Sunday, November 27, 2016

National Press Club Book Fair and Authors' Night 2016

On 11/18/16, a day after returning from Vietnam, I had the honor of participating in the 39th annual National Press Club Book Fair and Authors' Night in Washington DC. 

It meant standing from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., which to me and my fresh case of jet lag was really 5:30 to 8:30 a.m. the next day. The chance to talk books has a way of invigorating me, though I can't say I wasn't wiped out by the end.

I'm definitely not a politician or pundit, and while I'm also not a cultural legend, there are no other options:

It was a pleasure to see author/illustrator friends Henry Cole, Mary Quattlebaum, and Minh Le there, plus meet new folk. And it was a thrill to be in a room that has hosted presidents, humanitarians, rock stars, and other luminaries, not to mention, of course, 38 prior years of authors.

  Photo courtesy of Bruce Guthrie.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Saigon South International School

After a wonderful week in north Vietnam, I relocated to south Vietnam for a wonderful half-week. Just as United Nations International School of Hanoi had warmly welcomed me, so did Saigon South International School.

Making this an especially special school visit was the fact that I was invited by Mandy Friedman and Lara Keller, both of whom had hosted me at previous international school visits (in the United Arab Emirates). Now I've managed to not get my photo taken with either of them in TWO countries.

As with the streets of Vietnam, the parking lot of the school is dominated by bikes, not cars:

Fire drill:

One student asked me a question that I don't believe I've gotten before: was Bob Kane sad when Bill Finger died? I don't know the answer but my guess is...a little.

Speaking of Bob, given that this visit was less than a week after the U.S. presidential election, I suddenly saw Bob's gravestone in a new light—and spontaneously told the middle and high school groups to whom I spoke that "even Donald Trump's grave would be more understated than this."

Both groups applauded wildly.

I liked this sign in the cafeteria but felt the word choice was iffy in a country notorious for a long, brutal war:

Perhaps the most bizarre moment of my time in HCM was a phone call.

One of my four nights there, I committed a cultural crime: I ate at a Domino's Pizza. (It, too, was just so conveniently located.) They include a free beverage of your choice with every pizza, but they were out of water, which was the only drink I wanted. A manager felt so badly about it that she apologized multiple times (in excellent English), then walked out with me to continue to apologize on the sidewalk in front. I assured her it truly was okay, but it took some work.

The next day, when I passed through the school library just prior to leaving, the library assistant (the same who prepared directions for me the day before) told me I'd gotten a call there—from Domino's.

The caller had said I'd left something at the restaurant—but I knew I hadn't. (I wasn't carrying anything when I went there.) Literally as the assistant was giving me this message, the phone rang—it was Domino's again. The caller asked to speak with me. When I came on, I could tell it was the same manager who apologized about the water. She said I didn't really forget anything but she wanted a plausible reason to tell the person who answered the phone.

I was trying to remember if I had told her I was working at the school; if not, she must have assumed than any American in that neighborhood would be. But that would not explain how she would know to ask for the library to reach me.

I was not clear why the manager had gone through the trouble to call me at the school. She apologized yet again and wished me a safe trip home, but it seemed like there was more to it than that—and if so, I still haven't figured it out. While I was listening blank-faced, my hosts stood to the side quietly laughing in disbelief.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Gooooood morning, Vietnam to goodnight Saigon

After a week in Hanoi and a weekend excursion to Halong Bay, I headed south to Ho Chi Minh City for three days of presentations and writing workshops at Saigon South International School.

After the Vietnam War, in 1976, the city was renamed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City, though the changeover has exceptions (for example, Saigon is still the name of the city center).

It struck me that I have quite a few songs about Vietnam in my music library:

  • "Goodnight Saigon" by Billy Joel
  • "19" by Paul Hardcastle
  • "Walking on a Thin Line" by Huey Lewis and the News
  • "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield
  • "I Have Seen the Rain" by Pink and James T. Moore (her dad, who wrote it)
  • "7 O'Clock News/Silent Night" by Simon & Garfunkel
  • "Last Train to Clarksville" by the Monkees (who knew?)
  • "Blowin' in the Wind" by Peter, Paul, and Mary (Bob Dylan cover)

My hotel, Hotel Opera, run by an Australian, is named for the Sydney Opera House. It was conveniently located right across the street from the school.

I arrived on the Sunday night still in some form of shock following the U.S. presidential election the Tuesday before. Signs that America can unify are everywhere, even in a small hotel in Ho Chi Minh, if you choose to see them. These bottles were already in that order; no rigging here:

Ironing was not permitted in the rooms. I asked how I could get something ironed and was told I'd have to wait till 8 a.m. the next morning. But that was later than I needed to be at the school. So the employee at reception said I could go up to the fifth floor and iron it myself.

The fifth floor was not only the laundry area but also what looked to be someone's private but doorless apartment. In fact, she was sleeping on the tile floor of the laundry room while I quietly availed myself of the nearby ironing board.

The only pocket of daytime I had to explore the city was Tuesday afternoon. I had only three destinations, all sites of (in)famous photos taken during the Vietnam War: the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk (1963), the point-blank summary execution of a Vietcong war criminal (1968), and the helicopter evacuation of the Embassy of the United States (1975).

 Malcolm Browne

 Eddie Adams

 Hugh Van Es/UPI/Newscom

Given how far apart these sites were from each other and from my hotel, and factoring in HCM traffic, I made it to only the first two (which were the two I most wanted to see anyway).

The immolation:

It took me a few minutes, but I eventually oriented myself by finding one remnant of the 1963 landscape still present today. It is a building made from large white blocks visible in a 1963 photo taken from another angle:

The execution:

As with the surroundings in the monk photo, the skyline here is totally different than it was when the photo was taken. I am trusting this site for providing this address (which I found nowhere else).

By the way, the backstory of the police chief who shot the Vietcong is fascinating and heartbreaking.

Also fascinating: I needed help plotting out the best way to get around to these sites in part because they are not marked with a sign or statue and in part because taxi drivers generally don't speak English. I consulted a knowledgeable Vietnamese library assistant at the school, who kindly wrote instructions for my taxi driver:

I showed her the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the execution—and was surprised she'd never seen it before. But I shouldn't have been because that disturbing incident—along with much of the rest of that devastating war—is not commemorated there.

One of my proudest moments in Vietnam—and one of the biggest adventures in Asia—is crossing the street on foot. This is the rotary I had to navigate to get to the site of the execution photo (my taxi driver would not drive into it):

To end on a light note, I was happy to discover these cute, crunchy, snappily packaged little apples from New Zealand.

Goodnight Saigon.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Response to one belief that Bill Finger should NOT be credited for Batman

In his article "The Man Behind the Mask: On the Creation of Batman—and Rewriting Authorship Itself" (posted on 11/18/16), writer Sean P. Carlin explains why he feels that adding Bill Finger's name to the Batman credit line after 76 years is unjust.

No surprise, I disagree. My reasons why, counterpoint by point (key parts bolded):

SPC: In 1939, illustrator Bob Kane (1915-1998) was tasked by DC Comics editor Vin Sullivan to devise a character for Detective Comics that could complement—and ideally capitalize on the success of—the costumed hero who had the year earlier made his debut in the pages of Action Comics: Superman.

MTN: Batman was not a work-for-hire, though you may not be implying that he was. Upon learning how much the Superman co-creators were making, Bob boasted to Vin that for that kind of money, he could come up with a new superhero over the weekend.

"When I created the Batman," admitted Bob Kane, "I wasn't thinking of story. I was thinking, I have to come up with a character who's different"

Bob did not write a single Batman story in his life.

built on anecdotal evidence at best—i.e., conflicting and contradictory recollections, some of them secondhand, and most issued years after the fact. We can speculate all we like, but we don't really know who created what; even for DC's in-house historian, "delineating specific contributions has become increasingly difficult" (Susan Karlin, "Who Really Created Batman? A DC Comics Historian Weighs in on the Controversy," FastCo.Create, July 21, 2014). 

Hardly anecdotal, and not at all conflicting. That's something that struck me during my research for Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman—though at first the story seems controversial, when you take a step back it actually isn't because there is virtually no dispute over any of the contributions that have been ascribed (partially or fully) to Bill. Even Bob himself credited Bill for a significant amount of the mythos (even the costume); see his autobiography Batman & Me.

But Bob, of course, had a history of being an unreliable source; therefore, when he DID give credit to someone other than himself, it carries more weight.

In 2006, I individually interviewed eight creators from the Golden Age who all knew Bill and Bob personally (Jerry Robinson, Shelly Moldoff, Lew Sayre Schwartz, Alvin Schwartz, Joe Kubert, Arnold Drake, Carmine Infantino, Irwin Hasen). All of their accounts of who did what aligned, and none had anything to gain by lying. (All, sadly, have since died.) You can read those interviews (plus a few more) here.

Incidentally, I commented on that Susan Karlin article within a day or two of it posting; both my comments and statements made by DC Comics historian Steve Korté have since been removed—but not before I documented them on my blog. It seems safe to say that DC requested the removal of Steve's statements because DC recognized that those statements were incorrect

The only proof-positive documentation we have is Kane's contract with DC, which names him sole creator. 

Since we know of no one outside of DC Comics top brass who has seen this contract, it cannot be considered "proof-positive." 

folkloric characters like Batman are influenced by and evolved through the creative input of untold artists

Of course every character that endures long enough to be written/drawn by anyone other than its creator(s) will be reinterpreted on some level. However, a character is CREATED only once, by the person or persons who were in the room on day 1. In this case, that is Bill Finger and Bob Kane.

back in the early days, credit attribution didn't necessarily mean a whole lot

This was true for many but not all; obviously credit meant a lot to Bob Kane. 

"I think it sets a bad precedent," I finally answered.

The 2015 Bill Finger announcement was the biggest case of a comics creator receiving belated or posthumous credit, but it was not the first. At least as far back as the early 2000s, DC comic books began to include previously unidentified creators of certain superheroes (for example, Paul Norris was credited for Aquaman for the first time in #7 of his 2003 series, issue dated 8/03). Some if not all of these changes were likely due to behind-closed-door negotiations between DC and creators or their heirs. These negotiations were not publicized so as not to embolden other creators or heirs who had not yet pursued equal treatment. Shortly before his death in 2007, Arnold Drake (Deadman, Doom Patrol, Beast Boy) told me that this had happened with him. In 2011, Carmine Infantino told me of a similar situation (and died two years later).

Success breeds resentment, and there may have been people that appreciably augmented the Batman mythos who maybe felt, as the years went on, they were entitled to a bigger piece of that multibillion-dollar pie.

If Bill Finger was one of them, he didn't explicitly confirm this in any of his four known interviews (Bails 1965, Fagan 1965, Steranko 1970, Porfirio 1972). It is telling that Bill did not out himself—fan-turned-detective-turned-crusader Jerry Bails did, in 1965. (By the way, this is both a compliment to and a criticism of Bill, but that's another story.)

And we have no more proof now as to what Finger contributed—no heretofore undisclosed records or testimony have been newly presented for consideration—and it's like DC got harangued into crediting him despite the explicit stipulations of the contract they had with Kane, right or wrong.

We need "no more"—what is already documented is enough. See Bob's book, the aforementioned four interviews with Bill, the interviews with the Golden Agers who worked with both, 1960s letter column comments by editor Julie Schwartz, and numerous other instances in DC publications—for starters. Again, aside from Bob taking credit for ideas and characters that even he later credited Bill for, no one else I know of (and I consulted 200+ people in comics, Bill's family, etc.) has disputed Bill's contributions to Batman. The issue has not been "who did what" since before 1965.

And what I find troubling about that is it treats creatorship credit like it's open to interpretation—like if enough fanboys in enough comic stores say it enough times, it becomes fact. And we don't know the facts—those have been, regrettably, either muddled by time or lost to history. … We have conflicting statements from the people involved, many if not most of them now deceased. 

Again, aside from Bob contradicting himself over years, I found no conflicting statements either in print or in the original interviews I conducted in 2006. Fanboys were not repeating falsehoods.

DC puts Finger's name next to Kane's after seventy-five years, and they open the floodgates for the heirs of other artists to make similar claims on a given IP. 

Again, that's been happening for years. So because it's now happened for Bill—by far the most high profile of such cases—speaks to the viability of the matter. DC would not add Bill's name to Batman simply to appease fanboys, not least of which because it may well have prompted other heirs who didn't know about the quieter cases like Arnold Drake's to file a claim. The company credited Bill because pressure was finally applied resting on proof that had been present for decades.

We don't deny Maquet's contributions to those lasting works, just as we don't deny Finger's on Batman, but a deal was a deal, and it's not our place to reconsider—and even rewrite—the terms of a creative contract long after those who entered into it have left this earth. 

Contracts in every industry are renegotiated all the time. Just because something was once signed does not mean it is valid forevermore—otherwise, as but one example, slavery would still be legal in the United States.

DC posthumously breached its contractual agreement with Kane based on "hotly disputed" hearsay, to borrow the phrasing of one of Bill Finger's supporters, something any creator of content should regard as cause for alarm, not celebration.

Again, since said contract has not been publicly shared, it cannot be said that DC breached it. I am the supporter you refer to, and the "hotly disputed" phrase refers specifically to the Joker, and previously to Robin—not to Bill's role overall. (As I say in my book, Bob said he and Bill created the Joker, Jerry Robinson said HE and Bill created the Joker…so the constant is Bill. That is all I meant by "disputed.")

The resolution to the Kane/Finger dispute isn't justice; quite the opposite, in fact. 

This is subjective, of course, but to me and legions of fans (not to mention legions more who are not Batman fans but have been won over by this story through my talks across four continents and twice as many years), this is most certainly justice. Perhaps even Bob's family thinks so; as you noted, they've made no public statement in the 14 months since the announcement. 

But even if not, the Bill Finger credit resolution exemplifies the essence of what Batman himself stands for—defending the underdog, even if he is no longer here to benefit from it, but more importantly, and quite simply, righting a wrong.

On this Thanksgiving Eve, I give thanks for Bill, thanks to you for listening, and thanks for a country in which a dialogue like the above is possible.

2/22/22 addendum: Several years after Bill the Boy Wonder was published, I realized I could not trace the original source for the oft-cited allegation that Bob Kane’s contract included that he and he alone be credited as the creator of Batman. (Sure sounds like him, but still need proof.) Today I stumbled upon a possible answer that I first saw years ago, but did not reflect on deeply at the time. 

In a 1966 issue of fan publication Batmania that covered a comic convention called Con-Cave that was held that summer, Tom Fagan paraphrased no less an authority than legendary editor Julius Schwartz (who appeared on a panel) as saying that Bob’s contract with National (now DC Comics) might stipulate that Bob’s name appear on Batman stories because Bob was the originator. (Note that Fagan did not quote Schwartz as saying Bob’s name alone must appear, but I infer that is what Schwartz meant even if he didn’t explicitly say it or if Fagan didn’t accurately quote it.) Schwartz said that checking the contract could confirm or deny this—but obviously that didn’t happen at the con (if ever, as far as the fans have heard). 

I can’t imagine that this topic would have come up publicly much before this incident; the first “official” con (i.e. the first con where pros participated) was only the year before. But again, I can’t say with certainty that this is where the infamous claim took root…or if it’s true.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Bill Finger's paperweight on "Gotham"

Did I…?

Was that…?

Watching the season 3 episode of Gotham called "The Executioner" (original air date 11/14/16), my eyes popped and my jaw dropped when the character who will become Poison Ivy picks up a paperweight.

A paperweight that so happens to be THE EXACT SAME STYLE AS THE ONE BILL FINGER LEFT BEHIND more than 40 years ago.

As seen in Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman:

The story behind Bill's paperweight came with a crazy coincidence; could this Gotham appearance be one, too? Or, even better, was it (however unlikely) done deliberately?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Flash back

In 2011, I posted interviews with cast members of the 1979 TV specials Legends of the Superheroes, including Rod Haase, who was the first person to portray the Flash in live-action. Foreflasher of John Wesley Shipp and Grant Gustin!

This year, he attended Pop Con in Milwaukee where he met fans, signed autographs…and donned the red again. The man who organized it, Troy Kinunen, president of MEARS Auctions, reported that the crowd loved him. Troy kindly sent me this photo:

Great to see that Rod is still in the fast lane.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Amazon Rapids—dialogue-only stories for kids

On 11/2/16, Amazon announced an app called Rapids

It intends to deliver a steady stream of original, custom-illustrated short stories aimed at young readers, all told entirely via conversation between/among two to four characters (whether "live" or via text). The story pops up one line at a time, like text messages.

Props to whoever came up with that clever name. "Rapids" fits with the stories (they're fast reads), it fits with Amazon (you may remember that it was a river before a web site), and it fits in the limited space under an app icon (only six characters).

The app costs $2.99/month or $29.99/year; it's available on handheld devices (not desktop or laptop computers). Sure, it's a gimmick…but not exactly a sure-thing one. It's not like kids are clamoring for more dialogue-only stories. 

But yes, it does take advantage of the ubiquitous text message format to help lure young people, even though they typically do not consider their phones a storytelling device. Yet because of smartphones, tweens and teens are doing non-school reading on a more regular basis than previous generations. (I'm not citing statistics; I'm just looking around the restaurant, cinema, airport, park, and yes, library.)

Hand-in-hand with this, they are also writing more. Prior to 2007, many kids wrote nothing over the summer. Now some with smartphones write enough in record time to fill notebooks. They are perpetual autobiographers. We all are now.

However, that doesn't mean they're reading (or writing) more of substance. Text messaging is not thoughtfully constructed, longer-form narrative. It's fragments, often with little regard to grammar or style.

But still, it's literacy.

Kids who love downloading stories into their brains the traditional way—via printed books—will continue to do so, but apps such as Rapids may interest kids who are NOT active readers. Anything that engages reluctant readers (and does not deter existing readers) is a win.

Like many writers, I have been telling stories across multiple platforms (namely books, blogs, and talks) since before smartphones. I can now add apps to that list. Among the stories Rapids launched with are ten I wrote, beginning in May 2016.

We must accept that digital technology is not going away. That's scary for some, but fear is often the core of change. And fear—therefore change—can be a good thing. Look at puberty. Look at moving. Look at subscription models of streaming services. Look at life itself.

When answering machines came along, the populace did not complain that these new devices would ruin the simpler era of missing phone calls. Instead they got used to a new normal.

Though technology is distracting for some kids, it also both motivates and enables more kids to read. It's widely discussed that bookstores are disappearing from rural communities (not to mention more developed areas), and sometimes the nearest library is, well, far. But smartphones seem to be everywhere (I even saw them in slums in India).

And amidst all this, one thing hasn't changed—the role of parents and teachers in setting boundaries. Now when you're waiting in line with bored or grumpy kids, you have an option that is a compromise—kids can have screen time, but TO READ. If the app does its job, it will help some kids realize that's not a chore but a joy.

A story is a story is a story. The delivery method is largely incidental. Filter out the generational emotional attachment to physical books and the effect is the same: you are entertained/educated.

I realize my tone here may seem defensive. That's because I was conflicted at first about participating in this project. Some authors vehemently decry digital storytelling.

But ultimately, what attracted me to contributing to Rapids was that gimmick. I liked the challenge of telling a story completely via dialogue. (Even plays have stage directions.)

In other words, the app is giving writers an opportunity to tell stories in a format that no other outlet offers, at least none I know of.

And it certainly doesn't mean I will stop writing books.

Among the press:

If you tweet about the app, please use #RapidsReader.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Superman and Batman pitch tolerance…in 1949

On 11/11/16, on Facebook, I shared a poster from the Golden Age of Comics that I'd seen before and had recently been reminded of. It was (quite obviously, and sadly) a response to the presidential election three days earlier.

We have that world-famous immigrant, Superman, telling kids the importance—the imperative—of tolerance. This version is dated 1950, but apparently the poster was first issued the year before and distributed by the Institute for American Democracy. I don't know who those folks were/are, but they sound alright.

Then I tweeted it.

And faster than a speeding bullet, it became my most retweeted (by far) since I joined Twitter in 2011 (1,000+ retweets, 1,200+ likes, 108,000+ impressions and counting). That's more than my 2015 announcement that DC Comics would begin crediting Bill Finger on Batman after 76 years.

Speaking of Batman, he got into the PSA act, too—same year.

The message of the Superman poster is uplifting. But it's also incongruous: Superman is preaching diversity to a fairly homogeneous group. (Even if, as I suspect, one of the kids is gay and another is Jewish.) In seriousness, the poster is both ahead of and a product of its time, a four-color contradiction with its heart in the right place.

Several people on Facebook (as you saw in the tweet above) suggested that DC reissue the poster. It's unsettling (to put it mildly) that its message is still needed in 2016. Of course it'd be but one step in a large, difficult campaign. But every step, however small, can make a difference.

A couple of people of my parents' generation (born in the 1940s) remember seeing the poster hanging in their schools. A number of teachers tweeted that they want to use it in their classrooms now. Some have said self-producing copies would fall under fair use, though I can't verify that.
Reprinting it now would serve at least two positive purposes beyond the primary one:

  • show that mainstream plugs for open-mindedness and acceptance began earlier than some realize
  • remind us that bigotry has plagued us for too long (as distant as 1949 will seem to some, we all know the problem of prejudice in America goes back to the start)

But because the visuals of the poster do not fully reflect the message, I proposed that DC create a diversified update and run it alongside the original. It would make a powerful point and be fun at the same time.

The People of Twitter have proposed that the new version include POC, people with disability, people of other cultures (i.e. one with a hijab), nonbinary people…and even Marvel characters.

To be even more inclusive than that, we could also add a Trump supporter.

Many of Superman's most notable colleagues are also fellow immigrants to America, including Wonder Woman (now an honorary UN ambassador), Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, and Hawkman. The Justice League of America could more accurately be called the Justice League of All Over.

And Americans sure have embraced THEM.

That said, one tweeter asked if Superman is still relevant to today's kids. Fair question. As someone who's had the privilege of speaking to kids worldwide about the Man of Steel, I'm happy to report the answer is yes. I can't say he is AS popular as he was in 1949, but I can unequivocally say he IS popular.

Superman was so successful so fast in part because he debuted on the cusp between the Great Depression and World War II. He soon came to embody the values of the Greatest Generation. Through his 1940s radio show, he even helped expose and weaken the Ku Klux Klan; see the book by Rick Bowers.

Superman famously fights for truth, justice, and the American way. When done properly, the American way means you take the whole world into account.

It was self-evident in 1949. It is self-evident in 2016.

I remain optimistic about the next generation—and this one.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

United Nations International School, Hanoi, Vietnam

From 11/7 to 11/10/16, I was the guest of the United Nations International School in Hanoi (then Saigon South International School the week after). I've been treated to spectacular welcome displays before, but this school may take the crown given the size and sheer number of the posters around the campus. Huge thanks to my kind hosts for going all out and then some to pump up the kids. 

They also ordered stacks of books.

They also gave kids the chance to pose as a superhero.

They also put out a fun array of superhero-themed puzzles for kids to tackle as they wished.

They also asked kids to reflect on heroes from the real world...

...and in their own lives. Given that my time at UNIS overlapped with the U.S. presidential election, it was an especially apt week for that.

Thank you again to Julie, Deborah, and everyone else at UNIS who has made my time here so special. A special mention to film teacher and fellow pop culture junkie Jackson Garland for the burgers and banter and to the other kind crews who kept me company at dinner.