on the Middle East would care what an American author with no Arabic experience had to say. But I am all for bridging gaps between cultures whenever possible.
Author/illustrator/friend/adventurer Peter Brown and I are in the United Arab Emirates for the Sharjah Children’s Book Festival…and for dune bashing. Which means treating the desert like a roller coaster.
It is not for the faint of stomach.
The race is on to see who will be first to change his Twitter handle to @dunebasher14.
Not in the desert quite yet. Maybe the strip mall in the background gave that away.
Peterama. Including oil rig. Or drill. Not sure.
One of the cutest things I have seen in a while:
a girl of about three taking a photo of her mom.
Our dune-bashing ride is in the background.
Hawkman. Actually, it is a falcon.
This guy spun in a circle for what must have been at least five minutes straight...
and did not show any dizziness.
Still in the desert, though you have to take my word for it.
After graduating college, I lived in New York City, which to a guy who grew up in small-town Connecticut felt exotic, almost mythic. If only I would have known then that one day I’d be setting up shop for two weeks in the United Arab Emirates.
In late December, I was invited to the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival and gladly immediately accepted. I recommended author friends and the festival invited three of them, two of whom (Peter Brown and Meghan McCarthy) accepted. I also managed to set up author visits at eight schools (five in Abu Dhabi, three in Dubai) for the surrounding days.
Then I packed sunscreen, slept lying down on a plane for the first time (no, not on the floor), and landed amidst a fantastic cultural experience.
Among the tidbits I have learned so far:
- The United Arab Emirates consists of seven emirates, of which I will see three (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah), and as an entity, it’s only a little over 40 years old.
- The school week is Sunday to Thursday.
- There is virtually no crime. Most locals are wealthy and 70% of the population is from other countries. Those who are here as laborers would get deported if they broke the law, so they don’t. I ran at night along a long, sometimes dark path along the water. It was lovely.
- As many know, some Arab women in public wear covering to varying degrees. Laborers who’ve come from other countries are typically men who leave behind their wives. Therefore, some Westerners with exposed shoulders or legs stand out to laborers and report discomfort at their “male gaze”; however, because of bullet #3 above (if not their own morals), laborers do nothing more than look.
- Abu Dhabi is home to what I was told is the world’s only 7-star hotel. Apparently there are others but this one (resembling a palace) is a stunner.
- Little fruit grows in the UAE and some report that the imported fruit loses its taste in transit.
Pristine Corniche Beach, Abu Dhabi. Only minutes by foot from my hotel.
An entrance to the beach. Note the unusual blue brick.
Every beach could use a library.
After the beach library and the banner promoting reading,
a third writing-related sign near my hotel.
The two crosswalk signs are not synchronized.
My first school visit in UAE was the wonderfully welcoming
American Community School of Abu Dhabi,
where I was greeted by a larger-than-life banner
and spoke to six dynamic groups over two days.
I consider myself lucky that Ross MacDonald illustrated Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.
He was exceptional to work with and is now a friend. But the book came out in 2008. Why interview him now?Because I should have done it then. With respect to Bill Finger, I often say “Justice has no expiration date.” Same is true with good content.Besides, the book is still a book... What attracted you to illustrating Boys of Steel? It’s a great story about the guys—boys, really—who [created] arguably the first, and certainly the most iconic, superhero.I had grown up reading the Superman comics of the ‘60s. They were fun when I was young. The art in those was clean and accomplished, but a little bland. [But] the stories had devolved (degenerated?) into these convoluted yet simplistic plots involving time travel, Superman trying to keep Lois from finding out his secret identity, Mr. Mxyzptlk, and an ever-expanding rainbow of Kryptonites.As an adult, I came to really appreciate the artwork and storylines of the early, dark comic books and Sunday comics of the ‘40s. Joe Shuster’s art and the dark gripping plots of the early Superman comics came as a huge revelation. You used brown for Jerry Siegel’s clothes and green for Joe Shuster’s. Did you incorporate any other recurring visual motifs? Jerry is kinda tubby and Joe was rail thin. But they almost looked like brothers in many ways. Both had similar glasses and hair, and like every single male American of the time, they wore suits. All the time. They even have the same initials, so keeping their names straight is difficult, too.They looked similar enough that just making one heavy and one skinny wasn’t quite enough to tell them apart. So I gave them each their own color scheme. That was something you saw in the old comics—the characters often only had one suit (I guess that was probably true in real life at the time, too), and it helped make the comic panels a quicker read. Villains often had purple or orange suits, and Clark Kent’s was always true blue.Another thing I tried to do was to make the illustrations that showed Joe and Jerry’s real life have a nice muted color scheme but the scenes they imagine are bright, pulpy, comic colors. What is your favorite piece of art from Boys of Steel? Much as I liked drawing Superman, my favorite piece is Joe sketching on the back of wallpaper scraps in the unheated kitchen of his mother’s apartment while she washes dishes in the background. What piece of Boys of Steel art was the most challenging to create? Another fave—Jerry sitting at his typewriter in front of his bedroom window while the neighborhood kids play outside. What was the most annoying request I made?
All of them—just kidding. I don’t remember any requests, frankly. Maybe they were so annoying I blanked them out!
Do you have any unused art you can share, especially cover sketches?
Like most of the book, the cover was a one-sketch kinda deal. There are a couple of alternate versions of the title page, though.
Any particularly memorable feedback you’ve gotten for your work on the book? Charlie Kochman, formerly an editor at DC Comics, now at Abrams Image, really loved the book. It felt good getting praise from someone who worked at the house that published Superman comics from the very beginning. Anything else about the experience you’d like to add? Great working with you on this, and it was fun helping to tell the interesting creation story of one of my childhood heroes.
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My daughter’s name is Lara. It was one of the few female names my wife and I agreed on. I don’t remember who proposed it, but I know it was on the list I started in my early twenties. (Yes, I am that guy.) And I know my wife latched onto it after being swept up by Doctor Zhivago (which I still have not seen).
Though my wife might never believe me, and I can barely believe this myself, in deciding on the name for our baby girl, I did not remember that the name of Superman’s biological mother is Lara. In other words, I didn’t secretly propose/go along with the name because of my fondness for the Man of Steel.
My son’s name is Rafael. It was, I believe, the only male name my wife and I agreed on. (One of my first choices—Clark—was nixed even faster than I nixed one of her first choices…Fritz. Cut some slack. She’s German.)
I’m Jewish and because my wife is not, she gave her blessing for our son’s Hebrew name to be “Kal-El”—which is Superman’s Kryptonian name. Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman was not yet out so my life was not yet so linked to Superman, but even then I felt going this route would be too fannish. I did not want our son—who may not care a whit about Superman—to be saddled with a Hebrew name he would not be able to say without a sigh.
So instead, we chose “Emet”—“truth” in Hebrew. (This was inspired by the motto of my alma mater, Brandeis University: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.”)
And just like I had a revelation only after naming our daughter, I had one with our son as well. I recently realized that, perhaps subconsciously, I did saddle him with a Superman name after all:
In 2010, my book Vocabulary Cartoon of the Day (grades 2-3), illustrated by Mike Moran (whom I have still not met), came out.
In 2012, my author friend Jennifer Allison (whose son portrayed Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel for a school project) asked for recommendations for good cartoonists.
I suggested Mike.
And he was the one hired to illustrate Jennifer’s 2013 book Iggy Loomis, Superkid in Training.I love when this happens!
(It’s the first time this has happened.)
(For me, anyway.)
Good luck with Iggy, Jennifer and Mike!
On the Barnes & Noble in Bethesda, MD is a quotation that could have been the subtitle for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman. (What? The one I ended up using is long, too.)
My friend Jamie Reigle is one of the world’s foremost collectors and purveyors of Superman memorabilia. I’ve mentioned him here before, and not only because he so kindly distributed hundreds (of the tens of thousands) of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman postcards over the years.In the summer of 2013, among the tributes acknowledging the 75th anniversary of Superman, the Cleveland Jewish News produced a special commemorative section; Jamie was profiled.
There were a lot:
Mentioned and pictured: the page proofs of Boys of Steel signed by as many members of the Siegel and Shuster families as Jamie could round up.His sons are named Kalel and Lex. I trust Jamie has a plan to prevent young Lex from using his genius for evil…and I know I’m not the first to make that joke.
After a talk I gave at a Virginia elementary school in 11/13, one of the teachers, Nancy Wykoff, introduced herself...as the granddaughter of William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman.
Naturally I asked to interview her. Luckily she said yes. (Photos may be forthcoming.)
Your grandfather died in 1947 so I presume you never met him?
No, I never met my grandfather.
According to family who knew him, what kind of person was he?
My grandfather was a kind man. He was brilliant. Very bright. He not only created Wonder Woman, but he created the first lie detector. He loved his children and he loved women!
Any funny stories about him? In particular any funny Wonder Woman-related stories?
He died when my dad was 13 so most of the stories came from my grandmother. Stories say that he modeled Wonder Woman after Elizabeth Marston but my grandmother, Olive Richard, claims that Wonder Woman was designed after her. If you ever see a picture of the two ladies, you would see that indeed Wonder Woman was designed after my grandmother.
Bill Marston had four children with two different women. All the children, three boys and one girl, have Marston as their last name. My grandmother Olive met Bill when she was 19. Bill came home to his wife, Elizabeth Marston, and asked if Olive could come live with them. Elizabeth agreed. Olive was the homemaker and Elizabeth was an attorney for Met Life.
After Bill died, the women raised the kids together and continued to live together until their death. The children were well educated, Andover Prep School and Harvard. My dad was an attorney and Byrne was a doctor. The two children from Elizabeth, Pete and Olive Ann, I am not as close to. Pete and O.A. are still living and live in Connecticut. I am very close to my Uncle Byrne. We see him and his family quite often. He lives in Florida. My dad [came] to Washington D.C. to attend law school, moved to Arlington, Virginia, and I am still here!
Do you know what inspired him to create Wonder Woman?
Bill Marston said that he wanted a superhero that females could identify with. The few that were around then were characters that boys idolized or wanted to be, so he wanted to have a woman superhero. As you can tell, Bill loved women! He certainly created a well-shaped female!
Do you know about any controversy he had to deal with surrounding Wonder Woman?
I don't know if there was any controversy...
Do you what his opinion of Wonder Woman was?
I think he wanted WW to be a female who was strong, self-sufficient, and could help solve the world's problems. She used her lasso to get people to tell the truth (hence the lie detector connection), flew around in her invisible plane, and helped fight crime. What is not to love about that? She came from Amazonia, a land of strong women, goddesses... Remember Bill loved women. Fantasy, strong women, shapely...Wonder Woman.
Is Wonder Woman mentioned on his gravestone?
I am not sure. My dad spent many years of his life being angry at his father. Since there were two women living in his house, neighbors and peers often teased him about being a "bastard child" of Bill Marston. My dad was really confused and pissed off. I have never been to my grandfather’s grave. To be honest, I am not sure where he was buried. I think New York. That is where they were living when Bill died. I will have to find that out for you.
What is the oldest piece of Wonder Woman memorabilia you own?
We own a few of the first sketches for the first comic Wonder Woman. We have the original script for the first comic and we have the first comic book published. We even have the first lie detector! I know, it should be in the Smithsonian or someplace like that!
I understand that your family still owns Wonder Woman. Does that mean that DC Comics needs the family's approval for all Wonder Woman stories and products?
Yes, they need family approval before any decisions are made.
Have you been interviewed before about this?
Do you pay attention to the narrative changes DC has made to the character?
We wish they would go back to the kinder, gentler WW. I am not thrilled with the new look.
Who would you like to see play Wonder Woman in a movie? [NOTE: Question asked before Gal Godot was cast for the 2016 Superman/Batman movie...but no matter, she will not be the last actress to portray Wonder Woman.]
I liked Jessica Biel. They also had another choice, a woman from Mexico, I think. She was a good choice. I think he character needs to be young to attract the young girl audience. Too old and you lose that. I can't tell you how many kids at my school have WW stuff. The girls love her!
Were you ever Wonder Woman for Halloween?
Yes! So was my daughter!
What do the kids in the family think of the family's connection to Wonder Woman?
They think it is awesome! They so want a movie to be made. They think it isn't fair that Batman and Superman have had so many movies already. When they tell friends that their great grandfather created WW, most friends don't believe them!
On a side note, my great grandmother is Margaret Sanger. When the kids mention her, then there is total doubt! That is what used to happen to me when I was younger. My friends would say, “There is no way your dad's dad created WW and your great-grandmother started Planned Parenthood!” It is true!
My son's middle name is Marston and my daughter's middle name is Sanger…so it continues... :)
A stage play about Marston.
A review recently in for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Creator of Batman contains some choice comments:
MTN (all the cool people go by their initials, RDJ, JGL, JCP) writes the book in a large picture book format seemingly gearing it towards younger children yet it’s mood, story and historical content will appeal to much older readers.
[Nobleman] and Templeton (or TT)…are simply trying to right a wrong done to a humble, creative genius of a storyteller. There is hope in this tale. Perhaps by aiming to a young audience and appealing to the adult fans, the story of unsung heroes like Finger will inspire others to stand up for the silent ones.
I was surprisingly moved despite the children’s book style and format. You may have passed on it because of that but you should really check it out. Nobleman is very passionate about this and it comes through in his story. Templeton is an inspired choice as illustrator. I’m recommending this as a buy. Not just a buy but also a give. Yes, give this book to a casual fan.
By the way, I had to look up those initials.
Robert Downey, Jr.
Have No Idea.
Today, Bill Finger’s lone grandchild, Athena Finger, makes her first appearance at a comic convention, in St. Louis. In Bill’s entire career, he appeared for certain at one con and possibly one more. Athena will overtake him before the year is out.
Here is the bio I helped her whip up for her primetime debut:
Athena Finger knew all along that she was the lone grandchild of Bill Finger, co-creator and original writer of Batman…it was Batman fans who didn’t know. Born two years after Bill died, Athena never met her grandfather, but heard about him from her father Fred. When Athena got married, she kept her maiden name out of respect for the man who gave life not only to her (indirectly) but also to the world’s most popular superhero. Since Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of Bill the Boy Wonder, found out about Athena in 2007, she has slowly made her presence known to comicdom. She lives in Florida with her son Ben and teaches math at Broward College.
Friends and I got to talking and I mentioned I plan to develop apps based on a few of my books. One friend, Sara, said, “Bill Finger?”
We then collaborated on the idea for such an app: open the app and walk by any comic containing any Batman story and it will tell you if that Batman story was written by Bill Finger.
In March 2013, during the Q&A after an educators conference in Georgia, a huge fan of The Big Bang Theory suggested I send a copy of each book to the show. Though I don’t watch it (heresy!), I know it regularly references superheroes. I didn’t see what the producers might do with my books...yet this audience member kept kindly suggesting (almost insisting), and eventually I was convinced.
What did I want from this? Well, this woman seemed to think the true stories in these books could inspire a storyline on the show. I felt that is probably unlikely, but I am a never-hurts-to-try guy. In any case, I’d be thrilled if either or both could be added to the set, even if for just a scene. I believe they are the kinds of books the characters would own...
On Facebook, I asked if anyone in my network has a connection to anyone connected to the show, and within minutes, I heard from a friend who is friends with Kaley Cuoco’s makeup artist. She happened to be supremely nice, and offered to pass along my books, so I sent them to her. Every time I followed up, she was equally nice and complimentary.
As of now, nothing has come of it. But you can’t predict a big bang…
On 2/24/14, I had the honor of presenting at Gregory-Portland Intermediate School in Portland, TX (near Corpus Christi) for the second year in a row.
Another round of thanks to Cati (first syllable rhymes with “cat,” not “Kate”) Partridge for inviting me to speak with her students.
As before, the school (particularly library aide Cindy) created award-worthy displays to welcome me:
Prop pay phone! (I told Cati that there is no pressure to outdo themselves each time!)
And I had another honor this trip: I got to meet the genuine and articulate Ron Dennis, who is a friend of Cati’s and who is the grandson of Walter Dennis…who is a possible visual inspiration for Clark Kent.
I’d forgotten that I already knew of Walter; he is mentioned (and pictured!) in Superman: The Complete History.
Superman: The Complete History by Les Daniels
Superman: The Complete History, page 19
Ron was kind to answer some questions:
me with Clark Kent
me with Superman
On 3/20-21/14, I had the privilege of speaking at four schools in lovely Charlottesville, VA:
- Stone-Robinson Elementary
- Baker-Butler Elementary
- Agnor-Hurt Elementary
- Sutherland Middle
This school district obviously has a thing for hyphens.
Baker-Butler had on display an actual size igloo ingeniously made by librarian Anita Mays and a partner…out of empty milk containers.They followed the procedure as described in the 1981 book propped up on the black cube (only subbing gallon jugs for snow bricks). They also turned the installation into a teaching moment, as seen by the question posed on the whiteboard.
Speaking of ingenious, Baker-Butler also showcased a 2nd grade art project involving two notable artists. This is one mashup I’d not seen before, and I think it’s wonderful.
Sutherland was holding a school event immediately following my afternoon presentation. Spot the clue:Answer:You can tell by the way I use my walk I’m in middle schoolNo time to talk
Thank you to the four librarians who hosted me, and to the Virginia Festival of the Book for arranging the visits.
I interviewed voice actor Buster Jones for the Super ‘70s and ‘80s series.
More images Buster sent:
Buster recently in Los Angeles
Courtesy of the thorough and tireless and stylish Bill Finger Appreciation Group:
Robin (Dick Grayson)
Green Lantern (Alan Scott)
Catwoman Penguin Commissioner James Gordon Lana Lang
A profile now recognizable among Batman fans
For years, the Screen Actors Guild ran a toll-free phone number called “Actors to Locate.”
Though designed for casting directors and journalists, in practice anyone could use it to request contact info for up to three film actors per call; no charge, no automated system (yes, a live person answered), no questions asked. (Of course, they would not give out personal phone numbers or addresses but rather, typically, the number of the actor’s agent or manager.)
Though the info on file was sometimes outdated, this service helped in my research for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman and particularly as I prepared my two big interview series to date: ‘70s and ‘80s superhero entertainers and music video ingénues.
In 2012, SAG merged with AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), and perhaps as part of that reorg, the Actors to Locate number went away, despite what this December 2013 screenshot from the SAG-AFTRA site indicates:
However, the service did not…it was reborn as a web-only feature (which is more efficient anyway).
But reborn with another change.
I was told that SAG-AFTRA would now give access to what they had renamed iActor only to casting directors or producers who are working with SAG-AFTRA projects and no longer to people seeking members for charitable organizations, personal appearances, speaking requests, interview requests, or modeling requests.
In other words, I was no longer eligible.
I called to ask if I could appeal. The person I reached kindly said she had heard from a number of people who fell outside the “casting directors and producers” category, many with what seemed to be valid reasons for wanting access to iActor. She suggested I plead my case in writing and she’d submit it—with others—to the decision makers.
This is what I submitted:
I’m the author of more than 70 books including Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. My work has been covered by The Hollywood Reporter, NPR’s All Things Considered, The Today Show, USA Today, Forbes, NBC, ABC, PBS, MTV, Yahoo; two of my books inspired a TED talk.
I often profile former actors who have long been out of the spotlight yet are still fondly remembered by fans, the kind of people who have never been interviewed before and are, in most cases, thrilled and honored that someone took the time and effort to track them down. In doing so, I have been able to help some of these inactive performers receive royalties that had been accumulating for them but which could not be sent because SAG/etc. did not have their current contact info and did not have luck finding them.
Whenever combining whatever info SAG had with my own detective work has led to success, I direct the talent back to SAG to update their record. Sometimes once they are “found,” they then are hired to appear at conventions for which they are paid. They are very grateful.
Among the people I found and directed to update their SAG record:
Examples of my work in which SAG is invaluable:
Creating such content is hard enough as it is, and even harder without access to agents/managers (though many of these people no longer have agents).
Such features benefit all involved, both emotionally and financially—it gives former performers a chance to discover they have fans (and often royalties) and gives fans original, hard-to-come-by interviews/content. It seems to me that this is one beneficial application of the iActor service.
For these reasons, I am hoping to appeal and get access to iActor just as I had to Actors to Locate. I hope it is clear that I don’t abuse the privilege; I use it to help and showcase others.
Thank you for your time. I look forward to your response.
I was granted access.
And so the intermittent Hollywood-related research continues.
I was happy to receive an email from a Phil Z., the guitarist of a late 1970s band out of Hawaii called Hamlet. The band also featured Mick Smiley…before he became Mick Smiley. (I’m not at liberty to reveal his original name.)
You may not realize that you already know Mick—if you’ve seen Ghostbusters, that is. And who hasn’t?
Mick was the mind and voice behind a distinctive song from its soundtrack and one of the more hypnotic songs you’ll ever hear: “Magic.”
After years of having the pleasure of listening to that song, I had the privilege of interviewing Mick.
Phil mentioned a few songs by Mick’s follow up band—the Mick Smiley Band: “Hello There,” “Big Brown Eyes,” Oh Linda! 461-7264,” and “Room at the Top.”
“I remember being a youngster backstage between shows in the green room with Mick Smiley and Lou Reed,” Phil wrote. “It was such a cool time! I was just a kid.”
And who wasn’t?
at the Troubadour in Hollywood, 1979
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According to the official Warner Bros. release kicking off the 75th anniversary of Batman, he debuted (via Detective Comics #27) on March 30, 1939.
Also of note in that release: no use of the word “creator.”
In 1989, coinciding with Tim Burton’s Batman, Bob Kane’s autobiography came out.
But as with most of the output Bob’s name is on, he did not create it alone. His co-author was Thomas Andrae, who through my Bill Finger research became a friend.
Though I’ve known for a while how important Tom is to Bill’s legacy, given what he’d told me about how he’d persuaded Bob to include Bill in the book as much as possible, I only recently realized that this story-behind-the-story should be documented. In my eyes, what Tom did on Bill’s behalf was heroic.
Interview answers © Thomas Andrae 2014.
How did you come to co-author Bob Kane’s autobiography Batman & Me?
I had done an interview with Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1981. It was reprinted in the Overstreet Price Guide in 1988, in celebration of Superman’s fiftieth anniversary. I thought it might be a good idea to follow this up with an interview with Bob Kane for Batman’s fiftieth anniversary in the 1989 Price Guide, so I contacted Bob and he was amenable to the project. When I went down to interview Bob, he told me that he had written his autobiography. [It was] a very long manuscript (about 800 pages) that wasn’t publishable. It was too self-centered according to those of us who read it. There were far too many uses of “I” in it, for example.[But] I...thought, in the interest of comics history, the manuscript should be published, [so I] offered to find a publisher.
What was your job/primary work focus at the time?
I was a graduate student and working for Bruce Hamilton at Another Rainbow Publishing as an editor of the Carl Barks Library 30-volume set of his works.
Carl Barks and Tom Andrae
Had you met Bob before you began the book?
This was the first time I contacted him.
What was your first impression of Bob?
He was a very charming guy and quite friendly. Bruce Hamilton and I went down to L.A. together to meet him. After the inteview, we went out to dinner with him and his wife Elizabeth.
Did you meet with him in person to discuss/write the book? If so, how often and where? If not, how did you work together?
I didn’t meet with him again in person. We had many phone discussions and some correspondence for about a year or more while working on the book and when we were producing and marketing it. In this period I got to know Bob quite well, and he seemed fairly open about his life, up to a point. I felt that we were friends. I edited [the book], took out some chapters, and created a number of new chapters based on interviews with him and on my own research. All in all I probably wrote close to half the book in this manner. Did your impression of him change during the process?
Yes. He had a tremendous ego, although he was very insecure. I asked for a byline and got one. He pretty much had to do this: I was supposed to get the manuscript into publishable shape—which was quite a task. I was responsible for not only rewriting the book but for advertising it, formatting it, and getting a publisher for it.
But he told the publisher that my byline was too big so they reduced its size. From what I gather from others who had worked with Bob, I think that I was lucky to receive a byline at all. It may have been a first.
How was he to work with?
Pretty easy, but he could be temperamental. When Bob Overstreet decided to go with a Jerry Robinson cover rather than one by Bob, [Bob] threatened to nix the publication of the interview. I convinced him otherwise, because we were taking orders for the book in an ad in the Price Guide and it would have sabotaged the book project to kill printing the interview.
No one wanted to publish his bio until I asked Eclipse to do it. I got the idea to take out a pre-publication ad for the book that appeared in the 1989 Price Guide. We received 1,500 orders; that proved it was a viable project and helped get a publisher for it. I did all the work in this initial stage of order-taking.
Do you remember how the subject of Bill Finger first came up during the process?
Yes. Bob felt guilty about how he had treated Bill, although he was afraid to acknowledge Bill as co-creator of Batman, or to give him a byline, for fear it might open the door to a challenge to Bob’s legal status as the sole creator of Batman. He feared a [Finger] byline would quite negatively impact his Batman royalties.
What was Bob’s reaction when you suggested including Bill?
It was Bob’s idea to give Bill some credit for having invented aspects of the costume and for creating the Joker. But Bob also claimed he co-created many of the villains since he, Bill, and Jerry discussed everything before it was published and Bob drew the art for the stories with the characters.
But Bob was mistaken about who created what, such as the Penquin or Catwoman, which were Bill’s creations, and Jerry did much of the art as well, with Bob and sometimes without him. In general, Bob failed to give Bill credit for creating most of Batman’s villains, claiming that he created them. Bob’s memory was not very good. Also, he was willing to go only so far in giving Bill credit.
I tried to add more about Bill’s contributions in creating the initial concept and image of Batman, but Bob refused to include them, claiming that he, not Bill, was the creator of Batman, which was a gross exaggeration.
Did Bob express—or did you glean—his personal feeling about Bill Finger?
I think he liked Bill and genuinely felt guilty about how he had treated him and how Bill ended up in near poverty when he died. Bob confessed that his ego prevented him from giving Bill the credit he deserved. But his attempt to remedy this was, in my mind, quite, quite inadequate. Also, he never gave others, like Shelly Moldoff, who was his ghost artist for twenty years, any credit, nor Jerry Robinson for his creation of the Joker. Bob expressed a lot of anger towards Jerry, stemming, I think, from being jealous of him, of his artistic ability, and of the recognition that he had received.
When you say “Bob confessed that his ego prevented him from giving Bill the credit he deserved,” what do you mean exactly—that Bob was willing to say in print that Bill’s name deserves to be on Batman (as the book does) but not go so far as to ask DC to officially change the credit line?
I think he meant that he should have put Bill’s name on the Batman strip when it appeared. But the point is moot because I don’t think he would ever put Bill’s name on Batman. He never gave byline credit to any of his ghosts.
What do you remember about the passage that stands out most to me: “Now that my long-time friend and collaborator is gone, I must admit that Bill never received the fame and recognition he deserved. He was an unsung hero ... I often tell my wife, if I could go back fifteen years, before he died, I would like to say ‘I’ll put your name on it now. You deserve it.’” How did Bob feel to include that—nervous? Conflicted? Redeemed? Other?
I believe that Bob sincerely felt some remorse about how he had treated Bill. He describes his spiritual conversion in Batman & Me. But Bob never felt guilty enough, in my estimation, or realized the full extent of Bill’s contribution. Bob was asked to give Bill credit as co-creator by the Finger estate when the first Batman feature film was in production and he declined.
Have you seen my account of this? If so, do you remember any other details that I didn’t cover?
I’m reporting what Bob told me about his decision in a conversation with him. I don’t think you covered this.
How did you feel convincing Bob to include more Bill?
I felt that it was a slight victory in correcting a massive injustice, but too little too late.
Did you talk with Bob’s wife Elizabeth during the process? If so, how was that/she?
She was a very nice, sweet person, but knew little about Bob’s work, so we didn’t talk about the book.
Do you know what her reaction was when Bob would tell her that he felt Bill deserved credit for Batman? Perhaps first I should ask if you believe he actually did tell her that?
Yes, he did, but I don’t know what her reaction was.
Do you remember if you asked Bob if he would consider recasting his contract with DC Comics to reflect his statement about Bill? If so, what was his response?
He was not amenable to this and told me so.
How honest do you feel Bob was in recounting stories?
I think he was fairly honest but too self-centered to see reality clearly enough and had a bad memory to boot. His ego was always in the way. He primarily remembered what he did on Batman—and that was usually inflated—rather than others’ contributions. I constantly had to fact-check what he told me because he had a predisposition to aggrandize his work on Batman.
What was the media response to the book?
We got some favorable media attention, but not going on The Tonight Show like Bob thought would happen.
What was Bob’s feeling about the final product? Do you think it got the recognition he wanted? Do you think he did not get anything he wanted from it?
He liked the book very much and frequently carried it around with him when he went on public appearances. But he was a little disgruntled that I cut out some of his nostalgic asides. He was a garrulous writer. No one would publish it until I asked Dean Mulanney and Cat Yronwode to do it. I designed four editions including a signed edition with Bob’s original art that sold very well. I think Bob made over $200,000 on the book plus more on the second edition
Professionally, what did the book do for your career?
Nothing in academia but I got some credibility among fans and the popular press.
Is there anything about the book you would now change if you could?
Give full credit to Bill as Batman’s co-creator and give him a byline indicating that, and give full credit to Jerry Robinson and the other artists who did much of the work that Bob got credit for. I would have liked Bob to publicly acknowledge Jerry as the Joker’s creator and Shelly Moldoff as the chief artist on Batman for the decades that he drew the strip.
Were you involved with the “sequel,” Batman & Me: The Saga Continues? If so, how was that process compared to working on the first autobiography?
Yes. I edited most of the new material; Bob took my name off the cover (though it’s still on the title page).
What do you think Bob Kane’s legacy is?
I think that Bob was responsible for creating the original germ of the idea of a Batman superhero, which Bill fleshed out and made viable, and for partially drawing the strip for a number of years. I think that Bob’s art, crude as it was, gave the strip an Expressionistic, nightmarish look which helped establish the gothic ambiance of the early stories. To me, the art he did with Jerry as his ghost was very compelling. Thus he made a great contribution to Batman’s legacy. Unfortunately his treatment of Bill, Jerry, and Shelly is a dishonorable part of that legacy.
Anything you’d like to add?
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk about my role in creating the book. This is the first time I’ve done so publicly.