Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Filming a Superman documentary

The relentlessly nice Brett Culp interviewed me for an upcoming documentary on the positive effects Superman has had on society.

On 8/5/15, to get my attempts at answers on film, Brett made the best of a small, plain room in the Westport (CT) Library and a tight window of time.

I’ll report back when the next phase of this ambitious project is public. You’ll want to be a part of it.

Thank you, Westport Library, for accommodating us, and thank you, Brett, for including me. (Also thank you, Arlen Schumer, for offering us to shoot my interview at your place.) This film will exemplify the best of Superman’s influence.

Monday, August 24, 2015

The years of a story

Biographies are not life stories. They are stories from a life. They don’t include all. And they don’t always go from birth to death. Sometimes they start before birth and/or end after death.

I surveyed my nonfiction picture books (two out, two upcoming) to determine the dates they span (not counting the author’s notes). The start year correlates with what is happening on page 1, even if the story flashes back at some point.

  • Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman—1930-1940 (both approximate)
  • Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman—1933-2012 (Bill Finger was born in 1914 and died in 1974)
  • Thirty Minutes Over Oregon (2016)—1942-1998
  • Fairy Spell (2018)—1917-1988

Saturday, August 22, 2015

I was a teenage photographer

Second only to lifeguard, my first summer job was about as vintage as it gets: I was a scooper at an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. It was surprisingly exhausting work. My friends were regularly annoyed that I didn’t give them free ice cream.

My second summer job was not vintage, but the setting was: I was a photographer at an amusement park. Lake Compounce Festival Park opened in 1846, making it the longest-operating amusement park in America. (The cameras we used might have been nearly that old.)

The author I am now loves that history, but at the time, I was more preoccupied with the four big perks the park promised: (always free) rides, (always free) concerts, (sometimes free) pizza, and, of course, girls.

Gretchen and Jen, who were stationed at the Creamery

I worked there for two seasons, 1989 and 1990 (the summer before college).

The first summer, three of my co-workers were three of my best friends (one of whom got me the job); the second summer, two more from our gang joined us.

 guy in the middle was our boss Lou

Our responsibility was simple: be mosquitoes. In other words, stand inside the main gate and take as many (posed) photos of entering guests as we could. This job, too, was exhausting, but in a good way. For hours on end, we were on our feet, in the sun, on unforgiving asphalt, amid mobs of people. But because we were teens, our immortality shielded us from the downside of this.

Some of us were also trained on the developing process. 

The photos we were selling were those photokeychains commonly associated with cruises. I still have about 20.

We all still remember the line: “Stop right there and get together for two quick shots. No obligation!” We’d give them a ticket with their item number and instruct them to come by the photo shack/stall later.

Some people gladly stopped. Others pretended they didn’t hear us and kept walking. I was known to follow, saying “I can walk as fast as you, maybe faster.” That was as endearing as you would imagine.

We also still remember the cost: “One for five, two for nine.” (One day it poured unexpectedly and the park gave each employee a plastic poncho. We sold those, too—one for five, two for nine.)

At the time, as noted, Lake Compounce was a concert park. When we worked the concert nights, we got to see the show for no charge. The park booked B+ and legacy acts including Paula Abdul, Chicago, Don Henley, and the Doobie Brothers. (I would grow up to interview some of the women in some of the videos of some of those bands.)

We’d try to guess which concert crowds would be friendly and which would be difficult; we were often wrong. I thought the Doobies fans would be mellow. But that night, one (large, face-tattooed) guy said “I’m trying to decide if I should smash that camera over your head or shove it up your ***.” I chose A. But luckily he was all talk.

Some days, my friends and I would play a prank on the customers, asking if they were staying for the show that night. They’d ask who was playing and we’d name some A-lister the park could not attain like Prince, Madonna, or U2. They’d invariably speed to the box office to see if tickets were still available and we’d quietly crack up.

The crowds were heaviest at the start of the day and two hours before the concert. Our boss, Lou, assigned us a minimum number of rolls to shoot during that evening rush. We’d go extra fast and then secretly burn off the remaining time on the rides. (One of our favorite park characters was the guy who walked around wearing a badge stating he was the “Flume Supervisor.”)

When Metallica played, the crowd ripped a chain-link fence out of the ground; as I recall, no one was hurt, but 42 were arrested.

The summer of 1989 was the height of New Kids on the Block mania. The park attendance capacity was 17,000, but to maximize profits, they let in 30,000. You could barely walk, but you could still scream “Joey!” or “Jordan!” (Weirdly, I remember these trivial stats—42; 30,000—but can’t say for sure which of the New Kids were the most screamed.)

Occasionally, we got to meet the celebs. 

my friend Mike (right) with RoboCop

But the most notable was Debbie Gibson, who was the same age as we were.

After her show, at about 11 p.m., two of those friends and I were leaving through the employees-only area where the tour buses parked. Debbie was zipping around on a scooter. We got her attention, asked for her autograph, and gave her something in return: a photokeychain with a photo of us in it. I’m sure she still has it today. Just as I still have her signature (laminated), which she scribbled on the only piece of paper I had on me:

Funny that we carried a camera most of the time, yet did not get a photo with her.

Lake Compounce stopped hosting concerts soon after. However, for the new generations of teens who work there, I take heart knowing that the other three perks will always remain, in abundance.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The secret origin of author Hans Wilhelm

Author Hans Wilhelm and I have some things in common:

  • Connecticut (he lives there, I was born there)
  • Germany (he was born there, my wife was)
  • bad reviews
  • four-letter first names with an “a” the only vowel and second letter

What we don’t have in common is our entrée into publishing. Here is mine. Here is his, in his own words:

I got published in America because of my accent.

When I arrived in USA some 35 years ago, I had some ideas for children’s books that I’d collected when I lived in the South Pacific. I didn’t know any U.S. children’s book publishers. But somebody suggested to start at the top and go to Random House.

When I arrived at their office, I said to the receptionist, “Hi, I am Hans Wilhelm and I came to show some of my children’s book ideas to your editors.”

The receptionist looked at me. Then she said, “Could you please say that again?”

I repeated it.

“I am sorry; nobody can see an editor without a prior appointment,” she said. “But I love your accent!” Then she added, “Well, let me see what I can do.”

She disappeared behind a door and came back soon with a broad smile. “Mr. Ole Risom said he has five minutes for you. He is the editor-in-chief. Just go right into his office.”
And five minutes later, Ole Risom bought my first children’s book. When I got home, this was attached to my door:
The only reason why I got to see the top editor in the children’s book market at that time was my accent. Without it, I might still be struggling.

I was told that my accent has gotten worse since then, which may explain why I was able to publish over 200 children
s books.

Monday, August 17, 2015

My Phi Beta Kappa cartoon controversy

In 1998, upon revisiting my bucket list, I began drawing single-panel cartoons (aiming for 10 a week) with the sole objective of selling one to The New Yorker. At least 2,000 cartoons later, I haven’t (and in fact haven’t tried since about 2003), but I hope to resume that pursuit one day. In the meantime, I ended up licensing cartoons to more than 100 other publications including The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Barrons, Good Housekeeping, the iconic Punch (in the UK), and the venerable Saturday Evening Post.

Another was The Key Reporter, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa, the university-level national honor society for academic achievement, of which I am a member.

The first time TKR published one of my cartoons was in its spring 2001 issue, which was also the first time the magazine published any cartoon.

The summer 2001 issue ran a second cartoon of mineand also a three-page article entitled “Do Phi Betes Have a Sense of Humor? Some Philosophical Thoughts about Jokes.”

I found it intriguing (and, at first, strange) that the traditionally staid publication would run a cartoon and a treatise on humor in back-to-back issues. Then I realized that this defense of the value of laughing was because of me.

A 1972 alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania had sent TKR a letter in which he stated:

As a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Professor in a University School of Medicine and a practicing physician, I was distressed by the cartoon on page 16. This derogatory, abusive and near-slanderous depiction of the physician as buffoon is inexcusable and deserves an apology.

My first controversy! Well, my first “controversy.”

I was surprised that TKR had not told me about this before the issue went out. (More so, I was surprised that someone would have such a reaction to a particularly innocuous cartoon.)

But I was thrilled at the sly way TKR chose to address the criticism. Rather than stop running my cartoons, or place any parameters on the cartoon topics I submitted, they published a thoughtful analysis on the nature of humor itself. Looking back, that seems like the only approach an esteemed organization like PBK would take.

More than thrilled, I was proud that my little cartoon (indirectly) took up so much real estate.

And it wasn’t over yet.

In the fall 2001 issue, under the headline “That Cartoon Critique,” two letters were printed. Excerpts:

letter 1:

I am a retired professor of surgery and pediatrics, and I’d like to twit my fellow PBK for being so exercised over a cartoon which depicted a physician as a buffoon.

letter 2:

I found the quote from the Phi Beta Kappa alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania regarding the Reporter’s Spring 2001 cartoon rather unsettling.


The inability to find humor in the Spring 2001 cartoon conveys to me an elitist state of mind. As in, “I am a physician AND a PHI BETA KAPPA member...how dare you poke fun at me or anyone like me.”

Both in law school and now professionally, people feel a need to share lawyer jokes with me. And you know what? I like them. I usually have the ability to top them with some of my own.

No one is above being the target of good-natured humor.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Five library talks in three days

From 8/3 to 8/5/15, I zigzagged around my home state of Connecticut to speak at five public libraries. They were in Easton, Brookfield, New Canaan, Marlborough, and Norfolk.

New Canaan News wrote up one of those talks.

Here is what greeted me and attendees there:

The final stop was Norfolk Library, as charming as it is (apparently) haunted.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

What Bill Finger left behind

In a way, it makes sense that the primary creative force behind Batman would be something of a mystery, but Bill Finger took that too far—or rather, circumstances (some but not all beyond his control) took that too far.

When Bill died in 1974, his son Fred took care of what little he had to his name. The fate of most of his personal belongings is lost to time. I’m told Fred offered to donate Bill’s now-legendary gimmick books to DC Comics, but DC declined. (Unbearable.) Presumably, Fred then tossed them. (Again unbearable. But understandable.)

What of Bill’s did survive?

A paperweight.

A sculpture of his first wife, Portia. Here is Bill’s longtime friend Charles Sinclair gifting it to Bill’s granddaughter Athena (2014).

A signature (1945).

Another signature (1963).

A letter (1965).

Another letter (1965).

Photos (more than most people knew about, but still too few).

Most hauntingly, a page in seminal Batman artist Jerry Robinson’s guest book, circa 1942. It is the longest known example of Bill’s handwriting that survives, and it is reproduced on the last page of Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.

Oh, and, of course, Batman himself.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The third “Chupacabra Ate Candelabra” announcement

More than a year ago, my first funny fiction picture book, The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra, was announced (pre-illustrator) on Publishers Marketplace. In June, I was thrilled to announce here that our illustrator is Ana Aranda. On 8/6/15, Publishers Weekly presented the whole enchilada.

Discoveries I made while researching Bill Finger

Most of this has already been covered here, but I recently stumbled upon an encapsulation I wrote several years ago so I am posting it for one-stop shoppers.

Bill Finger was not well documented in his lifetime by either interviews or photographs. He received no obituary in any mainstream publication. Few instances of his actual words have been published.

Bill married Portia in the 1940s. They had one son Fred in 1948. They eventually divorced and Bill quietly remarried in the late 1960s, to Edith. They had no children together. Bill died in 1974. Portia died in 1990. Fred died in 1992.

Among the information I uncovered:

HEIR: for years, fans had publicly discussed rumors of an unnamed, uncertain Finger heir yet no one seemed to know the original source; though I doubted it, I inadvertently found that there is indeed an heir—Athena Finger, the lone known grandchild, born two years after Bill died

VOICE: Bill was recorded (audio only) on a comics convention panel in 1965 and for a 28-minute interview in 1972

PHOTOS: in seven decades, only the same two grainy Bill photos have been published over and over (one other was published in 1940 but not since); more than one comics historian told me with conviction that no other photos exist; by contacting literally scores of people who knew Bill privately (i.e. not comics colleagues), I found eleven more during my research and several others after my book was published; one is his high school yearbook photo (he attended the esteemed DeWitt Clinton in the Bronx), never-before-found because he had another name at the time that I was the first to uncover

SISTERS: in 2007, via cemetery records of Bill’s parents, I found Bill’s sister Emily (born 1920), whom he’d never mentioned and who I know of only via the 1930 census; I assumed she would either be dead by now or be unfindable (due to a married name); because Bill was estranged from the family since before her wedding (early 1940s), she did not want to speak much to me; after my book was published, the 1940 census was released and it revealed a second sister, Gilda (oddly, one source says she was 10 in 1940 while another says she was 20 in 1940, but in either case, she did not appear on the 1930 census)

SECOND WIFE: no one knew he had one; she was once Edith and had since changed her name to Lyn

WRITING PARTNER: his name is Charles Sinclair, so Google barely helps; it took a while but I finally found him once I learned his middle initial; he was a true gentleman, giving me details never previously revealed about Bill—and he also gave me the paperweight that sat on Bill’s desk


HANDWRITING: I got a copy of the only known example of Bill’s handwriting (aside from a signature)—a charming note he wrote in Batman artist Jerry Robinson’s guest book in the early 1940s; it is reproduced in my book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman

Friday, August 7, 2015

How Bill Finger was documented in his lifetime

Most of this has already been covered here, but I recently stumbled upon an encapsulation I wrote several years ago so I am posting it for one-stop shoppers.

Bill Finger was not well documented in his lifetime by either interviews or photographs (and he received no mainstream obituary). Few instances of his actual words have been published.

The best source: he is quoted rather extensively in Jim Steranko’s book History of Comics, Volume 1 (1970). In addition, he spoke on a panel of comics creators at the first “official” comic convention in 1965, which is transcribed in Alter Ego #20, and he is briefly quoted in a short New Yorker piece about that convention.

He is also paraphrased in a now-legendary piece “If the Truth Be Known or ‘A Finger in Every Plot!’” This was written by a comics historian named Jerry Bails for a 1965 fanzine and was the first time most fans learned that someone other than Kane was involved in the creation of Batman.

Only two other Finger interviews were known to exist—but neither had been published. One was buried amid the clutter of famous fan Tom Fagan’s house in Vermont, the other lost in the bowels of a California university.

After years of searching unsuccessfully for the transcription of the California interview, Robert Porfirio, the man who conducted it, found the original sound recording (from 1972) in December 2008. He immediately digitized it and sent me a copy. Thomas Andrae’s book Creators of the Superheroes includes a full transcription. While parts of the recording are unfortunately distorted, it is one of only two known captures of Finger’s voice. (The other is a recording of the 1965 comic convention panel.)

In February 2009, the piece produced from the Vermont interview (conducted in the mid-1960s) also surfaced, along with two personal letters written by Finger—the only ones known to exist.

Aside from the published Bails and Steranko pieces, this material was unknown to most of the comics community.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

“Hand of God” a veiled message?

During the Q&A after an 8/3/15 talk I gave at a Connecticut library, an attendee asked me the meaning of the “Hand of God” comment on Bob Kane’s gravestone.

I’d never been asked that. I’d never thought about that.

And suddenly it hit me.

I regularly tell audiences that Bob had the chance all along—even at the end—to set the record straight, but instead he had carved into stone the same creation myth he’d been telling his whole career.

But now I see perhaps that gravestone does reveal the truth after all—discreetly.

Thinking out loud in front of that room, I realized perhaps “Hand of God” was a reference to Bob’s right-hand man, Bill Finger.

The fuller phrase is “A ‘Hand of God’ creation, Batman and his world personify the eternal struggle of good versus evil…”

Hand = Finger?

Good = Finger?

Almost certainly not…but curious nonetheless.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Bill Finger/George Roussos issue

As of this writing, the Wikipedia entry for Bill Finger includes this quotation from George Roussos, a comic book inker and colorist who began working in the Golden Age: “Bob Kane had ideas while Bill sort of organized them” (source cited: “Interviews with George Roussos,” Batman: The Dark Knight Archives, Volume 2, DC Comics, 1997).

I am confident that Roussos was well-intentioned. But it does not sound like he was as familiar with the reality of the working relationship between Bill and Bob as one might think.

Bizarrely, Roussos’s statement contradicts the accounts of nearly every other comics industry professional who also knew Bill and Bob personally as well as some DC-sanctioned statements and published accounts by writers including Jim Steranko, Les Daniels, Jim McLauchlin, and Jerry Bails.

I interviewed every key Batman-related creator who was still alive as of 2006. None claimed Bob was the idea man (in fact some vehemently claimed the opposite), none had a thing to gain by defending Bill, and at least two had something to lose (
Jerry Robinson was still a DC Comics consultant at the time, Arnold Drake had been negotiating terms over characters he had created). Even Bob admitted that Bill was a “boy wonder” of ideas (Bob’s 1989 autobiography Batman & Me, page 119)—but by then, Bill was already safely dead.

Bill not only wrote 1,500 stories over 25 years but also designed Batman’s costume, wrote the first appearances of Robin/Joker/Catwoman/many more, built the bat-motif, named “Gotham City” and “Bruce Wayne,” and nicknamed Batman “the Dark Knight.” Bob did not write a single Batman story in his lifetime, and the only major villain more than just Bob credits Bob with creating is Two-Face.

How is this Bill organizing Bob’s ideas?

Even the rest of Bill’s Wikipedia entry undermines the notion that Bill merely “sort of organized” Bob’s ideas.

As such, I feel Roussos’s statement does not belong in that entry. But my request to remove it was overruled. Some have presumed I attempted this because I am unconditionally pro-Bill and anti-Kane. No, I did it because I am a researcher of exacting standards. No matter the subject, I would not give this kind of weight to a single account of one truth over numerous other accounts of a different truth when all accounts are created equal (i.e. all were firsthand witnesses to Bill and Bob).

Like anyone, Roussos is entitled to an opinion. But I do not interpret Roussos’s recollection as a thought-out statement For The Record. I believe it was instead a quick, casual comment that he would probably rephrase if given the chance.

I realize Roussos’s quotation does not state that Bob had all the ideas. And I am not disputing Bob had the better business advice to lock in rights for himself. But I don’t define the legacy of a fictional character in terms of the commerce behind it. I define it on artistic merit.

I feel it is irresponsible to include a quotation as misleading as Roussos’s in the only source many people read to learn about Bill.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Casting a “Fairy Spell”

I started writing Fairy Spell in 2008. I stopped writing it in 2008. I started it up again in 2014. I sold it in 2014. And now I can finally announce it by sharing the Publishers Weekly announcement.

Thank you Jennifer Greene at Clarion (also publishing my upcoming nonfiction picture book about a Japanese WWII pilot’s unprecedented journey) and illustrator Eliza Wheeler for returning with me to this thrilling day of yesteryear.

From capes (Boys of Steel) to planes (Thirty Minutes Over Oregon) to wings (Fairy Spell)…these books fly. Hopefully they will also fly off the shelves. (Sorry, couldn’t not.)

Frances and the fairies, 
Cottingley, England, 1917

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

My 1991 college paper on “The New Yorker” magazine

I discovered The New Yorker (specifically the cartoons) when I was in high school (specifically in the waiting room of my dentist’s office). Like most teenage boys, I got a subscription and hung some of the covers on my bedroom walls. I did not read any of the articles. That awareness would come later.


For Chanukah my senior year, I got this coffee table book and swam through it for hours:

(I still have it. And got my daughter her own copy.)

In college, I took a course on the history of journalism. I wrote one of my papers on the New Yorker. I remember being surprised that there were books about a magazine. Though the paper was originally ten pages, double-spaced, it seems shorter here. In any case, it is a fascinating story, even more so if you are a grammar geek.

The Century of the Comma Man: The Journalism of Harold Ross’s New Yorker

December 4, 1991
AMST (American Studies) 137B
Professor Whitfield

Harold W. Ross, founder and editor of The New Yorker from 1925 until his death in 1951, once found out that a writer who worked for him, James Thurber, had done an impersonation of him at a party. Ross called Thurber into his office and growled, “I hear you were imitating me last night, Thurber. I don’t know what the hell there is to imitate
go ahead and show me.” Ross was a man who was so intriguing that he was ripe for imitating; the same can be said for his magazine, which has, inevitably, outlived its creator. An imitation lends itself to a definition, and a definition of the style and the appeal of the New Yorker is as complex as Ross himself.

The periodical that debuted on February 21, 1925 consisted of—and still consists of—that which “is commonly called sophisticated.” However, as many a
New Yorker employee has noted over the years, the admirable level of sophistication towards which Ross intended to strive was in direct contradiction the actual level of worldliness he himself possessed. He was aware, and not ashamed, of this fact. As editor he felt his job was “encouraging people more talented than he to do their work better than they had hitherto known how to do it.” He combined a nurturing stance with a mildly belligerent one in a system that has been dubbed “benign despotism.” This is not to say that he was an ineffective editor; in fact, Ross “dearly loved a superlative,” and they were frequently used to describe him. Thurber said:

There were so many different Rosses, conflicting and contradictory, that the task of drawing him in words sometimes appears impossible, for the composite of all the Rosses should produce a single unmistakable entity: the most remarkable man I have ever known and the greatest editor.

It is interesting that Thurber revered Ross in a way that almost rendered Ross indescribable to him, particularly because, as Ross attested, “Nothing is indescribable.” Alexander Woollcott called Ross “the best editor in the world.”

Compliments were paid to Ross in strange ways. Many comments started off as insults, but before the sentence was completed, they had somehow turned into the most sincere forms of flattery. Ogden Nash reported, “He was an almost impossible man to work for—rude, ungracious and perpetually dissatisfied with what he read; and I admire him more than anyone I have ever met...” John Duncan Miller, in less than a half-hour after meeting Ross, revealed, “I felt that Ross was the last man in the world who could edit the
New Yorker. I left there realizing that nobody else in the world could.” Harpo Marx’s character study worked in reverse: “I loved Ross, he was wonderful company and his friendship was warm and personal. It was always a wonder to me that such an unworldly man could originate and edit the sophisticated New Yorker.

Ross set out to produce a magazine with a “chatty, informal quality.” He wanted to avoid serious issues; he equated the word “serious” with “grim,” and the
New Yorker was to be anything but. Subjects he dismissed as unprintable were anything of an arty, literary, or (gasp!) intellectual nature. Perhaps the only exception was humor; the humor of the New Yorker was permitted to be intellectual, and most times, it was. In fact, on many occasions artists submitted cartoons that were beyond Ross’s level of comprehension. Part of the reason that the jokes of the cartoons often escaped Ross was because he was so meticulous in his portrayals in the magazine; he allowed no “indirection or physical implausibility in the text” and “exercised a similar strictness in respect to drawings.” His literal-mindedness blocked his capability to accept slightly eccentric ideas; unfortunately, cartoons depend on such eccentricity, and usually are not funny without it. Overheard at the Players Club, a man supposedly said, “[Ross’s] mind is uncluttered by culture.” An enlightening anecdote corroborating this claim: one day, he asked, in complete sobriety, “Is Moby Dick the whale or the man?” Ross was a cunning, concerned man in terms of the content of the New Yorker; arguably, his sensibilities tapered off after that.

Ross was an organizational maestro; he insisted on nothing less than a flawlessly prepared magazine every week, no exceptions. The first two years of publication were confusing and financially disappointing, and ultimately were instrumental in Ross’s thrust to improve the efficiency and clarity of everything. (Although the
New Yorker was the “outstanding flop of 1925,” it was “the only flop that kept on going.”)  The principal tactic that Ross adopted to insure that there would be no mistakes was his overhauling of the checking department. One worker there once quipped, “If you mention the Empire State Building in [the magazine], Ross isn’t satisfied it’s still there until we call up and verify it.” Ross was notorious for accuracy; perhaps this explains his passion for facts over fiction. If a piece of information was factual, it was accurate, according to Ross.

The Rossian crusade for perfection was nearly synonymous with the Rossian preoccupation with punctuation. He shuddered at the staggering overuse of the words “little” and “pretty” for modification: “the building is pretty ugly and a little big for its surroundings.” Meanwhile, he was also known for his frequent insertion of phrases like “and such” and “otherwise” in copy to “achieve ease.” The biggest gripe that both he and his successor, William Shawn, had with respect to grammatical impeccability was the elusive comma. When questioning a particularly enigmatic application of a comma in a writer’s work, Shawn, a reserved and conservative yet brilliantly creative man, was likely to suggest that maybe the comma was not the mark that would best serve to convey the meaning of the sentence, although his gentle manner implied that he realized “what a lot of time and thought [had] gone into the comma.” Predictable were the days when Ross would barge into a writer’s office “deeply worried by the state of the world, or a comma, or something...” Typically, if it had to be one or the other, the
New Yorker featured an excess of commas as opposed to using them sparingly (or, at the very least, only when appropriate). An English journalist once said that an apt title for Ross’s autobiography would be The Century of the Comma Man.

Since Ross’s goal was to provide his readers with a periodical of the highest quality, it would be helpful to indicate exactly what Ross did think of his readers. The
New Yorker was meant to attract upper class, affluent customers who would be satisfied with the clever folly Ross wished to print. He got nervous not when the circulation plummeted, but rather when it thrived. Oddly, he felt that he could have too many followers. The readers were “diffident about writing letters”; no matter—the New Yorker would not print them anyway. Ross assumed that the potential letter-writers “[had] reached a level of sophistication...that [caused] them to avoid pressing a personal claim upon an author; they [withheld] the admiration...that less sophisticated readers would be apt to give.” Ross tended to win reader loyalty by approaching them subtly. In a verbose early advertisement seeking subscriptions, it was explained that although most of the paper for the New Yorker came from trees, the material best suited for the work was “an oblong sheet of green paper issued by the United States Government, and bearing the words: ‘Five Dollars.’  From this single scrap, enough paper can be procured to print 52 copies,” and have them subsequently mailed to one’s home.

Duplications (or striking resemblances) in the captions and content of cartoons were prevented by monitoring each new sketch. An office accountant was hired solely to “determine whether a just balance was being maintained” among the fact, the fiction, and all other categories of contributions. Several topics were essentially taboo: blatant sexual reference, profanity (despite Ross’s incessant oral spewing of it), and for a while, controversial or political issues. Ross was “inherently cautious” and shied away from taking stands; gradually, however, he became less rigid in his prohibitions and began to run the “long short story” and war coverage, most notably the expansive John Hersey article on the bombing of Hiroshima. Ross sacrificed his exclusively metropolitan focus when he found the world, including his readers, was changing, broadening. He then claimed, “This isn’t a magazine—it’s a Movement!” The
New Yorker, around the time when Shawn inherited it, was poignantly summarized as “a humorous magazine that, holding up a mirror to life, everywhere reflects the darkest shadows and yet manages to make us laugh.” Although Ross was positive that the world was designed for the sole purpose of wearing him down, he still longed to amuse its inhabitants.

For a man short on phone etiquette (he announced who it was by a single, gruff “Ross”) and intolerably long on prejudices (he did not view women, homosexuals, and other minorities in a thoroughly favorable light), he proved to be an endearing and responsive editor who had a genuine interest in his writers’ work. Despite his limp handshake and morbid, “invariable morning greeting”—“One day nearer the grave”—he was an assertive, motivating figure who demanded the very best from authors and rarely got anything less. He cultivated a magazine really had no definite style because he urged each writer to develop his or her own style, each of which would be welcome in the
New Yorker, as long as it was interesting, or funny, or both. His criticisms and opinions, even if volatile, had a way of refreshing one’s knowledge of himself or herself and renewing one’s interest in his or her work. Both he and Shawn were fond and proud of praising the work of any of their writers or artists, thereby restoring the confidence that surprisingly was not characteristic of some of them. The journalistic reputation of the New Yorker was of the utmost importance to Ross, yet he was humble enough to apologize if he pushed someone too hard to meet a deadline or to pursue a story.

Oliver Wolcott Gibbs felt that the average contributor to the
New Yorker was semi-literate, and would “use three sentences where a word would do.” He devised a list of 31 Commandments of Editing, New Yorker style. All of them are blunt, and most of them are just as witty as the articles and illustrations of which they are designed to guide. The most notable of them follow: refrain from excessive use of adverbs, do not use alternatives for the word “said” (grunted, snorted), no clichés, no funny names (“Mr. Middlebottom”), do not begin sentences with “and” and “but,” do not write about other writers, do not spell words phonetically for local effect (“trubble”), no triple adjectives (“thin, sweet, gorgeous Melissa”), no awkward division of quotations (“I am going,” he said, “downtown.”), no humor at the expense of a drunk, adulterer, or homosexual, no “vaguely cosmic” last lines (“Suddenly he felt tired.”), no puns, no patronizing or “Godlike” tones, no French unless it is correct French, and “make dialogue sound like talk, not writing.” The very fact that such a list exists (and is no doubt enforced) underlines the idea that everything at the New Yorker is done for a reason, and every fact that is printed has been checked and rechecked. Every paragraph is examined, every sentence is scrutinized, and every word is selected with precision and delicacy.

Ring Lardner said, “I would rather write for the
New Yorker at five cents a word than for Cosmopolitan for a dollar a word.” What lofty ideal or sacred tenet did this magazine represent to so many distinguished writers and artists, and why were they attracted to it practically unconditionally? Ross and then Shawn after him set such high standards for the New Yorker, and paid well for work of distinction. Once Ross offered Thurber $70 a week if he wrote anything. Later that same afternoon he phoned Thurber, informing him that the price had been upped to $90 a week. Thurber’s first check was for $100. Ross, a newspaperman then and always, explained, “I couldn’t take advantage of a newspaperman.” Ross’s first major endeavor in the world of journalism was editing the Army newspaper, the Stars and Stripes. Despite his undying love for the New Yorker and the prosperity that it would eventually find, Ross still insisted that the Stars and Stripes was “the only place I ever really enjoyed working.” Judging by the effort that he put into and by the legacy that he left at the New Yorker, it is hard to believe that Ross could have meant what he said.

The impact of Ross’s magazine on America has been astounding; countless forms of journalism flood the newsstands, but only a select few are influential in any significant way. Among other things, the
New Yorker was responsible for the switch from colored to white lights in the Empire State Building and for the cancellation of broadcasting commercials in Grand Central Station. The magazine that was created to present a “sharper satiric view of contemporary society than the established humorous magazines” succeeded in cementing a firm cornerstone in the foundation of twentieth century American journalism. Shawn credited Ross for the “literate, observant,...light-handed, timely writing that was to revolutionize the American magazine article.” Although it unmistakably caters to a wealthy clientele, it has matured into a publication that confronts issues of all classes and people in general. Although it was constructed around “the desperate and yet somehow joyous difficulties of ordinary daily New York life,” it has extended its scope to cover the entire world.

Ross “was married three times to women, and once, for keeps, to the
New Yorker magazine.” Shawn, when naming those people who had contributed heroically over the years, said, “But at the source, abounding in promise, was Ross.” By January, 1951, Ross had seen many go, and many die. In January, 1951, he said to Thurber, “All of my friends are dead.” Less than a year later, so was Ross. Fortunately, however, his truest friend in the world, and perhaps his truest friend ever, was still alive then, and it is still alive today.

Works Cited

Here at the New Yorker by Brendan Gill, 1975.

The Years with Ross by James Thurber, 1957. 

Cartoons [not posted in full here to respect copyright]

The following cartoons have been taken directly from the pages of the New Yorker and span seven decades, from the 1930s to the 1990s; I was unable to attain cartoons from the 1920s. I did not select them on the basis of their humor. Although most of them here are funny, they were all chosen because I feel that they exhibit the unique wit and style of the magazine, despite the fact that it claims that it does not represent any one distinctive style. Note the recurring themes of selfishness, subtlety, stupidity, arrogance, greed, and superficiality. Most of all, enjoy them.


(woman to firefighter) Bring down the little blue georgette with the white piqué collar cuffs.

(tour guide to elderly group) It’s a thousand years old, as some of you may recall.

(at newspaper printer) My God! They’ve left off the ‘New York Evening Journal’!”


(soldiers in a bar) Would you care to step outside and call my friend what you just called me?

(meeting where adman shows sign “Gimbel’s Hates Macy’s”) No, that isn’t quite it yet, Judson. We want something a little more subtle in its approach.

(house in French countryside with tank tracks leading up to it, bumping into it, reversing, and going around)


(man to another, stuck in traffic) Suppose you try to start my car. I’ll stay here and blow your horn for you.

(boss to couple kissing in hidden spot at company party) You’re fired! You, Preston, that is.

(editor to alien) It’s very interesting, but I’m afraid we only publish science fiction.


(woman with husband, looking at expensive car, to salesman) We’re just kidding ourselves, thank you.

(man to woman at party) You’re stupid. I like that in a woman.

(man to another holding gun to his own head at roulette table) Watch where you’re shoving that elbow, Mac!


(waitress to grouch) Let me see if I have it correctly, sir. To hell with the appetizer. A chopped sirloin that damn well better be rare. No goddam relish tray. Who cares which salad dressing, since they all taste like sludge?

(young man to young woman at party) You’re very cute, as am I.

(couples at party) And this is Mr. Kolkov, who...Heavens, Mr. Kolkov, I’ve forgotten what’s interesting about you!


(businessmen meeting) I would’ve recognized you anywhere, Mr. Davis. You look exactly like your corporation.

Son, you’re all grown up now. You owe me two hundred and fourteen thousand dollars.

(waiter) Is everything satisfactory here—I mean as befits our one little star in the New York ‘Times’?


“How to Delegate During a Recession”: You’re fired. Pass it on.

(sleazy-looking businessmen speaking in front of plummeting profits chart) But, hey, what is ‘recession’ but a word? And the same goes for ‘money,’ right? And how about ‘human beings’?

(Christmas) It’s a check for a hundred thousand dollars. Do you like it?

(end of paper)

Oh, and now my daughter hangs up New Yorker covers.

But classier, as befits a magazine of its stature—note the frames:

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Super chupacabra

DC Comics recently launched its first-ever Bizarro series, in which Bizarro has a companion chupacabra. Bizarro is a reverse of Superman, so I guess he adopts a chupacabra because Superman hasn’t?

I am mentioning because it is the closest we may come to a Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman/The Chupacabra Ate the Candelabra crossover.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The bigness of Batman, in short

Batman’s adventures were larger than life, literally.

On comic book covers in the 1940s and early 1950s, his villains were sometimes shown as giants.

 This time, it was literal.

Inside, he sometimes fought those villains on oversized props

Even his ears were bigger (sometimes extremely so).

Bats may be small but Batman has never been.
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