Monday, June 30, 2008

The other building in which Superman was created

In the decades of literature about the history of Superman, I've noticed an odd omission.

The house in which Jerry Siegel lived when he envisioned Superman is still standing. Cleveland protects it as a designated landmark. An illustration of its interior is in Boys of Steel.

But Superman was not fully created in Jerry's house. He was not fully created until Joe Shuster drew him.

Why hasn't anyone published a picture of where Joe lived in 1934?

For starters, it's no longer there. And since apparently no one knew its significance when it was torn down, it was just another derelict building, requiring no special archiving. Which meant it could take a lot of looking now to find a picture of it. After my research trip to Cleveland in January 2007, I can confirm that it took a heckuva lot of looking.

Armed with the address of Joe's former apartment building on Amor Avenue, I was pumped. First stop: Western Reserve Historical Society. For more than six hours, I rifled through archival photos. They were not digitized. The staff brought containers out to me
—big, often dusty boxes. It wasn't that long ago but I already forgot how they were organized. No matter—I searched every possible container and did not find the Amor address.

Second stop, next day: Cleveland State University archives. Similar processonly there it was folders, not containers. End result was the same—no Amor address. (On the plus side, it didn't take six hours to learn that.)

Third and final stop: Cleveland Public Library. I was the least optimistic about this. It just seemed that something so unlikely to exist could not be found at a place so mainstream. Here the photos were
stored in small boxes, organized by street. I hunkered down, the only guy in the room besides the librarian. I went through all the Amor photos. Nothing.

Then a new thought brushed up against me. Joe's building had an Amor address but was on the corner of another street, Parkwood. I asked for the Parkwood box.

On the back of one photo someone had scribbled a Parkwood address
and then an "AKA xxxxx Amor" address. Joe's Amor address.

That was it. This is it:

photo courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library

This photo of what was once called the Maple Apartments is from November, 1974. The building was demolished the next year.

I had to tell someone. Couldn't use my cell phone in the library. So I went up the guy behind the desk and said, "I know you probably won't care, but this is the building in which Superman was finalized."

He tried to care but I think he was mostly glad I was done asking for boxes.

When I got home, I had another idea. I checked with my contact at the Cleveland City Planning Commission and he managed to uncover a second photo of the address, this one from July, 1959:

photo courtesy of the Cleveland City Planning Commission

In that unassuming building, Superman first put on a cape and an S-emblem. In fact, he was almost certainly named in there, too (though Jerry and Joe had already used "Superman" for two earlier unrelated characters).

My Planning Commission man also confirmed that the building was indeed the same that would've been there in 1934. He could even tell me it was built in 1916 (though at first I thought it looked more modern than that).

You have to think that if the city had kept track of its history, the building would still be there today. You have to wonder how no fans came forward to tell the city. It's not likely because fans didn't care. Hard as it is to process in the Internet age of quick-grab info, it's most likely because fans didn't know.

Now I am in touch with people who are in touch with the Shuster family and I could just ask them if the Shusters have a photo of the building, maybe even one circa 1934. But at that time, people had little to be sentimental about, so perhaps not.

More news to come about these photos as we sweat closer to August.

Sunday, June 29, 2008


None of us has experienced loss on the level that Superman has.

As a baby, he lost nearly everything at once—his parents, his home, his planet, his very identity. Like any baby, he did not yet know conscious love, but it's a heartbreaking reminder of the power of the human condition that,
years later, he would feel it for people and places he will never remember. And he isn't even human.

What we mortals experience is typically the opposite. Most everything we lose is something
or someonewe first loved, consciously. In practical terms, anything we lose has to be smaller than what Superman lost, yet when it's your turn to grieve, it sure can feel like you lost your planet.

What strength can we take from a fictional character's lifelong struggle? Not much, and truthfully, not much from a real person's struggle, either. No matter how inspirational or comforting we find another's willpower, and no matter how loved and supported we are by others in any time of need, we must all handle the hardest part of loss alone.

I don't know about Kryptonians, but the human heart has four chambers. Yet sometimes it feels like we could use many more than that.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Talking about "Boys of Steel" in the rain

This short interview filmed on a digital camera under an overhang during a rainstorm at the Superman Celebration begins at 1:52:

The interviewer is the kind Steve Younis, maestro of the Superman Homepage. We'd met in person for the first time mere moments before. He introduces me as "Mike." He did correct himself with no prodding, but even if he hadn't, it's still better than spelling "Marc" with a "k."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Another Batman mystery

Every post for the past two months has been about Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman.

However, I have not forgotten about my
pledge earlier in the year to reveal never-published info about and photos of uncredited Batman co-creator Bill Finger as the July release of Boys of Steel nears.

Earlier this month, on the writers' panel at the Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois, I mentioned Finger. The audience applauded him with the same fervor they did Siegel and Shuster.

Before I peel back additional layers of Bill Finger I did uncover, I need help solving yet another Bill Finger mystery.

Les Daniels's Batman: The Complete History (1999) is an essential book on the subject. It includes quite a few Finger quotations—but no bibliography. Finger died in 1974 so Daniels obviously did not interview him personally. I have researched Finger extensively and know of only two previous published works quoting more than two lines of his actual words: the transcription of the 1965 New York comics convention creators' panel (published in the comics history magazine Alter Ego) and Jim Steranko's 1970 book History of Comics, Volume 1. Yet many Finger quotations in Batman: The Complete History can't be traced to either source.

So where are they from?

Daniels does not remember nor does he still have his research. The man at DC Comics who apparently edited the book was "unable to help," without further explanation. I don't know if he also doesn't have record or if he does know but for some reason won't share.

Below are the Finger quotations that I haven't been able to account for. While in some cases, similar comments have appeared elsewhere, the fact that these are all in quotation marks means the author is affirming that Finger said each line verbatim:

page 25 - "Batman was written originally in the style of the pulps."

29 - "He can’t stop bullets, you know."

38 - "The thing that bothered me was that Batman didn’t have anyone to talk to." - 7/2/08 SOLVED: from Steranko's History of Comics, Volume 1

38 - "The pulps were grim, lacking in humor."

38 - on adding Robin: "The puns were there; the dialogue easy, fluid, and flowing. It brightened up the strip and added characterization to the main figure of Batman."

39 - on editors: "You lack a certain amount of freedom in dealing with the character. I could usually do better on my own." (Daniels notes Finger said this decades later)

65 - "Writing for comics is difficult. You have to describe scene so completely that the artist knows exactly or as nearly as possible what to draw"

69 - "Sometimes I’d be working all night on a script, depending on how an idea hit." (Daniels indicates this is from an interview—though wouldn't they all be?)

Does anyone know where any of these first appeared? If not, does anyone know someone who might? If so, please e-mail me.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Not a starred review...

...but a good review nonetheless, from The Horn Book, which they say is hard to please:

Faster than a bionic pencil, more powerful than the disdainful looks of their high school classmates, able to think of a plot line in a red-hot’s Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman! Missing his father, who died during a robbery, and trying to survive the Great Depression, young Jerry buries himself in the lives of Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and other characters of pulp fiction and comic strips. Short, shy, and lacking athletic ability, Jerry turns to his typewriter for solace. Jerry’s look-alike friend Joe loves to escape into the same stories, and soon he is illustrating Jerry’s work. One night, Jerry is struck with inspiration and imagines a hero, an alien with incredible strength who rescues humans and whose secret identity is that of an ordinary meek and mild guy. MacDonald’s retro illustrations, reminiscent of the tone and color of his earlier Another Perfect Day, are the perfect foil for Superman’s story. The twin friends, sporting matching glasses and button-down shirts, fit right into MacDonald’s circa-1930s world. A fascinating author’s note follows the story of Jerry and Joe until their deaths and explores the business side of the comic industry. Budding cartoonists will be inspired by the lives of the hard-working supermen who created the beloved comic book-hero. r.l.s.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Four more reviews, including third starred one

Last night, I Googled "boys of steel" for the first time...last night.

To my pleasant surprise, four new reviews turned up. One is in the main mag of the book trade, Publishers Weekly—and it's the book's third starred review! The other three reviews are from sites new to me.

"Vibrant and well-researched...Nobleman details this achievement with a zest amplified by MacDonald's...punchy illustrations"
Publishers Weekly 6/23/08

"I have to praise this wonderful book. It has something for children and adults, fans of comics and otherwise...I don't use the word a lot, but the book is very charming."
PLAYBACK:stl (a St. Louis arts site) 6/20/08

"Terrific...elegantly laid down"
Comics Waiting Room 6/22/08

"Bright and cheerful"
BookLoons 6/23/08

I'm heartened how each review picked up on different small details. I'm heartened, period.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Boars of Steel

After my school visits, I'm often privileged to receive written feedback from students. I began incorporating Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman in my presentation in January—the book was still a half-year away from release but the cover had just gone up online.

Not every young person who mentions Boys of Steel in his or her comments remembers the title exactly. Here are other ways it's been called:

Men of Steel
Boys of Steal
Brothers of Steel
Steel Boys
Metal Men 

your Spider-Man book

3/29/11 addendum: More.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

book promotion story 4: Summer reading at Six Flags

When you think "amusement park," you probably next think "books."

Some Six Flags locations feature Superman-themed rides. I approached the company in the winter to see if we could somehow promote Boys of Steel there. They were open to considering it, particularly for the parks with the Superman attractions. I pitched ideas, trying to focus on promotions that would not be labor-intensive for them. My favorite was what you might call super hide and seek:

Before opening, the park would "hide," say, fifteen small durable placards of the Boys of Steel cover throughout the park. These would be affixed to places that can be easily
—but not too easilyseen, such as on the side of a garbage can, a fence or wall that encloses a ride, even on a bathroom door.

Upon entering, kids would be offered the chance to play a hide and seek game for a chance to win a signed copy of the book. They'd be given a small card listing possible locations for the placards
—but the list would contain, say, three times more locations than placards, so some would be red herrings.

Any child who, upon leaving, turns in a list on which he's circled only the locations of the fifteen placards receives a signed book. It is not a scavenger hunt and is not a race
—an important factor to parks since running can lead to injury. No matter what time a child leaves, so long as he turns in a correctly completed list, he's a winner.

I saw this as win-win: it encourages patrons to explore the entire park and it exposes my book to a key part of my audience in a memorable way.

No matter. Six Flags said no.

6/30/08 addendum: Could this be why?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Superman Celebration: the rundown

From June 12 to June 15, I was among the nicest people I have met in recent memory. Combine the homespun charm of a small Midwestern town with the attentive enthusiasm of serious Superman fans and everyone is treated like a VIP. Thank you to those who personally made me feel welcome and made sure I was fed and hydrated and air-conditioned and well-positioned. 

Here's a quick look at the experience, first by the numbers, then by the pictures. 

  • Hours it took to drive from St. Louis to Metropolis: 3
  • Highway signs for Cracker Barrel restaurant I passed: at least 5
  • Wrong turns my GPS gave me: 1 (if I'd listened to it, I would have ended up in the Ohio River)
  • Degrees when I arrived: 94
  • Degrees when I left: 96
  • Babies dressed as Superman: dozens
  • Dogs dressed as Superman: at least 2
  • People dressed as dogs: I think I saw 1
  • Percentage of people dressed as Superman who lack Superman's physique: 98%
  • Times I dressed as Superman: 0
  • Times I dressed as someone from the 1940s: 1 (sort of; see below)
  • Pieces of Superman merchandise I bought: 1 (see here)
  • Presentations I gave: 3
  • Minutes each presentation lasted: 30
  • People who e-mailed me during my presentation to tell me they were sitting in my presentation: 1
  • Copies of Boys of Steel I raffled off: 2
  • Homemade bookplates I signed: more than 100 
  • Boys of Steel postcards I started with: 4,800 
  • Postcards I left with: 0 * 
  • Times people asked if they could buy Boys of Steel right then: too many (only because I didn't have books)
  • Items signed by Siegel and Shuster up for bid at the Superman charity auction: at least 3
  • Of those, items I won: 0
  • Of those, items I bid on: 0
  • Highest amount one sold for: $600
  • Amount an unbound advanced reader's copy of Boys of Steel sold for: $110
  • Nights I had beer for dinner because food was no longer being served: 1

Now for photos. (Spoiler alert: I'm not posting those typical street festival scenes with half the crowd dressed as superheroes; you can see those on many other sites.) The second of two highway signs for Metropolis that I saw:

Appropriately, the first sign I saw when I got off the highway:

Welcome sign (sorry for the distorted head; I took this myself at too-close range):

One of approximately ten signs like this I passed (see note above about distorted head):

The writers' panel:

photo credits: Sue Schnitzer

I didn't see this while I was there; a kind new friend e-mailed it to me. Note the rare correct spelling of all names:

photo credit: Michelle Lyzenga; correct spelling credit: Kevin Williams

One of my talks:

photo credit: Lin Workman

My humble station:

The first non-press person to own a copy of Boys of Steel (he won the first of two raffles):

The 1940s ball:

photo credit: Michelle Lyzenga

Allison Mack, who stars as Chloe Sullivan on the TV show Smallville, graciously allowing herself to be exploited:

The event ended on Father's Day:

One last note: I'm happy to report that every audience I spoke to heartily applauded at the first mention of Siegel and Shuster. I'm glad they knew that without those two, Metropolis, IL, might be just another town sandwiched between Cracker Barrels.

* 6/19/08 addendum: Jamie Reigle of Super Collectibles generously took a big stack of postcards off my hands to distribute to his customers. Please visit his site. He's got it all!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The only real Metropolis

In Superman mythology, there is only one Metropolis. In the United States, there is also only one Metropolis. Superman's Metropolis is in an unspecified state. America's Metropolis is in southern Illinois. Tomorrow, I'm going to the real one for the 30th annual Superman Celebration.

Naturally, I planned this trip to sell books. However, we will not have books there. An order was placed for 500 copies but we were unable to get them shipped from China (the book is scheduled to be released on July 22).

But I will still be selling books. I have several speaking slots over the four-day event. I have hundreds of postcards to distribute. (It will be sweltering and they'll make great lightweight little fans.) I made simple bookplates with a custom logo that I will sign and hand out; these may prompt people to buy a book next month (or pre-order online now) or else they'll have no logical place to stick it. I will also be raffling off two copies of the actual book, two of the three advanced copies I was sent.

I will report when back and possibly also when there. One thing I can already confirm: selling books without having books does have one advantage. No heavy lifting.

Monday, June 9, 2008

A sign of Joe Shuster's success

When Superman hit big, Joe Shuster needed help.

Possibly as early as 1938, he set up a studio on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland and was able to support a team of artists. They drew various Superman comics and other Superman illustration jobs. Yet for almost the first ten years of Superman, Joe inked every Superman face himself.

© DC Comics; Joe Shuster, Fifty Who Made DC Great

The address of Joe's studio was on my list of little mysteries to solve. If I found it, I hoped I'd be able to find a photo of it. Well, I did half of that, and not the half you think I did.

My friend and fellow research fiend Brad Ricca has also been researching Siegel and Shuster for some time and will be unveiling a documentary he made about them later this year. He's uncovered some important material. One scrap of info he found was the studio address.

When I was researching in Cleveland in January, 2007, I learned that the Cleveland Public Library has a large collection of city photographs archived by street in little boxes.
If you are searching for an address, you must go through every photo in the box for that street—no automated alternative exists.

These were photos taken when a building was found to be in violation somehow (look for the little X in each one, but power to you if you can figure out what any of the violations was). I was also told that the city photographed a building before demolishing it.
After that trip, I learned that the City Planning Commission also has copies of some or perhaps all of these photos. I asked a contact there to look up the studio address Brad kindly shared with me.

He came back with three photos of the location, from 1939, 1940, and 1970. The last is actually not a violation one or the "death row" one; it was a zoning photo taken when the building was approved for use as a dance hall. The first two photos are from the period when Joe worked there. Who knows
—maybe he was inside there when they were taken. (I'd speculate that maybe he is one of the pedestrians visible, but there are almost no pedestrians visible in either shot.)

In this 1939 shot, the building is on the far right, almost completely cut off. His entrance was the doorway with the rounded top (the only doorway of that building visible in the shot). 

photo courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library

In this 1940 shot, it's the building on the far left of the photo, again almost completely cut off. (I can't figure out why there is a shop called Lindsay's on both sides of the building.) 

photo courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library

In this 1970 shot, the building is front and center, right behind the trio of similarly cheesy cars. What was Joe's entrance is on the left.

photo courtesy of the Cleveland Public Library

Today, there is no studio and no dance hall there. In fact, there is no building—not this building, anyway. I'm told it's a hospital complex. I'm sure Superman is still there, though.

7/4/13 addendum: I was glad to receive the following correction from a gentleman named Eric Bravo, who gave me permission to post it:

My late grandfather, Sam Berkowitz, was also born in 1914 and attended Alexander Hamilton Jr. High with Joe. Im writing to point out a small mistake when listing the location of the art studio and office Jerry and Joe used on Euclid Avenue. While the location is always described as on Euclid between E. 101st and E. 105th Street, this is wrong. Brad Riccas book Super Boys notes the studios address to be 10609 Euclid, meaning that as addresses on Euclid increase go east, the studio was east of E. 105th Street, between E. 105th and E. 107th Streets. This is supported by the fact that the pictures noting the studios building, or a portion of it, all show a Euclid address at the bottom beginning with 105 or 106, followed by two digits. Finally, some of the pictures show a tall building at the extreme right, and this building, which still stands, is at the corner of Euclid and E. 107th. The mistake is common, and even appears at the map you show, created by others, which has the dot for the studio on Euclid to the left of E. 105th, when it should be just to the right of it.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Speaking of Superman

When writing nonfiction, "dialogue" can be a dangerous word. My first drafts of Boys of Steel did not contain any.

Librarians cast doubt on books which claim to be nonfiction but which don't source quotations they include. If any of its dialogue is made up, a book is (obviously) not pure nonfiction.

Once I discovered a picture book about a celebrated poet which included lots of dialogue. I asked the author about that. He said the words were a combination of excerpts from the poet's autobiography and some things the author "rather assumed." For that, he told me, the book got "whacked in a couple of reviews."

Get a review that questions your authenticity and you run a real risk of losing library sales.

That is why, when an editor read an early draft of Boys of Steel and suggested I liven it up with dialogue, I balked at first.

However, I grew curious. I went back through the Jerry and Joe interviews I'd used as source material and found instances where I could replace exposition with a quotation. As luck had it, these happened to space out fairly evenly throughout the manuscript. In one or two cases, I had to change a verb tense, but otherwise, I was quoting verbatim.

This was the version that sold. However, at one point my editor said she doesn't feel picture book biographies need dialogue. I told her I didn't, either, but another editor had encouraged me to try it and I liked the outcome. Later, I asked my editor if we could add this to the acknowledgments page: "All dialogue is excerpted from interviews with Jerry and Joe." She didn't feel that was necessary, either. Referencing my fellow author's misfortune above, I pushed for it. My editor kindly obliged me.

The very first review of the book singled that out: "A bibliography and assurances that 'all dialogue [was] excerpted from interviews' puts factual muscle behind the subject’s literary brawn." My editor joked that now I can blog about how she resisted that at first. One factor that makes her an exceptional editor is that she respects her writers' instincts
—and another is that she has the style even to mention this.

I've always been careful with how I use and cite information in my work. Absolute truth may be unknowable but writers owe it to readers to come as close as possible.

9/8/14 addendum: what can happen if you do not cite sources and other dangers of writing dialogue (an article I wrote for The Horn Book).

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Boy of Steel

I do mean that in the singular.

I wrote Boys of Steel in 2004, though as explained earlier, the idea of telling the Siegel and Shuster story in a new format for a new audience had been gestating in me for ten years prior.

When I sold the manuscript in early 2005, I expected the book would come out the following year.

What did come out was a picture book called The Boy of Steel.

I wasn't fond of the title. Or rather, the timing.

It does include at least one Superman-inspired illustration, and one of its themes is persistence, but the similarities end there.
The book is a touching story about a boy with cancer who gets to live out a baseball dream.

Still, in 2006, I was worried that my book (whenever it came out) would get mixed up with this one, or that I would be accused of "stealing." My editor said we didn't have to change the title.

There can be more than one book "of steel."

Monday, June 2, 2008

"More fun than any children’s biography has any right to be"

Here's a third Boys of Steel review, this one by Elizabeth Bird, popular librarian blogger for School Library Journal. A perfect ten of comments in her meaty and perceptive review sound like mermaids singing to me:

"...definitely a slick idea"

Nobleman and MacDonald pay homage to the fellas that brought to life 'the greatest superhero of all time' in such a way that no library in the world could object to the book’s style and panache"

"...little details in Boys of Steel that did the old heart good to see"

The author walks the fine line between the original Superman and the one we all recognize today, and does so while still remaining factually accurate. No small task."

in a scant 40-page picture book Nobleman even manages to draw ties to Superman’s rise alongside WWII"

The amount of research necessary for a book of this scope would have to be hefty and I was pleased to see a small list of Selected Sources available on the publication page."

the design of the book itself is pretty keen"

this is one biography that’s going to lure the kids like nothing else"

"...Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ross MacDonald do Superman’s creators proud"

"More fun than any children’s biography has any right to be"

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The first two "Boys of Steel" reviews...revealed

As promised, here are the first two reviews in for Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. I'm thrilled and humbled to add that both reviews are starred, like roughly a third of all superhero costumes.

* Booklist 6/1/08:

Though rich in thrilling big breaks and cultural touchstones, comic book history appears most often in books for adults, such as Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), inspired by the story of Superman’s creators. This book brings the young men behind the Man of Steel to a picturebook audience. Along with a compressed account of the partnership between nerdy high-school outcasts Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, Nobleman includes insights about superheroes’ cultural significance and the chord struck by Superman—a “hero who would always come home” even as World War II loomed on the horizon. It’s hard to imagine a better sidekick for the text than MacDonald’s illustrations, which capture the look of 1930s comics with their sepia-toned, stylized imagery, although some children may wish for more distinctions between the Shuster and Siegel's bespectacled faces. The narrative ends on an upbeat note, but the detailed, candid afterword clues youngsters into the creators’ bitter compensation battle with DC Comics. A bibliography and assurances that “all dialogue [was] excerpted from interviews” puts factual muscle behind the subject’s literary brawn. Any kid who has scribbled caped crusaders in the margins of homework will find Shuster and Siegel’s accomplishment of interest; this robust treatment does their story justice.
Jennifer Mattson

* Kirkus Reviews 6/1/08:

Ask children where the Man of Steel comes from, and they may answer “Metropolis” or, if they’re well read, “Krypton.” In fact, he came from Cleveland, the invention of two “meek, mild and myopic” Depression-era teenagers. Drawing incidents and dialogue directly from a range of published interviews and other accounts, Nobleman shows how Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster parlayed a steady diet of Tarzan, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon into a new kind of Hero, with superhuman abilities and a secret identity not so different from, well, themselves. Tongue resolutely in cheek, MacDonald switches between full page and comics-style panels, portraying the young writer and artist in Superman-style poses—stooped and nerdy by day but standing solidly, hands on hips and looking larger-than-life when working on their creation. In his afterword, Nobleman retraces Superman’s role in World War II and beyond, filling in the sorry tale of how Siegel and Shuster were cheated of fortune and fame by DC Comics. The battle for truth and justice is truly never-ending.
author of review not indicated