Danny Fingeroth spends a whole lot of time thinking about superheroes.
For several years, he did it as the editor of the Spider-Man group of titles at Marvel Comics. Today, he’s the editor of Write Now! magazine and author of two books that go behind the four-color glory of men in tights.
Already the author of Superman on the Couch, Fingeroth’s latest examination of comics, Disguised as Clark Kent, explores why so many of the enduring characters of the golden and silver ages of comics can trace their heritage back to young American Jewish artists and writers such as Will Eisner, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee.
His next book, Rough Guide to Graphic Novels, will be released by Penguin in 2008.
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Danny, let’s jump right in. Tell the truth here: Jews aren’t really responsible for the comic book industry, but because we control the media, we can say whatever we want, right?
DANNY FINGEROTH: Well, Mr. Media would know that better than anybody. “Mr. Media” is translated from the Hebrew, I think. Isn’t it in the Bible, I think? Early in Genesis, there’s a mention of the “he who controls all media.”
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Well, it’s true. And Nostradamus predicted the coming of me also, yes. Quite true. What inspired you to write Disguised as Clark Kent? And before you answer that, I have to say that is a great title.
FINGEROTH: Oh, thank you. We went through about 10 different titles, and when we hit on that, it was one of those things that stares you in the face. You hear that preamble to the “Superman” TV show from the time. You’re pretty literate, basically, just hearing that from the TV show, and I think it was even the preamble to the radio show and just suddenly it popped out, yeah, Disguised as Clark Kent. So the book, it became a very personal thing for me, or it started out as a personal thing and became even more so, which made it, in many ways, more difficult to write than my previous book, Superman on the Couch. And I’ll talk about that if you want later. But the inspiration was really, as you know as Will Eisner’s biographer, when you’re a Jewish guy of a certain age growing up in the New York area as I did, you suddenly realize that the people who created the superheroes, Siegel and Shuster and Lee and Kirby and Irwin Hayes and Arnold Drake, all those guys, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, could’ve been my uncles or my father. They were from that same generation and from similar backgrounds in the Bronx and the other boroughs. So on a personal level, I found it fascinating that these comics and these characters that I had loved since I was a child were, in many ways, very much connected to my own personal background.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: It’s funny. And by the way, I’ll make the plugs here. Thank you for mentioning the Eisner biography.
FINGEROTH: Oh, you’re welcome.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: But it’s funny you say that because I actually felt that way. I spent about two and a half years with Will working on the book, and I couldn’t help shaking that he seemed very much like one of my uncles.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I’m from New York/New Jersey myself. And the way he spoke, his point of reference, it was all very familiar. So, yeah, I get that entirely. Were you at all influenced in the timing of this by Michael Chabon’s novel, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay?
FINGEROTH: Well, when you say the timing, I’m not sure…
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Well, that had to come out first.
FINGEROTH: Alright. Well, it certainly was an interesting take on it. So I’d say that was always in my mind, but even though there, I think, are some quotes or interviews that he did with Stan Lee and Gil Kane, that was a work of fiction. And ultimately, while I love that book, I think while much of it is set against the backdrop of the comic book industry, it’s ultimately about a lot of other things. He’s that kind of novelist. He’s got this imagination that just reaches all over the place.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: And I hate him for it, personally.
FINGEROTH: You have to hate a guy like that. Like I said, I think maybe it made me aware that there was an audience that might be interested in the topic because, if it was just a personal memoir, then I would just keep it in my diary or, I guess, these days in a blog. It’d just be between me and 2 million of my closest friends. But I think it was an interesting parallel history to the well-known histories of comics, and yet I saw all these nuggets in there that certainly were not there intentionally in the stories. But from our vantage point of the 21st century, we can sort of look back and interpret certain things in the work.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I know, in my case, in reading Kavalier & Clay, and the reason I thought of it was, even working with Will, I hadn’t really thought so much about how predominant Jewish voices were in the comics, and that kind of brought it to a head because even though it’s fiction, there’s a big nugget of truth in the history that’s presented in that book. I was kind of curious along that line.
FINGEROTH: I think having worked in the business for so long — I started working at Marvel in 1977. On the one hand, the industry certainly has that classic kind of Godfather movie, New York ethnic, early 20th century immigrant mix of Jews, Italian, and Irish-descended people, but certainly in the comics, everybody of every race and background was represented, but still it clearly seemed that most of the companies and much of the staff in those early days were from Eastern European/Jewish backgrounds.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: One of the theories that you put forth is that Jews wound up there because, and all kidding aside about controlling the media, they couldn’t get jobs anywhere else.
FINGEROTH: Well, I think there were a couple of houses that were known as Jewish houses, but mostly, publishing was pretty much closed off to Jews as was advertising. Again, from a vantage point of the present day, it seems almost like an alternate dimension or something. Although it’s close in history and although a lot of the early creators are still with us and many of them still active, it still is just a quantum distance in terms of what social boundaries people couldn’t cross.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: And I’m going to try very hard to make this my last Will Eisner reference.
FINGEROTH: Let’s talk about Eisner the whole time.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: No, no, no, no. That would be pushing the line, I think. But one of the things that he had said to me, and I think he said it to other people in talking about that time was that, yes, Jewish writers and artists could get work in comics, but today, we hold it in some esteem cause it’s more of an adult medium than it was then, but then, as he put it, it was “just one step below pornographers,” working in it.
FINGEROTH: Even today, if you go to a movie or watch a TV show and they want to indicate that somebody is socially maladjusted or just an idiot, what do they do? They have them reading a comic book, or — I’ve noticed this a lot in TV dramas lately — very often the killer in a “CSI” or something or in a “Law and Order” will be a comic creator, and either he’s really the killer or he’s suspected of being the killer because he’s so screwed up because he’s a comics creator. So I think even though…
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: But those guys are never Jewish.
FINGEROTH: There’s sort of that TV kind of could-be-anything-looking and name. But even today, that stigma of comics is still there. So even with Maus and all of Will’s later work and Persepolis and all those things that have allegedly brought respect to comics, it’s still short-hand with somebody either being stupid or crazy in most other media. And that’s how we like it.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Well, you know. Did you find when you were at Marvel that it was still profession-dominated in some ways by Jews, or did that change by the late ‘70s and ‘80s?
FINGEROTH: I think the ownership was still — whether by chance or I think more by chance — a traditional kind of Jewish media executive. But I’d say in the rank and file of the writers and editors, it had become the kind of thing where people would travel to New York the way people would go to Hollywood to be in the movies, whereas in Eisner’s day and the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, it was really a local phenomenon. I think it was probably 90 percent of the people in the business were from New York or were living in New York when they got into it Whereas, I think, starting in the ‘70s with the advent of the fan turning pro, I think people would come to New York from the Midwest and from the South and from other countries to pursue a career in comics just the way they might come to pursue a career in fashion or in finance. I think it started to change in that era, which is also when things like advertising and publishing had, by that point, become much more open to Jews to get into.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: One of the things that you picked up on, which I found fascinating over the last few years, is that a lot of these early comics guys all went to the same high school, DeWitt Clinton. Being from that area, did you know anything about that going into this, and what did you learn about that school?
FINGEROTH: It’s funny. I went to Bronx Science, which was like the next subway stop after DeWitt Clinton. Clinton was an all-boys’ school so there were no girls around to distract the guys, and I think if you lived in the Bronx, you lived above whatever street, that was pretty much where you went. Now I can’t figure out if in the era when Stan Lee and Will Eisner and Bob Kane went there if you had to take some kind of a test to get in. I never thought you did, but then things I’ve read indicate that maybe there was. But, in any case, the Bronx was the next stop after the Lower East Side. If you had developed a little bit of savings and a little bit of upward mobility as an immigrant or as the children of immigrants, you would take the subway up to the wide open spaces of the Grand Concourse and then in other less luxurious neighborhoods in the Bronx. These guys went to that school, I think, just by chance. It was really just the local high school. It’s phenomenal, not just comics guys but Lerner and Lowe and Rodgers and Hammerstein, Dan Schorr from NPR. If you go to their alumni page, it’s phenomenal who went there.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: As you were saying that, I was just trying to look up in the back of the Eisner book the list that I had. The guy who wrote “Singin’ in the Rain” went there, and yeah, it’s phenomenal. I wish that I could say that my high school in New Jersey turned out anything like that. Oh, here, I found the list. I’m just gonna bore people with this for a second – James Baldwin, Avery Fisher, Ralph Lauren, Burt Lancaster, Richard Rodgers, Neil Simon, A.M. Rosenthal from The New York Times, Paddy Chayefsky, Daniel Schorr, Fats Waller, Jen Murray, Avery Corman, David Archibald, Judd Hirsch from “Taxi,” Stubby Kaye, there’s a lost name, Don Adams from Get Smart, Martin Balsam, Arthur Gelb, also from The New York Times, Gary Marshall, the producer, father of Penny Marshall.
FINGEROTH: No, no, it’s father or brother? I think brother.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Is it brother?
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Alright, brother. Bernard Kalb, the journalist, Bruce Jay Friedman, novelist and father of Drew Friedman, cartoonist, and of course, Stan Lee. It’s just a phenomenal thing.
FINGEROTH: There must’ve been something about the school, I imagine, that encouraged creative activity as well. That would be something that you or I or somebody would maybe need to do research or see if, compared to other high schools in the city, they were receptive. I know Eisner and Kane, I think, were on, I forget if it was the school paper or the yearbook. I’ve heard different reports of that, but certainly, there were avenues for them to utilize their creative abilities of painting backdrops for plays and so on.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: And the reality was they were all just doing it to get closer to girls.
FINGEROTH: At DeWitt Clinton? Oh, doing the creative stuff? Yes, that’s true, of course.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: That was a boys’ school.
FINGEROTH: That goes without saying.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: But, no, it was all an outlet. Obviously, there were no girls.
FINGEROTH: Well, there was a sister school called Walton High School. I’ve never seen the alumni roster there, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a fairly impressive list of women who went there.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: See, at those same-sex schools, you create all that sexual frustration.
FINGEROTH: Right, exactly!
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: It pours out in different ways. Danny, tell us a little bit about how you came to the theories that you did. Just the title, Disguised as Clark Kent. And for folks who haven’t seen the cover, it’s very cool. You have this immigrant family, and then you’ve drawn — I don’t think it’s officially Superman, but clearly…
FINGEROTH: It is not. It is definitely not Superman. It is a…
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: A Supermanish character.
FINGEROTH: Yes. It’s the same character that was on the cover of Superman on the Couch but with a different chest insignia.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Tell us a little bit about how you kind of came to the theories that you did for this book in connecting the superhero to these very mild-mannered, young, Jewish/Eastern European immigrants.
FINGEROTH: Well, it has to do with what Jules Feiffer has written about and other people – the idea that if you come to another country as an immigrant, you live at least a dual identity. You have your life at home where you speak possibly a foreign language that your parents may have mostly spoken, and then there’s that life with your family and your culture from the old country. And then there’s this desire to fit into the American melting pot and to really become part of the mainstream.
As Chabon says in Kavalier & Clay, who else but a Jew would come up with the name “Clark Kent”? It’s such a purposely bland kind of name. So you have your life at home, your life in school with the idea being that you feel like you have all this secret knowledge and secret power, and yet you don’t want to excel. There’s the immigrant urge to excel, and yet the fear of being singled out and being discriminated against because of excelling. It’s the whole secret identity where everybody thinks, “If only people knew why I seem like a jerk, they’d understand,” or, “If only people knew the secret power that I’m just too responsible to unleash on them.” So it plays to fantasies that are specifically immigrant but then have become universal, and it also has to do with the ability of an immigrant and especially, I think, the Jewish immigrants in the ‘30s and ‘40s to look at a culture they come into and kind of reflect back to it, its image of itself. That’s sort of the whole Jewish thing with being prominent in entertainment. I think it’s traditionally immigrant groups in general that bring a new, fresh idea for entertainment cause they can reflect the dominant culture back to itself.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Boy, I’m tempted to ask you; I don’t know if I want to. We have this whole discussion these days about immigrants and their place in the United States. As you look back on all this and all that these immigrants brought, how do you feel about the current debate?
FINGEROTH: I think it’s the same thing repeats itself. America, with all its flaws, is still pretty much regarded as the best place on the planet, and people want to come here. And then people who are already here want to close the door after themselves.
One advantage that, say, the European immigrants in general and the Jewish immigrants in particular had was they may have had certain ethnic, physical characteristics, but essentially, they looked like Americans. They could generally pass, as the saying goes, whereas people whose ancestors came here as slaves or Native Americans or anybody with a different skin color had to deal with that whole other element of racial prejudice. And I think that goes on today where America is totally schizophrenic about that. We’re founded on this immigrant ethic, but everybody who’s here wants to close the door after them and not let the next group in. But the next group always has something to contribute. If you go to comics conventions now, the teenage kids who are bursting with talent bring you around their portfolios, many of them Asian, many of them Mexican, just from all different groups. I think that still the contribution of the immigrant is still alive, and the debate over it will never die because I think it’s human nature. You get to a place, and then you go, “Okay, close the door now, I’m here, so tough luck everybody else.” It’s that constant struggle.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I’ve lived in Florida now for 30 years. I think probably just about the same time you got to Marvel I was coming to Florida, and I’ve been hearing ever since that we need to lock down the state, we need to close the exits, not let anymore people in here to spoil what we’ve got. Good luck with that. You got a state surrounded by water. Good luck locking it up. Tell me a little bit about Superman on the Couch. And I’m gonna be perfectly honest. I think you already know this. I have not read the book, but I love the title, and I love what I’ve read about it. What was the driving force in that book?
FINGEROTH: That was the idea of taking my experience as a comics professional. I’m trying to sort out a lot of different answers to that. There’ve been a lot of books, obviously, written about comics and comics history, but as far as I can tell, since Dr. Frederic Wertham, there has been no psychiatrist or even psychologist who has written a complete book about comics. They’ve written about everything else and every other pop culture movies and TV and the Internet and theater and painting, but no psychiatrist ever found it worthy. I’m not a psychiatrist nor do I play one on TV, but I thought taking a psychologically-oriented look at superheroes and why people love them. And also the added thing of me having been someone who wrote and edited comics for decades, specifically superhero comics, I thought I would bring — as I do to Disguised as Clark Kent — a point of view of an insider that, as good as a critic or an academic may be, they don’t have that insider knowledge.
So Superman on the Couch, I guess if I had to encapsulate in a couple sentences what it is, it’s about why everybody knows and loves superheroes even though most people haven’t read a comic book in 25 years, and superheroes are vigilantes. Those two questions I found really fascinating. If I said to you, “You know what, Bob? After the show, I’m gonna go put on a mask, and I’m gonna take a baseball bat and put on a Spandex costume, I’m gonna go outside, and I’m gonna hit people over the head with a baseball bat if I judge them to be doing something wrong.” You would say talk about my needing to be on the couch. That’s the mark of a sociopath.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Right, right.
FINGEROTH: And by the same token, everybody knows and loves those characters. If you have a society where there’s people really with masks and advanced technology going around taking the law into their own hands, you just have to look at the news to see societies like that are in really big trouble. You don’t want to live in a society like that, and yet even people who may regard themselves as pacifists or just completely opposed to violence, “Oh yeah, Spider-Man, he’s so cool.” “Wonder Woman, she’s a role model for me.” So that was really what Superman on the Couch was about. Why it was that people had such warm, fuzzy feelings about what were essentially vigilante fantasy figures.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: This is gonna be a strange connection, but I was listening to Howard Stern this morning, and he had another DJ on there, Jay Thomas. And Thomas was in quite a mood, and he was talking about how what he’d really like to do is get somebody who could just go out on the streets and collect up all the scum, give them an injection, and be done with them. And then Robin Quivers said to him, “But Jay, why is it you should be the one to make the decision about who is scum and who is not?” But that’s exactly what we’re talking about, right?
FINGEROTH: The fantasy of the superhero really is less about the superpowers than about that ability to wield power wisely – the idea that Superman will just knock somebody out and that Spider-Man will web somebody up and leave them for the police. There was that darkening of the superhero that started in the wake of Watchmen and Dark Knight that sort of took the surface veneer of those stories without really investigating the subtleties of them, and suddenly you had characters like the Punisher, who goes out and kills people.
I’m not sure how many of your listeners read comics currently, but that’s the whole sort of dialect, if you’ll pardon the expression, in comics now. How realistic do you want your superhero to be? Yes, if they really were superheroes, they probably would be crazy and probably would be sadistic and probably would do horrendous things, whether on purpose or by accident. But then it’s not really the same fantasy anymore, is it? It’s a bleaker fantasy. It’s not something that’s inspiring or uplifting.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I was going to ask you about this later in a different way, but let’s go ahead and touch it now. I was one of those kids who grew up reading comics all the time who loved comics. I had to have my comics fix. And then you grow up, and you move on to other things. And then when I had my kid, I started looking again cause I thought, “Hey, great chance to go back and start reading them and introduce my kid to all these great times I had.” But I look at them the last couple years, talk about dark, just the covers, the images, the colors that are being used. It’s all dark. It completely turns me off. I don’t know. I guess it’s just the day and age, or maybe I’m just old.
FINGEROTH: You’re preaching to the choir here, because I agree with you. I think it’s a couple of different things. An online columnist, I forget, and he’s phrased it much better than I will, but we’re sort of at the point now where no matter what you do or what your interests are, you know who Spider-Man is. Spider-Man – Peter Parker, Superman – Clark Kent, Batman – Bruce Wayne. You know all those basic things even if you haven’t picked up a comic for 25 years, but those are not really the characters so much in the comics anymore. Many of them in the comics have darkened in attitude and become more “realistic.” I think it was Tom Spurgeon, if I’m quoting him correctly, but the idea we’re at this point now where what do you end up with when you take a child fantasy and incorporate adult sensibilities? What if Huckleberry Hound suddenly became a dark, gritty vigilante? What if Babar suddenly kicked butt and took names? It really is what happens.
I gave a talk up at a college in Westchester a couple years ago, and a student there named Carl Wadley, I always like to give him credit, he encapsulated the entire kind of argument in comics for the past 30 years. He said, “I’d rather read stories about noble people screwing up than about messed up people doing messed up things.” And that’s really sort of the two sides of the argument in comic books today. When people go to the movies, you’re seeing basically the Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, John Romita Spider-Man. You see the Lee and Kirby Fantastic Four. Those are the aspects of superheroes that are still most appealing to the widest range of people.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Danny, speaking of Jews in comics, how long did you work for Marvel as a writer and an editor?
FINGEROTH: I was there from 1977 till 1995.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Wow! That’s a long time.
FINGEROTH: That is a long time.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Tell me what it was like when you got there and tell me what it was like when you left. How different was it?
FINGEROTH: Boy. When I got there, I sort of had an interesting perspective. I was working in what was called the British department where we prepared reprint comics in black and white to compete in the British market with the British weeklies, and we were also putting out the only original material was something called “Captain Britain.” And I was working for Larry Lieber who, of course, is Stan Lee’s brother, and Larry wrote a lot of the early Marvel… He scripted the first issue of Thor and, I think, of Iron Man. He was there at the creation.
At that point in comics history, I think we all had the feeling that we were sort of there at the tail end of this kind of quaint folk art, and we should just enjoy it while it lasted, and then the last person out be sure to turn off the lights. And it wasn’t even depressing in that sense. It’s just like sort of it was just a fact of life. It’s like okay, we had a pretty good run for 40, 50 years, and now kids are into other stuff, and let’s enjoy it while we can.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: And a generation later — 18 years passes — and then what was it like?
FINGEROTH: Well, obviously, the business did not die in the late ‘70s. There were several key creators as well as the creation and the expansion of the direct market system of comics distribution, which is also, ironically, as we like to say in comics, is part of the problem with the comics now because…If you want, we can get into that. But, basically, the system that saved comics was also endangering it, but in between, there were a couple of booms and busts. There was a great speculator boom in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. And then a lot of stuff went on that became somewhat unpleasant at the company. Plus, I had an offer from Byron Preiss to go work for him, if you know that name.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I know Byron, yeah. I knew Byron. Very sad, really.
FINGEROTH: It was really tragic. He died in a car crash. So we came off this incredible high of these huge sales, which were largely but not completely fueled by speculators. So we had these record-breaking, all-time high sales, and then there was when the business kind of imploded in ’93, ’94, ’95. Believe it or not, nobody actually needs comic books. If you don’t have comic books, you can probably have a quality life.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: What? What are you saying, man?
FINGEROTH: A highly diminished quality of life, but I’ve heard you can live without them. So it’s always fan-driven and habit-driven. Again, if you want to talk about the ‘90s, we can do that, but that certainly was the state when I left there. And as I say, there was all sorts of strangeness going on at the company and in the industry in general at that point.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Hi, is there a call there for Danny?
COLLEEN: Yes. It’s me. It’s Colleen here.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Hey, Colleen. How are ya?
COLLEEN: Fine, thank you. I’ve got one question, and I was gonna ask a second one, but I think you answered it. The second one was do you find comics now being superimposed by online comic and the online media? I guess nobody buys comics anymore. The second question then was, do you really think that there isn’t a need for comics anymore cause I remember reading all these comics that you’ve mentioned like Superman and Batman as well? I guess it’s sort of like you look forward to seeing it on the TV. So what do you reckon is going to happen to comics?
FINGEROTH: If I knew that, I’d be a rich man today, but there’s a few different answers. If you go to your local Barnes and Noble or Borders, and you go to the manga section, you’ll find yourself tripping over actual children and teenagers reading comics. So that is a big part of the future. Whether that future will include Spandex-clad superheroes is another story.
But there certainly is a generation of young people who are learning the pleasures of reading comics. And when I said nobody is buying comics, I mean certainly Marvel and DC still have very profitable publishing divisions. It’s just people aren’t buying them the way they did, say, 30 years ago. There’s a whole trade paperback market and a collectibles market. And also there’s a whole other world that I’m sort of learning about myself in this Rough Guide to Graphic Novels I’m writing. That is the literary graphic novel, sort of Maus and its descendants, the kind of the next generation or two after the underground – comics as an expression of personal experience or history or journalism or fantasy, but comics or sequential art or graphic novels that, again, aren’t about superheroes.
I think the art form is alive and well. I think superheroes, I’ve heard them, and I’ve likened them myself, say, to jazz, whereas jazz was once the mainstream pop music of America, now it’s a strong niche but a niche nonetheless. I think superhero comics has gotten to that point where there’s still an audience, and there definitely is a whole world online. That is really unknown territory, and there’s a million comics online, some better than others, like anything else. The riddle that no one has solved yet is how do you make money off it? Even the most popular web cartoonists seem to make the bulk of their income from collected print editions or from T-shirts or toys or all kinds of merchandising. So I think the idea of comics dying out is not happening, but it is transforming in several different directions.
COLLEEN: Because you also mention the superheroes, and it’s going to be after my first question. That was my first question. That was, as I watch all the comic strips as I’ve mentioned before, did the characters come about, aren’t they representative of the superhero role models that we hope children follow? But the thing about that is, aren’t comic representatives, aren’t they sort of like representing a kind of type of behavior in I’ll say the ‘80s and the ‘90s rather than now? Are comics really appropriate for today’s modern children who know about computers and about all different types of remedies and illnesses and so more than we do, more than I did when I was a child?
FINGEROTH: Do you mean the medium itself or the content?
COLLEEN: The content, yes.
FINGEROTH: Look, if you’re going to read a superhero comic book, you have to have a certain suspension or disbelief, as it’s called, in a lot of ways. If you really, truly believe that they are role models for solving problems simply through punching somebody or shooting somebody, then clearly you may want to keep your children away from them.
If you think they’re metaphors for reaching in and finding the best in yourself and that the physical conflict is more symbolic of inner and psychological conflict, then, as fairy tales are or as certain children’s books or children’s movies are, then I think properly-guided or even minimally-guided, I think especially the older comics, which they’re reprinting in low-priced editions, are very appropriate for kids. It has to do, really, with parental oversight and responsibility. A kid will buy the bright, shiny thing or the thing he thinks is cool or the thing he thinks is forbidden or she thinks is forbidden. I think the thing with comics always was that they were slightly disreputable so that your parents might disapprove but not so terrible that they would forbid them outright. It’s a tough thing.
When you deal in creating popular culture as a profession, it’s a question you ask yourself all the time. What is my responsibility here, if any, and where do I fit in on the whole continuum of the pop culture stew that people are exposed to? And I don’t claim to know the answer. I feel like I read superhero comics growing up, and I know the difference between real violence and comic book style action, and I like to think that most people can tell that difference as well.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Colleen, thank you very much for calling.
A few minutes ago when we were talking about Marvel in the early ‘70s. Just before we went on the air, I was reminded of something. I would say it would be about ’76 or ’77, and I was at the Marvel offices as a 15-, 16-year-old teen boy, fanboy, I admit, thinking I had just died and gone to heaven. It was just like, “Oh. My. God. This place really does exist. Look, that must be what the bullpen is that they’re always talking about. That’s just…Look at that…Wow!”
FINGEROTH: Oh, yeah. That’s a feeling that you never really lose. My first day there I remember, especially, John Romita, but Archie Goodwin. It wasn’t even my first day. It was just I’d come up just on a tour. I was able to get in there for just to sort of get a tour and see if there might be any work available. Everybody there to a person was nicer to me than they had any reason to be. They had jobs to do and lives, but I say I especially remember John Romita, Sr., just being especially welcoming.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: As you look back on your time with the company, if it was a special experience or was it just a job?
FINGEROTH: It was both because it was a job. You had responsibilities and obligations, but there was a large element of play to it. What was interesting is that people who worked there, I think because of the fact that people would gravitate to a comic book company — and especially a superhero comic book company — often saw things in very kind of heroic terms. Everything has its heroic aspect and who was the hero and who was the villain so that could make for some intense times as you would imagine. For all I know, it’s like that in everybody’s office. I’ve been a freelancer now for a number of years so that was really my primary office experience. It was not without what you’d expect in any office – office politics, office romance. But you still would have to pinch yourself and go I’m working at Marvel comics.
The weirdest thing would be to call up somebody you idolized as a child and go, “Where’s the work?” And you go, I can’t believe I’m browbeating like my childhood idol. “Buddy, you can get the work in.” And especially when you kind of looked back on a body of work over a career, and you go wow! For some 12-year-old, that was always my aim in comics was to try to create some memorable thing for some 10 or 12-year-old because people will come up to me. There’s stuff I’m proud of and stuff that I just sort of did for the deadline like everybody else. But very often, something you just did for the deadline, someone will come up and go, “It changed my life,” and you go, “You’re kidding. Really? It paid my rent.”
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Yeah, right. Keep everything in context.
FINGEROTH: You could take it for granted, but I did try to remain aware that, although it was, of course, a workplace and ultimately was about business issues, there was a special relationship to the world that somebody working at Marvel comics had. And, again, especially when you research a book like Disguised as Clark Kent or Superman on the Couch, you sort of see some of the less pleasant parts of the past, or when you talk to the old-timers. I think with anybody who works in any creative business there’s that glorious moment and experience of creating and making something that thousands or millions of people see, and then there’s the not-so-glamorous side of “Who gets credit for this? Who gets paid for this?” But I always did try to sort of take a step back and go huh, look at that, John Romita. I was just like going over a sketch with John Romita, and he actually listened to my opinion as if it counted for something. It was always just like pretty wild.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I don’t have that quite experience, and I know I promised not to mention Eisner again, but there were two things that reminded me of that. One is being at his desk when he was working on The Plot, which was his final book, and being one of the first people to see the roughs. And I think I actually said you know what? Because the original title was like I don’t know, a hundred words, and I remember saying to him, “I know I’m nobody here telling you this, but this title just doesn’t work. It’s just way too long.” And that was just somebody who didn’t know better just telling him out loud, and it turned out it was okay.
But the other thing was I remember him, it was like what you were saying about Romita, the calling people who were your idols. At one point, I was asking about who can I call, and he said, “Look, I don’t have time to call these people so here’s my address book. You just call anybody you want and tell them I said it was okay.” And so suddenly in front of me there’s Neal Adams, and so I’m calling Neal Adams and saying, “Could you write an introduction for my book?” “Who the hell are you?” “Will said I should call.” “Oh, in that case…”
We have just a couple minutes left. There’s a couple other things I just want to touch on. I imagine that Jewish kids might eat up their heritage with regard to comics, especially when compared to sports, for example. Yeah, there’s a laugh. Jewish comic book creators rate an entire library shelf. Jewish sports heroes only fill out a pamphlet.
FINGEROTH: You’re right. I did see Sandy Koufax on TV the other day. I felt like I was nine years old again. He’s now at the Mets training camp.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I saw that. He was helping out one of the relievers, I think.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Worked on his curveball, I think?
FINGEROTH: I think so, yes.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: We both make that connection. Sandy Koufax and then okay, Hank Greenberg and then I don’t know. I can’t think of anybody else off the top of my head.
FINGEROTH: Well, both basketball and boxing, I believe, in their early days were quite Jewish. They were sports that were new, and you didn’t need a whole lot of equipment to box and basketball, literally, you needed a basket. Those sports actually had a lot of Jewish stars and Jewish owners and so on.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Of course, I’d say it was in the ‘30s or ‘40s, Jewish kids found themselves rooting for a black boxer, Joe Louis, to beat Max Schmeling, right?
FINGEROTH: Right, true.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Strange bedfellows society creates, I guess. You’ve got the Rough Guide to Graphic Novels coming out. That’s in the fall, I think. Is that an instructional book?
FINGEROTH: No, I think you may be mixing up two different things I do. They started out putting out hipster travel guides, sort of off-beat travel guides to different countries and cities, and then they branch into pop culture. So this is the graphic novel book. It’s a learn while you earn experience because my background is mostly in superheroes, but they asked me to do this, and I said, “You’re crazy.” And they said, “We want you to do it.” I said okay. I always had a background in Harvey Pekar and Spiegelman and Crumb, and I certainly always knew the basics of the literary and underground comics, but there’s a lot of stuff, Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware and Allison Bechtel and Marjane Satrapi, that whole world that I’m learning more about. And so this book is a guide to those literary graphic novels.
I think the fact that I’m somewhat ignorant in that area is actually good cause it means I can actually write a guide that asks the questions that someone who maybe isn’t familiar with them wants to have answered as opposed to writing it from a complete, super-duper expert point of view the way I would do with superheroes. With the literary graphic novels, it’s different.
I also edit a magazine for TwoMorrows Publishing who, if anybody knows Alter Ego or the Jack Kirby Collector or Draw magazine. I put out a magazine called Write Now! It’s like Writer’s Digest for comics and animation. So coming out this spring, actually, will be The Best of Write Now!, which is what it sounds like. The magazine’s been coming out for 16 years, and it features Will Eisner and Stan Lee and a lot of the more current writers, Geoff Johns, Jeff Loeb.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: And your next issue is a celebration of Stan Lee’s 85th birthday.
FINGEROTH: Which is in December, so I’m hoping to have it out before he turns 86, but it’s also coming out in the spring. And it’s a tribute to Stan Lee and because it’s a writing magazine, I decided to take the angle of Stan as writer, editor, and teacher and sort of really drill down with people from throughout his career about what was it like? When he came into his office, where did he have a pile of scripts? How much WiteOut was there on the script? All that technical stuff. That may be more than a lot of people want to know, but I figure for a writer’s magazine, it’s appropriate. And I’ve spoken to people in their 80s to new guys and people. Before Stan became the Hollywood guy, he was still in the office everyday, and I talked to people who, literally, were hands-on trained by him – editors and writers, Gary Frederich and Roy Thomas. I have this unbelievable array because at first I was, “Oh, my God, I’m not gonna have enough,” and now, of course, I have enough for three issues. So that should be out. I’m sure you know the feeling with your work, the same kind of thing. So that should be out also in the spring, and that’s Write Now! magazine.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Alright. That’s Write.
FINGEROTH: Now. Not the cleverest name in the world, but it does work.