20 October 2014

15 October 2014

The Gardner Centennial

I left my testimonial about what Martin Gardner’s writing meant for my intellectual development.

04 October 2014

Colonial Comics Arrives at MICE This Weekend

This morning at 11:30, I’m moderating a panel on “History in Comics” at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo in Porter Square, Cambridge.

This year’s special guests are Raina Telgemeier, James Kolchaka, Dave Roman, Box Brown, Emily Carroll, and Paul Hornscheimer. And there will be scores of other comics creators showing their latest creations.

Among the debuts of the show is Colonial Comics: New England, 1620-1750, a collection of history comics edited by Jason Rodriguez, A. Dave Lewis, and me. I’m also in that book as a contributor, having created a story about the start of slavery in Massachusetts with Joel Christian Gill.

MICE is free, though it’s hard to walk through the exhibit space without seeing something you might want to buy. The show runs 10:00 to 6:00 on Saturday and 11:00 to 4:00 on Sunday, which also has special workshops for kids. Concurrent with MICE on Sunday is a “Comics in the Classroom” symposium starting at 10:00.

03 October 2014

“Three Times as Many Threats as His Predecessors”

Earlier this week the Washington Post published an exposé of how an intruder got further into the White House than the Secret Service had previously disclosed.

Buried inside that article was a national index of OIP Derangement Syndrome:
President Obama has faced three times as many threats as his predecessors, according to people briefed on the Secret Service’s threat assessment.
That shouldn’t be a surprise. Back in 2010, I noted reports of a big spike in threats against this President, and an attempt by the Secret Service at that time to tamp down that concern, at least publicly.

This week also brought a report from a former Mitt Romney campaign communications director that in 2012 a married but flirtatious Secret Service agent leaked President Obama’s schedule while trying to impress another Romney aide. The campaign actually ignored the confidential information, not trusting it, but then found it was accurate.

Understandably, that sort of behavior has left African-American citizens wondering how committed all Secret Service personnel are to protecting this President. Meanwhile, Obama’s political enemies are doing their best to blame the victim of these failures.

Ironically, some of the recent incidents making headlines now, such as a security guard in Atlanta and a fake Congressman at a speech, appear to involve overeager fans of President Obama. There have been assassination conspiracies, but most seem to involve incompetent people.

Protecting officials who want to remain in contact with the people who elected them is not an easy job, especially in a country with more guns than people and a sizable majority suffering from an irrational resentment toward the President.

02 October 2014

No Need to Complicate Things

Sarah Lyall of the New York Times noted some oddities in her advance reading copy of Moriarty, a latter-day Sherlock Holmes novel by Anthony Horowitz:
In the reader’s edition, some copies of which were sent to The New York Times, “Moriarty’s” narrator, an American detective named Frederick Chase, is laying out the background to the story – how Holmes and Moriarty came to be at Reichenbach Falls and what is believed to have happened next. All of a sudden he switches to capitals. “NO NEED TO COMPLICATE THINGS HERE, I THINK,” the text announces. “WHAT I’VE WRITTEN IS BROADLY TRUE.”

Can the narrator be offering some meta-commentary on his own text? At first it seems so. But then it happens again. In a spot where Chase and a Scotland Yard inspector have found an important clue that seems to be an excerpt from a previous Holmes story written by Dr. Watson, things suddenly veer off-piste again. “IT MAKES NO SENSE FOR FREDERICK CHASE TO HAVE READ THE SIGN OF FOUR,” the text declares.

There are at least six of these capitalized interjections, and sadly, they turn out to have nothing to do with anything so exciting as postmodern cleverness. They are instead Mr. Horowitz’s notes to a copy editor or, as Mr. Horowitz’s agent in London, Jonathan Lloyd, said, some “mild author reaction to some copy-editing points.”
It seem that the book’s British publisher sent the wrong file to its American counterpart, and folks in the US didn’t catch those interjections while putting that file into proof form.

None of Horowitz’s comments, Lyall reports, is rude, profane, or otherwise embarrassing—and authors responding to copyediting can become heated. These are simply the sort of “stet” instructions that every published author has sent back at some point. Such copyedits and responses to them used to be confined to colored pencil on paper, but now they’re in the form of electrons like the rest of a manuscript, and it’s harder to keep them sorted out.

Those capitalized comments also indicate that Horowitz doesn’t use or trust “Track Changes” and “Comments” in a Word document, and I’m fully in sympathy with him on that.

30 September 2014

A Myth about Oz’s “Women in Strong Leadership Roles”

A new myth about banning The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has cropped up and spread on the web.

Back in March 2013, R. Wolf Baldassarro posted a blog essay about objections to the book. Baldassarro isn’t a librarian, educator, or scholar. He’s a “seasoned paranormal investigator” who happens to feel strongly about book banning.

I found several faults with that essay, including falling for a 2004 Deadbrain hoax about Jerry Falwell and misquoting sources.

Baldassarro’s essay also said about the book:
Nevertheless, it has come under attack several times. Ministers and educators challenged it for its “ungodly” influence and for depicting women in strong leadership roles. They opposed not only children reading it, but adults as well, lest it undermine longstanding gender roles.

In 1928, the city of Chicago banned it from all public libraries.
Note that the words “depicting women in strong leadership roles” were Baldassarro’s own. While ascribing that thought to “Ministers and educators,” he didn’t cite any source, person, place, or date for that complaint.

Despite (or because of) how it overstated the evidence, Baldassarro’s essay got quoted on Buzzfeed and other sites.

Then this February Kristina Rosenthal at the University of Tulsa’s McFarlane Library posted her own essay on the book’s troubles with librarians and censors, which said:
In 1928 all public libraries banned the book arguing that the story was ungodly for “depicting women in strong leadership roles”. This argument remained the common defense against the novels from ministers and educators through the 1950s and 60s.
Baldassarro’s statement about a supposed policy in Chicago thus became a statement about “all public libraries,” and his phrase “depicting women in strong leadership roles” appeared as if it were a direct quotation from those 1928 book banners. That’s shoddy scholarship.

Furthermore, that statement doesn’t stand up to the briefest historical scrutiny. In 1928, Reilly & Lee was publishing one book every year in the Oz series, and would continue to do so for over a decade. How would that have remained economic if “all public libraries banned the book”? Hollywood adapted The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a feature film in 1925, a cartoon in 1933, and a major feature in 1939. If the book had so many opponents, why was it so broadly popular?

Was there really widespread opposition to “women in strong leadership roles,” even in a fairy tale, in 1928 America? Women had just finished serving as governors of Wyoming and Texas. In 1929 nine women took seats in Congress, including one elected from Illinois.

Finally, people who actually read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz know that its “women in strong leadership roles” consist of Glinda and possibly the Good Witch of the North; two others, the Wicked Witches, are actually eliminated. Meanwhile, the story shows the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Lion all becoming males in strong leadership roles.

I don’t think there’s any evidence of widespread, powerful objections to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz or its sequels based on their depiction of Glinda, Ozma, or Dorothy as strong females. There’s certainly no evidence that was cited in 1928 as a reason for “all public libraries” or any to ban the book. That’s a myth based on our wish to see ourselves as greatly superior to the people of past decades.

29 September 2014

Here Be Monsters! Animated at Last

As the movie The Box-Trolls opened this weekend, I thought it was interesting to look at what I wrote about its source material, Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters!, back in 2007:
Snow's art reminds me of the great Quentin Blake's, and most of the fun of the book starts with them. Indeed, it looks like the whole story grew from the illustrations, and Snow was creating animations alongside his manuscript. Some of those short videos can be viewed at the book's homepage, or this page from Atheneum.

And that may be a reason I just wasn't turned on by Here Be Monsters! It feels like the scenario for an animated movie. In that format, the whimsical plot and characters could play out without interference from the prose. The actions are nifty and new, but the descriptions of those actions are flat and the depictions of emotions even more so. (Page 48: "...Willbury asked in a puzzled voice." Page 49: "Arthur looked sad.")

Here Be Monsters! also suffers from a quality shared by a number of classic animated movies: a dearth of significant female characters. By page 100, we've met young foundling Arthur, his grandfather, his powerful and eccentric protector Willbury, four little refugees from the underground, two even tinier refugees--and they're all male. We've glimpsed a secret society of cheese-hunters--also all male.

Sure, there's a woman who swipes at Arthur's artificial wings when he steals bananas from her greenhouse (a quickly vanishing antagonist). There's an unintelligible sea-cow separated from her children (a purely symbolic mother figure). Willbury mentions a female colleague. And the "Taxonomy of Trolls and Creatures" in the frontmatter hints at the eventual arrival of "Rabbit Women," sort of: "Very little is known about these mythical creatures..." Well, that's the problem, isn't it?

Page 110 finally brings the first extended glimpse of the women of Ratbridge:
There were an awful lot of ladies doing an awful lot of cackling. And as they cackled, they tottered slowly down the streets, their bottoms wobbling behind them. Arthur had not seen bottoms like these before. From the way the ladies paraded their derrieres, it seemed that to have an interesting behind was very much the thing!
These ladies are in thrall to a "Fashion Princess" who's obviously a nasty con artist, and just a little less obviously the male villain in drag. And by that point I'd stopped reading.
The book has indeed become an animated feature film. Significantly, it now has a girl alongside young Arthur as one of the main characters, prominently featured in the advertising. At least one review has commented on how the box-trolls themselves are still all male, but at least there was some progress in the intervening seven years.

28 September 2014

Beyond Batman Beyond

It’s interesting to watch what DC Comics has done with its Batman Beyond storyline this year, reflecting changes in its target audience.

Batman Beyond was a spin-off of the very successful 1990s Batman TV cartoons of the 1990s. Les Daniels’s Batman history states, “a new show was requested that might skew toward younger viewers.” The resulting cartoon was set in the future when the world has more advanced technology and Bruce Wayne is a goddamn octagenarian. The new Batman was a hot-tempered teenager named Terry McGinnnis.

This show was an extension of the DC Animated Universe, thus not tied to the publisher’s main comic-book continuity. There was an accompanying comic book in 1999-2001, but readers were supposed to keep it separate in their minds from the main Batman titles of the time.

In this version of the future, Barbara Gordon has long ago retired as Batgirl and now holds her father’s old job as police commissioner. She was romantically involved with Dick Grayson when they were college-age, then later with Bruce Wayne for some unspecified period, and is now married to someone else. Dick himself, having established himself in the DCAU as Nightwing, has left Bruce’s team and is nowhere to be seen.

Batman Beyond lasted for 52 episodes plus a TV movie—a respectable but not sterling run. Nevertheless, it made a strong impression on a lot of viewers, including Kyle Higgins. He told Comics Alliance:
I was such a huge fan of the show. The DC Animated continuity was my introduction to DC Comics growing up. So I know that stuff inside and out, and I actually know it better than the books.
Higgins’s fondness for the cartoon is also evident in how he spoke about it on Kevin Smith’s podcast and in other interviews.

In 2010, DC launched a series of new Batman Beyond runs scripted by Adam Beechen. One of his mandates was to tie the world of the TV cartoon more closely to the DC comics (though those were about to go through some sudden changes themselves). Beechen brought back Dick Grayson, revealing that he’d stepped away from crime-fighting and from Bruce Wayne after losing one of his eyes in a fight.

That was the history Higgins inherited when he took over DC’s digital-first Batman Beyond series in 2013. His series was subtitled “2.0” because it showed Terry McGinnis breaking away from Bruce as mentor and working instead with Dick. Higgins was thus writing two different versions of Dick Grayson as he finished his Nightwing run and started this series.

In a story titled “Mark of the Phantasm” (digital issues #25-31), Higgins and co-writer Alec Siegel dug deeper into the relationships among Barbara, Bruce, and Dick. Craig Rousseau provided the art for the scenes set in the future, adhering to the standard Batman Beyond style. Phil Hester penciled scenes set in the past, following the style of the earlier Batman: The Animated Series cartoon and its spin-off comics.

Issue #28 shows Barbara and Dick telling Terry how they broke with Bruce. In their early twenties they had started to rekindle their relationship and Dick was ready to propose, only for Barbara to discover she’d become pregnant by Bruce—only for Barbara to miscarry after intervening in a mugging.

Remember, this story appeared in a continuity created to “skew toward younger viewers.” But that was back in 1999. Those same viewers have aged fifteen years and are ready for plot twists based on sexual relationships and spontaneous abortion. They got that more adult story even within the nostalgic visual style that Hester provided.

In another sign of the DCAU’s hold on today’s comics readers, the main DC Comics continuity is being disrupted by a crossover story called “Future’s End,” and Terry McGinnis as a next-generation Batman is in the middle of it all. While he still represents only one possible future for the company’s main continuity, he’s also what the company thinks its present-day readers want to see.

27 September 2014

Praying to Adidas

Of the items I read on the web this week, my favorite might well be this Gawker essay from July about a claim by right-wing “militia” members that they’d found and photographed a “Muslim prayer rug” abandoned on the US-Mexico border.

Adam Weinstein analyzed their photo thusly:
1. Here we see a waist hemline on the Muslim prayer rug.

2. This would be a sleeve opening on the Muslim prayer rug, just above the diamond-hatch red-and-white pattern so popular among lower-tier football clubs and militant Muslim prayer-rug salesmen.

3. Islamic scholars and Arsenal fans will immediately recognize "die marke mit den 3 streifen" [Adidas trademark] here on the Muslim prayer rug.
Of course, that didn’t stop the Lieutenant Governor of Texas from repeating the old rug tale this week.

26 September 2014

Gingrich’s Leap of Language

On Tuesday morning, President Barack Obama spoke about the expansion of the US war in Afghanistan and Iraq into ISIL-occupied Syria. The White House transcript of that statement is here, pegged to the time of 10:14 AM.

Former Speaker of the House and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich responded with a series of tweets.

On the other hand, Gingrich did not have the courtesy to listen to the speech himself, check the official White House text, or wait less than twenty minutes for C-Span to review its real-time transcription.

As the New York Times patiently explained:
…as any regular C-Span viewer can tell you, the network’s real-time captioning produces some far from accurate phrasing. In fact, later in the day, C-Span had Mr. Obama “partnering with African on Jupiter” on clean energy projects. What the president said was “partnering with African entrepreneurs.”
When faced with what he recognized as a “weird” text, Gingrich couldn’t simply consider that there might be an error and hold off commenting until he found more information. Instead, he fit that into his false image of President Obama’s foreign policy and leapt to criticize it. That’s another sign of Gingrich’s ongoing OIP Derangement Syndrome.