Monday, November 21, 2011

Marc Tyler Nobleman on Heroes -- Super and Otherwise. A Review and Interview

Boys of Steel (Alfred A Knopf, 2008)

For this Nonfiction Monday I recommend Boys of Steel, The Creators of Superman by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Ross MacDonald.

It seems as though the creators of the first and most popular superhero should be common knowledge, but for a long time that information was kept quiet. But now, even kids will know that Superman was the alter ego of two boys who desperately needed one.

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were short, shy and lousy at sports – as tough a role to play in high school in the 30s as it is now. From the first sentence  we get a feel for who Jerry Siegel was – a boy who was happier at home with his fictional friends than amid the bustling bravado of high school. Joe Shuster felt the same way and they both escaped into their comics, Jerry writing stories and Joe drawing pictures.

Nobleman sprinkles this picture book biography with familiar phrases like faster than a speeding bullet; a bird, a plane; and fighting for truth and justice, and you can easily see how elements of the Superman story came from the boys’ lives. The stylized art work of Ross MacDonald is reminiscent of the classic comic book and captures the period when boys wore ties and vests to school and belted their pants at the waist! But Jerry and Joe’s feelings are universal, and today’s kids will relate. Who hasn’t at one time or another felt like they didn’t fit in. Readers will also be inspired by this team’s persistence as they pursued a dream they worked toward and believed in for years.

The picture book story ends when Superman is at his peak, but the heartbreaking denouement of the story takes place in the end pages titled The Greatest Superhero of All Time. Naive and eager to get the first Superman story published, Jerry and Joe sold it and all rights to the character to DC Comics for $130! They struggled for years to get back a fraction of the profits that Superman products amassed. Poor health and poverty forced them to battle one last time when in 1975 the first movie was announced. They took their case to the public and finally achieved what they had always wanted – acknowledgement that they were the creators of Superman. Today, their names appear on every product.


PT: How did you come upon Jerry and Joe's story and what aspect of it resonated with you and said, "This would be a great kid's book?"

Marc: I've been a Superman fan since I learned to read. When I was in high school, Superman turned 50, and I read a book of essays about him; one told Jerry and Joe's story and I was hooked. After college, I set out to write a screenplay about them, and this was when Jerry was still alive. However, my first attempt to contact him was rebuffed so I shelved it for ten years, by which point Jerry had died and I'd started publishing children's books. Because there was no standalone book in ANY format on Jerry and Joe, and because the story is at once inspirational and heartbreaking, I saw it as a great candidate for a picture book for all ages.

PT: Why did you decide to add the heartbreaking details of Jerry and Joe's legal struggles in the back matter? Other writers may have ignored it altogether, but you tackle it head on.

Marc: Yet at least one critic said it should have been in the story proper rather than the afterword, which some kids won't read! As far as I'm concerned, as long as they're in the book, they're in the story. I included the hardship they encountered because the story can't end without going through that, and it's a cautionary tale for anyone who wants to create. I didn't write the book to impart a lesson, but I'm thrilled when kids (or anyone) takes away from it that you must must must protect your ideas. Some kids as young as 1st or 2nd grade are mature enough to understand that sometimes people make decisions that hurt them.

PT: I noticed that your newest book is going to be about the creator of Batman. That begs the question - who is better? Do you prefer Superman or Batman and why?

Marc: I started with Superman and I stand by him; though many feel he's not as textured as Batman or other human characters, he's got his flaws and weaknesses like any hero. However, when it comes to their backstories - the ones I'm writing about - it's a tie.

PT: And I must ask about your newest experiment. If anyone is not familiar with Marc’s latest endeavor, he has been blogging about a story he wrote called 30 Minutes Over Oregon: The Only World War Two Bombing of an American State, that received glowing comments from editors but no offers to publish. Some editors commented on the fact that the hero ( a Japanese bomber pilot who comes back years later to apologize!) is not familiar to children. Perplexed, Marc wondered what makes a good hero, what makes a good story, and what does it take to convince an editor that you have both? He also asked illustrators to create cover designs for this book-without-a-publisher that he posted on his blog.

So I asked: With all the buzz about the story and posts from writers, readers, librarians, teachers, etc, has there been any new interest from editors?

Marc: The TMOO experiment has generated an overwhelming and positive response from editors, librarians, teachers, booksellers, agents, parents, and kids themselves; multiple editors have requested (or re-requested) the manuscript in its wake, and I wait eagerly and maybe not patiently enough to hear from them! I feel this book has the potential to stimulate the kind of questions no other nonfiction picture books I know of could, such as "Can someone start as an enemy and become a friend?" and "Can you be hero simply by apologizing?" Stay tuned to my blog Noblemania for updates.

PT: We can't wait!


  1. Thank you for the coverage, Peggy! I liked your questions and appreciate your interest.

  2. I was so glad to read that there is a postscript and that justice was (at last )served for these men. Another book for my non-fiction list!