Creatively Speaking: Marc Tyler Nobleman

Boys of Steel - jacket final 300 dpi.jpgOur Creatively Speaking series of interviews continues this week with Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of the recently published Boys of Steel - The Creators of Superman. I got to know Marc first through his wonderful cartoons, one of which you'll see tomorrow in our latest caption contest as we prepare to give away THREE copies of Boys of Steel. Part YA picture book, part biography, Marc's new book follows the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, as they struggle through their teenage years in Depression-era Cleveland. Marc says he grew up thinking he'd, too, become a superhero because his last name already sounded like one. In researching Boys of Steel, he dug up details that haven't been published before. He was the first to find photos of the building in which Joe Shuster lived and where he and Jerry Siegel forged the Man of Steel; it was demolished in 1975 before the city of Cleveland knew its significance. You can check out those photos and more are over at or check out Marc's blog here.
Check out my full interview with Marc below and be sure to tune in tomorrow for your chance to win one of three copies we'll be giving away!

DI: You're an illustrator as well as an author. But for this book, Ross
MacDonald drew the wonderful illustrations. Who came up with the original
idea for the book and how did the work get doled out?

MTN: The idea was mine. I wrote the manuscript on spec and sold it. My editor and I suggested various illustrators to one another and we ultimately agreed on Ross - and he agreed to do it! I don't think of myself as an illustrator, actually - that implies more talent than I have. I am a cartoonist - a humorist who can eke out crude little pictures to go with my words, as long as those pictures don't include cars, chandeliers, pre-war buildings, and others things I am no good at drawing.

DI: Joe and Jerry were turned down by publisher after publisher, for more
than three years. This is a familiar story (I head that J.K. Rowling was
turned down by every publisher in the U.K. before Scholastic, of all
companies, took a chance on HP). Did you have trouble getting this book
deal? What was the process like?

MTN: This is yet another thing I have in common with Jerry, Joe, and J.K. - my work, too, has been rejected in somewhat alarming numbers. BOYS OF STEEL received 22 nos. In the end, however, two great publishers expressed interest - for me, a win-win situation. There are a lot of picture books on textbook names - Columbus, Roosevelt, King, etc. - but mine had a pop culture angle. So whenever possible, I queried editors who I thought would have such a sensibility. One editor I approached because she had done a picture book on the childhood of Dr. Seuss, and she ended up being the one who took BOYS OF STEEL.

DI: Boys of Steel is obviously for young adult readers. Did that make
writing such a biography harder or easier?

MTN: It looks like it's for young readers, but I describe it as an all-ages book. However, yes, it is compact and stylized, not a comprehensive biography, so in that regard I had to be selective about what info to include. The idea and the research had been in me for so long that it was not difficult to pare it down to the key beats. In fact, the original manuscript focused only on one night--the night of Jerry's "epiphany"--and the following day, when Joe first drew Jerry's concept. But I expanded it to about a decade, roughly 1930-1940, addressing the rest of their lives in the text-only afterword.

DI: In the book, you imply that Joe and Jerry were the first to come up
with the idea of a hero who would be a stranger in a regular place rather
than a regular person in a strange place (like Tarzan or Buck Rogers). Was
there really no precedent for this type of hero?

MTN: To be sure, Superman was composed of elements of previous characters. But while Tarzan and Buck Rogers were in unfamiliar settings, both were still on their home planet, and both still interacted with others of their kind. Superman was the last of his race, far from home. He was also a benevolent alien - something new in science fiction at the time. Another element of Superman that felt new was that his HERO identity was the real him and his CIVILIAN identity was fabricated. This has fluctuated over the years, especially with Smallville, where Clark Kent is portrayed as the real him and Superman is/will be the "new" aspect.

DI: I always assumed the S on Superman's costume was for Superman, or
perhaps steel. If it was actually for Siegel and Shuster, as you mention,
which came first: the S-branding or the name Superman?

MTN: I don't state it is ONLY for "Siegel" and "Shuster." (In the book, that is a direct quotation from them, by the way.) It just so happened to be the first letter of both their names AND "Superman." The name "Superman" came first, then the "S," which they then happily realized could also stand for themselves.

DI: Joe and Jerry naively sold all rights to the character, along with
their first story for a measly $130. Was this common during those days?
Did authors frequently give up their rights to make a deal?

MTN: It was the Great Depression. Any job was hard to come by, and any gig could be your last for who knows how long. As I write in the afterword, for every Superman there were dozens of characters who went nowhere, so viewing through the lens of the time, it's hard to fault creators for selling an idea to make a quick buck. To Jerry and Joe's credit, however, they began to ask for renegotiation in 1938--yes, the same year Superman debuted, so after he had made a big splash but before a real indication that he had staying power. I don't believe Jerry and Joe were as naive as is often assumed.

DI: In the 1940s, Jerry and Joe wrote some strips with Superman capturing
Hitler and Stalin and delivering them before the world. Something to the
two of them being Jewish in any of this? Payback?

This was a one-off strip done for LOOK magazine in 1940 (which I mention in my afterword). I would guess that it was payback on some level, but probably more of a provocative gimmick. Jerry and Joe did not mention their Judaism in any interview I have seen or heard. I don't think religion was a dominant part of their lives or a particularly strong influence on their work.

DI: While on the Jewish theme, let's talk about Superman's Kryptonian
name, Kal-El, which in Hebrew means "all that is God" or "all that God
is," as you mention in the book. Did the boys know Hebrew well?

MTN: They were first-generation Americans. I don't know how often they heard Yiddish or Hebrew at home. Again, they didn't discuss Judaism in interviews I know of. Jerry's widow is still alive and this would be a great question to ask her.

DI: Like many visionaries, from Mozart to John McTammany, Joe and Jerry
died rather penniless. In the book, you write that in the 1960s Jerry had
to take work as a mail clerk for $7,000 a year. As for Joe, his brother
Frank had to support him. To add insult to injury, their names were taken
off the comics. How did the folks at DC comics sleep at night?

MTN: There are two sides to this, of course - the creators' and the company's. In March 2008, I blogged about what Jerry and Joe did right, what they did wrong, what DC did right, and what DC did wrong (in my flawed estimation). To the first of those four categories, I would now add what I mentioned above: how they (Jerry in particular) pushed for renegotiation almost immediately after Superman's debut. For the first few years of Superman, Jerry and Joe were making a great salary, especially for the times. Not enough to retire on, I'm sure - but something to build on. I don't know what happened to that money. Superman was so extraordinarily successful that I do agree with their efforts to obtain a greater share of the profits - but DC was not acting illegally. Immorally, perhaps, but not illegally. And as I note in the afterword, when they settled with Jerry and Joe in the 1970s, it was on moral grounds. I think it was brave of Jerry and Joe to continue to fight for themselves against a big corporation and it was admirable that DC did ultimately give the families security, even if it didn't come as early as most of us with tender hearts would have liked. How did they sleep? The early management slept just fine, I'm sure. Things became more enlightened in the 1970s.

DI: What are you working on now?

MTN: A picture book on Bill Finger, the uncredited co-creator of (and I would even argue the dominant force behind) Batman, plus several other nonfiction picture books that have similarly fascinating stories but which do not involve superheroes. Watch my blog for details as they develop!

Browse through past Creatively Speaking posts here >>

Creatively Speaking: MeetingBoy

Read on to win a new Meeting Boy wall calendar!

We have a nice interview/contest today with someone you need to know about if you don't already. PC World named him one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. Like Racer X, no one really knows who MeetingBoy is, but whoever is behind this madness is one hilarious, talented fella. Tweeting out quips and one-liners, he's amassed close to 80,000 followers on Twitter as @MeetingBoy. I first got to know him (well, as much as you can know a masked-man) after he re-tweeted a Twaggie (illustrated tweet) we did off one of his tweets over on my start-up,

Then one day, MeetingBoy asked me if I'd like to give away one of his new MeetingBoy wall calendars in a contest. I said sure, under one condition: he do the following interview. So read the interview and follow the contest rules at the bottom of this post. We'll pick one tweet/comment at random and send you the calendar in time for Christmas! Good luck!

DI: First of all, where do you take your meetings? Tell us about your day job.

MB: I work in a glass & steel high rise in New York with lots of lazy idiots. The managers spout buzzwords to impress each other, and my boss is a clueless, bullying hypocrite more concerned with covering his own ass than getting things done. Does that narrow it down?

I am stuck in 3-5 meetings a day, so if there’s a way to waste someone’s time, I’ve seen it. And I’m sick of it. I must have really bad karma to deserve this. I must have been something truly awful in a former life, like maybe a manager or CEO.

@MeetingBoy: 125 PowerPoint slides? Well, I hope you're not presenting a case for how efficient our department is.

@MeetingBoy: Definition of insanity: holding the same meeting with the same people every week and expecting different results.

@MeetingBoy: Four meetings today. And then later, no doubt, a meeting with my boss about how I'm not getting anything done.

@MeetingBoy: I'm confused by this article about Bernie Madoff. I thought "white collar prison" was just a euphemism for my office.

@MeetingBoy: 7 hour conference call, though my lawyer says I'll be paroled in 6 with good behavior.

DI: How’d all this Meeting Boy stuff get started? Walk us through the early days.

MB: Since my biggest pet peeve in meetings is people who ramble on and on, Twitter was the right place for me to vent. The forced brevity was just right. If only I could force the people who write PowerPoint presentations to stick to 140 characters instead of 140 slides!

I’d been on Twitter before, but mentions of work had become a problem once people knew I was tweeting and started following me in the office. After I got a new boss last year, I created the MeetingBoy account so I would stop hearing about it. Since then I only tweet under my own name after hours.

@MeetingBoy: I'm married to my job. I don't love it. It was a shotgun wedding; I had knocked up my credit cards with all sorts of debt.

Early on as MeetingBoy, I was getting positive responses. People identified with my complaints-- in fact the most common response to MeetingBoy is “do you work at my company?”

Of course I hate buzzwords, and so many of my rants result from sitting through an hour of them. The word I hate the most is “robust”:

@MeetingBoy: At the end of the day I think we can all agree how tired the phrase "at the end of the day" is.

@MeetingBoy: When the revolution comes, I'm shooting everyone who says "robust". Well, except the coffee roasters.

DI: When did your first little break happen?

MB: Last October, PC World named me as one of the 10 Funniest People On Twitter. My following increased dramatically as a result. This was a huge surprise to me. I had no idea I had broken out of the Favstar community of internet jokers. After that my friends who weren’t on Twitter insisted I start cross-posting my material to Facebook and so they could follow along too.

DI: And then your big break?

MB: Earlier this year someone at Twitter added me to their Suggested Users - Funny list. I was pretty excited; after all, as my friend said, “It sure beats being on the Suggested Users - Not Funny list.”

Though some people would say my “big break” was when I got a boss that didn’t get my sense of humor, forcing me to put more of it on the internet. Speaking of my boss:

@MeetingBoy: We have high expectations for him - he got his MBA in business jargon from Wharton.

@MeetingBoy: You're right. It was wrong of me to question how another layer of paperwork would speed up the process. I apologize.

@MeetingBoy: Hey, everybody! My boss is running a special on poorly thought out, unworkable ideas today. The discount code is YESSIR.

@MeetingBoy: "Dumb it down. Remember, you're presenting it to management."

@MeetingBoy: "I didn't read the executive summary you sent. Can you just put the idea in a few quick sentences and send it to me? Thanks."

@MeetingBoy: New line on my job description: "maintain high morale". Told HR I could do it, but not if my boss keeps trying to motivate me.

@MeetingBoy: My boss is very susceptible to food poisoning. Apparently this occurs when he stays out late drinking.

@MeetingBoy: The boss sent an email at 11:30 "reminding" everyone that he's working from home today. He sent it from his Blackberry.

DI: Did you set out to achieve Internet fame or did the idea sort of take over by itself?

MB: I set out to vent about work in an amusing way, in part because I was so annoyed at how people in the office reacted to my being on Twitter. I certainly had no idea how to get people to write about me or who at Twitter to sweet-talk to get them to recommend me.

Being famous and anonymous is a little odd though. None of the benefits of fame have come my way. I’m not getting a better table at Sparks or celebrity gift bags at the Oscars. And no matter how many followers I have, I’m still stuck in the same meetings every day.

I would like to see a MeetingBoy calendar make an appearance on The Office. Seems like something Jim Halpert would have (though since he gave up his office, I’m not sure where he’d put it). Or maybe Michael Scott because he’s a “cool boss” and none of it applies to him..

DI: Talk about the tweets themselves. Mostly they are things you think up in these meetings every day?

MB: They are responses to things that happen in meetings. Or things I wish I could say. In a few cases I’ve actually said these things. Of course the names have been removed to protect the boring, the rude, the jargon-spewing types, the lazy, the bullies, and the people with “bad grammer”.

@MeetingBoy: I know, I know, but if your idea is so good, why hasn't some VP passed it off as their own yet?

@MeetingBoy: Sorry, I have to leave your meeting. I have something I need to do. I need to not be bored to death.

@MeetingBoy: This PowerPoint needs an art director? Wow! I never thought I'd say this to you, lady, but you're overthinking this.

@MeetingBoy: That email you claim I never sent you? Here it is. Along with your REPLY TO IT.

@MeetingBoy: No, I wasn't playing Devil's Advocate. I really think your idea is stupid.

@MeetingBoy: You are mean, incompetent, and ignorant. Life did not hand you lemons; life handed you CONSEQUENCES.

DI: But other times I see you attributing the tweets to other authors/publishers. How does that work?

MB: Sometimes I see a tweet that I wish I wrote. Other times my followers send me one I missed. Either way, if it’s something I think my audience would appreciate, I share it. After all, I don’t want to be like that guy in my office who thinks the only good ideas are the ones he thinks of.

For example, some of my favorite tweets that someone else wrote are:

@swimparallel: I've recovered from my death sickness. Now I'm back in the office. It feels like a lateral move.

@summersumz: Evaluating data, making conclusions. LIVING THE DREAM!

@kerissmithJA: Your cc list doesn’t scare me. I still refuse to respond to your email.

DI: So now you have this cool wall calendar. How’d that come about?

MB: A friend makes up a calendar with photos of his family, which I dutifully hang in my cube. I thought it would be cool to have a MeetingBoy calendar. I’d hoped to make a 365-page-a-day calendar, which I think would really work for my short quips, but I couldn’t find a way to publish it. So I went with a wall calendar, and asked for illustrators among my followers.

Of course once I had printed the calendar, I realized I couldn’t possibly put the calendar on my desk. I can’t have my boss or coworkers know that I’m MeetingBoy, and it’s probably better if they don’t even know he exists. Clearly I hadn’t thought this through.

I think the calendar makes a great Secret Santa gift. I think coworkers across the English-speaking world would love to get one.

Calendar available for sale online at

DI: Have you learned any profound lessons going through the self-publishing process?

MB: I’ve learned that self-publishing isn’t very profitable. I’ve been very happy with all the illustrations I got, though paying for them before I sell the calendar has made money tight.

I was going to try to sell them directly myself over the internet, but I couldn’t be sure that my secret identity would be safe. Luckily one of the illustrators owns a comic shop and they agreed to carry it for internet sales.

And I’d still like to make a 365-page-a-day calendar if anyone knows how to go about that.

DI: What’s next for you and what’s your ultimate goal?

MB: Next up I’m starting to do regular illustrated tweets on Of course I can’t draw, so I’m using some of the same illustrators from the calendar, and any new ones I pick up along the way.

My ultimate goal is to be the boss on The Office after Steve Carrell leaves at the end of this season. Though I would also accept President Obama declaring my birthday, June 23rd, to be a national holiday, maybe National Out-of-the-Office Day. Write your congressman to make it happen.

DI: Will you always hide your true identity Meeting Boy? Or will we one day find out you’re actually Racer X’s older brother?

MB: I can’t reveal my identity without losing my job and potentially risking never working again. After all, who would hire MeetingBoy? A surly, sarcastic person who will mock your every shortcoming on the internet to tens of thousands of people. Even I might balk at hiring that guy. He kind of sounds like a loose cannon.

Okay, contest time! Of all the tweets mentioned in this post, by MeetingBoy or someone else, which would you like to see illustrated on RT it with the hashtag #twaggies and we'll pick one of you at random to get the calender. If you're not on Twitter, leave your vote in the comments below. The tweet with the most RTs will also get twagged on twaggies, too!

For my interviews with Jason Alexander, Monty Hall, Mitch Albom, xkcd and more, browse through past Creatively Speaking archives here >>

A chat with Jeff Garlin

Jeff Garlin co-stars and executive produces the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. The unique comedy, which is one of the rare television shows to become part of the national zeitgeist, stars Seinfeld creator Larry David, with Garlin portraying his loyal manager. Born and raised in Chicago and then South Florida, Garlin studied filmmaking and began performing stand-up comedy while at the University of Miami. He has toured the country as a stand-up comedian, is an alumnus of Chicago's Second City Theatre, and has written and starred in three critically acclaimed solo shows. I was fortunate enough to get this interview with him when he spoke at an event a charity I work with produced.

DI: Which do you prefer: writing, directing, or producing?

JG: I prefer to direct what I write.

DI: If you were to retire, what would you do with your time?

JG: Nap and eat puddin'.

DI: What's your favorite food?

JG: Puddin'.

DI: Of all the comedians and actors you've worked with over the years, who has been the most enjoyable.

JG: Larry David.

DI: Is Larry David as obnoxious in real life as he is on the show?

JG: See my answer above.

DI: What's the biggest difference between Chicago and L.A.?

JG: Human contact. In Chicago you get it on a regular basis.

DI: What's one of your favorite films?

JG: Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges.

DI: If you could have lunch with anyone deceased, who would it be?

JG: My grandfather Harold.

DI: Who's your idol?

JG: My wife.

DI: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

JG: A comedian.

DI: Where do you like to go to unwind when you're not working?

JG: Wherever my wife tells me.

DI: If you could change one thing about Hollywood, what would it be?

JG: The street names.

DI: Shakespeare wrote: "Brevity is the soul of wit." What do you think the essence of comedy is?

JG: A plate of fresh cornbread.

DI: I heard you studied law in college and almost graduated before deciding to pursue a career in comedy. Do you think you would have been a good lawyer?

JG: That's on and it's not true. I studied film.

DI: What's more difficult: performing stand-up comedy before a live audience or performing on camera?

JG: Actually, my personal life is harder.

DI: Do you own an iPod? If so, what's the most unusual music you've got on it?

JG: Chin Ho soundbites from Hawaii Five-0.

DI: Who is the funniest comedian of all-time?

JG: Jack Benny.


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