Danny Fingeroth spends a whole lot of time thinking about superheroes.
For several years, he did it as the editor of the Spider-Man group of titles at Marvel Comics. Today, he’s the editor of Write Now! magazine and author of two books that go behind the four-color glory of men in tights.
Already the author of Superman on the Couch, Fingeroth’s latest examination of comics, Disguised as Clark Kent, explores why so many of the enduring characters of the golden and silver ages of comics can trace their heritage back to young American Jewish artists and writers such as Will Eisner, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Jack Kirby, and Stan Lee.
His next book, Rough Guide to Graphic Novels, will be released by Penguin in 2008.
DANNY FINGEROTH AUDIO!
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BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Danny, let’s jump right in. Tell the truth here: Jews aren’t really responsible for the comic book industry, but because we control the media, we can say whatever we want, right?
DANNY FINGEROTH: Well, Mr. Media would know that better than anybody. “Mr. Media” is translated from the Hebrew, I think. Isn’t it in the Bible, I think? Early in Genesis, there’s a mention of the “he who controls all media.”
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Well, it’s true. And Nostradamus predicted the coming of me also, yes. Quite true. What inspired you to write Disguised as Clark Kent? And before you answer that, I have to say that is a great title.
FINGEROTH: Oh, thank you. We went through about 10 different titles, and when we hit on that, it was one of those things that stares you in the face. You hear that preamble to the “Superman” TV show from the time. You’re pretty literate, basically, just hearing that from the TV show, and I think it was even the preamble to the radio show and just suddenly it popped out, yeah, Disguised as Clark Kent. So the book, it became a very personal thing for me, or it started out as a personal thing and became even more so, which made it, in many ways, more difficult to write than my previous book, Superman on the Couch. And I’ll talk about that if you want later. But the inspiration was really, as you know as Will Eisner’s biographer, when you’re a Jewish guy of a certain age growing up in the New York area as I did, you suddenly realize that the people who created the superheroes, Siegel and Shuster and Lee and Kirby and Irwin Hayes and Arnold Drake, all those guys, Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson, could’ve been my uncles or my father. They were from that same generation and from similar backgrounds in the Bronx and the other boroughs. So on a personal level, I found it fascinating that these comics and these characters that I had loved since I was a child were, in many ways, very much connected to my own personal background.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: It’s funny. And by the way, I’ll make the plugs here. Thank you for mentioning the Eisner biography.
FINGEROTH: Oh, you’re welcome.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: But it’s funny you say that because I actually felt that way. I spent about two and a half years with Will working on the book, and I couldn’t help shaking that he seemed very much like one of my uncles.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I’m from New York/New Jersey myself. And the way he spoke, his point of reference, it was all very familiar. So, yeah, I get that entirely. Were you at all influenced in the timing of this by Michael Chabon’s novel, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay?
FINGEROTH: Well, when you say the timing, I’m not sure…
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Well, that had to come out first.
FINGEROTH: Alright. Well, it certainly was an interesting take on it. So I’d say that was always in my mind, but even though there, I think, are some quotes or interviews that he did with Stan Lee and Gil Kane, that was a work of fiction. And ultimately, while I love that book, I think while much of it is set against the backdrop of the comic book industry, it’s ultimately about a lot of other things. He’s that kind of novelist. He’s got this imagination that just reaches all over the place.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: And I hate him for it, personally.
FINGEROTH: You have to hate a guy like that. Like I said, I think maybe it made me aware that there was an audience that might be interested in the topic because, if it was just a personal memoir, then I would just keep it in my diary or, I guess, these days in a blog. It’d just be between me and 2 million of my closest friends. But I think it was an interesting parallel history to the well-known histories of comics, and yet I saw all these nuggets in there that certainly were not there intentionally in the stories. But from our vantage point of the 21st century, we can sort of look back and interpret certain things in the work.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: I know, in my case, in reading Kavalier & Clay, and the reason I thought of it was, even working with Will, I hadn’t really thought so much about how predominant Jewish voices were in the comics, and that kind of brought it to a head because even though it’s fiction, there’s a big nugget of truth in the history that’s presented in that book. I was kind of curious along that line.
FINGEROTH: I think having worked in the business for so long — I started working at Marvel in 1977. On the one hand, the industry certainly has that classic kind of Godfather movie, New York ethnic, early 20th century immigrant mix of Jews, Italian, and Irish-descended people, but certainly in the comics, everybody of every race and background was represented, but still it clearly seemed that most of the companies and much of the staff in those early days were from Eastern European/Jewish backgrounds.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: One of the theories that you put forth is that Jews wound up there because, and all kidding aside about controlling the media, they couldn’t get jobs anywhere else.
FINGEROTH: Well, I think there were a couple of houses that were known as Jewish houses, but mostly, publishing was pretty much closed off to Jews as was advertising. Again, from a vantage point of the present day, it seems almost like an alternate dimension or something. Although it’s close in history and although a lot of the early creators are still with us and many of them still active, it still is just a quantum distance in terms of what social boundaries people couldn’t cross.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: And I’m going to try very hard to make this my last Will Eisner reference.
FINGEROTH: Let’s talk about Eisner the whole time.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: No, no, no, no. That would be pushing the line, I think. But one of the things that he had said to me, and I think he said it to other people in talking about that time was that, yes, Jewish writers and artists could get work in comics, but today, we hold it in some esteem cause it’s more of an adult medium than it was then, but then, as he put it, it was “just one step below pornographers,” working in it.
FINGEROTH: Even today, if you go to a movie or watch a TV show and they want to indicate that somebody is socially maladjusted or just an idiot, what do they do? They have them reading a comic book, or — I’ve noticed this a lot in TV dramas lately — very often the killer in a “CSI” or something or in a “Law and Order” will be a comic creator, and either he’s really the killer or he’s suspected of being the killer because he’s so screwed up because he’s a comics creator. So I think even though…
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: But those guys are never Jewish.
FINGEROTH: There’s sort of that TV kind of could-be-anything-looking and name. But even today, that stigma of comics is still there. So even with Maus and all of Will’s later work and Persepolis and all those things that have allegedly brought respect to comics, it’s still short-hand with somebody either being stupid or crazy in most other media. And that’s how we like it.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Well, you know. Did you find when you were at Marvel that it was still profession-dominated in some ways by Jews, or did that change by the late ‘70s and ‘80s?
FINGEROTH: I think the ownership was still — whether by chance or I think more by chance — a traditional kind of Jewish media executive. But I’d say in the rank and file of the writers and editors, it had become the kind of thing where people would travel to New York the way people would go to Hollywood to be in the movies, whereas in Eisner’s day and the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, it was really a local phenomenon. I think it was probably 90 percent of the people in the business were from New York or were living in New York when they got into it Whereas, I think, starting in the ‘70s with the advent of the fan turning pro, I think people would come to New York from the Midwest and from the South and from other countries to pursue a career in comics just the way they might come to pursue a career in fashion or in finance. I think it started to change in that era, which is also when things like advertising and publishing had, by that point, become much more open to Jews to get into.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: One of the things that you picked up on, which I found fascinating over the last few years, is that a lot of these early comics guys all went to the same high school, DeWitt Clinton. Being from that area, did you know anything about that going into this, and what did you learn about that school?
FINGEROTH: It’s funny. I went to Bronx Science, which was like the next subway stop after DeWitt Clinton. Clinton was an all-boys’ school so there were no girls around to distract the guys, and I think if you lived in the Bronx, you lived above whatever street, that was pretty much where you went. Now I can’t figure out if in the era when Stan Lee and Will Eisner and Bob Kane went there if you had to take some kind of a test to get in. I never thought you did, but then things I’ve read indicate that maybe there was. But, in any case, the Bronx was the next stop after the Lower East Side. If you had developed a little bit of savings and a little bit of upward mobility as an immigrant or as the children of immigrants, you would take the subway up to the wide open spaces of the Grand Concourse and then in other less luxurious neighborhoods in the Bronx. These guys went to that school, I think, just by chance. It was really just the local high school. It’s phenomenal, not just comics guys but Lerner and Lowe and Rodgers and Hammerstein, Dan Schorr from NPR. If you go to their alumni page, it’s phenomenal who went there.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: As you were saying that, I was just trying to look up in the back of the Eisner book the list that I had. The guy who wrote “Singin’ in the Rain” went there, and yeah, it’s phenomenal. I wish that I could say that my high school in New Jersey turned out anything like that. Oh, here, I found the list. I’m just gonna bore people with this for a second – James Baldwin, Avery Fisher, Ralph Lauren, Burt Lancaster, Richard Rodgers, Neil Simon, A.M. Rosenthal from The New York Times, Paddy Chayefsky, Daniel Schorr, Fats Waller, Jen Murray, Avery Corman, David Archibald, Judd Hirsch from “Taxi,” Stubby Kaye, there’s a lost name, Don Adams from Get Smart, Martin Balsam, Arthur Gelb, also from The New York Times, Gary Marshall, the producer, father of Penny Marshall.
FINGEROTH: No, no, it’s father or brother? I think brother.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Is it brother?
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Alright, brother. Bernard Kalb, the journalist, Bruce Jay Friedman, novelist and father of Drew Friedman, cartoonist, and of course, Stan Lee. It’s just a phenomenal thing.
FINGEROTH: There must’ve been something about the school, I imagine, that encouraged creative activity as well. That would be something that you or I or somebody would maybe need to do research or see if, compared to other high schools in the city, they were receptive. I know Eisner and Kane, I think, were on, I forget if it was the school paper or the yearbook. I’ve heard different reports of that, but certainly, there were avenues for them to utilize their creative abilities of painting backdrops for plays and so on.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: And the reality was they were all just doing it to get closer to girls.
FINGEROTH: At DeWitt Clinton? Oh, doing the creative stuff? Yes, that’s true, of course.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: That was a boys’ school.
FINGEROTH: That goes without saying.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: But, no, it was all an outlet. Obviously, there were no girls.
FINGEROTH: Well, there was a sister school called Walton High School. I’ve never seen the alumni roster there, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a fairly impressive list of women who went there.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: See, at those same-sex schools, you create all that sexual frustration.
FINGEROTH: Right, exactly!
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: It pours out in different ways. Danny, tell us a little bit about how you came to the theories that you did. Just the title, Disguised as Clark Kent. And for folks who haven’t seen the cover, it’s very cool. You have this immigrant family, and then you’ve drawn — I don’t think it’s officially Superman, but clearly…
FINGEROTH: It is not. It is definitely not Superman. It is a…
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: A Supermanish character.
FINGEROTH: Yes. It’s the same character that was on the cover of Superman on the Couch but with a different chest insignia.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Tell us a little bit about how you kind of came to the theories that you did for this book in connecting the superhero to these very mild-mannered, young, Jewish/Eastern European immigrants.
FINGEROTH: Well, it has to do with what Jules Feiffer has written about and other people – the idea that if you come to another country as an immigrant, you live at least a dual identity. You have your life at home where you speak possibly a foreign language that your parents may have mostly spoken, and then there’s that life with your family and your culture from the old country. And then there’s this desire to fit into the American melting pot and to really become part of the mainstream.
As Chabon says in Kavalier & Clay, who else but a Jew would come up with the name “Clark Kent”? It’s such a purposely bland kind of name. So you have your life at home, your life in school with the idea being that you feel like you have all this secret knowledge and secret power, and yet you don’t want to excel. There’s the immigrant urge to excel, and yet the fear of being singled out and being discriminated against because of excelling. It’s the whole secret identity where everybody thinks, “If only people knew why I seem like a jerk, they’d understand,” or, “If only people knew the secret power that I’m just too responsible to unleash on them.” So it plays to fantasies that are specifically immigrant but then have become universal, and it also has to do with the ability of an immigrant and especially, I think, the Jewish immigrants in the ‘30s and ‘40s to look at a culture they come into and kind of reflect back to it, its image of itself. That’s sort of the whole Jewish thing with being prominent in entertainment. I think it’s traditionally immigrant groups in general that bring a new, fresh idea for entertainment cause they can reflect the dominant culture back to itself.
ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Boy, I’m tempted to ask you; I don’t know if I want to. We have this whole discussion these days about immigrants and their place in the United States. As you look back on all this and all that these immigrants brought, how do you feel about the current debate?
FINGEROTH: I think it’s the same thing repeats itself. America, with all its flaws, is still pretty much regarded as the best place on the planet, and people want to come here. And then people who are already here want to close the door after themselves.
One advantage that, say, the European immigrants in general and the Jewish immigrants in particular had was they may have had certain ethnic, physical characteristics, but essentially, they looked like Americans. They could generally pass, as the saying goes, whereas people whose ancestors came here as slaves or Native Americans or anybody with a different skin color had to deal with that whole other element of racial prejudice. And I think that goes on today where America is totally schizophrenic about that. We’re founded on this immigrant ethic, but everybody who’s here wants to close the door after them and not let the next group in. But the next group always has something to contribute. If you go to comics conventions now, the teenage kids who are bursting with talent bring you around their portfolios, many of them Asian, many of them Mexican, just from all different groups. I think that still the contribution of the immigrant is still alive, and the debate over it will never die because I think it’s human nature. You get to a place, and then you go, “Okay, close the door now, I’m here, so tough luck everybody else.” It’s that constant struggle.
© 2008 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.