Monday, March 31, 2008

Three days not too late

My editor is semi-retired and does not work on Mondays (or Wednesdays or Fridays)rather she does not go to the office.

First thing this morning, however, she called me from home to ask if I'd seen the news
about the Siegel family ruling in the New York Times (indeed I had, along with 1,894 other articles and posts on the subject; see my last two entries).

She said she had been anxious about it all weekend.

At first I thought she was going to say the book's off.

But before my blood pressure went up, up, and away, she explained that she was anxious because she wouldn't know until today if we'd have time to amend the book's afterword to reflect this.

Though I was told several weeks ago it was too late to make two other small changes to the text (unrelated to the litigation), now it's okay! The book is scheduled to print starting April 3, so we just made it.

The convention is for the author to "sign" the afterword and date it the month the book will publish, even though the book is printed months before. (I wanted to use April 18, 2008, indicated in court papers as the date Action Comics #1 went on sale.) However, if we would not mention this March 2008 ruling while keeping the date as "August 2008," I would look sloppy, to say the least.

Good Timing, I owe you a smoothie.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fighting for Superman

Numerous other blogs are binging on bytes in their coverage of the seismic Superman ruling of earlier this week. For a more naïve and way shorter view, here are four overly simplistic lists. They are rather quickly done, though, so I welcome your knowledge via comments in making them more accurate and more complete.

How DC Comics (primarily earlier, differently-named incarnations) went wrong

* They condescended to Jerry and Joe when they asked for more money, starting from early on. Even though Jerry and Joe were lacking in some ways, they were wonderfully insightful in others, and regardless, management was unscrupulous to take advantage of their hunger for storytelling.
* They rejected Jerry's pitch for a Superboy character but then began publishing a character by that name after Jerry was drafted and without his involvement.
* They removed Jerry and Joe's bylines after the first lawsuit in 1947. Yes, litigation is miserable, but firing Jerry and Joe and retaining rights to Superman should have been enough for DC. Taking away credit was done solely to steal identity and crush spirit, and that is cruel.

* They knew Jerry and Joe were struggling in subsequent years and did not help more consistently. This may seem incompatible with firing and removing bylines, but I believe DC executives never privately denied Jerry and Joe's significance. Management did allegedly pay for eye surgery for Joe at one point, and possibly took other action I'm not privy to, but a little more on their part could have gone a long way to alleviate the suffering of the two men who made their company.

How DC Comics went right

* They paid Jerry and Joe a good salary for the period, and I believe also gave them bonuses (albeit small) and perks along the way.
* They agreed to a settlement in 1975. Even though it took much pushing and even though it also served as slick PR, it was still moral.
* From the 1980s on, DC treated Jerry and Joe with public (though guarded) respect. Jerry and Joe contributed to the 45th anniversary issue of Action Comics and possibly other comics I'm not well-versed enough to cite. This is small consolation in practical terms, but they ran full-page commemorations when each man died (and possibly some kind of memorial service?):

© DC Comics

How Jerry and Joe went wrong

* They sold all rights to Superman.
Many other Golden Age creators did the same with their own do-gooders, but not all. So it was a mistake, but an understandable one. The Depression intensified short-term thinking. Expectations were different then.
* I don't know this as fact, but it seems safe to infer that they did not smartly manage the considerable amount of money they were making in the early 1940s.
* Jerry was a persistent noodge. That is not to say he didn't have the right to voice his displeasure to DC, but he sometimes struck a grating tone in his letters to them.

How Jerry and Joe went right

* They created Superman, on their own, and hustled for more than three years trying to get the idea published. They were not afraid to have unchecked enthusiasm for what they felt was an exceptional idea.
* They had the backbone to sue their employer over what they genuinely felt was unfair treatment.
* Jerry decided against another lawsuit in the 1970s and shrewdly went to the media instead, hoping to get the public on his and Joe's side.
* Even when they had been offered a financial settlement, they held out for creator acknowledgement. Money is finite. Credit is forever.

Few of us are the villains in our own story, yet sometimes there is no hero.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Justice and the American way

This week, the family of Jerry Siegel got some good news.

It's probably too late to note this victory in my book.

Superhero fashion at the Met

Last month, I learned that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is hosting "Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy" from May 7 to September 1.

Boys of Steel comes out August 26.

The Met just said they will carry it in their store if Random House can get them copies a month before the exhibit closes.

I've asked my editor but I already know the answer. (4/1/08 addendum: Keep the faith. This may yet be possible.)

Add this to my list of Superman summertime blues.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

If Bill Finger was on LinkedIn: prologue

In the next day or five, I will begin a series revealing how I tracked down various people who knew Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman.

It won't include the other comics creators I talked with, from Jerry Robinson to Carmine Infantino to Alvin Schwartz. Online networking makes most of them easy to find, which makes for a dull story. Instead I'll be focusing on people who knew Bill from outside of comics. His family. His friends. His military colleagues. (He didn't serve but he did work for the army in the 1960s.)

In some cases, I won't be using real names. (I will indicate when I'm using pseudonyms.) Many people I interviewed were Bill's contemporariesnow in their eighties. Most were happy to help me, but identifying them online is more attention than they want. If my manuscript becomes a book, I'm hoping to acknowledge them by name. Yes, that's exposing them as well, yet because it's more traditional, in my mind, it's also more sacred.

Bill died in 1974. The fact that he died young (just shy of 60) is tragic enough. But the fact that he died a year before the Siegel and Shuster settlement makes his death even more tragic. I constantly wonder how it would have affected him had he been alive. Would he have been emboldened to go after credit and compensation for himself? Frankly, I doubt he would have done it on his own, but perhaps others would have come to his defense as they did for Jerry and Joe.

The timing of Bill's passing is tragic for another reason. He died after fandom had learned of his long-hidden role in Batman but before enough had been done to document him firsthand. If not for Jerry Bails and Jim Steranko and Mark Hanerfeld (who recorded the audio of the creators panel at the 1965 New York Comicon), we'd be left with almost nothing on Bill but living memory.

There was seemingly so little to find and I felt so compelled to find it. I was never competitive athletically, but researchically, hoo-boy. In search of Bill Finger, I found a lot of people I'd set out to find topped by a series of close relatives none of us knew existed. By chance, I happened to find them in an order of natural escalation: longtime writing partner, second wife, nephew, niece, granddaughter, sister. From this group I obtained some but not all of the "new" Bill photos. Only one of them (his granddaughter) had been contacted by a previous Bill Finger researcher.

Yet there is still more to find.

At least two other Bill interviews existed at one point, but the whereabouts of both are currently unknown. One may have gone lost forever in the abyss of academia. The other is probably there for the finding, but it's in a house so cluttered with boxes and stacks of papers that I was told a team of five people hunting eight hours a day for a month would barely dent it. If my manuscript becomes a book, I will want to go there and search.

It's in Vermont.

I'll need a team.

Who's with me?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sometimes I am a cartoonist

This is not one of my overall favorites, but it is one of my Superman-related favorites.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The homes of Bill Finger, part 2

Part 1.

I am not showing the homes of Bill Finger (chorus: uncredited co-creator of Batman) chronologically because I want to save my favorite Bill building (Billding?) for last. That building looks the coolest but this building has the funnier story.

According to the microfiched Manhattan phone book, Bill Finger began living at 125 W. 16th Street in 1950. Here is how that building looked on 8/9/06:

He moved here with his wife Portia and their only child Freddie (born 1948). After Bill moved out, he was something of a vagabond for his remaining twenty years. Portia remained here until her death at age 69 on January 2, 1990.

I went to this building on that mild August afternoon hoping to meet some of Portia's neighbors. Yes, sixteen years had passed since she had died, but she'd lived there for forty years and I was hoping longevity ran in the building. If so, I figured someone might still be there who would remember her.

Consider for a moment the credibility challenge of an independent researcher. I was there with no "official" authority, no familiar organization on my nonexistent business card, no backup of any kind. I was just hoping to stop people going in or out of the building and get out the following before they could say, "Sorry, I'm in a hurry, clean-cut crazy man":

"My name is Marc Nobleman. I'm a children's book writer you've never heard of researching a man you've never heard of named Bill Finger, who co-created Batman. He and his then-wife Portia lived
together in this building more than fifty years ago but she stayed here till 1990. I don't suppose you or anyone you know knew her?"

I deliberately started my stakeout at 5 p.m., when some people would begin getting home from work. The first person who passed was a professional woman not much younger than I am. She did not ignore me or call the police. Instead she said that every evening around that time a gaggle of older residents usually sat in beach chairs in the little front courtyard
in which we were standing. For some reason, however, they were not there then. Of course, I came around the one night in recent memory that they were no-shows.

She suggested I ask the superintendent and then said that, by chance, the building was having its annual summer party the next night in that very courtyard. She said I should come
—I would be able to meet a large number of the residents at once. I worried aloud that a non-resident would probably not be allowed in and she kindly said she would vouch for Clean-Cut Crazy Man.

Tempting as that was, both for research and for the possibility of free pigs in a blanket, I was determined to make any inroads that night. It would save me another train trip in.

So I buzzed the super. If getting a stranger to stop on a sidewalk and listen to you for more than four seconds is tricky, getting a super to listen to you through a crackly intercom for any length of time is four times trickier. Yet somehow I talked him into letting me in. And he promptly introduced me to the lovely ladies of longevity.

In seconds, I found myself sitting in an apartment across the hall from what had been Bill and Portia's place, chatting with the generous and effusive Ines (age: north of 70). She had lived in the building since 1968. She remembered Portia, described her as "flamboyant
"—a person who called everyone "darling," wore muumuus, and often strolled down the hall arm-in-arm with two young handsome men. (Not homosexual herself, at least not that anyone I talked to knows about, Portia was a fixture in the gay community.) When Ines's memory tired, she called over her equally kind neighbor Marybelle, who had lived in the building since 1964 and who arrived in her nightgown at 6 p.m.

Neither had photos of Portia (or Bill). Neither remembered (if they ever knew) Portia's maiden name. Both remembered Portia's twin sister but neither remembered her name
—I was so desperately hoping they would've remembered her name because that would've opened up a whole other branch of people to track down. In the end, both Ines and Marybelle said they'd buy my book and invited me to stay in touch. Ines also gifted me a handful of the dog grooming products she'd created and marketed, even though I don't have a dog.

Half a year later, when I did find Portia's maiden name and Portia's sister's family (stories for future posts), I called Ines and Marybelle. My Golden Girls were happy to hear that
—and, of course, said "That's right!" (Memory works so much better going backwards.)

According to my list of first appearances of notable Batman characters Bill had a hand in, none were created between 1950 and 1954—therefore none were created in this building. If I'm wrong, I know I can count on you to let me know.

Soon: a peek inside this apartment...specifically, an image I did not think even existed but an image invaluable for an illustrator of a picture book on Bill Finger...a photo of Bill Finger's writing desk. [9/3/10 addendum: That desk photo is from a different apartment.]

Monday, March 24, 2008

Chromium slip

Even though Boys of Steel will not be out till August, I began mentioning it at my school visits in January. I introduce it about halfway through my hourlong presentation. It ties in nicely with my main topic of persistence and rejection (the importance of the former and how to handle the latter)—Jerry and Joe were rejected for more than three years before landing a publisher for Superman. As part of my mini-BOS discussion, I read excerpts from four of the nos I received for Boys of Steel so the kids get an earful of what real-world rejection can sound like (i.e. not wonderful but not as scary as it may seem).

If I keep pace, I have five minutes or so at the end of every presentation for Q&A. Today, a boy asked a question about the total number of rejections I had received for Boys of Steel. Only he referred to it as "your Metal Men book." If only he knew why that is so cute.

By the way, twenty-two. That's how many rejections I got for Boys of Steel.

That's ten more than J.K. Rowling got for her first Harry Potter novel and at least five fewer than Dr. Seuss got for And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street (which, incidentally, was published in 1937, the same year Jerry and Joe sold Superman). I am not even beginning to compare myself to those titans of literature; I simply happen to know those numbers off the top of my head since they're part of my presentation, too.

More on the rejections and acceptances (yes, plural) of Boys of Steel in posts to come.

Friday, March 21, 2008

book promotion story 1: "Beauty and the Book"

I watch four TV shows regularly. Based on what I've blogged about so far, two of those shows are easy to guessSmallville and Heroes. One of the other two seems like a show I should be ashamed to like, but I can admit with only a little hesitation that I think Beauty and the Geek is genuine fun.

As Jerry Siegel's now-elderly cousin said, Jerry was a nerd before the word was coined. He and Joe were nerd pioneers. They were pionerds! If not for them, one of the Three Pillars of Nerddom (comic books, video games, Star Trek) might not even exist...

Now there is a difference between a geek and a nerd. It says so on page 30 of this book, and if it is not available at your Barnes & Noble, please demand that they reprint it:

So even though the show is not called Beauty and the Nerd, I contacted its production company this week to introduce Boys of Steel and ask if they ever give gifts to their cast, crew, or anyone else TV shows give swag to. The producer wrote back, "We do and I would love to include your book. I can also send to all contestants as well." I wrote that most of the geeks would probably love it, and some of the beauties might, too—after all, Superman is a hunk in a tight costume.

Note that he did not write "We would love to buy your book." He explained that most companies give them such things for free. I wrote that if that would guarantee on-air exposure, I would ask my editor, but he told me it would not. I wasn't even looking for product placement, just a creative sale.

If I'm going to give away books, it would have to be to a needier entity than at TV show, even one I am only a little embarrassed to admit I watch obsessively.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Young, scholarly superheroes?

The Junior Library Guild may sound like a team of young, scholarly superheroes. It's not, of course, though it does do a great good.

Each year, this organization buys a decent quantity of a select group of books before publication and sells them at a discount to libraries—often libraries that could not afford the books without that discount.

The JLG chose Boys of Steel as one of their titles. "Any book that they take ultimately ends up doing extremely well in the library market," my editor wrote. I said I was thrilled and then scampered over to the JLG's site to find out more.

I immediately learned that I'm also honored. Currently, the JLG reviews 3,000 manuscript submissions annually and chooses only 336. Especially uplifting was this, from their site: "
Nearly 100% of JLG books receive favorable reviews and/or win major children’s book awards."

We're still almost two seasons away from finding out which end of that "nearly" my book will be on, but I'll take being 1 out of 336 out of 3,000 any day.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Dog with cape

The logos of most companies, including book publishers, remain the same no matter where they appear.

However, one imprint that does allow modification of its brand's appearance from book to book is Knopf, whose Borzoi (that's a dog) has been known to adapt to suit the subject of certain books whose spine s/he races down.

So I asked my editor if the Borzoi on Boys of Steel could have a red cape. To my surprise, she did not tell me to knock it off. Instead she passed the suggestion to Ross MacDonald, the book's esteemed illustrator.

Assuming that Ross had better things to do than draw a pet with a cloak, I preemptively drew one of my own. Even before doing so, I further assumed it was a lost cause, for one of three reasons:

a. Ross would do it, and do it better
b. My editor would decide against using such an image, no matter who did it
c. Knopf would change its mascot to a Weimaraner (also a dog)

Therefore, this blog gets the dubious distinction of world-premiering the Knopf Borzoi's secret identity:

Please do not use/repost this (or any other image on my blog) without permission. I am not naive. I know the huge online demand for black market caped canine clip art.

The homes of Bill Finger, part 1

In this series of undetermined length, I will post photos I took of buildings in which Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman, lived and worked.

I took these photos because I am a manservant to accuracy. If my Bill Finger picture book manuscript sells, I will pass on these photos to the illustrator for reference. It's possible, of course, that the book would not need to show the exterior of any of his residences, but it sure felt cool to find and photograph them anyway.
Now-iconic stories and concepts were cooked up in these otherwise unassuming structures.

Bill Finger first appears in the New York City phone book in 1940. [4/8/13 addendum: Here is where he was immediately before that.] His address then was 2754 Grand Concourse in the Bronx. This suggests he (at age 25) was still living with his parents when he co-created Batman the year before. Photos of each of those addresses to come.

The NYC phone book of the summer or fall of 1941 shows he moved to 50 East 196th Street, which is also the Bronx. That building as it looked on 6/19/06:

This address is printed on Bill's Wildcat script shown in comics history magazine Alter Ego #20. That issue is dated 1/03 and the script is dated 9/42. Bill would move again the following year to an address whose location is the whitest hot of hipness, and that I will save for another post.

3/21/08 addendum: Bill was living here when he wrote the stories introducing three of Batman's most enduring foes: the Scarecrow (World's Finest Comics #3, Fall 1941), the Penguin (Detective Comics #58, 12/41), and Two-Face (Detective Comics #66, 8/42).

Part 2.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The haunts of Bill Finger

Bill Finger was not, as is sometimes stated, born in New York City but rather in Denver, unlikely as it sounds.

In his childhood, his family moved to the Bronx, and he stayed in New York for the rest of his life. Not always the Bronx, and not always New York City, but always New York.

He would vacation in Provincetown, Massachusetts, with his first wife, Portia; three of the "new" photos I turned up show them there. In one, he's topless. (In fact, I have a total of three topless Bill photos.)

In the 1960s, Bill spent time on Long Island, specifically Roslyn and Great Neck Plaza.

Wherever he went, it was not behind the wheel. Three of my sources (one of whom was Alvin Schwartz, who also mentioned this in his online column) told me that Bill never got his driver license. Independent of one another, both Charles Sinclair and Bill's second wife said he never once drove them in a car. Some of you might recall that the biography of Bill in Green Lantern #1 stated that one of his odd jobs during the Great Depression was driving a taxi. I'm thinking that was thrown into the mix not in the name of veracity but because it sounded suitably Depression-like, suitably New York-like, or both.

And though he once attended a Passover seder in Texas (unlikely as it sounds), he got there by train or bus. Bill never once flew on an airplane.

In fact, the farthest Bill traveled was after his death. But I'll save the where and why of that for another day, and the what for my book.

Coming soon, though not necessarily in this order: Bill's real name, how I found the man with whom Bill wrote a two-part episode of the 1960s Batman TV show, the former possession of Bill's that man kindly gave me, and more "new" Bill photos.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Rebuilding Bill Finger

Let's take a side trip from Cleveland to the Bronx, from Metropolis to Gotham.

Even before I sold Boys of Steel, I knew what I wanted to write about next: Batman. More precisely, the creation of Batman. Even more precisely, the co-creator of Batman whose name is not on every Batman story.

Bill Finger.

Fragments of his story have been told, notably in Men of Tomorrow. But like the hero he molded, so much about Bill remains unprinted: his upbringing, his personal life, the truth about his death, the family he left behind. He died in 1974, too soon to see fandom unite in his honor and demand what they feel is justice: a co-creator credit
or at least more than he's currently getting. (The realities of that will be the topic of future posts.)

I talked to or e-mailed with more than 200 people during an intensive year of research; I've got the Palm entries to prove it. Many of them knew Bill personally. Some, such as Bill's old friend and champion Arnold Drake, have since passed away.

I staked out his former residences, scrolled through decades of New York Times obituaries and microfiched phone books, cold-called every Finger in Florida.

In a series of increasingly more exciting moments, I found the Bill Finger no fan has yet discovered.

I found the one time Bill was quoted in The New Yorker.

I found his only known handwritten note, including signature (more revealing than the 1963 promise to Julius Schwartz that he would not ask for advance checks).

And I found the family no writers before me had talked to, let alone known about. Not first cousins
—though I did find two of those, and incredibly nice ones at that—but rather intimates:

  • His longtime writing partner and friend and class A gentleman Charles Sinclair.
  • His heretofore unmentioned second wife.
  • His sister—who was still alive at age 88 when I found her a year ago this week.
  • His only granddaughter, who is a few years younger than I am.

If you know anything about Bill's immediate family, this last one will make no sense to you. Yet.

This is my plan: as we get close to the August publication of Boys of Steel, I will begin to reveal these never-before-heard stories about the first son of Gotham, Bill Finger.

You've probably seen the only two photographs of him that are perpetually recycled (these scans from Batman: The Complete History and DC Comics: A Celebration of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes, respectively):

© DC Comics

There's a third, a grainy photo of him from
Green Lantern #1 (1940), but that's rarely seen.

More than a couple comics historians told me with authority that those are the only Finger photos in existence. What they meant is those are the only known Finger photos in existence. There are more. You just have to ask everyone you talk to.

Of those 200+ people, seven sent me never-published photos of Bill, totalling ten "new" images at Bill Finger from the early 1930s to the late 1960s (even one of his desk). All but one are better quality than the three that have been published.

Here's the one that is not:

I will share more when the time is right.

3/25/08 addendum: I forgot to mention that I got this photo from Bill's second wife. It's the only one she had. "We weren't photo people," she said.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Summer of Superman

If you could fly, you'd probably spend most of your airborne time in the summer. Superman sure seems to.

He debuted in Action Comics #1, dated June, 1938. However, comics ship months earlier than their cover dates
—court records name April 18 as the date this one did (for more on this, see my future blog entry of April 18, 2008). But to the casual observer, it's immortalized as a summer son.

As I build a marketing campaign for Boys of Steel, summer has been pivotal. I sold the manuscript in early March 2005, and among the first questions I asked my editor (it was halfway to a beg) was if we could get the book out in time for the Superman Returns premiere in June 2006. I knew that the relaunch of the film franchise would lead to both increased media attention to Superman and Superman-themed tabletops in bookstores (probably for no cost to publishers). Alas, I was told that was not likely to happen.

We blew right past summer 2006, and even summer 2007, before even seeing finished art. We are on track for summer 2008
—but, another alas, not until the very last edge of it: August 26. While I'm thrilled we're less than half a year away from release, I'm also bummed that we're missing yet another summer. I will be involved with the following, but we're cutting it close, and here are some elaborations:

- Superman Celebration, Metropolis, Illinois, June - This is THE indispensable event for 75,000 diehard Superman fans (or perhaps 30,000 diehard Superman fans and 45,000 gracious Superman fan family members). It's held in the only living town in America named Metropolis and this year is not only the 70th anniversary of Superman and the 30th anniversary of Superman: The Movie but also the 30th anniversary of the Superman Celebration itself. I'll be there, and I'm working extra hard to make sure copies of the book will be, too. This will require drop-shipping them from China, which is as expensive as it seems. If we don't have enough books there, we'll be taking pre-orders, and either way, I'll be running what promises to be an unprecedented and really fun promotional event revolving around the book. Watch this space for the announcement.

- Summer of Superman, Cleveland, Ohio, June through September - Finally, Superman's real-world hometown is ramping up efforts to acknowledge their four-color legacy. Community leaders are already meeting and planning a series of diverse Supermancentric events from a comic convention to a screening of old Superman movies. My event is planned for August so that we will absolutely have books for it. And it will be similar yet even cooler than what I'm doing in Metropolis. You'll again have to check back for an explanation in the weeks to come.

- Comic-Con, San Diego, California, July - Random House (my publisher) will have a booth there and will be promoting the book, but we can't benefit immediately since it will not yet be for sale.
Do people forget things more easily in the suffocating heat of summer? Even if so, I'm going for word of mouth stimulation and hopefully a panel seat, too.

- Six Flags, all summer - These amusement parks feature Superman rides. I pitched them to sell the book in their stores and online. They seem interested but the late-summer release date again presents a problem since most of their season is over by then. No matter. I've gotten quite used to saying "There's always next summer."

How does the Autumn of Superman sound?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

He's flying, I'm the passenger

In January, my editor told me that they'd sent galleys (i.e. the finished book, except not bound) of Boys of Steel to a couple of people with the hope that they might donate a blurb for the book jacket.

I've been in publishing for nearly fourteen years
—four years in marketing, the years since as a full-time writer (with some sunlighting as a cartoonist). That whole time, I've been skeptical of book blurbs. They usually seem disingenuous. (3/24/08 addendum: Stephen King expanded on this.) It's not like these blurbers sought out a galley and then eagerly sent their raves to the publisher on their own. Of course, it's easy to set aside this feeling when certain names are thrown in front of you.

In my case, the people my publisher solicited blurbs from were Michael Chabon and Chip Kidd.

For that, I owe yet another nod of gratitude to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and, symbolically, to Superman. I've worked steadily as a freelance writer for nearly ten years, which is a source of both pride and panic to me, but I've not established even an iota of the clout that would earn a Chabon or Kidd blurb.

That's all Superman. He's flying here. I'm just the passenger.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Superman vs. Hitler

One curious piece of Superman lore exists not among the panels but in real life. Numerous books and essays written about Superman perpetuate the claim that Superman comics were banned in Nazi Germany—in some versions, by Adolf Hitler himself.

In my earliest drafts of the Author's Note for Boys of Steel, I did my part to continue the perpetuation, trusting that the story must be true if such well-regarded sources as Gerard Jones's Men of Tomorrow referenced it (page 162).

Yet when I checked the Notes on Sources section of Men of Tomorrow, I saw that Gerry did not cite where he got the story. So I asked him. (It was not the first verification question I'd lobbed to Gerry, and he was the definition of graciousness each time.) He said Hitler banning Superman was a Siegel family story for which he had no further authentication.

Another great man I've had the honor of getting to know through my research was another Gerry, this one a Jerry: comics legend Jerry Robinson. In his essay "The Ultimate Fantasy," published in the catalogue for the Golden Age of Comic Books exhibit that originated at the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum of Atlanta, he writes, "Hitler pronounced Superman to be a 'Jew' and banned him from Germany." So I asked Jerry. He, too, had no source for the story, going on memory and accepting on faith.

My fact barometer begin to sputter and smoke. It banned me from using the banning anecdote unless I found mention of it in a non-comics-related book. I checked more than a few respected WWII histories, particularly ones focusing on propaganda, but none mentioned Superman. So I e-mailed a gaggle of professors
with special knowledge of Nazi Germany from universities including Dartmouth and Princeton, plus a couple in Germany, plus a rabbi/writer/comic book historian. Not a one knew of evidence for it.

Finally I was directed to a writer/translator named Dwight Decker. Recounting the impressive show of research he did for an article for Amazing Heroes and then Alter Ego, he convinced me that the story is most likely untrue. One point especially stood out: "
A Dutch researcher in the '80s went through collections of wartime Reichstag speeches and did not find anyone referring to Superman."

Of course, that doesn't imply that the researcher went through every speech. And perhaps Hitler was not in the Reichstag when he allegedly enacted the ban. But when added to the lack of proof I already dug up, it only suggests even more strongly that the event never happened.

Yes, Superman's creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were Jewish. 

Yes, Superman's Kryptonian name is Kal-El, which if interpreted as Hebrew can mean "all that God is." 

Yes, for the 2/27/1940 issue of Look magazineJerry and Joe created a two-page comic strip "How Superman Would End the War" (in which Superman captures Hitler and Stalin and delivers them to the League of Nations for justice).

Yes, a 4/25/1940 Nazi newspaper piece (possibly in response to Look) did ridicule Jerry for being Jewish. 

Yes, the 6/29/1940 issue of the The New Yorker ran a short piece (pages 64-66) marveling that such a new character could rankle the Nazis

Yes, a 4/9/1965 Time article says that Goebbels once wrote, "This Superman is a Jew!" (The source was not stated, but Goebbels did keep copious journals.) 

Yes, the Nazi Party did ban material from outside Germany.

But amidst a worldwide war, did Hitler himself stop and specifically single out a comic book hero as off-limits?

Unless a primary source document turns up stating that, I'm sticking with nein.

9/5/14 addendum: Trivial Pursuit is not helping.

6/5/24 update: I modified the post to include mentions of Look and The New Yorker.