pop life: new books by cle authors take dead aim at nostalgia

There's so much pop culture ephemera floating through the average American brain, it's impossible to keep track of it all. Ask the average consumer if he or she remembers AfterMASH or Beanie Babies or Limp Bizkit and you'll likely be met with a blank stare.
Then there are the bedrock cultural bastions -- the ones that maintain their top-of-mind relevance even while those other fads live and die their mayfly existences. After all, everyone from Grandma to 4-year-old Jimmy knows all about Superman, Rice Krispies and Star Wars, right?
A trio of Cleveland authors has tapped into the human brain's nostalgia center with new books on Superman, breakfast cereal and film -- three pop culture phenomena that will stick around as long as there's somebody left online to debate them.
Bringing back movie magic
Remember how cool you felt pinning that Reservoir Dogs movie poster to the wall of your dorm room? It was the horizontal one with every member of the principle cast sauntering around in their slick black gangster suits. Pretty sweet.
Matthew Chojnacki, 38, knows that sentiment well. The Lakewood resident is a lifelong film fan with a proud affinity for classic one-sheet movie posters, back when artists like Drew Struzan (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Saul Bass (Anatomy of a Murder, The Man with the Golden Arm) were creating stunning pieces that generated intrigue for the films they were helping to promote.
Sadly, those days are gone, says Chojnacki. Today's studio-generated theatrical posters are largely look-a-like bland-fests that don't communicate much beyond which celebrity is appearing in the latest blockbuster. Over the last few years, however, a cadre of underground designers has striven to bring back the lost creativity of those old-school one sheets. Chojnacki has documented the work of these ardent moviegoing artists in a new collection, Alternative Movie Posters: Film Art from the Underground.
The book features 200 posters from 100 artists in over 20 countries. Each designer has a different vision on how best to connect with film fans, notes Chojnacki, from comic book-style cartooning to abstract black-and-white minimalism. One of his favorite posters in the collection is an avant-garde take on Rocky III, showing a boxing-gloved arm emerging from the mouth of a roaring tiger.
"They've created true pieces of art that just happen to be about film," says Chojnacki. "Many of these are more creative than the original theatrical posters."
The author, by day a vice president of finance at Hugo Boss, rifled through nearly 10,000 artist-made posters while curating his book. Chojnacki included various decades and genres, as well as interviews with each designer. Response to Alternative Movie Posters has been positive since its release in late October, be it from national media or cinephiles who appreciate a new angle on a well-worn classic.
"Posters provide us another way to connect with a movie," says Chojnacki. "People love looking at their favorite films in a different way."
Eat this book
From childhood through his teenage years, North Olmstead author Marty Gitlin committed himself to trying every breakfast cereal on the market at least once. Even if he knew the cereal was going to taste awful, he always had to eat a bowlful.
Now that he's grown up, Gitlin still enjoys his cereal, chowing down each morning on such favorites as Froot Loops, Alpha Bits and Cheerios. He's chronicled his riboflavin-induced love with The Great American Cereal Book, an encyclopedic collection of breakfast cereal history and lore.
The lively compendium takes the quintessentially American staple back to its modest Civil War-era beginnings when a man named Dr. James Caleb Jackson mixed graham flour with water and baked it. Flakes, puffs and pops all get their lovin' spoonful, along with the 350 images of cereal boxes, vintage ads, mascots and rare memorabilia scattered throughout.
Like its subject, The Great American Cereal Book is meant to be a fun and colorful trip back to the days of reading the back of the Lucky Charms box in your footy pajamas.
"Young or old, everyone has a favorite cereal," says Gitlin, 56. "Not too many morose thoughts go through your mind when Sonny the Cuckoo Bird is saying, 'I'm cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.'"
Cereal might be fun, but the bright, humorous collection was painstakingly put together, Gitlin notes. He and co-author Topher Ellis tracked down the origins of over 800 cereals from memorabilia collectors, food companies and old advertisements. Since the book's release last year, Gitlin has hustled to sell copies at comics conventions and book fairs.
The hard work has been worth it, maintains the author. The cereal encyclopedia has sold beyond Gitlin's expectations, and has been mentioned by, among other outlets, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and BBC News. Swimming in a milky bowl of kitschy appeal, the book has found a fanbase among teens and 20-somethings, who fondly recall Powerpuff Girls Cereal and other pop culture-infused taste treats.
"People have been telling me how fun the book is," says Gitlin. "I'm thrilled that people have embraced it."
A super-sized Cleveland creation
It's a dramatic story arc fit for any comic book: Two teenagers from Cleveland create an iconic character known clear from Kalamazoo to Karachi, only to have their incredibly lucrative idea ripped away by greedy corporate types.
However, what happened to Superman creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel is not so easily clarified, an attitude author Brad Ricca embraced when researching his new book, Super Boys: The Amazing Adventures of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster--the Creators of Superman.
Super Boys is a literary biography tracing the local roots of the DC Comics superhero. Ricca, who teaches classes on comic books (among other subjects) as a fellow at Case Western Reserve University, spent untold hours in the Cleveland Public Library's microfilm room researching the Man of Steel's non-Kryptonian origin story. What he found were clues to the birth of the spit-curled American icon, as well as a few surprises.
"I wanted to experience what the boys experienced," Ricca says. "This character wasn't created out of thin air."
At its core, Super Boys is a star-crossed account of fame's fickleness, says the University Heights resident. Peering deeper into old newspaper articles and the private collections of Superman fans, Ricca discovered how writer Siegel and his artist friend, Shuster, drew their ideas from a period rampant with crime, poverty and uncertainty. Ricca came across Depression-era ads on physical fitness, showing a "super man" wearing a cape. The need for a hero during these tumultuous times was palpable.
Siegel and Shuster spent years trying to sell their hero to publishers. When they finally did, it was for $130 and included a loss of creative control of their character. The duo never gave up after leaving Superman behind. Siegel wrote for the military service magazine Stars and Stripes, while the pair collaborated once more for Funnyman, a short-lived comical crime fighter.
The tale of Superman's creation is Cleveland-centric in its fortitude in the face of hard luck, Ricca believes. "These are guys who were told 'no' and kept on, anyway," he says. "Superman was their way of making sense of the world. To me, that's art."

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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