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.]

27 November 2019

The Busytown Neighborhood in New-York

Every December the New-York Historical Society lays out a big model train set to visit, and this year’s design celebrates the centenary of Richard Scarry’s birth by sending the trains through Busytown.

The museum’s webpage doesn’t have any images from the display, but Time Out offered the photo above, showing that Scarry’s characters appear as little flat cutouts direct from his illustrations. (Rather than, say, three-dimensionally modeled adaptations.)

There are also “custom-made Busytown vehicle-themed benches” and larger “Busytown characters” for selfies. Busytown is of course a going commercial concern, licensed from Random House. Given how hard most of its inhabitants work at their jobs, such marketing doesn’t violate the Busytown spirit in the least.

Weekend storytimes will feature Scarry’s books, including The Night Before the Night Before Christmas, and on 14-15 December Scarry’s son and collaborator, Huck Scarry, will get busy sketching characters and talking to visitors.

24 November 2019

Tom Lyle and the Robin Miniseries

In 1986 Tom Lyle, an aspiring comic-book artist in his thirties, went to a comics convention in Philadelphia. There he met Chuck Dixon, a young writer who was scripting Air Boy for Eclipse. Based on Lyle’s samples, Dixon got him the job of penciler on a related title, Sky Wolf. In a chat with Comics Interview magazine, Lyle credited that as “the event that triggered my career” in comics.

Lyle was recruited by DC Comics to draw Starman in 1988. After a couple of years, as he was wrapping up that assignment, Lyle asked Batman group editor Dennis O’Neil if he had any openings. O’Neil was planning a miniseries focusing the newly created Robin, Tim Drake.

“I’ve never been real thrilled with the Robins,” Lyle told his interviewer. “Dick Grayson, the original Robin, I couldn’t have given a flip about when I was a kid; it was like, ‘Get out of the way, kid, I want to see Batman.” But a job was a job.

O’Neil’s team wanted to make Robin into a martial-arts expert, so they needed a writer who understood the martial arts. Lyle suggested Dixon. He got the assignment and went on to be DC’s most productive writer of the decade. (On the occasion of his 40,000th comics page in 2017, Bleeding Cool noted Dixon wrote 106 issues of Robin, 89 issues of Detective Comics, 77 issues of Nightwing, 46 issues of Birds Of Prey, and 22 issues of Catwoman, to name a few.)

Dixon and Lyle’s first issue of the first Robin series carried a cover date of January 1991. The character of Tim Drake had been created by Marv Wolfman in issues drawn by George Pérez, Jim Aparo, and Norm Breyfogle, and his costume was designed by Neal Adams. But Dixon and Lyle’s portrayal fleshed him out by showing him on his own. Lyle was especially good at portraying Tim as a thirteen-year-old, lithe but not a powerhouse, the littlest guy in the fight who needed to think harder than anyone else to stay alive.

In the gritty, pouched, and overpumped 1990s, Robin was the equivalent of counterprogramming on broadcast television—standing out by doing something different. And it worked. According to Lyle, DC expected to sell about 200,000 copies of the first issue of the Robin miniseries. Instead, it sold three times that number.

DC asked the Dixon-Lyle team for a second miniseries about Tim Drake going up against the Joker, issued at the end of 1991. Then came a third, featuring the character the Huntress for an interesting contrast. That was the height of the speculative boom, and those magazines are festooned with holograms and other gimmicks.

Dixon and Lyle also collaborated on issues of Batman and Detective Comics showing Batman and Robin together. One of those magazines introduced Stephanie Brown as the Spoiler, who went on to become Tim Drake’s love interest, a fan favorite, and eventually Robin and Batgirl herself for limited periods. Lyle was also the artist for the first Robin Annual and the 1992 public service ad in which Tim decides to learn the facts about AIDS.

During that time, Lyle also plotted and penciled the early issues of The Comet for DC’s Impact imprint. In 1993 he started working for Marvel Comics on Spider-Man stories. That same year, DC launched the Robin monthly series with Dixon as regular scripter.

After another ten years or so, Lyle left monthly comics to become an art teacher at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Earlier this year he suffered an aneurysm, and last week he died, aged 66. Friends and fans have set up a Go Fund Me page for his family.

18 November 2019

Overthinking “Flyover Country”

I’ve lived all my life in California or New England, but my family roots on both sides are in the Midwest, and I’ve spent many pleasant times there.

I never subscribed to the dismissive label of that part of the country as “flyover country.” And in fact I never heard anyone from the coasts use that term.

I just read a National Geographic blog article confirming that pattern. The first author known to use the phrase was the Michigan-born Montanan Thomas McGuane referring to where he lived.

What’s more:

A search through Google’s massive archive of scanned books and periodicals finds that many subsequent occurrences of flyover country come from people who, like McGuane, put the phrase in someone else’s mouth. Rarely is it ever used by a New Yorker or Angelino as a pejorative.

“It’s a stereotype of other people’s stereotypes,” lexicographer Ben Zimmer says. . . .

It’s defensive but self-deprecating, a way of shouting out for attention but also a means for identifying yourself by your home region’s lack of attention. It’s the linguistic nexus of Minnesota nice and Iowa stubborn. This self-identification has become a celebration.
It may be true that Americans from the coasts don’t consider or visit the Midwest as often as they should. But that includes not spending mental energy to come up with pejorative terms for the region.

15 November 2019


Let’s imagine that Donald Trump paid millions of dollars—assuming he actually has that much money to spend—to officials of a foreign government to announce a criminal investigation into his leading political opponent.

The officials didn’t even have to conduct the investigation. After all, Trump doesn’t criticize notoriously corrupt regimes, has cut the budgets of international anti-corruption programs, and is ignoring multiple laws and norms in the US. But for these millions of dollars Trump clearly wanted a big public announcement of that criminal probe that would damage his opponent.

Obviously, that would be a crime: bribing a foreign government for political purposes.

Now let’s imagine that Donald Trump took $391 million that the US Congress had allocated for a particular program and diverted it for his own political benefit. Again, that would obviously be a crime: a form of embezzlement and abuse of power.

Donald Trump did both those things at the same time.

09 November 2019

Maugham’s Wrath Outgrabe

From Somerset Maugham’s introduction to Ashenden, or the British Agent, a collection of short stories linked to each other and his own wartime work in intelligence. But not, Maugham wants us to know, linked too closely.

Fact is a poor storyteller. It starts a story at haphazard, generally long before the beginning, rambles on inconsequently and tails off, leaving loose ends hanging about, without a conclusion. It works up to an interesting situation, and then leaves it in the air to follow an issue that has nothing to do with the point; it has no sense of climax and whittles away its dramatic effects in irrelevance.

There is a school of novelists that looks upon this as the proper model for fiction. If life, they say, is arbitrary and disconnected, why fiction should be so too; for fiction should imitate life. In life things happen at random, and that is how they should happen in a story; they do not lead to a climax, which is an outrage to probability, they just go on.

Nothing offends these people more than the punch or the unexpected twist with which some writers seek to surprise their readers, and when the circumstances they relate seem to tend toward a dramatic effect they do their best to avoid it. They do not give you a story, they give you the material on which you can invent your own. Sometimes it consists of an incident thrown at you without any particular reason and you are invited to divine its significance. Sometimes they give you a character and leave you to make what you can of it. They describe a set of people or an environment and expect you to do the rest.

Now this is one way like another of writing stories and some very good stories have been written on it. Chekhov used it with mastery. It is more suitable for the very short story than for the longer one. The description of a mood can hold your attention for half a dozen pages, but when it comes to fifty a story needs a supporting skeleton. The skeleton of a story is of course its plot.

Now a plot has certain characteristics that you cannot get away from. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is complete in itself. It starts with a set of circumstances which have consequences but of which the causes may be ignored; and these consequences, in their turn the cause of other circumstances, are pursued till a point is reached when the reader is satisfied that they are the cause of no further consequences that need be considered.

This means that a story should begin at a certain point and end at a certain point. It should not wander along an uncertain line, but follow, from exposition to climax, a bold and vigorous curve. If you wanted to represent it diagrammatically you would draw a semicircle. It is very well to have the element of surprise; and this punch, this unexpected twist, which the imitators of Chekhov despise, is only bad when it is badly done; when it is an integral part of the story and its logical issue it is excellent.

There is nothing wrong in a climax, it is a very natural demand of the reader; it is only wrong if it does not follow naturally from the circumstances that have gone before. It is purely an affectation to elude it because in life as a general rule things tail off ineffectively.
And he goes on, of course.

07 November 2019

The Real Legacy of He Walked by Night

He Walked by Night didn’t influence The Third Man, but it definitely did influence American popular entertainment.

To start with, it appears to be the first movie that includes a scene of self-surgery. The bad guy stitches himself up after being shot, using a mirror and a lot of grit. I’ve seen variations of that scene in The Terminator, Ronin, and Master and Commander, but this might be the original.

Even more clearly, He Walked by Night gave birth to the most visible and long-lasting form of the dramatized police procedural. It even starts with an announcement that the story was based on real crimes, and that “names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

One of the supporting characters in the movie is a police lab technician played by Jack Webb. He’s young and almost winsome in the role.

At the time, Webb’s most prominent parts were as the star of the radio dramas Pat Novak, for Hire, about an unlicensed investigator who works at a pier, and Johnny Madero, Pier 23, about a pier manager who undertakes investigations. As was standard in hard-boiled mysteries, the cops in those stories were at best a rival for the hero, at worst a hindrance.

While working on He Walked by Night, Webb met the movie’s technical advisor, Detective Sergeant Marty Wynn of the Los Angeles Police Department. Their conversations and the movie’s format gave Webb the idea of creating a radio drama about a police detective, inspired by real crimes and portraying realistic law-enforcement techniques.

The LAPD also loved that idea and got behind it. Dragnet premiered in June 1949 with Webb in the starring role of Sgt. Joe Friday. It ran for more than eight years on radio. For most of those years, a version also ran on television for nine years, and there was a movie adaptation as well. Then the TV show was revived in 1966 with a TV movie and more than four more years of episodes. Webb expanded the procedural franchise in the 1970s by producing Adam-12 and Emergency!

Dragnet made Webb’s Joe Friday character a national icon, cementing his image as an actor and even his politics. That means it’s very striking to see him play a different personality in He Walked by Night, or to hear him as a cornet player during Prohibition in the fine radio drama Pete Kelly’s Blues.