26 March 2020

“Literary texts might be doubly infectious”

I just learned about this book, but I had a tag all set up for it already.

Reading Contagion: The Hazards of Reading in the Age of Print, by Annika Mann:
Eighteenth-century British culture was transfixed by the threat of contagion, believing that everyday elements of the surrounding world could transmit deadly maladies from one body to the next. Physicians and medical writers warned of noxious matter circulating through air, bodily fluids, paper, and other materials, while philosophers worried that agitating passions could spread via certain kinds of writing and expression. Eighteenth-century poets and novelists thus had to grapple with the disturbing idea that literary texts might be doubly infectious, communicating dangerous passions and matter both in and on their contaminated pages.

In Reading Contagion, Annika Mann argues that the fear of infected books energized aesthetic and political debates about the power of reading, which could alter individual and social bodies by connecting people of all sorts in dangerous ways through print. Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, Tobias Smollett, William Blake, and Mary Shelley ruminate on the potential of textual objects to absorb and transmit contagions with a combination of excitement and dread. This book vividly documents this cultural anxiety while explaining how writers at once reveled in the possibility that reading could transform the world while fearing its ability to infect and destroy.
This eighteenth-century worry seems to have resurfaced now that we’re are hunkering down with reading material and mail-order packages while word goes around that those same packages might carry the virus we’re hunkering down to avoid.

However, as science journalist Zeynep Tufekci tweeted: “Future generations will be driven batty by the amount of concern over contamination from cardboard boxes—a tail risk: porous surface, exponential decay—compared with protecting the pathways to OUR RESPIRATORY SYSTEM WITH MASKS FOR A RESPIRATORY ILLNESS WITH ASYMPTOMATIC SPREAD.”

14 March 2020

The Magic Wand of Tudor Jenks

I’ve been enjoying the Magic Wand book set by Tudor Jenks, published in 1905.

This collection of modern fairy tales first came to my attention because the volumes were illustrated by John R. Neill in between his work on L. Frank Baum’s Marvelous Land of Oz and John Dough and the Cherub. His style is immediately and delightfully recognizable.

Tudor Jenks was Baum’s near contemporary, born in 1857 and dying in 1922. He was a child of New York City rather than Syracuse, however, and he enjoyed the benefits of Yale College and Columbia Law School.

Jenks started a career in the law, interrupted that to spend fifteen years as an associate editor of St. Nicholas Magazine, and then went back to the law. But he continued to churn out books for young people, mostly nonfiction.

It was shortly after stepping away from the editorial desk that Jenks wrote the Magic Wand series for the Henry Altemus Company. The series consists of six short books about magic:
Each volume is a little over 100 pages long, printed in black and red, with many simple line drawings by Neill. None appears to have been in print for a very long time, but I’ve linked to scans of them all.

The stories are all independent. Some are set in what seems like modern America with a touch of magic. Others take place in countries with kings, queens, dragons, fairies, witches, and similar elements of European fairy tales—but also party line telephones, bicycles, and corporations that offer princess-rescuing services.

The tales show lots of fondness for traditional fairy stories but not too much reverence. They remind me of E. Nesbit’s “The Deliverers of Their Country,” George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, and some of Baum’s American Fairy Tales from the same years.

The plots can be perfunctory, possibly cut off once word or page counts had been achieved. Jenks had what feels to me like a lazy habit of naming his characters after roles from Shakespeare or everyday objects, as in Duchess Darningneedle or the pony Gallopoff. But his narrative voice is charming.

It’s also striking how often Jenks tells stories from an adult’s point of view, even though the protagonists are almost always children or teens. The result is a series of magical tales that kids of 1905 might well have enjoyed but that really reflect the sensibility of adults who would rather not be working office jobs.

12 March 2020

Stupendo Takes Off!

I’m pleased to report that the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for Boston Powers, the Boston Comics Roundtable’s collection of all-ages superhero comics, was successful.

And Brendan Tobin has done wonders with the art for our story. Here’s a slightly blurred preview as Stupendo and Secret Girl discuss the challenge of being a hero from another planet.

25 February 2020

Art for “The Axman’s Arm”

At Skookworks, David Lee Ingersoll has just shared his illustrations from the 2006 issue of Oziana magazine, which I edited and produced for the International Wizard of Oz Club.

David created the art for a story I wrote called “The Axman’s Arm,” a horror tale exploring what happened to the Tin Woodman’s left arm after it was chopped off in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. That arm wasn’t around for the assembly of the character of Chopfyt, introduced in The Tin Woodman of Oz—so where did it go?

I rarely tell horror stories, but the Oz books’ premise that people and animals can survive being sliced up leads inevitably to that mode.

For that issue of Oziana, David also illustrated Adrian Korpel’s poem “Rivals” with pictures of the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion looking bitter and angry—and yet completely recognizable. I’d seen some of the pictures David drew for the Oz Squad project, so I knew he could do a great job with that challenge. I don’t view those poems as “canonical,” but they offered an interesting alternative view of favorite characters.

11 February 2020

Helping Stupendo Take Off

This picture shows Stupendo and Secret Girl, a superhero team I dreamed up a couple of years ago in a burst of short comics scripts for kids.

Stupendo is a very strange visitor from another planet. Secret Girl is a young suburbanite determined to help Stupendo to fit in and be all the hero he can be.

They’re being made flesh by Brendan Tobin, the artist behind Tolerable Tales of the Adequate and The Protagonist. Check out his blog.

Brendan and I are sharing “Hero Helper,” Stupendo and Secret Girl’s first published adventure, in Boston Powers, an all-ages comic book featuring original stories of superheroes from greater Boston. Conceived and edited by Dan Mazur, this project just launched its Kickstarter campaign, and it’s got a delightful video. Check it out!

21 January 2020

The First Whiff of Gunsmoke

In the late 1940s the head of CBS, William Paley, asked his staff to develop a radio drama based on the concept of “Philip Marlowe in the early West.”

At the time, most western shows on the radio were aimed for kids, in the mold of The Lone Ranger. In contrast, this show was supposed to air in the evening and appeal to adult listeners.

CBS executive Harry Ackerman, who produced the Philip Marlowe radio show, had writers Mort Fine and David Friedkin take one of their scripts from Mike Shayne, another hard-boiled detective show, to create a pilot called “Mark Dillon Goes to Gouge Eye.”

The influence of Raymond Chandler on that script is obvious. Dillon serves as narrator as well as protagonist, his voiceover is full of elaborate metaphors. The plot checks off several requirements of the hard-boiled genre, such as the detective being knocked out for a while.

In the summer of 1949 Ackerman recorded two versions of the pilot with different actors playing Mark Dillon. But then the project stalled over contract issues.

A short time later, Philip Marlowe producer Norman Macdonnell and writer John Meston also started to develop an adult western radio drama. They produced an episode of their series Romance called “Pagosa” featuring a lawman named Jeff Spain. Macdonnell and Meston proposed a “Jeff Spain” show.

Ackerman told Macdonnell and Meston that CBS was ready to air their adult western, but it had to grow out of the network’s existing pilot. And it had to be called Gunsmoke.

With a hole opening in the network’s schedule in early 1952, Macdonnell and Meston had only a couple of weeks before going on the air. They changed the lawman’s name to Matt Dillon, cast busy radio actor William Conrad in that role, and recorded the first episode in time to air in April.

Gunsmoke had little to no narration after the first episodes, but the voice of the protagonist introduces each show in full Chandleresque mode:
I’m that man, Matt Dillon, United States Marshal–the first man they look for and the last they want to meet. It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful…and a little lonely.
The first episode starts with the murder of a man who has just robbed a bank out of desperation and gets darker from there, with Dillon shooting the dead man’s brother when he comes leading a lynch mob. The marshal snaps at friends and locks up an innocent man on little evidence. The town doctor is gleeful over the number of corpses to autopsy.

Yet the most direct signal to listeners that this was not your kid’s western might come in the character of a young runaway whom Marshall Dillon tries to take under his wing. Billy was played by Dick Beals, an actor who had a glandular condition that meant his voice never deepened, so he played a lot of child roles on radio and in cartoons.

As the shows ends, Dillon realizes that young Billy knifed that bank robber to steal his gun. But by then the boy has grabbed a horse and ridden off to a life of crime under the name of, as the episode title says, “Billy the Kid.” So not only was this not a kids’ western, but the cute little kid was the most hard-boiled of them all.

(All episodes mentioned here available through the podcast OTR Westerns.)

27 December 2019

The Oxford and Cambridge Schools of British Fantasy

From Slate’s interview with Maria Sachiko Cecire, professor at Bard and author of Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Children’s Fantasy Literature in the Twentieth Century:
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of course, as many people know, were friends and colleagues, but they were actually working to reform the English curriculum at Oxford, in addition to writing their own fantasy.

They were the architects of this curriculum, which went into effect in 1931. And they really had an enormous role to play in the kinds of questions that were set in examinations, the texts that were required for undergrads to read; then this had this kind of huge knock-on effect in terms of what people were studying for the next nearly 40 years at Oxford. There’s still some vestiges of that curriculum in the Oxford education today. Then the younger authors I was looking at were Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Diana Wynne Jones, and Philip Pullman. They all studied this curriculum and got their degrees between 1956 and 1968.

This curriculum at Oxford was really heavy on medieval literature, just at the moment when most other universities were going in the direction of modernism and the kinds of writing that we now associate with literary fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries. At Oxford they were doubling down on medieval literature and also looking at it not just as examples for linguistic analysis—which was how it had been primarily studied in the 19th century under philology—but really looking at it as literature. Really seriously asking students to meditate on both the English medieval past and also this idea of magic and enchantment. . . .

And for comparison’s sake, I also went to the archive at a few other universities, including Cambridge, which went in a really different direction from Oxford in the ’20s and ’30s—much more intentionally towards modernism, towards more contemporary texts, and cutting out medieval requirements for their undergraduate English degree.

And interestingly, Cambridge didn’t really have the same legacy of children’s fantasy writers. T.H. White was at Cambridge at a really interesting time, when there was still a medieval requirement, but right as they were ending it. If you compare his The Once and Future King to, say, The Lord of the Rings, they’re so different in the way they talk about the Middle Ages, with a different level of reverence. There’s anachronism in White’s writing, and pretty profound critiques of the warlike nature of the Middle Ages and of a lot of the nostalgia for that period. Whereas Tolkien and his students tend to be a lot more reverent of that material.
See previous discussions of Tolkien as a teacher of future fantasy writers in 2010 and 2011.

24 December 2019

Life Lessons from the MGM Movie

Emeralds of Oz: Life Lessons from Over the Rainbow is a short but not insubstantial riff on the MGM Wizard of Oz. The author, Peter Guzzardi, is a veteran book editor, but this is the first book published under his own name, several years in the making.

Emeralds of Oz is not based on the Oz mythos as a whole—just the famous movie. Guzzardi writes nostalgically about watching that film on television with his family but shares no fond memories of reading the Oz books as a child. He read a lot, but his taste leaned toward boys’ adventures. It takes over a dozen pages before Guzzardi even mentions L. Frank Baum, and there are only a couple of times when the book invokes parts of Baum’s story that didn’t make it into the movie.

Guzzardi isn’t just playing to the MGM movie’s larger contemporary fan base. That movie really defines his idea of Oz. At one point he recalls a difficult journey, noting he was about the same age as when Dorothy went to Oz. Context makes clear that he’s picturing the young adolescent Dorothy portrayed by Judy Garland, not the little girl drawn by W. W. Denslow.

The bulk of the book consists of lessons drawn from rewatching the MGM movie, rather like a sincere Mystery Science Theater 3000 viewing. A fair number of these homilies actually grow out of the vaudeville-style jokes mixed into the screenplay. There are longer meditations on the movie’s more explicit lessons, and of course a struggle at the end because of the screenplay’s ethical knots.

The “Emeralds of Wisdom” found in the movie tend toward pleasant reminders to keep doing what we normally do or know we should do, not deeper digs into the philosophical and ethical questions that the movie could raise. (Can one be a very good man while pretending to be a wizard?) The working title was All I Need to Know I Learned from the Wizard of Oz, with the implication that we knew it all from when we were young. Guzzardi drops mentions of the Kabbalah, mantras, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and other mainstays of modern self-help books. The more interesting commentary grows from his own life, however.

As an editor, Guzzardi’s specialty was crowd-pleasers, sometimes with fantastic results—Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, most notably. Emeralds of Oz grew out of that same commercial impulse. It’s designed as a gift, with glittery emerald endpapers, deckle edges, eye-catching interior design, and other hallmarks of the book as object. For people who like the movie and this sort of advice, it’s a fine package. But its strength comes from Guzzardi’s sincerity as he seeks guidance in the question, “What Would Dorothy Do?”

18 December 2019

See What See You Yesterday Did There

Stories of time travel with branching possibilities emphasize the results of characters’ choices even more than other types of stories.

Furthermore, the way those stories end is inherently optimistic or pessimistic. They show that people can change their worlds, futures, or selves—or they show those people can’t.

[Since it’s impossible to discuss how stories end without SPOILERS, the remainder of this posting will not only not be SPOILER-free, it will be packed with extra SPOILERS.]

Back to the Future presents such an optimistic portrait of the universe that not only does Marty restore his family but without even trying he actually makes their life much better. In the sequels he also manages to repair the future and distant past.

Men in Black 3 doesn’t fix the losses of the past, but more knowledge of the past gives Agent J a happier present.

In contrast, Twelve Monkeys shows the hero unable to prevent the global catastrophe that leads to a dystopic future. From the same director, Terry Gilliam, Time Bandits ends on a sour note with its young hero orphaned and evil once again loose in the world. Something about free will, the Supreme Being doesn’t really explain.

See You Yesterday, a movie directed by Stefon Bristol and co-written by him and Frederica Bailey, is a time-travel story set in 2019 Brooklyn. Two high-school juniors, C.J. and Sebastian, have built a temporal displacement device as a science project. They have high hopes for college scholarships. The future looks bright.

Unfortunately, C.J. and Sebastian are also in the world where it’s necessary to say Black Lives Matter. Both crime and overpolicing constrict those African-American teens’ lives. Their experiments with traveling through time in their neighborhood end in the death of one character close to them, then another. No matter how many times they go back to the crucial day, someone ends up dead.

Finally, C.J. goes back on her own. And the movie ends with her running along a now-familiar alley. We don’t know if she succeeds is changing events. We don’t know if she can. By American entertainment standards, that’s a pessimistic ending. And a well considered one.

In an interview at the Decider, director Bristol said:
Often times when you have a tragic movie with a happy ending, people are like, “Well, all’s well that ends well.” I don’t want that. I want the audience to be uncomfortable. I want the audience to have their own interpretation of what’s happening with our country.
In other words, if we want this story to work out well for C.J., her family, her friends, and people like them, we have to fix this timeline ourselves.

10 December 2019

Baum and His Mother-in-Law, Matilda Joslyn Gage

Elizabeth Letts, author of the historical novel Finding Dorothy, shared an interview with former International Wizard of Oz Club president Angelica Shirley Carpenter about her biography Born Criminal: Matilda Joslyn Gage, Radical Suffragist.

Gage was one of three coauthors, along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, of the first volumes of The History of Woman Suffrage. She had rare examples of early feminist writing and a broad view of history that she expressed in essays.

However, Anthony elbowed Gage out of the publication of those volumes, in part because her writing about male-dominated religions was more radical than Anthony thought the public would tolerate.

Gage’s daughter Maud married L. Frank Baum when he was a struggling playwright instead of a struggling novelist. In the interview, Letts asked Carpenter about them:
What was Matilda’s relationship with L. Frank Baum?

At first she didn’t approve of him as a husband for her daughter Maud. She saw him as a spoiled, rich young man who lacked education. Matilda, who had been denied the chance to go to college at a time when women were not admitted, who had worked all her life to get women into institutions of higher learning, was horrified when Maud dropped out of Cornell to marry Frank. But Frank made a sincere effort to win Matilda over and it worked. Since she often lived with the Baums, she saw first-hand what a loving husband and father he was. That’s not to say that she found him perfect; she could be funny and sarcastic about him, as any mother-in-law might be about her daughter’s husband, but they clearly cared for and admired each other. She loved the stories he told his four sons and she encouraged him to write them down and to send them to publishers. I like to think of the two of them, writing under the same roof, Frank writing fairy tales and Matilda writing radical feminist diatribes.
From this interview I learned that 2020 will bring a picture book about Matilda Joslyn Gage, written by Carpenter and illustrated by Edwin Fotheringham. The Voice of Liberty will be about Gage and her friend Lillie Devereux Blake protesting at the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in 1886 because real women didn’t yet have basic liberties.

[Stay tuned for my own link to an upcoming Fotheringham project.]