Monday, November 10, 2014

Gotham Memories

Theres been a lot of talk about DC Comics leaving New York City for California next yearand it really is a huge shift, since the comic book business was born in New York and has been so completely shaped by its city from the startso a while ago my old colleague Bob Greenberger was soliciting memories of DCs Midtown offices from old-timers for his blog. He was kind enough to ask me, and I really wanted to participate. Unfortunately I was overwhelmed by work (i.e. managing my time badly) so I missed his deadline, but it all got me looking back on my first major experience with the DC offices. Which was, in some ways, my first real experience with New York.
      It was the spring of 1984, I was 26 years old, and I was researching The Comic Book Heroes, a book Will Jacobs and I were writing for Crown Publishers. Book-length comics histories were rare enough then that just about everybody in the business was willing to drop everything for an hour or two to talk to me, and Id arranged several interviews at DC, then in the shiny aluminum building at 666 Fifth Avenue, corner of 52nd Street. 
      Id been to New York a couple of times as a tourist (and at seventeen even visited the Marvel offices as a fan), but Id never been to the city on business, never spent time there, never gotten under its carapace. This time I went out to lunch and dinner with Crown staffers as one of their writers,and the next day I walked into 666 Fifth with an appointment. The sheer urbanness and grownupness of the whole thing was thrilling and intimidating, never mind the fact that I was going to meet Julius Schwartz Himself.
      Im not one of these people who grew up on Julies comics (Id been a Stan Lee loyalist as a kid and saw no point in learning the names of anyone at the competition), but in my rediscovery of comics as an adult Id fallen in love with the precise craftsmanship and ingenious whimsy of his Flash, Adam Strange, and Green Lantern, and as a nascent comics historian I knew that he was a very big deal in the development of the form. 
      I was also a quietly alienated son of the California suburbs of the 1970s, and I couldn't help feeling as though New York City was the real America, and the people who had lived through the 30s, 40s, and 50s were the real adults, and very little could be realer or more American or just generally, cosmically above me than me than an old Jewish guy in Manhattan who helped create the comic book business. Which made it a very big deal when he not only let me sit in his office and ask him all kinds of questions about his life and career but then actually invited me to lunch. 
      So there I am eating a pastrami sandwich in the delicatessen on the ground floor of the 666 Fifth building. Not a very good delicatessen (even I can tell that), and everybody who works there is either Chinese or Puerto Rican (none of the old Warner Brothers character actors who would have been spouting weisenheimer dialogue in the delicatessen of my imagination). But still. Its a delicatessen. In New York. With Julius Schwartz. 
He asks what Ive been doing in town, and I tell him Ive gone to some restaurants and I heard some jazz at the Village Vanguard, and he starts talking about the jazz he used to listen to, mentions how he and his friend John Broome (my heart skips a beat) used to go to nightclubs to hear a guy named Maxie Kaminsky. And I say, Oh yeah, Max Kaminsky. The trumpeter. And he says, You dont know who Maxie Kaminsky was. And I say, Yeah, I do. Well, I dont know him well. But Ive heard some of his stuff with the Dorsey band.
      Then suddenly, impossibly, Julie Schwartz is impressed with me. Or, if not impressed, then at least curious and affectionately amused in that way thats almost the same as impressed. I say impossibly because this was not a calculated moment. I did have some general awareness that he was a Dixieland jazz fan, but that sounded so cornball, it hadnt occurred to me that he could have been one of those hepcats following hot-swing-cum-early-jazz-revivalists like Max Kaminsky. Or Bobby Hackett or Jack Teagarden or the other musicians I mentioned to keep that affectionately amused smile on his face.
      That happened to be one of my geeky things at the time, swing music and its offshoots. Just the night before my girlfriend and I had gone to the Rainbow Room to hear Sy Oliver (who used to arrange for the Dorsey band around the same time Max Kaminsky was cutting his few sides with them). That had been a lot of fun, but we were still outsiders, young tourists who paid for one of those souvenir photos they insist on taking of out-of-town rubes. But today I was sitting in a delicatessen with a cool old Jewish guy (the cool old Jewish guy of all cool old Jewish guys) talking about Max (I wouldnt presume to call him Maxie) Kaminsky and his hot horn in the late-night sessions at Jimmy Ryans clubwhich, I happened to know, had been right there on 52nd Street, less than a block away from where we were sitting.
      We went back up to his office, and I got back to the business of asking him questions about comics, but it felt different than before. I felt like I belonged there somehow, in a way I hadnt before. And just a few minutes later, a young guy popped in, gushing enthusiastically about some project he was working on, clearly enjoying Schwartzs attention. Julie asked me, Do you know Frank Miller? Which I certainly did, by name. Frank was the hot writer and artist of the moment, finishing up Ronin, rumored to be starting on some thrilling new rendition of Batman. But he was also, at least it seemed to me, another guy my age, also from somewhere less interesting or less real than New York, still excited to feel like he belonged in the DC offices talking to Julius Schwartz. 
       Julie introduced me as an author of a book about modern comics, Frank gave me his phone number and told me to call him if I had any questions. And it was right then, in the presence of Julie Schwartz, Frank Miller, and Maxie Kaminsky, that I knew I'd be coming back to those offices soon enough; and that, one way or another, I wouldn't be coming back as a tourist.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wait for the Sequel, Strongman

Usually, I’m a writer who has a pretty clear idea of what he intends to do and goes pretty directly at it. Men of Tomorrow, for example, started as an idea to tell the story of the battles over the ownership and control of Superman between his creators and his publishers, both as a human story and as a way of looking at how our ways of creating mass entertainment were hammered out messily in the middle of the last century. About the only big shift it went through in the research and writing was that it tilted more toward the birth of the comic book business out of the immigrant Jewish culture, so I blew through a lot of the later parts of the story (e.g. Jerry Siegel’s creative struggles with Mort Weisinger in the early ‘60s) more quickly.
       But I guess just once in my life I had to let myself unmoor the craft, point toward the open water, and see where the wind took me. Because the book I’m pulling together now is nothing like the book I set out to write.
       The idea came, originally, out of my Men of Tomorrow research. I had become intrigued by the very strange figure of Bernarr Macfadden, bodybuilder turned fitness guru turned publisher of confessional magazines, who represented a lot of what fascinated me about the weird popular culture of the 1920s and '30s but who didn’t really fit into a book about comics. So when I sat down to come up with my next book, I thought of one I called Mad Fortune, about the confessional magazines and other junk magazines as viewed through Macfadden's bizarre life and personality. And that’s the idea I sold to Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
          I’d barely gotten into the research on that when I began to realize that it wasn’t enough to hold my interest, that it would inevitably become mainly a biography of Macfadden, and I really didn’t want to write just a biography, especially of a guy who was strange and intriguing but not very deep or complex. So I took it more into Macfadden’s relationship with censorship and the whole battle over what people could and couldn’t reveal in print in the early 20th century—especially as that played out in the overlooked but very influential True Stories, True Crime, True Confessions genre, which Macfadden created. Which I also liked because it brought me back onto the turf of Killing Monsters, where I wrote some, but not nearly as much as I wanted to, about the history of our “culture wars" over mass entertainment.
       In researching that, I discovered Anthony Comstock, the great American moral censor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who was Macfaddens first serious antagonist. I found that particularly interesting, because Comstock and Macfaddens battles were mostly over the latters right to run physical fitness exhibitions and publish cautionary stories about venereal disease, which seem so beneficial to us now but were so threatening to so many people then. Somewhere in there, my working title changed to American Madness.

       So I started to write about Comstock as Macfaddens antagonist, although I still saw the story as being mainly viewed through the latter. Which, after a while, was starting to bog me down, although I couldn't figure out why. I hit my first frustrating dead spot. 
       Then came the stroke of luck that Im still grateful for: someone else wrote a biography of Bernarr Macfadden. Specifically, Mark Adams did, with his very entertaining and highly recommended Mr. America. Mark was very generous and gave me a whole stack of notes and research contacts hed compiled, but even more than that he made me rethink my book. Bernarr Macfadden isnt like Abraham Lincoln, the kind of guy wholl support an infinite number of biographies. I knew that I needed to reduce the Macfadden part of my story significantly and crank up the Comstock and other elements, so no one could mistake this for “another book about that crazy bodybuilder from a long time ago.”
       Which was hugely liberating, because thats when I realized how stifled I was feeling by having to focus everything on the crazy bodybuilder. And I hadnt been able to see that, because I was holding onto this idea that the book shouldnt change too much from my original conception. Like I said at the beginning, I wasnt the kind of writer who did that kind of thing.
       Luckily, my patient and forgiving editor, Eric Chinski, supported me in the new direction, and the book was reborn as The Undressing of America. Now it was about the whole cultural battle over exposure, concealment, sex, health, privacy, the body, and all that stuff—a battle were still feeling the repercussions of—as it developed through the decades of Comstock and Macfadden's careers from 1865 to 1930. The focus would still be on those two, and their legal conflicts would still be the central action, but it would include a huge number of other people around them: Mencken, Dreiser, Ziegfeld, Rutherford B. Hayes, all kinds of people.
       Which is the book I proceeded to research and write, and when I revise it I think its going to be a really good book. But its not the book Im rewriting now. Because while I was writing that book, a whole other book happened.
       The thing was, the more I wrote about Anthony Comstock, the more I realized that he just didnt make sense to a modern consciousness unless you understood where he came from. His moral thinking was so preposterously black and white, his assaults on the most innocuous (and most moral) material were so violent, that he could only come off as some sort of delusional crank—which made it impossible to understand how he had so much public support and so much political power. 
       To make that comprehensible, I had to tell the story of the antebellum reformers from whom he sprang and who provided the momentum for his crusade, those complex and extraordinary people who launched the temperance movement, the YMCA, and abolitionism—and first made “indecent” publications a target of holy wrath—because they believed they were founding the Biblical millennium on earth. Which required a new front section of the book, a sort of long prologue, that I at first thought could start in 1851 (founding of the YMCA), then realized would have to start in 1840 (arrival of a man named Morris K. Jesup in New York), and finally would have to stretch back to 1827, when moral combat broke out over a ballet dancers lifting skirt.
       At a certain point, after Id researched most of that and written a big chunk of it, I realized that this was all just too much for one book to handle. I found the story of “Americas first culture war” more interesting (at least for the moment) than any of the rest of it, and I knew that I could never give it its due if I had to squeeze it into the first quarter of a book covering an entire century.
      The punchline of all of this is...a book that started essentially as a biography of Bernarr Macfadden wont have Bernarr Macfadden in it at all. This ones going to have to cut off before he was born. I still have (and like) the rough draft of the book in which hes a major player, the original Undressing of America, and Ill be happy to see that one published as a follow-up to this one. With this book to stand on and refer to, Ill feel much more confident about telling Comstocks story. (And, if nothing else, Ill understand Comstocks background much more myself. One of the functions of writing a book is so the writer can understand his own material...but thats another post.) 
       Basically, Ive written a book and its sequel. Except I wrote the sequel first, so the book that gets published first is the one I wrote second. Ive spent years researching and writing two big books at once, neither of which will look much at all like the book I originally contracted to write. Hardly what I set out to do—but now I cant really imagine doing it differently.
       The hard part now is the title. The Undressing of America was conceived for the second half of the story, and its a perfect title for that. But after years of hyping my next book, The Undressing of America, itll feel strange to come out with some other book and have to explain that Undressing is still out there. But that I think Ill discuss with my editor. 
       Of course, theres also the other next book, Lost Hero, my collaboration with Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson, which I'm certain will be pretty much what it's been planned as, because I dont think Nicky will stand for anything else. Ive kind of forgotten what that feels like, honestly. Itll be a nice change. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ruins of Cairo

Ive wanted to see Cairo, Illinois (pronounced Kay-ro) for a long time, and I finally drove myself there this summer. Its a town that represents a lot in American history: a strategic point at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, a great river port of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a mob town from Prohibition and a decades later; then it went into free fall when the bridges and highways by-passed it, and then came race riots, white flight, economic collapse, flooding. It was built for 15,000 people and a booming economy, and now it has 2500 people and not much of an economy except what the county courthouse and visitors to the Civil War archives at the local library bring.
       The demographics tell a too-common story of heartland decline: nearly half the kids living under the poverty line, about as many single mothers running households as married parents, only seven men for every ten women (men get scarce when the money gets low). But in other ways Cairo is far from common. Its flat, marshy, hot, kudzu-grown, more Southern than Midwestern. The whole town was evacuated three years ago when the rivers rose. The weather, the floods, the plants, and time have brought a lot of it down. What remains of the old city are like islands in a rising lake.
       And yet, people do live there. A lot of them in a large, spare, rectangular housing project that looks as lonely as a silo on the prairie; others in cheap rentals at the edge of town, government-assisted units scattered among them; some in the old Millionaires Row,” now a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of hundred-year-old houses in various states of renovation and decay; a few in the shrinking downtown, where houses are one by one abandoned and left to fall. 
       Some of those people are fighting hard to keep the town alive. I saw a lot of people out mowing lawns, even on half-abandoned blocks. There were relics of one effort after another to turn empty walls into mural galleries or call attention to some historic block. And right in the middle of the jungled depths of the old downtown, I stumbled on a mansion that someone had obviously just recently given a complete and stunning renovation, down to a gas lamp in front and fountains bubbling in the garden. (I asked around and was told it was a gay couple from out of town.)
       Im not quite sure, really, what it all means to me and why I think about it so much...but I took some pictures. Scroll about halfway down, to the close-up of the pedestal of the lonely statue called the Hewer, installed in what was then the middle of a bustling downtown. Presented to the city of Cairo in token of his unswerving faith in her destiny.” It was the still, bronze faith of that mighty but immobile man that I kept thinking about on the road back to Chicago.


Sunday, August 3, 2014

Creative Hate

“If you love the good thing vitally, enough to give up for it all that one must give up, then you must hate the cheap thing just as hard. I tell you, there is such a thing as creative hate!”
       The speaker is Thea Kronborg, the protagonist of Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, a prairie-town girl who
s carving out a career as an opera singer. She’s partly based on a real singer Cather knew and admired, but a lot of what she says comes straight out of Cather’s own experience as a prairie-town girl then carving out her own impressive career as a novelist.
       “How can I get much satisfaction out of the enthusiasm of a house,” Thea asks, “that likes her atrociously bad performance at the same time that it pretends to like mine? She’s talking about a rival singer, one who doesnt live up to Thea’s idea of what vocal art ought to be. If they like her, then they ought to hiss me off the stage. We stand for things that are irreconcilable, absolutely.”
      A couple of things have kept this on my mind lately: visiting Cather’s home town in Nebraska a few weeks ago and going to the San Diego Comic Con just last weekend.
       The Cather pilgrimage happened on my 57th birthday. It was fortuitous more than planned—my son had been intending to fly to Chicago for his annual G (as in Godzilla) Fest until he suddenly suggested we make it into a father-son road trip—but it turned out to be a powerful thing. Once I realized we’d be driving within fifty miles of Red Cloud, Nebraska, I decided to Cather it up good: listening to an audiobook of My Antonia (sending Nicky back to his earbuds), reading Five Stories when I wasn’t driving, making reservations at the Cather family home, now a guest house run the Willa Cather Foundation, doing the Cather tour run by selfsame Foundation, even having breakfast at the cafe with the hand-lettered sign in the window reading WE SELL CATHER. It was only two days that I spent immersed in her flat, hard country, her bright-burning ambition, and her spare, perfect art
—but those two days have stayed with me.
       Comic Con was a different sort of pilgrimage. It was my 31st year in a row going to that thing. I was going there when I was just a fan, and I was going there when I was writing seven scripts a month for DC and Marvel; I was going there when I gave up writing the comics themselves to write about their history, and I kept going there when comics were just about the furthest things from my mind. (Lest this sound like some sort of morbid compulsion, I should tell you that the main point of the trip now is to hang out with my friend Joe Filice and his family, with the Con as a pretext and an organizing principle.) Every trip there, whether I like it or not, becomes a journey through my own creative and professional past. 
       And God, did I ever use that creative hate in my past! There were writers I loved, admired, emulated, tried to learn from. But there were other writers I couldnt stand, writers I loved to bitch about and rage at, to satirize and mock (never to their faces, of course). And they were on my mind every bit as much as the writers I loved. Maybe more.
       These werent inept or egregiously bad writers. They were mostly popular or well respected, usually with good reason, but with aesthetics or goals or intended audiences drastically different from mine. They werent doing me any harm. Sometimes I tried to convince myself that they were taking away my audience, or degrading the form to the point that no one would be able to recognize good work, but that was only to justify my hostility. Nor was this about simple jealousy, although that would be easy to assume. I could be very happy for another writers success, even when it was much greater than mine...if it was a writer I liked. It wasnt really even about competitiveness.
       I needed those writers to define myself. I wasnt one of those writers who seems to have been born with a vision of what he must write. I wasnt even very good at knowing who I was as a person, let alone as a writer. I spent a long time working at self-definition. For that I needed mentors, collaborators, and role models, but I also needed people to contrast myself against, people about whom I could say, Im definitely not thatso that must mean Im this. If I was clear on what I didnt want to write, if I made that an anathema that would repel me every time I found myself drifting toward it, then I could stay on my own slowly emerging path.
       I found a lot of people to play that role: novelists, screenwriters, comics writers, and essayists, young writers emerging alongside me, aging veterans, and some who werent around anymore. I even had Thomas Wolfe on the list for a while (So damned self-preoccupied! Too many words! No discipline!), even though though the poor mug had been dead and losing critical favor for decades before I was born.
       And the more rage I could stir up against them, the more focus and energy I could bring to my own work. I nursed what Thea Kronborg calls the contempt that drives you through fire, makes you risk everything and lose everything, makes you a long sight better than you ever knew you could be.”
      Not that I was doing any of this consciously. Like an adolescent who suddenly finds his parents stupid and infuriating, I made up a world view that served my larger purposes—and then threw myself into it with a blind passion. (The whole process of finding myself as a writer was basically an adolescent journey, in fact. I just dragged it on for a decade or so beyond the age of acne.) Of course, if it hadnt been unconscious, it wouldnt have worked. Self awareness is not always our friend.
       Somewhere along the way, that all changed. As I became more comfortable in who I was and what I was doing as a writer, I lost my energy for mocking and complaining about others. Then, at some point (around the time I became a dad, I think) I began to develop a compassion and a feeling of solidarity with everyone else who was pursuing this nerve-wracking career, whether the results were anything I liked or not. And, having lost the need to define myself as Not That Guy, because I finally had a sense of myself as This Guy, I began to appreciate writers I had been unable to like before, even to appreciate them precisely because they broke my personal rules. Thomas Wolfe could churn out some pretty powerful descriptions with all those words.
       I figure were all out there doing our best, trying to do what we think is good or hope other people will like, and theres room in the world for all our different aesthetics and philosophies and abilities. These days I cant even work up the energy to mock the woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. (In fact, I can never remember her name, which itself is different from the old days. Back then I would have had her name seared into my frontal lobe.) I assume shes doing what she loves to do, and lots of people like it because it speaks to something in them, and thats really fine with me. I do what I believe in doing, and people can stop to look at it if they want to. 
      Not that I dont still have strong opinions. Not that I dont get annoyed when a writer I like lets me down, especially if I think its from laziness or self-indulgence (you shouldve heard me when I finished The Goldfinch). Ive just found that anger and judgment take more out of me now than they give back. Our emotional energy is finite, and I need to direct mine where it will do some good. 
       But I do try to catch myself when Im tempted to tell some younger writer to lighten up or to lecture him on having compassion for our ink-stained comrades. Im where I am because I went through the process, and the process, at least for me, required a fair amount of what Willa Cather had the guts to call creative hate.
       Theres something attractive about those feelings, too. Theres a vitality and a potency in that kind of negative intensity that my grown-up acceptance and compassion can never completely replace. I suspect Cather felt the same. Her judgments of younger writers became more measured and philosophical even as the youngsters started making fun of her, but she still let Thea Kronborg have her rage. Even when I feel stupid for some of the arrogant judgments I laid on good writers when I was young and self-obsessed, I can still hear the nobility in Theas call to arms: 
       “You can’t try to do things right and not despise the people who do them wrong. How can I be indifferent? If that doesnt matter, then nothing matters.