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Boys of Steel

Boys of Steel

Robby Reviews BOYS OF STEEL
by Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ross MacDonald

Hello comic fans! Robby Reed here, with my first-ever DIAL B for BLOG book review! I’ll be reviewing BOYS OF STEEL, by Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ross MacDonald. This book has been reviewed by the Midwest Book Review, USA Today, and readers on Amazon.com, and every review has been positive. Most VERY positive. Yet to my mind, they are all textbook examples of how NOT to review a comic-related book.

First of all, were any of the reviewers comic book fans? Or Superman fans? Well, they’ve probably read a Superman comic, maybe even two. They may know that Superman’s real name is Clark Kent, or Kal-El. And they’ve probably even heard of kryptonite! How nice for them. How very, very nice for them.

SOME QUESTIONS

I say, let’s find these reviewers, and make them stand on platforms such as the one seen on Superman #147, pictured below right, like new applicants to the Legion of Super-Heroes, then ask them the following questions: What is the Boys of SteelReign of the Superman? Who are Superman Red and Superman Blue? Who is Nor-Kan? Who is Van-Zee? Who is Mort Weisinger? And Curt Swan? And Murphy Anderson? What is rainbow kryptonite? What is Superman’s uniform made of? What are the lethal letters? Where did Krypton get its name from?

Of course, we could go on and on all night, couldn’t we? And these are the EASY ones! We’re not even getting into the torturous intricacies of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, or Kingdom Come. Let alone 52 separate earths. And you just KNOW that the reviewers wouldn’t be able to answer a single one of these questions. Why not? Because they’re not real comic fans!

On the other hand, I, Robby Reed, creator of this site and author of this review, AM a real comic fan. I used to tie diapers around my neck and run around the house pretending I was flying like Superman. My mother used to read Superman comics to me before I knew how to read. I know Superman. I have always known Superman. There has never been a time in my life when I have NOT known Superman. Superman is a FRIEND of mine. So from MY point of view, it is now my honor and pleasure to be the FIRST Superman fan to ever review BOYS OF STEEL. Here’s what I thought.

THE REVIEW

I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THIS BOOK! 100% unqualified drooling rave! I was completely mesmerized by this book from the first instant I opened it. I loved every page, and every word. BOYS OF STEEL transported me; it made me feel young; it moved me to tears. Honest to God, it did! It caused my black heart to melt. The book is absolutely fantastic, the book is tremendous, the book is a huge achievement -– and strap yourself in, because I’m just getting started. (This will be like when Evil Robby tears things apart, only in this case it will be GOOD Robby building th ings up.)

Boys of Steel
Let’s get the quotable quote out of the way, then get down to business.

Quotable quote:

BOYS OF STEEL is a deeply moving, surprisingly inspirational, and unexpectedly revealing portrait of the two teenage boys who created Superman. The book’s brilliant mix of Joe Shuster-style art and richly evocative text combine to transport the reader back in time to the night of Superman’s creation, capturing the tumultuous events surrounding this magic moment with a power and accuracy never before achieved in any media. BOYS OF STEEL is a sheer, unadulterated delight. Comic book fans, particularly Superman fans, will find a glorious revelation on every page. So says Robby Reed, Boys of Steelcreator of Dial B for Blog and author of this review!

Before I continue, I should mention that I do know one of the book’s two creators, Marc Nobleman. Marc sent me a complimentary copy of the book. In other words, I got it for free. After reading the book and deciding I wanted to review it, I bought another copy. In other words, I paid cash money for it. Why? Because my policy is that I never review anything I have not personally paid full price for! I feel this entitles me to state my opinion  in complete honestly, and without restraint.

This policy is particularly relevant in this case, because my initial reaction to BOYS OF STEEL was surprise at how THIN it seemed to be -– just 36 pages, with a list price of $16.99. Of course, it IS being marketed as a children’s book, and no children’s book is very long. Still, it was something I noticed.

And it begs the question: “Is this thin little volume really WORTH $16.99?”As comic fans, we all know beloved hobby would not exist without Superman, and Superman would not exist without Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Therefore, the night Superman was created must be regarded as THE seminal event in the whole entire history of comic books.

This night has previously been described in Jim Steranko’s immortal HISTORY OF COMICS, and further documented in Gerard Jones’ epic MEN OF TOMORROW. Now, in Nobleman and MacDonald’s BOYS OF STEEL, it has been, to put it quite simply, CAPTURED. Capturing the magic of such an event on paper is as impossible as capturing lightning in a bottle, yet that is precisely what this slim volume accomplishes.

Boys of Steel

Is it worth $16.99? Robby Reed says: HELL YES! For comparison fun, let’s take a look at what some of the “other reviewers” I mentioned previously wrote about BOYS OF STEEL:

According to the Midwest Book Review, “BOYS OF STEEL is the first picture book about how these two created the largest superhero of them all, and is a pick for any picture book nonfiction holding. Ross MacDonald provides a blend of full-page color illustrations and comic-like panels for further attention.”

Amazon.com’s "Ramseelbird" said: “Marc Tyler Nobleman and Ross MacDonald have found another way to get a fella like Superman into a library, and it's definitely a slick idea ... More fun than any children's biography has any right to be.”

The Cleveland Plain Dealer said of the book’s artwork: “With sepia tones and plenty of period detail, Ross MacDonald's stylized cartoon illustrations catch the look and feel of the 1930s."

Coming closest to the mark, Geek Review called BOYS OF STEEL "a charming, and rather haunting, storybook."

Based on these reviews, BOYS OF STEEL sounds like a good addition to a library, or a nice gift for a kid who has to read a biography for school. These reviews make the book sound educational, but fun. In short, they make this splendid book seem like a kid’s version of kryptonite. “Hey, Johnny! Read this book I took out of the library! It’s educational, but fun! Johnny? Johnny? Wait! Come Back!”

As I mentioned at the start, these people are reviewers masquerading as Superman fans. I mean, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reviewer said the artwork in the book had “sepia tones and plenty of period detail,” and added that “Ross MacDonald's stylized cartoon illustrations catch the look and feel of the 1930s.”

"STYLIZED CARTOON ILLUSTRATION"

Note to the Cleveland Plain Dealer reviewer: Did you know that an artist can actually CONTROL the style of his work, and, if he wants to, he can consciously echo the look or technique of another artist? It’s true! Call it a Flash fact! Sometimes it’s done simply to imitate a successful artist. Great Krypton, if we start counting the imitators of Jack Kirby or Neal Adams or Jim Lee out there, we’ll NEVER finish! But sometimes, one artist “copies” the style of another as a kind of homage.

In BOYS OF STEEL, Ross MacDonald was not attempting to evoke the feel some nebulous sepia-hued 1930s of the imagination -- he was attempting to evoke the artistic style of one VERY specific artist, namely Superman co-creator Joe Shuster! And at this, MacDonald has succeeded brilliantly -- as you can see for yourself from the scanned examples on this page. They’re like biographical period photographs if they were drawn by Shuster! They WORK to perfection, and it goes without saying that such an achievement certainly does not happen by accident. Characterizing all this as “stylized cartoon illustration” is damning wonderful work with faint praise.

In truth, the restraint shown by MacDonald’s art is actually quite remarkable. His lofty goal is not to modernize the story of Superman’s creation, but to antiquate our vision of it. He is not out to dazzle us with line work, rendering or special effects. He has successfully banished all trace of modern technique from his drawings to create Golden Age-ish illustrations that are by turns entrancing, menacing, charming, and heroic.

Taken together, I found them to be a flawless and remarkable series of deceptively simple paintings that captured the seminal event in comic history with a sense of artistry that was both heartfelt and deeply profound.

One example, seen BELOW: When young Jerry is pictured reading pulps (left), MacDonald eschews the hoary device of rendering pulp covers with generic superheroes set against vomitized pastel montage backgrounds. Instead, thankfully, MacDonald renders bold, colorful covers of the real Doc Savage, Shadow, and Amazing Stories -- creating, in one simple montage, a mini-history of the pulps, the sensationalistic, mostly-text progenitors of comic books.

Boys of Steel

AMAZING TOLLIN TALES

Were these “fake” pulp covers based on actual pulp covers? When questions such as this arise, Google itself has nothing on my friend Anthony Tollin, perhaps the world’s foremost expert on The Pulps. I asked Tollin if he recognized the Doc and Shadow covers, telling him that I knew the Flash Gordon one.

In typically voluminous and comprehensive fashion, Anthony told me, “No, you DON'T know the Flash Gordon one! Flash Gordon never appeared in AMAZING STORIES (though the Flasher later appeared in his own one-shot pulp magazine). The AMAZING STORIES cover was for the issue that introduced ARMAGEDDON 2419, the first adventure of Anthony Rogers, a 20th century ‘Rip Van Winkle’ who survived in suspended animation for five centuries and awoke to find himself in the 25th century. ‘Anthony’ was shortened to "Buck" when the character moved onto comic pages. BUT that AMAZING STORIES cover did NOT feature Buck Rogers. The cover was for E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith's SKYLARK OF SPACE, the science fiction epic that is credited with being the first great ‘space opera’ novel and the story that first introduced a galaxy-spanning "Sense of Wonder" to science fiction.” Tollin also added, “I think THE SHADOW cover is probably based on PARTNERS OF PERIL, and drawn by someone who used his own color scheme.” [As detailed in DBB #390, Partners of Peril is the story that inspired Batman.]

Amazing! See how much wonderful pulp and comic book history MacDonald managed to reference in just a single, simple drawing? This drawing, like the art throughout the book, compliments the era, the story, and the Shuster style to perfection.

WORDS, WORDS, WORDS

And just as the art is all about simplicity, the TEXT of the book, written by Marc Nobleman, is a masterpiece of economy. With scarcely a paragraph per page, sometimes less, Nobleman chooses each word and every phrase with great care, delivering maximum effect with as few words as possible. His sentences are simple and straightforward, as one would expect in a children’s book, but at the same time they are full of phrases that speak volumes to comic fans.

For example, when Nobleman tells us that “Jerry read amazing stories every evening,” and later that “other kids weren’t interested in those weird tales,” we understand immediately that he is referencing best selling Pulp titles Amazing Stories and Weird Tales. Little touches like this run throughout the story, providing an ongoing source of delight for those in the know.

Boys of SteelX

Most admirably, Nobleman did not simply assemble a pastiche of existing Superman origin material, and rehash it. Behaving more like Batman than Superman, Nobleman researched his subject with unprecedented thoroughness, tracking down leads like a comic-crazed detective. Ultimately, it all paid off big time, as Nobleman unearthed several fascinating new historical details which added a previously-unseen level of texture to this story, elevating his masterful Super-narrative up, up, and away.

THE RECORD SHOWS

One of Nobleman’s most striking revelations deals with the fate of Jerry Siegel’s father. For years, no one knew how he had died. Then, after Boys of Steelcertain revelations came to light, we THOUGHT we knew what happened to him. But then Marc Nobleman took it upon himself to locate several official records concerning Jerry Siegel’s father’s death. (Police report seen right is from Marc's blog, and is NOT pictured in "Boys of Steel.")

Now, thanks to Marc, we know the REAL truth. I’m not going to get more specific than that. If you want to know, read the book! It’s the ONLY place to get the authentic details of the actual story. (A brief essay at the end of the book offers an all-text version of the story aimed at a somewhat more adult audience.)

Another small but significant result of Nobleman’s research can be seen on a page where young Jerry is seen typing at a desk in front of a window overlooking a yard. The scene is authentic down to the last detail, because Nobleman took the time to locate Siegel’s actual house, then personally looked out the very window seen in the drawing.

In the book’s key passage, Nobleman describes how, after conceiving of Superman one night, Jerry Siegel ran nine and a half blocks to the house of his artist and best friend, Joe Shuster. How does Nobleman know the distance was nine and a half blocks? Simple! Nobleman went Cleveland, found Jerry Siegel’s former house, then located Joe Shuster’s nearby apartment, and walked there.

A nine and a half block walk! But for teenagers Siegel and Shuster, it was a walk from obscurity to immortality. And now, through reading Marc Nobleman and Ross MacDonald’s magnificent BOYS OF STEEL, it’s a walk we can ALL take.

Once taken, it will never be forgotten. At least not by me, Robby Reed -- creator of this web site, author of this article, and lifelong fan of the hero known as Superman.

CLICK COVER BELOW TO ORDER THE BOOK!
Boys of Steel

Next
THUNDER
TO BE POSTED ON OR ABOUT FRIDAY, DECEMBER 12, 2008!
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