Monday, July 20, 2009

Book Report: Man of Two Worlds by Julius Schwartz

Note: This is not the cover to the book, but this comic gets referenced inside the book so I thought I'd put it here.

I checked this book out of the library over the weekend and devoured it. I am going to work parts of it into various posts, but I did want to discuss my overall impressions before hand:

The book is long on anecdotes, polished and well-told. Schwartz was a speaker at many comic and science fiction conventions, and obviously knew how to entertain his audience.

Unfortunately, polished anecdotes have a downside; oftentimes they have been embellished over the years by the speaker to make them more humorous or ironic. Note: This is true of anybody's anecdotes, so I'm certainly not accusing Schwartz of misrepresenting himself. But any historian worth his salt knows that anecdotal history tends to bear only occasional resemblance to the actual facts.

This is a minor example, but one that is revealing. Schwartz mentions his fandom for the New York Yankees, and Babe Ruth, and notes:

The Sultan of Swat signed a contract with the Yankees in 1927 for a record eighty thousand dollars, making him the highest paid baseball player. He was asked to justify eighty grand when at the time Herbert Hoover, the President of the United States was only making seventy-five thousand dollars.

Ruth snapped back, "I had a better year than Hoover. Besides how many home runs did Hoover hit last year?"

This is a very famous baseball anecdote, but the timing is off. Hoover wasn't president in 1927 (he didn't take office until 1929). Indeed, the fact that the story is generally told as of 1930 makes it punchier because of course the Depression had started in 1929.

The book opens with a terrific joke. Schwartz notes that he was always punctual, preferring to be an hour early rather than a minute late, and says that his gravestone will read: HERE LIES JULIUS SCHWARTZ: HE MADE HIS LAST DEADLINE.

On the other hand, some of the stories read like they'd make great anecdotes with the target of Schwartz's ire on a podium with him, cackling away at the tale, but seem unfunny and indeed a little insensitive in a book. For example:

Also, Mike [Sekowsky] used to like to have a drink with lunch on occasion. When he was doing Justice League for me I remember once when I had to tell him, "Mike, you have to do the cover today, so when you come back from lunch you have to be prepared to do the cover. So no more than two martinis for lunch.

....And on occasion, when Mike didn't come back from lunch, I had to summon someone else (usually Murphy Anderson) to pitch in on the work that was on deadline.

Ouch! As I said when I profiled Schwartz a few months ago, nobody has a bad word to say about him, so I assume that story did not seem as unkind at conventions as it does in print.

Update: Tom in the comments notes that Sekowsky's drinking problem is well-documented and led to his ouster from the Supergirl and Wonder Woman features. The drinking problem is discussed here.

And also mentioned by Joe Giella:

JG: Mike Sekowsky had a very bad temper. Anyone that crossed him had better look out. He drank... He was the go-to guy, but began to deteriorate later. One day he completed a story and I was asked to ink it, but it was very bad and I couldn't ink it. I was asked to re-pencil it and I did so gladly, because Mike really saved me once on a job and wouldn't accept a dime for his help... I liked Mike very much, but the drinking was really starting to hurt him.

So it appears that this was well-known in the industry and not some case of Schwartz airing family laundry. My apologies!

Schwartz acknowledges the huge mistake in Detective #327, his first Batman tale, which featured Batman picking up a gun and holding it on some crooks that he and Robin had already defeated. And he talks about the death of Alfred, another topic I have discussed.

Overall, I rate the book as a very entertaining read for anybody with an interest in the Silver Age of Comics.

Update: Here's an anecdote that checks out; Schwartz mentions being the first to publish something by Harlan Ellison, the famed science fiction author. Sure enough, from Real Fact Comics #6: