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CR Sunday Interview: Tom De Haven
posted June 20, 2010
 

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Tom De Haven is a highly-skilled writer and lifelong comic book fan who has occasionally combined the two to wonderful effect. He is best known as the author of the Derby Dugan cyle -- Funny Papers (1985), Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies (1996) and Dugan Under Ground: A Novel (2001) -- a trip through comic strip and comic book history through some of the out-sized personalities and peculiarly American quandaries that have flourished in the midst of each along the way. In 2005 he penned the earnest, evocative It's Superman!, a Time Warner-approved story about the worldwide icon focused on the character's emergence from and embodiment of American culture of the 1930s.

De Haven's newest work is Our Hero: Superman On Earth, a long essay about the character's 70 years on the page, off of the page, and as a vehicle for the dreams and aspirations of his various contributing creators. We spoke about six days ago, and both worked on the transcript in terms of improving its clarity. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: At the beginning of Our Hero, you discuss various reasons for your doing the essay. One thing you mention but don't tie into the reasons this book came about is the whole It's Superman experience. How do you think Our Hero is different for your having had the relatively rare experience of actually writing the Superman character?

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TOM DE HAVEN: I guess there's three parts to my answer. The first is that I deliberately tried not to do too much writing about writing It's Superman. I didn't want to make this an advertisement for the novel. I deliberately played it down.

The second thing is, before writing the Superman novel, I had read a lot of the old comics and comic strips but hadn't read them in any kind of order. To write the essay I was approaching the character in a very different way. Probably one of the reasons I wrote the essay at all was thinking that, "I've done almost all the research. I've read all this stuff." But then when I started doing chronological research, I realized, "I've read nothing." [laughter]

The other part of the answer is that had it not been for the novel I probably would not have been asked to do this. Art Spiegelman suggested me. Yale University Press had called Artie up and asked him, as I recall, if he would do a book on Alfred E. Neuman. Art wasn't interested but said there's this guy who did a novel about Superman and Superman should be one of the icons in your series.

SPURGEON: Now is there a reverse to that question? Is there something you learned in putting together Our Hero that you wished you'd known when you did It's Superman, anything that might have changed the thinking that went into the novel?

DE HAVEN: No, in a way I'm glad it came in this order. I've been a fan of comics all my life, and so I certainly was a fan of Superman comics and aware of Superman's history. I read all the annuals when I was a kid so I knew about the different kinds of Superman over the years and I was aware to some degree about the [Jerry] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster story.

imageThe Superman novel really comes out of my love for the 1930s. I went into it trying to submerse myself in the Depression-era culture that Siegel and Shuster lived in and which was the milieu for their character. I just immersed myself in the Superman stories from '38 to the beginning of World War II, tried to keep myself focused on that Superman. Once you consider Superman over the course of 70 years, all the TV shows and everything, it becomes really confusing. I wanted to strip it down and write a novel that was inspired by those early comic books and also by the Fleischer cartoons and nothing else.

SPURGEON: The breadth of material you employ in the essay required an impressive feat of synthesis. How difficult was it to negotiate everything that had been written on Superman at this point?

DE HAVEN: It was a nightmare. I did three versions -- not three drafts, three separate books -- for this. The first one I deliberately kept myself out of. There was no "I" pronoun in it at all. When it was done, I thought, "This is the world's most boring term paper." So I did another manuscript where I put myself a little bit into it, but didn't include any kind of anecdotal stuff. I didn't like that one either. Finally I did the version that became our hero. It all took me three and a half years. When I started, I thought, "This will be an interesting project." It was, but it turned out to be much harder than I'd ever imagined. Yale gave me nine months to do it. I started accumulating all the stuff. One essay would lead me to a scholarly book, which would lead me to a series of fan essays. On and on and on. It was overwhelming.

I've taught in the university for 30 years, but I'm in the university primarily because I'm a novelist. And I primarily teach creative writing, although I do some American Studies courses on different decades, and I teach comics, and I teach crime fiction and things like that. But I'm not a scholar. I wasn't trained how to do research. All the historical fiction I've written over the years I've done with an amateur's enthusiasm. So it was an incredibly difficult experience, researching Superman, especially since I knew the essay could be only 50,000 words long. What Yale wanted was an overview of Superman over 70 years. And I had to touch on all the things he was and did and changed. I didn't want to restrict my essay to just the character, because I thought the careers of the people who worked on Superman, not only Siegel and Shuster but Mort Weisinger and Wayne Boring and Robert Maxwell, all those and other people, were fascinating and just as much a part of what Superman is as the comics and cartoons and movies.

So it was overwhelming, and there were a couple of times -- more than a couple of times -- where I thought this was the craziest thing I ever did and that I should just be writing another novel. But I'm proud of it, you know, that I could synthesize everything and somehow get it all in there.

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SPURGEON: One part of the essay that jumped out at me in that it likely involved integrating newer material is that you took a couple of pages to talk about Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. At the same time, I couldn't figure out exactly why it was in there. I wondered if you were just trying to provide a portrait of someone missing out, a way of saying that Superman was so big that your life could be defined by missing out on some involvement with the character. Or perhaps Wheeler-Nicholson was just an interesting story that stuck out to you.

DE HAVEN: Well, it is an interesting story. As a comics enthusiast, I knew about Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. Oh my God, what a hard luck story that is. Kicked out two months before Action Comics #1. And then all those bizarro details about his cape and the beaver hat and the green teeth -- or the rust-colored teeth, depending on who was writing about him. He seemed more interesting to me than even Siegel and Shuster. This mysterious figure who disappeared: up until recent times no one really knew what happened to him.

Then, just by chance, I got an e-mail from Nicky Brown, who is his granddaughter. She had no idea I was doing this essay; she was writing to anybody who had any kind of connections to Superman. She had seen my novel and thought I might have picked up some stories about her grandfather. I said, "Well, I didn't. But I'm writing this essay and I'd love to meet you." So Nicky came through Richmond and we got together. She told me about how she had just met the Wheeler-Nicholson family as an adult, because she had grown up with her mother, I think in Texas, and didn't know anything about the family until she was well over 30. Then she met her grand-uncles and cousins and started hearing all those old stories about the major's days as a comic book publisher, and how the stories had affected the family. At that time she had recently contacted Gerard Jones and David Hajdu and was trying to get them to set the record straight in paperback editions of their books because of certain things she had found out about her grandfather. I think Men of Tomorrow, the paperback, does include some changes according to what she told Gerard Jones.

She's a really interesting woman, and we've kept in touch. I don't know if she's ever going to do a biography. I think she did an essay for Alter Ego on her grandfather [Editor's note: an interview with Brown appeared in Alter Ego #88]. She told me it was the tragedy of the Wheeler-Nicholson family. That this guy never talked about losing control of the company that eventually published Superman. He refused to talk about it, but it's sat there like a huge elephant in the family for all these years.

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SPURGEON: You make a clear distinction between the original Siegel-written Superman comics and then the comics that came as the corporation began to pay more attention to this hit they had on their hands. Superman hit hard and fast. How much do you think Siegel's early writing played into that very early success?

DE HAVEN: I think totally. So much of what we think makes Superman popular really wasn't there at the beginning. He was leaping tall buildings, not flying. The supporting cast wasn't around except for Lois Lane. It was a very different kind of Superman. It was all Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and it was completely uncensored. Straight from the id to the page. They had no editorial input because they were turning out so much stuff. Everything they wrote and drew got in, at least for about a year and a half. There was this wild energy to it. The drawing is scratchy and primitive and the stories are about as basic as you can get. It hit not just a 12-year-old sensibility but a 12-year-old sensibility at a really dire time in history. There's A sense of fun about the character that hasn't been there , not really, since the very early days. He's this guy who's so happy to be doing what he's doing, he's playing practical jokes, he's laughing, he's wisecracking like a private detective.

There was no publicity for this thing. On the cover of Action #1 it didn't say, "This great new superhero!" There was nothing on the cover but that famous image of Superman holding a car over his head. His acceptance and popularity was just a spontaneous, democratic fluke. It wasn't a media thing. It was totally from the ground-up. It was 10-year-olds and 12-year-olds buying this comic book in huge numbers because they truly loved and identified with the character. That's what I find to be such an interesting story.

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SPURGEON: Given the management of the character, then, where even the physical look of the character was changed, why do fans stay connected? Do they sense those essential elements? Superman was an immediate hit, but he's also been backlash-proof. He didn't go away with the first wave of superheroes, he survived all these permutations, even having renewed success over the years. Where does Superman get his resiliency?

DE HAVEN: The character's resiliency comes from his very simple premise. Whenever the character gets too complicated or drifts away from the essential elements, that's when the problems kick in. The weird thing about it, the thing hardly anybody knows about unless They're a comics fan or a comics historian is that Superman was originally a kind of outlaw. That he was a citizen-vigilante taking on shoddy automobile manufacturers or crooked lobbyists, all these things that Siegel and Shuster were interested in and got worked up about during the New Deal. That Superman is totally out of people's memories. The character that pops into people's heads when they think of Superman is the former infant from Kyrpton who is just constitutionally good. You can make him look like a refrigerator, or you can make him look like Jimmy Cagney. It doesn't matter just as long as certain key elements are there. We respond to his philanthropy whether we mock it or not. In the '80s when all of those dark superheroes came in, Superman seemed ridiculous. He wasn't cool. Because he wasn't angry or vengeful or crazy. But nevertheless, that's his nature. That's why whenever I hear about they're going to make a Dark Superman movie, I shake my head and say, "Well, there goes another $300 million."

SPURGEON: One thing I didn't know about that's in your essay is how the writer and producer Robert Maxwell infused the character with this broadly liberal take on politics, by the time of the early TV show even lecturing people on camera, until there was a crackdown on that from the executives in the same way they cracked down on similar sentiments from Siegel and Shuster. That's stayed a part of the character's make-up, though, hasn't it? I can't recall an iteration that has gone in the other direction.

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DE HAVEN: Well, except for Frank Miller's.

SPURGEON: Okay. Sure. [laughter]

DE HAVEN: I was on a radio show last week and someone called in to ask about the Frank Miller Superman and what did I think about it. It's such a wrong-headed interpretation.

The thing about Superman is that his basic nature tends towards a certain liberal sensibility. He's not someone who is corporate, he's not someone who is doing things for self-aggrandizement or wealth or power. When you take away all those kinds of goals, you're left with someone who is basically a humanitarian. That tendency is more historically left than right.

SPURGEON: Your section on Mort Weisinger provides a close reading of the narrative and world-building elements woven into the various Superman comics during his time as their editor, a surprising number of story points given that this was already a long-running popular character. You note for instance the changed role for Lois Lane, and the prominence of analytical and strategic thinking in the kind of problem-solving that drives the stories. Do you admire what Weisinger accomplished?

DE HAVEN: Oh, yeah. I've been at university for 30 years and a lot of times writers I admire will come by to give readings or meet with students and often when I meet them they seem like jerks. [laughs] I'm disappointed, but it's beside the point. Their work is what matters, not their personalities. I don't think Weisinger was a nice guy.

SPURGEON: He's one of the notorious monsters of comics.

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DE HAVEN: But that's beside the point if you're looking at somebody's work. That's why I added the quip about him being the John Ford of comic books. John Ford was not a very nice person, either. He treated his people very badly. He was obnoxious and overbearing. But what you look back at and care about is the body of John Ford's work. I think Weisinger's run on Superman is remarkable. No matter how far Superman's editors and writers stray away from the Weisinger mythos, they keep on coming back to it eventually. Because it's good stuff, interesting stuff, evocative stuff. He was, for all of his personal failings, a great editor.

SPURGEON: One thing you didn't do when writing about the '60s and '70s in terms of DC's efforts is you didn't look at Marvel's success and argue that as a factor that had an influence on the other company. You talked more about the Julie Schwartz-edited Superman as a smattering of noble experiments more than as a reaction to what Marvel might have been doing. What attracted you to an analysis of the character within DC?

DE HAVEN: You mean avoiding the rivalry with Marvel?

SPURGEON: More that this new kind of storytelling might have had an effect on Superman -- you don't spend a lot of time with Jack Kirby's Superman, for instance, or Alan Moore's. Do you see Superman as more immune to outside pressure than other characters?

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DE HAVEN: While I was noting the changes in comics that occurred in the '70s, I looked at it more as a generational change of personnel than a reaction to Marvel. Boomer fans took over the fantasy during that period. It was a differently educated group of writers, most of whom had gone to college and grown up during the '60s and were bringing their own experiences to their work on these characters. The first generation of comic book writers, artists and editors approached it as a job. They looked at things differently than baby boomer fans who approached the characters with a big dose of reverence and nostalgia. And having come through the '60s, they tried to bring anti-establishment energy to the characters.

It didn't work very often, at least not at DC. DC had a strong corporate culture and these young guys encountered resistance. There was a constant struggle in the early '70s between what the old school guys would allow and what the new guys wanted to do. It seemed to me to create a neither/nor Superman. Over at Marvel there was much more of an anti-establishment ethos where you could try this or that. DC was a lot more conservative.

SPURGEON: Near the end of the book, you discuss the John Byrne Man Of Steel re-launch, and the Superman that was re-fashioned a bit by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu in Superman: Birthright and the Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely All Star Superman series. You group them fairly close together. Do you see them as all of one type? Do you feel they're locked into revamping the character over and over again? The way you've structured your book, the Weisinger-era Superman seems so much more radical than the modern one in terms of how there was this complete story overhaul without simply starting from zero. Could something like that happen again, or we will just see more re-jiggerings?

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DE HAVEN: There will always be re-jiggerings, but the strange thing to me is that the re-jiggerings are coming closer and closer together. The Weisinger re-launch in the late '50s was 20 years after the original. From '86 to the turn of the century, from Byrne to Waid, was also a bit of time. Now they seem to do another re-tooling every couple of years. To me that seems desperate rather than imaginative. We don't need constant re-imaginings of the origin. What the character needs is a stable creative group. The comics that were done in the Death of Superman series, I thought those were wonderful: The Death of Superman and what came after that in the '90s. There was a smart and talented group of editors, writers and artists handling the character for a prolonged period of time that created something that worked.

This thing of changing Superman all the time, changing direction -- "let's kill him again," "let's take his powers away," "let's put him on another planet for a year" -- it seems kind of desperate, as if they don't know how to deal with the character. To me, Superman is the simplest superhero of all. What you need, basically, is good, dramatic consistent storytelling. Why this character can't be put into situations where the stories are paramount is beyond me. I just don't understand it.

But... I don't understand a lot of things about DC Comics. [laughter] For instance, they wouldn't give me permission to use any comic book art in Our Hero. There's A long description, for instance, of how Wayne Boring's characters never look at each other, and I couldn't use a single panel from a Wayne Boring comic book.

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SPURGEON: That was the funniest part of the book, by the way. I laughed at your description. Was that a surprise to you, encountering the odd qualities of Boring's art so many years later? Did that take you by surprise?

DE HAVEN: Yeah. I always had a soft spot in my heart for Wayne Boring, because he did so many of the Superman comic books I read when I was a boy. He also did the Superman newspaper strip that I read when I was a kid. Wayne Boring was much more imprinted with me than Curt Swan.

image[laughs] But when I went back to look at his stories again, I kept on thinking, "What is going on here?" Then I realized that nobody looks at each other. They're all looking off in different directions... and I thought, "What a strange situation." In the scenes when Superman is flying through the air, he looks like he's jogging. [laughter] There are some very strange things when you abstract out the panels from the stories. So yeah, I was surprised by Wayne Boring. Although I still have a lot of affection for him. I thought he was a really good draftsman. As a storyteller, there was a lot to be desired.

SPURGEON: I thought your affection for Boring came through. Another point in the book where I thought your underlying sympathy really made an impression was in your portrait of Jerry Siegel coming back to DC to write comics for Weisinger. I thought that was a touching section, where he returned chastened to the character he created and yet in a way connected to Superman because of these damaged feelings.

DE HAVEN: It's a very sad story. The thing about Jerry Siegel is that in many ways you want to throttle him. You're sympathetic, but you also want to throttle the guy. That would have been the movie to make, rather than Hollywoodland. Although Jerry Siegel might not have been a sympathetic character in a film. He really could, from what I've read, get on people's nerves. Complaining, complaining, complaining, all the time. Now, if I put myself in that situation, I'd probably have gone off the deep end myself.

SPURGEON: One thing I wanted to be sure to ask you is that you wrote so well in the Derby Dugan series about the beginnings and the heyday of the newspaper comic strip, and now we're in a period that seems very far away from that -- where we're maybe not in freefall, but surely in a period of dire signs for the future of printed newspapers in this country and with it a certain way of doing comics. Do you have any thoughts about this era of newspaper strips, given how much time you spent talking about its glory period? Do you feel a particular sadness?

DE HAVEN: I never thought that newspapers would be gone before comic strips. I thought comic strips would disappear long before newspapers did. There are certain exceptions, like Bill Watterson for a while -- but great cartoonists, the ones with style and new ways of expressing the art, don't seem at all interested in newspaper stripping. And I can see why. The restrictions are absurd. If you like to draw, syndicated strips aren't the way to go.

imageThere are still people like me who love newspaper strips. It's a different genre. It's opera as opposed to theater. I've been reading these reprint books which I never thought I'd see in my lifetime, these great Library of American Comics books. I thought the days of reprinting classic comic strips were gone. I'm working my way through Terry and the Pirates and Orphan Annie and On Stage. The beats of these things, and what they did with a daily strip and a Sunday page: it was remarkable. It was one way to do narrative comics, that's all, just one way among many to do narrative comics. And it's a shame that it's gone. Because it didn't have to go. Comic books and graphic novels are great, but there's nothing intrinsically time-bound or anachronistic about the newspaper comic strip. But because of the way publishing has changed and because of the Internet, it's never going to come back. A talent like Milton Caniff, how he told stories, it's just astounding to me.

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* Our Hero: Superman On Earth, Tom De Haven, Yale University Press, Icons Of America Series, 240 pages, 0300118171 (ISBN10), 9780300118179 (ISBN13), March 2010, $24.

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* cover to book
* an It's Superman! cover
* still from Fleischer Superman cartoon
* the iconic Action Comics #1 cover
* the early Superman comics' edgier choice of bad guys
* the early Superman comics' laughing, vigorous protagonist
* a Frank Miller Superman pin-up
* a typical Weisinger-era cover
* a typical Schwartz-era cover
* a cover from Superman: Birthright
* nobody look at anybody else in this Wayne Boring panel
* jogging-as-flying Wayne Boring panel
* from Terry And The Pirates
* (below) a Joe Shuster Superman drawing showing off the original squat stature

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