31 October 2014

The Cloture Wars

Earlier this week Farah Stockman wrote in the Boston Globe about presidential nominations in recent years:
To see how contentious nominations have become, count motions for “cloture,” which forces a vote when two sides can’t agree to move forward. From 1949 to 1968, there wasn’t a single nominee that needed a cloture motion. From 1967 to 1992, there were eleven. During Bill Clinton’s presidency, 22 nominees needed one. Under George W. Bush, 38 did. But under President Obama, that number has exploded, to a stunning 178, and counting.
That’s illustrated above in the graphic by Olivia Hall that accompanied Stockman’s essay.

What’s more, the pattern through the last three decades of the 20th century was that the number of cloture votes rose when the opposition party was about to take control of the Congress, as in 1986 and 1994. In those years the minority party, sensing better opportunities ahead, stalled on nominations while the majority party tried to preserve them.

The current century shows two new patterns. First, cloture motions became more common from 2002 to 2006 during the Bush-Cheney presidency, though they slumped in the last two years when Democrats controlled the Senate. Second, the need for cloture votes returned immediately in 2009 after the election of President Obama, and then started to rise exponentially in 2012.

30 October 2014

Two Warrior Women

Tonight I went to two author events, one after another, both about female fighters.

One was Jill Lepore’s talk at the Radcliffe Institute in Cambridge about The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Comics fans already know about the unorthodox sexual habits of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston, but Lepore has also linked Marston to Margaret Sanger and her circle of women‘s-rights activists.

The second was Alex Myers’s talk at the Old South Meeting House in Boston about his novel Revolutionary, based on the life of Deborah Sampson, soldier in the Continental Army at the end of the Revolutionary War. I was pleased to learn that Myers is another example of the generous mentorship of Alfred F. Young, author of the Sampson biography Masquerade.

29 October 2014

“Wonderlands” Conference and Call for Papers

The University of Chichester’s Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy is hosting a symposium on “Wonderlands: Reading/ Writing/ Telling Fairy Tales and Fantasy” on 23 May 2015.

The event is “Timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, this event is primarily aimed at postgraduate students and early career researchers, although other scholars and the general public will be welcome.”

The call for papers says:
We are seeking papers which explore all aspects of reading, writing, and telling fairy tales and fantasy. In particular, we invite discussion of wonder lands in fantastical literature, classic and modern fairy tales, and contemporary oral storytelling.

Possible topics of focus include, but are not limited to:
  • Other worlds, otherworldliness, Wonderland, and wonder lands
  • Relationships between reading, writing, and/or telling fantasy
  • Contemporary scholarship in children’s and adult’s fantasy literature
  • Storytelling as a vehicle for the fantastic
  • Practice and performance of fairy tales
  • Fantastical non-fiction
  • Relationships between real and imagined wonder lands
  • Meta-textual conversations with classic fantasy literature
  • Imagining the fantastical world through illustrations and picture books
We also welcome paper submissions or panel presentations which include a creative or performative element.

Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words (or panel proposals of 1,000 words) and a short personal bio to the organisers, Joanna Coleman, Joanne Blake Cave, and Rose Williamson at wonderlands.symposium@gmail.com. The deadline for submission will be 31st January 2015.
The keynote lecturer will be Oxford professor Diane Purkiss, who has also co-written as Tobias Druitt. As a promise or threat, the announcement ends, “The day will close with a series of performances from professional storytellers which engage with the theme of wonder lands.”

(h/t to Karen Graham at Telling Tales)

28 October 2014

Monkeying Around with Influences

This is Harry Bliss’s daily newspaper cartoon from 16 Oct 2014.

I like the way he’s combined the costuming from the MGM movie with the composition of one of W. W. Denslow’s color plates.

27 October 2014

When Harry Hardin Met Anna

Anna Todd’s After is taking the English-language publishing industry’s exploration of fanfiction to the edge of legality.

Originally published on Wattpad as a series of erotic adventures with Harry Styles of the pop group One Direction, the 2,500-page saga is being republished by Simon & Schuster as a series of erotic adventures with…a college boy named Hardin.

According to the Washington Post, Todd first wanted to keep using the names of the One Direction singers:
“I felt like, ‘Are you sure we have to do this? Can’t we just give Harry Styles all the money?’” Todd said in an interview.
But the S&S legal team rightly said no. The singers have whatever rights to control their public images that they haven’t already signed away to Simon Cowell.

What’s more, Todd’s original text might be considered libelous. Though Harry Styles is “the cute one” in One Direction, in her story the male lead is a boozing, lecherous bad boy—something a lot of Styles’s fans have resented.

The New York Times reported some additional changes for the print edition: “leaner punctuation and some extra content — mostly added and extended sex scenes.” So, given One Direction’s popularity with teen-aged girls, there’s a third minefield: potential complaints about selling pornography to minors.

Meanwhile, Todd’s original files remain intact on Wattpad for free instead of $64. This is quite an publishing experiment to watch.

26 October 2014

What Is Dick Grayson’s Core?

Kyle Higgins appears to be wrapping up his current work on the Dick Grayson character. The latest stories in Batman Beyond 2.0, including an upcoming chapter titled “The Final Fate of Dick Grayson,” have Alec Siegel’s name as co-writer, and Siegel’s the one signing the footnoted cross-references. (Wasn’t that once the editor’s prerogative?)

Therefore, even though Higgins is back on the Batman beat as one of the writers scripting the final stretch of Batman Eternal, and though he says he’ll likely return to Dick Grayson someday, his recent interview with Crave Online reads like a farewell retrospective:
Your work on Nightwing really expanded the character. Was everything in place from day one, or did it come as you wrote the story?

I had an idea from the start, but I learned so much along the way. I remember having a conversation with one of my best friends, who is an incredibly talented writer who works in TV and did some Gates Of Gotham with me [Ryan Parrot]. We said, when you boil Dick Grayson down, how do you describe him in a few sentences. What is his core? We did it as an exercise with Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and boiled all them down to their central drive.

With Dick Grayson I couldn’t do it, I had a really hard time with it. I realized that was a problem. I know who the character is, but I can’t fully articulate why I love the character. It wasn’t until I settled on this idea that he grew up in a circus, so he’s all about catching people when they fall. That’s actually the final line of my final issue. I sat on that for over a year.

Dick seems more involved with the people he’s helping.

It’s about the empathy for who he saves. Every superhero, in one way or another, does it for the good of so-and-so, and they want to help people, but Dick Grayson more than all is about the people. He’ll save you from a mugger, tie your shoe and buy you a beer.

Dick and Bruce are very similar, but very different. Why?

Well, in a weird way one is more focused on his parents’ deaths, and the other is more focused on his parents’ lives. To me Dick and his Nightwing persona is more about spectacle than Batman. He’s sailing between buildings, it’s a performance and people can see him. He’ll operate in the daylight. It’s much more about the circus life and how he was brought up and the show. Nobody wants a brooding mopey Dick Grayson.
Another reason why the grim, one-eyed Dick Grayson in Batman Beyond 2.0 is a signal of a dystopic future.

Higgins continues to work on C.O.W.L., his story of a superhero labor politics in post-WW2 Chicago, for Image. We have yet to see the equivalent of Dick Grayson in those comics, but one did appear in Higggins’s student film, apparently set in the same world. And, to be frank, that character’s kind of mopey.

23 October 2014

No Justifiable Homicides for Superheroes

Recapping network television episodes seems to be big business for entertainment websites these days. I did it myself for Den of Geek and the first season of Turn.

For the new Flash series, Playboy evidently has the money to go straight to the top because the magazine’s recapper is Mark Waid, who wrote scores of highly regarded issues of that comic book and its spin-offs in the 1990s.

In his discussion of episode 3, Waid starts by analyzing a superhero trope that goes all the way back to when the genre was codified in the 1940s. He recaps his argument with an iconoclastic comic-book publisher about the rule against superheroes solving problems by killing bad guys:
Yes, there is absolutely such a thing as justifiable homicide, but it’s a last resort, not a method of operation. The concept that life in all forms is sacred isn’t just a throwback to fairy tales or simpler times, I argued; it’s a philosophy as old as realized religion.

Okay, yeah. Cops have to shoot robbers sometimes. Soldiers have to kill. Homicide detectives and private investigators, real or fictional, sometimes kill. They’re people just like you and me, with limited abilities and limited tools.

But super-heroes were created specifically, from the imaginations of the young and the young at heart, to do the impossible — to defy gravity or bounce missiles off their chest or outrun speeding bullets. It’s baked into their DNA. To find a perpetual audience, super-heroes must seem relevant and relatable and admirable, but they are still creations of fantasy.

We read their comics and watch their TV shows and movies to see them do the things we can’t, to triumph heroically against odds that would flatten you and me...not to suffer with them as they’re forced into the trauma of making the same real-world choices that you and I, mere humans, would have to make if we [were] caught helpless with our only available weapon one that was designed explicitly to kill.
To be sure, some costumed heroes, like Marvel’s Punisher and DC’s Vigilante, are specifically designed to go against the no-killing rule. But it’s notable that neither of those characters has fantastic powers. And the companies’ biggest brands avoid killing even if (as in the case of Wolverine) they talk about being willing to do it.

Waid’s faith in that dictum is what got him in trouble in viewing Man of Steel a couple of years back, as he so memorably described:
Superman wins by killing Zod. By snapping his neck. And as this moment was building, as Zod was out of control and Superman was (for the first time since the fishing boat 90 minutes ago) struggling to actually save innocent victims instead of casually catching them in mid-plummet, some crazy guy in front of us was muttering “Don’t do it…don’t do it…DON’T DO IT…” and then Superman snapped Zod’s neck and that guy stood up and said in a very loud voice, “THAT’S IT, YOU LOST ME, I’M OUT,” and his girlfriend had to literally pull him back into his seat and keep him from walking out and that crazy guy was me.

That crazy guy was me, and I barely even remember doing that, I had to be told afterward that I’d done that, that’s how caught up in betrayal I felt. And after the neck-snapping, even though I stuck it out, I didn’t give a damn about the rest of the movie.
And in that Waid was exactly right. Flash is not exhibiting the same problem.

22 October 2014

Supporting the Finer Arts

Not being or ever having been a coffee fan, I much enjoyed novelist Ethan Hauser’s New York Times essay, “I Am Not a Coffee Drinker” last Sunday.

A taste:

Is espresso the miniature one, or is that cappuccino? I don’t know what Nespresso is. Did Nestlé buy espresso? Hello, Federal Trade Commission? Isn’t this against the law?

I know what a barista is. They pull levers and shout and have better taste in music than I do. Some of them have mustaches and, so I have heard, draw pictures in the foam atop the coffee. Good for them — I am an ardent supporter of the arts.

I know what free Wi-Fi is. That means you can check your email and tweet a picture of your muffin and do Facebook things. . . . I don’t know what “Fair Trade” is. I grew up with an older brother.
Yorkshire Gold for me, thank you.

20 October 2014

19 October 2014

Loeb’s Untraveled Road

This month John Siuntres’s Word Balloon podcast reran excerpts from some past years’ interviews with Batman story creators. Starting about 54 minutes into the recording, scripter Jeph Loeb described a story of the Dynamic Duo that never got off the ground:
My pitch on the original All-Star Batman and Robin, which is a book that I was writing when I left for Marvel and then got replaced by Frank Miller—and if you've got to get replaced by somebody, that's not a bad choice—…was going to be Jim [Lee’s] and my return to the character. . . .

At the beginning we really didn’t understand what All-Star was. The first time it was pitched, it was, “Take these characters as though it’s 1968, that’s the continuity you’re using.” And I was like, “So, basically, what you’re saying is that Barbara Gordon hasn’t been shot. I mean, is there anything different?” Because I really thought it all should have been Year One, and you should take it from there, and that way you could do whatever you wanted. And then I didn’t know how much you could change stuff around. I never had any idea they were going to change things as much as they were, like, you know, the Black Canary playing such an important role in Batman’s world. . . .

The story that I wanted to tell was that Jason was the first Robin, and that he’d been killed, and that Batman…hid the fact that Jason had died, and then met Dick in the same way that he always met Dick. And decided that there was a way that all the mistakes that he had made with Jason he could rectify with Dick. Which is a little bit more like what he did with Tim Drake, having failed with Jason.

But what I liked about this story was that the only two people who knew what he had done were Gordon and Superman, both of whom came to Bruce and said, “What the hell are you doing? Like you’ve already gotten one child killed, why would you do this again?” And then you really saw Batman’s arrogance about it, that he thought that he could make up for the death of this child by making it right with another child.

But that was not a story that ever got told.
That apparently would have been Loeb’s second take on how Dick Grayson came to be Robin, following Dark Victory. Then again, considering that All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder fans are still waiting for Lee to finish the issues Miller mapped out years ago, it might be more accurate to say it would have Loeb’s take one-and-a-half.