Wednesday, January 25, 2012

World War II in elementary school

On 1/19/12, I spoke at Stonehouse Elementary in Williamsburg, VA, a town home to events significant to the American Revolution. After, as I was leaving, a fourth grade boy asked my host, the school librarian, for a book on another war, World War II. (Actually, he asked for “another” WWII book.)

Because of my (still-in-progress) efforts to get my WWII nonfiction picture book manuscript Thirty Minutes Over Oregon published, this lifted my spirit and reconfirmed what I’ve been saying: WWII is a topic both appropriate for and of interest to students in upper elementary. (Mine is not the first picture book written about a WWII incident, though given the resistance from some editors, sometimes it feels like it is.)

Even better, the librarian told me it’s not just this boy; the subject is wildly popular with many of her students—and it’s not yet a topic in the classroom. In other words, just because a subject is not on the curriculum (how you doin’, Boys of Steel) doesn’t mean kids don’t and can’t learn about it in school.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood"

On 7/31/11 (okay, I’m behind, but with, I think, good reason), PBS announced the first animated spinoff—indeed the first spinoff of any kind—based on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. It’s cutely called Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, it’s scheduled to premiere in the fall of 2012, and I wrote one of the first round of episodes.

According to the press release, the show is
based on the next generation of the original Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood characters. All of the original characters have grown up and now have preschoolers of their own. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood stories revolve around a four-year-old Daniel Tiger, son of the original Daniel Tiger, and his preschool friends.
My episode is about a fruit festival, and I will bedevil you by not revealing more as of yet.

I was thrilled (and, naïvely, surprised) to see the enthusiastic reaction in the press to this show. I should not have underestimated the appeal Mr. Rogers still has.

I suspect there will be much more to blog about the series as we near its launch, but for now, I can say I am honored I’ve now been a small part of such a cherished American and educational institution.

Go get 'em, Tiger!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Great ideas for schools #13: Bully box

In the main office of Waller Mill Fine Arts Magnet, an elementary school in Williamsburg, VA, where I spoke on 1/19/12, I saw a simple yet inspired way to combat bullying—a box for students to anonymously report hurtful behavior.

While I’m all for being creative in approaching this serious issue, at first I was skeptical (but not critical) of this particular method. The box is in plain sight of the office staff. I asked if kids were hesitant to use it because it’s not really anonymous when others can see them dropping in a note.

One of the staff told me the kids do use it—often in groups. Then I realized it may well be especially effective situated in such a prominent location. Every time a bullied student leaves the office, s/he’s reminded that the school is looking out for her/him. And every time a bully leaves the office, s/he’s reminded that the school is out for her/him.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Bring back the Sea World superheroes poster!

In early 2010, I began to track down a bunch of former Sea World water skiing superheroes to interview them; I ultimately found more than 40, including seven of the ten in the famous poster above.

Not long after, I began thinking "reunion."

Lest there be any misconception, I was not one of them, so I was not doing this for my own benefit, but I sure would love to see it happen on their account. And sure enough, some of them had the same idea and have something in the works for fall 2012.

However, the kind of reunion I had in mind was not only a personal one but also a promotional one at a comic book convention. Because one of the two Sea World locations that featured the superheroes show was Orlando, and because many of these former show skiers still live in that area, it would seem that the best candidate to host such a reunion is MegaCon.

While speaking with MegaCon's head organizer, who seems open to the idea if circumstances allow, we came to the possibility of reprinting the poster, most likely with one small addition (MegaCon logo?) to distinguish it from the original, and distributing it for free at the convention at which skiers appear.

This poster was not published by DC Comics and does not feature DC licensed art, so I was hoping/expecting that the only real hurdle would be securing Sea World's approval. Sea World said yes if DC did, but because of unspecified legal factors, DC said no.

As you might have guessed, I appealed. DC (nicely) said no again.

The poster has something of a cult following among DC fans and offering a "retro" version in a controlled environment seems consistent with many other reissues and "nostalgia products" DC has approved; one example is the Retro-Action line of DC poseable figures (done in the style of the beloved Mego figures of the '70s), though they are, of course, sold rather than given away.

I think the buzz that reprinting this poster would generate would make whatever obstacles may be present worth surmounting.

Who wants to see this poster reproduced for MegaCon (and, by association, a Sea World superhero skiers' reunion)? I would ask for a show of hands but I don't want the pyramid to collapse...

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The cover for my 2012 picture book on Batman

Thirty-eight years ago today, Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator of Batman, died. No mainstream publication ran an obituary.

Twenty-two weeks from today, you will see my humble attempt at rectifying that.

Here's the first preview:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Batman hits the streets

Normally I don’t simply repost interesting images I’ve seen online, but here I’m breaking my own rule because I’ve recently come across two related to Batman (and related to each other in a way, since they’re both a form of street art).

One of many brilliant works by British chalk artist Julian Beever.

I don’t know the origin of this one. But it is a welcome warning.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The drinking problem problem

Same Bat-tale, same Bat-chatter.

Several claims about Bill Finger (uncredited co-creator of Batman) are widely repeated in circles where people know who Bill Finger is:

  • Bill was as much if not more of the creator of Batman as Bob Kane—TRUE (subjectively but widely accepted)
  • Bill was notoriously late when it came to deadlines—TRUE
  • Bill was bad at money management and often dependent on advanced checks—TRUE
  • Bill died poor, alone, and anonymously—TRUE
  • Bill has no heirs—FALSE (and much more about that to come in future posts, not to mention the book itself)
  • Bill was an alcoholic…

This one is more of a gray area, but my vote is FALSE.

I understand that this does not gibe with the presumption: a writer whose Big Idea was for all intents stolen and who then toiled most of his career without proper credit seems a prime candidate to be a boozehound—especially in an era when writers and alcohol went together on practically a romantic level.

But I don’t believe Bill drank to excess on a regular basis, and I don’t believe this is revisionist history. I interviewed most of the surviving people who knew Bill well and their statements carry infinitely more weight than reheated rumors from comics aficionados, be they fans or pros.

In 2008, Bill’s longtime writing partner Charles Sinclair (who has been consistent and balanced with most of his recollections) told me “Bill…enjoyed a drink [but] was not an alcoholic. He might’ve occasionally moved toward being borderline.”

Also in 2008, Bill’s second ex-wife Lyn Simmons said with even more conviction that Bill was not addicted to alcohol.

In an interview with writer/editor George Kashdan published in Alter Ego #93 (5/10), Kashdan said the same.

In an interview with Charles published in Alter Ego #84 (3/09), he again said he didn’t think Bill drank like an alcoholic and that he never saw Bill drink too much. He also said Jerry Robinson said that he (Jerry) didn’t think Bill had a drinking problem.

In Alter Ego #39 (8/04), Robinson himself said that anyone treated as Bill was might turn to drink, but that wasn’t the case in the beginning (meaning, presumably, that Bill wasn’t drinking when Bill and Jerry met, in 1939). I believe Jerry is elsewhere on record saying he wouldn’t classify Bill as an alcoholic, though I don’t have that handy. (Ah, the permissive beauty of a blog versus a print article!)

A possible counterpoint: In 2006, the late Jerry Bails told me “Drinking was a common out for writers, and Bill was no exception.” To my regret, I didn’t ask for elaboration, but I think he may have been speaking generally or extrapolating. In any case, Bails did not know Bill as well (or rather as long) as the others quoted here, nor did he live in the same city, and ultimately he did not say Bill was a drunk.

I do realize Bill’s network may simply be protecting their old friend, but some were critical on other issues. Therefore, I suspect that now, decades after Bill’s death, when asked about this by the first person to write a book about Bill, they would see the obligation in setting the record straight, if that was needed.

Everyone agrees Bill drank and most everyone said within safe limits, though some inconclusively. I stand by my FALSE vote and will leave it at that. (The book is for all ages so this is obviously not a topic I am addressing there.)

Part of my rationale comes from what killed Bill. It was not booze, at least not according to the Medical Examiner’s report…which you shall see here as we get closer to the book’s July publication.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

6,291 unclaimed trunks = ? copies "Action Comics" #1?

Forty-nine storage rooms.

One hundred ten buildings.

Six thousand, two hundred ninety-one trunks.

Millions of items, any of which could be worth millions.

In the 8/8/11 New Yorker, a Talk of the Town piece by Nick Paumgarten revealed that there are 6,291 unclaimed trunks of personal belongings in dank storage rooms below Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, a large apartment compound in New York.

These trunks date back decades to the 1940s, when the buildings opened, and of course the reasons they’ve been abandoned vary; the owners of some have died, but most likely most of those reasons will remain as mysterious as the contents themselves.

That is because it does not seem that anyone plans to open them. Well, some have been opened and some have burst open, but the article doesn’t say if there will a systematic cataloguing of the rest of the mass of material.

Which is why I promptly called Rose Associates, the property manager cited in the article.

Thus far, most of what has spilled out of trunks seems worthless—old clothes, canceled checks, ‘70s LPs. But I’m willing to wager that at least one of those trunks, and quite possibly several, contains an original copy of Action Comics #1 (featuring the debut of Superman), Detective Comics #27 (debut of Batman), or any number of other ultra-rare, mega-valuable comics, not to mention other kinds of valuables.

The companies that own the residential complex have been tasked with finding a more profitable use for this storage space. Given the understandably skeeved attitude of the property manager quoted in the article (who describes the air in those rooms as “unsanitary” and who said “I hate to think about the stuff that would come running out” when trunks are moved, etc.), I figured it would be worth a shot to ask if a writer could do research there. For all I know (the article doesn’t say), they might be planning to pulp those trunks.

I didn’t hear back from Rose. I don’t seem have great luck when it comes to New York institutions.

(I proposed holding a signing for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman at the Bronx Zoo both because of the bat connection and because Bill [Finger] lived in the Bronx when he co-created Batman. They said no. More on this in a future post.)

No matter. I will likely try again. After all, in most cases, searching for an Action #1 is as futile as searching for a Bigfoot in your bathtub, but that doesn’t mean one will never be found; and this is a scenario where the odds seem way greater than most any other I can imagine.

The location is right. (New York was the capital of comics.)

The time period is right. (Action #1 came out in 1938 so surely many copies were still lying around when people began storing trunks under Stuy Town.)

And to me, that amount of nostalgia packed all in one place bodes well.

Therefore even I, a person who has trouble concentrating if my finger accidentally grazes a sticky cup holder at the movies, would be willing to become a Detective, slide on gloves, and risk a rat carcass or two if it meant I might discover some Action.

Who’s with me?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The books I remember...beyond the stories

We all remember certain books we loved as a child, but often there is no story behind the story; there is just a gauzy recollection of joy.

For me, many classics fall into this category:
Goodnight Moon, The Cat and the Hat, Caps for Sale, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible No Good, Very Bad Day, Harry and the Terrible Whatzit, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Leo the Late Bloomer, Humbug Witch, Ed Emberley's Drawing Book of Weirdos, Where the Wild Things Are.

Then there are certain books we remember because of a story surrounding them. These personal stories might take no more than a line to tell, and these books weren’t always favorites, but they nonetheless remain a memory.

These are those books for me.

Moose, an out-of-print 1971 picture book by the prolific, diverse Michael Foreman, is a paean to peace and very much a product of its (Vietnam War) era. Of course, when hearing the story as a child, that allegory completely escaped my awareness.

It contains a scene I remember scrutinizing: a bear set up in a room in the woods. The very idea of this—a room with no walls, human trappings blended in with the treeswas riveting to me, and the detailed drawing amplified it:

It’s no surprise that I love superheroes now, and probably no surprise that this dates back to childhood. I remember loving the chunky, portable format of Aquaman: Scourge of the Sea, not to mention the fact that it was about one of my favorite heroes (and one who was the focus of relatively little merchandising, making this a novelty).

Another superhero book I loved—also chunky, but not portable—is one I pored over in the den in our house; I believe Superman From the 30's to the 70's was a Chanukah gift. As an adult researching Superman’s creators for what became Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, I was startled and angered to learn that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s names do not appear in the book even once.

Like many males of my generation, I gobbled up the Hardy Boys. I remember toting the blue-spined hardcovers to my grandmother’s in New Haven and reading them on her chair until what felt like the middle of the night (but was probably only 9 p.m.). Even then I was attuned to—and interested in—the time period that produced them.

Around age six, I stood in the front hallway of my house and pleaded with my mom to let me take the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Golden Book to school. She wasn’t against me reading it or even owning it but did not feel it was appropriate for a Jewish child to bring in a Christmas book for show and tell. Mom 1, me 0.

The Power of Light by Isaac Bashevis Singer had eight stories, one for each night of Chanukah. I can’t say for sure I read one per night but do remember feeling it would make my Sunday school teacher proud if she were to find out I had it.

Chancing upon the novel Frankenstein's Aunt in my town library, I was fascinated to see a story about an icon told from a different perspective and with characters not in the source material; it may have been the first time I’d seen that. Today it’s quite common to see new interpretations of public domain figures.

This is the only cover of this bunch I’m not 100% certain about. I do know that in fourth grade I read a paperback about Squanto. Of all the covers I saw online, Squanto: Friend of the Pilgrims came closest to a ka-ching, but I feel the one I read had trees and more color.

Also in 1982, when I was ten and Raiders of the Lost Ark was one, I tried to tackle the paperback novelization, which I got from my dad’s old-fashioned pharmacy/luncheonette in New Haven. A google showed that various covers were produced and at first I didn’t find the one I remembered: blue foil. I started to doubt my recall until I did come across the very one I pulled out in fourth grade free read. The language was tough so I didn’t finish it, but didn’t need to; I knew the film probably line-for-line.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man was another adult novel I read (but this time, at fifteen, I was a ways closer to actually being an adult). In a sense, it relates to the concept behind Frankenstein’s Aunt in that it is an update/twist on an existing archetype. I remember devouring it on my waterbed (sadly true) the summer of 1987 and feeling very grown-up about it.

And permit me to show a few that have no extra story but whose two- or no-color glory compelled me to revisit them with my own children.

The two middle-grade (if that’s what they are?) novels that seemed to linger strongest with me were built around small animals: The Mouse and the Motorcycle and The Cricket in Times Square. I still like my covers better than the various revisions I’ve seen since.

And, of course, this one.

There are more I can’t remember at the moment. I hope I do eventually and will then add to this post.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Bill Finger’s parents

Bill Finger, uncredited co-creator of Batman, gave few interviews. (It’s not that he wasn’t willing; it’s that he wasn’t asked.) And he mentioned his parents Louis and Tessie * precisely zero times.

Tessie circa 1945; I have no photos of Louis

What little is publicly known about Bill’s parents comes from two sources: a sketchy biographical sketch from 1941 (sketchy in that it brazenly whitewashes Bill’s involvement on any level with Batman) and Alvin Schwartz, a celebrated DC Comics writer and old friend of Bill’s who passed away 10/28/11.

From talking to Finger family and to FOB (Friends of Bill) who’d not been interviewed before, I learned that Bill and his parents had been estranged for most of Bill’s adult life.

Bill had also become estranged from his only sibling ** sometime before her wedding—and also, I think, before Batman (1939).

In Alter Ego #98 (12/10), Schwartz is quoted as saying, “[Bill] married Portia because he had to get away from home. He couldn’t stand his parents nagging, the fact that they would show up every payday and take his check.”

[Perhaps this aligns with the comment from that bio in Green Lantern #1 about Bill’s parents wanting him to be a doctor.]

In Schwartz’s 11/8/99 “After the Golden Age” column at World Famous Comics, he speculated that Bill’s dislike of his parents influenced the origin of Batman—namely, that Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. That is heavy stuff and I hope it wasn’t the case.

Whatever the full story behind the rift, I suspect Bill’s sister sided with her parents; when I tried to find out what had happened between Bill and her, she wouldn’t say, even though this is going back seventy years and even though Bill has been gone for half of them.

** 7/9/12 addendum: Because of the way the earliest biographical sketch of Bill Finger was worded, I originally thought Bill was an only child. Then I learned he had a younger sister. Then via the 1940 census, which was made public in April 2012, I learned Bill apparently had a second younger sister...Gilda, born about 1920.

7/12/15 addendum: Louis was born 10/20/1890. His birth country is, well, take your pick. On two marriage licenses (Rosa, Tessie) and two draft cards (WWI, WWII): Austria. On Bill’s short-form birth certificate: Russia. On 1930 census: Austria is crossed out and Poland written in. Tessie was born 12/28/1892 in New York. Louis died 2/7/61 and Tessie just over a month later, on 3/28/61, both in the Bronx.

* 5/30/20 addendum (based on information I learned in 2013): It turns out Bill’s biological mother was not Tessie but rather Rosa Rosenblatt. She and Louis married in New York in 1912, Bill was born (in Denver, for reasons as-yet unconfirmed) in 1914, and Louis married Tessie in New York in 1916; I have not found out what happened to Rosa. Therefore, Emily, born to Louis and Tessie in 1918, was Bill’s half-sister. This implies that Gilda (again, born circa 1920) is also his half-sister...or another relative, or perhaps even unrelated. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pottery Barn Kids

Over the last several years, Pottery Barn Kids has carried a variety of Superman- and Batman-branded merchandise, some of it retro style.

What better to do after completing a challenging puzzle than take a nap, and what better to do before a nap than read a book?

Therefore, I have pitched
PBK my book Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. The response: "We'll let you know if we're interested."

That was some time ago.

I will be pitching them again with Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.

If they take it, PBK will then stand for "Pow! Bam! Kapow!"

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Year of the Bat

In 2010, when brainstorming promotional possibilities for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman, due in July, the Chinese zodiac inspired me to jot down “Year of the Bat” (which is not one of the twelve actual signs).

A Google proved that not only did
someone beat me to it, but it happens to be this year.

Which doesn’t mean I won’t still find a way to use that phrase. In fact, the fact that it’s a conservation effort only encourages me.

If for some reason a bat falls to the ground, it won’t be able to take off; rather it needs assistance, such as a person to put a stick at its feet for it to grasp, then lift it so the bat can drop and go.

And like a bat, this idea won’t fly on its own.

Therefore, I’ve already talked with several bat-related organizations and have one idea in particular that I’m trying to, yes, get off the ground. If zoo read this carefully, you might be able to guess what it is.