Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why zing him, Weisinger?

In issue #98 (12/10) of the always excellent comic fanzine Alter Ego, Joyce Kaffel, daughter of longtime DC Comics editor Mort Weisinger, reminisces about her polarizing father (who died in 1978).

On one hand, Weisinger was known for co-creating Aquaman and Green Arrow as well as expanding the Superman mythos; he oversaw the first appearances of Krypto (a dog from Krypton with the same powers as Superman), the Phantom Zone (an extra-dimensional Kryptonian prison), the Kryptonian city of Kandor (which villain Brainiac shrunk and put in a bottle), and more.

On the other hand, Weisinger was notorious for his abusive treatment of writers and artists who worked for him. One who bore significant brunt was Bill Finger, the co-creator and original writer of Batman. Jerry Robinson has stated that overhearing Weisinger berate Finger made him (Jerry) cringe.

Never-published still from 1950s home movie; possibly shot in California.

We have some idea of Weisinger’s side of the story—it seems he felt he could take a hard line with his talent in the best interest of the stories. I haven’t seen any commentary from Finger on Weisinger, though there are likely published accounts I don’t know about from other writers and artists.

At a 1965 comic book convention in New York City, Finger and Weisinger shared the stage on the first-ever panel of comics creators. Yet the transcript of that panel, which ran in Alter Ego #20 (1/03), reveals little if any animosity between Weisinger and Finger. I guess they had their game masks on.

While the thought of Weisinger belittling Finger saddens me (just as any case of belittling would), in this case, given that they were both adults, I do hold Finger at least partially responsible for letting this happen. I realize he was in the subservient position, but that doesn’t mean one must endure humiliation. Today bullying is a hot-button issue, but it seems that it was an almost acceptable part of the corporate climate in the 1950s and 1960s. A man could dish it out, and a man had to take it.

On a tangential note, I was shocked to read that Weisinger’s name was eventually added to the indicia of the comics he edited. It’s not that he didn’t deserve credit; it’s just another reminder that Finger did, yet never got it.

Also, it was ominous to see mention in the 1946 article from Pic (“The Magazine for Young Men”), whose first page is reprinted on page 26 of this issue of Alter Ego, that Siegel and Shuster were in a higher tax bracket. Why ominous? Here's why.

And I liked how Weisinger said that that dynamic duo “used the mailman for a salesman” (though, of course, at that time, everyone had to do that; not even those science fiction pioneers had Internet access yet). In fact, Weisinger’s turn of a phrase echoes one that I wrote for my 2012 Bill Finger book.

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking and e-mailing with Joyce several times. Her Alter Ego article is consistent with how she comes across personally: honest, independent, well-spoken. She doesn’t ignore harder truths. I found the last line of this article about her dad quite sympathetic, though it doesn’t lessen the sting I feel on behalf of Finger.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Filming: Carmine Infantino

On 6/28/11, more filming in New York City. For me, the first three hours of the day were occupied not with shooting but rather watching films.

I was the grateful guest of a son of Golden Age cartoonist Ruben Grossman; Rube was not only a prolific artist (and, it appears, a wonderful father) but also a prolific amateur filmmaker.

From roughly 1932 (yes, 1932) until his death in 1964, Grossman filmed his family to an extent far beyond anyone else from that time period that I know of: swimming pools, Thanksgiving meals, bar mitzvahs, strolls around the Bronx, trips to Miami. Even if I wasn't on the hunt for certain images, I'd have enjoyed looking through these ultra-vintage home movies (since transferred to videocassette) of a family I don't know. And given that I zipped though maybe 10 of the estimated 30 videotapes (if not more), I barely grazed the surface.

To call many of the captured scenes dazzling is woefully inadequate. Among the evocative gems: extended sequences (in color!) at the Bronx Zoo in the 1950s, pans of a simpler New York skyline (circa 1940s, I believe), a glimpse of the construction of Radio City Music Hall, and even some scenes inside the DC Comics office at 480 Lexington, where the company was stationed from 1938 to 1958.

I did not find precisely what I was looking for but I did find some useful footage—and, at some point soon, will likely be going back to continue the search.

From there, we descended on the home of DC legend Carmine Infantino, whose vast credits include the costume design of the Silver Age Flash (1956) and the culturally significant "New Look" Batman (1964).

Carmine was in equal parts gracious, uncompromising, and funny in person, just as he'd been on the phone.

It was trippy to stand at the very desk on which Carmine drew the Flash comics I read in the 1980s.

The following was new to me but I am not surprised to see that my friend Steven Thompson covered it five years ago: Peanuts creator Charles Schulz drew Batman. The original hangs in Carmine's bathroom:

The Brave and the Beagle: Batman and Snoopy

Speaking of new to me, straight-talkin' Carmine dropped a few Batman bombshells that hadn't come up with anyone else I've interviewed, nor with Carmine himself when I last interviewed him about this (2006).

You will hear them, too.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Biosong: "Mary Pickford"

Picture book biographies and biopics are fairly common. Biosongs, however, seem relatively rare. In fact, I may have just made up the word.

One song I have long loved is Peter Gabriel's "Family Snapshot," though I only just now learned (from Wikipedia) that it was not, as I have long believed, inspired by Lee Harvey Oswald.

A truer biosong, and the inspiration for this post, is "Mary Pickford" by Katie Melua. It's almost a companion piece to Don Brown's nonfiction picture book Mack Made Movies, about silent film director and comedy pioneer Mack Sennett.

I have no plan to write about Pickford, or Melua, but encourage you to check out the song, both for the bio-aspect and for the music and lyrics themselves.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Do you ghost-hunt on school nights?

Fourth grade teacher by day, ghost hunter by night!

Actually, Allison Jornlin would likely say she’s both teacher and ghost hunter both day and night.

After I presented at the Wisconsin State Reading Association on 2/4/11, Allison (who’d attended one of my talks but whom I did not meet in person) e-mailed me. I’d mentioned my book Detective Notebook: Ghost Hunting Handbook and she wrote, “Your comment about the popularity of ghost hunters also nudged me to use my ghost hunting experiences in my 4th grade classroom a bit more.”

Allison in teaching mode.

Allison in ghost-hunting mode.

It’s not every day you meet a ghost hunter, and it’s not every decade you meet a ghost hunter/teacher. Since this unusual fusion of pursuits relates to my work, I asked Allison if I could post an interview with her, and she kindly agreed:

Where and what grade do you teach?

I teach 4th grade at a private school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

How long have you been a teacher?

I’ve been teaching for five years.

How long have you been a ghost hunter?

I’ve been ghost hunting for over a decade.

How did you get into ghost hunting?

I’ve been interested in the paranormal since I was in 4th grade, but I’ve only been actively involved in ghost hunting since the late 90s. I began by attending American Ghost Society conferences and then got involved in local groups. Now I run haunted history tours in Milwaukee and arrange private investigations. The team I work with, Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee, provide investigations free-of-charge to both residential and business clients. We were recently honored to conduct an exclusive investigation for Milwaukee Public Museum.

Does your experience with either teaching or ghost hunting help with the other?

In teaching you meet a wide variety of people of different ages, cultures, and walks of life. Knowledge of people helps you in any pursuit. It has certainly enhanced my empathy for witnesses and informed my approach to paranormal investigation. For example, sometimes during EVP (electronic voice phenomena) sessions it makes more sense to ask questions in languages other than English. A broader understanding of people and their circumstances encourages me to plan investigations with greater cultural sensitivity. My unusual research has also given me a reason to contact museum curators, historians, archaeologists, scientists, and writers. The relationships I’ve developed while ghost hunting sometimes crossover and provide opportunities for classroom visits and Skype interviews that easily connect to the curriculum and fascinate students.

Do your students know about your ghost hunting?

Yes, such news spreads fast in a school. In the past, I kept it quiet, but then I realized I was missing an important opportunity to connect with my students. Students are fascinated and motivated by paranormal topics. Like many of us they seek answers to the eternal questions of life like “Are we alone in the universe?” and “Why are we here?”

If so, please share some of your favorite reactions when they first learned.

My favorite reaction occurred recently. An 8th grader, who was never even my student, stopped me in the hallway just to tell me my website is “pretty cool.” I remember what the middle school experience was like, so for a student who barely knows me to take the time and initiative to say something nice was a big deal.

The most common reaction among students is the question: "Are ghosts real?" I tell my students the truth. I don't know for sure. I also tell them not to believe what they see on TV, but to seek their own answers.

Have any of your students asked to go with you on a ghost hunt?

A better question would be, “Do they ever stop asking me to take them ghost hunting?”

Have you heard from any parents after you mentioned to the kids that you're also a ghost hunter?

I was afraid I’d get negative reactions, but my experience has thus far been quite the opposite. One parent asked me if his daughter could join me as my personal assistant during my tours and investigations. Others have even shared their personal ghost stories with me. No one has expressed any concerns. I think that’s because my approach is skeptical in the truest sense of the word. I don’t jump to conclusions and I don’t promote any particular beliefs. I do my best to model and foster critical thinking both inside and outside the classroom. I don’t know what is out there. I just know there are anomalies that have yet to be explained and I seek answers regardless of what they may be.

What do your fellow teachers and your administrators think of your nocturnal pursuit?

Colleagues have taken my haunted history walking tours. Some have even begun to share the Milwaukee history and folklore from my tours in their classrooms. One administrator invited me to promote my tours in the school newsletter and shared a personal ghost story. I involve administrators in my plans to make sure they understand my intentions. My aim is always to hook students with captivating mysteries and then equip them with the critical thinking tools that will serve them for a lifetime.

Do you ghost-hunt on school nights?

No, teachers need their sleep! My responsibilities at school are almost all-consuming during the school year. Ghost hunting usually requires staying up very late, so during the school year I save it for Fridays and Saturdays.

Have you met anyone else who is a teacher/ghost hunter in one?

We’re rare hybrids, but we are out there. I don’t know any others personally, but the most famous is high school teacher Christopher Balzano. He has written many books about ghost hunting and at least one ghostly lesson plan.

Who do you ghost-hunt with? Do you ever go alone?

Ghost hunters never go out alone. You always need credible witnesses to corroborate whatever strange experiences you might have in the field. I ghost hunt with Paranormal Investigators of Milwaukee. I chose this team because they are tirelessly devoted to self-improvement and because their leader has two M.S. degrees and works as a laboratory scientist by day. It is important to me that the investigators I work with exhibit high standards of professionalism and demonstrate an in-depth understanding of the scientific method.

Do you believe in ghosts?

I’m definitely open to the possibility. I don't deny that I want to believe, but I’m still waiting for that totally undeniable encounter. I'm not interested in fooling myself with wishful thinking, so any ghost up to the challenge will really have to get in my face to convince me. I would classify myself as a researcher rather than a believer.

Have you had any experiences you consider paranormal? If so, please tell me about the most unusual/convincing.

I’ve had many unusual experiences, but one stands out. I witnessed something that seemed unexplainable at a local restaurant with a history of ghostly reports spanning at least the last 20 years. A tray of glasses that I had observed earlier sitting undisturbed suddenly flew off a high shelf. Most of the wait staff seemed shaken by the event, but one experienced employee brushed it off, telling me such things happened all the time. Unfortunately, I wasn’t looking directly at the tray of glasses at that moment. The tray fell farther than one might expect if it had simply slid off an unlevel surface. However, since I didn’t have the presence of mind to take measurements at the time I have no way to prove that. Today I carry a measuring tape in my bag just in case such an opportunity presents itself again. This is a good example for students of how important it is to be prepared to apply your knowledge at any given moment. The paranormal is so fleeting and elusive, you might not get a second chance.

Have you incorporated anything about ghost hunting into your classroom? If so, what? If not, would you like toand if so, in what way?

Sometimes students don’t see the point of our lessons. It always helps to show them ways they can apply what they’ve learned. I never fail to point out how paranormal investigators need to take accurate measurements, to ask insightful questions, and to write clearly about their findings. My work as a folklorist, researching and developing my haunted history tours, is also a good example for students that writing can take fun and surprising forms. Soon I plan to teach my students how to create successful inquiry circles by allowing them to explore high-interest topics including those of the paranormal variety.

What can we learn from ghost hunters?

Ghost hunters encourage us to fearlessly venture into the unknown. The best of them apply scientific knowledge to aid their research. Ghost hunters like all fortean explorers also realize that science doesn’t have all the answers and it takes human ingenuity to fill in the gaps. If teachers embrace a similar philosophy while harnessing students’ universal desire to answer eternal questions, the wonder they inspire will lead children into a lifetime of learning.

6/27/11 update: After I tweeted and Facebooked this post, Allison told me "I have found a couple more teachers in the last week who share the same interest. I'm contemplating starting a FB group on the subject. I think some great lesson plans will come out of this. : )"

Friday, June 24, 2011

PBS named "Boys of Steel"...

No, that's not the end of the sentence. PBS didn't name Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, though I'm sure given the chance, whatever they would've suggested would've been great.

What PBS did kindly do is name Boys of Steel a "
best book for boys - middle readers."

I wonder if just having the word "boys" in the title is enough to merit such an honor? If so, my next book might be renamed Beach Read of Steel.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Heroes Don't Wear Black"

The summer of 1989 was all about what happened after dark. Not just for adolescent me, but for most of the pop-culture-loving world. That was the summer of Batman—to be precise, Batman, the first big-budget film about the Dark Knight. (It opened 22 years ago today.)

While that film was redefining the character worldwide for the next generation (and, likely, the one after that), I was tucked away in my Connecticut bedroom combining my lifelong love of superheroes with my evolving love of writing. And for better or for worse, that resulted in this:

Like staples much?

“Heroes Don’t Wear Black” was the only short story I wrote about a superhero. Well, until Boys of Steel. And at least one of those two titles made sense.

Below is the beginning of "Heroes Don't Wear Black." It's all kinds of tin-eared and plot-holed. Only the strongest would have the courage to read the rest.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

May I borrow your hamster and gerbil?

I did two Barnes & Noble appearances for my 2005 book What's the Difference?: How to Tell Things Apart that Are Confusingly Close. At both, I had examples from the book on display (and, in some cases, to taste test).

At the first appearance, I brought examples including apple juice vs. apple cider and perfume vs. eau de parfum vs. eau de toilette. I asked a martial arts expert to come and demonstrate the difference between judo and karate (the trade-off being he could promote his business), but we ended up having no space. (He said he enjoyed himself just the same.)

I couldn’t very well show a meteoroid (a rock in space) or a meteor (said rock when plummeting through our atmosphere; otherwise known as a shooting star), and I didn’t happen to own a meteorite (a meteor that doesn’t burn up and actually lands on Earth). But the American Museum of Natural History did.

So I called them. And asked them if I could borrow one of theirs.

Credit the seriousness of science or just a pinch of good karma, but the curator I was asking did not laugh me off the phone.

There is actually a form for this. I filled it out and on my way downtown to the event, I stopped by and picked up my cosmic chunk loaner.

Yet the meteorite was not the craziest example I brought. That distinction belongs to a pair that would not stand out in a home but does in any bookstore.

This was a title bout.

Hamster vs. gerbil.

There were two hurdles involved in wrangling those critters. First, I had to get the bookstore’s approval. Second, I had to find a nearby pet store willing to bring them by. (For no charge.) The store would not, of course, allow animals (aside from seeing-eye dogs). But somehow I managed to convince them to allow in these two itty bitty pets for a short time, with the assurance that both would remain in their cages. (Neither I nor the pet store would’ve wanted to release them anyway.)

The first pet store I called reacted the way I thought the AMNH was going to—with a flat-out no; their company policy forbid them from removing the animals. A subsequent store was more lax—luckily. They agreed to bring a hamster and gerbil in their respective tanks and stay an hour.

True to my descriptions in the book, the hamster was shy, hiding most of the time, while the gerbil was hyperactive, running his wheel silly for long stretches to the audible amusement of the crowd. These little rodents made a big spectacle, attracting stragglers, just as I’d hoped.

I just regret that I took zero photos of the tabletop circus.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Wegmans supermarket signing

It would have been too cute if my first signing at a supermarket was for Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman: supermarket and Superman, Wegmans and Nobleman (and Superman again).

But on 6/17/11, I appeared at the Wegmans in Sterling, VA, for 365 Things to Do Before You Grow Up, which I’d pitched the grocery chain
as a register impulse buy.

The store prepared a great setup for the event and even used my suggested sign wording verbatim (though it looks a lot wordier on the sign than it did on my screen):

The event had a few things going for it:

  • It was deliberately scheduled just prior to the store’s popular weekly movie night.
  • The book is a portable, affordable parental secret weapon on summer road trips.

But the event had much going against it:

  • It was a book signing.
  • It was on a Friday night, when people typically don’t do their weekly food shopping.
  • It was at a supermarket, where people typically don’t go for book signings.
  • It was on the second floor of a supermarket, where people typically don’t go period.
  • It was a sunny summer evening, when people often prefer to be outside.
  • I did not write Fancy Nancy.

And sure enough, the turnout was not outstanding. I’d planned to run two food-related activities from the book with the kids, but there were never enough at any one time to do them.

The first activity: #46—Learn to Use Chopsticks. I converted this to a game: race to see who can be the first to transfer 10 grapes from one plate to another…with chopsticks. So I laid out all this for nothing:

The second activity: #250—Run a Taste Test. The store generously provided four types of food that many kids don’t regularly eat (or have never even tried): mangoes, dates, blackberries, and kiwis. I was going to blindfold competitors and see who would be able to identify more of them by taste only. This, of course, would double as a mini-lesson in healthy eating, but by making it a game with prizes at stake, kids wouldn’t be as alert to that.

(Given that it was summer and that we were inside, I couldn’t do my favorite activity from the book, #288—Go Sled Bowling.)

One boy asked me to sign a book while his mother was not right next to him (though she had given permission). Moments later, she came over to my table, laughing. She said her son’s name is Nathan, not Antonio, which is who he’d asked me to sign it to. Turns out Antonio is the name of Nathan’s favorite character at the moment (a Power Ranger, I think?). I offered to do my best to fix it, but she laughed again and said it’ll be a funny memory.

Wegmans was wonderful to take a chance on this, especially since books are not their primary focus. They even invited me back for the fall, when attendance for such things tends to be better.

In the end, I considered the event to be a success: Wegmans kindly asked me to sign every copy of the book they’d ordered.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Green Lantern co-created by Bill Finger

Most of the real estate Bill Finger gets on this blog is devoted to his substantial contributions to the Batman mythos. Especially appropriate on this Father's Day, it's worth noting Bill was also the father (co-father, technically) of Green Lantern.

On 6/17/11, the first Green Lantern movie opened. To the general public, that DC Comics superhero is far less well known than Batman, but comics people know that Green Lantern is one of DC's "big seven" (along with Superman, Wonder Woman, Robin, Aquaman, Flash, and, of course, Batman himself).

I haven't yet seen the movie but have seen multiple sites that confirm what I suspected: Bill's name (in fact, no creator's name) appears in the Green Lantern credits.

Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool summarized it well and struck the right tone. An excerpt:

No mention of the original Green Lantern creator, Marty Nodell, or its writer, Bill Finger.

No mention of those who created the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, John Broome and Gil Kane. Who created Sinestro, the Green Lantern Corps, Hector Hammond and Carol Ferris.

No mention of Alfred Bester, the writer who created the Green Lantern oath, so prominent in the film.

There is mention of Geoff Johns as a co-producer. And it is his books that get seen at the end of the movie, with a name credit for him.

Just not for the people who actually created the characters.

Now there is no legal necessity for DC and Warners to list their names in the movie. But it does seem jarring that in a movie that cost hundreds of millions, about someone doing the right thing, no matter how difficult, nobody could find a way to solve this one.

They did for The Losers.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Finding the motivation to start writing

One thing you don’t expect before you become a published writer: how often you’re asked for advice on how to become a published writer.

And often the person asking is simply afraid to start trying.

If someone asks me via e-mail, whether friend, friend-of-friend, or stranger, I am happy to weigh in. Several years ago, I saved one particularly thorough answer consisting of practical steps that have worked for me; I (sometimes tweak and) simply forward it.

But if someone asks me in person, the answer will vary depending on the circumstances. I think my favorite response, however, is a variation of this:

Almost no obstacles stand between you and writing.

If you want to be a musician/singer, you need to invest in the instrument of your choice (and if it’s piano or double bass, more space!), need to rent studio time, and/or need to get out there and play to often small, most likely drunk crowds for nights on end.

If you want to be an actor, you have to wait in long lines with your competition to get just a minute or two in front of a casting director and hope that your talent overrides your anxiety.

If you want to be a doctor or an astronaut, you better be in training already.

But if you want to be a writer, remember that you already are. We all are, to an extent. We all learned to write in school, and while that doesn’t mean we all are good at it, it does mean we all have at least a little head start.

No one has to see. No one has to know. No one will judge you to your face.

You don’t need money. You don’t need space. You don’t need contacts. (Talent trumps all.) You don’t even need a diploma. (But get one anyway.)

All you do need is an idea (free and infinite), a corner to write in, a computer to write on (you can start longhand but eventually you will need to type it up), and the discipline to put them all together. In other words, all you need is what you probably already have right there in front of you right now.

Except, perhaps, discipline. So if you don’t feel that you are particularly disciplined, then let’s recast it. Are you passionate?

Not everyone has discipline, but most of us have passion for something. And people who want to write are usually passionate about wanting to write but may be intimidated about taking that first step.

Well, passion is powerful enough to squelch your notion that you’re not disciplined enough to write. Don’t stand in its way. If you do, you’re standing between the rest of us—your potential readers—and a great story. Actually, two great stories. The story you write.

And the story of what finally moved you to write it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Superman/Justin Bieber connection

Angela Santomero, co-creator of Blue's Clues and Super Why, plus all-around nice person, kindly interviewed me about summer reading and other topics for her PBS series The Parent Show. (PBS also kindly named Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman a "best book for boys.")

Monday, June 13, 2011

"Boys of Steel" at Six Flags Magic Mountain in California

A young woman whose family I have known since she was a tiny girl emailed the following (and then kindly gave me permission to share it here):

I recently graduated high school. Thursday night my fellow graduates and I went to "Grad Nite" at Six Flags Magic Mountain. I was looking through Superman and Batman capes when I noticed something familiar at the front counter: your book! I screeched excitedly and called my friends over, pointing to Boys of Steel as I explained that I knew the author. It was really great to see one of your books at the very front of a store, on display, and to know that I had the same book at home, had read it cover to cover multiple times already, and even had met the author!
Photo courtesy of Braden E (via Flickr).

This is especially rewarding for me for three reasons:
  1. Because Six Flags is home to various Superman rides including a roller coaster with the zippy name "Escape from Krypton" (pictured above), I personally pitched them Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman several months before it was published in 2008...although even I thought it unlikely that an amusement park shop would agree to carry a hardcover nonfiction book.
  2. Three summers later, the book is still available at Six Flags! (Then again, since publisher-to-nonbook-retailer sales are typically nonreturnable, perhaps that is a copy from the original order three years ago that has yet to sell...)
  3. The book is on display at the front of the store. (Then again, if it is a copy from three years ago, they've got to do whatever it takes to move that thing.)
And also, Six Flags sells capes? Next they've got to create a coaster on which you can wear one...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

I Heart My Public Library

In the March-April 2011 The Horn Book, author Susan Campbell Bartoletti writes “I Heart My Public Library, but public libraries rarely have the authoritative texts that extreme research requires.”

I’m glad she stuck that “rarely” in there, because I once proved this wrong, and in a way that felt significant to me.

While researching Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman in Cleveland, the city where the story took place, I had two primary goals, both for illustrator reference: take photos of the relevant locations that were still standing and find archival photos of the ones that weren’t. In particular, I wanted to find what would be the first known photo of the building in which original Superman artist Joe Shuster lived.

My plan: first check the Western Reserve Historical Society, then the Cleveland State University archives, and finally the Cleveland Public Library. In other words, go from specific to general. Like Susan, I had the lowest expectation for the library.

It was not like I could walk in there and say “Do you have a photo of Joe Shuster’s apartment building from 1934?” For starters, the staffer (not a historian) would most likely say “Who’s Joe Shuster?” But more to the point, it’s not the kind of thing categorized individually like that. If such a photo hadn’t been in a book (and probably even if it had), it would be up to me to do the legwork.

Yet as the post hyperlinked above explains, I did find a photo of the building, and I found it at the library. This photo that had been hiding in plain sight at the public library led to a dedication of the previously unmarked site only a year after I publicized it.

Of course the offerings of public libraries vary, but in many cases, there is unexpected gold to be found there.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

From Charles to Charlesbridge

To research Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and visual mastermind behind Batman, the first person I tracked down was Bill’s longtime friend and writing partner, Charles Sinclair.

And although I would end up contacting more than 200 others after Charles, he remained one of my most valuable sources, not to mention one of the most generous.

He knew Bill outside of comics. He knew Bill outside of work in general. At one point, he and Bill were roommates. And fortunately for me, his memory seemed remarkably vivid for an 82-year-old (at the time, which was 2006).

Thanks to Charles, I found Bill’s second wife, whom almost nobody else knew about. Thanks to Charles, I learned the details surrounding Bill’s death, the true story of which literally nobody else I contacted knew about. Thanks to Charles, I’m now the awestruck owner of this.

Charles was a bridge to the real Bill, allowing me to write the book that, appropriately, will be published by Charlesbridge.

(While everything I wrote in this post is sincere, yes, the whole thing was just a set-up for that last line.)

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Day 5 of filming, AKA Bill Finger's New York, part 2 of 2

Part 1.

Speaking of detectives, Bill and Bob Kane would meet in Poe Park (in the Bronx, and named for Edgar Allan Poe) and discuss Batman. Maybe they sat near the house of the father of the detective story, which is still there today:

Bill lived in the following Bronx building from 1940 to summer or fall 1941. Therefore, it was likely there where he wrote the first Robin, Joker, and Catwoman stories, took the Batmobile for its first spin, and named Gotham City:

Here’s the Greenwich Village building where Bill had lived for much of the 1940s (during which time he’d created the Riddler) and where I’d been three times previously:

As I stood on the sidewalk in front wearing that Batman and Robin T-shirt, a boy in Joker T-shirt walked by with his mother and brother. His mother said to me “He likes your shirt” and I said “I like his, too.” The timing was, for the second time that day, so apropos that I wonder if the scene wasn’t being scripted by Bill himself from the great (Batman) beyond.

Bill was living at this next Manhattan address in the summer of 1965. In fact, it was while being interviewed in this building during that pivotal summer when he revealed for the first time on the record that he was instrumental in the creation of Batman:

Bill died in Manhattan, in this building, in 1974:

In memoriam.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Day 5 of filming, AKA Bill Finger's New York, part 1 of 2

Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator and costume designer of Batman, was an urban nomad. Between 1939 and his death in 1974, he had at least fifteen addresses; Ive accounted for all but a few of those years. All but two of these addresses were in the Bronx or Manhattan.

I’ve already introduced three stops on my custom-made Bill Finger’s New York Tourthe buildings in which Bill lived at the following times:

On 6/2/11, I was in New York to yet again retrace Bill’s steps.

But before I did, I walked into a funny overlap. It involves overhearing amateur documentary filmmakers asking to interview a comic shop employee. However, I must save the rest of that story for another time…

I donned the only superhero T-shirt I own, and I’d owned it only as of the previous evening. I’d wanted an unconventional design. I found it at Skreened, and the company kindly donated the shirt. Actually two—a small and a medium. Here, I’m wearing them both:

First stop was what some would consider the most significant building in comics history, if only they knew about it: I believe this is where Bill lived in 1939 (his parents definitely did) and I believe it was in this Bronx building that Batman was created:

(Why I believe this.)

I arrived at 11 a.m. and soon after an older woman emerged. I asked her about the building, where I’d not been before, and she answered most politely…in Spanish. Which I don’t speak.

At about 11:30, her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchild arrived. Her son spoke English. He happened to be the landlord.

And he happened to be en route to the building’s closing.

Yes, he had just sold the place in which the world’s greatest detective had swung to life—only he hadn’t known that part of its history. (How would he? It took me a lot of digging to learn it and I was almost certainly the first to do so.)

I asked him if he could’ve gotten a higher price if he’d marketed it as the “The Building Where Batman Was Born.” He laughed, shrugging it off. But I swear his expression suggested he wished he could find out...

He told me that I’d almost missed him. If I’d come only minutes earlier, no one would’ve been there. If I’d come mere minutes later, no one would’ve been there—nor would they be coming back. And the new tenants were not moving in immediately.

While he went to the closing, his wife let me into the vacant building. The bottom two floors had been renovated but the top floor had not. I don’t know which of the units had been Bill’s but I like to imagine it was the top one.

Oh, get this. The new tenants—they’re detectives, too.

Part 2.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Great ideas for schools #11: Wax museum

The ten previous entries in this series came from schools I have spoken at. Here’s one from a school I hope to speak at this fall: SAR Academy, in the Bronx.

I’m told that the students do a biography unit that culminates in an interactive “wax museum.” Okay, any school project that involves a wax museum is indeed cool, but you had me at “biography.”

For this wax museum, e
ach student chooses a historical figure to portray; in other words, the kids are the statues. Alongside each “wax” statue is a poster explaining how to activate it. For Dr. Seuss, you might have to read aloud a page of one of his books. For King Tut, you might have to dance (not walk) like an Egyptian. The kids-as-statues then come alive, talk in character, and complete their mini-presentations by saying If I could give the world one message, it would be....

I’m sure this performance assignment inspires kids to take the responsibility of knowing “themselves” really seriously, some because they like to learn and others because they don’t like to be embarrassed—but either way, they get it done.

Making this even sweeter: this year, one of the kids did his project on Boy of Steel Jerry Siegel (co-creator and original writer of Superman). It wasnt long ago when that was virtually inconceivable.

6/29/13 addendum: Bill Finger in wax.