Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Noble and Nobleman

Today I had a wonderful visit at Sarah Noble Intermediate School in New Milford, CT.

Here's a sign of a district dedicated to literacy: the principal, PTA president,
and a rep from the Board of Ed all attended.

Here's another sign
—five, actually—that this school in particular is dedicated to literacy:

A close-up on that first one:

"One of these things is not like the other"...but very sweetly so.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Publishing futurist, film director, and sports editor

Growing up (and still today), one of the reasons I love(d) shows like Super Friends is because of the team-ups. I liked to see what combination of heroes would form to take on the latest challenge.

I also like this in real life. Within a circle of friends, I like to observe who ends up doing what together. (I actually used to “take attendance” at certain gatherings. Yes, said friends would mock this.)

Over the past few months, I’ve noted three disparate quotations that each seemed like a good catalyst for a blog post. They are unrelated other than the fact that they are all quotations. So in the spirit of the randomness of Super Friends splinter groups (which, in this context, is in and of itself random), here they are, with my reasons for mentioning them.

quotation #1

“In the digital age it will make much more economic sense for the owner of the audience to find the content rather than the way we’ve always done it, which is the other way around.”

Mike Shatzkin, expert publishing consultant and founder of The Idea Logical Company, digital book publishing futurists

I found this both exciting in its perception and scary in its implication.

Could it be true?

Mike seems way ahead of many of us in understanding of the industry (he’s earned his futurist badge at least in part from decades of experience) and I do think he is on to something here. (The rest of the article of which this is the last line is also compelling.)

However, I still believe that a well-done book is capable of attracting a sizable audience that includes people new to the subject, the author, or both. I think the biggest factor in that is marketing, a huge part of the marketing is the author himself, and a huge part of that is indeed the author’s digital presence. (The cost of this is often only the author’s time...and Internet service provider charges.)

But I feel personal appearances remain hugely important, even for those, like me, who are not household names. Maybe especially for those like me. If an author does well at speaking engagements, that can keep building an audience, even for a book that is long past new.

For every person who is loyal to a subject, there is a person loyal to an author (regardless of subject). I have not scientifically tested that but do believe it holds up.

To relate Mike’s comment to my work, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman is a picture book that has found an audience beyond young readers. Predictably, that audience consists largely of comic book fans. I could keep writing books about superheroes (indeed I do have one on Batman in the works) and that audience may stand by me. But eventually, fatigue may set in for me or the audience (or both).

But if I write my passions, the work is stronger, and if I market passionately, those with similar passion (for the subject or the author, if not both) will be my audience. In other words, I still believe someone who loves my book about Superman may also love my book about a WWII Japanese pilot. (And not just because both fly.)

quotation #2

“The thing that worries people most is often the thing that makes it work.”

Tim Burton, Entertainment Weekly, 3/5/10

I responded to this because I am among a growing group of picture book authors drawn to subjects that are atypical for picture books. And we all know that new can equal scary. Too few want to take risks, or at least be the first to take a certain risk.

I wrote Boys of Steel because I felt it was a powerful story for multiple ages on multiple levels, but it’s still uncommon to see pop culture figures featured in nonfiction picture books (at least relative to “textbook names” such as Lincoln and King). People may not (at first) look past the pop culture to discover the human condition underneath.

But in recent years, we’ve seen an explosion of both pop culture and lesser-known figures in picture books thanks to authors including Meghan McCarthy, Don Brown, Jonah Winter, Chris Barton, Barbara Kerley, Catherine Brighton, Elizabeth Matthews, Shana Corey, and Gary Golio (not to mention their editors). Kids (and adults) will be richer for these unorthodox experiments.

And in his world, Tim Burton does the same thing. A thin comedian as Batman? A guy with scissors for hands? A corpse bride? (Interestingly, much of his source material is literature, some of which surely seemed radical upon first publication, from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.) He is eminently qualified to make the observation he did.

We in picture book publishing should keep his boldness in mind.

quotation #3

“The resurrection of Christ was incredible. Little since then has been.”

Gil Rogin, former Sports Illustrated managing editor, in a memo

Rogin was referring to the use of the word “incredible” in writing. It has become devalued by overuse. So have its cousins “amazing,” “fantastic,” “wonderful,” and so on. In everyday speech, they are dependable workhorses. In print, they have little impact.

Generally speaking, description is usually better without resorting to adjectives at all (or at least adjectives alone). That is one of the central challenges to authors—how to describe something familiar in a new way. We won’t be able to do that using the same old adjective.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Homer vs. Homer, me vs. "me," part 2 of 2

First read part 1.

An editor from READ had just asked me why a humorous history piece in the latest issue of
Nickelodeon magazine was so similar (in her opinion) to one I wrote for the latest issue of READ.

I was the one who told them about the
Nickelodeon piece. I thought it was already obvious that I had no idea how it had come about.

At that time, I was all about e-mail. But because tone in print can easily be misread, I called her.

I said I understood her suspicion because she didn’t know me, not personally. Yet, I said, I was as surprised as they were to see the
Nickelodeon piece—again, only because of the timing, not because I felt the idea was original. (Execution, of course, is where originality can enter into it.)

I explained that I’d worked hard to establish a good reputation as a writer and would not self-plagiarize (or plagiarize, for that matter). I emphasized that I greatly valued my relationships with both READ and
Nickelodeon and would not consciously jeopardize either one. I reiterated that the compare and contrast format was not unprecedented. And I said that any two writers independently comparing Homer and Homer Simpson would likely have some overlap. There are only so many key qualities to distill.

I also pointed out that
Nickelodeon gave a byline to every feature written by a freelancer. My byline was on other pieces in that very issue, but there was no byline on the Homer piece, which meant it was written in-house. I provided the name of my Nickelodeon editor so the READ editor could contact her directly for verification. I concluded by stating that I hoped to continue to write for READ.

Fifteen minutes later, I got her response. She apologized if she’d insulted me. She explained that she had to ask about such a coincidence because, as I’d said, she didn’t know me. But she now understood that such comparisons had been done before. And she said they’d been thrilled with my work thus far so don’t worry about it. (She didn't contact Nickelodeon.)

I continued to write for READ, and still do when I can. But I also continue to worry, not specifically with respect to READ but simply as a freelance writer.

In any such case, the only thing freelance writers have to back us up is our word. We, of course, make our living from words and I’d like to think that words can be enough. But sometimes words are not as thick of a shield as we might like.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Homer vs. Homer, me vs. "me," part 1 of 2

In 2004, every writer’s nightmare happened to me.

A Weekly Reader publication called READ (aimed at grades 7-12) that I’d enjoyed writing for before had assigned me a piece about ancient Greece.

Specifically, a piece introducing kids to the renowned classical poet Homer by contrasting him to the esteemed modern bard Homer Simpson.

This format was not new. My college humor magazine (Gravity, founded at Brandeis University in 1990) ran such silly comparisons every issue for a while. For example:

written by Noel Rappin

written by Ross Garmil and Rod Lyle Scormio

Even though Gravity had not done Homer vs. Homer, at least not while I was there, I was pretty sure this comparison had been done somewhere by someone, probably even multiple times.

Still, you can’t copyright an idea, so I took it as a worthy challenge. (I admit that going in, I knew about only one of those two Homers. I’m not saying which.)

I wrote it. I submitted it. They liked it. They ran it:

And then…

…that same month, I saw the latest issue of Nickelodeon, a magazine I was writing for on a monthly basis.

Well, look at that.

They, too, ran a Homer vs. Homer compare and contrast.

So even though I was pretty sure this comparison had been done before, I could not believe it was in another mag I regularly contributed to in the same month that my Homer vs. Homer piece would appear in READ.

Yet I saw this as a curiosity, not a problem. READ is distributed only in schools, free to students. Nickelodeon is for sale in stores and by subscription.

I immediately e-mailed my READ editor about it. She wrote “That happens.” We e-smiled.

Later that day, however, her boss e-mailed me. She felt the Nickelodeon piece was startlingly similar to the one I did for READ. She asked me to explain how this could have happened.

I’d been a freelance writer for five years and I’d loved it. That was the first time in my career I felt firsthand that working alone can also be hazardous to one’s career.

Continued in part 2.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Jerry Siegel Race, part 3 of 3

First read part 1 and part 2.

In February 2008, five months before Boys of Steel came out, I pitched my Jerry Siegel Race idea to the wonderful Glenville Development Corporation and they liked it. They earmarked a tentative month for the event. They sent the letter I’d written to the celebs. They suggested that we look for a corporate sponsor and mentioned one company in particular that was looking for a health initiative to fund. Running is healthy! I imagined that whatever sponsor we got would foot the bill for the race T-shirts.

I also pitched the Jerry Siegel Race to the organizers of the annual Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois, which I was planning to attend that June. Of course, that would not take place on the actual route, but would still be a sixth of a mile accompanied by John Williams.

Eventually, I even planned to do a third race in my town, sponsored by the local independent bookstore.

However, none of the races happened. Here's why:

Cleveland—It was hard for me to do as much as I wanted to do from afar and I wouldn't have asked anyone else to take on the responsibility. (Though my primary inspiration with the race was not to raise money but rather to do some small part to unify an historic community, I was thrilled when, later that year, a superstar team led by author Brad Meltzer fundraised on a far greater scale that my race ever could have. The newly formed Siegel & Shuster Society and friends collected more than $100,000 to restore Jerry's house and install commemorative
markers at both Jerry's and Joe's sites.)

Metropolis—A town official ended up nixing the race because the road chosen for the route would have had a cable (yes, I do remember it being a single cable) strung across it for another aspect of the Superman Celebration. That was a safety concern. (Somehow marathons with thousands of entrants and probably as many potholes, among other little bumps, go on anyway.)

Hometown—I was following up on too many promotional ideas at once and that one—though among my favorites—was set aside. I could tackle most of the other ideas on my own but that one would require help and, again, I didn’t want to burden anyone at the time.

Yet I remain determined to make a Jerry Siegel Race happen one day, particularly in Cleveland. In fact, I’m quite certain it will, and I’ll be running it with a big smile, in a hurry to get to one of those Superman mini-pizzas.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Jerry Siegel Race, part 2 of 3

First read part 1.

Jerry Siegel’s house is still standing (in the Glenville section of Cleveland):

Taken January 2007.

Joe Shuster’s, alas, is not. This photo was taken about a year before its 10/31/75 demolition:

So technically, the race would be from Jerry’s house to the site of Joe’s apartment. That distance is a sixth of a mile (just shy of how far the first published incarnation of Superman could leap). I figured it would take the average person about four minutes to run. So this would be a race in which even non-runners could participate.

I was hoping that staging what I inelegantly called the Jerry Siegel Race through the largely impoverished neighborhood would be a spirit boost. Yet I also wanted to keep it as simple (and inexpensive) as possible. To do that, I wanted to get the community involved.

I planned to approach local radio stations to find one willing to “score” the race. Say the race was set to start at 3 p.m. At precisely that moment, the station would begin to play the familiar and stirring theme from Superman: The Movie. (Hey, I like to run to it.)

But I didn’t want to have to get into renting and setting up big speakers along the route. Besides, plenty of speakers were already there—in private homes.
So in advance, we’d distribute flyers to the neighbors along the 9.5-block route. We’d announce the date of the race and encourage them to take part as a runner—or a DJ.

To be specific, we’d ask them to turn to the designated station(s), put their radios up to their front windows, open those windows, and at 3 p.m., crank up the volume. Voila—instant and continuous soundtrack, perfectly in sync. I’d never heard of a race like this and thought it would be quite electrifying to witness.

(I envisioned that we could also use the flyers to promote summer reading.)

Perhaps the station(s) that agreed to play the theme during the race would also help raise money by asking each listener to pledge a single dollar toward the cause. The tagline: "Help Superman's hood with a single buck" (playing off of "Leaps tall buildings in a single bound," a famous line from the "Faster than a speeding bullet..." Superman intro).

Also in advance, we’d try to recruit local celebs to be a part of it. I even rounded up addresses for and drafted the letter to invite big-name celebs who are more than casual Superman fans (Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Bon Jovi, Nic Cage, Howard Stern).

At the end of the race would be a block party where people would eat cookies and mini-pizzas in the shape of the Superman “S” emblem. My book would be for sale, and we’d have activities for kids.

I mentioned raising money for a cause. What cause?

While the race would be in Jerry’s name since he was the runner of the story, the event would culminate with the unveiling of some kind of commemorative marker on the site where Joe’s building had stood. (It’s not fair that Jerry’s house is a protected heritage site and Joe’s house is gone.)

I wanted this marker to somehow incorporate the only two known photos that exist of it, both of which I’d turned up in my research.
That way, when fans made a pilgrimage to the site, they would get some sense of how it looked when history crashed to Earth there.

However, it wasn’t just Joe’s onetime apartment that was about to be history.

Concluded in part 3.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Jerry Siegel Race, part 1 of 3

Today in 1938, Action Comics #1 went on sale. A story in honor of the 72nd anniversary of the debut of Superman:

Jerry Siegel had a fast dream in Cleveland. More than seventy years later, I had a fast dream about Cleveland. Jerry’s was about Superman. Mine was about Jerry. As of now, only his has blossomed.

Once upon a Depression, as told in Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, Superman caused insomnia (not the other way around).

On a hot night during the summer of 1933, young writer Jerry tried to sleep but had persistent visions of a hero that could do things no previous one could, such as lift cars and leap one-eighth of a mile. (Flying came a few years later.) Jerry kept hopping out of bed to record each new aspect as it occurred to him.

Come dawn, he tugged his clothes on over his pajamas and bolted the 9.5 blocks to the apartment of fellow teen Joe Shuster. (In some interviews, Jerry said 12 blocks, but I measured the distance myself. In this case, odometer trumps memory.) Jerry showed his artist friend his notes and asked him to draw what he’d conceived.

Thus was born an idea that would change a world (this one, and perhaps others).

When I was brainstorming ways to promote Boys of Steel and to bring some Superman pride to the now-hurting Glenville neighborhood where this pop culture milestone took place, I was hit with an idea that I felt could do both.

A race from Jerry’s to Joe’s.

Just like Jerry did while toting history in his hands.

Continued in part 2.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A sales indicator or an author eradicator?

Vanished: True Stories of the Missing is currently available exclusively through the Scholastic Book Club (those wispy catalogs that kids take home from school). Those catalogs, however, are packed so tight with choices that each one gets only a line of description.

Since the book came out in January, this blog has (I'm happy to reiterate) received a steady stream of hits from people (presumably parents and some kids) who Googled "vanished marc tyler nobleman."

Hopefully this is simply because they want more info on the book before they commit to buying it, not because they're looking for a way to make me disappear.

The book can't yet be ordered anywhere online; in fact, virtually the only location online where people can learn about it is right here. (Yes, for some reason, Scholastic does not put Scholastic Book Club titles anywhere on its site.)

If you're interested in the book but missed the catalog, simply call Scholastic at 800-724-6527, push prompt 3, then prompt 1, and order item #514472 (only $4.95) with a credit card.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Big screen tribute to Superman's debut

As someone who grew up loving the (first two) Christopher Reeve Superman movies, I had high expectations for Superman Returns (2006).

Too high.

I found Brandon Routh more sympathetic than many reviewers, but thought the rest of the major players were miscast. In fact, the only aspect of the film I truly liked was the tribute to the first appearance of Superman, a tribute that the majority of the audience would not have picked up on.

Here's the scene:

Here's the object of the homage:

No, it's not a coincidence.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Showing Superman without showing Superman

As if I need to clarify this, I don’t own Superman.

While the fair use doctrine meant we could legally show a proportionately small number of Superman images inside Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, the same does not apply to covers. Therefore, the dilemma: how to show Superman on the cover without showing Superman on the cover?

Here's our solution:

(Before this concept existed, my suggestion was to keep Jerry and Joe in the center oval and add a red and blue streak in the sky behind them, a streak that ends with a silhouette of a man in a cape. Even without the word "Superman" in the subtitle, and even though many well-known characters have a cape or red and blue outfits, this flying shadow would still be instantly identifiable as Superman. But obviously, our illustrator Ross MacDonald found a more dynamic approach.)

We have not been the only book to face this challenge. Here’s how other Superman-themed titles (both before and since mine) have handled it. (To be clear, using the word “Superman” is permissible. It’s using his trademarked look that isn’t.)

Some reference the familiar ripping-the-shirt-open pose:

Some want readers to leap tall buildings in a single glance:

(This is the paperback version of the hardcover immediately before it.)

(This is a novel and not about Superman. I include it because 
it nonetheless clearly takes inspiration from Superman.
I found this image online and originally thought it was cropped,
then was reminded in the comments that this is likely how it
is meant to look.)

Some are confident that all it takes to conjure the thought of Superman is blue tights...

...or a red cape...

...while some take it a bit further...

Even with a yellow cape, we see Generic Hero but we think Superman:

Like we did with Boys of Steel, some others went the silhouette route:

(Obviously, this one also qualifies for the "red cape" category above.)

The following book counts on people (a) knowing who Clark Kent is and (b) associating a man in eyeglasses and a fedora with Clark Kent:

Men of Tomorrow is about the comic book industry as a whole so its cover is more all-purpose superhero, yet even its undetailed solo figure in flight suggests Superman:

Some avoid visual ties but rely on a verbal one:

Many of the above also incorporated the Superman color scheme into the design.

In sum, Superman is so iconic that many of his parts do telegraph the whole:
  • a man pulling his shirt opening to reveal an emblem underneath
  • a figure flying against a tall building, especially from low angle
  • a figure flying period
  • a cape (particularly but not exclusively red)
  • a muscle-bound male silhouette
  • a suited man in glasses and a fedora (sometimes even just glasses)
  • red and blue together (if yellow is there, too, it’s unmistakable)

If you know of other covers that belong in this category, please let me know!

5/3/12 addendum:


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A new Unicorn

On 4/10/10, I was one of the authors speaking at the inaugural Unicorn Writers' Conference in Connecticut. For a first-time event, attendance was impressive, so much so that the parking lot and lunch lines were bottlenecked.

The conference filmed all presenters, burned DVDs of each talk immediately afterward, and offered those DVDs for sale to attendees. (Authors, of course, negotiated in advance the terms of this with the conference.) My DVD also features the video of my cover of Chumbawumba's 1997 hit "Tubthumping":

I debuted a new presentation at Unicorn: "Nonfiction is Non-Boring." The topic, however, is not new for me. The presentation is based on the relatively new release Quick Nonfiction Writing Activities That Really Work.

That book, in turn, was based on another, more specialized presentation I've been doing for several years called "Draw a Story, Write a Cartoon."

It's all so meta.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Golden Age of Comics you’ve never seen

On 3/31/10, I spoke at the Newport Public Library in Newport, Rhode Island.

It wasn’t my talk that merits a post but rather what happened afterward.

A man named Joseph Alaino came up to me and politely showed me superhero drawings he’d made as a kid. That alone was not remarkable. Many kids draw superheroes and some still have them as adults.

What was remarkable with respect to Joseph is that he is 79 years old. That means his drawings—made at least as early as 1943, when he was 12—are from the Golden Age of Comics.

Comics from the Golden Age of Comics are the most valuable comics in history.

Original, professional comic art from the Golden Age of Comics is also highly valuable.

But what about fan art from the Golden Age of Comics?

Though not valuable in the financial sense, it’s probably nearly as rare. And what makes it rarer in this case is not only that Joseph kept it all these decades but bothered to bring it to an event like mine and show it to someone.

Joseph’s art is a vivid window on the superhero culture in its earliest years. Kids these days have more than a half a century’s worth of characters to draw upon when creating new ones. Joseph had about five years’ worth. And granted those were five colorful and crowded years for capes, it’s still interesting to see what character names and designs Joseph used.

Before Joseph, I’d never wondered what kid-made superheroes of the Golden Age might’ve looked like. With his permission, here are but a few of his many drawings:

I suspect this was influenced by the Green Lantern oath, though Joseph didn't remember:

This last one caught my eye because I could instantly tell the cover he swiped the pose from:

Joseph also has a scrapbook of images he cut out from Golden Age comics when he was a kid:

Of course I had to say "You know how much these would've been worth if you'd kept them intact?" And his unsurprising answer was "Don't remind me."

Joseph was more than kind to allow me to post these images. So please show him the respect he deserves by not reposting without asking first.