25 November 2018

“I think he should have a kid buddy”

The Library of Congress has a new exhibit featuring a recent donation, Steve Geppi’s vast collection of American comics and pop culture.

George Gene Gustines reported on the display for the New York Times. Many of the items reflect the interplay of comics and other media. For example, there’s the sheet music of a song inspired by the Yellow Kid. There’s the first mockup of the G.I. Joe action figure alongside one of the G.I. Joe comic books. There’s the storyboard for a Mickey Mouse cartoon.

But for the theme of the weekly Robin, the most important item is Joe Simon’s first drawing of Captain America, even before the hero started using a circular shield ( reportedly under pressure from the publisher of an earlier patriotic crime- and Nazi-fighter, the Shield). Created for Timely Comics publisher Martin Goodman, it labels some traits of his costume and logo.

At the bottom of the paper is this note:
Simon created this art in 1940. It shows how the popularity and practicality of the “kid buddy” was already evident to the superhero comics industry, only months after the debut of Robin the Boy Wonder.  And Simon recognized the principal benefit of a sidekick: giving the hero someone to talk to.

18 September 2018

More on Woodman and Woodsman

My examination of the shifting prevalence of “woodman” and “woodsman” and what that implies for how people speak of L. Frank Baum’s character the Tin Woodman brought this comment:

You don't seem to address the difference in the two professions, Woodman vs. Woodsman, though I'm not sure how well you could specify that in the search. But the word usage rates are clearly dependent on such, IMHO.

A woodman chopped and/or delivered firewood (like the Iceman or Milkman or Postman. A "Woodsman" is a forest ranger, naturalist, etc., that specializes in knowing about "the woods" and the failure to realize this difference in professions is what galls some of us - not the slight change to the spelling. Nick Chopper is a lumberjack not a forest ranger.
When did such a distinction arise, and how established is it?

Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary didn’t include the word “woodsman” at all. And his definition for “woodman,” with citations from his beloved Shakespeare, said nothing about chopping or delivering wood.
Instead, for Johnson a “woodman” was someone who hunted for sport in the woods.

Let’s jump ahead to Noah Webster’s dictionary in 1828. Once again, there was no entry for “woodsman.” And according to Webster, a “woodman” was:
1. A forest officer, appointed to take care of the kings wood.
2. A sportsman; a hunter.
It would be good to check an American dictionary from the 1860s when Baum was a boy, because that would be the best reflection of usage when he was learning the language. But I couldn’t find one on the web.

So let’s jump again to the 1903 edition of Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, published close to the time of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, albeit in Britain. It included a subentry for the word “woodsman”—but defined that word simply as a synonym for “woodman.” As for “woodman,” for the first time we see the word defined as Baum used it—but alongside the older definitions: “a man who cuts down trees : a forest officer : a huntsman.”

Finally, the 1913 edition of Webster’s had separate but overlapping entries for the two words. A “woodsman” was “A woodman; especially, one who lives in the forest.” A “woodman” had a more detailed definition, including all of the earlier meanings plus a new one:
1. A forest officer appointed to take care of the king's woods; a forester. [Eng.]
2. A sportsman; a hunter.
3. One who cuts down trees; a woodcutter.
4. One who dwells in the woods or forest; a bushman.
Today’s Merriam-Webster website shows how the popularity of the two terms has flipped: the entry for “woodman” points to “woodsman.” As for the definition of the latter term, the site says: “a person who frequents or works in the woods / especially one skilled in woodcraft.”

The Oxford Dictionaries site likewise has overlapping definitions. Woodman: “A person working in woodland, especially a forester or woodcutter.” Woodsman: “A person living or working in woodland, especially a forester, hunter, or woodcutter.”

The Collins Dictionary site offers the added complication of different entries for American and British usage, but the definitions still overlap. Woodman:
1. a person who looks after and fells trees used for timber
2. another word for woodsman
3. obsolete: a hunter who is knowledgeable about woods and the animals living in them
1. a person who lives or works in the woods, as a hunter, woodcutter, etc.
2. a person at home in the woods or skilled in woodcraft
Thus, there never appears to have been a widespread understanding that the two words have distinct and different meanings, with “woodman” meaning a woodchopper and “woodsman” meaning a forester. What’s more, the way Baum used the word—to mean someone who made his living chopping down trees—came late to the standard dictionaries of English.

28 August 2018

The Shift from Woodman to Woodsman

One of the attractions at OzCon earlier this month was a showing of James Ortiz’s The Woodsman, produced in New York in 2015. It was a striking piece of theater stylishly adapted from L. Frank Baum’s story of the Tin Woodman.

Another attraction was a preview of R. F. Wohl’s performance as Baum. He was workshopping a new one-person show with an audience of knowledgable Oz fans. Afterwards I heard an attendee note that Baum consistently referred to his tin creation as a “Woodman,” not a “Woodsman”—though many people (not just James Ortiz’s play) now use the longer word.

That prompted some musing that perhaps one form had become more popular than the other, so I turned to the Google Books Ngram Viewer. I asked it to graph out the popularity of “woodman,” “woodsman,” and “woodchopper” from 1800 to 2000. I restricted the query to lowercase only, eliminating “Woodman” as a proper name (and almost all mentions of the Tin Woodman as well).

Here’s the result:

As you can see, “woodman” was the more popular word when Baum grew up and when he published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900. “Woodsman” rose suddenly in popularity starting in 1880 and around 1910 surpassed the shorter form. Both forms have been declining in print use since 1940 as we’ve moved away from a wood-based economy.

In addition to affecting how people speak of the Tin Woodman, that shift in everyday language has also affected how we quote the George Pope Morris poem that begins, “Woodman, spare that tree!”

27 August 2018

Looking Back on an “Errand of Mercy”

A couple of years ago, I collaborated with artist Olivia Li, cover artist Catalina Rufin, editor E. J. Barnes, and the Massachusetts Historical Society to produce a short history comic about the Irish potato famine and Boston’s response to it.

Rick Silve at Comic a Day just posted a nice review of “Errand of Mercy: The Irish Potato Blight and the Good Ship Jamestown”:
Eight page b/w minicomic with a color cover. This begins with a general overview of the history of potatoes in Ireland and the potato blight and famine in the mid-1800s. It then goes on to document the response of Irish immigrants in Boston, who organized a relief effort, securing approval for the sending of the USS Jamestown, a navy ship, with a cargo of 800 tons of food and clothing to Cork, Ireland in 1847.

Considering the space limitations of the minicomic format, this book does a nice job of exploring the political complexities involved in mounting the mission of mercy.

This was a good snapshot of a moment in this history of Ireland and of Boston.
All I wanted was something better than Boston’s Irish Famine Memorial statues.

(Shown above is one interior page; all eight can be read on Olivia Li’s website.)

23 August 2018

Another Job Lost to Advancing Technology

From the Los Angeles Review of Books’s interview with Holly Tommasino, who created the hand-lettered journal entries in the original Baby-Sitters Club books. Tommasino was first an in-house designer for Scholastic, then a freelancer, then out of a job:
What was your role with The Baby-Sitters Club?

When all the design elements for the series were initially coming together, I created the handwriting styles for each character. And then I handwrote all portions of the manuscripts that were flagged by editorial — usually BSC journal entries, but also the postcards and letters and lists that popped up from time to time. I continued to produce the handwriting even after I left Scholastic.

What happened then?

I worked as a freelancer until 1996. At that point, due to advances in technology, I was sent font forms by a company. They asked me to letter each character’s handwriting in spaces on the form. And these forms were long! They had me do a few different y’s and then write a w attached to a y or a t attached to a y. They didn’t want the handwriting samples to look totally uniform, so it was quite an extensive process. After that, the freelance work stopped, but the books continued.
The 1986-2000 series has of course been rejuvenated with comics adaptations by Raina Telgemeier and then Gale Galligan. Those editions appear to be the bestsellers today.

In contrast, 2010 Scholastic reissued two early titles, evidently retaining or reproducing the cursive writing, but those books didn’t spark a new craze among the children of the original readers. The latest reissue is clearly for the nostalgia market. Was the cursive handwriting, which kids today are said not to be able to read, to blame?

21 August 2018

Discovering Lost Tales of Oz

Joe Bongiorno’s Royal Publisher of Oz releases its latest book today: the short-story anthology Lost Tales of Oz, featuring illustrations by the multiple-Eisner winning artist Eric Shanower. This volume contains eighteen stories—over 500 pages of new fiction in all—inspired by and adhering to the Oz book series.

One of those stories is a little piece by me called “Ojo and the Woozy.” For folks who haven’t read The Patchwork Girl of Oz, in the jacket art above Ojo is the boy dressed in Munchkin blue and frills near the left side, and the Woozy is the cubist blue creature at the far left.

In the same year that he released The Patchwork Girl of Oz, L. Frank Baum wrote six short books collectively titled Little Wizard Stories of Oz. Each was about two established characters, such as Dorothy and Toto, or Jack Pumpkinhead and the Sawhorse, having a brief adventure together.

Several years back, I set out to create a new story along those lines, using some pair of characters Baum didn’t get to. Ojo and the Woozy felt like a natural choice. In Baum’s seventh Oz book they travel together to the Emerald City. The Woozy is almost always calm, cheerful, and straightforward while Ojo is a moody fellow, so their personalities can play off each other.

My “Little Wizard” story ended up never leaving the vicinity of the Emerald City. The drama of Ojo and the Woozy’s adjustment to life there after having spent years in isolated forests was too interesting. As a result, this tale offers its heroes no greater challenge than being a shy new boy who doesn’t know how to play the local sports.

Which is, of course, a great challenge indeed. I may have given Ojo some of my own childhood experiences.

Lost Tales of Oz is available in hardcover and paperback via Lulu.

07 August 2018

Heading Out to Oz

“In May I began describing, photographing, and re-housing a discrete collection of posters within the Ludlow-Santo Domingo (LSD) Library collection,” Rachel Parker writes on the blog of the Houghton Library at Harvard. “Tackling the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library poster collection has been exciting, in part because of the descriptive challenges in title creation.”

Elsewhere the library explains, “The Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library is the world’s largest private collection of material on altered states of mind.” Which is to say, “The 50,000-plus-item collection documents psychoactive drugs and their physical and social effects.”

One suspects the initials LSD don’t just stand for Ludlow–Santo Domingo, even if the collection was produced by “Julio Mario Santo Domingo Jr.’s acquisition and integration of the Fitz Hugh Ludlow Library of San Francisco in 2001.”

The Houghton library blog credits the poster above to “James McMullen” at an unknown time. That artist spells his name James McMullan. Another website credits it to “The Push Pin Graphic, Issue 52 (1966).” (Seymour Chwast authored a 2004 book looking back on The Push Pin Graphic, and some poster-reprinting websites carelessly credit the image to him.)

In other news, I’m heading out to OzCon this week.

06 August 2018

Emilie and Ella

I had the pleasure of seeing Emilie Boon’s picture book Ella and Monkey at Sea develop in a writers’ group.

It’s just been published, and Emilie wrote about drawing on her own childhood experiences at the Nerdy Book Club:
I often explain to students I teach that not everything in the book happened to me in exactly the way I wrote it. I changed details for the sake of a clearer and more resonant story, while remaining faithful to the emotional truth I knew deep inside.

I always knew I had a story to tell about this voyage, but I wasn’t always sure how to go about telling it. I found a way into the story through the main character, Ella. Once I finally decided how to develop the character visually, her personality and voice came quickly. This is an example of the added benefit of being both the author and the illustrator where the pictures inform the story and the story informs the pictures.

Just like Ella, I drew a sun with crayon during the turbulent Atlantic crossing. How could the grown ups not like a picture of the sun amidst the stormy seas, winds and rain? In real life I even won a prize for that picture, but I didn’t think that was important for the story I wanted to tell.

I was more interested in the fact that a child can envision the good, or a happy ending, in the middle of a difficult situation, reflecting the amazing resiliency that many children have. As long as they have at least one loved one close, I think children can be strong and adaptable. Expressing fears, anxieties, and hopes for better times through art, is a well-documented way children can process adversity.
Congratulations to Emilie on making part of her own story into a story for many children!

13 December 2017

Happy Holidays from Highlights

This week H-Net’s American Studies discussion site published Patrick Cox’s article “What's Wrong with Christmas in Highlights for Children?” While certainly not saying this was a Bad Thing, Cox noted a significant change in how the magazine has presented Christmas to young readers:
Santa Claus, arguably the most prominent figure in wondrous childhood, has been almost entirely absent from the pages of Highlights over the past 30 years. Santa used to appear multiple times in every December issue in stories and images, as did elves and flying reindeer, since the magazine was founded in 1946. Other Christmas-y pages in December Highlights issues of Chistmases past included short non-fiction pieces on, for example, the history of Christmas trees or Christmas celebrations in other countries, and short fiction about children at Christmas who typically learn valuable lessons about giving and kindness. Recurring characters The Timbertoes and The Bear Family celebrated christmas. Overt Christianity was also prominent in the early years of the magazine all year round and the December issues always included bible stories, sheet music of religious carols, and images of the nativity and angels.

Jesus and Santa both appear less and less frequently in Highlights beginning in the 1950’s. By the 1990’s, Highlights is beginning to look a lot less like Christmas. Santa and Jesus are both almost completely absent, as are the decorations, the bright colors, the piles of gift wrapped presents. They’re replaced by pleas to keep Christmas simple, emphasizing time with family and friends, giving to charities, and making presents by hand. Several pages are given to instructions on making homemade presents and homemade decorations. . . .

The children in Highlights are very often white, as I suspect most of their readers are, and main characters in stories and comics in the magazine are most often male, never queer, and pretty much always comfortably middle class. But at Christmas, their anti-consumerist pragmatism is surprisingly non-conformist.
But what should we expect from a magazine so un-American that it includes no advertising?

(Above: Goofus and Gallant do Christmas, courtesy of Envisioning the American Dream.)

07 December 2017

Guest Reviewer on The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Godson has some things to say about The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage:
…the book ostensibly isn’t on the scale of the trilogy. I was somewhat worried, until I realised that whilst the book limits itself to the Thames, almost entirely to Oxfordshire, and for swathes two buildings, the adventure is still epic beyond belief.

To think critically for a moment, this book can almost be called magic realism, not fantasy. Or at least it is fantasy of the Terry Pratchett school - it can tell very ordinary stories on a heroic scale. The echoes of Pullman’s predecessors and contemporaries are obvious. Add Pratchett’s humour to Gaiman’s dark twist (Pullman jokingly called La Belle Sauvage ‘His Darker Materials’) to C. S. Lewis’ storytelling and worlds to Lewis Carroll’s allegory (and, as one critic pointed out, the fact that Pullman’s heroine is called Alice is slightly on-the-nose) and you begin to approach Pullman’s brilliance.

Approach, mind you - La Belle Sauvage is a clinic in how to structure a novel, allaying each fear I had almost as soon as I had it, the pattern mimetic of the action itself. It brought to my mind the episodic nature of the Icelandic Sagas at one point, a Christie-esque murder mystery at another, thrillers, love stories and epics at others. It transcends genre, and does so to the tune of Pullman’s beautifully simple prose, that captures in the same way as the originals a Romantic quality that is inherently readable for everyone.
The full essay is on his school’s book blog.