Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Filming a Superman documentary

The relentlessly nice Brett Culp interviewed me for an upcoming documentary on the positive effects Superman has had on society.

On 8/5/15, to get my attempts at answers on film, Brett made the best of a small, plain room in the Westport (CT) Library and a tight window of time.

I’ll report back when the next phase of this ambitious project is public. You’ll want to be a part of it.

Thank you, Westport Library, for accommodating us, and thank you, Brett, for including me. (Also thank you, Arlen Schumer, for offering us to shoot my interview at your place.) This film will exemplify the best of Superman’s influence.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The years of a story

Biographies are not life stories. They are stories from a life. They don’t include all. And they don’t always go from birth to death. Sometimes they start before birth and/or end after death.

I surveyed my nonfiction picture books (two out, two upcoming) to determine the dates they span (not counting the author’s notes). The start year correlates with what is happening on page 1, even if the story flashes back at some point.

  • Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman—1930-1940 (both approximate)
  • Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman—1933-2012 (Bill Finger was born in 1914 and died in 1974)
  • Thirty Minutes Over Oregon (2016)—1942-1998
  • Fairy Spell (2018)—1917-1988

Saturday, August 22, 2015

I was a teenage photographer

Second only to lifeguard, my first summer job was about as vintage as it gets: I was a scooper at an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. It was surprisingly exhausting work. My friends were regularly annoyed that I didn’t give them free ice cream.

My second summer job was not vintage, but the setting was: I was a photographer at an amusement park. Lake Compounce Festival Park opened in 1846, making it the longest-operating amusement park in America. (The cameras we used might have been nearly that old.)

The author I am now loves that history, but at the time, I was more preoccupied with the four big perks the park promised: (always free) rides, (always free) concerts, (sometimes free) pizza, and, of course, girls.

Gretchen and Jen, who were stationed at the Creamery

I worked there for two seasons, 1989 and 1990 (the summer before college).

The first summer, three of my co-workers were three of my best friends (one of whom got me the job); the second summer, two more from our gang joined us.

 guy in the middle was our boss Lou

Our responsibility was simple: be mosquitoes. In other words, stand inside the main gate and take as many (posed) photos of entering guests as we could. This job, too, was exhausting, but in a good way. For hours on end, we were on our feet, in the sun, on unforgiving asphalt, amid mobs of people. But because we were teens, our immortality shielded us from the downside of this.

Some of us were also trained on the developing process. 

The photos we were selling were those photokeychains commonly associated with cruises. I still have about 20.

We all still remember the line: “Stop right there and get together for two quick shots. No obligation!” We’d give them a ticket with their item number and instruct them to come by the photo shack/stall later.

Some people gladly stopped. Others pretended they didn’t hear us and kept walking. I was known to follow, saying “I can walk as fast as you, maybe faster.” That was as endearing as you would imagine.

We also still remember the cost: “One for five, two for nine.” (One day it poured unexpectedly and the park gave each employee a plastic poncho. We sold those, too—one for five, two for nine.)

At the time, as noted, Lake Compounce was a concert park. When we worked the concert nights, we got to see the show for no charge. The park booked B+ and legacy acts including Paula Abdul, Chicago, Don Henley, and the Doobie Brothers. (I would grow up to interview some of the women in some of the videos of some of those bands.)

We’d try to guess which concert crowds would be friendly and which would be difficult; we were often wrong. I thought the Doobies fans would be mellow. But that night, one (large, face-tattooed) guy said “I’m trying to decide if I should smash that camera over your head or shove it up your ***.” I chose A. But luckily he was all talk.

Some days, my friends and I would play a prank on the customers, asking if they were staying for the show that night. They’d ask who was playing and we’d name some A-lister the park could not attain like Prince, Madonna, or U2. They’d invariably speed to the box office to see if tickets were still available and we’d quietly crack up.

The crowds were heaviest at the start of the day and two hours before the concert. Our boss, Lou, assigned us a minimum number of rolls to shoot during that evening rush. We’d go extra fast and then secretly burn off the remaining time on the rides. (One of our favorite park characters was the guy who walked around wearing a badge stating he was the “Flume Supervisor.”)

When Metallica played, the crowd ripped a chain-link fence out of the ground; as I recall, no one was hurt, but 42 were arrested.

The summer of 1989 was the height of New Kids on the Block mania. The park attendance capacity was 17,000, but to maximize profits, they let in 30,000. You could barely walk, but you could still scream “Joey!” or “Jordan!” (Weirdly, I remember these trivial stats—42; 30,000—but can’t say for sure which of the New Kids were the most screamed.)

Occasionally, we got to meet the celebs. 

my friend Mike (right) with RoboCop

But the most notable was Debbie Gibson, who was the same age as we were. *

After her show, at about 11 p.m., two of those friends and I were leaving through the employees-only area where the tour buses parked. Debbie was zipping around on a scooter. We got her attention, asked for her autograph, and gave her something in return: a photokeychain with a photo of us in it. I’m sure she still has it today. Just as I still have her signature (laminated), which she scribbled on the only piece of paper I had on me:

Funny that we carried a camera most of the time, yet did not get a photo with her.

Lake Compounce stopped hosting concerts soon after. However, for the new generations of teens who work there, I take heart knowing that the other three perks will always remain, in abundance.

* 6/19/17 addendum: I tweeted about this several summers in a row. This time, Debbie noticed and liked.


Friday, August 21, 2015

The secret origin of author Hans Wilhelm

Author Hans Wilhelm and I have some things in common:

  • Connecticut (he lives there, I was born there)
  • Germany (he was born there, my wife was)
  • bad reviews
  • four-letter first names with an “a” the only vowel and second letter

What we don’t have in common is our entrĂ©e into publishing. Here is mine. Here is his, in his own words:

I got published in America because of my accent.

When I arrived in USA some 35 years ago, I had some ideas for children’s books that I’d collected when I lived in the South Pacific. I didn’t know any U.S. children’s book publishers. But somebody suggested to start at the top and go to Random House.

When I arrived at their office, I said to the receptionist, “Hi, I am Hans Wilhelm and I came to show some of my children’s book ideas to your editors.”

The receptionist looked at me. Then she said, “Could you please say that again?”

I repeated it.

“I am sorry; nobody can see an editor without a prior appointment,” she said. “But I love your accent!” Then she added, “Well, let me see what I can do.”

She disappeared behind a door and came back soon with a broad smile. “Mr. Ole Risom said he has five minutes for you. He is the editor-in-chief. Just go right into his office.”
And five minutes later, Ole Risom bought my first children’s book. When I got home, this was attached to my door:
The only reason why I got to see the top editor in the children’s book market at that time was my accent. Without it, I might still be struggling.

I was told that my accent has gotten worse since then, which may explain why I was able to publish over 200 children
s books.

Monday, August 17, 2015

My Phi Beta Kappa cartoon controversy

In 1998, upon revisiting my bucket list, I began drawing single-panel cartoons (aiming for 10 a week) with the sole objective of selling one to The New Yorker. At least 2,000 cartoons later, I haven’t (and in fact haven’t tried since about 2003), but I hope to resume that pursuit one day. In the meantime, I ended up licensing cartoons to more than 100 other publications including The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Barrons, Good Housekeeping, the iconic Punch (in the UK), and the venerable Saturday Evening Post.

Another was The Key Reporter, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa, the university-level national honor society for academic achievement, of which I am a member.

The first time TKR published one of my cartoons was in its spring 2001 issue, which was also the first time the magazine published any cartoon.

The summer 2001 issue ran a second cartoon of mineand also a three-page article entitled “Do Phi Betes Have a Sense of Humor? Some Philosophical Thoughts about Jokes.”

I found it intriguing (and, at first, strange) that the traditionally staid publication would run a cartoon and a treatise on humor in back-to-back issues. Then I realized that this defense of the value of laughing was because of me.

A 1972 alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania had sent TKR a letter in which he stated:

As a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Professor in a University School of Medicine and a practicing physician, I was distressed by the cartoon on page 16. This derogatory, abusive and near-slanderous depiction of the physician as buffoon is inexcusable and deserves an apology.

My first controversy! Well, my first “controversy.”

I was surprised that TKR had not told me about this before the issue went out. (More so, I was surprised that someone would have such a reaction to a particularly innocuous cartoon.)

But I was thrilled at the sly way TKR chose to address the criticism. Rather than stop running my cartoons, or place any parameters on the cartoon topics I submitted, they published a thoughtful analysis on the nature of humor itself. Looking back, that seems like the only approach an esteemed organization like PBK would take.

More than thrilled, I was proud that my little cartoon (indirectly) took up so much real estate.

And it wasn’t over yet.

In the fall 2001 issue, under the headline “That Cartoon Critique,” two letters were printed. Excerpts:

letter 1:

I am a retired professor of surgery and pediatrics, and I’d like to twit my fellow PBK for being so exercised over a cartoon which depicted a physician as a buffoon.

letter 2:

I found the quote from the Phi Beta Kappa alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania regarding the Reporter’s Spring 2001 cartoon rather unsettling.


The inability to find humor in the Spring 2001 cartoon conveys to me an elitist state of mind. As in, “I am a physician AND a PHI BETA KAPPA member...how dare you poke fun at me or anyone like me.”

Both in law school and now professionally, people feel a need to share lawyer jokes with me. And you know what? I like them. I usually have the ability to top them with some of my own.

No one is above being the target of good-natured humor.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Five library talks in three days

From 8/3 to 8/5/15, I zigzagged around my home state of Connecticut to speak at five public libraries. They were in Easton, Brookfield, New Canaan, Marlborough, and Norfolk.

New Canaan News wrote up one of those talks.

Here is what greeted me and attendees there:

The final stop was Norfolk Library, as charming as it is (apparently) haunted.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

What Bill Finger left behind

In a way, it makes sense that the primary creative force behind Batman would be something of a mystery, but Bill Finger took that too far—or rather, circumstances (some but not all beyond his control) took that too far.

When Bill died in 1974, his son Fred took care of what little he had to his name. The fate of most of his personal belongings is lost to time. I’m told Fred offered to donate Bill’s now-legendary gimmick books to DC Comics, but DC declined. (Unbearable.) Presumably, Fred then tossed them. (Again unbearable. But understandable.)

What of Bill’s did survive?

A paperweight.

A sculpture of his first wife, Portia. Here is Bill’s longtime friend Charles Sinclair gifting it to Bill’s granddaughter Athena (2014).

A desk (partially obscured; a smaller sliver of it can also be seen in previous photo).

A signature (1945).

Another signature (1963).

A letter (1965).

Another letter (1965).

A third letter (1966).

Photos (more than most people knew about, but still too few).

Most hauntingly, a page in seminal Batman artist Jerry Robinson’s guest book, circa 1942. It is the longest known example of Bill’s handwriting that survives, and it is reproduced on the last page of Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.

Oh, and, of course, Batman himself.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The third “Chupacabra Ate Candelabra” announcement

More than a year ago, my first funny fiction picture book, The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra, was announced (pre-illustrator) on Publishers Marketplace. In June, I was thrilled to announce here that our illustrator is Ana Aranda. On 8/6/15, Publishers Weekly presented the whole enchilada.

Discoveries I made while researching Bill Finger

Most of this has already been covered here, but I recently stumbled upon an encapsulation I wrote several years ago so I am posting it for one-stop shoppers.

Bill Finger was not well documented in his lifetime by either interviews or photographs. He received no obituary in any mainstream publication. Few instances of his actual words have been published.

Bill married Portia in the 1940s. They had one son Fred in 1948. They eventually divorced and Bill quietly remarried in the late 1960s, to Edith. They had no children together. Bill died in 1974. Portia died in 1990. Fred died in 1992.

Among the information I uncovered:

HEIR: for years, fans had publicly discussed rumors of an unnamed, uncertain Finger heir yet no one seemed to know the original source; though I doubted it, I inadvertently found that there is indeed an heir—Athena Finger, the lone known grandchild, born two years after Bill died

VOICE: Bill was recorded (audio only) on a comics convention panel in 1965 and for a 28-minute interview in 1972

PHOTOS: in seven decades, only the same two grainy Bill photos have been published over and over (one other was published in 1940 but not since); more than one comics historian told me with conviction that no other photos exist; by contacting literally scores of people who knew Bill privately (i.e. not comics colleagues), I found eleven more during my research and several others after my book was published; one is his high school yearbook photo (he attended the esteemed DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx), never-before-found because he had another name at the time that I was the first to uncover

SISTERS: in 2007, via cemetery records of Bill’s parents, I found Bill’s sister Emily (born 1920), whom he’d never mentioned and who I know of only via the 1930 census; I assumed she would either be dead by now or be unfindable (due to a married name); because Bill was estranged from the family since before her wedding (early 1940s), she did not want to speak much to me; after my book was published, the 1940 census was released and it revealed a second sister, Gilda (oddly, one source says she was 10 in 1940 while another says she was 20 in 1940, but in either case, she did not appear on the 1930 census)

SECOND WIFE: no one knew he had one; she was once Edith and had since changed her name to Lyn

WRITING PARTNER: his name is Charles Sinclair, so Google barely helps; it took a while but I finally found him once I learned his middle initial; he was a true gentleman, giving me details never previously revealed about Bill—and he also gave me the paperweight that sat on Bill’s desk


HANDWRITING: I got a copy of the only known example of Bill’s handwriting (aside from a signature)—a charming note he wrote in Batman artist Jerry Robinson’s guest book in the early 1940s; it is reproduced in my book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman

Friday, August 7, 2015

How Bill Finger was documented in his lifetime

Most of this has already been covered here, but I recently stumbled upon an encapsulation I wrote several years ago so I am posting it for one-stop shoppers.

Bill Finger was not well documented in his lifetime by either interviews or photographs (and he received no mainstream obituary). Few instances of his actual words have been published.

The best source: he is quoted rather extensively in Jim Steranko’s book History of Comics, Volume 1 (1970). In addition, he spoke on a panel of comics creators at the first “official” comic convention in 1965, which is transcribed in Alter Ego #20, and he is briefly quoted in a short New Yorker piece about that convention.

He is also paraphrased in a now-legendary piece “If the Truth Be Known or ‘A Finger in Every Plot!’” This was written by a comics historian named Jerry Bails for a 1965 fanzine and was the first time most fans learned that someone other than Kane was involved in the creation of Batman.

Only two other Finger interviews were known to exist—but neither had been published. One was buried amid the clutter of famous fan Tom Fagan’s house in Vermont, the other lost in the bowels of a California university.

After years of searching unsuccessfully for the transcription of the California interview, Robert Porfirio, the man who conducted it, found the original sound recording (from 1972) in December 2008. He immediately digitized it and sent me a copy. Thomas Andrae’s book Creators of the Superheroes includes a full transcription. While parts of the recording are unfortunately distorted, it is one of only two known captures of Finger’s voice. (The other is a recording of the 1965 comic convention panel.)

In February 2009, the piece produced from the Vermont interview (conducted in the mid-1960s) also surfaced, along with two personal letters written by Finger—the only ones known to exist.

Aside from the published Bails and Steranko pieces, this material was unknown to most of the comics community.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

“Hand of God” a veiled message?

During the Q&A after an 8/3/15 talk I gave at a Connecticut library, an attendee asked me the meaning of the “Hand of God” comment on Bob Kane’s gravestone.

I’d never been asked that. I’d never thought about that.

And suddenly it hit me.

I regularly tell audiences that Bob had the chance all along—even at the end—to set the record straight, but instead he had carved into stone the same creation myth he’d been telling his whole career.

But now I see perhaps that gravestone does reveal the truth after all—discreetly.

Thinking out loud in front of that room, I realized perhaps “Hand of God” was a reference to Bob’s right-hand man, Bill Finger.

The fuller phrase is “A ‘Hand of God’ creation, Batman and his world personify the eternal struggle of good versus evil…”

Hand = Finger?

Good = Finger?

Almost certainly not…but curious nonetheless.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Bill Finger/George Roussos issue

As of this writing, the Wikipedia entry for Bill Finger includes this quotation from George Roussos, a comic book inker and colorist who began working in the Golden Age: “Bob Kane had ideas while Bill sort of organized them” (source cited: “Interviews with George Roussos,” Batman: The Dark Knight Archives, Volume 2, DC Comics, 1997).

I am confident that Roussos was well-intentioned. But it does not sound like he was as familiar with the reality of the working relationship between Bill and Bob as one might think.

Bizarrely, Roussos’s statement contradicts the accounts of nearly every other comics industry professional who also knew Bill and Bob personally as well as some DC-sanctioned statements and published accounts by writers including Jim Steranko, Les Daniels, Jim McLauchlin, and Jerry Bails.

I interviewed every key Batman-related creator who was still alive as of 2006. None claimed Bob was the idea man (in fact some vehemently claimed the opposite), none had a thing to gain by defending Bill, and at least two had something to lose (
Jerry Robinson was still a DC Comics consultant at the time, Arnold Drake had been negotiating terms over characters he had created). Even Bob admitted that Bill was a “boy wonder” of ideas (Bob’s 1989 autobiography Batman & Me, page 119)—but by then, Bill was already safely dead.

Bill not only wrote 1,500 stories over 25 years but also designed Batman’s costume, wrote the first appearances of Robin/Joker/Catwoman/many more, built the bat-motif, named “Gotham City” and “Bruce Wayne,” and nicknamed Batman “the Dark Knight.” Bob did not write a single Batman story in his lifetime, and the only major villain more than just Bob credits Bob with creating is Two-Face.

How is this Bill organizing Bob’s ideas?

Even the rest of Bill’s Wikipedia entry undermines the notion that Bill merely “sort of organized” Bob’s ideas.

As such, I feel Roussos’s statement does not belong in that entry. But my request to remove it was overruled. Some have presumed I attempted this because I am unconditionally pro-Bill and anti-Kane. No, I did it because I am a researcher of exacting standards. No matter the subject, I would not give this kind of weight to a single account of one truth over numerous other accounts of a different truth when all accounts are created equal (i.e. all were firsthand witnesses to Bill and Bob).

Like anyone, Roussos is entitled to an opinion. But I do not interpret Roussos’s recollection as a thought-out statement For The Record. I believe it was instead a quick, casual comment that he would probably rephrase if given the chance.

I realize Roussos’s quotation does not state that Bob had all the ideas. And I am not disputing Bob had the better business advice to lock in rights for himself. But I don’t define the legacy of a fictional character in terms of the commerce behind it. I define it on artistic merit.

I feel it is irresponsible to include a quotation as misleading as Roussos’s in the only source many people read to learn about Bill.