Friday, November 29, 2013

Superheroes the top story in Denmark

On Thanksgiving eve, the Danish magazine Kongressen, which covers U.S. politics and culture, contacted me for an interview about superheroes in post-9/11 society. Given her Friday deadline, I had to take a few minutes on Thanksgiving morn to answer a few questions by email.

This was the interview I gave:

What role has the superhero had in developing American culture and what role do they play today?

The superhero, one could argue, goes back to the Bible with figures like Samson and Greek myth with figures like Hercules. The modern definition of a superhero seems to include at least three elements: a dual identity, a costume, and some kind of enhanced power/skill (which does not automatically mean superhuman—for example, an expert but human archer). The superhero in America developed around the time America developed into a superpower—World War II. It was a time when people placed more emphasis on extremes—and on doing good at all costs. Today superheroes seem to serve a slightly less noble purpose, I’d say; in an effort to make them realistic to modern audiences, their stories are often rather grim, and their actions sometimes not as black and white.

Did the development of Superman and Batman in the late 1930s set the bar for superheroes thereafter?

Absolutely. They are the fathers of the entire genre, and polar opposites—one alien and almost limitless in physical power, the other human and at the peak of mental power.

Why are superheroes having personal problems? Like Iron Man getting panic attacks. What’s the deal?

Again, to make them more relatable. A flawless figure is boring. For the first few decades, most superheroes did not have personalities—aside from their powers, they were practically interchangeable. Eventually the creators realized that the audience needed more sophistication just like they expected in novels, and the three-dimensional superhero was born.

What signal does the American superhero send to the rest of the world?

For me, it was always about doing the right thing not for glory or money but simply because it was the right thing. I hope that still holds true for other superhero fans.

Is the global success of superheroes in movies of the past decade a symptom of cultural imperialism? And what values are they representing?

I don’t believe the movies are trying to send a message of imperialism. I think they are simply catering to what young audiences today demand—fast-paced, often extremely violent action. While that may approach how a superhero story would play out in real life, for superhero fans my age (40s) and older, it is too cold. And to some it is surely sending a message that wanton destruction is an acceptable side effect of seeking justice.

Did superheroes play any special role in the healing process after 9/11?

For some, I’m sure. They rose to prominence during another time of trauma, WWII, and I’ve seen arguments that they do offer comfort and hope during any stressful period.

What can superheroes do for us in a time of crises?

Remind us that doing good should be a selfless and daily act.

Why are superheroes so fascinating to so many people?

Wish fulfillment. Many of us wonder what superpower we’d choose if given the chance, and hopefully as many if not more admire those who dedicate their lives to the service to others.

This is what she quoted (translation courtesy of Google):

Since then, superheroes placed in tension between the two characters and superheroes have been a central part of American mythology and culture.

Here is the top story (I think):

Sunday, November 24, 2013

National Council of Teachers of English Convention 2013

On 11/21/13, I returned to Boston, the city of my college years, and for another academic reason: the National Council of Teachers of English Annual Convention, my first.

Given that I came to speak on a panel about writing nonfiction, I felt it apropos that this sign greeted me in the airport:

Thank you to Marfe Ferguson for organizing the panel, and thanks to Roz Schanzer, Sandip Wilson, and Suzii Parsons for participating. I was thrilled with our robust turnout, which at times was standing room only (though that is not acutely evident by this photo taken midway through):

I then enjoyed being an audience member at a second nonfiction panel starring author friends Steve Sheinkin and Deb Heiligman (both of whom I had met previously) and Tanya Lee Stone and Marc Aronson (both of whom I had corresponded with but not met in person before), plus moderator Cathryn Mercier and educator Erica Shipow (who greatly impressed me with her articulate perspectives).

NCTE = nothing cooler than educators!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

How to create an interview series

In looking back at the process for the “Girl in the Video” series and its predecessor, I realized doing such a thing calls upon more than just a single skill. You need to know how to…
  • decide who to look for: this is little challenge for subjects in which you are already interested
  • look: it will start with a google…but almost never ends with one; some of these people were hidden deep
  • convince: finding someone on your list is a thrill but not  a guarantee; some don’t want to be found or, if found, don’t want to be involved (a bummer, but a hard fact)
  • handle rejection: see previous
  • interview: you want to be thorough without wearing people out, curious without scaring people off, and prepared to follow up to get answers…many times
  • present: you’ve got (presumably) great content, so it demands a great package; great doesn’t have to be fancy—most important is to showcase the material in a clear, easy-to-navigate format
  • promote: what good is good content if few see it?; you need to be creative and strategic in getting word to the audience who would most care—and you need to figure out an approach that is as entertaining as the series itself
  • let go: it can become addictive…but there will be a time to move on to the next project

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Funny signs and sights from my travels

Only none of these is funny intentionally. (Except the meme-added one.)

 Move along, Burton, McGraw, and Tebow.

 Finally someone has the courage to defy our 24/7 culture.

 But it won’t close, right? 
This is crazy enough already.

 This hotel caters to telepaths.

 I don’t want to smell like any of that, 
nor do I think one actually can.

It’s not brutal. It’s just German.

One glazed, one powdered, and one
lobster-filled with rainbow sprinkles, please.

I think you are confusing that with a disco.

 No, really, I insist...on not taking it anyway. (WA) 

As if there is a gift besides cheese. (WI, of course)

But until first grade, decaf only.

 Is there a kind of panic that would allow one to see the escape route sign 
but not the door that is literally two feet away? (DC)

Maybe rearrange.

What makes you think I don’t already have one? (UT)

 I hope no surgeon I ever need shops here. (CT) 

Then I will just wait outside with the other humans. (IA)

  Indigenous person/Pilgrim selfie (in a painting in a Westport, CT school).

A movie theater with a spiritual side. (FL)

Clearly. (OR)

But what good is a park without lightning? (MD)

Monday, November 18, 2013

Bill Finger is on Facebook

Pretty impressive for a guy who's been dead nearly 40 years. 

Equally impressive for Facebook. They get almost everybody.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The looming silhouette

Because I don’t own Superman, I could not put him on the cover of Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman. Yet the illustrator, Ross MacDonald, cleverly figured out a way to show Superman without actually showing Superman.

Trotted out the same trick (though with a twist...or rather a slant) for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman:

Speaking of silhouettes…

After a surprisingly difficult search, I was the lucky one to find Bill Finger’s yearbook photo (with a huge assist from Gerard Pelisson, de facto historian of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx). That was in 2006.

After my 10/3/13 talk at Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, CT, Greenwich Time reporter John Breunig pointed out something that I had not noticed before.

Check out the gray shape behind the yearbook portrait of Bill (then Milton) Finger. Random design or freaky foreshadowing…?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Northwest Ohio Jewish Book Fair 2013

I spoke to a nice group of teens and their parents about the icon created in their state 75 years ago. Superman earned place of pride on the program cover:

My only disappointment: I did not spot any cars sporting the newly released (and long overdue!) Superman license plate:

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Triple connection: athenahealth and “Bill the Boy Wonder”

This is certainly a first: a comparison between a healthcare-focused technology company and a nonfiction picture book about a comic book writer.

In 2007, I noticed this Inc. magazine cover featuring athenahealth co-founder and CEO Jonathan Bush (who happens to be cousin of George W. Bush and nephew of George H. W. Bush):

At the time I was working on what became Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.

It is always great to see a CEO promoting having fun at work. It was great that Jonathan
’s way of demonstrating that for this cover was by dressing up like Batman. Even I haven’t done that. (Robin, that’s another story.) The cover also struck me because the superhero known for pulling open his shirt to reveal his emblem (to the reader, not the public) is, of course, Superman, not Batman.

But what made this blogworthy for me was the fact there were two other incidental connections between this company and my book.

First, athenahealth is based in Watertown, MA
as is Charlesbridge, publisher of Bill the Boy Wonder.

Second, Bill’s granddaughter—his lone, previously unknown heir—is named Athena.

I reached out to Jonathan, who kindly responded. I sent him a book. Perhaps that will in small part contribute to the fun work atmosphere he is fostering.

Holly Spring, colleague of Jonathans, after reading the book: “Certainly Athena and Jonathan have synergies
both out to change something in the world for the better!

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Letters from Bill Finger's son to Bob Kane

From 11/6/13 to 11/8/13, I had the privilege of speaking at four elementary schools in the state of my birth, Connecticut: Branchville in Ridgefield and Coleytown, Saugatuck, and Kings Highway in Westport.

Scenes from the homecoming:

A pre-presentation huddle with Coleytown’s Deb Boyhen and the kids 
who coolly volunteered to tag-team introduce me. 

My contribution to the Kings Highway Elementary author wall; 
upon the kind request of one of the teachers, 
I quoted something I said in the presentation.
My contribution added. Thanks Kate Byrnes!

 For the first time, I saw the Scholastic Book Club edition of  
Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman and 
a new, glossier edition of Vanished: True Stories of the Missing. 
Immediately upon noticing this lovely painting 
in the library at Kings Highway, I thought “Pilgrim selfie.”
Missed op: me taking selfie in front of Pilgrim selfie.



Daniel Kirk! Mac Barnett!

Special mention must be made of Ed Wolf’s 5th grade class at Coleytown Elementary in Westport.

Even before he knew I was coming to speak at the school, he led his students on one of the most meaningful classroom extensions I’ve seen for any of my books.

They read Bill the Boy Wonder, then had to choose one of two writing options:

  1. Is Bill Finger responsible for what happened to him?
  2. Pretend you are Fred Finger (Bill’s son). Write a letter to Bob Kane expressing your feelings about how he treated his dad and whether or not Bill received the recognition he deserved. Also suggest what Bob should do to make things right.

What I especially love about option #2 is that it asks the kids to role play. The more obvious assignment would have been
write a letter to Bob as yourself. But asking them to write from the perspective of the protagonist’s son challenges them to distinguish any empathetic feelings they have from whatever feelings they would imagine Fred had.

Here is some of the glory that resulted for each option.

option 1:

“When Bill decided to try to get a little recognition…Bob accused him of overreacting and basically pushed him back down into the dark again. … Any logical person on the planet earth could know that Bill should deserve something better than absolutely nothing. …He was worried that if he stood up [to Bob] he’d get fired and have to work at a bread factory.”

“Another reason I think Bob is selfish is because he didn’t understand or appreciate that Bill just did the Batman stories for the love of writing and not for the love of popularity. … In class we read the Bob Kane letter. My mouth dropped to the floor. … I think that was super-childish.”

“At first when Bill didn’t get the credit, it was Bob’s fault for being selfish, but after 35 years, Bill still didn’t stand up for his rights. … Bill had to go through the work of pretending to be Christian just to become a modestly paid anonymous writer.”

“Usually I’m not interested in superheroes, but this is a special case. … Bill was responsible for what happened to him. … Bob never amended…the contract [after stating that Bill deserves to have his name added to Batman]. He was speaking empty words. … Bob didn’t say that he would immediately put Bill’s name on all the comics. He was saying “If he was alive…” But Bob knew that Bill would never be alive again. So Bob was saying nothing of meaning.”

“For thirty years, everybody thought that the creator of Batman was Bob Kane. However, it was the man in the back room, Bill Finger, who really created Batman.”

“Why would a full-grown man lie to children?” 

option 2:

“All my dad wanted was to be known as a good writer and you took his big dream/hit away! … I am ashamed of you for letting my dad be like a flick of dust that will not be remembered!”

“Why did you keep my father’s identity secret? Why did you add this in the contract? That was just cold. You thought he would be famous and you would be left in the dust or something? Well, now you deserve that treatment. … It’s really not too late. You can still add Bill Finger into the comics. The only thing is that…my father would never know that you, Bob Kane, actually came through for him.”

My father had to DIE for you to understand that he deserved credit. You had THIRTY YEARS to come your senses and you didn’t.”

One of the imagined Fred letters gave his email at the end:

my favorite:

“The best thing of all is you believed in my father, and that might have meant something to him. And I thank you for that. But you also did the wrong.”

This profound young writer also included a bulleted list called “Some things you could do to fix the mess you made”:

  • make sure that Bill gets what he deserves
  • make a more sincere speech
  • say in public that Bill created Batman and not you
  • confess and say to people that you are not the creator of Batman
  • tell everyone that Bill Finger had a hand in it, too
  • apologize to the people you lied to

Monday, November 11, 2013

The 2nd Annual Pequot Library Children’s Book Festival

On a classic New England fall day—11/9/13 to be precise—I had the privilege of presenting and signing at the 2nd annual Pequot Library Children’s Book Festival in Southport, CT.

Returnees from the first annual (2010) comprised Jennifer Berne and me. Old friends/new participants included Mike Rex, Ann Haywood Leal, Laura Toffler-Corrie, and Bruce Degen. Among those I had communicated with but not met until now included Dan Yaccarino and Bryan Collier (and I caught snatches of both of their fun presentations). Last time, Susan Hood organized it; this time, she attended as an author.

 Photo courtesy of Craig Kennedy.

 With Dan Yaccarino. 

Thank you again to MaryJo Koeck for running the show with charm and calm.