During the recent LOAC mini-summit in Boston’s Back Bay, Lorraine Turner suggested that a good topic for this space would be a discussion of the questions readers might ask about my job.
I admit, I’m still mulling over how to address that topic – writing is a solitary pursuit, after all. In addition, years ago a close friend said, “People don’t want to read about writers.” I recalled my high school freshman English class rebelling halfway through John Steinbeck’s autobiographicalTravels with Charley: hmmm-m-m – maybe my friend was on to something. I don’t entirely agree with him, but I’ve come to believe it takes a writer as dynamic and entertaining as, say, Harlan Ellison to successfully fracture my friend’s rule of thumb. I have enough ego to think I do a pretty decent job of putting words into print, but let’s be honest: an Ellison I ain’t.
Recently, however, I finished reading a slender volume worth recommending to you that will also allow me to reflect a bit about how I approach my text features for LOAC titles. Submitted for your approval: Our Hero – Superman on Earth, by Tom DeHaven.
Our Hero examines Superman’s history, his growth and evolution as a cultural icon, and his major appearances in media outside the comics (the movie serials and feature films, the live-action and animated TV series, the Broadway musical). It offers an insightful look at many of the key creators behind the Big Red S’s comics adventures – with emphasis, of course, on the amazing saga of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
I’m a long-time DeHaven reader – his novel Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies is an outstanding recreation of the Golden Age of Comic Strips and is also well worth reading – but my efforts for LOAC would put me on the side of Our Hero even if I had never previously read anything by this fine writer. The sheer volume of information DeHaven researched, read, distilled, and organized into a cohesive whole is staggering. I have a first-hand appreciation for this sort of thing, of course, and my reaction as I made my way through the book was consistently the same: “Wow!” DeHaven provides significant new information about pulp-era impresario Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, provided by the Major’s granddaughter, Nicky Brown – fascinating, not-to-be-missed stuff. And there are photos and illustrations sprinkled throughout the essay’s 206 pages.
The book is hardly all facts ‘n’ figures. Rather, it’s a fast-paced, engaging, thoughtful assessment of the Man of Tomorrow, sprinkled with personal reflections that are insightful or humorous, sometimes both at the same time. Here is DeHaven on the gestation of the Broadway play, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman:
The songwriting team of Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, who’d been successful with Bye Bye Birdie in 1960 and the musical adaptation of Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy in 1964, were looking for a next project when they asked magazine writers David Newman and Robert Benton … did they have any good ideas? It was Newman’s wife, Leslie, who suggested Superman after picking up a bunch of Action Comics from their kid’s bedroom floor. Newman and Benton thought it an inspired recommendation – this was, after all, the Pop Art era of Warhol lithographs and Lichtenstein paintings – and so did Strouse and Adams. Although usually it had taken the composers at least two years to write a score, It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman was finished in just thirteen months.
After listening half a dozen times to the original cast recording, available again on CD, I think maybe they should’ve taken those extra eleven months …
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Another reason Our Hero resonates with me? DeHaven does something I continually strive to do in my LOAC work: he has found the story that makes the information compelling, and he does his usual excellent job of telling that story. No matter how impressive the research and how revelatory the new information brought to light, when an essay is written in the manner of an eighth grade social studies paper, my interest quickly wanes and I start asking myself why I’m spending my all-too-precious reading time on a snoozefest when I could be reading one of the John D. MacDonald paperback originals beckoning me from my To Be Read shelves.
Fortunately, LOAC books don’t put me in that frame of mind: our writing staff consistently delivers the goods. Jeet Heer knows how to entertain readers while he makes us all smarter about Harold Gray, Orphan Annie, and the worlds in which they both inhabit; you’ll soon enjoy the distinctive Heer touch in our first Polly and Her Pals volume, as well. Meanwhile, over in Rip Kirby, a lifetime spent inside the comics industry allows Brian Walker to write about Alex Raymond and Der Ripper with great confidence, while his work in Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Seahelped that book earn its Eisner nomination.
And me? I do my thing, striving to make readers want to keep turning the pages. I don’t want a future high school freshman English class to rebel against one of my essays the way my English class rebelled against Travels with Charley…