If asked to recommend current nonfiction picture books, I might hesitate—it’s not an area I usually stay on top of. But if you asked me what’s one of my favorite titles in that category of the past decade, I’d instantly endorse Boys of Steel, Marc Tyler Nobleman’s insightful and engaging account of Superman’s creation. Well, now the multi-talented author/journalist/cartoonist is back, with Bill the Boy Wonder, a more-than-worthy follow-up to that earlier work.
Available in bookstores and, one hopes, libraries next week, this new book boasts even more astounding feats of research, and also features gorgeous art by Ty Templeton. Quite simply, Bill the Boy Wonder makes perfect summer reading for kids who are into pop culture. Actually, it’s a great read for anyone who’s ever seen the phrase “created by Bob Kane,” even if they’re not huge Batman fans; that’s because it’s not just a compelling biography of comics creator Bill Finger but a highly accessible and informative text about comics and comics history generally. Yes, Marc Tyler Nobleman will be appearing at San Diego Comic-Con to discuss the book, but we lucked out by grabbing him a couple of weeks early…
This is now your second book for kids about comics creators. Why is it important for young people to know something about the individual talents behind corporate-owned and branded characters?
I wrote both as picture books for all ages (though Bill the Boy Wonder does skew a bit older than Boys of Steel) and the audiences for each have indeed been broad.
That said, I feel it is vitally important for young people to know where our icons come from for several reasons. First, it is inspiring. Some kids don’t stop to process that whatever character they love came from someone’s imagination; when they make that connection, they realize they could do it, too.
Second, it’s empowering. Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, and Bill Finger had tough lives, and some argue their lot was preventable. Learning what others may have done wrong can give us the strength to make a more beneficial decision.
Third, these brands, of course, weren’t always brands—both Superman and Batman began in humble apartments. Their untested creators had commercial appeal in mind but no guarantee or backing from a corporation. Again, the idea that any of us could have the next big idea—even without leaving home—can have huge impact on young people.
You recount how in the 1960′s it was largely fans who brought Finger’s creative role in Batman to light. Do you see your own role, and/or that of librarians and educators, as helping young superhero fans engage in more critical thinking about the characters they love? In other words, how can books like Bill and Boys help shape the next generation of fans?
I see my superhero books as springboards to discussions about multiple aspects of character development: taking pride in one’s work, standing up for oneself, being persistent no matter how great the odds. And yes, educators (and authors) can be the facilitators. Music fans know who sings the songs they love. Sports fans know who plays for their teams. Therefore superhero fans should know who gave them the objects of their passion.
A key part of your work, and an impressive one, is all the original research you conduct. So I’ll ask the same question I asked Larry Tye—what would you recommend to librarians in terms of helping young people research the history of their favorite characters?
One of the biggest takeaways from my Siegel/Shuster/Finger research is that the Internet does not have all the answers. Most of the big discoveries I made researching these books came from either interviewing people (most of whom are elderly and some of whom have since passed away) or combing through archives that were not online. When searching for information, even young people know how to google. The value of librarians is that they know how to do a lot of the rest—direct you to city records books, photo archives, and other non-digitized resources. As for talking to people, that just takes good old-fashioned detective work, but if the quarry is Golden Age creators, hurry—the remaining firsthand witnesses are (biologically speaking) not long for this world.
You make a compelling case for DC adding Finger’s name as a Batman co-creator but also point out that legally it can’t do this. What should the publisher do instead?
Thank you. DC Comics had no legal obligation to settle with Siegel and Shuster, but did so anyway. (One could say this was indeed a legal obligation, because if DC had not done so, Siegel and Shuster could’ve sued again—and in fact, eventually, they did.) While the corporate world is arguably more self-interested than ever these days, this is also an unprecedented time in terms of creators’ rights. Siegel and Shuster were able to secure a settlement in part because their story broke to the general public. I do believe that the same could happen with Finger; hence my book. What should the publisher do? Well, I’d love them to sit down with Kane’s estate, Kane’s 1989 biography, and my book (annotated, of course) and see if any corrective actions can be agreed upon diplomatically. That sounds naïve, I know, but I see it as a moral imperative.
There’s a deep sadness to the book — even if we take into account Finger’s own lack of self-assertion, and the belated recognition he’s received. Will kids pick up on this, and is there a risk of readers being put off by a “downer” tone being introduced into the usually sunshine-y world of kidlit and superhero fare for children?
It is desperately sad. I tried to end the story proper on a hopeful note but at the same time, I tell kids that we must learn the bad with the good; nothing but happy endings gets boring! It should be noted that kidlit is not always sunshine-y, though some hide it well. Stress, unhappiness, gloom, etc., runs through some of our most beloved classics, from Grimm (of course) to Peter Pan to The Giving Tree to Harry Potter. Some kids will indeed find Bill the Boy Wonder a downer—and if so, the book has succeeded in conveying the story accurately. But hopefully they will then turn it into a positive—vowing (like the comics creators I mention at the end) not to let a similar situation befall them or even vowing to seek justice for someone who has been wronged. I’ve read the book to kids as young as second grade and they were fired up with a sense of doing good—an innate inclination to defend the underdog.
Thanks so much for your time, especially given how busy you are these days. Care to share what you’ll be up to at Comic-Con or elsewhere this summer?
We’re all busy so thank YOU for your time! I am slated for at least two and possibly up to four appearances at SDCC. The two I can confirm as of this [post]:
1. 7/12/12, 5:30 – 6:30 p.m.; solo presentation: “Batman’s Biggest Secret: The Bill Finger Story” – room 26AB; this will include some of the more fascinating anecdotes of my research
2. 7/13/12, 11 a.m. – noon; panel with Larry Tye, author of new Random House book Superman: “Siegel, Shuster, and Finger” – room 9; this will be followed by a book signing in the Random House booth
The rest of the summer will be full of Bill in various other ways, all of which will be documented at http://noblemania.blogspot.com.