Saturday, October 23, 2021

Peter Scolari, Emmy-winning actor, 1955-2021

Emmy-winning actor Peter Scolari, who co-starred with Tom Hanks in Bosom Buddies and later appeared on Newhart, Girls, and the Batman-adjacent show Gotham, died 10/22/21. He was only 66.

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter about his guest role on Family Ties. This man had 1,844 more important things to do yet he took the time to leisurely answer questions about a 24-minute show he appeared on once in 1986.

After, he wrote "Do you think you could send me a copy of that book about Mr. Finger? Think of it as a late birthday present...oh, and if you could sign it, that would be so cool." 

Then he actually read it, and made a point to tell me. What's so cool now?

Of the hundreds of pop culture figures I've interviewed, he was one of the most genuine and most gracious. A bosom buddy I never met in person. Thank you and RIP Peter.

Friday, October 22, 2021

School visit in an underpass

I feel so fortunate that my job has enabled me to travel to a dozen countries to speak, yet after the past 18 months, I already look back at this as equally memorable: presenting at a school 25 minutes an underpass.

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Booze and picture books?

Today, which happens to be three years to the day when Thirty Minutes Over Oregon: A Japanese Pilot's World War II Story was released, I learned that the book was (coincidentally) part of an event held last night at the annual conference of the Virginia Association of Teachers of English.

A wine/chocolate/book pairing.

I'm told passages of the featured books were read while wine was sipped and chocolate nibbled.

Picture books and booze don't normally go together. 

But, of course, this was an adults-only affair. 

I don't know why my book was chosen, but I am honored by its inclusion, especially because it is among such distinguished company (meaning the other authors/illustrators, though I'm sure the wine and chocolate were also great).

Saturday, October 2, 2021

The first picture book about the creation of Wonder Woman

In the DC Comics universe, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have become known as the Trinity. The first time DC officially used that word for the Big Three may have been the 2003 miniseries Batman/Superman/Wonder Woman: Trinity, though please don’t quote me on that.

Since then, two other Trinity series (to date) have come out.


(Side note: at first it seemed odd to me that only one character graced the cover of the first issue of a book called Trinity. But turns out this was setting up a pattern: for most of the series, only one of the three headliners would appear on each cover, though sometimes with other characters. The first time all three—in their most commonly recognizable form—appeared together in full on a cover was #48. The series ended with #52.)


Meanwhile, my book Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman released in 2008.

My book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman released in 2012.

Over the years, at almost every school visit, a young person has asked if I am going to write about any other superheroes. I said the only other one I would do is Wonder Woman. Before the 2017 Wonder Woman movie, there would be a smattering of claps or cheers, but after, the room would erupt with enthusiasm.

I did start the project. I read Jill Lepore’s superhumanly researched The Secret History of Wonder Woman. And several years before that, I conducted introductory interviews with two grandchildren of William (Bill) Moulton Marston, currently the only person officially credited as the creator of Wonder Woman.

One is Christie Marston, granddaughter of Bill and his wife Elizabeth.

The other is Nancy Wykoff, granddaughter of Bill and Olive Byrne, a woman Bill and Elizabeth welcomed into their home…and their marriage. Not typical picture book fare!

Bill fathered two children with Elizabeth and two with Olive. After he died in 1947, Elizabeth and Olive continued to live and raise the kids together. Speculation persists about whether the two women also had a romantic relationship. In any case, more on this below.

As of last month, the picture book version of the Superman/Batman/Wonder Woman trinity is finally complete—but not thanks to me. A True Wonder: The Comic Book Hero Who Changed Everything comes courtesy of Kirsten W. Larson, illustrated by Katy Wu.

Kirsten kindly blogged about other books for young readers that celebrate superhero creators, and I was honored that she included mine.

The subtitle of A True Wonder certainly describes Wonder Woman—it echoes her aforementioned theme song, “change their minds, and change the world”—but not uniquely so; it could also apply to others including Superman (first superhero), Robin (first superhero sidekick), Black Panther (first mainstream Black superhero), Storm (first mainstream Black female superhero), and Northstar (first openly gay superhero). I would have liked the subtitle (or title) to allude to Wonder Woman’s gender, which would be consistent with the book’s emphasis. 

(Side note: firsts—especially in a vast medium like visual storytelling—are often up for debate. Though this includes the ones above, they seem to be the most commonly cited groundbreakers.)

On the cover, Wonder Womans costume is tweaked to avoid a copyright or trademark claim. (For the same reason, the covers of my superhero creator books show Superman and Batman in silhouette. Inside, however, under the fair use doctrine, we did show the licensed characters in detail a few times, whereas A True Wonder doesnt.) I wonder if “Wonder Woman” is not in the subtitle (or the title) out of caution.

A standout factor of A True Wonder is that it honors both Bill Marston and women who later contributed to Wonder Woman’s development—writers, editors, a director, and an actor. In other words, it’s not a biography but rather a broader contextual look at her history, through a predominantly female lens. Kids of all genders will be dazzled, validated, and inspired. 

I especially love that the book mentions the educational “Wonder Women of History” feature that ran in comics in the 1940s. 

Larson cites sources for most dialogue in the book, but a few statements (or thoughts) are invented, which calls to mind a 2021 School Library Journal article about ways informational texts incorporate fabricated elements, yet remain nonfiction. (Of course, fabricated elements are not the same as fabricated “facts.”) Infusing a true story with a fictional aspect (narrative bookends, a Greek chorus throughout, etc.) can make nonfiction more appealing to some readers. Librarians make a judgment call to classify the book as nonfiction or historical fiction, depending on the nature of the fictional ingredients. I maintain that there is no such thing as pure nonfiction anyway!

Wu’s art is aptly striking for a character as fierce as Wonder Woman. Ribbons, stars, and other colorful flourishes give the book a sense of fluidity and propulsion. My favorite image shows the hero dangling from a helicopter (a memorable scene from the TV show). 

In my assessment, Wonder Woman was created by four people; in this book, only two of them are part of the story proper: Bill and Elizabeth (though Elizabeth appears on only one page). The other two appear only in the back matter and also only once: Olive Byrne (the basis of Wonder Woman’s iconic bracelets and allegedly her overall appearance) and original artist Harry G. Peter. I consider both of them (and Elizabeth) to be the “Bill Fingers” of the Wonder Woman origin—inextricably significant but officially uncredited. 

Neither Elizabeth nor Olive wrote or illustrated the first Wonder Woman story (or any subsequent stories that I’m aware of). But being part of a “creation” can mean being there at the beginning in other capacities. Given Bill’s outspoken position on female equality, if any male comics creator of his time would have given credit in print for inspiration, it would’ve been Bill. Yet alas, he didn’t, and as of yet, DC hasn’t, either.

Larson importantly points out that the people who birthed the superhero industry were almost exclusively white men. It bears repeating that the book does a stellar job showcasing the role of women in Wonder Woman’s evolution. It also beautifully brims with people of many colors. As such, I was surprised that the book did not take the next step and show that this diversity (eventually) extended to the fictional world of Wonder Woman, which features nonwhite characters including Nubia and Yara Flor.

Speaking of the fictional side, many kids would have been fascinated by a glimpse of Wonder Woman’s backstory. The opening spread references Greek mythology but the book does not elaborate on the connection. It also does not bring up that Wonder Woman hails from a thriving all-female society, which would intriguingly reinforce the “girl power” message.

On that topic, I feel one passage in the book stumbles. In discussing Wonder Woman editorial changes of the 1960s, the text reads “They took away all that made her a wonder: her costume, her lasso and bracelets, her superpowers.” It may sound nitpicky—and I realize the author didn’t mean it this way or even notice this possible interpretation because every writer encounters this sort of thing at times—but to me “all” comes across as superficial. What makes Wonder Woman a wonder is more than her appearance and enhanced abilities. It is what she does with those abilities. 

Had I followed through on a Wonder Woman book, I was intending to focus on Bill, Elizabeth, Olive, and later Harry. I might not have gone beyond the 1940s, addressing the rest of Wonder Woman’s vital history in the author’s note. (I took this approach in Boys of Steel.) 

Before completing research, I was already so excited that I wrote a possible opening:

Superman. Batman. Sandman. Hawkman. Hourman. Starman. 

Notice anything about that list of superheroes?

A professor named William Moulton Marston did. And did something about it. 

But like those heroes, who formed the Justice Society of America so together they could accomplish what individually they couldn’t, William also needed a team. 

Unlike the Justice Society, which was originally all men and then all men and one woman, William’s team started as all women and one man.

I was further intending to gently introduce polyamory, the act of loving multiple people (not to be confused with polygamy, or marrying multiple people). 

Yes, I know some adults would vehemently disapprove of a book for young readers trying to destigmatize polyamory. There would be banning (or attempted banning). But Bill, Elizabeth, and Olive were in a consensual relationship—no deception or betrayal involved. I feel Id owe it to their memory...and their bravery.

In recent years, picture books for young readers have made tremendous strides in covering topics that were once considered taboo for the format—from transgender and non-binary people to white privilege to tattoos. In my vision, the interpersonal adult dynamics of Wonder Woman’s creators would not have been the main thread, but because the unit of Bill, Elizabeth, and Olive influenced the “love is love” essence that Wonder Woman often embodies, I feel it would be critical to touch on it in an age-appropriate way. Others agree!

This is an excellent take on the imperative to throw the Lasso of Truth around ourselves and acknowledge both the full list of people who should be credited for Wonder Woman and the unconventional yet no less respectable relationship among three of those creators. The article speaks to not only the nobility of the hero but also the notion of tolerance—which goes full circle back to the nobility of the hero.

Wonder Woman would trust in us to rise to the occasion.

Thank you, Kirsten and Katy, for telling this story. Let’s get the picture book trinity together for a panel!

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Visiting Beatles sites in London, England

The Beatles have inspired me to be a day tripper three times to date.

In 1993, as a college student, I went to Europe for the first time and traveled by train to 11 countries; a highlight was a detour to Liverpool, England, to soak up some iconic Beatles hotspots. Some excited me more than the Eiffel Tower.

In 2018, I worked out a customized walking tour of locations associated with the Beatles in Hamburg, Germany (where my wife is from). Each is a short walk from the next.

Recently, I put together a third Beatles tour, this time for London, where the sites are a bit more spread out. I’m sure there are other points of interest I could’ve included, but I focused on seven of the biggies. I was in Londontown for my sister-in-law’s wedding—a whirlwind trip, only two nights—but I built in just enough time to squeeze in this experience. In fact, I went straight from a red-eye flight to a COVID test to the tour, then a quick shower and on to the pre-wedding family dinner.

The tour took about four hours. By day’s end, I’d walked more than 15 miles (but that factors in some walking not related to the Beatles, such as at the airport).

In order of appearance:

Abbey Road

Speaking of walking! 

My first stop was perhaps the mother nature’s son of all Beatles sites, yet also the most unassuming—a crosswalk. Of all the places I went on my tour, I spent the most time here because it’s the trickiest to photograph. In a case like this, a selfie won’t do, though I did take some because I was alone.

aiming camera at the end that the Beatles walked from

aiming camera at the end that the Beatles walked to

standing in the vicinity of where the photographer shot from;
note commemorative plate in pavement

close-up of plate

But you also need to ask a stranger to document your personal re-creation of the famous album cover image—while you both dodge cars. (It’s an active road. Many locals must hate that tourists are disrupting traffic literally all day.) 

Why don’t we do it in the road? 
(AKA almost getting run over to get the shot)

Finding a willing accomplice is actually not that hard because almost everyone or every group making pilgrimage to Abbey Road needs someone else’s help, so there’s a lot of quid photo quo. In the approximately 45 minutes I was there, people were taking turns taking photos the whole time, almost constantly.

At one point, a spirited woman from Israel recruited me and two others to form a foursome of strangers. She even took off her shoes (à la Paul).

I wish I’d known in advance about the Abbey Road Crossing Cam where you can see yourself go through the paces from a different angle. (Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, the footage is archived for only a day and I missed mine.)

Abbey Road Studios is mere steps away, heralded by clever signs on a low brick wall and encouraged graffiti. The low white barrier in front of Abbey Road Studios (seen in the distance) is marked with a John Lennon quotation. (I would have gone with a Beatles lyric.)

7 Cavendish Avenue; Paul McCartney’s house since 1965; 7 minutes by foot from Abbey Road

I thought this was a former address. Only when I was standing in front of the house did I learn that Paul still lives here! 

A shirtless man who was helping to renovate a house across the street told me (in an American accent) that Paul’s front gate is regularly wide open. It was when I arrived, with one security guard there, but before I worked up the nerve to take a photo, he closed it. The guy working on the renovation showed me a video on his phone of Paul waving to him from his front step...then waving for him to stop filming.  

Marylebone Rail Station; when facing the building, the street to the right is Boston Place, where all but Paul ran down to escape a throng of fans at the start of the film A Hard Day’s Night“Boston Place” is also mentioned in the opening chatter in the take of “Hey Jude” that appears on the Anthology 3 album; 23 minutes from Cavendish

I was not sure of the exact section of the street to photograph because the details of the area have (obviously) changed since the scene was filmed in the early 1960s. Based on the visibility of the building in the background of the shot, I think that the Beatles were running down the far end of Boston Place (meaning the other end of Boston Place from the Marylebone front entrance).

view from the side of Boston Place closer to the station front entrance

20 Manchester Square; building that housed EMI from 1960-1995 and the stairwell seen on the album covers of Please Please Me and the anthologies 1962-1966 and 1967-1970; 16 minutes from Marylebone

As you can see, the building was under construction so I was not able to go inside, but the workers outside told me that it had been reconfigured anyway. (I think they meant prior to the current construction.)

57 Wimpole Street; the house in which Paul and John wrote “I Want to Hold Your Hand”; 7 minutes from Manchester Square

5-6 Argyll Street; former office of Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein and alleged site of interview in which John Lennon said the Beatles were “bigger than Jesus”; today the ground floor is a Five Guys (apropos since Epstein is one of the people considered the “Fifth Beatle”); 14 minutes from Wimpole

Inexplicably, the circular blue heritage sign here (and at Savile Row) is way above eye level.

3 Savile Row; formerly the location of Apple Records and the site of the Beatles final live performance (the famous, impromptu 1969 rooftop concert); 7 minutes from Argyll

If Abbey Road is the crown jewel of Beatles sites, 3 Savile Row—specifically the roof—is the Holy Grail. That’s because it’s not open to the public. Yet I tried in advance to get permission to go up there. 

The building was the headquarters of the Beatles’ record label, Apple. It is currently owned (or rented) by Abercrombie & Fitch, and the ground floor was, until a week before I went there, an A&F store. That store has moved a few blocks away.

It took a while to wend my way through A&F contacts till I reached the correct one: the Health & Safety Manager. He kindly took the time to respond to my request:

“We are not accepting any requests for access to the roof. This policy has been in place since we have taken over this location. The policy is built around our landlord agreements, privacy requests from neighbors, etc. So unfortunately too many elements to list.”

Naturally, I didn’t give up just yet. I tried to appeal to a larger sense of cultural posterity—as well as the basic human desire to feel appreciated. I wrote this:

“The acknowledgements in my books thank many people who at first declined a research request (sometimes multiple times), but eventually said yes, which helped me tell stories no one else was and in some cases helped me change things for the better.”

I then emphasized a writer’s reliance on the good will of strangers and assured him that I’d be quick, quiet, and careful. I also offered to sign a liability waiver and give him free books. 

Alas, access was still denied. At least now I know who to ask when I try again…

“And, in the end, the tour you take is equal to the tour you make.”

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Plum Creek Literacy Festival canceled due to anti-LGBTQ+ position

On 9/20/21, author Eliot Schrefer shared the anti-LGBTQ+ code of conduct of Concordia University in Nebraska, which hosts the annual Plum Creek Literacy Festival. 

When I spoke there in 2013, I did not know of this, nor had I yet begun to verify inclusivity before agreeing to participate in events.

In the week that followed, the kidlit community sent a loud, proud, clear, and queer message to Concordia and Plum Creek: no matter how you try to defend/deflect/downplay this policy, it is, plainly and simply, then or now, intolerance.

As a species, we have a considerable list of societal issues to improve on, but the way any two (or more!) people love each other is not one of them. 

I am one of legions who support and thank Eliot. He backed out alone, with courage and poise. He ended up leading a movement which, I believe, will make a difference. I stand by all authors who have since withdrawn from this well-paying, well-attended event. 

If Concordia and PCLF are committed to turning a situation that has been hurtful all around into a positive, the only way to start is by striking all anti-gay policy from the code and making a public statement in support of the LGBTQ+ community. 

Given that the university is affiliated with the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, in whose deeply entrenched view homosexuality is a sin, I realize that this likely won’t happen.

To everyone else: 

  • Please support the kids who were looking forward to the festival (and kids anywhere) by telling them the truth about why it was canceled and explaining that the authors did this out of respect for ALL people. 
  • Please support the LGBTQ+ community by speaking out against discrimination whenever you encounter it…whether or not it directly affects you.  
  • Please support the authors who withdrew from PCLF by buying or promoting their books. (As of 9/1/21, the lineup was Jim Arnosky, Nathan Hale, Molly Idle, Varian Johnson, Laurie Keller, Juana Martinez-Neal, Meg Medina, Tim Miller, Frank Morrison, Leslie Patricelli, LeUyen Pham, Matthew Reinhart, Eliot Schrefer, and Ashley Wolff.)

Oh, you like convenience? Here’s a way to support all three groups at once: 

Buy books with LGBTQ+ characters and/or by LGBTQ+ creators via Chapters, an indie bookstore in the same town as Concordia; it’s currently and bravely running a LGBTQ+ themed Banned Books campaign.

I asked Chapters owner Carla Ketner if the store would be willing to randomly distribute pre-purchased books to kids who come in, and she said yes, so I ordered titles written or illustrated by Phil Bildner, K.A. Holt, Mike Curato, Jo Knowles, Marla Frazee, Alex London, Adib Khorram, and Basia Tran.

To end on a promising note: for years, in crowded school auditoriums nationwide, I have seen how an ugly moment of intolerance can transform into a tear-inducing moment of acceptance, in some cases in the span of an hour.
I remain optimistic.

Update: Two days after this post went live, Carla reported this: “Just made a couple kids very happy. One gasped as they read the flap copy and said, ‘This sounds just like me!’ I get a bit teary thinking we might have brought this struggling teen a little peace.” Carla also said that her store has done well this week and she is paying it forward by encouraging people to also support River Dog Book Co., a queer-owned Wisconsin bookstore.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

“I knew Bill Finger at Army Pictorial Center, here are some stories”

Six years ago today, DC Comics announced that Bill Finger would begin receiving official credit on Batman stories. 

In 2006, you had never heard of Bill Finger and I had just begun researching him. I asked the military for help.

Bill’s friend Charles Sinclair had told me that Bill was a freelance writer for the Army Pictorial Center in Queens, NY, in the late 1960s. Bill’s second wife Lyn said he hated the job.

At that time, I had only two photos of Bill (in a baseball cap, golfing), and the next two I scrounged were too grainy to be of much use. So I reasoned that if any place was likely to have more, it would be a pictorial center.

The APC kindly put out the word to its network (here and here).

And this week—yes, 15 (!) years later—I finally heard from someone. (That’s what prompted me to revisit my 2006 pleas, where, alas, I saw that one included a long-gone email of mine and the other had no email at all. I wonder how many others tried to reach me…)

Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman came out in 2012, and Batman & Bill in 2017, but I continue to add to Bills story whenever I can. That’s partly what this blog is for.

The subject line of the email (now also the title of this post) was a jolt of electricity. The gentleman who kindly reached out is a retired, impressive multi-hyphenate (writer-producer-director-consultant-Vietnam vet-more) named Tim W. Hrastar. He does not have photos of Bill but does have some great anecdotes. I’ll let him speak for himself (lightly edited):

The end of 1968 and first five or so months of 1969, I was an Army Signal Corps Lieutenant stationed at the Army Pictorial Center as the Information Officer. 

My fellow young officers and I would usually have lunch with Bill Finger, Bert Channon (producer), Sam Robins (writer), and a few others. We would go to this diner-deli down the street. After, we would stop at a used book store a few doors away. 

One day I bought this very used Batman comic book in paperback and had Bill autograph it for me. The inscription has to do with me as the Information Officer (I did very little of anything in that position, just waited for my Vietnam orders) and [referenced himself] as the “ghost of Batman.” He also wrote on the cover “Vote for Tim Hrastar.” 

Because few known examples of Bill’s handwriting survive,
this is an especially exciting find.

At the time Bill was pretty bald on top, with long frizzy hair that stuck out on the sides. He smoked cigarettes with a cigarette holder, like the Penguin. He once told me that when they developed Robin as Batman’s sidekick, it was supposed to be a joke. They called him “Robin Rabinowitz.” As you know Bill was Jewish, and Rabinowitz is a Jewish name. They probably just used it as an inside joke. 

I remember him saying once that he didn’t get credit as co-creator of Batman, but shrugged it off as “but I [did get] credit for other things.” 

He was a character. We enjoyed hanging with him, and I think he liked hanging out with us young guys, too.

APC photos are from an APC brochure and courtesy of Bob Fulstone.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Bob Kane’s claim that Leonardo da Vinci inspired Batman

Recently a fellow writer asked me about Bob Kane’s assertion that his idea for Batman’s bat-like wings/cape was in part inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine.

I knew enough offhand to say that this is an almost certainly false nugget that some Batman fans have accepted simply because it is frequently referenced online and in print. By now it’s well established that Bob and the truth were often not well acquainted. See the scene in the documentary Batman & Bill in which I dissect the suspiciously-dated 1934 sketches published in Bobs autobiography Batman & Me.

But I realized I could not say for sure when this fishy LDV claim was first floated, so I went back through my sources. 

A da Vinci name-drop does not appear in the earliest (1940) Kane bio I’ve seen nor in the preposterous fever dream origin of Batman’s creation that DC published in 1946 nor in The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer (1965) nor, conspicuously, in The Steranko History of Comics, Volume 1 (1970). Up till that point, those were the primary published sources on Kane and/or comics history. Meanwhile, Bob had stated that he took some inspiration from the Winged Bird-Men of the Flash Gordon comic strip, which indeed seems more likely given Bobs interests. So I speculated that (in a bid to seem more cultured) Bob concocted the LDV connection sometime after 1970.

In my material, Bobs first known mention of da Vinci was in an unusual 1985 comic book called Fifty Who Made DC Great. (Side note: some choices have not aged well. Superman peanut butter made the list, but only two women, both actresses.) 

After that, the claim appeared in almost every book or article about the creation of Batman.

But I was missing something! The incomparable comics historian John Wells called to my attention multiple articles published on the eve of the debut of the 1966 TV show Batman in which Bob cites Leo. Here is one:

Thank you as ever, John!

It’s possible for a major detail like this to go unreported for decades—for example, so much about Bill Finger’s story. But it does seem like the kind of major detail that would have come out sooner than 1965…and it is curious that it is not mentioned in the Steranko passage that delineates other influences for Batman (Shadow, the Phantom, Doc Savage).

In other words, to quote comics language, it’s not canon. At least not from where I flit.

NOTE: There is more to my theory that did not make it into the post because I am flawed. See comment from Boswell and my reply.
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