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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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As often is the case, I find myself thanking for a thank you. Thank you, Cluny School of Newport!
The Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman source page:
In a 3/18/13 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece by Rebecca Mead resides this gem:
The books of Dr. Seuss, the pen name of Theodor Geisel, depend on what Donald Pease, a professor of English literature at Dartmouth, refers to in his biography of Geisel as “plausible nonsense.” “Children will grant you any premise, but after that—you’ve got to stay on the same key,” Geisel told one interviewer.
So much more could be written about this, but I don’t know that I yet have the experience to be one to do so. However, I’m shopping around a manuscript that may set me on that path. It’s a departure for me—picture book yes, nonfiction no.
It’s funny, too. I need some way to redirect the energy I am not putting into cartooning at the moment.
I hope to be able to elaborate here soon.
You—or someone—may be shocked…
In 25 years of writing Batman stories, including some of the most popular ever, Bill Finger was officially credited as a writer (or co-creator) precisely zero times. (By that I mean in a credit box within the story. In the 1960s, editor Julie Schwartz, bless him, did sneak Bill’s name into the backmatter at least a couple of times.)Small screen was big time on one level, but in the grand scheme, small solace for a marginalized career.
One time only, Bill did get to see his name prominently displayed on a first-run story—but it was not in print. Bill was the only writer of Batman comics who (with Charles Sinclair) also wrote an episode of the 1966 TV show that made Batman’s popularity go mainstream.
Speaking of TV credits, here is what the credits for the landmark Batman: The Animated Series could’ve looked like if things had played out differently…fairly:
courtesy of @hrguerraNote the order.
It’s always an honor when a young person chooses a book you wrote for a school project. It is a special honor when that young person happens to be the child of a fellow author. (Not every writer passes on genetic code for a talent in writing but I suspect all writers hope we pass on at least refined taste in writing.)
The young man’s name is Max. The fellow author, his mom, also happens to be my friend. Her name is Jennifer Allison. She also gave birth to Gilda Joyce via a series of mystery novels for young readers.
Here is Max’s report, which I find both flattering and factually sound:
Here is Max:
Thank you Max! You are now a Boy of Steel, too. And Jennifer will be featured on this blog again later this year. I won’t say why yet but will give this clue. Maybe this is one for Gilda Joyce herself to solve...
More photos from the author variety show (contributed by and used with permission of the school):
me fumbling through emceeing with the other authors in the wings
taking bows: Mike Rex, Susan Hood, Meghan McCarthy, Vincent X. Kirsch,
Tracy Dockray, Bruce Degen, Katie Davis, Daniel Kirk, easel,
Alan Katz, projector, Bob Shea, Tad Hills, me
When my daughter was four, and I was in the thick of Bill Finger research, I interviewed her on camera about her life thus far. A transcribed excerpt (insert giggles after most of her answers):
MTN: What do I do all day?
MTN: What’s my job?
daughter: (pause) Bill Finger.
MTN: What do I do?
daughter: Bill Finger.
MTN: What does that mean?
daughter: Bill Finger.
MTN: Who’s Bill Finger?
daughter: Bill Finger.
MTN: Is that my friend?
MTN: What’s your favorite color?
daughter: Bill Finger.
So yes, I scarred her.When she was eight, I spoke at her school and showed this 40-second clip. Her classmates, not surprisingly, loved it. (It is always fun to see home movies of one of your own.)She later reported that some kids (mainly boys) had adopted “Bill Finger” as a catchphrase under the same conditions. In other words, when they were asked a question (by friends, not teachers), the answer often given was “Bill Finger.”Bill Finger is now a meme—a verbal, regional one, anyway.I didn’t orchestrate it or even expect it, but I am thrilled by it. Anything that gets people talking about Bill is a good thing.
On 3/8/11, I spoke at Pleasant Ridge Elementary in Overland Park, KS, notable for being the first school in which I sat in a bathtub in the library. (Also notable for being a great school.)
More than a year later, the school shared some flattering news about its Battle of the Books competition. A group of 4th graders who had lost the previous year changed their team name and tried again as 5th graders. In 5/11, they won. The team name?
posted with permission (two stuffed animals were harmed in the making of that mascot)
During my presentations, after polling the audience, I sketch a couple of characters. Invariably, one ends up being a dinobunny (sometimes dino-bunny, sometimes rabbitosaurus).
(not taken at Pleasant Ridge but he always looks the same)
Ty Templeton, artist magnifico of numerous stories including Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, permitted me to show sketches of cover ideas for the book.
Including notes by Ty.
These were homages to early Batman comics. While I liked that idea on one level, ultimately I wanted our book iconography to stand on its own—to avoid referencing existing images. I also didn’t want to represent Bill as Batman himself. Though there are parallels (life in the shadows, namely), it seemed inconsistent with the tone of the story. Bill is the hero of the story, but not quite heroic; his fatal flaw is a lack of self-defense—emphatically not Batman-esque.
I loved the angled, almost subtle silhouette. But I felt the cover overall was too colorful for Batman. I specifically did not like orange. I also did not prefer vertical type treatment for our names.
Dramatic improvement in color. But I wanted my name and Ty’s to be on equal footing. And I wanted the subtitle, which contains the most marketable word on the cover, to be higher. Also, the bow tie seemed too twee; besides, several I asked said Bill did not wear them.
Names look much better. Bow tie gone but top-buttoned shirt not much less twee.
Finally we get a bat! And a loose collar! But the red is Superman, not Batman. I asked for purple to match the original color of Batman’s gloves.
In October 2012, Cleveland, the city in which Superman was created, installed an exhibit about him in the airport.
In June 2013, Kansas, the state in which Superman crash-landed, will induct him (as well as Clark Kent) into its hall of fame.
What is your city doing to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the world’s first superhero?
Several years ago, I emailed Marjorie Cohen, a teacher at Cold Spring Elementary in Potomac, MD, introducing myself as an author who speaks in schools. I’d come across her name in the alumni magazine of our alma mater, Brandeis University.
I didn’t hear back. I tried again.
I didn’t hear back again.
In 2012, the school booked me through another channel. I had forgotten the Marjorie connection but she reminded me after I got there.
The theme of my standard school presentation is persistence. I don’t come in and announce this; I work it in gradually, stealthily, narratively. But the takeaway is clear: persistence (perhaps even more than talent) is essential to success.
After I spoke at Cold Spring, before the kids were dismissed, Marjorie stood up and asked for their attention.
Then she came clean.
She told them how I had emailed her and how she dismissed me once, twice. But now that she’d heard me speak, she admitted she should’ve paid attention.
I don’t fault her. Regardless of what we do, many of us are pitched a lot. We don’t have the bandwidth to fully consider each pitch.
She said she was glad I was persistent. She was glad I came. And now that she saw my focus, it all made sense.
In fact, it worked out better this way because Marjorie was able to reinforce my 30-minute message with a short, real-life anecdote. “The guy who just tried to persuade you to adopt persistence actually walks the walk—and it got him here, despite me.” (Paraphrasing, of course.)
It’s one of those spontaneous moments that make it all even more worth it.
One of my last steps in writing a picture book is go through and find areas where I can cut text. Yes, that is a writing step. Because I’m not cutting meaning. I’m merely eliminating redundancy in instances where the art can show rather than the words tell.
Here are examples from Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman:
The name of the pivotal character is revealed in the picture. Technically, it is done with words, but the words are part of the art.
The text says that Bill snuck his son Fred into the American Museum of Natural History, but doesn’t say how. This means kids must look to the art for the info, and they love figuring it out.
“Fitting shape” is deliberately vague. It forces the eye to the picture where the impact is greater than if I’d simply stated that Fred arranged the ashes into a bat.
Superman is the ultimate law-abider. So it’s borderline traitorous for me to write a book about him that breaks some of the “rules.” Luckily, none go so far as to be criminal.
broken rule #1—Do not write nonfiction picture books on pop culture figures.
At first this may seem invalid because plenty of others have also broken this rule (and, for that matter, all of the other rules I’ll list). Yet this still comes up. It’s a commentary on commerce, not content. There can be editorial resistance to historic figures who are not part of traditional curriculum. Teachers are pressured to stick to material that will come up on tests; anything else can be perceived as a waste of time. Therefore, some editors worry that this situation will doom sales for a book on an unconventional topic. I am happy to report that the fact that Superman and his creators, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, are typically not covered in social studies has not hindered classroom use of Boys of Steel. In fact, the book has multiple applications to curriculum, even if the Man (or Boys) of Steel will not be on the test.
broken rule #2—Do not write picture books about writers.
It does seem that a book featuring illustration after illustration of a person sitting at a desk would quickly become visually boring. But who says writers do nothing more than sit at desks? In writing any book there are challenges, and in writing any picture book there are additional challenges, and one of them is varying your images no matter what the subject. Boys of Steel contains only one image of Jerry at his typewriter. The rest is other kinds of adventure.
broken rule #3—Do not use dialogue in nonfiction picture books.
I’ve already written on this, but the recap is as follows: if you treat it like any other fact and source it appropriately, why not? In Boys of Steel, I include statements the Boys made in interviews but presented as dialogue. It livens up the text as dialogue tends to do, and it brings the reader closer to the protagonists. Yes, the lines of dialogue may have occurred at different times in real life than when they appear in the book, but this is a convention we regularly accept in nonfiction. No nonfiction is “pure” nonfiction—not even autobiography.
broken rule #4—With biographies, start with birth, end with death…or at least mention birth and death.
We are living in the Golden Age of Picture Book Biography, which allows writers unparalleled freedom in how we tell our true stories. Everything in the book must be factual, but not every fact must (or even can be) in the book. We need not present our tellings chronologically or wholly. Sometimes the birth and/or death of a figure are simply not essential details in our approach. (To the subjects, they were, of course, notable milestones.) I start Boys of Steel in roughly 1930, when Jerry and Joe met, and end it in roughly 1940, soon after Superman’s stratospheric rise. (I do address the rest of their lives briefly in the author’s note.)
broken rule #5—Refer to your main character by name.
Perhaps this is not quite a rule, but it certainly is the standard. Not counting the subtitle and author’s note, Boys of Steel contains the word “Superman” precisely zero times. This was not because I was hindered by copyright/trademark restriction or because I made an oversight. This was simply because I could. In my structure, the Boys create Superman toward the end of the story proper, which means I got that far without using the word; it then became a fun challenge to see if I could get to the end without it. Readers come away thinking I’ve used the word, but they are actually extracting it from images alone.
broken rule #6—Have a happy ending.
Real life sometimes doesn’t, so books about real life sometimes can’t either. Kids can handle the truth (relative to their age, of course). It does no favors to sugarcoat—or omit—certain tragedies. Every biography addresses struggles the protagonist faced en route to success, so why can’t the book end on a struggle? The illustrated portion of Boys of Steel does end on a high note, but the author’s note reveals that the Boys went on to face considerable suffering. Learning about injustice or misfortune or other unpleasantries may sound depressing, but often it is empowering. It can get kids fired up to help prevent similar situations in their own lives and to go do good in the world.
These are the kinds of rules even Superman would condone breaking.
In 1999, the way I partied like it was, well, that year was by joining the National Cartoonists Society. It also entitled me to an entry in the next edition. Rather than copy and submit my high school yearbook entry, I cobbled together something new:
This entitled me to a copy of the NCS membership album from 1996—the 50th anniversary edition.
That site is defunct but the cartoons live on.Happy National Cartoonists Day. You are convincing in your act that you did not already know it was today.
Some reviews of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman called writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster heroes. They created arguably the most iconic superhero of the 20th century. But does that make them heroic?
I feel the word “hero” is overused. This dilutes its potency. The more people we call heroes, the less impactful the word is.
It is a natural transference to refer to superhero creators as heroes themselves, but that is a disservice both to more traditionally defined heroes (firefighters, police officers, rescue workers, everyday people who surprise even themselves by risking their own lives to try to save another) and to the creators themselves.
True, dreaming up a character who becomes an industry unto himself is something few have done; there are fewer such creators than heroes. So there is certainly prestige and distinction in it. But that doesn’t mean there is bravery and selflessness in it. Superhero creators deserve praise, but to call them heroes is giving them the wrong kind of praise.
Another word tossed around too liberally is “genius.” Were Jerry and Joe creative geniuses? I consider “genius” a classification that can be measured, and I don’t believe you can measure artistic ability. It’s subjective. So if you ask me, not only were Jerry and Joe not heroes, but also not geniuses.
So what were they? They were creative for sure. Innovative. Risk-taking. Persistent.
And it is in in this last regard that they came closest to being, yes, heroic.
Their cultural contribution was undeniably seismic, but it was their blind determination to see their idea through despite three and a half years of rejection that shows just how strong they were. They endured nos ranging from the unembellished to the borderline cruel. Yet none of that stopped them, because they were convinced they had a good idea.
Then after they sold all rights to Superman for $130, they went through 35 years of hardship trying to get them back. They genuinely believed it was their right to do so. They were the underdogs. They were demoralized, ignored, insulted—yet they were not deterred from their goal.
To me, that is what is heroic. Your ideas may be peerless but it’s your actions that determine your hero status.
Soon after Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman came out in 2008, I posted what I called a “tour” of the book, pointing out details, tricks, and other Easter eggs that even astute readers might otherwise miss.
Here is the tour for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.
As is typical for contemporary picture books, the pages aren’t numbered. (Publishers fear that could turn off readers by calling attention to their relatively short length.) So I’ll reference pages by their first few words.
Get your copy of the book and follow along...
“Every Batman story…” (inside front cover)
backstory – I originally envisioned this text (both white and yellow) as a teaser/cold open on the page before the title page. It’s still before the title page…
“After Milton Finger graduated…”
design – This image is a (rotated) close-up of the scene on the title page. See little Bill?
never-published information – Bill’s given name was Milton; Bill graduated high school in 1933.
design – I wanted the three “secret identity” starbursts throughout the book to be consistent in color scheme (happened) and size (did not).
backstory – The “first secret identity” line was intended to be a hook. People reading a book about a superhero would not be surprised to see mention of a secret identity (singular)…but it would be unusual for someone to have more than one.
“Bill loved literature…”
design – Throughout the book, Ty depicts Bill in blue and Bob in yellow. Bill liked to wear blue Oxford shirts. And the yellow stands for…
“That weekend he sketched…”
design – I love the scene in the first panel but felt the apartment looked too grand for a young artist in New York. I was (peaceably) overruled. Similarly, I felt the sidewalk in the second panel was too wide, but creative license won that one. In early drafts of the manuscript, I described the look of Bob’s character and first gave the name “Bat-Man” in the text, but once I started to lay out the book in my mind, I saw that these reveals would have greater impact if instead we showed them in the art.
design – We deliberately showed only parts of Batman rather than the whole for two reasons. First, delayed gratification: the later it comes, the greater the effect. Two, we had to be selective about showing characters owned by DC Comics: the fewer, the better.
attention to detail – That bat is a reproduction of how the drawing really looked in the 1937 Webster’s Dictionary, which would’ve been the most current edition when Bill and Bob were building Batman in 1939. (The fish, a bass, is also authentic.)
“In April 1939…”
attention to detail – The image is based on a period photo of a newsstand. The comic covers are ones that would have been on the newsstand at approximately the same time as Detective Comics #27 (Batman’s debut). This is the first “full” appearance of Batman in the book, though I consider it too small to count.
“Bill and Bob would sit in Poe Park…”
attention to detail – This image is based on period photographs of Poe Park.
“Though Bill had wanted Bat-Man…”
design – The sentence starting “Bat-Man became Batman…” makes sense in print, but requires elaboration/clarification when read aloud.
design – This marks the second appearance of Batman, though only his head on a comic book cover. Still no big splash.
“Almost immediately Bob hired…”
attention to detail – Those two guys standing in the background are Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who were friends with Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson (seated).
design – This is an example of taking advantage of the medium of picture books. The fact that Bill and Jerry played darts is not significant to the larger story, but it is visually interesting so it became the setting for the information conveyed in the accompanying text. Otherwise it could’ve been another scene of guys at a desk.
“But Bill stuck…”
attention to detail – The phrase “superstitious, cowardly hearts of criminals” is a nod to Detective Comics #33, which first presents the origin of Batman and in which Bruce Wayne says “Criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts.”
backstory – No gun is visible on purpose, though the threat is still evident.
“Steadily, silently, Bill built…”
attention to detail – In the first sketches, Batman did not appear in this scene because the text is about Batman’s sidekick and villains.
However, in layout, I realized that we had not yet shown a whole, sizable Batman so I asked that we add him; as noted above, Batman does appear on a comic cover in two previous scenes, but in both cases, he is so miniscule that some readers may overlook him. And if kids got to this spread showing Batman’s supporting cast but still had not seen a “big” Batman, they would feel that it was either lame or an oversight. attention to detail – At first glance most will presume that the title of the book comes from the familiar phrase “Robin the Boy Wonder,” and that is a good thing, but on this page a more literal inspiration for the title manifests itself. It is in Bob’s 1989 autobiography where he said he referred to Bill as “boy wonder.” He, too, was not oblivious to the Robin association, even if he did indeed call Bill this back at the beginning of Batman.
“Other comics creators…” attention to detail – When I first saw the sketch in which both the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings are visible, I said I didn’t think that there was a ground-level vantage point (even with the lower skyline of the 1940s, when this scene took place) from which such a view existed. Upon seeing images like the one below and thereby learning I was wrong, we situated the scene on East 30th Street in an attempt at authenticity. backstory – I did not want the inset showing Bill shaking an editor’s hand, for two reasons. One, we already had a handshake image (Kane and editor Vin Sullivan) and I felt including a second one would dilute the (tragic) significance of the first. Two, I doubt it happened. I would guess that an editor simply called Bill to ask for a story, and it was as unceremonious as that. I was overruled, and it was okay. attention to detail – The gimmick book examples came from published sources and the astounding memory of Charles Sinclair.
“In 1948 Bill and his wife…” never-published information – Bill nicknamed his son Fred “Little Finger.” attention to detail – The ticket window is based on several period photographs. design – Originally, the text specified the way Bill snuck Fred into the museum, but after we began discussing art, it became clear to me that it would be more fun to reveal the trick in the art.
“While his son…” backstory – The quotation “I’d like to return to the innocence of my childhood” was not essential, but I included it because it comes from the only known instance of Bill being mentioned/quoted in a mainstream publication (The New Yorker, 1965) in his lifetime.
“Bill was fond of writing…” attention to detail – The size of the plug seems disproportionately small compared to the size of the fork and plate, but we’d already gone through several sketches to get the trajectory of Batman popping out of the toaster seem plausible (ha) so the size concern was one I had to let go. attention to detail – If I had not caught that the absence of Batman on the earlier spread featuring the supporting characters/villains would seem like a goof, this would have been the first full-on appearance of Batman in the book.
“To get his stories…” attention to detail – This desk scene is, unbelievably, perhaps, based on a 1940s photograph of Bill’s workspace. Yes, I went from being told only two photos of Bill exist to having not only 11 photos but also one of his writing desk. attention to detail – That unassuming little paperweight is not just an illustrator flourish.
“During the first twenty-five years…” attention to detail – Here is the page from the 1943 story in which Bill’s name appears…sort of. Look carefully...“In 1964 that changed…” backstory – Ty Templeton made up the blue-armored figure partially visible behind Julie Schwartz. I did not know this until after the book came out. I would have pushed for a glimpse of a known character, but I understand Ty wanting to limit potential intellectual property claims.
“The next summer…” backstory – I wanted either Bill to be wearing a tie or one other panelist not to be because I felt Bill could come off as shlubby if he were the only one that casual. I was overruled.
“Jerry also did his own…” attention to detail – The print over Bill’s desk…was a print over Bill’s desk. Thanks (again) to Charles Sinclair for injecting even more accuracy.attention to detail – The image of “If the Truth Be Known…” looks that way because this scene takes place in 1965, when photocopies did not exist but mimeographs did in all their smudgy purple glory.
“Bill’s final Batman…” never-published information – Bill’s death date (previously reported as January 24).
design – The “Come Monday” construct calls back to the first historic “Batman weekend” (1939).
“Now grown…” never-published information – Bill was cremated; Fred spread his ashes on an (Oregon) beach in an apropos shape. (You have to see this.) “In Bob’s later years…” design – I did not think we needed the “Bob Kane” credit box there to identify him, and in fact worried it might be confusing, but was overruled.
“Jerry Robinson had long wanted…” attention to detail – This image is based on a photograph of Jerry’s home office. I asked for the TV to show a still from the credits of the 1960s TV Batman show, though it’s been “modified to fit the screen.”
“It was named…” attention to detail – That’s Jerry again, with Mark Evanier. We sought permission to include the Comic-Con imagery.
“From Milton to Bill…” backstory – I normally don’t like asking questions in my text, but could not resist the penultimate line.
copy of guestbook (last page) never-published information – Through a fluke both sad and fortunate, this remnant of Bill still exists.
“Bill was the greatest…” (inside back cover) backstory – Two of these three quotations were not my original suggestions. I had used a quotation from Lyn Simmons, Bill’s second wife, and another by another associate of Bill’s, but neither of them appear in the story proper and my editor, Alyssa Mito Pusey, felt it would be better to quote characters the reader already knew. I was hesitant at first but came to see her point…and am so glad I did. I love it this way.
I love it all this way.
Thank you, Alyssa, Ty, Martha, and the veritable flash mob of others whose knowledge and talent combined to make this a book about which I am overflowing with pride.More Bill Finger secrets abound, if you know where to look...
This blog is not known for its hip-hop commentary.
(Once, however, I did write about hip-hop. An entry in What’s the Difference? is the difference between hip-hop and rap.)
Even though I’m not exactly a GOAT, I was fascinated to learn of a certain connection between hip-hop culture and comic books in the 4/8/13 New York magazine, its third annual “yesteryear” issue. (In that same issue, I learned of a connection between Bill Finger and Colin Powell.)This recollection by graffiti artist Fab 5 Freddy caught my attention:
I was into the whole comic-book concept. … And the whole comic-book concept of adapting this alternative persona was a big inspiration on the development of hip-hop culture. Case in point: Since I’m the fastest D.J., I’m going to call myself Grandmaster Flash. You’d create this alternative urban superhero persona who could do all the cool things that you fantasize about doing—graffiti or rap or break-dancing. It inspired a lot of New York City kids. It made me a graffiti artist.
Did you catch that? According to FFF, Grandmaster Flash is named after the superhero the Flash! It’s not even in his Wikipedia entry!
The idea that comic books could inspire someone to become a graffiti artist hadn’t occurred to me before. But it sure makes sense. Both comics and graffiti have an urban sensibility, bright colors, and a history of being forbidden. And both had to work hard to be taken seriously as an art form. (Of course, I’m not condoning illegal graffiti.)
I can’t name a single Grandmaster Flash album or single, but I love the guy anyway.
According to the 2004 Colin Powell biography by Reggie Finlayson (page 20), the family of the former Secretary of State moved to 952 Kelly Street in the South Bronx when Powell was four, so around 1941.
another source, Lodi News-Sentinel, 2/16/91 Just two years prior, something else notable happened on Kelly Street.
A superhero named Batman was created there.I learned that Powell and Finger were nearly neighbors thanks to the 4/8/13 New York, its third annual “yesteryear” issue. (It didn’t mention Finger but I hadn’t known that Powell also has a tie to Kelly Street.)
I googled and found an article about Powell returning to the Bronx in 2010 for a building dedication near Kelly Street. The article quoted Damian Griffin, Education Director of the Bronx River Alliance, who also lived nearby.
I emailed Damian, starting with “Here’s a question you don’t get every...well, ever.” I explained who I am and built up to this: “If you happen to live down the street from Finger’s former residence, would you be willing to go there and ask a tenant for the contact info of who owns the building? Consider it a cultural favor to New York!”
Damian responded as follows:
We actually met when…you came as a visiting author [to my son’s school several years ago]! Funny world. I will check out the building on my bike ride to work this morning and let you know. If I can help, I certainly will.
The coincidences continued. He also said that he used to know the family in the basement apartment of Finger’s former home. And upon doing a property map search, he saw that his daughter’s first babysitter now owns the building. (That turned out to be another person with the same name.)
By week’s end, Damian came through and sent me the contact information for the building owner.
As for why I want it, stay tuned.
Image from Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.Scarab from Bill the Boy Wonder, AKA Bill Finger.
Having lived in New York for seven years and Los Angeles for almost three, I have come across a good number of celebrities (not counting musicians at concerts or fellow kidlit authors). I must admit that I have not kept in touch with any of them.
But I did get my picture taken with three (only one of whom was in NYC or LA). How is this for an unlikely trio?
Elle MacPherson, 1991, New Haven (I had just had my wisdom teeth out)
Dan Aykroyd, 1994, Los Angeles
Sumner Redstone, 1994 (yes, he counts!), Waltham, MA
Some of the ones who got away...
Donald Trump (I held a door for him)
Tyra Banks (I held a door for her)
George Clooney (in restaurant at the table next to me)
Cindy Crawford (at the table on the other side!)
Barry Manilow (in a glossy stage outfit…in a Borders)
Michael Crighton (also in a bookstore)
on a plane: Al GoreLeAnn Rimes other:
Will you be next?
On 3/31/13, I had the honor of speaking about the mystery behind the majority creator of Batman at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
They hosted the traveling Jews/superheroes exhibit, which includes a Bill Finger script that Jerry Robinson donated. The bio gets a few things wrong (starting with the city in which Bill was born), but the exhibit is fun.
A week that brought horror in Boston and shame in Washington also includes an unlikely positive: according to court records, it was 75 years ago today when Superman debuted in Action Comics #1.Thanks to the Boys of Steel for changing everything, even still: this month inaugurates an (admittedly clunky) tweak to the credit line in Superman stories:
from Justice League #19 (first appeared in Action Comics #19, 4/3/13)If you think it trivializes real-life struggles to juxtapose them with a fictional character, go back to 1938: when America was caught between two of its greatest challenges (the Depression and WWII), Superman brought hope literally to millions...
It couldn't hurt to give the sky more than a passing glance today.
Kids are sometimes quick to point out that Batman doesn’t fly. We know he took the train to Washington DC when writing for the Army Pictorial Center circa 1969-70; he was apparently thrilled to get Pentagon clearance. But he never took a plane anywhere.The farthest I’ve tracked him is an unlikely destination for an unlikely reason. At point, probably in the 1950s, Bill went to a seder…in Texas.
Neither did Bill Finger.
He lived in New York most of his life, and as far as we know, usually did not wander too far. We know he vacationed in Provincetown (Cape Cod), MA.
Yes, Bill the non-observant Jew celebrated Passover in the not-particularly-Jewish-y Lone Star State.
And on 4/8/13, I went to Texas for the first time since Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman came out to speak to the sixth graders at Gregory-Portland Intermediate School in the Corpus Christi suburb of Portland. The district’s theme for the year is superheroes. I was honored to be asked to be a part of it. (They did not know the Bill Finger connection before I came.)
It was the first time I’ve presented flanked by two bodyguards.Favorite question of the day: “If you didn’t write this book on Bill Finger, do you think anyone else would have?”
Thank you, GPI, for allowing me to symbolically follow in the footsteps of Bill Finger, and for hosting such a lovely visit.
humor pinned to board in teachers’ lounge
GPI sent me a thick stack of thank-you letters and they contained an unusually large number of irresistible quotables:
- “I can’t believe you went to other states just to get information.”
- “What did you think about us as audience?”
- “I am now part of the Bill [Finger] army! I will go around and spread the word.”
- “I liked how you had clarity, and great eye contact. Just keep on doing that and you won’t have anything to worry about.”
- “Could you consider writing a book about a superhero piglet? Maybe it could be a winning idea for a children’s series.”
- “It was a privilege to see where the first Superman comic was typed.”
- “from the third kid in the first row”
- “You kinda look like my Uncle, but with hair.”
- “I am sure someday you and I will be famous writers.”
- “You inspired me not just to do your best but also be unique in what I love to do.”
- “The part with the paperweight really teared me up. I almost cried!”
- “Maybe I will write a book about you and you can give me the paperweight?”
- “When my dad was little he loved to watch Superman movies or read comics. I told my dad all the information and he was amazed and I thank you for that.”
- “If they could, I bet Jerry, Joe, and Bill would say thank you.”
That last one especially moved me.
A book I wrote, Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman (illustrated by Ty Templeton), should have been nominated for a 2013 Eisner Award.I realize that this may come across as brazen or bitter. But it’s not deriving from the natural bias an author has for his work. In fact, most of my rationale is objective. (Can something be self-serving and have integrity at the same time?)
The quick list of reasons why I believe the book deserved an Eisner nomination:
- It is unprecedented in topic.
- It is unprecedented in approach.
- It is unprecedented in research.
- It received mainstream critical acclaim.
- It has already had a positive real-world impact on the family.
- It may have a significant real-world impact on fans.
- Kids, I’m happy to report, love it.
All of this is, of course, rewarding and humbling enough, but in terms of what this book has contributed to comics scholarship, not to mention social justice, the leading industry award should have acknowledged it. (Heck, part of the Eisner ceremony is the Bill Finger Awards!)
In particular, I believe that Bill the Boy Wonder deserved a nomination in at least one of these two categories:
- Best Publication for Kids (ages 8-12)
- Best Comics-Related Book
But perhaps it is because the book is eligible for both that it was nominated for neither. Unfortunately, some have a perception that nonfiction for young readers or for all ages is not as “legitimate” as exclusively adult nonfiction. However, I am hardly the only one who strongly disagrees with this view. And I feel it makes an even stronger statement to tell this story a format that is, to some, so unexpected.
An elaboration on my reasons (which does not sequentially expand on the quick list above because the points intermingle): For nearly 75 years, the sole creator myth that cartoonist Bob Kane started has reigned, and no previous book has gone far enough to debunk this. No previous book has put Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman (quite possibly the most popular—and almost certainly the most lucrative—superhero in world history) at the rightful center of the story. That alone makes this a book worthy of some distinction.Yet there is more. Bill the Boy Wonder, the result of five years (and counting) of intensive sleuthing, is the first book on Bill. Strange that it took this long; his peers and fans alike considered him everything from the most gifted comics writer of his generation to an unequivocal genius.
I was one of the last writers (if not the last writer) in touch with several of Bill’s Golden and Silver Age colleagues (Arnold Drake, Alvin Schwartz, Carmine Infantino) before they died, and none of Bill’s family and non-comics friends I contacted had ever been interviewed about him. I uncovered everything from his high school yearbook photo to the only known note in his handwriting to his WWII draft record to his death certificate (first two in the book, second two on this blog). None of it was a mere Google away.There is still more. Though Bill the Boy Wonder is the standard thinness of traditional picture books, it packs in a lot of previously unpublished bombshells:
- Bill’s given first name and why he changed it
- the aforementioned handwritten note (now the only surviving version because the owner—Jerry Robinson—lost the original after I copied it)
- who was receiving Batman royalties—properly and illegally—for Bill’s work
- quotations from Bill’s only known personal correspondence
- the aforementioned yearbook photo (not as easy to find as you would think)
- nearly a dozen “new” photos from personal collections
- exactly when and how Bill died
- a persistent rumor about Bill’s remains is wrong…and the truth is visually chilling
- Bill had a second wife
- the only known mainstream press mention of Bill in his lifetime (The New Yorker, 1965)
- the only known time between 1939 and 1963 that Bill’s name appeared in a Batman comic…sort of…
- more than one example of entries from Bill’s famed but long-gone “gimmick books” (Alvin Schwartz mentioned one online but the others come from Bill’s longtime friend Charles Sinclair)
- Bill’s endearing nickname for his son Fred
- what Bill kept on his desk
- what Bill liked to eat late at night
And most startling of all:
For all of above, my book is the only print source.
- the lone and previously unknown heir to Bill Finger: how I found her, who she is, and how my involvement helped her to receive long-overdue Batman royalties
Plus I continue to find even more info and I regularly share it on this blog and at speaking engagements, free of charge. That’s the modern model of storytelling.Lastly, Bill the Boy Wonder may change pop culture history. Despite what the comics community believed for decades, I discovered that Bill does have an heir, a granddaughter born two years after he died. She is in the unique position to try to correct the ubiquitous, contractually mandated, yet egregiously inaccurate credit line “Batman created by Bob Kane.” In the history of comics, whole credit lines have been added to superheroes after years of anonymity, but no existing superhero credit line has changed.
I know that a real-world repercussion is not a criterion for an Eisner nomination, and even if that never happens, the book is still a landmark work in the field. Again a bold statement, but I can’t very well continue to call Bill’s failure to speak up on his own behalf a fatal flaw and then follow his lead.
Disclaimer: This opinion is no way a judgment on any of the deserving talents who were nominated; I am not comparing my work to theirs but rather assessing it on its own. Good luck to all of the nominees.
In 1980, Jeffrey Scott, who wrote most episodes of the Saturday morning cartoon Super Friends from 1977 to 1980, also wrote a clarifying letter to the comic book based on the show.This is from Super Friends #33.
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On 11/7/12, with fallen snow as fresh as the newly re-elected president, I spoke several times at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts.The stage in the auditorium where I gave my first presentation of the day was set up for a play:At a lovely reception with teachers-in-training, they distributed this bookmark:The poster designed for my final talk of the day is one of the coolest ever done in connection to my work:I enjoyed the first snowfall of the season except for the fact that the only shoes I brought were these: