Thursday, February 4, 2016

Superman, Philip Wylie, and Young Writers' Dreams


I was recently asked by Dover Books to write the foreword to their reissue of Gladiator by Philip Wylie, a book Ive long had an interest in as both a historian of comics and a general commentator on American culture and history. I find Wylie complicated and interesting to think about, and it was a fun piece to write. 


Of all the artistic legacies a person might earn, I think the most bittersweet is to be remembered only for having inspired someone else to do something better known. I imagine Cimabue would have been thrilled to know that art historians would still be talking about him seven centuries after his death, until he realized that they weren’t talking about him as the great painter of his age but only as the guy who may (or may not) have taught Giotto to paint. Would Max Linder, who committed suicide when he thought his movie career was washed up, have been pleased to know that his work would still be shown in occasional film festivals nearly a century later—if he’d had to listen to himself always described as the sadly forgotten comedian who inspired Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd? It’s a legacy that means future generations will still come back in time to look at your work, but they’ll never really see it for what you meant it to be. They’ll always see it through the eyes of some third party—very likely someone you resent for outshining you.
    Philip Wylie, in his prime years, would probably never have imagined that he’d be a candidate for such a fate, let alone that he’d be the man mainly responsible for creating it. From the mid-1930s through most of the 1950s, he had a remarkable run as a writer: bestselling books of social commentary, literary novels of decent reputation, science fiction thrillers that got turned into movies, and a constant presence in the Saturday Evening Post and other major magazines. By 1963, however, when he agreed to be interviewed by the science-fiction historian Sam Moskowitz, the world’s attention was already clearly leaving him behind; which may be why he felt moved to complain so bitterly about how the creators of the comic strip Superman had stolen their idea from one of his early novels. He lived only another eight years, but by the time of his death, his own literary reputation was rapidly evaporating as Gladiator’s fame was rising among pop-culture historians in search of the hidden origins of the superhero.

    So it is that of all his forty or so published books, the only one in print is the one in your hand—not one of his bestselling, not one of his more highly regarded, not one of his personal favorites, but the one that was read by a teenager in Cleveland named Jerry Siegel, who borrowed some of its ideas to create a comic strip that Wylie considered a load of garbage.
    Siegel (and his artistic collaborator Joe Shuster) drew on far more than Wylie’s novel for the idea of Superman: the Doc Savage pulp magazines, a raft of other science fiction and fantasy stories, Douglas Fairbanks movies, Popeye, lots of things. But none of them have held the “missing link” glamor for comics historians that this odd little novel holds. A body of legends has grown up around the relationship between Gladiator and Superman, some spurious and some outright false (and some, to my enduring embarrassment, passed on in my own book, Men of Tomorrow). The truth is that Jerry Siegel never reviewed, or even mentioned, Gladiator in the fanzine he published in high school. If Wylie threatened to sue for plagiarism or Siegel signed affidavits claiming he’d never read the book, there is no record.

    What we do know for sure is that Siegel, in his unpublished autobiography, wrote that he “read and enjoyed Philip Wylie’s book Gladiator” and that, along with a great many other pop-culture items, “it influenced me, too.” (Courtesy of Thomas Andrae, author of Creators of the Superheroes.) We also know that there are many details shared by Gladiator and the first several months of Superman stories that are awfully hard to dismiss as coincidence. Most specifically, we know that the physical attributes of Wylie’s Hugo Danner—what we would now call his “superpowers”—were a unique combination at the time, and they were precisely, no more and no less, the same as those of the first incarnation of Superman.
    What Wylie did, essentially, was establish the “superhero” as we know it—or at least the superhero’s physical nature. He posited a rogue scientific experiment that gives a man unasked-for physical superiority: great muscular strength, the ability to leap vast distances and heights, tremendous running speed, and skin so tough that nothing less than an artillery shell could pierce it. Popular fiction was full of strongmen, and science fiction featured a few interplanetary characters who could jump high because of gravitational differences. But combining power with speed, creating a hero who could both lift and outrun a locomotive, was something new. We don’t usually see those two as going together (weight lifting isn’t in the decathlon), and the combination created a new template for across-the-board superhumanity. The addition of invulnerable skin cranked the idea up another notch. Hugo Danner was (to quote Will Murray’s excellent Gladiator of Iron, Man of Steel), “A quantum leap forward in the concept of the preternaturally-powerful protagonist.”
    Jerry Siegel gave Superman’s powers an extraterrestrial rather than chemical origin, but the powers themselves were the same as Danner’s; it would be a few years yet before Superman could fly instead of leap, longer still before he picked up x-ray vision, super-hearing, and the rest of it. Siegel also followed Wylie’s lead in suggesting that a man of such abilities could never fit in with normal humanity, that the rest of us could only make him an object of fear or curiosity, that many of us would try to find some way to exploit him for profit. But what Siegel chose to do with that realization was drastically different from what Wylie had done—and there opens the greatest difference between the characters, one that says a great deal about Philip Wylie and why his literary fate has been to play a supporting role in someone else’s origin story.
    He was born in Massachusetts in 1902, the eldest son of Edmund Melville Wylie, a Presbyterian minister of some renown. His relationship with his father was apparently difficult from early on, and he grew up defining himself in opposition to a certain kind of moral and conventional authority; he usually portrayed his father as intelligent but rigid, overly attached to his own righteousness, trapped in his own doctrine and ultimately hypocritical. Whatever mediating influence his mother might have brought ended with her death when Philip was five. His father remarried, but he didn’t get along with his stepmother.
    By his early teens, Philip was already striking dramatic postures of resistance to the worldview his elders were attempting to inculcate in him. “One evening during a thunder storm,” remembered his sister Verona Wylie Slater, Philip “was inspired to make an unholy experiment. He stood on a sloping rock, which jutted out into the lake near our summer home. Holding his face upward, he defied the Almighty to strike him with a bolt of lightning. The skies opened with a terrifying flash, but the bolt flew across the dark waters a mile away. We felt relieved, foolish, and very insignificant.” Wylie reconstructs that scene at a crucial moment in Gladiator, but in such a way that one is left suspecting that he felt less relieved than disappointed at being passed over by the divine wrath.
    Philip attended Princeton University, but in his third year he dropped out because of a conflict with a teacher. For a while he knocked around as a sailor, not the first bright young man who disliked authority to take up that job. Then he tried working in advertising and publishing, including some time on the editorial staff of the young New Yorker magazine, but it never took very long for him either to get fired or resign in frustration. So he staked his future on writing novels.
    The literary culture of the early 1920s provided a great deal of reinforcement for a young man with a desire to stand on metaphorical rocks during intellectual lightning storms. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street was the book of the age. F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose shadow stretched over Princeton when Wylie was there) was being called a voice of the modern generation. D. H. Lawrence and James Branch Cabell were fighting battles with the censors (mainly New England Protestants greatly reminiscent of the Reverend Wylie), cheered on by H. L. Mencken. A young writer was expected to unmask society’s hypocrisy, destroy sentimentality with brutal honesty, fling himself against convention with a “romantic egoism.” He should advocate hard science and reject religion, immerse himself in Freud and know Nietzsche. And he should suffer. He should, as Wylie said of his protagonist in an introduction to one edition of Gladiator, “share the isolation of geniuses and with them…learn the inflexibility of man's slow evolution.”
    Gladiator was Wylie’s first novel, written in 1926, when he was twenty-four years old. He submitted it to Alfred A. Knopf, H. L. Mencken’s publisher and a champion of challenging new fiction, who was taken with its author enough to buy it—but also leery enough to lay it on the shelf for a while and ask Wylie to write a more conventional novel to introduce himself to the world first. Ultimately, Gladiator would not be published until 1930, after Wylie had produced two novels based more or less on his own life, Heavy Laden and Babes and Sucklings, and in a rewritten form.


     I haven’t been able to discover anything about the original manuscript or how different it may have been from what saw print, but given Wylie’s complaint that Knopf pushed him to rewrite it “against my will and judgment,” I’m inclined to think that he did his best to preserve his original intent. Or let me put it this way: I find Gladiator much easier to appreciate if I read it as the creative eruption of an unpublished twenty-four year seized by a big idea than as the third novel of a twenty-eight year old who should have learned something from working with Alfred Knopf. Its charm is in its newness, its quality of discovery, and its painful, sometimes confusing collision of two very common but very different sorts of young male fantasy: breathtaking feats on the battlefield, the gridiron, and the public arena of crime and justice on the one hand; literary and intellectual acclaim on the other.
    In his childhood, Wylie was a great reader of H. G. Welles and other authors of those fantastical stories that would later be classified as “science fiction.” He came up with the idea for Hugo Danner (by his own report) while lamenting the inferiority of the human body to machines. He began speculating on what a man might do with a superhuman body, and if he’d been at a different point either in his own development of that of American fiction, he might have found his way to a fun adventure story, maybe something like one of Welles’s lighter novels, with a touch of social speculation or satire. By the time he reached his thirties, Wylie would demonstrate a comfort with that sort of storytelling, which contributed to his successful career. At twenty-four, however, pumping himself up for the solitary quest of the novelist, the temptation to climb onto that rock in the thunderstorm was just too great. Some years before his fellow Princeton alum, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy,” Wylie concluded that a man like Hugo Danner “would be foredoomed to vulgar fame or to a life of fruitless destruction.” And he spent a book proving it.
    Jerry Siegel, born twelve years after Wylie, coming of age after American culture had mostly dismissed its Twenties as an embarrassing youth, comfortable with himself as a lover of pulp science fiction and Hollywood movies, had no interest in writing a tragedy. When he saw that his superman would never be able to function as a normal human being, he also saw the obvious solution: Clark Kent. His hopelessly isolated hero would put on a pair of glasses and wink his way through the great in-joke of pretending to be one of us. Siegel also understood that what most readers would want of such an outlandish hero was an equally outlandish message: that our great problems were simple enough to be solved by a man who could lift a car over his head. For the young Philip Wylie, such a compromise with “the cynical piddling of modern society,” by either the protagonist or the author, would have been the height of the very hypocrisy that he had committed himself to fighting.
    In the early 1930s, frustrated by his experiences with Knopf and serious fiction, Wylie turned his energies to making a living off what he called “a bumper crop of crap.” Two of the books from that period would provide still more inspiration to the spinners of fantastical adventures: The Savage Gentleman from 1932 clearly inspired the Doc Savage pulps, which in turn worked some influence on Superman and other comic-book heroes, while When Worlds Collide, cowritten with Edwin Balmer the following year, probably inspired Flash Gordon and perhaps also Superman’s interplanetary origin story.  Over the next several years, an entire industry of comic books, comic strips, movie serials, and licensed merchandise grew up around superheroes. Most of those were spun straight out of Superman and probably owed nothing directly to Wylie (although with some of them, like Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America, a man transformed by an experimental serum into a very Danneresque super soldier, one has to wonder), but they all rested, to some degree, on the foundation of Gladiator.
    By that time, however, Wylie himself had moved on. He tackled serious fiction again in Finnley Wren, then donned his own heroic garb in an assault on American sentimentality and mediocrity via his 1942 collection of essays called Generation of Vipers. For some years, he was a prominent presence in book stores and magazines, almost a household name. Then he faded, while Superman and his brethren only grew more numerous, more famous, more artistically complex, and more central to our popular culture. 

     I’m glad we have this opportunity to look back at his contribution to the superheroes—but I also suspect Wylie would appreciate it if we could leave that behind for a moment and read this first novel of his for what it was before Jerry Siegel discovered it: the self-conscious but heartfelt roar of a young man of wild ideas and wilder ambition, climbing onto a rock in the lightning storm of the first decade of the modern world.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy New Year

I was blessed with a great 2015. I was able to write the bulk of Nation of Faith and Flesh, (enough that Ill surely meet my January 15 deadline for this draft). Nicky Wheeler-Nicholson and I made big progress on developing our upcoming collaboration, Lost Hero, so we should be able to move forward full speed early next year. Will Jacobs and I completed and saw published My Pal Splendid Man, a humor book wed begun to write as a labor of love many, many years ago. I was asked to write introductions to rereleases of a couple of things that matter to me, the animated Watership Down and Philip Wylies novel Gladiator. And my wife and I sold our house after twenty-four years, setting ourselves free to enter a leaner, lighter way of living that suits us well in this (mostly) post-parenting era of life.
       Some of these things were already on the schedule before 2014 ended, some were surprises. One, the selling of the house, didn't even seem to be a possibility when this year started, but its turned out so well that I want to pretend I planned it all along. This past year has been good for reminding me to trust luck and providence, and to take all my own plans with a grain of salt. I entered 2015 with a fair amount of trepidation, but Im looking forward to seeing whatever 2016 brings. I hope its good to us all.
       Happy new year!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

My Pal Splendid Man (more!)

Long ago, between our Beaver Papers and our Trouble with Girls, Will Jacobs and I started writing a series of short stories about the odd friendship of a young, would-be novelist named Will Jones and a superhero called Splendid Man. In part it was a tongue-in-cheek homage to the old comic books we loved, and in part it was a wry (and slightly autobiographical) look at the life and attitudes of an old-fashioned bookworm in the high-glamor Eighties. 
       We loved the stories but, life doing what it does, we didnt actually finish the book until about thirty years after wed first thought of it. Now, thanks to Atomic Drop Press, we are finally (just in time for the holidays!) releasing the complete My Pal Splendid ManLest the sample I ran last time gave the impression that the stories are all about Will and his splendid friend sitting around talking, heres a more action-filled sequence, the opening of the sixth story. If it intrigues you, you can find the whole thing wherever fine ebooks and print-on-demand books are sold.

Prisoner of Pox Pascal



Sometimes when my writing is going badly I like to torture myself by looking at the racks of paperback bestsellers. When I’m losing faith that I’ll ever be able to write another decent paragraph, let alone get published, I can’t resist the shot of envy and bitterness I get from scanning the glossy covers of all those Peter Benchley and Mario Puzo novels and thinking about the fortunes other writers have amassed by cleverly avoiding any sort of literary voice. Thus it was that I was striding into the foggy night toward the local 24-hour Walgreen’s, abandoning Chapter 68 of my latest novel about a man too passionate to fit into the everyday work world, eager to see what was new from Arthur Hailey or Michael Crichton or that literary immortal of the future, Stephen King.
        So intent was I on my own misery that I nearly crashed into the man standing on the street corner.  I jumped back and started to apologize.  Then I noticed his eyebrows.  Or, rather, his lack of same.
       “Pox Pascal!” I gasped. “What do you want with me?”
       “I want information that only you possess, Will Jones,” sneered the criminal mastermind.
       “I’ve got nothing to tell you,” I said.
       “I think I will be the judge of that, Will Jones.”
       “Judge away,” I said.  “But why do you think I’d cooperate with you?”
       “I have monitored you with my ultrascientific devices for months,” he said, “ever since you first became my enemy’s pal, waiting for the inevitable day when the stars would fall from your eyes like bolides and you would begin to see the flaws in the friend you once venerated!”
       “That’s ridiculous,” I said.  “Yeah, sure, he got on my nerves a little with that fake book stunt he pulled.  But there’s no one who doesn’t think Splendid Man is the greatest man in the world—and you’re the most nefarious!”
       “Really?  What about every citizen of the planet Poxor, where I am revered as a hero and your splendid pal is despised as a villain?” He moved a hand slightly, and in the air beside me appeared a giant plastic sphere, as big as my bathroom and as transparent as a soap bubble. “Won’t you join me on a trip to Poxor, Will Jones?  It might…broaden your horizons.”
       My hand snaked to my pocket and vibrated the teeth of my SOS Comb.  Let’s see the grinning fiend act so superior when Splendid Man came to my rescue, I thought.  Any second now, I thought.  Okay, I thought.  Any second…now?
       “A problem?” Pascal smirked.  “Is it your SOS Comb, perhaps, that isn’t working?”
       “You fiend,” I snarled. “You’ve no doubt rigged up a jamming device.”
  “Yes,” he chortled. “No doubt I have.”
     Before I knew what was happening, a hole had opened in the membrane of the bubble and Pascal had shoved me inside.  I found myself standing on an invisible floor within the odd vessel.  As I looked down through it, I saw the sidewalk receding beneath my feet.  We were taking to the air!  The rooftops and hills of San Francisco vanished as we gathered speed upward.
       I took a hard look at my companion, then.  The gleaming, hairless brows. The great crest of silver hair sweeping high above his head, as if to compensate for the naked forehead.  The penetrating blue gems of his eyes and the lips twisted with lifelong bitterness. The lab smock he always wore in case anyone should fail to recognize him as a scientific genius. I realized then what it was that this arrogant scoundrel must want from me, and I swore to myself that nothing, no bribery or coercion, could ever wring from Will Jones the truth of Splendid Man’s secret identity!
       I suddenly heard Pascal speaking. “There, before you! Poxor, the world I call my own!
       Sure enough, there was a planet looming into view as the bubble began to slacken its speed. Apparently I’d been so lost in my own angry thoughts that I’d spaced out on an entire lengthy journey through the vastness of the universe.  I hate it when I do that.
       “I imagine you know about the effects of greater gravitation and argon-free atmosphere on Earthlings,” he said, and slapped a tiny device on the back of my neck. “This device will radiate you with enough antigravitons to preserve your normal strength, while injecting enough argon into your bloodstream to prevent any unwelcome changes to your scrotum.”
       “You think of everything,” I said.
       “I’m a mastermind,” he said.  And with that, the membrane of the space bubble dissolved and we stepped out onto the veranda of Palace Pascal, the lone edifice rising from the vine-filled jungles of Poxor.
       “When I first came upon this planet, through a fortunate accident,” he was saying, “I found it entirely overgrown with these creepers and populated by a savage people. But upon further exploration I discovered the ruins of a great, hyperscientific civilization. Although no historical records remain of the civilization’s collapse, I can only surmise that the ignorant masses grew envious of the scientific elite and turned on them, heedless of the fact that their hubris would plunge them into ignorance and barbarism.”
       “More likely the elite tied itself to a short-sighted dependence on finite natural resources and ignored the need for a fair distribution of wealth and a solid foundation of social services,” I said.
       “Liberals,” he hissed. “Anyway.  What matters is that I alone had the know-how to bring the great devices of the past back to life and carve a new civilization out of the vines! I, Pox Pascal, became the savior of a world!”
       Sure enough, as he stepped to the edge of the stone veranda, a great roar went up from the plaza below.  There thousands of people in identical lab smocks bowed toward us chanting, “Pox!  Pox!  Pox!  Pox!  Pox!”
       “I’ll bet this is one of those times you wish your parents had given you a different name,” I said.
       “Any name is sweet when it is chanted in obeisance,” he said, with a sinister grin. “Imagine that this is a book signing at the American Booksellers Association Convention. Those peasants are the literature enthusiasts of Earth. And they’re chanting, ‘Will! Will! Will!’”
       I could see how this guy cut it as an evil mastermind. Sure, I knew I was being manipulated all the way. But I still felt my knees get weak at the thought.
      “I have influence with the New York publishing world, Will,” he said. “Do you not think there are criminal masterminds in the book business? How else do you explain the success of Sidney Sheldon? I can make things happen for you, Will.
       I pondered it. A multi-book deal. Maybe a National Book Award. An end to my temporary job waving a model-home sign on street corners. But I knew it couldnt be. “No thanks, I said. “I can become a literary success all by myself.
       He laughed derisively.
       “Okay. Then I’ll become a failure by myself.”
       He smiled, and I knew he could see through me. “Allow me to give you the tour of Palace Pascal, Will Jones.”
       He led me past the giant, blast-proof doors into his windowless sanctum sanctorum. On one wall were photographs of his heroic deeds as savior of Poxor, and on the opposite wall framed newspapers recording his dastardly deeds on Earth. Scattered everywhere were the fruits of his life of pillage: piles of jewels and stacks of cash, strange artifacts from many worlds, paintings by masters from Vermeer to Picasso.  Towering over all of it stood a line of giant statues of what I took to be his personal role models, the great plunderers of history. Attila the Hun. Hernán Cortés.  Blackbeard. Henry Kissinger.
       At a subtle move of his fingers, a mushroom-shaped flying chair cruised toward  me.  “Please, have a seat,” he said.  “We have much to discuss.”
      “Forget it,” I said, refusing to budge.  “Nothing will make me turn against my pal.”
      He made a noise with his tongue that might be best be rendered as, “Tsk tsk,” then added, “Don’t you see that you and I are of a kind, Will Jones?  We are men of intellect, men of culture.  Why should you give your loyalty to a man of simple physical might?”
       I sneered.  Pretty well, too, for a guy who doesn’t get a lot of practice sneering. “You’re trying to tell me that’s why you hate Splendid Man?”
      “I oppose him because I believe in the natural elite of the intellectual. Because I see through his phony democratism and moral absolutism.”
      “Really,” I said.  “Then it has nothing to do with…your eyebrows?”
       His eyes turned to stone.  “Then he admits that it was he who cost me my eyebrows?”
       “He says that’s been your tragic obsession, Pascal.  That while you were teenagers together in Turnipville, he used the heat setting of his Splendid Vision to burn away the spores of an alien mildew invasion and inadvertently singed your…”
       “Inadvertently!” Pascal raised a fist and roared in rage. “As if he couldn’t control his vision to the micron! Once I thought Splendid Boy and I might be allies, able to revel together in our superiority to the herd!  But when he burned away my eyebrows and left me a laughing stock at Turnip High, I knew the truth!  He was nothing but another high school jock tormenting the outcast brain! And it is high time you saw the truth too!”
        “Sorry,” I said. “Nothing you can do will ever induce me to reveal Splendid Man’s secret identity!”
        He rolled his eyes.  Which, from a guy without eyebrows, is a disconcerting sight. 


Continued in My Pal Splendid Man!


Sunday, November 22, 2015

My Pal Splendid Man (a sample)

Long ago, between the finishing of The Beaver Papers and the creation of The Trouble with Girls, Will Jacobs and I wrote most of a book about the friendship between a superhero and a would-be novelist named Will Jones. It was a sort of parody of the comic books of the 1960s that we loved, but it was also a satirical look, with some autobiographical elements, at the life and attitudes of a literary soul with old-fashioned ideals in the high-gloss, big-money 1980s. 
        We didnt finish the book then, or during the thirty years that followed, but not long ago we rediscovered what wed written, fell in love with it again, and decided it was time. Atomic Drop Press, who published the 30th Anniversary edition of our Beaver Papers and its sequel, have just brought out My Pal Splendid Man. Here's the beginning of the first story. If it intrigues you, you can find the whole thing wherever good print-on-demand books ebooks are sold!


Splendid Man's Literary Discoveries



I opened the window, moved aside, and vibrated the teeth of my SOS Comb. Splendid Man zoomed into the room before I could count to one.
  “What’s the trouble, Will?” he said.
  “I lost my damn keys,” I said.
  “Where did you last see them?”

       “I had them when I drove home after dinner,” I said. “But I can’t for the life of me remember what I did with them after that.”
       “That’s easily taken care of, Will. What time did you get home?”
      “About 6:30.”
“Well, then, I’ll just fly back through the time barrier and see what you did with them.”
“But Splendid Man, if you tamper with the past, couldn’t that screw up the future somehow?”

       “No, Will,” he said. “I’ve tried before to change the course of history, but it just doesn’t work. Like the time I zipped back through the time barrier and tried to stop the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and thus prevent the escalation of the Vietnam War. We know how that turned out. And besides, I’ll merely be observing the past, not tampering with it.”
  “Okay then,” I said. “If you don’t mind.”
Splendid Man vanished in a blur and reappeared instants later. “Look in the garbage, Will,” he said.
  I did so, and sure enough, under the Burger King bag, there were my keys.
“You’d let so much trash accumulate in your car,” said Splendid Man, “that when you carried it all up, your keys got mixed in with it.”
      “Thanks, pal,” I said. “Listen, I hope you don’t mind me using my SOS Comb for something this insignificant.”
  “Certainly not. Feel free to summon me with your SOS Comb for any reason, not only because you’ve fallen off a tall building, have undergone a bizarre physical transformation, or are menaced by a motorcycle gang. And the same goes for the toll-free number at my Citadel of Contemplation on the moon.”
      “Appreciate it, Splendid Man,” I said. At the mention of his Citadel I felt a twinge of embarrassment about my own dumpy abode, but I figured if it didn’t bother him I wouldn’t let it bother me. “Hey, now that you’re here, can you stay a while? Or do you have to run?”
     “Fly, Will. I don’t think I do, but let me take a quick check.” He turned his body in a complete circle, holding his head at an odd angle. “Everything looks fine. There is a comet hurtling toward Earth, but I see that my Canadian pal, Northern Light, is already zipping off to dispatch it with his power medallion.”
      “That’s great,” I said, heading for the kitchen to mix a couple of drinks. “Why don’t you take a load off and we’ll talk.”
      “I’d love to, Will,” he said. “But on one condition.”
  “What’s that, Splendid Man?”
  “That you knock off this ‘Splendid Man’ business. Aren’t we good enough friends yet that you can stop addressing me by my title?”
      “Sure thing…Cal,” I said with a grin, using the short form of his native Strontiumese name. 
  When I returned to the living room Cal was sitting on my parents’ old couch and scanning the bookshelves that dominated my modest living room. He took a sip of his Manhattan and asked, “So, Will, are there any more books you can recommend for me to read?”
  “More books!” I said, my mouth agape. Just last week I’d recommended the entire Britannica Great Books series to him. “You don’t mean you’ve already read every volume you were interested in!”
“I’ve already read every volume, Will. Period. Haven’t I mentioned that, in addition to physical Splendid Speed, the argon-tinged atmosphere and lesser gravity of Earth grant astounding mental speed to all Strontiumese?”
      He had, in fact, mentioned that, and in precisely those words. But I still couldn’t get used to it. “And I guess Splendid Vision really helps navigate that tiny print,” I grinned.
      “That it does,” he said, in complete earnest. “And I must say, I enjoyed every page of every book.”
      I was afraid he would say that. Teaching the big lug some discernment was not turning out to be easy. “Okay,” I said carefully. “But surely you must have enjoyed some more than others?”
      He took another sip of his Manhattan, a slow one this time, and I sensed him stalling. For the first time I saw nervousness in those glacier-blue eyes. “Well, of course, I’m no expert…”
  “Just tell me what you think, Cal. No one expects you to be a connoisseur of literature yet.”
      He breathed an audible sigh of relief. “I appreciate that, Will. I’m a bit gun-shy after all the razzing I’ve taken from Catman, that calico-cowled nemesis of crime, about my taste in books. That’s why I value the way you’ve taken me under your wing. Metaphorically speaking.”
      I caught a twinkle in his eye. Before he met me, he would never have been talking about metaphors. “Don’t mention it, Cal. I’m so used to loaning books to friends and having them return them months later only half read. It’s a pleasure to have a pal who actually reads what I recommend.”
      “Oh, and I’m starting to get a lot out of them!” he said eagerly. “I thought I knew all about truth and justice until I read those Plato volumes.”
       I had a feeling youd like the Greeks, I said. “They appreciated the heroic.
        “And what playwrights! I had no idea great literature could be so entertaining. I laughed so hard reading Aristophanes’s Frogs that I would have busted a gut, if my internal organs, like my bodily exterior, were not invulnerable. Do you have anything else by him?”
       “I wish I did. But that volume includes all his surviving works.”
       “Surviving?” he asked. “You mean some of them have been lost to the winds of time?”

        “You could put it that way. All the great Greek dramatists—the tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and the comedians Aristophanes and Menander—have been shown to have written far more works than still survive. Ditto for Plato, Aristotle, and the other classical philosophers. One of the great calamities of ancient history was the unexplained destruction by fire of the great library of Alexandria during Caesar’s campaign in 48 B.C., which resulted in the eternal loss of innumerable classics of literature and philosophy.”
      “Great Amundsen, Will!” he exclaimed, rising from his seat. “I had no idea! What a tragedy! All those lost works must have been magnificent. One thing I’ve noticed is that those ancient authors never seemed to write a bad book.”
      “You said it,” I snorted. “Of course, they were fortunate enough to live in an era when economics and art were in harmony, and an author was encouraged to be true to his vision. They didn’t have to contend with a short-sighted commercial publishing ‘industry’ devoted to snuffing the literary soul.”
      “Why, Will,” he gasped, “I’ve never heard you sound so bitter! Have you suffered another setback in your own literary career?”
      “You could put it that way.” I explained to him how I’d hit a creative wall in the middle of Chapter 38 of my new novel and how what I’d thought would be the consummation of my years of writing looked doomed to end up as just another item in my trunk.
      “Now, Will, you shouldn’t give up so quickly,” he said. “Don’t you think your whole perspective on your work will change once you’ve succeeded in getting published?”
      “Published!” I snorted. “What good is getting published if it means betraying my own vision to cater to the blind editors of New York? Even the writers who start out great are seduced into prostituting themselves in this modern world. Look at Norman Mailer! Tennessee Williams! Harold Robbins!”
      “But Will. I thought you told me that Harold Robbins has always been bad.”
      “That’s beside the point,” I muttered.
      He sat back down, took a swig of his drink, and looked at me with grave concern. “It sounds to me, pal,” he said, “as though what you need is some inspiration. Nothing lifts me out of the doldrums of self-doubt like remembering the sacrifices of the great heroes of the past. That’s why I keep life-size statues of Hercules, Samson, and Mother Teresa in my Citadel of Contemplation.”
      “It’s different with you. You can defeat Cerebriac as he plunders an alien planet in exactly the way a hero of the past did and people will say, ‘What a hero! Splendid Man is the new Robin Hood!’ If I use someone else’s plot they’ll say, ‘What a plagiarist! Will Jones is the new Jerzy Kosinski!’”
      “But Will, didn’t you tell me yourself that every writer draws from the classics? That, for example, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men is a Sophoclean tragedy in the costume of the Jim Crow South?”
      “Words to that effect, anyway,” I grumbled. “But the last thing the world needs is another reworking of Oedipus.”
      “Fair enough,” he said, with a shrewd glint in his eye. “But what if you were to draw your inspiration from a classic that no one else living has read? Say, one of the lost works of the Athenian dramatists?”
      “Swell. Except where the hell am I going to read plays that have been lost for centuries?”
      “Centuries ago, that’s where!” He grinned and slapped my knee. “Didn’t you say they had them all in stock in the library of ancient Alexandria?”
      It took me a few seconds, but then I got it. “Of course! Your Splendid Speed can break the time barrier! You can actually go to ancient Alexandria!”
      “Oh, I’ve already gone, several times. But I have to confess I haven’t once stopped by the library. I guess I assumed that since I didn’t reside there, I could never be issued a library card.”
      “Then, for heaven’s sake, you’ve got to go read those ancient dramas!” I yelled. “And as soon as you come back to the present you’ll have to stop by and tell me what they’re all about.”
      “I have a better idea, Will. We can just zip off to 48 B.C. together and you can have a look around for yourself!”
      “Me? Go with you?” I gulped. “But wouldn’t I be…I don’t know…”
      “Buffeted to death by the temporal winds that rage along the time stream?” he asked.
      “Exactly!” I said.
      “Oh no, Will. I wouldn’t let that happen to you. I’ll just wrap you in my indestructible cape, as I do with my pal Bobby Anderssen, that albino cub reporter, take you under my arm, and fly you there safe and sound.”
      I jumped to my feet. “Then let’s go!”


Continued in My Pal Splendid Man!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Election Predictions

Just so I can look back a year from now and link to this post in pride...or quietly delete it...heres my latest visit to the crystal ball:
       The Carson and Trump campaigns will sag as the real voting starts, and both of those candidates will drop out fairly earlyTrump because his vanity is being bruised, Carson because he really doesnt want to do this at all. Marco Rubio will be the clear Republican choice before the convention. With Rubio holding the party together surprisingly well, and carrying Florida to boot, November will be nerve-wrackingly closei.e., Ohio will choose our next president. Assuming a generally promising economy, I see Clinton taking it by a slim margin. The Democrats will also capture just enough Senate races (Im not going to predict which ones) to come out with 50 seats, making Vice President Castro the tie-breaker. 
       The great unknown, of course, is the economy. Because most American swing voters base their last-minute decisions on how the economy (especially the unemployment rate) looks in the near futureeven though its been pretty obvious for a long time that no president can really do much about thatan economic stall in summer or early fall will probably mean a Republican White House, and most likely a Republican Senate, too. Which means it really isnt up to Ohio after all. Its up to China.



P. S.: If I really have to guess which Castro, my first pick is Joaquín. My last is Raúl.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

My Pal Splendid Man

It was 1982 and we had just sold our first book. After years of separately writing serious novels that no one wanted anything to do with, we had decided to try writing something together just for fun, and we surprised ourselves by conceiving, writing, and actually selling a humor book, The Beaver Papers. It would be over a year before the book actually hit the bookstores, and during that time, fired with enthusiasm to work together, we dreamed up one humor idea after another. Some of those ideas later saw print in the National Lampoon, one of them eventually became the comic book The Trouble with Girls, but the one we loved best and did the most work on is the one that has just now, finally, arrived in print.
  We both lived in San Francisco, but not in the artistically edgy North Beach or Mission District that you read about in literary histories. We lived in the Richmond District, the foggy north-west corner of the city, a neighborhood of small apartment buildings with an almost suburban quality compared to the city that lay a bus ride away. We did most of the work at Will’s place, a second-floor apartment at the corner of 42nd Avenue and Balboa Street, and so it came to serve as the actual setting for much of the book. The second-hand furniture, the less-than-stellar housekeeping, and the general air of shabbiness all left their imprint on the stories.
      We didn’t have much money then, and in our memories we seem to have subsisted almost entirely on rice and chili—the rice we cooked at home, the chili we bought at a take-out Mexican joint down the street. When we felt like splurging we’d drive down to Mr. Hot Dog’s Cowboy BBQ, a Korean-owned diner on Geary Boulevard where a man could get full for less than four dollars. Our external lives weren’t much, but our internal lives were rich—if a bit peculiar. Besides surfeiting ourselves on William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and other literary heavyweights, we also indulged in a shared obsession with the comic books of the 1960s. In our novels we tried to emulate the former, but we could never shake the temptation to do something creative with the latter.
      And so were born the stories that would become My Pal Splendid Man. It started with a quickly scribbled scene in which a superhero drops in on his young writer friend Will Jones—not as a prelude to exotic adventures but to talk about life, books, and highballs. That scene grew into a story, and suddenly we were seized. For a few months our favorite thing to do was to get together, eat our chili, and spin out a new Splendid Man story. We did wind up sending our heroes off on exotic adventures, but they were adventures of the sort that grew out of the peculiar chemistry of their friendship.
  Finally The Beaver Papers came out and made a modest splash. It earned us an invitation to write for the National Lampoon and the acceptance of our second book, a serious indulgence in our obsession called The Comic Book Heroes. By then we had begun to conceive My Pal Splendid Man as a book, but as life swept us along, we never found the time to finish it. After a while it became one of those projects in our drawers, remembered with great fondness but never returned to.
  Thirty years later we opened that drawer. We read the stories again, first with nostalgia but then with the joy of rediscovery. Not only were they still alive to us but they reignited the fire that had filled us decades before. We found ourselves writing five new Splendid Man stories to round out the narrative and weaving new threads through all the episodes to hold them together as a book.
  We were momentarily tempted to update the book’s milieu, but then we thought better of it. Not only was Will’s life built around the realities of being a would-be writer in the pre-internet age, not only were there some story elements that could really only work in the social context of the early ‘80s, but the essence of Splendid Man himself was clearly inspired by things we were observing in comics at the time. The wholesome superheroes of the “Silver Age” were then being supplanted by a newer, darker sort of superhero; the tension of that moment was much of what went into defining our hero’s character. So, despite the great temptation to fill Splendid Man and Will’s world with iPads, hybrid cars, and kale, we’ve set the stories in the time they were originally conceived.
       Fly with us, then, back through the time barrier to 1982. Ronald Reagan is in the White House. A dark grittiness is creeping into popular culture. The poor can still afford rent in parts of San Francisco. A writer needs Wite-Out to correct a mistake. Will Jones strikes up a beautiful friendship with a fellow known as Splendid Man. And up and away we go.

(The preceding is excerpted from the introduction to My Pal Splendid Man, on sale now from Atomic Drop Press!)


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Recommended Reading

Ive been fascinated by American cultural and social history for decades, but for most of my life my interest was focused on the decades after the First World War. I wrote books about comics and television that essentially started in the 1920s and ran on to the 1980s, sometimes beyond but never before. For most of my life Ive had a decent grasp of the historical matrix thats held jazz, Hollywood, comic books, sitcoms, hard-boiled fiction, Prohibition, the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and S. J. Perelman.
       Then, about seven years ago, I set out to write a book called The Undressing of America that centered largely on the strange figure of Bernarr Macfadden, who created the “true story” genre that revolutionized mass publishing in the 20s. That required me to stretch my knowledge back to the days when he first made his transition from professional wrestler and body builder to publisher, the 1890s. As I worked on that, I came to realize that I also had to understand his great antagonist, the censor Anthony Comstock, which meant I had to become comfortable with the American culture of repression that bloomed in the wake of the Civil War. And then...well, one book led to another, and during the past couple of years, working on Nation of Faith & Flesh, Ive found myself deeply immersed in the 1820s and 30s.
       Its been a wonderful journey, and among the most enjoyable aspects of it have been the guides Ive enlisted. Within the great mountain of material Ive been reading, a few books have drawn me back again and again, and their authors have shaped my own narrative enormously. If you want to spend some rewarding hours exploring the strange cultural and social landscape of the so-called Jacksonian Era, Id say you cant go wrong with these:


The Murder of Helen Jewett. Patricia Cline Cohen uses the murder of a New York City prostitute in 1836 as the axis for a vivid portrait of a transformational moment in American sex roles, crime, justice, economics, and the press. This isnt an Erik Larson sort of journalistic narrative; Cohen takes us carefully through her process as a historian, piecing together portraits of people and institutions from elusive and fragmentary sources. But she makes her own detective work nearly as compelling as the crime and its aftermath.


City of Eros, by Timothy Gilfoyle, opens a wider lens on the same topic, reconstructing the whole social and cultural context of prostitution in New York through the 19th Century and into the 20th. This is a more classically academic book, moving steadily through its subject matter, full of hard data and charts. But Gilfoyle never loses sight of the human realities and day-to-day choices that supported and characterized the business of sex and made it such a revealing mirror of the above-ground elements of American history.



Helen Lefkowitz HorowitzRereading Sex may be my single favorite cultural or historical treatment of sex. Its what American studies should be but too rarely are: she doesnt lack a political point of view, but it never clouds her compassion for and understanding of the assorted parties fighting to define sex and morality in our still-forming republic.   Her focus is on the interplay of forces and ideas from the 1820s to 1840s that laid that foundation for so much of American culture ever since, specifically what she identifies as three distinct bodies of sexual understanding: the radical, the reform, and the one thats usually ignored, the “vernacular. But in writing about ideas, she never ceases to write about people. 
       Those three writers, Cohen, Gilfoyle, and Horowitz, also teamed up to edit The Flash Press, an anthology, with great background essays, of art and writing from a genre of newspapers for “sporting men in the 1840s that stand as a sort of fountainhead of all mens magazines and kicked off a significant component our still-unresolved censorship wars. 


The Kingdom of MatthiasPaul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz. Another murder case, this one from 1834, is the axis for a slim, lean, fast-moving story that nonetheless manages to convey a tremendous amount of information about aspects of religious passion, cultural conflict, and race relations in American history that are rarely discussed. It also has a great cast of characters and a kick-ass final line. 
       Sean Wilentz, on his own, wrote Chants Democratic, a compendious and revelatory book about American class relations and labor conflicts. It tracks the growth of working mens political movements in New York City in the first half of the 19th Century, but its focus is always (as it is with all the historical works I like best) on people in action, with all their contradictory messiness, and it treats political theory only in that human context. 
        Paul E. Johnson (not to be confused with the British Paul Johnson, as in Modern Times) has also written some superb books about the period on his own, my favorite of which has to be A Shopkeepers Millennium. There was a day when I never would have believed that a book about Presbyterian revivals in Rochester, New York 185 years ago would mean anything to me, but that just shows how young and foolish I was. Its got as much about the essence of American cultural history in it as any book Ive read.


The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum, isnt especially germane to what my book is about, but it taught me a lot about Americans and how we tick just by tracking the development of our modern Christmas, mostly in New York City in the first third of the 1800s. Ive never read a better exposition of our peculiar ways of using consumerism, holidays, and family sentimentality to shape our culture and our social classes (and usually without even knowing were doing it).
        In my own book, Ive made much more use of an earlier book by Nissenbaum, Sex, Diet and Debility in Jacksonian America. It centers on Sylvester Graham, a mostly forgotten but very significant (and wonderfully, bizarrely American) figure from our past, and it does an economical job of pulling together a wide range of individual and social threads: Jacksonian politics, market economics, physiological theory, diet fads, and the great masturbation panic of 1834.


These books are all still in print, and theyre by living authors who probably wouldn’t mind picking up some royalties. Get started on that Christmas list now! (Then read Stephen Nissenbaum on the origin of Christmas lists in the mercantile culture of Boston and New York during the “market revolution of the 1830s and '40s.)