Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Chutz-POW!: The Comic Book – Les Banos

The first story in the Chutz-POW! anthology is that of Les Banos. I don't want to rehash all of the details of the story here. That is what the comic book is for. Here's the first page, with art by Mark Zingarelli, to serve as an introduction and teaser.

Les's story was one of the most compelling and exciting stories I worked on. His adventures as a double agent would fill a graphic novel. His life should be a movie, not only for what he accomplished during the Holocaust and World War II, but for the remarkable life he led after. There were so many parts of his life, so many anecdotes, that I had to cut for space.

One in particular stands out to me. I don't have the research in front of me any more, so I am reconstructing this from memory. Some of the specifics are vague, but if there is ever a continuation of his story in any form, this is a tale that needs to be told.

Once, when Les was serving as an SS officer, he was in what appeared to be an abandoned house. I don't remember why, other than his duties took him to investigate this house. While there he heard sounds, human sounds, coming from a grand piano. He lifted the lid and found two young Jewish girls, sisters, hiding inside. They were scared, of course. Les smuggled them out of the city into the hands of his contacts, saving their lives.

This is a gripping tale in itself, but it is what happened much later in his life that gives it resonance.

In Pittsburgh, years and years after the War, Les was attending an event where Holocaust survivors were telling their stories. As he listened to one woman speaker, she recounted how she and her sister had hidden inside of a piano and been rescued. Les met the woman after the event. The sheer randomness and synchronicity of this encounter is magic.

I wanted all of the stories in this collection to have a different structure and a different narrative feel. Les's story was the first one I worked on, and given the nature of the research I had done I ended up approaching it more as a documentary than as a story-like narrative.

I was blessed to have this story drawn by Mark Zingarelli. Mark is a freelance artist who stays really busy. I knew that he was working on an original graphic novel with writer Joyce Brabner (the widow of Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame). I assumed he would simply not have the time to work on the Chutz-POW! project, but I had to call and ask. To my delight he said yes. When I was telling him about the different stories I was writing it was Les Banos that Mark wanted to work on.

Mark has been a friend for several years now, but his career in comics pre-dates my affiliation with him by many years. In addition to his recent graphic novel work and freelance illustration Mark contributed art to American Splendor and Weirdo. He was also part of the original explosion of independent artists working at Fantagraphics in the early 1980s. He was part of a crowd that included Peter Bagge (Neat Stuff, Hate), Dan Clowes (Lloyd Llewellen, Eightball, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Ghost World), and Robert Crumb (way too many things to list). During this time Mark produced a comic called Real Life.

Working with Mark was an education. I have a habit of overwriting. If you follow this blog regularly you already know this. There's a reason I'm more of a novelist than a short story writer. Though I have written for comics before it has been awhile. It's difficult for me to gauge how much room there actually is on the page for images and text. In this case the problem was compounded by the amount of detail in Les's story. The documentary style I had chosen was a little choppy and disconnected. The first draft I sent to Mark was much too wordy and overcrowded with information. 

Mark called me to talk about the script. He was gentle, but the bottom line was there was no way all of what I had written was going to fit in six pages. I deferred to Mark's expertise. He has far more experience laying out a story than I do. The final version that appears in the comic is due to Mark's editing of my script and playing with the layout of the pages as much as it is to my original draft. The story is stronger for this.

And if Mark and I ever get to work together again I promise to give him more of a comics narrative than the documentary style story he got this time around.

Les Banos passed away in 2008. Many people who had known him for years did not know of his experiences as a double agent. Apparently, like a lot of people, he simply didn't talk about it very much. In one of the documents I read in the research someone asked him in the 1990s why he had never told anyone about his time as a double agent. His response?

“I didn't think anybody would believe me!”

We believe you, Mr. Banos, and I feel privileged to be able to bring your story to the world.

Mark Zingarelli's new graphic novel with Joyce Brabner is called Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague. It's due from Hill and Wang (the graphic novel imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux), in November, 2014. You can see more of Mark's work at his Facebook page HERE or at his House of Zing Website HERE.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Chutz-POW!: The Comic Book

In June I blogged about my involvement in an ongoing project called Chutz-POW!: Real Superheroes of the Holocaust. You can read my blog post introducing the project HERE. I wrote another post about my research and experiences doing a piece of art based on the story of Sophie Scholl (HERE), and another about the whole museum exhibit portion of the project that premiered at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival (HERE).

This blog is the first of several where I will talk about the part of the project I had the most involvement with; The Chutz-POW! comic book.

The steering committee decided that it would be a good idea to produce an actual comic book in conjunction with this project. My experience as a writer and a comic book creator, as well as my background in research, made me the obvious choice to be the writer on the project. I also know a lot of the local comics artists and have good working relationships with them, which is essential in a project like this.

This is the cover for the comic. Artwork and
design by Marcel L. Walker. You can read
his process blog about this cover HERE.

The comic tells the stories of five local Pittsburgh Upstanders. From the beginning we knew that in spite of using the term “superhero” and the metaphor that represents we didn't want to present these stories as superhero tales. We never considered giving super powers to these real life people. Their stories are heroic enough. The goal was to be true to their actual histories.

The Holocaust is a really heavy topic and so much of the focus has been on the atrocities that were committed. While these atrocities should not be forgotten and need to be confronted, we wanted to focus on the aspects of this history that aren't talked about as often; the acts of heroism and selflessness, the spirit of those who did fight back, the tenacity and heart of those who had this experience. Early in this process someone said that “the act of survival was an act of heroism.” That was a guiding principle.

The five Upstanders we chose were also people who continued to serve as inspirations throughout the rest of their lives. They were educators and active in the community, sharing their stories in an effort to help the world understand. We make no claim that these people represent the most important or the only stories. Everyone who lived through the Holocaust has an important story. But for this first volume we chose five people.

Les Banos was a well-known Pittsburgh sports photographer who served as a double agent in the German SS. Moshe Baran was a partisan resistance fighter in Poland. His wife Malka was a survivor of the concentration camps. Dora Iwler escaped from the concentration camps, twice! Fritz Ottenheimer witnessed Kristallnacht as a boy, immigrated to America with his family and then returned to Germany as a member of the U.S. Army.

Les Banos, Malka Baran, Moshe Baran, Dora Iwler and Fritz Ottenheimer

I will talk about each of them in slightly more detail in individual blogs. I don't want to tell their entire stories here. I want you to read the comic.

I left the Holocaust Center one cold February morning with stacks of file folders containing information about each of these people. They had all been interviewed countless times and given first hand reports of their lives. There were newspaper articles and DVD documentaries. I was given a book called Flares of Memory, published locally containing the first person accounts of many Pittsburgh survivors. Both Les Banos and Fritz Ottenheimer had written books. It was a mountain of information to assimilate. The part of me that is a historian loved it.

My challenge as the writer of these stories was to find the moments in these lives that told a complete and meaningful narrative without doing damage to the totality of their experience. And, I need to do it in 4 to 8 pages.

No pressure.

I had a lot of information but much of it was out of context... various interviews and articles with no clear linear history. I spent a lot of time reading through the research, making notes, and constructing timelines. As I narrowed down the moments I wanted to use I began to look for the themes and ideas on which to structure the narrative. I wanted each story to have its own feel. Each artist had a different style, so I thought the stories should all be structured a little differently.

And even though I tried to do my best, the truth is there is a lot of information, a lot of great moments, left out. Given the constraints of page count I had no choice but to cut and condense large portions. These stories are snapshots, important moments, but not the whole story. I say in my writer's note in the book that each of these people deserve an entire graphic novel and it's absolutely true.

I approach writing comics from an artist's perspective. To structure the narrative I need to make my own thumbnails to go along with my script. It's how I figure out pacing and story beats. Unlike prose, comics exist in space, bounded by the page. This constraint helps determine the storytelling and reading experience. It helps me to visualize the final page in a rough stage before I ever type a line of description or narration.

The next step was to send the scripts to the artists. They all had valuable feedback. A comics page done in this fashion is a collaborative effort. Though I wrote my script based on my thumbnails I didn't show these to the artists. I didn't want to limit them by my vision of the final page. They are all professionals who are more experienced at laying out a comics page than I am. The information was in the script. As long as the story beats were respected they were free to play with the script in whatever way they felt best served the story. In each case there were places where ideas and panels were condensed or expanded. Layouts were not what I had thumbnailed, but still told the same story. One artist changed the overall story structure but managed to not only keep all of the details I had written but to enhance the way in which they were presented. In every case the artist's instincts were better than anything I had envisioned, yet maintained a fidelity to the story I had written.

Wherever possible I defaulted to the actual words of the people I wrote about. These are their stories and their words carry more weight than mine. I took my responsibility to them very seriously. There were edits to the final script... fact-checking, some flat-out mistakes on my part, instances where the character's memories didn't match the  historical record.

But in the end I am happy with the result. I believe the stories we told are good representations of their lives. I know I can never really do justice to the reality of their experience, given six pages or six hundred. These are glimpses into their history, a small window on a immense vista. My hope is that these stories will inspire the reader to learn more; about the Holocaust, about these people and others like them, and about their own potential to be heroes.

The release party for the comic will take place on August 14, 2014 at the Toonseum in downtown Pittsburgh. It's a block party with music, food and art. The creators, including myself will be in attendance. Here's the poster;

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Chutz-POW! The Rest of the Exhibit

In addition to my drawing of Sophie Scholl, the Chutz-POW! exhibit at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival also features artwork from four other Pittsburgh cartoonists representing other Holocaust Upstanders. In addition to the artwork each panel features photos and a lengthy description of each of the people featured. I'm not going to reproduce the text here, more for the sake of brevity than anything else. Go see the exhibit, or if you don't have the opportunity and are interested in the stories of these Upstanders look them up. There are amazing stories here.

Art by Marcel Walker
The first panel pictured here is a reproduction of the cover of the comic book that will be released later this summer. This features stories about Pittsburgh Upstanders, most of whom are not featured in the Exhibit. I'll talk about that in more detail when the book is released.

Art by Mark Zingarelli

The one person who is featured in both the exhibit and the comic is Les Banos. Les's story is pretty unbelievable, and deserves a full graphic novel or movie instead of the six pages I tried to fit the info into. (That's true of all of these people, really). Les Banos is a famous Pittsburgh sports photographer. He was Jewish and during the Holocaust was part of the Hungarian Resistance. He was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner of the C.I.A.), and became an SS officer and served as a double agent! The artwork here is a preview of the upcoming comic. 

Mark Zingarelli is a native of Pittsburgh and a freelance cartoonist / illustrator for over 35 years. He has had art studios in San Diego, Seattle and now lives in Western Pennsylvania. His award winning illustration work and comics have been published internationally and he is currently finishing a graphic novel for Farrar Strauss & Giroux.

Art by Gary Morgan

The next panel is of the Bielski Brothers. The Bielski Partisan group led by Tuvia Bielski operating in the forests of Western Belorussia was one of the most renowned resistance groups against the Nazis in World War II. Together with his brothers, Zusya, Asael, and Aharon, Tuvia disrupted enemy lines and secured arms allowing his partisan movement to grow in numbers.

Gary Morgan is a freelance artist and illustrator. He went to college at I.U.P., and graduated with a B.F.A. in metals and drawing. His comics work can be seen in The Field at the Edge of the Woods.

Art by Marcel Walker

Irena Sendler used her position as a social worker to gain access to the Warsaw Ghetto and help smuggle children out of the horrible conditions and into a network of safe houses, churches, and other hiding places. She issued hundreds of false documents with forged signatures, giving the Jewish children temporary identities. Irena kept records of each child’s true identity in coded form and buried them in jars beneath an apple tree in a neighbor’s back yard, across the street from the German barracks.  It is estimated that these jars contained the names of 2,500 children. In 1943 her efforts were discovered and she was arrested, severely tortured, and sentenced to death by the Gestapo.  Even under these circumstances she refused to give the Germans any information.   While awaiting execution she was saved. Irena continued working under a false identity.

Marcel Lamont (M.L.) Walker is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native. He graduated from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and from 1993 to 1999 was an art instructor at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Today he is the Artist-in-Residence at Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum, The Museum of Cartoon Art, where he teaches workshops and has contributed artwork to their NORTH and OAKLAND anthology comic-books. In 2014, Walker was the portrait artist for scientists depicted in the nationally-touring exhibit COMIC-TANIUM!: THE SUPER MATERIALS OF THE SUPERHEROES. Currently, he is also the creator/writer/artist of the comic-book HERO CORP., INTERNATIONAL, a mash-up of the workaday worlds of superheroes and the machinations of corporate America.

Art by Loran J. Skinkis

The final panel is of Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was recruited by the US War Refugee Board. Wallenberg’s task was to save as many Jews as he could in Hungary from the Nazi regime. He was given the status of a Swedish foreign diplomat, which allowed him issue thousands of Swedish Embassy stamped “protective passports” to Hungarian Jews. The fate of Raoul Wallenberg is unknown. He was last seen with Soviet officials under suspicion of espionage. Rumor has it that he died in a Soviet Prison.

Loran J. Skinkis is a full-time illustrator and graphic designer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After attending Mt. Lebanon Senior High in 1989, Loran joined the United States Marine Corps Reserves. His unit was activated and sent overseas to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War (1991). After returning home, Loran went to school at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Loran has worked on such titles as Photocopy Comix Illustrated, The Electric Owl, Pastaman, Star & Stripes, Burgh-Man, The Pittsburgh Steel-Man and most recently The Field on the Edge of the Woods. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Chutz-POW! My Sophie Scholl Exhibit Art

If you haven't read my previous post that serves as an introduction to this topic you might want to go back or this will be out of context.

When the Chutz-POW committee was discussing the list of Upstanders to include in the museum exhibit I found myself particularly fascinated by the story of Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. Even though my primary role was as writer of the comic book (Sophie's story does not appear in it), I do draw comics occasionally and have a couple of professional credits to my name. I decided I wanted to draw Sophie's page for the exhibit.

Sophie's story, in brief, is heroic and horrific.

Sophie and her brother Hans were born in Germany and raised Lutheran. They were teens during the rise of the Nazi party and witnessed the growing abuses of the regime (this is an incredibly abridged version of what took place). They were increasingly appalled at the direction Germany was headed. They, along with a number of friends, formed a secret society called The White Rose and began a movement of passive resistance. They wrote exposes' and essays that were overtly critical of the Nazis. They printed these as flyers and discretely distributed them.

They were eventually caught and arrested.

Sophie was beheaded by guillotine on February 22, 1943 at the age of 22. Her final words were, "How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause. Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

The last flyer by The White Rose was smuggled out of Germany and later dropped in the thousands all over Germany from Allied airplanes.

This story really touched me, and when I started looking for more information on Sophie I found lots of photos of her online. These kind of blew me away. She looks absolutely contemporary in most of these. Young with a funky hairstyle, happy and full of life. She could be one of the students in my class at Chatham this spring. One of my customers at the comics store. Someone I see when I go out to shows. The same age range as my goddaughter.

Do a Google image search for more.

So I drew Sophie Scholl. My style leans more toward the stylized and iconic than it does toward realism. I like to think of myself as influenced by Jaime Hernandez (of Love & Rockets fame), and Dan DeCarlo and Harry Lucey, famous Archie Comics artists. I'm nowhere near as good as any of these, but it's what I aim for. The black and white line work is an abstraction and the goal was to turn Sophie into a comic book character in my style while still being able to recognize her. Parts of my composition used very specific photo reference.

The exhibit is in color (the comic will be in black and white). I think of myself as primarily an inker when it comes to my comics work, and that's where most of my actual professional comics experience is. I love working with a bottle of ink and a brush. My own pencils are very loose because I prefer working out the details directly in the ink. As a result of this I don't work in color very often and admit to being a little intimidated by the prospect. My style lends itself to more traditional flat coloring than to heavily rendered or shaded colors, so that's the direction I went with this. I'm happy with the results.

Seeing the reproduction of my art in context at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival yesterday was really rewarding. The drawing was accompanied by text pieces telling Sophie's story. Two of the other members of the Chutz-POW! committee were there when Marcel Walker (my friend and one of the artists on the project) and I arrived. They introduced us to the people who were there and we received a spontaneous round of applause. I can't tell you how gratifying it is to see something that I have worked this long and hard at finally out where we can share it with the world.

The following are photos of my Sophie piece in context at the exhibit. My next blog will detail some of the other artists and Upstanders involved with the project.

What follows is the description of Sophie's story that was sent to me by the Holocaust Center.


Word found on a scrap of paper left behind in the cell of White rose resistance leader Sophie Scholl on the day of her execution;
February 22, 1943

Sophie Scholl was born in Forchtenberg Germany on May 9, 1921. Sophie had loving parents and enjoyed spending her time outside and learning. She even had an interest in art and theology. Soon she began to question the Anti-Jewish doctrine of the Nazi Party and grew increasingly frustrated along with her brother, Hans, about the direction in which Germany was headed.

In 1942 Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, Christopher Probst, Willi Graf, Alexander Schmorell, and their Professor Kurt Huber formed the resistance movement called “The White Rose”.

The White Rose was a German resistance group who spoke out against the Nazi regime’s mass atrocities and crimes to humanity.

Horrified of what their nation became, Sophie and the members of the White Rose wrote and distributed leaflets urging Germans to oppose Hitler and the Nazi Party.

After the defeat at Stalingrad in January 1943, Sophie, and Hans, distributed Anti-Nazi leaflets in the hallways of the University of Munich urging the students to rebel. However, the university janitor recognized Sophie and Hans and turned them in to the Gestapo, the German Secret State Police. Soon after their arrest, the Gestapo found the other members of the White Rose.

The members of the White Rose were tried by the Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court), overseen by Roland Freisler, a Nazi judge and the State Secretary of the Reich. Sophie Scholl and the members of the White Rose were sentenced to death by beheading. However, they remained defiant and proud. The words “To stand defiant before overwhelming power” were found on Hans’ prison cell wall and before execution he shouted, “Long Live Freedom!”

Sophie Scholl along with her brother and the other members of the White Rose stood up for their country and their people even before certain death. Their last leaflet was smuggled out of the country and scattered over Germany by Allied plans.

Fight Against the Party!”

The day of reckoning has come, the reckoning of German youth with the most repellent tyranny our nation has ever seen...

For us there is only one slogan: Fight against the Party! Get out of the party hierarchy, which wants to keep us silent!

The German name will be dishonoured forever if German youth does not rise up, to revenge and atone at once, to destroy their tormentors and build up a new spiritual Europe. Students! The German nation looks to us!

Translation: Lucy Burns

Contents copyright 2014 The Pittsburgh Holocaust Center.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Chutz-POW! (phase one)

Last fall (2013 for those of you reading this in the future), I was approached by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh to serve on the steering committee for a project they wanted to create. The history of the Holocaust is horrific, but they wanted to find a way to celebrate the lives and stories of people who stood up against Nazi oppression and made a difference. The basic concept they had in mind was to utilize the metaphor of the Superhero to talk about real people who did heroic things during the Holocaust.

This might sound, at first, like a strange idea, until you realize that most of the writers, artists, and creators of superheroes and comic books in the 1930s and 1940s were Jewish. Superman, Batman, Captain America and dozens of others of these brightly colored heroes first appeared at the exact same time as the events of the Holocaust that led up to World War II.

The Holocaust Center worked in conjunction with the Pittsburgh Toonseum. I was recruited in my role as Resident Comics Scholar and Comic Book Historian for the Toonseum. Initially I thought my primary function was to offer them knowledge and research on the topic of comics of the time period. As the project grew and took shape my role expanded (not that I am in any way solely responsible for the project... lots of talented and motivated people took part in bringing this to fruition). This blog is a brief introduction to the project. There will be future entries that explain some of the pieces of this in more detail.

In our early meetings I learned the word Upstander, a term that is used to describe anyone who stood against the Nazi regime. I inadvertently named the project. We were brainstorming ideas for a name and I jokingly said “Chutz-Pow!” with the emphasis on the POW part because it's a comic book sound effect. I thought it was over the top, but everybody loved it. So, Chutz-POW!: Superheroes of the Holocaust was born.

There are three phases of Chutz-POW! (at least as I see it right now... this is designed to be an ongoing and evolving project that could last for years. I know the Holocaust Center has other plans for the future of this, but for right now there are three I want to talk about).

Phase one is a museum display focusing on the early history of comics and the symbolic connections of the Superhero with the Upstander. This display will feature information on international Upstanders accompanied by comics style artwork by a number of local Pittsburgh artists (I'll talk about this more specifically in a future blog). This display premieres this weekend at the annual 3 Rivers Arts Festival running June 6 through the 15th. Though my primary role in this project has been as a writer I contributed a piece of comics art for this display. I was fascinated by the story of the Upstander Sophie Scholl and chose her as the subject of my page. For more info on Sophie her Wikipedia page is a good place to start, but there's a lot more. I'll be blogging more about her as well.

This is a photo of the exhibit panel featuring
my art of Sophie Scholl. I'll post a scan of the
original art in my next blog when I talk about this process.

The museum exhibit is designed to be displayed at other museums in the future. It will be on display at the Pittsburgh Toonseum later this summer. There are plans for it to appear at comic book conventions and, if all goes well, at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and perhaps even in a museum in Israel.

Phase two of Chutz-POW! is the part I was most involved in. We decided that it would be a good idea to produce an actual comic book. My experience as a writer and a comic book creator, as well as my background in research, made me the obvious choice to be the writer on the project. I also know a lot of the local comics artists and have good working relationships with them, which is essential in a project like this. The comic tells the stories of five local Pittsburgh Upstanders and is in the final stages of completion as I write this. It is scheduled to be published and available later this summer, so I will talk about that in more detail when the time comes.

Phase three is the part I have the least involvement with. The Holocaust Center plans an educational program where the comic will be utilized in middle schools and high schools as an aid in teaching the Holocaust. This will be an ongoing program.

In the meantime, go check out the Chutz-Pow! exhibit at the 3 Rivers Arts Festival!

Addendum: I wrote an intro for the Museum Exhibit that ended up not being used in its entirety due to space limitations on the display. I really like it, so I'm posting it below. This serves as a pretty good introduction to the ideas we have been working with over the course of this project.

Holocaust Intro – First Draft

While the concept of the Hero in fiction dates back to antiquity the modern genre of the Superhero was born with the first appearance of Superman in Action Comics #1 in 1938. The ideas that we most associate with the superhero were all present in that first thirteen page story: a brightly colored costume, a secret identity, and powers and abilities beyond those of normal men. Superman was a character that would forever change the world of heroic fiction and inspired a legion of characters that show no signs of abating.

Superman was the creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. The two Jewish teenagers originally conceived of the character while living in Cleveland. By the time Superman first appeared they were working regularly as a writer and an artist for National Periodicals, the company that would one day become DC Comics.

Many of the earliest creators of the comic book industry were Jewish. The man who created the format of the modern comic book in 1929 was Max “Ginsberg” Gaines. National Periodicals was founded as a publishing company by Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz. Creators like Will Eisner, Jerry Iger, Joe Simon, Jack Kirby (Kurtzburg), Stan Lee (Lieber), and Bob Kane became the foundation upon which the entire comics industry was built.

Like most Jewish families living in America in the 1930s they heard stories of what was happening in Germany under Hitler and Nazi rule. Jewish heritage, culture, and political awareness could not help but find its way into the art they created.

Superheroes were calling for American intervention in their stories for months before the start of World War II. The most famous example of this is the cover of Captain America #1 (by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby), where the good Captain is seen punching Hitler in the jaw. This was published in March, 1941, months before Pearl Harbor and years before American troops set foot in Europe.

The superhero became enormously successful in a very short period of time. In the last days of the Depression with another World War looming, it was a time in need of heroes. These characters served as an inspiration. Though they had powers beyond that of normal humans, the lessons they taught were available to us all. Do the right thing. Stand up for yourself and for those who can't stand up for themselves. Recognize evil and stand against it. Fight for what you believe in if that cause is just. They were easily understood metaphors for everyone who read them.

The stories of superheroes covered the pages of magazines in brightly colored glory, but the truly heroic acts of that era were accomplished by very real human beings, many of whom will never be celebrated or even known. The Chutz-Pow! exhibit is an attempt to share the stories of some of these real life heroes. There were no costumes or special powers. They were simply men and women who stood up against evil. If the superhero is defined by his ability to inspire others to heroic actions then these men and women are superheroes indeed.

Their lives are proof of a simple truth.

We can all stand up. We can all be heroes.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Neverending Library Blog Tour

Fair warning... Most of this blog entry is a repost from a couple of years ago, so if you're a regular reader you may have already seen this. But, my friends over at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh are sponsoring a blog tour. It's called the “My Library Story” blog carnival, which will run between Sunday, May 18th and Saturday May 31st. You can read more details about it on their blog post "The Neverending (Library) Story."

I realized that I had already written about this! But, it's an opportunity to share it again with the legions of new followers I have made since then.


If you have a great library story to share, now is the time to do so.

From here on out this post is a reprint:

I've been thinking about libraries recently, and how grateful I am that they exist. Reading and books are such a major part of my life that I simply can't imagine a world where they weren't readily available.

I grew up in the country. The grade schools I went to in first through third grade (in Nineveh and Rogersville, PA respectively), were small community schools. In Nineveh there were only three classrooms and three teachers for six grades. First and second grade kids shared a room and a teacher, as did third and fourth, and fifth and sixth. Neither of these two schools were big enough for an actual library. One day a week the Bookmobile would show up. This was the traveling library for the entire school district and I assume it spent the rest of the week at other grade schools. It was essentially a large motor home lined with bookshelves and books.

The librarian was a wonderful woman by the name of Mary Berryman. She was small built, with gray hair, catseye glasses, and a sweater held on by clasps. I know how amazingly cliché this description sounds, but it is the truth. When I was six I thought she was old, but she continued as the district grade school librarian well past the time I graduated college, so my perceptions are a little skewed.

As I've said elsewhere on this blog, I learned to read, mostly from comic books, well before I began first grade. Mom is an avid reader and instilled her love of books in me very early. Library day was my favorite day of the week.

I'm not exactly sure of the chronology of this, but I also remember the Library came to our community during the summer months as well, for a summer reading program. It's possible I went to the Bookmobile before I actually started school. Mom tells me that once when she took me I chose the books I wanted and when I took them to check out Mrs. Berryman asked my Mom if they weren't a little too advanced for me. Mom said they were what I wanted, and if they were too advanced, well then, there was something for me to learn from them. She continues the story that when we returned the books I couldn't wait to tell Mrs. Berryman all about them.

Mrs. Berryman guided thousands of students through the hallowed shelves of her library over the years, but I think it's accurate to say I was one of her favorite kids. Mom instilled my love of books. Mrs. Berryman and the school library facilitated my access to them in a way my family could never have afforded. I was voracious (still am).

Oddly enough, the first three real books (chapter books instead of stuff written primarily for kids), did not come from the library. Mom bought me a copy of the Howard Pyle version of The Adventures of Robin Hood. I inherited copies of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn from my older brother. I had read all of these by the time I finished third grade.

By the time I entered fourth grade the school district had built a brand new school building in Graysville, PA and consolidated several of the smaller grade schools in this new location. Mrs. Berryman finally had a permanent home for her library, and for the first time I had access to one every day. I couldn't begin to tell you the number of books I read there.

In addition to the library we were periodically given a catalog from Scholastic (or the 1970's equivalent) that we could order books from. I remember getting several in this fashion, including my first copy of All In Color For A Dime, a collection of essays about comics of the Golden Age. This was probably my first, conscious knowledge of comic book history, and definitely my first exposure to the concept of comics scholarship (just as an aside... I loaned my copy of this to the Chatham student I'm advising this semester because one of the essays ties in specifically with the topic she is writing about for her thesis.)

My original copy, with this cover, is long gone.
A revised edition came out a few years ago.

In seventh grade I went to the West Greene High School building (there was no separate middle school then; grades seven through twelve all wandered the same halls and used the same facilities). Of course I very quickly made myself at home in the library there and became a very familiar face to the new librarian, Mrs. Hildreth. The books housed there were aimed at an older audience of course.

During my teen years, in addition to the books I read from the library, I began to buy a lot of cheap paperbacks: Westerns, spy novels, and men's adventure stories with guns and girls. They were the kind of books that were probably inappropriate for my age and certainly not available at the school library. Eventually I discovered Science Fiction and Fantasy and was somewhat redeemed.

During my last year in high school there was a day when the seniors went to work as an assistant with one of the grade school teachers and help with their classes. I couldn't think of anyone back at Graysville I would rather spend the day with than Mrs. Berryman. She proudly introduced me to her classes as someone she was proud of and who had a bright future, because as she told them, I had always read books.

Mary Berryman did eventually retire and lived a long life. She's gone now but shines in my memory as the absolute Platonic ideal of a Librarian.

During college and grad school I had access to libraries of course. I used them primarily for research and class projects, but there was always the reading for pleasure aspect of it. I read a lot of Hesse, Henry Miller, Proust, and Kerouac while at Edinboro.

Somehow though, once I was out of school, I simply didn't go to a library very frequently. I still read, but I was buying most of my material by that time. I felt like I needed to own everything I read. One of my high school teachers, Will Hinerman (more on him in another post), had a large library of books in his home. There were always books around when I was growing up, but I don't think the idea of a personal library ever crossed my mind until I saw his. It became a goal. To supplement the books I bought at the big chain stores and local book stores I haunted used book stores and flea markets. I suppose I have a little bit of the hoarder in me.

So over time I accumulated a lot of books, a fact that was brought home to me a couple of years ago when, for the first time in many years, I needed to move them.

I started going back to the library regularly when I started working in Oakland. The main branch of the Carnegie Library is around the corner from my store. Over time I have realized I don't need to own everything I read (I would already be out of room in my house if that were the case). I'm there frequently and take advantage of many of their services. I have come to know many of the librarians there, and they are all exemplars of the Berryman credo.

There are two people in my life who I consider close, dear friends who are librarians, one at the Carnegie and one at a university library far away. One of them tells me that every day in the stacks she hears the books sing to her and feels it is a sacred duty to take care of them. The other one refers to the library as a “Temple for the Secular Soul.” I love that they both use the language of the sacred to refer to what they do.

For most of recorded history the ability to read was reserved to a special few. It was one of the things only the very privileged ever learned. The idea of archiving the collected knowledge of the world, its history and its stories, is one of the greatest ideas in our history. Today, when the skill of reading is taught to everyone, I fear it is all too often taken for granted. The ability to read was kept from the lower classes, slaves specifically, in an effort to keep people uninformed and more easily controlled. Ideas can be dangerous things, especially to the status quo. Today, when information is at our fingertips, when the wisdom of the ages is readily available, far too many people choose to remain willfully illiterate. Books are gateways to other worlds, to other ways of thinking, to knowledge and wisdom, to entertainment and enlightenment and empowerment.

In a recent conversation with one of my librarian friends she told me that someone had accused her of reading too much. My immediate response was to say that there's no such thing as reading too much. This was based on my own belief that there are far more books I want to read than I will ever be able to read in my lifetime. After giving it some more thought I do want to amend my initial kneejerk reaction. It is possible to read too much if you never actually go out and have a life as well. Your life is your story; you are writing your own book every day. It should be filled with something other than reading. But reading provides guideposts and maps for the kind of life you want to live.

In spite of the pages I devour, I don't think I live to read.

I read to live.