15 September 2014

Another Childhood Illusion Shattered

Tonight I attended Leonard Marcus’s talk about Robert McCloskey on the centenary of the author-illustrator’s birth. (It turns out he was born in Hamilton, Ohio, now home of this sculpture. But I digress.)

Marcus showed a photo of the doughnut-making machine from Homer Price and remarked how there are only two places to see such a machine now.

“Well, it’s good that someone preserved that model of doughnut-maker,” I thought. “I’m surprised there are so few left—maybe it really didn’t work well, so most of the machines were pulled apart.”

But that wasn’t what Marcus was saying. If I understood him correctly, only two examples of that machine were ever made. One was for the Walden Wood film studio when it adapted Homer Price as a short film in 1963. McCloskey was a friend of the studio owner and spent a lot of time there in later life; as a lifelong tinkerer, he might well have helped to build that machine.

The other was a replica built and displayed in the Municipal Building back in Hamilton, amid McCloskey’s architectural decorations. It’s not clear whether that one was made to work or just to look like the picture in the book.

All along I’d thought that was a standard type of doughnut-maker from the 1940s. After all, I’d seen it in action in that movie, operated by a boy who looks just like Homer Price (and couldn’t act for beans).

But it sounds like McCloskey made it up, based on real, less compact doughnut-making machinery. I feel like Freddy and Louis discovering that the Super Duper can’t lift his car out of the ditch.

11 September 2014

Gauging Jason Segel’s Knowledge of Children’s Literature

The news that actor Jason Segel has published a children’s book made me wonder if he had produced good, or even adequate, literature or if this was yet another celebrity publication.

True, Segel wrote the script for The Muppets and other movies, and he’s not really a household name. But did the level of recognition he’s gained in Hollywood mean he received less editing and more resources than an average first-time children’s author? And why did this book need a coauthor, Kirsten Miller?

This afternoon I heard Segel interviewed about the book on Radio Boston. In response to the host’s mention of the scary bits of the Wizard of Oz movie, Segel immediately asked, “Have you seen Return to Oz?” He described that movie’s use of electroshock but also noted that other scary parts come “from the books.” So I’m ready to grant that Segel knows children’s literature.

One striking pattern in the interview is how Segel cited all sorts of children’s media together: Roald Dahl and The Goonies, the Oz books and the Oz movies, Coraline and The Muppet Show. Is that how young readers/viewers think of their stories in this world of quick and close cinematic adaptation?

10 September 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

From Marc Tyler Nobleman’s interview with comics scripter Arnold Drake:

when Bill [Finger] was looking for an idea for Batman, one of the tricks that he used was to open up the Yellow Pages in the phone book and just kind of ripple through it. Where his fingers stopped he’d say, “Piano tuner…I wonder if there’s a story in a piano tuner?”
And then, of course, Finger would imagine the piano to be giant-sized.

09 September 2014

Graphic Design in Oz

This week brought news of a couple of new editions of The Wizard of Oz that concentrate on visual detail.

As the Deseret News reported, Gibbs Smith’s BabyLit line is publishing a board-book abridgment of L. Frank Baum’s story that uses its emphasis on color:
“The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: A Colors Primer” reflects the colorful, busy world of Oz. Each page is based on one of the story’s key features or characters of that color surrounded by many other objects. For example, the yellow brick road fittingly represents the color yellow while the Tin Man represents the color silver.
There are no ruby slippers in this edition, of course. The text is by Jennifer Adams and the art by Alison Oliver.

Rockport Publishers is issuing an edition of the full novel in its Classics Reimagined series, with new art by Olimpia Zagnoli. (Note her initials.) All Zagnoli’s illustrations are in black, white, green, and gold, combined in minimalist graphics. The Huffington Post featured a number of those graphics. They’re striking but not warm, leaving me to wonder what the target audience for this edition is.

07 September 2014

Grayson’s Future End

Modern comic-book writers often dread big crossover events, at least when they’re not in charge. Whatever storylines they might have mapped out over several issues have to be put on hold for one or two episodes tied into a larger conflict determined by the publisher’s top staff or star writers. But crossovers tend to sell more copies of all the titles involved, and often continue to sell in paperback form, so the industry keeps ordering them up.

Currently the big crossover event from DC is “Futures End,” not to be confused with the last crossover, “Forever Evil.” (The company seems to have a thing for those initials. I will refrain from making a scatological joke about what they really mean.) “Futures End” is set five years into one possible dismal future for the DC Universe.

As I explored back here, in the DC pantheon Dick Grayson has long represented hope for a better future, so to showcase how awful a future is the company often shows how badly Dick Grayson’s life has turned out. Grayson: Futures End, published last week, is squarely in that tradition.

That situation freed up Grayson writers Tom King and Tim Seeley (they plotted the issue together, King wrote the dialogue). Working within a timeline that’s supposed to be averted, they don’t have to leave the door open to further stories or other crossovers. They can start at Dick’s sad end and work backward—which they do.

Each page in the magazine takes place “Earlier” than the preceding page, hopping backwards in time from five years in the future (as in “Futures End”) to Dick’s childhood. Characters allude to events, promises, and in-jokes that we don’t see for another few page flips. As one commenter noted, the issue is like a sestina, with certain details—ropes, codes, last days—popping up rhythmically. It demands, and rewards, immediate rereading.

I hesitate to call this a self-contained story because it depends completely on readers’ knowledge of the legend established in Detective Comics, #38: when extortionists put acid on the ropes of the Flying Graysons’ trapeze apparatus, causing Dick’s parents to fall to their deaths. But it surely brings its own story to an end (as in “Futures End”).

As promised, King takes the opportunity to offer his “New 52 Universe” explanation for why Robin dresses in stoplight colors. That’s not because Dick as a circus performer and/or little kid likes bright colors, the explanations in some previous versions of the mythos. (The “New 52” Flying Graysons wear blue, and the “New 52” Dick becomes Robin in his mid-teens.) Rather, the colors are Bruce Wayne’s way of making night patrols harder for Dick so he has to be more careful. I’m not sure that will go over well with fans of either character.

Grayson: Futures End also shows Barbara Gordon as Batgirl suggesting that Dick’s ideal romantic partner is someone who treats him like Bruce. Fifteen years ago the company was adamantly against Barbara likening Bruce and Dick’s relationship to a romance. Now DC is embracing the metaphor. But perhaps only in this not-necessarily-so future.

Which brings me to the remaining mystery of this magazine—when its timeline is supposed to deviate from the “New 52” present that DC’s line will presumably return to at the end of the crossover. Does that deviation produce the events we see: Dick and his agency handler Helena Bertinelli becoming lovers, Dick becoming willing to kill? In other words, when exactly does Dick’s life start to turn out badly?

06 September 2014

Jesse Lonergan, Kids, and the Human Condition

From the Comics Alternative interview with Jesse Lonergan, author-illustrator most recently of All Star:
When I first got into [making] comics, the only ones that I was really into were comics that were based in some form of reality, and I was pretty disdainful of everything else. I was very much taken with the low-concept idea of narrative. The kind of stories where people would ask what it was about, and the only thing I could say was, “It’s about life!”

As I’ve gotten older that’s changed, and now I find myself more interested in high-concept ideas. I find myself returning to the things I liked in childhood. I, like most kids, wasn’t so concerned with the human condition then.
Ironically, All Star is set in the sort of small Vermont town where Lonergan was a kid. It’s very much about life. But his new projects are about larger-than life rock bands, Formula 1 drivers, and mythical figures from the Old West.

05 September 2014

When OIP Derangement Syndrome Is in Fashion

Last week President Barack Obama held a news conference to address the US economy, foreign policy challenges, and other topics. And one day later, as shown above, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) went on a right-wing political site called NewsMaxTV to complain:
There’s no way any of us can excuse what the president did yesterday. When you have the world watching…a week, two weeks of anticipation of what the United States is gonna do. For him to walk out — I’m not trying to be trivial here — in a light suit, light tan suit…
Imagine what detail King would lead with if he were trying to be trivial!

Now not everyone can match up to Rep. King in looking like a recently awoken city boss, perhaps from the old Soviet Union. Nor does everyone else have the finely calibrated fashion sense to know when one can criticize someone else for dressing too casually while not wearing a tie.

But we can note that past Presidents, including Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton wore tan business suits during official events without attracting such criticism.

Double standards like King’s are a symptom of OIP Derangement Syndrome. So is hyper-intense focus on trivial details in an attempt to deny the real reason for one’s visceral reactions to seeing Barack Obama at work as President.

04 September 2014

Viewing Bad Houses

While reading Bad Houses, a graphic novel by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil, I got to thinking about the trope of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.”

Because one of the story’s main characters, Anne, could fit that mold. She dresses quirkily. She has interesting hair—with a stripe of dye and locks designed to look like a sunflower, as revealed by making-of pages in the back of the book. And her romantic interest definitely jolts the story’s young male lead, Lewis, out of a rut.

But Anne’s not a “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” because the story isn’t told just from Lewis’s point of view. We also get to see Anne’s story, including her background and secrets, down to her embarrassment about the hole in her bright striped stockings. We also see the stories of the young people’s mothers, one a hoarder filling up a house and the other an estate-sale specialist emptying them.

So one key to avoiding the cliché of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” may be—surprise!—to treat young women as full characters in their own right.

03 September 2014

Just Like Starting Over

From novelist and book critic Lev Grossman’s interview with Publishers Weekly:

Whenever I finish a novel I think: aha, I get it now, I know how to write books. I was doing it wrong before, but this time it’s going to be easy. I’ll get it right, first try.

And now I’m onto my next book and I’m floundering all over again. I forgot how hard it is. You fall right down to the bottom of the ladder again.
Grossman’s latest is The Magician’s Land.

02 September 2014

Did The Economist Solve a Winkie Con Mystery?

The Prospero blog on The Economist’s website filed a report on this month’s Winkie Convention last month, taking note of the extensive schedule of panel discussions that I helped to put together and other activities.
This year, propelled by the publicity for the anniversary of the MGM film, Winkie Con moved from the mid-California Monterey peninsula down to San Diego. The relocation was due in part to San Diego’s proximity to neighbouring resort town, Coronado, where [L. Frank] Baum wintered and wrote several novels. It was also the first year the usually humble Winkie Con expanded to offer a broad conference-style schedule, with concurrent panels discussing subjects such as the strong feminist characters in Baum's books and the rise of fantasy and sci-fi fan culture. Attendance spiked to over 350; many attendees were newer fans, who had found their way down the yellow brick road via the musical "Wicked" or "Oz the Great and Powerful", the new Oz film released in 2013.

Prospero, a first-time festivalgoer, was shown plenty of “ozpitality” and welcomed into many exclusive but never exclusionary events. On the opening day, Aljean Harmetz, a journalist and historian whose mother worked in the MGM costume department for 20 years, screened "The Wizardry of Oz", a 1979 documentary follow-up to her exhaustively detailed book, "The Making of the Wizard of Oz". On the second afternoon, a tightly packed audience strained to hear a Q&A with Priscilla Montgomery Clark, one of the munchkins in the MGM film, who is now in her 80s. A family reunion-style slideshow gave regular Winkie Con organisers and participants a chance to reminisce about the years of lighter programming and more intimate festivities. “There’s Dan again,” someone murmured as the slides shuttered past. “He was a marvellous Dorothy.”

Nearly two-dozen of Baum’s The Wizard of Oz books are in the public domain in America, as is the 1925 film. This makes for a rich ecosystem of Oz-related fan culture that continues to snatch up new graphic novels and support reinterpretations of the original characters. At the swap table, a Winkie Con tradition, one could pick up or drop off gently used books and artwork, or borrow stapled short stories from a stack of unpublished fan-fiction.
Oh ho! In fact, one was not supposed to borrow those short stories but to read them in that room. My story “Post-Transformative Stress” disappeared for several hours during the convention, prompting some anxious “no questions asked” announcements. Eventually it reappeared on the table with no questions answered. Had Prospero mistakenly taken it for a closer read?

No harm done. This year’s contest judges had already done their work and chosen which essays, stories, and artwork should win prizes. “Post-Transformative Stress” came away with one. It throws together Dr. Pipt from Baum’s Patchwork Girl of Oz (shown above) and Iva the kitchen boy from Ruth Plumly Thompson’s The Wishing Horse of Oz. No wonder it might have been so compelling.