Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bill Finger's paperweight...and first wife

You've seen the first known photograph of the desk of uncredited Batman co-creator Bill Finger.

Let's zoom in a bit.

In the summer of 2006, I visited Charles Sinclair, Bill's longtime writing partner. After we chatted a bit, Charles got up, took a plastic baggie off a shelf, and handed it to me. It contained something bronze-colored and heavy for its size.

Charles said it was a paperweight, it used to belong to Bill Finger, and it was for me.

He believed the Egyptian glyphs underneath had inspired at least one Bill Finger story. I believed—without a certificate of authenticity—that this metal scarab had, in fact, been Bill Finger's once.

I profusely thanked Charles for it but politely declined it at the same time. Charles insisted I keep it, saying he knew I would appreciate it much more than he would. Besides, he was keeping something else of Bill's
—a sculpture Bill made in an adult art class of his then-wife Portia:

Do you see the resemblance? At the time, I couldn't, because I hadn't seen what Portia looked like.

But I have since:

This is the first-ever published or posted photo of Portia Finger. It's just one of a half-dozen or so photos of her I now have, most of which came from Portia's niece. I've got Portia as a child, I've got her from what was probably the last year of her life, and I've got her from various years in between. This was taken in Provincetown, Massachusetts, probably in the 1940s.

That man with Portia? I'm 99.98% sure it is not Bill Finger. The hair is too poofy and dark, the build is too scrawny, and the face just doesn't match the other photos I have from that period which I know show Bill. My guess is that Bill was taking the picture.

Later, when I told Bill's second wife about the paperweight, she remembered it instantly and wrote this:

"I gave it to Bill as a birthday or Christmas present. Or did he give it to me? I was studying ancient Egyptian history for a couple of years and I do think I gave it to Bill."

4/28/08 addendum: Portia's niece wrote this: "My somewhat educated guess is it might have come from the Museum of Natural History, one of Bill's very regular haunts."

So the paperweight that once sat on Bill Finger's desk inspiring Bill Finger stories now sits on my desk inspiring an ongoing Bill Finger story of a different kind.

5/8/22 addendum: I didn't realize there was a mystery behind the paperweight, but that mystery has been solved.

Monday, April 21, 2008

If Bill Finger was on LinkedIn: part 2

If you're just joining me: Bill Finger was the uncredited co-creator of Batman and the subject of a book I am shopping around. In this series of posts, I am relaying how I tracked down various people related to Bill by blood or Batman.

First I covered Charles Sinclair, Bill's longtime (non-comics) writing partner.

This installment focuses on Bill's second wife...a person nearly every comics pro, comics historian, or Finger family member I talked to never knew existed.

In my first talk with Charles, he mentioned Bill's "final lady." She and Bill were together in the mid- and late 1960s, years after he and Portia had separated and not long before his death in 1974.

Shortly after, Charles clarified that she in fact had been Bill's second wife.

Charles referred to her as "ES" (full names will be withheld out of respect for privacy). He told me what town she and Bill had lived in together (not New York City but within New York State) and he told me she had a daughter "ES" (so let's call her "ES Jr.") who was in high school at that time.

In terms of research, the name "ES" was a mixed blessing. The "E" was not a particularly common name, but the "S" was. I first tried the usual search steps (Google, phone book, etc.), but the results were overwhelming. It would be more than a challenge to find her, or what had happened to her.

So I set out to find ES Jr. instead.

The first wrinkle when looking for a woman (no, not like that) is that you usually need to know her married name...unless she kept her maiden name or never married. In any case, assuming you know her high school, that's perhaps the best place to start.

As luck had it, there is only one high school in the town Bill and ES lived in. I called and asked if they would be so kind as to look for an ES Jr. in the yearbooks of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though schools will not give out contact details of alumni, whether or not a person went to the school is not confidential info. For what it was worth, I said that if I lived closer, I would gladly go to the public library and look through yearbooks myself. Hesitant at first, the person on the phone soon agreed to help me.

He verified that ES Jr. did in fact graduate in 1971. But I still did not know if she had subsequently changed her name or where she now lived. He admitted that they didn't know, either.

I found the alumni site for that school and that year. Though many such sites don't grant access to non-alumni, that one did. I e-mailed everyone from 1971 and the three class years on either side of it, several dozen at least. Made a lot of "friends" but found no leads. One woman did say she'd seen ES Jr. on the street in NYC a decade ago but remembered nothing else.

A librarian at the public library in that town confirmed that a "William Finger" was indeed listed with an "ES" in the 1970-1971 phone book. I even tried the phone number, now not in service. I called the town hall and found out that their address was a rental unit, so I called the rental company, which was still in service. The man I spoke to there was willing to look for her in old files.

Meanwhile, though it was a longshot, I searched for "ES" in the Manhattan online phone directory. The variables plotting against me in this search:

- she no longer lived in Manhattan
- she lived there but under a married/different name
- she lived there but was unlisted

The directory had no listings that matched exactly, but there were a few with matching last names and first initial E. I cross-checked each with peoplefinder.com and found that one did match the full name I was searching for. That cost $7.95.

Totally worth it.

Though I usually don't leave messages while researching, preferring to keep trying until someone answers, I decided to leave a message that time.

A few hours later, she called me back.

And it was the right ES Jr.

Daughter of ES.

Class of '71.

Bill's onetime stepdaughter.

It was even more of a fluke that I found her that way because she told me she didn't live at the number at which I left a message; it was her apartment, but she was subletting it. The kind, kind subletter whose name I never got passed ES Jr. the message, and quickly, too.

After ES Jr. asked me the usual questions ("How did you find me?"; "What are you writing?"; "Where do you live?"), she told me two facts that floored me.

The first was that her brother, a man in his sixties, lived in my town. For all I know, I'd already stood in line next to him at Whole Foods. (Nearly a year later, he would be one of the people to turn up a "new" Bill Finger photo.)

The second was that ES, her mother, Bill's second wife, was still alive.

All along I suppose I was assuming that if I were able to find her, I would find out that she was gone.

ES Jr. said she would ask her mother if she would be willing to talk with me. I thanked her profusely and crossed my, well, Fingers.

That evening, ES called. 

Age 84, as lucid and lively as person a quarter her age, living in California, and beyond thrilled that someone was finally doing something on her second husband, Bill Finger.

To be continued.

(NOTE: I added her name as a label for this post not when it originally posted but later, after I had revealed it in another post.)

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Firsts from the New York Comic Con

This past Friday, which happened to be the 70th anniversary of the public debut of Superman, I attended my first comic convention.

While there, I was treated to three other firsts:

1. It was the first time I saw Boys of Steel on display. It was not the finished book, since that doesn't
yet exist in tangible form, but rather a galley—a prepublication, unbound version of the book. Random House sent me a stash of them in January, but it's a different feeling to see one in public. I was momentarily stunned when the hard workers at the Random House booth told me they were giving out a limited number of the galleys for promotion...now the book is really beyond my own head.

2. It was the first time I signed Boys of Steel for someone. Of course, it was a galley, but that didn't decrease the joy of the moment in the slightest.

3. It was the first time I was interviewed for television about Boys of Steel.

Oh, and a fourth: it was the first time I ate a vanilla-filled churro.

However, the highlight was a comment from Jim Steranko, comic book artist/writer/all-around legend. I'd consulted him during my Bill Finger research and his responses were consistently prompt and kind.

As he thumbed through the Boys of Steel galley, he said, "Jerry would've loved this."

Friday, April 18, 2008

Seventy years ago today...

...Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman first went on sale in Action Comics #1.

My earliest Superman memory is being six, sitting in my pajamas with my parents (who were not in pajamas) in the front row of the single-screen movie theater in my Connecticut hometown, absorbing every colorful moment of Superman: The Movie. Looking back, it feels as though I had a superpower of my ownthe ability to watch the whole thing without blinking.

By the time I discovered Superman, Jerry and Joe (both born in 1914) were old men. By today's standards, people in their sixties are not old, but Jerry and Joe had struggled through much of their lives.

I don't remember if I then asked for a Superman comic or if my dad brought one as a surprise, but I do remember the issue: Superman Family #196.

Okay, it's no
Action Comics #1.

But every kid's first Superman comic is his own Action Comics #1.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

If Bill Finger was on LinkedIn: part 1

Of the books I've written, the one whose research has consumed me the most is the one about Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of Batman. He died in 1974 after living a colossally underdocumented life. That made digging for his past a tougher challenge, but it also meant that every discovery was much more likely to lead to a jig (or, if in the New York Public Library, a subtle fist pump).

In this series of posts, I will relay how I tracked down various people related to Bill by blood or Batman...or, as in the following case, neither.

First up: Charles Sinclair, Bill's longtime friend and writing partner for various television shows (including a two-part episode of the 1960s live action Batman show) and a couple of B-movies.

Because Charles did not collaborate with Bill on Batman comics, he was not someone I planned to look for going in. I came across his name while searching Bill's TV and movie credits on IMDB. While talking with artist and comics historian Jim Amash early in my research, we realized that contacting Charles could give great insight into Bill as a person.

That was, of course, if Charles (born 1924, ten years after Bill) were still alive. And findable. And willing to talk. And with mental faculties present.

When starting the hunt for a "Charles Sinclair," you know you're probably in for a staggering amount of possibilities and a punishing amount of dead ends. The name is on the common side. But that doesn't mean you don't start with a Google.

For hours, I searched.

I searched the Los Angeles phone directory for other (unusually named) people who worked on the shows Charles worked on. The few I found, I called. None remembered him. (Lots of people work on shows and many rarely if ever met each other.)

However, Googling the name in quotation marks had inadvertently blocked me from making progress. It didn't occur to me quickly enough that if I found out what his middle initial was, I'd narrow down thousands to, well, fewer than that, but probably still dozens, if not hundreds.

Finally, I ditched the quotation marks and searched his name with Bill Finger's. One of the results was a page on the Writers Guild East site that indicated people who were owed residuals but whom they could not locate.

One of them was Charles Sinclair. Only he was listed as "Charles [middle initial] Sinclair." The fact that he was listed with Bill confirmed that this was the Charles I was looking for.

So I scampered to People Finder and punched him up (with middle initial) in California, assuming he'd still be there.

Turns out he was never there.

I don't clearly remember this part, but somehow I began searching phone records for ALL Charles [middle initial] Sinclairs in the country. I don't remember how many hits that yielded, but I do remember that I was prepared to call them all.

On 6/15/06, the first one I tried happened to be on the east coast. Luckily, and a bit miraculously, that first one was him.

He was tremendously tickled that someone was doing a project on Bill, and more than happy to share as much as he could about his old friend. I was the first person
ever to contact him about Bill.

We talked for an hour and a half that day, and many more times since. He even kindly invited my wife and I to dinner, which he cooked himself. Charles was the first to tell me where Bill was buried
—only I found out later that Charles was (forgivably) wrong about that.

I told him the Writers Guild owed him (and Bill) some money. By the time Charles and I talked the next day, he'd already talked to them and was expecting a check. Funnily, the simple piece of info from the Writers Guild that facilitated me finding Charles apparently couldn't help the Writers Guild find him itself. That page was taken down literally the day Charles called. I asked my contact there why and he said for updates.

Bill's money has also since been claimed, but by whom is the "to be continued."

Charles opened me up to many other avenues for research. One of his ex-wives was one of the people who had a photo of Bill (from their 1964 wedding). Meeting this generous and articulate man was a highlight of my research
—not just for this book but all the books I've written. When I told Jim Amash, he interviewed Charles (respectfully, after asking for my blessing) for Alter Ego.

Charles celebrated his 84th birthday last week. I hope my Bill Finger book happens when Charles is still here to see his name on the dedication page.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The three covers of "Boys of Steel"

In September 2007, I first saw a sketch of Ross MacDonald's cover concept for Boys of Steel:

Notice anything?

(Yes, besides the misspelling of my last name. Together we can get through that.)

Notice anything missing?

Yes. Superman. There is no trace of the Man of Steel, the creation of whom is the subject of the book.

Granted, we would not necessarily have had approval to put Superman in full form on the cover, nor would that necessarily have been the way to go even if we did, but I felt his presence had to be there somehow.

I suggested a red and blue blur streaking across the sky behind the Boys of Steel. Superman is often depicted this way in comics and, as far as I know, you can’t trademark colorful streaks.

In November, I saw Ross had gone in a different direction, but I immediately bummed a ride that way:

We can all be grateful my original concept (from 2005) was delicately dismissed:

However, I do still like that masthead treatment because it's meant to be a tribute to this:

Saturday, April 12, 2008

book promotion story 3: "Up, up, and away"—literally

When Superman debuted in 1938, he couldn't fly. He could only leap tall buildings in a single bound. Well, I suppose that's something, too.

Yet when you've written a picture book about Superman (more specifically, his co-creators), the marketing possibilities are sky-high.

In September 2007, I met a very nice man who happens to run a very cool company: it operates airships. I made a mental (actually digital—in my Palm) note about him.
In February 2008, by which time the book had been announced, I e-mailed him. After reminding him who I was and briefly introducing Boys of Steel, I wrote this:

I'm looking for creative ways to promote it. What I would LOVE would be to have a launch party for the book on an airshipafter all, airships are the coolest things in the sky next to Superman himself.

I figured the cost would be astronomical, meaning the airship idea wouldn't fly with my publisher. But hoping I would happily be proven wrong, I asked how much it would be.

His response was a phone call. He said he'd love to do it. He'd not heard of any other book party that had taken place aboard an airship. And the only issue would be whether he'd have an airship in the right location in August, when the book releases. The launch site he mentioned was Coney Island.

No mention of cost.

So we met for French toast.

I learned that this is how it would work: companies pay to advertise on the balloon of airships. So since an airship would be going up anyway, he would let us use the cabin for the launch party for no charge. (Of course, any amenities we'd want at the party would be our financial responsible.)

Since then, while the idea is still afloat, we've hit turbulence in two ways:

1. Random House may not want to do it since an unrelated product would be shilled on the balloon itself. (I figure it's okay as long as there is no a moral conflict
—tobacco, soda, a new movie directed by Mel Gibson. In fact, maybe we'd happen upon some non-offensive—even squeaky cleansynergy, such as Super Vac, or Super Sweep, or Super Soap.)

2. The airship interior does not look like this:

from We the People: The Hindenburg by Marc Tyler Nobleman

Or this:

from We the People: The Hindenburg by Marc Tyler Nobleman

The interior looks like a miniature version of airplane coach class and can seat no more than twelve.

So if we get use of an airship in the New York area in August, and if Random House approves it, I am now thinking we make it a raffle launch party. We'd invite a group larger than twelve with the promise that twelve lucky attendees will be randomly drawn during the party to go up in the airship during the party. Right over the party, in fact.

Of course, I'd prefer to take the whole group. But I suppose my Plan B is something, too.

Besides, Superman wouldn't be as special as he is if everyone could fly.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

book promotion story 2: "You already eat like Superman..."

I like to write books on subjects that have not been the focus of a book before.

Similarly, I like to promote books in places where books have rarely been promoted before.

Of course, this is not instead of bookstores. But in a bookstore, you're swimming upstream in a river wild with competition. Whereas in, say, an amusement park or a hotel or a hardware store, you are drifting blissfully downstream on a clear day—usually alone. The jewel of the Nile.

So I pitched a handful of ideas to a receptive marketing person at Whole Foods, the country's largest natural market.

© DC Comics, Whole Foods Market

One idea is simply a book giveaway to members of their Kids Club to reinforce the chain's healthy lifestyle initiative: "You already eat like Superman. Now read about him."

Another would be more symbiotic
—and more of a scene. I gave it the needs-work title of "The Super Eating Challenge." At this in-store event, kids who try seven fruits and vegetables they've never eaten before—possibly in front of an audiencewin a signed copy of my book. Seven is for the seven decades of Superman.

Of course, all the fruits and veggies offered will be red, blue, or yellow
. (Eggplant counts as blue.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Superman returns, Batman begins, Nobleman natters

Today I went to a Superman/Batman double feature.

feature 1: Superman

Superman: The Movie (1978) was produced by father and son Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Salkind senior passed away in 1997. Ilya currently has a film company named for himself. In 2006, I contacted him while researching, ironically, my Batman/Bill Finger project. (Bill's second wife told me that Bill had been asked to fly to California to take a shot at writing a script for a Superman movie; turns out she was probably thinking of the 1960s Filmation cartoons, at least one of which Bill did write.)

Recently, I contacted the Ilya Salkind Company again, this time to ask what happened to the Siegel and Shuster biopic I saw announced on their site last year but which had since been taken down. Today Ilya's assistant kindly responded and told me that the film is back on the site, though on the back burner in terms of development. I didn't ask why it had been taken down, though I wanted to. It's obviously none of my business.


Moist wipe for hands.

feature 2: Batman

Last Friday, I heard from the congenial producer of a documentary about Bob Kane to be packaged with this summer's animated DVD Batman: Gotham Knight. He'd learned online that I have Bill Finger photos beyond the only two that are continually republished. He wants to give his viewers something they haven't seen before—props for thatand asked if he could use any of the photos I've gathered in the film.

For about half an hour today, we spoke about how we might help each other. In exchange for use of the photos, he offered me screen credit and a spot on their Comic-Con panel (both bat-cool), but I asked for something else instead. We both doubt he'll be able to wrangle it due to the delicate nature of Bill Finger's status at DC, but if so, then you could see at least one of the new Finger photos on the copper screen (or whatever the TV equivalent of "silver screen" is). If not, you'll see them anyway, here and possibly elsewhere.

Also bear in mind that these are technically not my photos. Living people sent them to me on good faith. They've given permission for me to use them for my book (which this blog is an extension of), but for any purpose beyond that, I'd go back to them for clearance.

In the end, though, most of them want what I want: to coax Bill Finger out of the shadows at long last.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Superman and Batman in one

I am about to break my own rule.

Fear not, I will not be making a habit of wasting your or my time by posting off-topic.

ut given that Superman and Batman (specifically, the picture books about their creators that I've written) are my topics du season, this is not entirely unrelated:

© Singapore government?

The impact of such an image is diminished because the authenticity of it is questionable i
n this age of Photoshop. Yet if a Swiss web site considers it newsworthy, then it must be true.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Bill Finger's desk

In my ten years of freelance writing, my relationship with facts has evolved. At the start, I accepted most any statement from a "reputable" source (Britannica, Newsweek, most any book) as a "fact."

Yet the more I researched, the more I realized that every fact is suspect until verified by at least one other primary source and preferably two. It's not possible every time, but I try. And now I know that even statements routinely and confidently repeated by multiple writers are subject to deeper investigation; see my post about Superman and Hitler

This is one reason I like to write picture books. Double- and triple-checking every fact is tough enough with a 1,500-word manuscript. I quiver to think how long it would take me to do it for one much longer than that.

Photographs present a thornier challenge. If you know what a particular person looked like, authenticating a photo of him you newly find is generally easy. But what about newly-found photos of people you never saw oldly? If the photo is labeled with identifying details in faded handwriting, can you trust them? People make mistakes, sometimes even deliberately.

And what about photographs of locations—especially locations that were mundane at the time but which took on greater meaning later on? It is virtually impossible to verify photos like this. It is one of the few instances where a writer like me can relax a bit and give in to the most likely explanation.

Hence, here is a photo of Bill Finger's desk:

Why can I safely say that this was Bill's desk?

The photo has no markings on the back, but Bill's granddaughter inherited it along with several other photos of Bill from the same time period. The clincher: I showed the photo to his longtime writing partner Charles Sinclair. He and Bill worked side-by-side for years, late into the night. Charles's memory has been so impeccable that he correctly remembered which day of the week Bill died. This was his response to the photo:

"I think you're on to something. Where did you find this? It's 'in character'semi-makeshift, but functional. I would date this as about 1950 [9/3/10 addendum: It's actually a bit earlier.]. The reference books are right. That Front Page desk light is great, the portable typewriter is correct, and that hokey folding metal chair (stolen from a nearby social hall??) is a great touch. I don't recognize the artwork. My recollection is that big Klee print that looked like a red lollipop handing over the desk. Also, when he bought that brown-and-gold Crosley AM-FM radio (1950? 1951? 1952?), Bill kept it on the right end of the desk, anchoring the books."

Of course, any picture book about a writer will require at least one illustration of him at his desk. As optimistic as I generally am, I never thought I would have the giddy fortune of stumbling upon a visual reference of Bill's workspace.

Forget about the unlikely chance of finding such a photo. What about the even more unlikely chance that such a photo existed in the first place?