20 July 2014

A Touch of Blue

When DC launched its “New 52” continuity, it redesigned almost all its heroes’ costumes. Nightwing’s new outfit replaced the light blue stripe across the chest and upper back with a bright red stripe and, though it didn’t seem possible, made the tight black body suit even more shiny.

But the biggest change, so far as fans were concerned, was the removal of the light blue stripes down the costume’s arms all the way out the two middle fingers. Nightwing’s new gloves—excuse me, gauntlets—had fins to match his mentors’, and I guess keeping the “fingerstripes” as well would have seemed too frilly.

As new artists arrived on the Nightwing magazine, however, red stripes edged down his sleeves again until they reached the fingers. The process was gradual, as if the editorial office didn’t want the bosses or the fans to notice that they’d realized they’d left behind something good.

And then Dick Grayson gave up the Nightwing costume, at least for a while, for work as a secret agent. A very handsome, acrobatic secret agent. This panel from Grayson, #1, shows some touches designed to please the character’s old fans.

I’m not just talking about Mikel Janin’s multiple images of Dick flipping, which were common in Nightwing both before and after the “New 52” break. I’m talking about those dark gray gloves Dick is wearing, with sky blue bands across each palm.

That detail can only be a nod back to Nightwing’s blue fingerstripes. Sure, the stripe runs along an orthogonal axis, but why else color them that shade of blue? It’s like Dick’s designation as Agent 37 (#37 being the last issue of Detective Comics before Dick Grayson became a sensation of 1940) and the clasp on his shoulder belt (looking like a G, more or less where his R symbol used to be). It’s a sign of “continuity fans” creating this book and struggling to backfill meaning into a universe where most of the past has been erased.

18 July 2014

OIP Derangement Syndrome in Crises

Did the shooting down of a passenger jet over breakaway eastern Ukraine this week prompt America’s right-wing pundits to rise above OIP Derangement Syndrome? Of course not.

As The New Republic documented, multiple commentators attacked President Barack Obama for not making more of the 23 Americans who died in the airplane. They didn’t bother to confirm that those 23 Americans were, in fact, real.

We might take that as a symptom of the pressure in today’s online news environment to be the first with the story. Except that none of those people were reporting the story—they were opining on it. And they didn’t pause to think that the fact that the White House was not highlighting those people was a strong indication that the reports about them were unreliable. They had to assume that President Obama must be doing something wrong in order to justify their visceral urge to complain about him.

But that’s nothing compared to Rush Limbaugh, who hinted to his aging radio audience that the plane had been shot down in a conspiracy to allow the news media to stop reporting on children from Central America seeking protection in the US:

I don’t want appear to be callous here, folks, but you talk about an opportunity to abandon the Obama news at the border? And, no, I’m not suggesting anything other than how the media operates. Anyway, it’s eerie. It is really eerie. A Malaysian airliner. It was on the way to Kuala Lumpur. Why would it be shot down? Over Ukraine? It was shot down by a missile.

This would lead one to believe that it is not an accident.
With Limbaugh, it’s often difficult to tell whether it’s the pills or the racism talking, but in this case the OIP Derangement Syndrome is clear. And it was strong enough to justify trying to make political points off the sad death of hundreds of people.

15 July 2014

Baum’s Collaborators, Real and Fictional

The Wild Things gang are sharing material they couldn’t include in their new book on their blog, including this article about the partnership between L. Frank Baum and W. W. Denslow on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Here’s a bit about what happened after that book had become such a success but the men’s friendship soured:
Once Denslow received the royalties from the musical, he set off and decided to live the American dream à la Gilligan’s Island. Which is to say, he up and bought himself a tropical island. An honest-to-goodness tropical isle. It was just off the coast of Bermuda, a good four acres (though he would claim to anyone who was listening that it was ten) and it didn’t stop there. With what appears to be a tongue stuck firmly in his cheek (though it’s a little hard to tell) Denslow went on to crown himself King Denslow I of Denslow Island. He turned his native boatman into the “admiral of his fleet” and then went on to make his Japanese cook the prime minister. Said he, “If the government in Washington had got wind of it in the early stages, I have no doubt that they would have sent a fleet to Denslow Island to blow it out of the water.”

Suffice to say, this situation didn’t last. Full-blown island kingships rarely do. Denslow was an alcoholic and after selling a full-color cover to Life magazine he celebrated by going on a two day bender, getting pneumonia, and dying at the age of 58. Baum’s reaction upon hearing of Denslow’s death has been lost to the annals of history. What we do know, however, is that, when he was told, it was with the false information that Denslow had committed suicide.
That extracted extract goes on to discuss a stylometric analysis of The Royal Book of Oz, which I analyzed briefly back here. That 1921 book was credited to Baum but said inside to have been completed by Ruth Plumly Thompson, who had her name on the cover of the next eighteen annual Oz novels.

The computer-aided analysis of Royal Book’s writing style found that Thompson actually wrote the whole book. But that’s not really a discovery. All the way back in 1954 Jack Snow credited that book to Thompson in Who’s Who in Oz. When Reilly & Lee reissued all of Baum’s Oz novels in the 1960s, they let Royal Book go out of print—because they knew it wasn’t Baum’s.

I don’t doubt that the stylometric study of Royal Book showed it fit Thompson’s writing profile far more than Baum’s. But that wasn’t new information about the book. It was new information about the validity of that stylometric method.

14 July 2014

Weekly Robin Extra: Grayson Intelligence

On Saturday I attended a signing by Grayson co-writer Tom King at Friendly Neighborhood Comics, and enjoyed chatting with him about his new assignment. Here are some things I hadn’t read elsewhere.

As King understood the situation behind Nightwing, #30, DC decided not to print the original story it had commissioned from James Tynion IV and Meghan Hetrick because executives thought the firm was publishing a lot of elegies lately. They asked Seeley and King to produce a replacement that was less funereal than a story set at, well, a funeral.

Because that issue was already slated to be an extra-long 30 pages, Seeley and King divided their story into three distinct sections that were sent out to three different pencilers: Javier Garrón, Jorge Lucas, and Mikel Janin. That’s how tight deadlines are met in a collaborative art form.

Looking ahead, DC’s big crossovers continue to do mischief to storytellers’ schedules. King wrote one alternate-future issue that was to be tied into the “Future’s End” event but numbered like a regular Grayson issue. Then the company changed its collective mind, and that will be Grayson: Future’s End, #1. As headaches go, that’s a minor one, and there’s probably serious marketing thought behind DC’s decision. But it’s interesting how such tactics are still being worked out on the fly.

Finally, there’s been a lot of discussion among fans about the fact that Dick Grayson is carrying a gun in his job as a spy. King told me that Grayson, #3 (following that “Future’s End” issue) will have “the gun go off.” As in Anton Chekhov’s playwriting axiom that if we see a gun on stage in Act I, it has to go off by the end of the show. How will Dick’s gun go off? What will be the consequences? That, of course, is part of the story.

In addition, King promised his explanation of why this Dick Grayson chose as Teen Wonder to dress in stoplight colors.

13 July 2014

Won Over by Grayson, #1

I was dubious about the premise of the Grayson comic book until I saw the preview pages.

When DC first announced that Dick Grayson would give up life as a costumed crime-fighter to become an undercover spy, an announcement accompanied by multiple images of Dick pointing a pistol at the viewer, I wasn’t convinced that move took his established character into account.

Rather, I thought DC’s editorial echelon had looked at what type of stories are popular with their main target demographic and not already covered by their line: the spy thrillers of Bond, Bourne, Chuck, Mission Impossible, and their heist counterparts. A few years back, I detected some Bourne influence in how Tim Drake was reworked into Red Robin, but espionage adventures represented an empty space in the company’s “New 52” lineup.

Yet that role seemed all wrong for Dick Grayson. A license to kill for a hero raised never to take a life, especially with guns? Anonymity for a character defined from the start in connection with other heroes, and established in the 1980s as the best and most popular team leader in the DC Universe? Undercover work for a natural entertainer raised in the spotlight? Those contradictions raised the specter of the company arbitrarily inserting a popular character into stories that would be all out of character.

The preview pages for Grayson, #1, showed that the magazine’s writing team, Tim Seeley and Tom King, understand those character traits. Their opening pages show Dick choosing not to fire his gun but to knock out an assailant by throwing it. (Of course we could ask why, if Dick had enough freedom of movement and leverage to throw that gun, he didn’t just conk the other guy on the head with it.) And we read Dick’s thoughts in caption lamenting: “The downside of a solo act. No one around to see you do the cool stuff.”

In other words, Seeley and King immediately reestablished the character as he’s been written for the last two decades. They recognize that precisely because being a gun-toting undercover agent isn’t the best fit for Dick Grayson, that role can create drama in his life as he tries to reconcile his old values with his new job. They couldn’t do much about Dick’s friendships with other heroes outside the “bat family” since those have been largely erased from the “New 52” Universe—but the issue’s final page indicates that Dick’s new role is still closely tied to all the remaining masked crime-fighters.

To be fair, DC’s editorial team might have been looking for that tension all along. But I still give Seeley and King credit for carrying it out.

TOMORROW: Grayson news from Tom King.

01 July 2014

Beyond Their Comprehension

From Tim Grove’s A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History (University of Nebraska Press, 2014):
During my time at the Museum I never tired of observing visitors express delight at seeing a familiar object in person. The iconic ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz remain one of the most popular items in the collection. Judy Garland used the museum’s pair, one of only four pairs still in existence, for the dance sequences in the film. Their sequins, though showing wear, still glitter and make young girls gasp with delight. Their enduring popularity is a puzzlement to many museum employees, who become quite good at providing directions to the shows through gritted teeth and a fake smile. How visitors can place greater importance on the ruby slippers than the Star-Spangled Banner, say, or the first computer, is beyond their comprehension.
Having worked at the American History Museum, Grove is now chief of learning at another branch of the Smithsonian, the National Air and Space Museum.

03 June 2014

Google’s Scalawagons

Various forms of The Wizard of Oz are so famous that it’s common to see allusions to that story. But The Scalawagons of Oz, written and illustrated by John R. Neill in 1941, is another matter. It’s one of the rarest of the official Oz series and perhaps the worst.

Yet this article at Seeking Alpha not only alludes to Scalawagons but is built around that allusion. David Zanoni writes:
…Scalawagons were smart vehicles that would take passengers wherever they desired. Just sit down in the car, tell the Scalawagon where you want to go and the car transports you to your destination without the need for using pedals and steering wheels.

Google (GOOG) is essentially taking this concept and turning it into a reality with its self-driving car. Google's car actually resembles the shape and look of the Scalawagon.
As I wrote back here, one of the problems of Scalawagons in Oz is that they minimized the possibility of adventure. I suppose that’s one of the advantages of Google cars for us.

01 June 2014

A “Foolhardy Boy Companion” Named Robin

From Stuart Kelly’s review of Nick Harkaway’s “superhero novel” Tigerman in this weekend’s Guardian:
In the suspension of international law necessary to destroy [the island of] Mancreu, a ring of ships – "The Black Fleet" – has circled in the island's newly lawless waters. From extraordinary rendition to organised crime brothels, to surgery ships where, if they don't have a heart to transplant for you, one can be found (and the rest of the body kept for if you need it), it's a zone of licensed criminality. It's therefore no wonder when Shola, a local bar owner, is shot by three men, which accelerates the plot.

At the time, [protagonist] Lester is drinking tea with a strange boy he has befriended called Robin. Robin is saturated in pop culture from Green Lantern to Star Wars, but seems to have no family. It is Robin who, after Shola's funeral, when Lester has a drunken encounter with a tiger, suggests he become Tigerman, "unassuming sergeant for fallen empire by day ... Hero of Mancreu! Tigerman, full of win!" He also, in self-assumed role as "foolhardy boy companion", finds a clue: Shola worked for "Mancreu's resident fairy king", variously known as Bad Jack, Mauvais Jack, Jack Storm-Eye, Jack the Wrecker, Jack of the Nine.
Of course the foolhardy boy companion would be named Robin. But one question for me is whether he exists, or is simply the projection of Lester’s psyche.

Tigerman is scheduled for publication in the US this July.

31 May 2014

The Relationship of Andersen and Dickens

From Suzi Feay’s review of Hans Christian Andersen: European Witness in this weekend’s Guardian:
The relationship with Dickens was fraught; it began well, but after a lengthy visit, a note was placed on their mantelpiece: "Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seemed to the family ages!" . . .

[Paul Binding] points out many links between Andersen's novel The Improvisatore and David Copperfield, explaining the weak, unconvincing endings of each book as being due to "the writer having no experience at all of sustained union with a woman (Andersen), or failing to feel for a wife (and even children) that committed devotion in which he professed to believe (Dickens)".
Of course, I’d find the Dickenses’ sign more amusing if I weren’t entering my second week as a house guest. (Heading home Monday.)

29 May 2014

From Spring Heel Jack to Batman

Among the ephemera on display in the “Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK” exhibit at the British Library is a penny-dreadful tale of Spring-Heeled Jack, which the curators suggest was an inspiration for Batman, pointing particularly to his horns.

I thought that was a stretch. Not that Bob Kane and Bill Finger were above borrowing plots, images, and details from other adventure stories of their time, acknowledged and unacknowledged. But how would two guys growing up in post-WW1 America have seen the Spring-Heeled Jack magazine serials from Victorian Britain? And wasn’t Spring-Heeled Jack a monster and/or troublemaker instead of a crimefighter?

At io9, commenter Michael Munro laid out a lineage of pulp fiction leading from London to California to Gotham:
Spring Heeled Jack…transitioned from London urban myth (1830s) to melodrama anti-hero (1870s) to prototype superhero (1880s-early 1900s). As written by "penny dreadful" author Alfred Burrage, SHJ was a wealthy aristocrat who assumed the disguise of a devilish, bat-winged avenger of the night, maintained a secret underground lair and used his athletic and technological skills to battle evil-doers - sounds familiar?
Expounding at more length, Munro wrote:
The several "penny dreadful" iterations of Spring Heeled Jack, many written by Alfred Burrage under the pseudonym "Charlton Lea", portrayed him as a nobleman who had been cheated out of his inheritance and who took up a devilish disguise to punish those responsible. Along the way, Spring Heeled Jack also rescued damsels in distress and generally stood up for the innocent and downtrodden. He wore a distinctive mask and costume and was capable of performing incredible leaps thanks to a special pair of boots, credited in one source to a secret mechanism invented by Indian street magicians.

Anticipating Zorro, Jack was fond of marking both enemies and territory by carving his initial with the point of his rapier. He also maintained a secret underground lair (in a converted crypt) and terrified his adversaries with his ringing laugh and catch-phrase, "The day is yours - leave the night to me!"
As Munro notes, the Batman team acknowledged Zorro, created by Johnston McCully in 1919, as an inspiration. Thus, Spring-Heeled Jack wasn’t a direct influence on Batman, and the horns/ears were a shared trope rather than deliberate borrowing.