No Joking Matter: Comic Book Creators and Manga Makers

It’s April Fool’s Day, but—funny papers aside—comic books have often been no joking matter. Today, I am going to introduce biographies and autobiographies revealing the serious matters that motivated some comic book creators and manga makers. Some of their works will be familiar to even the youngest readers, while others may be less known. Some works I discuss are geared toward older readers. Along the way, a joke or two just might slip in—because at any age humor is one way of handling stress.

Boys of SteelPicture book biography Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman (2008), written by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Ross MacDonald, does a fine job of explaining what led teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to ‘invent’ this superhero. His powers could combat Depression-era problems and World War II dangers in ways author Siegel and illustrator Shuster could not. Superman’s popularity was also a satisfying, wish-fulfilling contrast to their own daily lives, which were much more like their hero’s socially-awkward ‘secret identity,’ Clark Kent. MacDonald’s vivid, boldly-outlined illustrations are an affectionate tribute to the drawing and inking styles of the original books. His composition of images—such as the double-spread framing of Siegel and Schuster’s work sessions as a typical comic book, with four panels to a page—is smart and snappy. Nobleman’s apt, upbeat wording ends this saga on a high note, with the teens watching the creation they “brought … to Earth … become a superstar” as MacDonald’s ‘Man of Steel’ soars up and away from them. 

Boys of Steel

Super BoysReaders learn that “today, on every story where [Superman’] name appears, [Jerry and Joe’s] do, too.” Only in Nobleman’s detailed, picture-less three page afterword will curious, able readers learn how corporate business practices for many intervening years deprived Superman’s creators of their due. Nobleman’s decision to divide the biography in this way is a wise one, emotionally satisfying and historically accurate for a range of young readers who might be ready for differing amounts of detail. Older readers may also be interested in a new biography by Case Western Reserve University scholar Brad Ricca, Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—The Creators of Superman (2013). This entertaining, often movingly written book begins with the robbery-murder of 17 year old Jerry Siegel’s father and is illustrated with photographs along with panels from Golden Age comics.

Bill the Boy WonderAnother picture book by Nobleman, Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman (2012), illustrated by Ty Templeton, unveils the ‘secret identity’ of modest Bill Finger. This comic book writer came up with many of the ideas for Batman, although for years illustrator Bob Kane received sole credit for the brooding superhero’s appearance, back story, and adventures. Templeton effectively advances Finger’s biography by drawing panels of different sizes and shapes, alternating close-ups with mid-distance views, and uniting frames with twisted logic as running figures or flying darts move from one panel into another. Nobleman has fun playing with words as Bill Finger himself liked to do. Nobleman writes that “[Comics readers] loved when Bill was at Bat” and that, even while Bill’s contributions were secret, “Bat-Man had Bill’s Fingerprints all over him . . . .” Humility plus the sheer pleasure of a job well done seem to have motivated Bill Finger’s decades-long silence about his creative input. Before his death in 1974, though, he had begun to receive some recognition. In a detailed, six page Author’s Note, Nobleman again addresses a broader range of readers, explaining his research into Bill Finger’s life and providing further information about his family and his personal and professional legacies.

Bill the Boy Wonder

Lily ReneeExperiencing World War II’s dangers and devastation at a young age motivated two other graphic book makers, Lily Renée Wilhelm and Keiji Nakazawa. Young readers and others can learn about Lily Renée’s life in the deft graphic biography, Lily Renée, Escape Artist: From Holocaust Survivor to Comic Book Pioneer (2011), written by Trina Robbins and illustrated by Anne Timmons and Mo Oh. Keiji Nakazawa, who as a six-year old survived Hiroshima’s atomic blast, went on to create a ten-volume manga about his childhood, titled in English Barefoot Gen (1973–1985; 2008–2010).

In eight well-paced chapters, Trina Robbins narrates 13 year-old Lily Renée’s life from 1938, when the Nazis invaded her home country of Austria, through the late 1940s, when as an immigrant to the United States she became one of the few women comic book artists. She illustrated the adventures of Senorita Rio and Jane Martin, who both worked against the Nazis, and also illustrated stories for The Lost World and Werewolf Hunter series. Jewish Lily Renée escaped the Holocaust through the Kindertransport, an organization which brought some endangered children to safety in Britain. The emotional roller coaster she experienced during these years is visually reinforced in this biography by illustrations cleverly transitioning between images (for instance, the rounded rim of a ballet stage also serves as a museum’s vaulted ceiling) and meaningful color choices.

Lily Renee

On one early page of overlapping images, close-ups of a vicious Adolph Hitler are tinged in shades of blood red. Close-ups alternate with mid and long-distance shots to indicate not only the scope of Nazi destruction but the panorama of freedom which greeted Lily Renée in New York City. On the last page of chapter eight, Robbins briefly describes the comic book pioneer’s life after 1949, when she moved onto other professional projects and also raised two children.

Pretty in InkThe back matter to this biography, titled “More about Lily’s Story,” contains detailed essays about Nazi Germany, Britain’s traditions and war time policies, and New York life, including the 1940s comic book industry. Fascinating illustrations here include not only photos in “Lily’s Family Album” but 1940s comic pages illustrated by women, some by Lily Renée herself. Older readers whose interest is piqued by these pages may enjoy Trina Robbins’ latest publication, Pretty in Ink: North American Women Cartoonists, 1896–2013 (2013). Four of its 180 colorful pages are devoted to Lily Renee and include larger reproductions of comic book pages and covers she illustrated.

Barefoot GenKeiji Nakazawa’s powerful, ten-volume autobiography for reasons of length as much as subject matter is best suited for readers tween and older. Those who tackle Barefoot Gen may also be interested in viewing the documentary film, White Light/Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (2007). Nakazawa is one of fourteen atomic bomb survivors interviewed in this lauded film, filled with meaningfully brutal details and images. Having such recorded interviews with the manga maker has taken on new importance since his recent death in December, 2013. Even readers who pause midway through Nakazawa’s world-famous autobiographical work, stopping at volume five in the first year after the atomic blast, will be fascinated to learn of the sequel he began. His widow is donating recently discovered pages of this incomplete work to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. 

Barefoot Gen

A Drifting LifeAnother autobiographical manga, Yoshiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life (2009–2011), demonstrates that the ‘serious matters’ motivating graphic artists are not always devastating ones. In fact, they can be profoundly joyful. Besides providing a history of the manga industry after World War II through the 1960s, including debates about how to draw characters and tell stories, this Eisner Award-winning book captures how magical moments of creativity can be. Twenty-one year old Hiroshi (the author/illustrator’s renamed self) is so caught up in working on the thriller novel Black Blizzard (1956; 2010) that “while working on the scene of extreme cold . . . he actually shivered.” Tatsumi depicts this feeling as dark sheets of wind and snow implausibly lashing him during a work session at his indoor drawing board. This blizzard is also the panel background to a wide-eyed moment of realization, when he thinks, “So this is the thrill of creation! I had no idea.” He next compares it to the “runner’s high” experienced by athletes, “as their bodies start to feel light, and they feel free in both body and mind.” Four panels on this five-paneled page show runners pushing themselves in a race, but the fifth, final panel shows exultant Hiroshi, resting backwards away from his page-filled writing desk, holding onto a paper, as he experiences “his own version of a ‘runner’s high.’”

from A Drifting Life

Later, in a wordless triptych, Tatsumi shows how a moment of inspiration can occur. Two panels depicting Tokyo’s modern skyscrapers bracket a central one featuring a close-up of Hiroshi’s upward-looking, thoughtful face. On the next page, that face becomes more animated, uttering the word “Skyscraper . . . !” as Hiroshi realizes he has ‘found’ the name and theme for a new manga collection. The many details of daily life in occupied and then boom-era Japan, the difficulties of trying to earn a living and establish a career, all pale in contrast to the intangible, incalculable rewards sometimes to be found in making art. Tatsumi shows this realization first motivating him as a sixteen year-old, in two page-wide panels. In the first, he is busily drawing at a paper-filled desk, half-highlighted by a desk-lamp. There, Tatsumi remarks, was “the only place where he felt alive . . . the realm of imagination . . . filling the blank page with black ink.” The next panel is a close-up of a blank page, with the hovering words, “There was no freedom in reality…. The creative act of making something from nothing allowed him to live in an infinitely free world.” While the detailed length of A Drifting Life (840 pages) limits its interest for general readers, it has much to offer older fans of manga and readers interested in Japan or in making art.

Black BlizzardMaking manga for teens and adults rather than children, Tatsumi coined the term “gekiga”—translated as “dramatic pictures”—for both the faster pace and darker content of this kind of manga. Tweens and teens will appreciate the melodrama of Black Blizzard’s convict escape and circus romance, but several of Tatsumi’s ground-breaking manga collections, such as Good-Bye (1971–72; 2008) and Abandon the Old in Tokyo (1970; 2006) with their bleak pictures of psychological and social outsiders in post-war Japan, may disturb or distress even some sophisticated readers. A few of their well-crafted stories seem designed to provoke uneasy laughter—and that’s no joke, even on April Fool’s Day. Adults should be prepared to talk about these stories if older teen readers need help in processing their content. Similarly, the animated film Tatsumi (2011) based on A Drifting Life and several of these complex short stories, should be considered “R-rated.” 

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