Creatively Speaking: Marc Tyler Nobleman
Our Creatively Speaking series of interviews continues this week with Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of the recently published Boys of Steel - The Creators of Superman. I got to know Marc first through his wonderful cartoons, one of which you'll see tomorrow in our latest caption contest as we prepare to give away THREE copies of Boys of Steel. Part YA picture book, part biography, Marc's new book follows the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as they struggle through their teenage years in Depression-era Cleveland. Marc says he grew up thinking he'd, too, become a superhero because his last name already sounded like one. In researching Boys of Steel, he dug up details that haven't been published before. He was the first to find photos of the building in which Joe Shuster lived and where he and Jerry Siegel forged the Man of Steel; it was demolished in 1975 before the city of Cleveland knew its significance. You can check out those photos and more are over at NobleMania.com or check out Marc's blog here. Check out my full interview with Marc below and be sure to tune in tomorrow for your chance to win one of three copies we'll be giving away!
DI: You're an illustrator as well as an author. But for this book, Ross
MacDonald drew the wonderful illustrations. Who came up with the original
idea for the book and how did the work get doled out?
MTN: The idea was mine. I wrote the manuscript on spec and sold it. My editor and I suggested various illustrators to one another and we ultimately agreed on Ross - and he agreed to do it! I don't think of myself as an illustrator, actually - that implies more talent than I have. I am a cartoonist - a humorist who can eke out crude little pictures to go with my words, as long as those pictures don't include cars, chandeliers, pre-war buildings, and others things I am no good at drawing.
DI: Joe and Jerry were turned down by publisher after publisher, for more
than three years. This is a familiar story (I head that J.K. Rowling was
turned down by every publisher in the U.K. before Scholastic, of all
companies, took a chance on HP). Did you have trouble getting this book
deal? What was the process like?
MTN: This is yet another thing I have in common with Jerry, Joe, and J.K. - my work, too, has been rejected in somewhat alarming numbers. BOYS OF STEEL received 22 nos. In the end, however, two great publishers expressed interest - for me, a win-win situation. There are a lot of picture books on textbook names - Columbus, Roosevelt, King, etc. - but mine had a pop culture angle. So whenever possible, I queried editors who I thought would have such a sensibility. One editor I approached because she had done a picture book on the childhood of Dr. Seuss, and she ended up being the one who took BOYS OF STEEL.
DI: Boys of Steel is obviously for young adult readers. Did that make
writing such a biography harder or easier?
MTN: It looks like it's for young readers, but I describe it as an all-ages book. However, yes, it is compact and stylized, not a comprehensive biography, so in that regard I had to be selective about what info to include. The idea and the research had been in me for so long that it was not difficult to pare it down to the key beats. In fact, the original manuscript focused only on one night--the night of Jerry's "epiphany"--and the following day, when Joe first drew Jerry's concept. But I expanded it to about a decade, roughly 1930-1940, addressing the rest of their lives in the text-only afterword.
DI: In the book, you imply that Joe and Jerry were the first to come up
with the idea of a hero who would be a stranger in a regular place rather
than a regular person in a strange place (like Tarzan or Buck Rogers). Was
there really no precedent for this type of hero?
MTN: To be sure, Superman was composed of elements of previous characters. But while Tarzan and Buck Rogers were in unfamiliar settings, both were still on their home planet, and both still interacted with others of their kind. Superman was the last of his race, far from home. He was also a benevolent alien - something new in science fiction at the time. Another element of Superman that felt new was that his HERO identity was the real him and his CIVILIAN identity was fabricated. This has fluctuated over the years, especially with Smallville, where Clark Kent is portrayed as the real him and Superman is/will be the "new" aspect.
DI: I always assumed the S on Superman's costume was for Superman, or
perhaps steel. If it was actually for Siegel and Shuster, as you mention,
which came first: the S-branding or the name Superman?
MTN: I don't state it is ONLY for "Siegel" and "Shuster." (In the book, that is a direct quotation from them, by the way.) It just so happened to be the first letter of both their names AND "Superman." The name "Superman" came first, then the "S," which they then happily realized could also stand for themselves.
DI: Joe and Jerry naively sold all rights to the character, along with
their first story for a measly $130. Was this common during those days?
Did authors frequently give up their rights to make a deal?
MTN: It was the Great Depression. Any job was hard to come by, and any gig could be your last for who knows how long. As I write in the afterword, for every Superman there were dozens of characters who went nowhere, so viewing through the lens of the time, it's hard to fault creators for selling an idea to make a quick buck. To Jerry and Joe's credit, however, they began to ask for renegotiation in 1938--yes, the same year Superman debuted, so after he had made a big splash but before a real indication that he had staying power. I don't believe Jerry and Joe were as naive as is often assumed.
DI: In the 1940s, Jerry and Joe wrote some strips with Superman capturing
Hitler and Stalin and delivering them before the world. Something to the
two of them being Jewish in any of this? Payback?
MTN: This was a one-off strip done for LOOK magazine in 1940 (which I mention in my afterword). I would guess that it was payback on some level, but probably more of a provocative gimmick. Jerry and Joe did not mention their Judaism in any interview I have seen or heard. I don't think religion was a dominant part of their lives or a particularly strong influence on their work.
DI: While on the Jewish theme, let's talk about Superman's Kryptonian
name, Kal-El, which in Hebrew means "all that is God" or "all that God
is," as you mention in the book. Did the boys know Hebrew well?
MTN: They were first-generation Americans. I don't know how often they heard Yiddish or Hebrew at home. Again, they didn't discuss Judaism in interviews I know of. Jerry's widow is still alive and this would be a great question to ask her.
DI: Like many visionaries, from Mozart to John McTammany, Joe and Jerry
died rather penniless. In the book, you write that in the 1960s Jerry had
to take work as a mail clerk for $7,000 a year. As for Joe, his brother
Frank had to support him. To add insult to injury, their names were taken
off the comics. How did the folks at DC comics sleep at night?
MTN: There are two sides to this, of course - the creators' and the company's. In March 2008, I blogged about what Jerry and Joe did right, what they did wrong, what DC did right, and what DC did wrong (in my flawed estimation). To the first of those four categories, I would now add what I mentioned above: how they (Jerry in particular) pushed for renegotiation almost immediately after Superman's debut. For the first few years of Superman, Jerry and Joe were making a great salary, especially for the times. Not enough to retire on, I'm sure - but something to build on. I don't know what happened to that money. Superman was so extraordinarily successful that I do agree with their efforts to obtain a greater share of the profits - but DC was not acting illegally. Immorally, perhaps, but not illegally. And as I note in the afterword, when they settled with Jerry and Joe in the 1970s, it was on moral grounds. I think it was brave of Jerry and Joe to continue to fight for themselves against a big corporation and it was admirable that DC did ultimately give the families security, even if it didn't come as early as most of us with tender hearts would have liked. How did they sleep? The early management slept just fine, I'm sure. Things became more enlightened in the 1970s.
DI: What are you working on now?
MTN: A picture book on Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of (and I would even argue the dominant force behind) Batman, plus several other nonfiction picture books that have similarly fascinating stories but which do not involve superheroes. Watch my blog for details as they develop!
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