Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Superman Really Came from Cleveland: A Q & A with Author Marc Tyler Nobleman

Marc Tyler Nobleman has more than seventy books to his name, but lately he's into writing about the superhero underdogs of the world. And I don't mean this guy. I mean---as Marc puts it at his currently "superhero-centric" blog, Noblemania---his current writing interest focuses on those literary figures whose achievements are well-known but whose names and back stories are not.

Take his current title, Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, illustrated by Ross MacDonald and published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers this month. Boys of Steel tells the tale of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, two misfit teens living in Cleveland circa 1930. Both boys preferred escaping into science fiction worlds and the fellowship of fictional characters in pulp magazines and comic strips---more than socializing in their high school ("Most days, Jerry Siegel slipped into the halls of his high school staring at the floor. He always wished he were going in the other direction---back home"). Shy Jerry wrote his own adventure and science fiction stories (when he wasn't at the cinema), and Joe---also shy, also "mousy around girls," and someone who could have passed for his brother---illustrated them ("No matter the obstacle, Joe found a way to draw. When his family couldn't afford art paper, he made do with wrapping paper from the butcher or the back of discarded wallpaper").

In 1934, Joe and Jerry created a superhero who was everything they were not, crafting a "'science fiction story in cartoons.' It starred a brave, tough man who fought for truth and justice." Approximately four years later, they convinced a publisher to take a chance on their Man of Steel in a new format—the comic book. Superman debuted in 1938: "People wanted a hero they knew would always come home. Jerry and Joe gave them that---the world's first superhero." Nobleman includes an afterword about Siegel's and Shuster's long struggle with DC Comics after they realized they had made a mistake in selling all rights to Superman for only $130. Included in this afterword is the very recent (March 2008) landmark ruling, in which the Siegel family won back half the copyright to all the Superman material introduced in Action Comics #1.

Nobleman's book, to be released this week, has already met with a handful of starred reviews: Wrote Publishers Weekly, "{c}atering to comics junkies, this vibrant and well-researched picture book biography introduces the youthful inventors of Superman...Nobleman details this achievement with a zest amplified by MacDonald's...punchy illustrations, done in a classic litho palette of brassy gold, antique blue and fireplug red."

And in her detailed early-June review, Betsy Bird of A Fuse #8 Production over at School Library Journal wrote, "the next time you have a seven-year-old moaning about needing to read a biography make sure that this book is the ace up your sleeve." But, as I'm wont to do here at Guys Lit Wire, I argue that this is an engaging title for teens as well, especially those interested in comics -- and in those interested in illustration. MacDonald's work has an infectious energy, and---as Publishers Weekly pointed out about his 2002 title, Another Perfect Day (Roaring Book Press)---his design is clean, his pacing spot-on, and his images "ebullient."

I sat down with Nobleman for a short Q & A about Boys of Steel, but I also took the opportunity to ask him about his next project, a book for older readers about the uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman -- or, as Nobleman puts it at this post, " the co-creator of Batman whose name is not on every Batman story."

Jules: For those who don't read your blog, tell us about the research that went into Boys of Steel.

Marc: Wait, you know people who don't read my blog? :)

The research...I started too late to be able to speak with Jerry Siegel (the writer) or Joe Shuster (the artist) personally; both died in the 1990s. I relied as much as possible on interviews they gave or direct quotations from articles.

My goal was not to uncover any revelations. I simply wanted to tell this story in a new format to a new audience. It ended up being that I did uncover a few revelations--but only after I'd sold the manuscript.

Once we locked in an illustrator, I went to Cleveland to do photo research, which is where I made most of the discoveries. One was the truth about what happened to Jerry Siegel's father---he was not shot to death during a robbery at his clothing store as recounted in an otherwise wonderful book on comics history. I also was the first to dig up photos of the unassuming apartment building in which Joe first drew Superman---a building that the city demolished in 1975 without knowing its significance. I blogged about just how I did that---it was not nearly as easy as walking into an archive and saying "Got any photos of Joe Shuster's home circa 1934?"

Jules: Did you see MacDonald's illustrations early on, or was it not until later after you had written every word? What was it like to see him bring your story to life? And did you have any say in some of the wonderful details MacDonald brought to your already detailed text?

Marc: I sold the manuscript in March 2005 and finished revision before we landed Ross (in November 2006). After my Cleveland trip, I sent Ross (via my editor) a CD of dozens of reference images, along with requests and suggestions for each spread, but he and I were not in direct contact until after he was done, as per protocol.

I first saw Ross's sketches in July 2007. It was exhilarating - a feeling similar to what Jerry's when he first saw Joe sketch this character that till that point had existed only in his (Jerry's) head. Ross was very respectful of my most fervent requests (one of many examples: I wanted one spread to include Shabbat candles, though I don't mention them in the text, and Ross obliged) and he added so much more than I could have hoped for.

Jules: How validating is it to be getting so many great reviews (starred, no less) for a book you so obviously poured your heart and soul into? (Booklist writing "this robust treatment does their story justice" must be particularly nice.)

Marc: I'm mostly good things, including flattered and humbled, though I'm also one deadly sin, proud. I was so fortunate to be able to work with my exceptional editor Janet Schulman and Ross. I have been thrilled to see some of the subtle details some reviewers have picked up on.

Jules: Tell us about your Bill Finger project -- and what your next book will be.

Marc: Hopefully my next book is my Bill Finger project! It's a picture book for older readers and has a different tone than Boys of Steel. (I also have several other nonfiction picture book manuscripts in various stages, none related to superheroes, and most on subjects that have never been the focus of a book before.)

Finger is the uncredited co-creator and original writer of Batman. For a reason my story explains, cartoonist Bob Kane is currently the only person whose name can legally be on Batman, but Finger (as even Kane admitted before his death) deserves equal billing. Finger created Batman's iconic look (yes, even though he was the writer), wrote the first Batman story and many of the best stories of his first twenty-five years, created most of the major villains and motifs, and crafted what distinguished Batman: an origin story with a believable motive for fighting crime.

Yet Finger has never been the subject of a book for any audience. His peers considered him a creative genius and comic fans are rabid for some kind of treatment on Finger. His fatal flaw was that he did not have the self-esteem to fight for himself. His story is sad, but vital; kids will be surprised---and perhaps emboldened---to learn that someone who created a character that became so famous still had doubts and fears just like they sometimes do. Inspirational people can be complex.

[Ed. Note: Here's Marc's 7/18/08 blog post on Bill Finger and "The Dark Knight," which opened in theaters last week.]

Jules: What's your advice to future pionerds of the world?

Marc: Like Jerry and Joe, be persistent! And be confident about your work. Sometimes people ask me if I am afraid of my work being rejected and I say I am more afraid of not trying and therefore not knowing if it would have been accepted. It takes only one yes to make 100 nos go away...

Jules: I'd say that's excellent advice, indeed. Thanks for your time, Marc!


eisha said...

Great interview, Jules! I'm going to have to read this.

Alex Bledsoe said...

It may be common knowledge, but this is the first I've heard that the desire for "a hero they knew would always come home" was one of the inspirations for Superman. It explains a lot about his initial popularity. Great interview and review.

jama said...

So glad you featured this book and interviewed Marc, Jules. What a fascinating back story about my favorite superhero!

Little Willow said...

Cheers to the interview and the subject. I'll be sending this post to friends who love classic comics.

"Pionerds" is a fantastic word. I must share it with the nerdfighters.

Every time I read "Boys of Steel," I start singing Boys of Summer.