It’s Non-Fiction Monday again. Check out the round-up at Picture Book of the Day.
Time was when a comic book wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in Hades of getting into a library’s collection. And while some library systems have grown more open to the notion of comic book heroes leaping about their hallowed halls, there’s still a great deal of resistance to the idea. Now Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ross MacDonald have found another way to get a fella like Superman into a library, and it’s definitely a slick idea. Until now the story of Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster has never been told in a format accessible to children. Now in Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman, Nobleman and MacDonald pay homage to the fellas that brought to life “the greatest superhero of all time,” in such a way that no library in the world could object to the book’s style and panache. And though I’ve a quibble with it here and there, 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.
Dateline: Cleveland, Ohio – The 1930s. Jerry Siegel had many interests but what he really liked to do was escape from the world around him. By reading the tales of Tarzan, Buck Rogers, and other fantastical heroes, Jerry could find high adventure and this was an interest he shared with Joe Shuster. Shy like Jerry, Joe loved to draw, and together the two came up with all kinds of interesting ideas. But it wasn’t until a hot night in 1934 that Jerry found his inspiration. What if this hero looked like a normal dweeby guy (a guy like Joe and Jerry) but was really a superhero in disguise? That night Superman was born and in his own Action Comics he found his audience. An Afterword to the book discusses how Jerry and Joe sold their Superman rights for a pittance and fought over the years to get them back.
There were little details in Boys of Steel that did the old heart good to see. For example, it would have been the easiest thing in the world for Nobleman to say that Superman was meant to fly. Yet anyone who has ever read the earliest Superman comics will note that he didn’t begin his existence flying. Rather he had, “a habit of leaping so high that it would look as though he were flying.” Remember that line, “Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”? That’s where that came from. The author walks the fine line between the original Superman and the one we all recognize today, and does so while still remaining factually accurate. No small task.
Anyone who has ever read Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay knows at least a little about the background of Siegel and Shuster. So it was that I started noticing what Nobleman wouldn’t mention, as opposed to what he would. In the majority of the text, no mention is made of the fact that the two men were Jewish (though Nobleman takes pains to mention how similar they were) or that they were the children of immigrants. Superman’s an immigrant too, but that doesn’t come up in the story. Admittedly, that element is a side issue that would probably constitute a long biography in and of itself. And the ethnicity of our heroes is certainly brought up in the Afterword. But how many kids are going to read through that? Even so much as a sentence mentioning that they were Jewish would work to place them within the context of their times.
As it currently stands, Nobleman’s focus is less on Superman’s genesis as it related to his progenitors’ birthright and more on how this creation was the right comic book hero for the right time. “The other heroes Jerry and Joe read about were regular humans in strange places. This hero would be a stranger in a regular place.” An alien in a regular environment. And in a scant 40-page picture book Nobleman even manages to draw ties to Superman’s rise alongside WWII. Here was America in a strange war and “People wanted a hero they knew would always come home. Jerry and Joe gave them that – the world’s first superhero.”
The amount of research necessary for a book of this scope would have to be hefty and I was pleased to see a small list of Selected Sources available on the publication page. Much of this research ends up in the Afterword, a three-page encapsulation of Shuster and Siegel’s life after they sold away their creation’s rights. It is fortuitous that this book will be released just as the March 26, 2008 posthumous lawsuit entitles Siegel’s estate to share in Superman’s United States copyright. I am reviewing Boys of Steel from an advanced readers copy, so I cannot speak to whether or not the final copy will contain this additional information. Yet even if it does not, Nobleman has covered his tracks fairly well with the note that “Negotiations are ongoing” (particularly since the suit is far from over and will undoubtedly be challenged).
As for the illustrations, I’ve been a Ross MacDonald fan for years. You simply cannot read his simpler picture book work (including as Achoo! Bang! Crash! The Noisy Alphabet and Bad Baby) without falling just a little bit in love with the man’s comic-influenced style. Clearly MacDonald was a natural choice to illustrate Nobleman’s biography. His love of the subject matter coupled with his ability to replicate Joe Shuster’s original style is to his advantage. But MacDonald’s choice to render Siegel and Shuster virtually identical is perhaps a counterintuitive move. I can understand why he would have gone in this direction. Siegel and Shuster were similar fellows, sure. And by making them virtually indistinguishable (Jerry’s a little more plump than Joe and has lighter eyebrows) he pits them as two guys together against the world. And while it wouldn’t have been my choice to deny Jerry and Joe their individuality, I can see why MacDonald chose to go the route that he had.
Certainly the design of the book itself is pretty keen. Comic book tropes pop up unexpectedly at the most interesting moments. Some descriptions appear in white bubbles around the pages. At another point Joe is seen tearing up his pages, action lines emanating off his body. The format doesn’t actually break down into panels until Jerry has his 1934 Superman brainstorm. Then we get a quick fire rapid montage of thoughts, images, concepts, and ideas. It breaks down the elements of who Superman is and what he stands for and works brilliantly to tie in the elements of his existence to the boys’ own lives. For the most part, MacDonald sticks to a palate of brown, blue, green, and yellow. Red appears only when it can heighten the scene and make a point; Once when Jerry has his brainstorm and once at the end when we see Superman at last in all his red-caped glory.
Comic book characters rendered in the style of their original creators are quite the rage in picture book publishing right now. With Ralph Cosentino’s Batman: The Story of the Dark Night doing Bob Kane proud on the one hand and MacDonald polishing his Shuster skills on the other, this is a good time to get kids into superheroes in all their myriad forms. And with a great real-life story to boot, this is one biography that’s going to lure the kids like nothing else. I haven’t read a bio this kid-friendly since Siena Siegel’s To Dance. Though I would have tweaked a detail here and there, Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ross MacDonald do Superman’s creators proud. More fun than any children’s biography has any right to be.
On shelves July 22nd.
Notes on the Cover: Some people might wonder why the choice was made to blue-out Superman. Surely Knopf is aware that an image of Superman, red cape and scarlet S intact, would sell more books and catch more eyes than a vague shadow of the hero. As it turns out, using the image of a comic book character on a cover would be seen as a trademark violation. Knopf would have opened themselves up to a big lawsuit had they put Superman on their jacket. You can find him inside, sure, but if a comic book hero is on a cover then that means that the publisher is profiting off the character and would owe DC some serious moolah. It’s a pity, but hopefully kids will read the words enough to grasp the concept, open the book, and see Superman smiling out at them from the title page.
- Check out this interview with author Marc Tyler Nobleman on ComicCon.com.
- Mr. Nobleman also happens to sport a very fine blog by the name of Noblemania.