Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Villains for a change

I wrote a book about Superman. I’ve got another in the works about Batman. But I’m not only about superheroes—or even good guys in general. A story—and, by extension, a writer—is only as good as its/his villains.

In a story I wrote for READ, the Weekly Reader literary magazine for teens, the focus was villainy. That is clear from its title alone: “” Earlier this year, I posted the opening of the story.

Now I’ve been given permission to post “” in its entirety. Enjoy but (as you know) please don’t reuse in any way unless you first get your own helping of permission.

In my original version, the ending was morally ambiguous. Brett agrees to go with Travis to document Travis’s imminent crime—though he also says he plans to turn Travis in afterward.

My editor accepted it at first but another editor there felt that Brett needed to be more explicitly good. I found a way to make that work without compromising who I thought my characters were, but I still like the first ending because in it, both Brett and Travis showed sides of both good and not-so-good.

And doesn’t that sound more like you and me and the rest of us?

Monday, June 28, 2010

READ. By All Means.

The title of this post is the title of a recently announced Scholastic global initiative to emphasize to children the importance of reading.

"READ By All Means" includes a "Reading Bill of Rights" which includes the line "We believe...that young people need to learn to read nonfiction for information and literature for imagination."

I immediately signed up as a supporter and hope you will, too. However, while I feel this Bill of Rights line is true in what it says, at the same time I feel it may inadvertently reinforce a problematic belief that some kids have: nonfiction is only about information. More to the point, some kids believe that information
—and therefore nonfictionis dry.
I know the line was written to be practical and punchy, not exclusionary, and I realize that kids won't be reading this Bill of Rights but rather benefiting from adults heeding its call.
I also know I'm reading too much into this, and likely sounding petty for nitpicking over word choice when a critical larger task is at hand.

However, that
task is to motivate young readers...and that compact description of nonfiction will not get some of them pumped about it. While the line doesn't say nonfiction is not imaginative, it almost implies that by saying literature is. (Also, "literature" includes nonfiction. I believe the word here should be "fiction.")

Yes, we do read nonfiction to pick up information, but also to ignite the imagination. Well-written nonfiction can be as entertaining and breathtaking and harrowing as fiction (while still being informative). Of course Scholastic has long demonstrated this by the books they publish. But it doesn't come across in that Bill of Rights line.

What would I suggest as an alternative? I don't know that a single word could replace "information" and serve the purpose. Perhaps the whole line could be reworked to something like "...learn to read fiction to discover imaginative new worlds and nonfiction to discover real worlds we never knew." Not as punchy, I know, but maybe it makes up for it with playfulness.
Scholastic made it to their 90th anniversary by doing something right, again and again. No matter my little quibble, I'm confident their noble initiative will be a success.

Meanwhile, those who write true stories for young people will continue to work hard to shed the image of nonfiction as being purely academic.

By all means.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Finger Tip #8: More than a hand

I’ve found enough Fingers to make a hand—halfway through a second, actually.

When I began researching Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator of Batman, I thought it would be relatively easy to find people from his family. I’d never heard of anyone else with the last name “Finger” and therefore assumed it must be uncommon.

However, I now know that it’s not sound logic to base judgment on what I have personally heard of. I quickly learned there are a lot of other Fingers out there.

In 2006 and 2007, I talked to a mob of them—and a few were indeed related, mostly cousins. (Some of the key Fingers—most significantly Fred, his only child—died before I started my research.)

Tellingly, some of the relatives did not know that a cousin had a significant role in the creation of Batman; some had never even heard of a cousin Bill.

Granted, this branch of the Finger family was big (some of the cousins are a generation or more apart in age). But that still surprised me. One cousin said her father had told her that one of her cousins had done the Green Hornet. (She later figured out that her father meant Green Lantern, indeed another co-creation of Bill’s.)

To date, I’ve found seven Finger relatives still named Finger (and others who were born Finger but now have married names, plus family on his first wife’s side). I’ve also encountered several more Fingers who are not related but who were nonetheless helpful in some way, or simply kind to hear me out long enough to say “Wrong Finger branch.”

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Peace, not desist

On 5/22/10, a letter came from DC Comics. It was the first piece of mail I’d received from the company since Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman was published in 2008. The timing was curious because I’d just sold my manuscript on Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman.

At first, I thought it was bad news.

But it wasn’t about Boys of Steel or Bill Finger.

And it wasn’t bad.
Rather, sad.

I was touched to learn it was an invitation to the memorial service for longtime DC artist/editor Dick Giordano, a man whose work I grew up loving but whom I never met.

I have not received out-of-the-blue feedback on Boys of Steel from anyone at DC, though I did hear kind comments from a couple of DC staffers whom I had approached about something unrelated. In retrospect, it would be borderline silly for me to expect an “official” reaction.

But now, with this invite, I feel like I’ve gotten one.
And it was in part because of Dick Giordano's art that led to the book that led to the invite.

Thank you, DC. I was sorry to miss it, and to miss Mr. Giordano.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Finger Tip #7: Bill Finger at the convergence of history, part 3 of 3

Part 1 and part 2.

I was in New York City standing in a former apartment of Bill Finger’s.

The current resident had told me that the apartment had even more formerly belonged to Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Then his neighbor across the hall, who’d lived there some 40 years, told me it had also once belonged to Syd Koff, a woman who had won four gold medals at the first Maccabean games in 1932 and qualified for the 1936 Olympics. However, because the games were held in Nazi-controlled Berlin, the Jewish Koff refused to go—and in doing so, forfeited what ended up being her only chance to win an Olympic gold.

Syd hosting a seder, circa 1970. Bill's desk sat where that lamp in the background is. For orientation, note the edge of the fireplace on the right and compare with the two photos in Part 2. Photo courtesy Steve Cooper.

Syd passed away in 1999, but the neighbor across the hall put me in touch with her son Steve. From Steve I learned that Syd had moved to the apartment in 1955 (the last time Bill appeared at the address in the phone book was 1950). Steve said a boxer had lived there just prior to his mother but couldn’t remember the boxer’s name or if he was well known.

Steve also said that yet another prominent person had lived in the apartment, though not someone I’d heard of before: Hart Crane, a poet who committed suicide in 1932 by throwing himself from a ship into the ocean. I didn't ask how Steve knew that Crane lived in that exact apartment, but he seemed sure, and it is for certain that Crane lived in the building.

Steve said the PBS series History Detectives did a show on the building. That saved me time because otherwise I might’ve been tempted to suggest it.

When I got home, I looked up the building. It turns out that John Wilkes Booth did not live there...but his friend and fellow actor Samuel K. Chester did. And Booth apparently did go to Chester’s place to try to rope his friend into helping kill the president, though it seems that they were not in the apartment but rather on a walk precisely when Booth proposed the plot. (Chester said no thanks.)

Still, Booth
had been there.

The address is 45 Grove Street, New York. On top of being notable for all of the above, the building is also apparently one of the oldest in Greenwich Village.

Here’s a New York Times article about the building.

Here’s the transcript of the History Detectives episode that examined the building’s connection to Lincoln’s assassination.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Finger Tip #7: Bill Finger at the convergence of history, part 2 of 3

Part 1.

I had just been told that John Wilkes Booth, assassin of President Lincoln, used to live in the apartment that Bill Finger used to live in.

Multiple choice:

(a) What?!?
(b) Huh?!?
(c) No way!
(d) All of the above, plus “Are you friggin’ serious?!?”

Answer: (d).

She also said the building used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. I asked how she knew that and she said the landlord had showed her the room that was used to shelter slaves; it was under the sidewalk I was standing on. I wondered if Finger had known that.

I buzzed the apartment I wanted. The resident, a guy about my age, buzzed me into the foyer but not the building itself. He seemed skeptical of me. I don’t blame him.

His door was in sight of the foyer and he opened it. I called through the glass of the inner door, explaining what I wanted to do. He buzzed me into the building but didn’t invite me into his apartment.

I handed him a Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman postcard and asked if he’d be willing to go look me up online to decide if he'd let me in to take a few photos in the apartment. He kindly agreed. I waited outside. A minute later, he came back and said okay.

In 2007, a member of Bill’s family had sent me this unlabeled photo of a desk that she'd found with other photos of Bill:

However, she didn’t know for sure if the desk had been Bill’s. So I’d showed it to Bill’s longtime friend and writing partner Charles Sinclair, and he seemed positive that it was indeed Bill’s desk, but he placed it at another of Bill’s apartments.

For some reason, and even though Charles has rarely been wrong (including recollections going back 50 years), I felt that the desk photo might’ve been taken in this particular apartment. So I'd brought
a copy of the photo with me.

And sure enough, I walked in to the main room of the apartment and immediately recognized one part of it:

Note on the right the indent and the edge of the fireplace, both of which appear in the earlier photo (even though the fireplace has inexplicably turned from white to black). Also, the new photo doesn't quite show it, but there is a window just to the left of the composition; in the original photo, you can see the natural light coming in.

Until I was standing there, I didn't know if the desk in the old photo was Bill's, let alone which apartment it was in. Yet it wasn't like the photo was a complete mystery; it had come from the Finger family and I had pieced together a list of apartments it could've been from. Still, to conclusively match up a photo from the 1940s to the same space in 2010 did electrify me.

And then I learned that the history of the apartment that started with John Wilkes Booth actually did not start with him…nor did it end with Bill Finger.

Part 3.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Finger Tip #7: Bill Finger at the convergence of history, part 1 of 3

In gathering images for the illustrator of my upcoming book on Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman, I have gone to several of Finger’s former apartments in New York. One in the West Village turned out to have more history than I could’ve anticipated.

I’d taken exterior photos of it on 6/19/06. On 5/27/10, I went back to try to get inside and take interior photos. As I was standing outside about to buzz the apartment I wanted, a woman who lived in the building came past me and started to go in. I asked if she knew the resident in the apartment I’m interested in and she did. I said something to the effect of “It’s got some history to it.”

“I know, right?” she said with a smile combining pride and bemusement.

“You know about that?” I said. She didn’t strike me as a comics type and few non-comics people have heard of Bill Finger. Even most of the comics people don’t know any of the buildings in which he used to live.

She said it’s hard not to know the building’s history because tours go by frequently and stop in front of the building. I was flabbergasted—until I realized that the history she was talking about must not be Finger-related. I asked.

She said that John Wilkes Booth used to live there.

John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

In the same apartment.

Part 2.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

You can judge a cover by its book

I first subscribed to Entertainment Weekly soon after its 1990 launch and have subscribed continuously since.

In those twenty years, the magazine has covered books fairly well, but has showed authors on the cover rarely. (They have run dozens if not hundreds of cover stories about movies based on books, but those show actors, not authors.)

I can recall only three cover stories with the author him- or herself in the spotlight (from 1994, 2002, and 2007, respectively):


Related, from earlier in 2007:


The current issue is, I believe, the second time the cover has depicted not an author but a book itself:

I realize this is a milestone only in my narrow little pop culture realm, but it's still a nice thumb's-up for the publishing industry.

3/30/12 addendum:

In this 4/6/12 issue, editor Jess Cagle writes "Why aren't there more book-themed covers on EW? The answer is obvious: If you've got an overall audience of nearly 18 million (including our magazine and website), movies and television are the fastest way to the greatest number of hearts."

(Turns out this Fifty Shades of Grey cover was for subscribers only; the cover of the newsstand edition of the same issue featured The Hunger

Friday, June 18, 2010


Versatile author Tanya Lee Stone (whose honors include the 2010 Sibert for Almost Astronauts) blogged a ominous question: Will the Internet replace nonfiction books?

I posted a comment saying I don't think so but (like almost every other form of entertainment and education) nonfiction will have to evolve to have a presence in the digital domain. I look forward to the as-yet unthinkable.

Tanya posted a follow-up partially in response to my comment.

Nonfiction authors often write about pioneers. Now it's our turn to do some pioneering.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Pop culture in nonfiction picture books

Marc Aronson at the School Library Journal blog Nonfiction Matters kindly posted a guest entry from me. An excerpt:

Once upon a generation ago, it seemed that the nonfiction picture book was reserved mostly for “textbook” names and events: Martin Luther King, Jr., the Titanic, any president, any war. Today, however, many nonfiction picture books are about pop culture, “pop” being the operative word. These books indeed pop off the shelf. Kids simply don’t expect to see such high-interest subjects featured in that kind of book.
Had space permitted, I would've had something to say about many other pop culture nonfiction picture books in addition the four I did fit. Eventually, I'm sure, I'll say those things here!

Here are those four:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A book back into history

An accomplished animator who has recently shopped around a picture book asked me, “What are your feelings on the [publishing] industry? Do you feel that it is antiquated?”

For years we’ve heard drumbeats about the digital invasion, yet I was still jolted by his use of “antiquated.”

My response:

Like music and movies, book publishing must now urgently embrace change, but I don’t feel the industry is antiquated. Writers and artists should look at this as an online Oklahoma land grab, so to speak—they must race out and stake their claim to something new. Specifically, a new way of telling stories.

I do believe that within five years fewer physical books will be produced. And I think it’s likely that within a generation, few if any print-only novels will still be printed on paper.

But I don’t believe printed books will die out completely. In fact, I see this as an opportunity for publishers to offer more content and present it in creative ways.

I believe savvy publishers will offer two versions of a book at the same time—but each with their own “bonus features” so people might want to buy both book and iPad app. For example, a print picture book may contain unused character designs. The digital companion may contain a short film showing the artist at work. (Some publishers may already be offering a multi-platform book like this, and if not, it’ll happen momentarily.)

Or perhaps buying the hard copy will generate (on the receipt) a unique code that you can use to get a discount on the iPad app, or to unlock hidden features on it.

Perhaps it’s only delusional self-preservation, but I believe the format that has the best shot of remaining in print the longest is the picture book.

Digital dominance might force publishers to lower prices of paper books, but I believe as long as writers and artists produce good content—and are open to change—there is a model that will permit us to continue to do so.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Finger Tip #6: Bill Finger rarely said cheese, part 2 of 2

Part 1.

The scarcity of photos of Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman,
is even more bewildering when I compare him to certain other historical figures.

For example, I wrote a book on the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s (only two decades before Finger was born). This was an event that

a) took place in the wild, wild, wild west
b) involved people you wouldn’t assume had a camera on them
c) was a rush—i.e. a largely unidentified crowd, which makes it harder to locate descendents

Yet sure enough, when I first saw the layout of the book, I was astounded that it included images of not one but several of the seemingly obscure people I’d mentioned by name. As I wrote the book, it hadn’t occurred to me that the photo editor would bother to look for such photos, let alone find any, especially given the time constraint.

Googling those miner names now, I see that some are more “famous” than they seemed to me when I was writing the book because I’d not heard of them previously.

But still, if you’d asked me after I wrote Klondike but before I began Finger which person would be easier to find a photo of, the most famous Klondike Gold Rush prospector or the co-creator of Batman, I’d bet on Batman.

And I’d lose.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Finger Tip #6: Bill Finger rarely said cheese, part 1 of 2

One of my biggest sub-goals in writing a picture book about Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman, was to find previously unpublished photos of him. In his lifetime (1914-1974), hard as this will be to believe, only four saw print:

from Green Lantern #1 (1941)

from a sheet produced for the 1965 New York Comicon

original publication uncertain, but possibly Fifty Who Made DC Great (1985), where it is printed in reverse of the version shown here (from Batman: The Complete History); date of photograph unknown but appears to be from the 1940s or 1950s

original publication unknown but appears to be from the 1930s

As you can see, none are particularly clear. And as a writer who cares (often obsessively) about authenticity, I needed to find better likenesses of Finger to pass on to the illustrator.

On the surface, this should’ve been easy. Here was a man who

(a) created a character that became world-famous
(b) worked in a visual medium
(c) lived in the 20th century

Any one of these factors is enough to mount an argument for the existence of more Finger photos. In fact, it would seem implausible if such a man had not appeared in dozens if not hundreds of photos.

Yet apparently, he didn’t. Or, to be more historically accurate, if he did, we have more looking to do.

The first people I approached in search of Finger photos were comics historians and longtime comics professionals. More than one of them told me with definitiveness that no other Finger photos exist.

But all that means is that no one yet had been foolish enough to keep looking.

Until me.

I found at least nine others (actually a few more, depending on how you count).

I’ve already posted one of them, so here it is again:

Bill’s second wife would later tell me that they were not photo people. I’d wager Bill wasn’t one before her as well.

Yet I continue to look.

None of the photos, I later realized, are in color, even though almost all of them were from the Kodachrome era.

Though I would love to find a color picture of Finger, there’s something apropos in having only black and white snapshots of him.

It befits a creature of the night, and his co-creator.

Part 2.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How the Superman Celebration was born

This weekend was the 32nd annual Superman Celebration in Metropolis, Illinois. I didn't go but I did find this 2/3/79 articlette in the now-defunct Washington Star about the humble beginning of the event:

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Embracing the questions

A wonderful site called Embracing the Child kindly ran a five-question interview with me. And with many others worth exploring...

Friday, June 11, 2010

Bar Mitzvah of Steel

In anticipation of a talk about Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman I will be giving on 6/17/10 at the Jewish Community Center in Stamford, Connecticut, the Jewish Ledger ran a Q&A with me.

It is the first time any interviewer has asked me about my bar mitzvah.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Multiple-book index

Author Charles Panati has published a series of sharply written “origin” reference books, including the following:
  • Browser’s Book of Beginnings
  • Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things
  • Parade of Fads, Follies, and Manias: The Origins of Our Most Cherished Obsessions
  • Sacred Origins of Profound Things: The Stories Behind the Rites and Rituals of the World’s Religions

In 2004, when I couldn’t find certain information in one of his books, I wondered if that the information might be in another of his books.

This led me to think that Panati (among other authors) should have a “master index” for all his like-minded books. I think I’d seen such a thing in some multi-volume encyclopedic works, but I’d never seen it with a group of similar books that were not technically a series.

I e-mailed Charles the idea. He kindly responded and wrote that he liked it.

In 2006, I saw that Do Elephants Jump?, one of the books in David Feldman’s Imponderables series, includes a “comprehensive index to all 10 Imponderables books.” So there it was!

This year, I mentioned the idea to Charles again, in passing. Because the publishing landscape has changed considerably even since 2006, he felt such an index wasn’t as relevant anymore. But I presume he meant only in terms of the printed books. I’d wager that posting such an index online rather than in the books themselves would still be valuable to researchers, and much easier on Charles since he could do it himself without asking his publisher to modify all his books before future print runs.

I’ll propose it next time he and I are in touch.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A prayer for “Owen Meany”

Starting with Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman and expanding exponentially for my upcoming book on Bill Finger, my research often involves extensive people-hunting.

Sometimes I know the name of a person I’m hunting for. Other times I’m looking for a person fitting a description (Finger’s second wife/nephew/nutty aunt/etc.). And simultaneously, at all times, I am looking for any relevant others whom I don’t even yet know about.

There is a shivery moment between learning of a person I should look for (specifically someone in the “description” category above) and learning that person’s name. It is a mix of exhilaration and panic.

The exhilaration part is obvious—you may have just learned of a Missing Link. The panic part: how easy or hard it will be to find him may come down to the name itself.

That’s why I virtually pray for a name that is unusual.

John Smith? Here come the waterworks. You’re in for a mental workout. With such an everyday name, even knowing the middle name is probably not enough to narrow it down.

John Smithbergstein? Common first name but that last name is an oddsend—and one I just made up. (Incidentally, it was not the first last name I made up for this post. But I abandoned that name—Smithbergson—because a Google revealed that it already exists.)

The reverse is equally true: Threepio Smith ought not take long to track down.

Best case scenario, of course, are atypical first and last names. Threepio Smithbergstein is a researcher’s dream.

But no matter how distinct the name, people-hunting remains unpredictable. To wit:

The title of this post is a takeoff on the title A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving’s 1989 bestseller.

Because the novel became so well-known, I would presume that most people who had the surname “Meany” and had a son after the novel came out would not name him Owen. (Yes, even people who loved the book. It’d just be begging for a comment. Every. Single. Time.)

Further, I presumed “Meany” was rare to begin with.

So my guess was that there’d be, at most, only a couple of living people in the U.S. named “Owen Meany,” all born before 1989.

However, according to the public records accessed at Intelius, there are currently as many as sixteen (though some are probably duplicates and all probably were born pre-1989).

So, as I wrote, unpredictable.

Another case in point: In early 2007, after months of researching Bill Finger’s side of the family (all the while surprised that the name “Finger” was much more common than I anticipated), I changed focus to his first wife’s family. To access them, I needed her maiden name. It took some maneuvering, but eventually I did close in on it, hoping for a Smithbergstein…

…but instead getting an Epstein.

Not a dead end but rather the opposite—a road with too many forks. Therefore, to wend my way to this particular branch of the Epstein clan, I had to try methods other than cold-contacting random Epsteins. Because if I had started doing that then, I could very well still be doing it now.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The lookout elf

I recently did a series of school visits in Simsbury, Connecticut, which is one town over from Avon, which is where I went to kindergarten and first grade.

I mentioned this to some of the Simsbury library media specialists, and one, Diane, asked who my first grade teacher was. I do somehow remember her name (Mrs. Caldwell), but nothing else about her…except one thing.

There was an elf in her classroom.

And, as I remember, he moved before our eyes.

Which was because, as Mrs. Caldwell told us, he was real.

I remember him sitting on a ledge above the alcove where we hung our coats and kicked off our boots. Turning his head. Waving maybe.

Diane knew Mrs. Caldwell years ago, and knew that she had not been well recently. Fascinated by my elf recollection, Diane volunteered to ask another teacher who’d worked with Mrs. Caldwell if she remembered this. I was suddenly excited.

That teacher said the elf did indeed sound familiar, but she didn’t know specifics. She speculated that Mrs. Caldwell would’ve told us that the elf was watching us for good behavior. And Diane confirmed that Mrs. Caldwell’s room did have a high cabinet next to the coat alcove. Diane figured that the elf sat atop that, even though I remembered him on a ledge.

Because this was not a mystery I expected to be investigating, I felt satisfied with this partial confirmation. Besides, a memory like this is sugar-magic, and why spoil that with the reality?

In a somewhat eerie coincidence, Diane learned that Mrs. Caldwell had passed away only a few weeks before my time in Simsbury.

Perhaps her elf is still on duty somewhere out there, honoring her memory...inspiring new generations of children to behave…and to imagine…

Friday, June 4, 2010

Finger Tip #5: “Fifty Who Made DC Great”

In 1985, DC Comics published an odd bird, and the kind of thing rarely if ever done since. It was a comic called Fifty Who Made DC Great.

It consisted of fifty half-page profiles of key individuals or entities who contributed to the company’s success.

Two of those profiles were Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

DC Comics is contractually bound to credit only Bob Kane as the creator of Batman. As such, these profiles contain a few telling statements.

First, neither subtitle seems more weighted than the other. Neither uses the words creator or co-creator.The subtitle for Kane’s is “Batman Takes Wing.” The Finger subtitle is “The Darknight Detective Emerges.” (Perhaps that was a reference to the fact that it was Finger who made Batman a detective, but the text does not elaborate on it.)

Second, Finger’s profile also doesn’t credit him explicitly as co-creator.

But neither does Kane’s.

Third, Kane says, I drew a character with bird wings and called him Bird Man, but that wasn't quite right. So I changed the wings, made them batlike, and called him Batman." This contradicts what he would write four years later in his autobiography Batman and Me. There, he describes this as a decision he and Finger made collaboratively—whereas Finger (in The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1) says ditching the wings was his idea without co-crediting Kane.

Yet take another look at the statement quoted above. I think it's an example of Kane employing some dodgy wordplay, as he did at other times as well. Perhaps it was Kane who changed bird to bat wings, since both he and Finger stated elsewhere that the first design Kane showed Finger did depict a character wearing unwieldy stiff bat wings attached to his arms.

But Batman doesn’t have wings.

In other words, Kane conveniently left out the next step, which was the suggestion (by Finger) to convert the bat wings to a scalloped

(To Kane’s credit, here he calls Finger the “unsung hero of Batman,” which he would repeat in Batman and Me. Related: Kane’s profile manages to avoid mentioning Finger; Finger’s does mention Kane. )

Finger’s bio at the end of the profile (shouldn’t they just have been combined?) states that he wrote the first stories featuring now-iconic characters including Robin and Catwoman. This also seems like dodgy construction—but dodgy in a good way.

It seems as though DC was using facts to get as close as they could to crediting Finger for co-creating these characters. After all, if one writes the story in which a character is introduced, isn’t that an undeniable claim to co-creation, even if the term “co-creator” is not used?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ain’t Nothing But a Man(hunt)

Those interested in the processes of historical research should prioritize checking out Ain't Nothing But a Man by Scott Reynolds Nelson with Marc Aronson.

It’s an unorthodox children’s history book because the historian is a main character. He documents his quest to find out if the steel-driving John Henry of American 1800s folklore was real—and if so, just who he was.

Nelson faced a tall order in trying to demystify this alleged tall tale: finding information on a black man of that period—when a horrifyingly large number of people didn’t consider black people worthy of respect, let alone documentation—plus a man with the seriously generic name “John Henry”…challenges all around.

Every historical writer is a detective. Nelson’s story has some exciting moments (for me, anyway; they remind me of similar research epiphanies I’ve had). At times, I felt like I was reading a thriller, especially on pages 40-41 and 51. The last line on 51 is what it’s all about: finding (whether deliberately or not) a new path to unlock hidden information.

Bonus for Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman fans: page 55 of Nelson’s book identifies a possible connection between John Henry and Superman. This connection came full circle in 1993 when DC Comics, publisher of Superman, introduced Steel, a staunch ally of Superman’s. His real name is John Henry Irons, he's black...

...and his accessory of choice is a friggin' huge hammer.

So much historical research is as exciting as Nelson’s, but we rarely read about it (in children’s books, anyway). Mostly, we read “only” the outcome.

But this blog has always been about the story behind the stories. As I say in my “About” section, every book has two stories, the one in print and the one that got it in print. Those two stories are like fraternal twins—each likely interesting in its/his own right and also interesting when considered as a pair. And their bond may generate a different story than each would individually.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Finger Tip #4: Editor training

My picture book on Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman, will be published by Charlesbridge.

Recently, the acquiring editor, the perceptive and enthusiastic Alyssa Pusey, and I decided it was time to get together in person for the first time—but we had to act fast. In addition to the regular sense of urgency that drives most any creative venture, we were up against two deadlines, neither book-related.

One, I am moving this summer. Of course Alyssa and I simply could have waited until after my move to first get together, but it sure would be easier for me to go to her office when I am a three-hour (versus a six-hour) train ride away. (And of course there’s always flying, and meeting at book events, and so forth…but still, in this case, sooner was better.)

Two, Alyssa was also about to move—move a baby from her belly to the outside world. She was due with her second child any day. So if she and I didn’t meet pronto, we might be postponing till after her maternity leave.

We picked a date. I picked a train.

Alyssa and her colleagues at Charlesbridge were more than welcoming. I toured the office, met the other talented people who will help me deliver this book to the outside world, and enjoyed lunch. Then Alyssa and I went over the manuscript and other details.

I left. Three days later, the baby came.

Batman has a multifaceted mystique, part of which derives from his uncanny ability to show up in the nick of time. I have no illusion that I bear any kind of mystique. However, when the pressure’s on, it seems that I can show up in the nick of time.