31 December 2007

“Alec Baldwin Has Never Been Funnier”

A few years ago, I recall, television ads for a Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends DVD were quoting this critic's gush: "Alec Baldwin has never been funnier!"

That became one of my favorite deadpan quotations. For one thing, the common perception that Baldwin is unremittingly intense and serious makes the line seem like the epitome of faint praise, as in "Ken Burns's most exciting action sequences!" or "The best tacos in Maine!"

Yet on another level the quotation offered even more delicious irony because Alec Baldwin really is funny. I don't know about his performance as Mr. Conductor, though this dad gave him a really good review. But I chortled at Baldwin's early performance in Miami Blues, in which he played a sociopath and was funny. He's delivered comedy through many characters, from his early movie Beetle Juice to many appearances on Saturday Night Live.

For years Baldwin was a character actor trapped in a leading man's body, and he worked against his looks mainly by playing dark, as in Glengarry Glen Ross. Now he's spread out a bit, and the industry is asking for more of his range. He did fine supporting work in The Depahted. And the sitcom 30 Rock has given Baldwin great lines to deliver, the space for his comedic talents, and a mildly growing audience.

Which brings me to a highlight of the past year's cultural news. Lots of folks probably remember how, in the midst of Baldwin's long court battle with ex-wife Kim Basinger over child custody, a gossip website got a recording of him lambasting their daughter for missing a scheduled phone call. Several end-of-year gossip round-ups recall Baldwin's behavior for anyone who's forgotten.

But nobody seems to be mentioning how after a week of nationwide criticism Baldwin went on The View and announced that he was going to give up acting to spend more time “to devote myself to the cause of parental alienation." He spoke of lobbying for new laws and finishing a book on divorce that would come out in September. He left his long-time agents, and asked to be released from his 30 Rock contract. Disaster loomed on all sides.

And then Baldwin changed his mind. He went back to his agents. He went back to 30 Rock, filming some magnificent scenes for this season. He went back to court with Basinger, where they remain.

And America collectively decided to forget about Baldwin's announcement that he was leaving show biz. We appear to have come to a tacit culture-wide agreement never to mention that moment again. Because we don't want Baldwin to stop performing and get serious, not now. We can't afford that.

Because Alec Baldwin has never been funnier.

30 December 2007

Dick Grayson Gives a Book Talk

These panels from Batman comic books published over twenty years apart show that Dick Grayson (alias the first Robin, the Boy Wonder) had good reading habits, to the extent of not worrying about good reading posture.

But what exactly did he read? This weekly Robin offers practical advice to young detectives in training by borrowing panels from Flash Plus (1997), script by Mark Waid and Brian Augustyn, art by Eduardo Barreto and Gerry Fernandez.

For the uninitiated, the shaggy fellow in black and blue is Dick Grayson, now all grown up and fighting crime under the name Nightwing. The man in red is the Flash, who at this point is also Dick's oldest and best friend in the superhero game: Wally West, the former Kid Flash. They've gone on vacation to New Orleans and found themselves in a hotel across the street from an unusual murder scene.

Once again, those endorsements from one of the DC Universe's greatest detectives are:

[ADDENDUM: Tim Drake gives a book talk.]

29 December 2007

Pullman Pulls for the Omniscient Narrator

Today's Guardian newspaper offers a column by Philip Pullman about the power of narrative voice. He seems to suggest that the style of narration distinguishes a “story” from the “literature” that expresses it by establishing tone, perspective, and characters’ interior lives. In particular, Pullman addresses the different tools available to moviemakers and novelists. He concludes:

And despite the profound and unsettling discoveries of modernism and post-modernism, and everything they show us about the unreliability of the narrator and the fallacy of omniscience, some of us still, when we read, are happy to accept that the narrative voice has the right to comment on a character, whether tartly or sympathetically, and the ability to go into that character's mind and tell us what's going on there. Do we ever stop to wonder how extraordinary it is that a disembodied voice can seem to tell us what is happening in someone's mind?

That narrative voice, with those mysterious powers, is the reason I write novels. I'm intoxicated by it.
I think Pullman's approach to narration is, if not actually idiosyncratic, quite uncommon these days. For many years before Lemony Snicket, most fiction writers tended to write either in the voice of a character or in a disembodied, unintrusive storytelling voice that closely followed the main characters(s). Snicket's success spawned a bunch of other snarky narrators, but few writers let their narrators intrude in other tones.

Pullman doesn't play by those rules. In a 2005 New Yorker profile, Laura Miller reported:
Pullman is a partisan of the third-person omniscient narrator, which he thinks of as a character in itself—a disembodied “sprite.” This ringmaster of many a nineteenth-century novel can, as he told me, ”go anywhere and do anything and see anything, and is both male and female, both old and young, wise and foolish, cynical and credulous, all these contradictory things at once. The narrative voice that tells ‘Middlemarch’ is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mr. Casaubon.”
Pullman's narrative focus is also unusual these days in turning on a dime, entering a scene by following one character and leaving with another we've never tracked before.

But are such techniques unique to “literature”? I think equivalents exist in many other forms of storytelling, including cinema. In fact, Pullman’s description of a “disembodied voice...tell[ing] us what is happening in someone's mind” is clearly inspired by movie voiceovers. A purely literary way of describing an omniscient narrator might be “a never-identified historian recounting people’s thoughts.” It’s still an intoxicating, mysterious power, of course.

Looking Back at Looking Ahead

Today's Pullman posting prompted me to go back to some earlier posts and update their labels, which in turn made me reread my first remarks on the prospect of a Golden Compass movie, back in July 2006. I commented on three big challenges for the film:

  • high special-effects budget
  • resistance from people sensitive about any criticism of churches, even fictional ones
  • how the first book ends on a cliffhanger, making it hard to give moviegoers the satisfying ending we've come to expect

28 December 2007

When Graphic Novels Aren't Novelistic

In the last few months, as I've doggedly re-explored comics, I've read several "graphic novels" that I don't think deserve that label. It's not that their storytelling isn't sophisticated enough to deserve the respect that Will Eisner was seeking when he coined that term.

Rather, I can't let go of the fact that a novel isn't simply a story long enough that its printed form has a spine thick enough for a title. A novel is an extended yet complete and unified story. It's a single narrative in itself, neither a collection of tales nor just one installment of a larger tale.

Linda Medley's first Castle Waiting book is one of these problematic "graphic novels," entertaining as it is. Early chapters show the character of Lady Jain making her way to the castle and giving birth to a son--a son with intriguingly pointed ears. There are many hints of troubles from her husband and/or the father of that child. And at the end of the book we learn...about a completely different character's past. We never get answers to Lady Jain's mysteries.

Another example was the Captain America volume titled Winter Soldier. Its front flap concludes:

In this bold new series, writer Ed Brubaker enmeshes the hero in a taut thriller ripped from today's headlines of political intrigue and terrorist threats to democracy.
All quite exciting, especially for an old Invaders fan, but this "graphic novel" also leaves its hero completely enmeshed in that taut thriller. It's only half of a story at best, but do you see "Part 1" or "Volume 1" on the cover? Would a non-graphic novel ever end halfway through?

Bill Willingham's To Kill a Bird shows Tim Drake moving to a new city after the death of his father. It's entirely episodic, and about three-quarters of the way through it starts spinning out new plot threads that are never resolved. That's because this "graphic novel" is simply a collection of issues 134 to 139 of the Robin comic book, and they barely hang together. (Several whiplash changes in art styles within the book don't help.)

Dennis O'Neil's DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics even gives away the company secret of how to braid plot lines from one issue to the next, making one issue burst into flower while growing the stem for another and planting the seed for a third. Comic books, like soap operas, movie serials, and other ongoing narratives, aren't designed just to tell us a satisfying story. They're also supposed to motivate us to come back for the next issue. Unlike novels, they aren't meant to be complete.

In the past few years, DC and Marvel Comics have apparently decided to repackage nearly every issue of their most popular comic books into "graphic novels." Some of the resulting books, such as the Batman volume As the Crow Flies, are close to self-contained and thus satisfying on their own. Many more have plot threads hanging off both ends.

Age of Bronze creator Eric Shanower has commented on this blog that the term "graphic novel" now means nothing more than a physical format, a comics story thick enough for a spine. Ironically, Eric's own collected editions have satisfying story arcs, each telling a discrete leg of the saga of the Trojan War, though they're made up of individual magazine issues. (We can't expect Eric to fit all of the Trojan War saga between two covers--not even Homer managed that.)

I can't shake the worry that calling all such comics "graphic novels" does a disservice to both readers and creators by fuzzing the important differences between a collection of installments within an ongoing saga and stories conceived to stand by themselves. Both require sophisticated storytelling skills. A cliffhanger ending that makes you come back for more and a plot resolution that leaves you satisfied are both feats worthy of praise. So is it too much to hope that the industry's labels for these different types of comics become just as sophisticated, and not one-size-fits-all?

27 December 2007

Oz and Castle Waiting

It seems entirely appropriate for the Oz books to exist in the world of Castle Waiting, the award-winning comics series by Linda Medley.

The title castle feels more than a little like the Emerald City under Ozma, with a diverse set of generally nice characters all living together in a safe and somewhat protected community. Of course, Ozma's roofs don't leak, but the two settings promise the same acceptance and stability.

In addition to that castle, a great deal of the first Castle Waiting collection takes place in a similar community: the nunnery of a bearded order. There the worst squabbles are over which sister has the best facial hair to play Jesus in the annual pageant.

In both places, the only major dangers seem to come from outside the walls, and they're easily dealt with. Characters have adventures only in the past and on the road, just as in most of the later Oz books. Indeed, the communities are so darn nice that they simply don't provide a good crop of dramatic tension. Which can, of course, be part of their charm, a reason readers like to return to those settings again and again.

(Another Oz connection: Linda Medley contributed some nice artwork to the 2003 issue of Oziana, sold by the International Wizard of Oz Club.)

26 December 2007

Searching for Boys with The Golden Compass

Although the Golden Compass movie has gotten generally positive reviews, its American box office performance has been tepid: a weekly average of $16 million over its first three weeks. In contrast, so far the film has made $130 million overseas, and was the world's top draw for two weeks.

The Golden Compass cost a lot to make: $180 million, or about two-thirds of what the Bush-Cheney administration expends on the Iraq occupation in one day. That high cost means it could be hard for the studio to produce sequels on the same scale, even with an international audience. The series might go the way of The Neverending Story, which had two follow-ups squeezed out over the next ten years with decreasing budgets and new young actors in the lead roles.

New Line studio has apparently decided that one weakness with the movie is that it has a young female lead. The Marketing Department has Photoshopped a boy into the newspaper ads. Perhaps armored polar bears alone weren't enough to get boys into cinemas.
At least there's a prominent boy hero in the second book, The Subtle Knife.

25 December 2007

Don't I See You Every Christmas Eve?

The protracted climax of The Road to Oz depicts Princess Ozma’s birthday in Oz. It also gave L. Frank Baum a chance to cross-promote most of his other fantasy novels for children by bringing their characters to the Emerald City.

One guest in particular awes even Dorothy.

"The most Mighty and Loyal Friend of Children, His Supreme Highness--Santa Claus!" said the Chamberlain, in an awed voice.

"Well, well, well! Glad to see you--glad to meet you all!" cried Santa Claus, briskly, as he trotted up the long room.

He was round as an apple, with a fresh rosy face, laughing eyes, and a bushy beard as white as snow. A red cloak trimmed with beautiful ermine hung from his shoulders and upon his back was a basket filled with pretty presents for the Princess Ozma.

"Hello, Dorothy; still having adventures?" he asked in his jolly way, as he took the girl's hand in both his own.

"How did you know my name, Santa?" she replied, feeling more shy in the presence of this immortal saint than she ever had before in her young life.

"Why, don't I see you every Christmas Eve, when you're asleep?" he rejoined, pinching her blushing cheek.

"Oh, do you?"

"And here's Button-Bright, I declare!" cried Santa Claus, holding up the boy to kiss him. "What a long way from home you are; dear me!"

"Do you know Button-Bright, too?" questioned Dorothy, eagerly.

"Indeed I do. I've visited his home several Christmas Eves."

"And do you know his father?" asked the girl.

"Certainly, my dear. Who else do you suppose brings him his Christmas neckties and stockings?" with a sly wink at the Wizard.

"Then where does he live? We're just crazy to know, 'cause Button-Bright's lost," she said.

Santa laughed and laid his finger aside of his nose as if thinking what to reply. He leaned over and whispered something in the Wizard's ear, at which the Wizard smiled and nodded as if he understood.
Santa and the Wizard eventually collaborate to return Button-Bright to his home, without ever revealing the little boy's private information.

24 December 2007

An Influential Political Endorsement

I just put in a Christmas Eve call to my Grandma Lilah in Iowa, partly to make sure she wasn't iced in, not that I could have done anything about that. During the conversation she told me, "I'm on the blogs."

This wasn't what I expected from a ninety-nine-year-old woman with weak eyesight and no computer, but with my grandma I've learned not to rule anything out. Only a few years ago she took a hot-air balloon ride in Africa.

Sure enough, Grandma Lilah's featured in a YouTube video shared by the Barack Obama campaign. Click on the picture for the link. (That's not her in the picture; that's the event host.) Ilovemylife reports, "Lilah Bell of Iowa is going to be 100 years old in a couple of months [actually July] and is caucusing for Barack Obama. It is her first time to participate, too." That was news to me, so I'm glad I called her.

23 December 2007

Scholars Who Grew Up with Superheroes

I'm conducting my ongoing weekly Robin exploration the way I tackle a lot of other questions, by reading books at all levels about it.

I've noticed that books discussing superhero comics with any sort of perspective, particularly from serious and scholarly presses, usually contain early remarks about the authors’ own childhood comics reading. On the one hand, this establishes their bona fides for other fans--though most fervent comics fans wouldn't care.

The almost confessional tone of these remarks seems instead to be aimed at readers who don't have such fond memories of heroes in tights. The authors acknowledge, “Yes, I enjoyed superhero comics for years as a kid--but doesn't that really show how compelling these stories can be?”

The cover of The Aesthetics of Comics, by Prof. David Carrier of the Philosophy Department at Carnegie Mellon University, shows a small boy reading a comic book. This turns out to be Carrier himself at the age of eight. (The combination of old black-and-white photo and university-press design made me assume this book was published much earlier than it actually was, in 2000.)

Visually striking in another way, the author photograph in the back of Comic Book Character shows David A. Zimmerman in a homemade Robin costume at about six years old. In a canned author interview on his publisher's website, Zimmerman describes how seeing a recent superhero movie inspired him to write the book:

I was reminded afresh of how influential the stories I had read in my childhood had been over my expectations of life and my understanding of right and wrong. At the same time, I was seeing some of the limitations, even the disappointments, that those expectations had brought me to.
Among the books he read and reread as a child, Zimmerman tells us, was The Super Dictionary, and he uses that as his source for chapter epigraphs. My brother had a copy, and here's a sample of this engrossing volume.

As you see, these serious authors end up writing apologia for some quite laughable literature. Even more confessional is Will Brooker's Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon, based on the author’s doctoral dissertation. Brooker has to admit his fondness for the Batman TV show of the 1960s, which even many Batman fans dismiss as campy and appalling.
Though I recognised the broad comedy of the series when re-viewing it in the 1980s, and later became aware not just of its links to Pop but of the gay associations it had acquired, I cannot share the distaste of many other comic readers for Adam West's portrayal, and this is not merely because I know the series saved the comic from cancellation, or because I disagree with the kind of 'reading' which attempts to prioritise one interpretation and dismiss others as 'corrupt,' or because I am dismayed by the homophobia which often accompanies the prejudice against the series. It is also because I used to dance in raptures to the theme music.
(I'm sure that first sentence would have been happier as three sentences.)

Later Brooker writes again of the television show, and how his early response was so different from his adult perspective:
I feel strangely put out, suddenly discovering that the joke was on me back in the 1970s; that something had been going way over my head since well before my time. I was one of the 'Daddy, stop laughing' viewers, enjoying Batman as, I think, a six-year-old when the show was repeated in Britain.

I didn't think it was funny when Batman announced that he'd resisted King Tut's hypnosis by reciting his times tables backwards; I thought it was pretty impressive. I didn't think it was funny when the Neal Hefti theme kicked in and the Dynamic Duo went into POW! THWOK! Action; I jumped up myself and started play-fighting with my little brother.

But then, I didn't think it was funny when my friend Nathan and I ran down our road with our pants over our corduroy trousers and cardboard ears sewn onto the hoods of our coats.
Now what would be really interesting is if I could find an academic or quasi-academic analysis of superhero comics written by a woman.

22 December 2007

Stories in Pre-Literate and Post-Literate Societies

This post is my final extract from Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Book” article in the latest New Yorker. Folks who want to read more of his insights into the history of literacy will have to visit Steamboats Are Ruining Everything.

The most interesting part of the article for me described theories of how pre-literate cultures preserve and explore thoughts--through stories rather than as abstractions divorced from contexts (and thus applicable to many).

Whereas literates can rotate concepts in their minds abstractly, orals embed their thoughts in stories. According to [Jesuit scholar Walter J.] Ong, the best way to preserve ideas in the absence of writing is to “think memorable thoughts,” whose zing insures their transmission.
We might link that “zing” to other neurological research indicating that we remember things because of the emotional meanings we attach to them. Stories, of course, generate emotional meaning.
In an oral culture, cliché and stereotype are valued, as accumulations of wisdom, and analysis is frowned upon, for putting those accumulations at risk. There’s no such concept as plagiarism, and redundancy is an asset that helps an audience follow a complex argument. Opponents in struggle are more memorable than calm and abstract investigations, so bards revel in name-calling and in “enthusiastic description of physical violence.”

Since there’s no way to erase a mistake invisibly, as one may in writing, speakers tend not to correct themselves at all. Words have their present meanings but no older ones, and if the past seems to tell a story with values different from current ones, it is either forgotten or silently adjusted. As the scholars Jack Goody and Ian Watt observed, it is only in a literate culture that the past’s inconsistencies have to be accounted for, a process that encourages skepticism and forces history to diverge from myth.
That last observation concerns pre-literate societies while Crain is hypothesizing about a post-literate society, where information is increasingly shared in the form of moving images and sounds rather than a code of abstract symbols. However, such a society would develop only because those images and sounds are recorded. We will therefore be able to revisit and recheck them just like written documents, and probably won’t [be able to] return to ignoring inconsistencies between one version and another.

On Thursday I quoted the passage from Crain’s article about a decline in Americans “reading for literary experience,” meaning elements of stories: themes, events, characters, settings, language. It therefore seems circular that stories are apparently the basis of pre-literate cultures, perhaps even more important there than to us because of how they concretize abstract concepts.

Recently my mother posited that the world needs more Saturday Evening Post serials. Like many other magazines in the early and middle 1900s, the Post published several stories in each issue, some self-contained but most continuing from one issue to the next; the magazine pictured above started serializing P. G. Wodehouse’s A Damsel in Distress. From what I’ve sampled, those stories tended to be competent, plot-driven, reassuring narratives, not literary masterpieces but compelling enough to entertain and bring folks back for the next installment. We indeed don’t see those sorts of stories anymore. Or, rather, we do see them, on television.

Our culture is consuming more stories than ever. In the past 130 years we’ve gained the technology to share those stories in moving visual images and sounds rather than just in live performances, still pictures, and written words. Crain’s most provocative arguments suggest that moving away from written stories and arguments might change the way we think, or at least change how often we think in one way over another. But a post-literate society will be so different from a pre-literate one that I don’t think we really have any idea what will come. Trying to map one from the other is simply another attempt to answer life’s mysteries through stories.

21 December 2007

A “Graphic-Functional” Way of Thinking

Here are some more thought-provoking passages from Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Book” article in the current New Yorker, concerning how written language seems to enable or require abstract thinking:

in 1974, when Aleksandr R. Luria, a Soviet psychologist, published a study based on interviews conducted in the nineteen-thirties with illiterate and newly literate peasants in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Luria found that illiterates had a “graphic-functional” way of thinking that seemed to vanish as they were schooled. In naming colors, for example, literate people said “dark blue” or “light yellow,” but illiterates used metaphorical names like “liver,” “peach,” “decayed teeth,” and “cotton in bloom.”
Ironically, if a poet were to use those same terms for colors, we’d praise her skill with metaphors. Here the written word seems to make colors abstract rather than tied to empirical observations, and thus washes out the comparisons with anything but other colors.
Experimenters showed peasants drawings of a hammer, a saw, an axe, and a log and then asked them to choose the three items that were similar. Illiterates resisted, saying that all the items were useful. If pressed, they considered throwing out the hammer; the situation of chopping wood seemed more cogent to them than any conceptual category. . . .

One frustrated experimenter showed a picture of three adults and a child and declared, “Now, clearly the child doesn’t belong in this group,” only to have a peasant answer:
Oh, but the boy must stay with the others! All three of them are working, you see, and if they have to keep running out to fetch things, they’ll never get the job done, but the boy can do the running for them.
Illiterates also resisted giving definitions of words and refused to make logical inferences about hypothetical situations.
Some of these responses may actually be adaptive for a culture that doesn’t require much dealing in abstract thinking. For Luria’s illiterate farmers, it may well make more sense to group everything you need to gather firewood or not to send the kid off than to play “One of These Things Is Not Like the Others.”

Our culture values literacy highly, but around the year 800 Charlemagne was the most successful person in Europe despite not being able to write, at least according to an early biographer. Literacy was surely useful then, but it just wasn’t crucial in Charlemagne’s society. (Speaking of strong rulers, we might want to be sure that the studies of illiteracy from the Stalinist USSR weren’t tailored to produce particular results.)

So what does it mean to define and gauge literacy through standardized tests of reading comprehension and writing? Such tests reflect the standards of the society that produces them. If our society does change to value interpreting visual information or personal interactions more than written information, our standardized tests will change, too, to reflect what’s useful in that lifestyle. We may rediscover the link between colors and parts of the natural world, rather than labels for parts of the spectrum of visible light.

20 December 2007

Twilight of the Bard?

Caleb Crain’s “Twilight of the Book” article in the current New Yorker is rather typical of articles about changing literacy in that it emphasizes the negative. Changes can only be for the worse, that implies. The title’s term “twilight” connotes that as the book passes away we will enter a period of darkness--ironic, since what’s supposedly replacing it are screens displaying pictures made of light.

That pessimistic attitude is also apparent in passages like this:

The Department of Education found that reading skills have improved moderately among fourth and eighth graders in the past decade and a half, with the largest jump occurring just before the No Child Left Behind Act took effect, but twelfth graders seem to be taking after their elders. Their reading scores fell an average of six points between 1992 and 2005, and the share of proficient twelfth-grade readers dropped from forty per cent to thirty-five per cent. The steepest declines were in “reading for literary experience”--the kind that involves “exploring themes, events, characters, settings, and the language of literary works,” in the words of the department’s test-makers.
It would be easy to miss because the passage devotes so many more words to bad news, but between 1992 and 2003 most of the American students tested improved their reading scores. (Most of those years, and most of that improvement, occurred during the overall economic growth of the Clinton years.)

That passage also reveals how for a lot of us, especially the folks who write and interpret reading tests, “literary experience” has seized all the qualities of stories for itself. But “themes, events, characters, settings, and...language“ are not exclusive to the written word. They’re aspects of stories, of whatever kind and in whatever format.

Our mass print culture is in fact an anomaly--a wonderful anomaly, but by no means typical or natural. Printing technology began to spread only in the late 1400s, and reached all parts of the globe only in the last century. Humans were seeking to experience the qualities we now tend to think of as “literary” for millennia before that.

In fact, I rather suspect that when written literature began to displace orally transmitted stories, some pessimists complained that this new format just wasn’t the same. “Writing down The Odyssey? How can that bunch of scrolls replace the wonderful experience of the whole village gathering around the fire to listen to the visiting poet? How can a text, pinned down on parchment like a wounded boar, be as lively as a performance adjusted for the audience and the occasion?”

And the shift from pictograph writing to abstract symbols? “That squiggle doesn’t look like anything! When we draw a bird, everyone can see it’s a bird! You get an immediate, unescapable sense of ‘bird.’ How can a few squiggles be as evocative?” (See the process at Prof. Mark Liberman’s Linguistics 001 site.)

And those complaints would technically have been right, just as Crain and the researchers he cites are right. Pictographs do work differently from alphabet symbols, and hearing a story performed is different from reading it through those alphabet symbols (or through pictographs). The ways in which reading is different from other ways of taking in information comprise the most interesting parts of Crain’s article, and I’ll rave on about some of those tomorrow. But for today, I just want to say that a different way of taking in stories isn’t necessarily an inferior one, at least in every respect.

19 December 2007

Next Slide Please

Caleb Crain’s article “Twilight of the Books” in this week’s New Yorker provoked several thoughts, which I’ll try to express in coherent form over the next couple of days.

But first, a helpful extract. This passage is supposed to be evidence that “secondary orality [an oral culture driven by television and related media rather than by lack of literacy] and literacy don’t mix.” However, it seems more like an elementary reminder on the effective use of slides:

In a study published this year, experimenters varied the way that people took in a PowerPoint presentation about the country of Mali. Those who were allowed to read silently were more likely to agree with the statement “The presentation was interesting,” and those who read along with an audiovisual commentary were more likely to agree with the statement “I did not learn anything from this presentation.”

The silent readers remembered more, too, a finding in line with a series of British studies in which people who read transcripts of television newscasts, political programs, advertisements, and science shows recalled more information than those who had watched the shows themselves.
People who read slides take in the same information in two ways, so of course they have that feeling of déjà vu. But the better recall is an impressive finding that speaks to Crain’s larger point: reading makes our brains work differently from other ways of taking in information and/or stories.

As for the study, we learned the same thing last month from Unshelved.

18 December 2007

Asking and Angsting about Ak’s Axe

A posting to Regalia alerted me to the AV Club’s list of "16 morally dubious holiday entertainments".

At #4 is the Rankin-Bass animated special based on L. Frank Baum's novel The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, written before the present mythology of Christmas (such as a North Pole workshop) became cemented in American culture. The article says:

Santa-themed TV specials don't get much more opportunistic or outré than the 1985 adaptation of L. Frank Baum's The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, which takes Baum's Euro-myth-ridden retelling of Santa's origin and ramps up the action for the Masters of the Universe generation, as Claus battles troll-like creatures in order to prove his mettle to the council of Immortals who raised him from infancy.

Dry, confusing, and decidedly un-Christmas-y, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus replaces all that "Peace On Earth" jazz with "Beware my laser-shooting magic axe, evildoers!"
For immortal-on-immortal stop-action violence via YouTube, click on the image above.

In fact, the action and much of the dialogue in this sequence sticks closely to Baum's text in part 2, chapter 7, "The Great Battle Between Good and Evil." The big difference is that Rankin-Bass's budget forced the filmmakers to show only one fatal encounter per type of immortal. In the original, scores of wicked beings are wiped out at a time. Also, the book has no laser-shooting axe; the great Ak simply chops his foe in half. Now go dream of sugar plums, kids!

Eventually the AV Club's list gets down to the "Chipmunk Song," Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," and Victoria's Secret Xmas commercials. I didn't think those had any claim to moral standing in the first place.

16 December 2007

Catching up to the Crisis

Today's weekly Robin comes in two intertwined parts because I'm pondering two major developments since my days as a fanboy reader, and I couldn't figure out how to discuss one without mentioning the other. These facts will come as no news to folks who've read DC comic books in the last couple of decades, but I didn't.

When I started this series, I described my regular comic-book reading as ending with Marv Wolfman and George Pérez's Teen Titans in the early 1980s. DC Comics scholars have a term for that experience: "pre-Crisis."

That refers to the 1985 twelve-issue series Crisis on Infinite Earths, created by Wolfman and Pérez, which fundamentally changed the publisher's fictional universe and the entire superhero-comics business. I think I was still reading one comic book per month at the start of that year, but the buzz around this series didn't grab me.

The roots of the special series lay in the curious history of DC's superheroes. A few of those characters were published continuously from their origin: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and a couple more. But other heroes flickered out in the late 1940s or early 1950s (the "Golden Age"), and then were brought back in new forms in the late 1950s or early 1960s (the "Silver Age").

Thus, from 1940 to 1951, the Flash was a man named Jay Garrick; he wore a winged helmet like Mercury and no mask. Starting in 1956, the Flash was a man named Barry Allen, and he wore a costume that was almost entirely red and covered the top of his face.

Of course, neither comic-book fans nor media companies like to leave once-valuable properties alone, so in 1961 DC published a crossover adventure in which those two Flashes met. With curious logic, the company called the second Flash's world Earth-1 and the first Flash's world Earth-2.

Eventually comics creators invented other parallel worlds as well. This device allowed DC to bring back earlier versions of its heroes, age those characters (the Earth-2 Dick Grayson grew up to fight crime as both a district attorney and a bigger Robin), explore alternative storylines (Superman and Lois Lane got married--somewhere), and confuse the uninitiated. I never got the hang of the DC "multiverse," which was one reason I made mine Marvel.

Crisis on Infinite Earths brought all those parallel worlds together in one confusing stew, as seen in the picture on the left above. It shows the Batman of Earth-1; Jason Todd I, the second Robin on Earth-1; and the Dick Grayson of Earth-2. The Dick Grayson of Earth-1 was caught up in the storyline as well, along with nearly every other recurring character in DC's history.

At the end of that Crisis series, all the parallel worlds were mushed into one. Most universes were simply wiped out of existence and "continuity"; writers and fans weren't supposed to pay attention to their histories anymore. In the surviving DC universe, time was reset. Over the next couple of years, heroes' origins were rewritten. Characters and their milieus became darker. Even as the multiverse has crept back into existence recently, those effects have remained.

Even bigger than Crisis's effect on the DC universe, however, was its effect on the DC business. The company succeeded in attracting a larger and older audience, giving Marvel a run for its money for the first time in years. Both comics publishers have therefore created more "crossover series that change everything"--about once a year now. Marvel's first (in 1984-85) was Secret Wars, and its latest was Civil War. DC likes to use "crisis" in its titles: Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, Identity Crisis, Infinite Crisis, and, coming next year, Final Crisis. (We can be certain that won't be final.)

The second lasting effect of Crisis on Infinite Earths was to introduce the possibility of superhero death. Not just, "Oooh, the Penguin might kill Batman with that bomb--how will our hero escape this time?" Rather, "This publishing company is just crazy enough to kill off one of its trademarked assets." At the end of that Crisis series, Barry Allen as the Flash and Supergirl were dead or erased from continuity, along with a bunch of lesser characters.

The importance of death in that twelve-issue series is clear in its final speech balloon, as a villain called Psycho-Pirate says:

These days...
y-you just never
know who's
going to die...

who's going
to live.
And just in case we might miss that point, the Crisis panel above illustrates how superheroes can now be wiped away. At first glance it's even more confusing than the higher picture. The body of Robin was never found, but isn't that Robin right in the middle of the panel? Yes, but the missing Robin was the one from Earth-2. The Robin of the picture is from Earth-1. At the time readers would take him to be Jason Todd I, but soon they would learn that he was Jason Todd II. All clear?

Since Crisis, Superman has died. Hal Jordan, the first Earth-1 Green Lantern, has died. Donna Troy, once called Wonder Girl, has died. Over at Marvel, Captain America has died. Two or three of the five Robins have vanished or died. Last month the comics blogosphere buzzed with a rumor that next year Bruce Wayne would die.

Marv Wolfman, scripter of Crisis on Infinite Earths, has even lamented what he and George Pérez let loose in the introduction to the graphic novel edition of that series:
After the astounding success of CRISIS--which was created only to simplify the DC universe for new readers--every publisher, even those who were brand-new, jumped onto the bandwagon with a company-changing series of their own, whether they needed to "clean house" or not. In many ways, I fear, the annual stunt had taken over comics publishing. If it isn't big, if heroes don't die, if worlds don't change, then, many feel, the stories aren't worth reading.
Of course, Barry Allen, Supergirl, Superman, Hal Jordan, Donna Troy, one of the dead Robins, and (as of early next year) Captain America are all alive again, as are most other characters with any popularity who have died in some spectacular, circulation-boosting way. The only characters who stay dead are those whose deaths are crucial to more popular characters' origins, like Batman's parents. For them, the multiverse remains a cruel, cruel place.

More Than One Robin

Today's weekly Robin comes in two intertwined parts because I'm pondering two major developments since my days as a fanboy reader, and I couldn't figure out how to discuss one without mentioning the other. These facts will come as no news to folks who've read DC comic books in the last couple of decades, but I didn't.

When I was reading The Teen Titans in the early 1980s, there was still only one Robin on this Earth: Dick Grayson. During that comics series, he retired his first costume and took on a new identity as Nightwing. I didn't either know or care at the time, but simultaneously Bruce Wayne adopted a young replacement, who turned out to be the first of several new Robins.

In fact, by my count (which differs from the usual), there have been four official Robins after Dick, and a handful of other notable Robins in other media or alternative futures. Here's the rundown.

1. Dick Grayson
The original, created in 1940 and still going strong in his twenties as Nightwing. A young trapeze artist whose parents were killed by criminals, Dick became Bruce Wayne's ward and crime-fighting partner while going to school in Gotham City.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Dick had solo adventures in Star-Spangled Comics. Starting in 1964, he teamed with other teenaged sidekicks in the Teen Titans, usually functioning as the group's leader. In 1969 Dick went to college, and he was still working on that bachelor's degree in the early 1980s.

The Crisis on Infinite Earths series from 1985 had little effect on Dick's personality, but it changed Bruce Wayne's character enough to give them a different history together. More on that in some future posting.

2. Jason Todd I
Created in 1983, Jason was a trapeze artist whose parents were murdered. Cornering the market on orphaned young male circus acrobats, Bruce Wayne adopted Jay and trained him to be the second Robin. He was a natural redhead, but dyed his hair black. You think the DC writers were trying to recreate Dick Grayson? This Jason Todd never developed much character of his own. He went into the events of Crisis on Infinite Earths (as shown here), but apparently never came out.

Most people don't count this Jason Todd as separate from the next one, but I say that if the two characters have different parents, different histories, different personalities, and different genes, then they're separate characters who happen to share the same name.

3. Jason Todd II
The post-Crisis Batman writers of 1986 completely revamped Jason Todd's character to produce more friction and drama with Bruce Wayne. Now Jay was a street kid whom the Batman caught trying to steal tires off the Batmobile. His dead father had been a criminal killed by one of the usual supervillains.

Most important, this Jason Todd disobeyed Batman. He was angry, impulsive, and reckless. And, for reasons I'll ponder at some point, he was unpopular with fans. In 1988 the DC editors set up a storyline that ended with the Joker blowing up a building with him in it, and invited readers to call a 900-number to vote on whether Jason would live or die. He died.

It would have been unthinkable for Jason to die pre-Crisis. And even now, superhero characters don't stay dead. The second Jason Todd is now back, older and more bitter than ever, and causing trouble for his counterparts. He has apparently received sole custody of the twin forehead curls that Robin wore from the 1940s through the 1960s.

4. Tim Drake
Created in 1989-90, Tim Drake has proven to be as popular as Dick Grayson, by some measures even more so. (Sometime I'll present my theory why.) He's very smart, can stand up to Batman without being rebellious, and has a warm brotherly relationship with Dick. Tim was the first Robin to have a magazine named after him. He was a stalwart of the Young Justice group and assembled the latest Teen Titans.

Unlike his predecessors, Tim was not an orphan when he started working with Batman. It was only coincidence that he suffered the requisite death of his mother at the hands of criminals. His father survived until 2004, thus producing a novel tension for a Robin: hiding his nocturnal activities from a parent. (It was easier when Dad was in a coma.)

Tim is easy to distinguish from previous Robins because the costume was altered to make it more, well, reasonable. He got to wear Kevlar tights instead of short shorts and pixie boots, and his cape became black with a yellow lining instead of yellow. (Last year Tim started to wear a new costume, mostly red and black, giving comic-book shops a whole new line of action figures to sell.)

5. Stephanie Brown
Many issues of Robin magazine traced the relationship between Tim Drake as Robin and a young female vigilante named the Spoiler. Tim figured out that she was Stephanie Brown, daughter of a minor supervillain. They fell in love and worked through various teenage troubles: he wouldn't tell her his real name, she needed a Lamaze partner, the usual.

When Tim's father discovered he was Robin and barred him from crime-fighting, Batman went looking for a new partner. And he chose Stephanie. (This did not help the teens' relationship.) However, making Stephanie the girl wonder was just a set-up for her death, which the DC editorial staff had already determined on. All this is terribly controversial, and I have no opinion about it.

After Stephanie Brown's murder, Tim Drake once again took up the role of Robin. Some fans are now all squee about hints that the Spoiler will come back.

In addition, the last quarter-century has brought several more variations on the Robin character:

  • Carrie Kelly was the first female Robin, but she doesn't exist yet. She appears in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, a possible future for Batman.
  • The Batman television cartoon produced an "alternate continuity" called the DC Animated Universe (DCAU as opposed to DCU), with its own comic books. The Robin in that continuity is named Tim Drake but has Jason Todd II's background.
  • The Robin of the Teen Titans television cartoon, which has also inspired a comic-book line, really doesn't have another identity. He doesn't even take off his mask to sleep. Clues indicate that he's a version of Dick Grayson, though his costume more closely resembles Tim Drake's.
  • DC is about to publish a "tiny Titans" comic book; detail from Art Baltazar's preview here. I like the lowercase chest insignia. The pixie boots are back.

15 December 2007

L. Frank Baum Writes His Own Contract

Yesterday I discussed L. Frank Baum's many pseudonymous books published with Reilly & Britton in 1906. Those all came under one contract, in which he basically promised to write only for that firm, and it promised to publish no other juvenile authors. Though there were some bumps along the way when Baum thought his sales were too low, he and the firm continued to work together until the end of his life.

The contract itself, published in The Baum Bugle in 1969, reflects Baum's sense of humor. It certainly wasn't written by a lawyer! To show what I mean, we pick up that document already in progress:

Second:- Baum shall deliver to The Reilly & Britton Company on or before November 15, 1905 six complete children's stories of about 4500 words each, written by him under the pen name of "Laura Bancroft," or some female appellation of equally dignified comprehensiveness.

Third:- Baum shall deliver to The Reilly & Britton Co. on or before January 1, 1906 the manuscript of a Novel for Young Folks, the title to be later determined on, but the authorship to be ascribed to Maud Gage Baum, or to "Helen Leslie" or to some other female she, as may be mutually agreed upon.

Fourth:- Baum shall deliver to The Reilly & Britton Co. on or before March 1, 1906 the manuscript of a book for young girls on the style of the Louisa M. Alcott stories, but not so good, the authorship to be ascribed to "Ida May McFarland," or to "Ethel Lynne," or some other mythological female

Fifth:- Baum shall deliver to The Reilly & Britton Co. on or before April 15, 1906 the complete manuscript of a story of adventure for boys, the authorship to be ascribed the [sic] Capt. Arthur Fitzgerald, or some other mythical male hero. . . .

Tenth:- The Reilly & Britton Co. agrees to promote the sale of each and all of these books to the full extent of whatever ability God has given them, backed by their worldly experience and mature judgement, and not to shy at any idea of further increasing such sales that may at any time enlighten their minds.

Eleventh:- The Reilly & Britton Co. further agrees that in case said Baum shall at any time become hard up to provide for him upon demand any sum or sums of money that he may wish to squander that will not total more than two thousand dollars, although they hope it will be less, and to deduct such sums from said Baum's accrued royalties on the next day of payment following, as above provided for. . . .

In witness whereof the undersigned parties to this agreement, being sane in their own estimation, well fed and not under the influence of any intoxicating beverages, do subscribe their names in the presence of witnesses.
I've seen hundreds of publishing contracts, and none is as readable as this one. However, a prohibition on signing agreements "under the influence of any intoxicating beverages" would have brought the mid-20th-century publishing industry to a standstill.

14 December 2007

The Pseudonymous Bugle

In 1906, the Reilly & Britton Company, a publisher founded only two years before, announced a list of fiction by Laura Bancroft, Capt. Hugh Fitzgerald, Suzanne Metcalf, Schuyler Staunton, and Edith Van Dyne, as well as John Dough and the Cherub by the firm's star, L. Frank Baum.

The secret behind that output? All those authors actually were Baum, writing under pseudonyms so as to attract different audiences and avoid competing with himself. "Bancroft" wrote fantasy fiction for young children. "Fitzgerald" and "Staunton" wrote foreign adventures for teenaged boys and men. "Metcalf" and "Van Dyne" wrote novels for teenaged girls.

Of the batch, the books credited to Edith Van Dyne were the most successful. The Aunt Jane's Nieces series reportedly came second only to Baum's Oz books in sales during his lifetime. The later Mary Louise series from Van Dyne was strong enough for the publisher to commission more titles from Emma Speed Sampson after Baum's death.

The latest issue of the International Wizard of Oz Club's Baum Bugle examines that pseudonymous work with three thorough and well-illustrated dissections of three series that began in 1906, plus period reviews and bibliographical examinations. The articles are:

  • Angelica Carpenter's comparison of Baum's Aunt Jane's Nieces with Carolyn Well's competing Patty books for girls. One observation: Baum never offered the elaborate detail on clothing usually found in this genre.
  • H. Alan Pickrell's discussion of the series published as both Sam Steele's Adventures and The Boy Fortune Hunters. In a 1999 review, I wrote, "These books show us how special Baum’s fairylands are. Sam Steele’s sagas were cooked up from many of the same ingredients as the Oz books, but stewed in greed, suspicion, and insistence on white American male superiority." And precisely because of that contrast, I find them valuable for Oz fans to read.
  • Sean P. Duffley's analysis of Annabel, the worst performer of the bunch. Apparently that novel was supposed to appeal to teenagers of both sexes, but it appears to have never quite come together. The story, which Sean notes closely follows the model created by Horatio Alger, focused on a hard-working young man. But the packaging and marketing emphasized the bland title character.
As the issue notes, for a long time children's books weren't seen as worthwhile objects of study. Then the academy began to accept that sort of literature, but still saw series books as beneath regard. Then enduringly popular series like the Oz books gained some respect. As these articles show, we can also learn a lot from forgotten popular literature, even unsuccessful examples of it.

This issue of the Bugle also contains reviews of new Oz books and DVDs.

TOMORROW: Baum's funniest writing from 1905-06.

13 December 2007

Oz Fandom Catches the NY Times

Today The New York Times ran this vitally important correction:

A television review in Weekend on Nov. 30 about “Tin Man,” a mini-series on the Sci Fi Channel based on “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” by L. Frank Baum, referred imprecisely to an interpretation of Baum’s having Dorothy wear silver shoes on the yellow-brick road. While the juxtaposition of the colors has been seen by some as indicating Mr. Baum’s support for the monetary system of bimetallism, he is not known to have advocated that system.
The review in question was also changed on the Times website. Originally, as preserved here at Muley's World, it said, "The notion of silver shoes ambling on a yellow brick road is thought to stand for Baum's advocacy of bimetallism..." The review now reads:
The notion of silver shoes ambling on a yellow brick road is thought to stand for bimetallism,...although Baum is not known to have advocated that system.
I'd thought that the paper simply appended its corrections to the bottom of the affected articles. This approach makes it impossible to tell from the online article what's had to be changed. On the other hand, it keeps misinformation out of search databases.

The correction was probably prompted by messages from Oz fans who know that Baum's politics were more Progressive Republican than Populist Democrat. I saw one message crediting Oz expert Michael Patrick Hearn with the suggestion that people write to the Times. I think my first published letter to a newspaper (aside from one accompanying a tiny donation to Globe Santa when I was a preschooler) was about this very myth, and that was about twenty-five years ago. So I must confess I didn't get up the energy to complain that the misconception was still around.

In that long-ago letter, I suggested that people seeking economic policy prescriptions from the Oz books to look instead at this quotation from The Emerald City of Oz.

For evidence of Baum's political affiliations, see Prof. David B. Parker's "The Rise and Fall of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a 'Parable on Populism'." (Fallen, perhaps, but obviously not dead yet.)

12 December 2007

Worlds Are Colliding, part two

I've gotten used to seeing my own name in The Baum Bugle, the journal of the International Wizard of Oz Club, without quite knowing why. The editor, Sean P. Duffley, is very kind about crediting people for uncovering Oz-related news. I think that in the latest issue Sean picked up word of the Library of Congress's online reading promotion, which I wrote about in October.

But I was startled many pages later to come across the name of my uncle, who has no connection to Oz fandom besides putting me up/putting up with me in recent years as I attended the Munchkin Convention near his home. His station wagon's been to an Oz event, with me at the wheel, but I don't think he has.

Yet there in an article on one of L. Frank Baum's lesser-known books for young people, Annabel, was the name of historian Daniel T. Rodgers. Sean Duffley himself cited Uncle Dan's early book, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920, and what it says about the standard model of Horatio Alger's novels.

I'll say more about this issue of The Baum Bugle after I recover from the mild shock.

11 December 2007

Worlds Are Colliding

It's rare that I see my stated interests mirrored so uncannily, but the venerable LiveJournal community scans_daily has just offered, one after the other:

And since it seems only fair, I'm offering links to the Mythographical blog of Steve Ahlquist, who wrote those issues of Oz Squad and has posted those scans and many more. His annotated collection of that pioneering Oz comic is now on sale.

The image up top, drawn by Andrew Murphy, comes from that first Oz Squad comic, and shows what made it so controversial among Oz fans. On the one hand, nobody likes the idea of a murderous Tik-Tok. On the other, the mechanical man is talking just as he does in The Road to Oz when his thinking runs down, showing how well Ahlquist knows the books. The twist in the comic book is that the problem's affected Tik-Tok's ethical thinking as well.

10 December 2007

Glinda’s Beautiful Maidens

In L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, the great sorceress Glinda the Good chooses to live in a largely, if not entirely, female environment.

In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the first servants of Glinda whom Dorothy meets are “three young girls, dressed in handsome red uniforms trimmed with gold braid.” These female soldiers and many more reappear in the second book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. That book describes Glinda’s private bodyguard this way:

Glinda's soldiers wore neat uniforms and bore swords and spears; and they marched with a skill and precision that proved them well trained in the arts of war.
Glinda’s army easily overcomes that book’s more famous female soldiers, the Army of Conquest led by General Jinjur. All those ranks of uniformed young women probably sprang from two inspirations:
  • Baum’s belief in women’s equality, though he also couldn’t resist satirizing the suffrage movement along with its opposition.
  • The great success of marching chorus girls in the 1903 stage adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, which he spent the next fifteen years trying to replicate.
Later in his series, Baum provided three more detailed descriptions of Glinda’s private life. In The Lost Princess of Oz (1913), he wrote:
This castle, situated in the Quadling Country, far south of the Emerald City where Ozma ruled, was a splendid structure of exquisite marbles and silver grilles. Here the Sorceress lived, surrounded by a bevy of the most beautiful maidens of Oz, gathered from all the four countries of that fairyland as well as from the magnificent Emerald City itself, which stood in the place where the four countries cornered.

It was considered a great honor to be allowed to serve the good Sorceress, whose arts of magic were used only to benefit the Oz people.
The Magic of Oz (1919) says:
Here there were gathered fifty beautiful young girls, Glinda's handmaids, who had been selected from all parts of the Land of Oz on account of their wit and beauty and sweet dispositions. It was a great honor to be made one of Glinda's handmaidens.

When Dorothy followed the Sorceress into this delightful patio all the fifty girls were busily weaving, and their shuttles were filled with a sparkling green spun glass such as the little girl had never seen before.
And finally Glinda of Oz (1920) begins:
Glinda, the good Sorceress of Oz, sat in the grand court of her palace, surrounded by her maids of honor--a hundred of the most beautiful girls of the Fairyland of Oz. The palace court was built of rare marbles, exquisitely polished. Fountains tinkled musically here and there; the vast colonnade, open to the south, allowed the maidens, as they raised their heads from their embroideries, to gaze upon a vista of rose-hued fields and groves of trees bearing fruits or laden with sweet-scented flowers.

At times one of the girls would start a song, the others joining in the chorus, or one would rise and dance, gracefully swaying to the music of a harp played by a companion. And then Glinda smiled, glad to see her maids mixing play with work.
All three of these three descriptions state that Glinda’s handmaidens have been selected for their beauty; one says their “wit” and “sweet dispositions” were also criteria.

Some latter-day Oz authors give Glinda masculine companions. Jack Snow’s unsold short story “A Murder in Oz” says the handmaids are replaced by handsome giants at night. In her Seven Blue Mountains of Oz volumes, Melody Grandy finds a love interest for Glinda in a powerful sorcerer.

But according to Baum’s books, Glinda is interested in feminine beauty, and only feminine. That’s why I mentioned the sorceress in my posting on possible gay characters in children’s fantasies before 1997.

Now I don’t actually think that Glinda is interested in a love affair with anyone, female or male. I think she lives for knowledge, and to secure Oz from trouble. The bevy of beautiful young women around her, weaving cloth and dancing, seems to reflect not personal meaning but rather mythic overtones. Glinda’s handmaids recall the fates and muses, or bands of fairies. And, of course, chorus girls.

09 December 2007

Year One and Year Forty-Two

Superhero comic book timing is crazy. Successful characters are supposed to remain recognizable for decades, yet almost always operate in the present. In recent decades they all undergo drawn-out psychological challenges and life passages, yet they never age. Or, at most, they age very slowly.

For teen superheroes, those paradoxes are especially tough because the differences between fourteen and nineteen are much bigger and more visible than the differences between twenty-four and twenty-nine, or thirty-four and thirty-nine. Mostly because writers get tired of portraying the same characters at the very same age and/or because editors want to reach a slightly older audience, teen superheroes usually do age, but very slowly.

Robin burst onto the Gotham scene in 1940. Although his age was never stated, he appeared to be in his early teens. Twenty-five years later, Robin was portrayed in his mid-teens as he formed the "Teen Titans" with other superheroes' young sidekicks.

In 1969, Dick Grayson went off to college, taking his Robin identity along with him. Slightly over a decade after that, he was still said to be about nineteen years old as a new Teen Titans series created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez reinvigorated the whole DC line.

There have been at least two clock-resettings in the DC Universe since (heavily hyped events called Crisis on Infinite Earths and Zero Hour), which have wiped some previous adventures "out of continuity." Nevertheless, it's been another quarter-century, and Dick Grayson is still in his twenties, and probably there to stay. So in that regard, comic-book timing is timeless.

On the other hand, Dick Grayson definitely has a past. Fans find that past meaningful. They want most of those past stories still to apply, and to make sense together--at least since the last major clock-resetting.

Furthermore, the Batman franchise is particularly backward-looking. DC has published "Year One" volumes showing the earliest adventures of:

Those books retell the characters' origin stories in times that are clearly not the present, yet closer to the present than when the characters first appeared in print. This year, the company announced Year One treatments for four more heroes, at least three linked to Batman, and one group: the Teen Titans. The first issue of that miniseries, due in January, will show teenage Dick Grayson help form the group. As I wrote before, the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans issues were the last comic books I read regularly, in my late teens. So won't this new series take me back to those youthful years? Let's see. Here's a detail from some preview art for that comic book, script by Amy Wolfram and art by Karl Kerschl. We can assume that Robin's summoning the Titans for one of their first cases. By instant message. On a computer with a flat-panel monitor. Hooked up to an iPod.

In The Brave and the Bold #60, the forty-two-year-old comic book that first showed the Teen Titans summoned as a group, the call came by ham radio. So when does the scene above take place? Wayne Enterprises ensures the Batcave has the latest technology, so Batman could have used a flat-panel monitor in the early 1990s. But instant messages became popular a couple of years later, and iPods appeared in 2001. So let's compromise on the late 1990s.

And that's what I mean by crazy timing. According to Teen Titans: Year One, Dick Grayson first assembled his friends more than a decade after I'd stopped reading about their later adventures. And what hurts most, Robin was supposedly using technology in the 1990s that I still don't have. This doesn't leave me feeling nostalgic. It leaves me feeling confused and rather old.

08 December 2007

Akkordionspieler Carnival Returns

In August 2006, as I was trying to figure out this blogging custom called a "carnival," I hosted the self-proclaimed Akkordionspieler Carnival--all links supposed to be about German kids in tents with accordions.

Unfortunately, it proved very tough to meet all those criteria, so the Akkordionspieler Carnival committee is being more relaxed this time. So relaxed that this whole carnival is simply a Flickr search.

Clearly, the star of the image on the left (from Portugal) is the chihuahua.

What gives this photograph (from Germany) its pent-up energy is the unicycle on the right. Alas, we never get to see the fellows use it.

A lot of the accordion-playing kids in these photos are buskers or, to use the less quaint and colorful term, beggars, like the lad on the right (from Rhodes).

But some young accordionists are playing for the sheer joy of music. And for the girls, of course.

07 December 2007

The O'Connor Oeuvre

This week the Boston 1775 blog featured a two-part review of Journey into Mohawk Country, a nonfiction graphic novel by George O'Connor.

This is the same George O'Connor who worked at Books of Wonder in New York and illustrated several Oz-related books from that store's press, including David Hulan's Glass Cat of Oz [features inside jokes about Bruce Coville!] and L. Frank Baum's American Fairy Tales and The Enchanted Island of Yew. I have to admit I wasn't won over by those early illustrations, especially O'Connor's cover art for Yew; the book's hero, Baum reminds us over and over, is a slight youth, not an armored he-man.

But I really liked O'Connor's Journey into Mohawk Country; his art and artistic imagination brings life and humor to an unpromising historical document, prodding readers to think about how to interpret such sources. O'Connor also created Kapow! and Ker-splash!, picture books about preschool superheroes. See, it all ties in together.

06 December 2007

Half in the Shadows

Yesterday I started writing about my look back at Susan Cooper's King of Shadows after hearing her speak of the book's genesis in a story about gay love between Shakespeare and a young actor. When Cooper decided she was writing the boy Nat's story for young readers, what happened to the sexual themes?

The whole novel takes place among two theatrical troupes: a group of American boys recruited to perform Shakespeare's plays in the recreated Globe Theatre, and Shakespeare's own players in Elizabethan London. Not one person in either time is identified as gay. Arby, the flamboyant impresario who heads the boys' troupe, lives with a woman named Julia. The Elizabethan Nathan Field is said to have been known, like other theatrical professionals, for his "success with women."

I spotted only two moments in which characters mentioned heterodox notions of sexuality or gender. When a young member of the boys' troupe says his mother thinks the theater is dangerous, a sardonic teen answers, "She thought her beautiful little boy'd get attacked by nasty molesters?" Later, when Nat is in Elizabethan England, he gets angry at a street-toughened older teen calling him "little lass."

However, unlike other boy actors in both the modern and Elizabethan scenes, Nat is never assigned a female role. Nat says he has no interest in playing "lovey-dovey roles," and Shakespeare agrees that he's "not a romantic beauty." What's more, there is not a word in the modern scenes about the implications of boys dressing as women: no teasing, no arguments, no comments at all. Instead, one of the loudest themes in the book, introduced on page 2 and repeated often afterwards, is the idea of a theatrical troupe as a "family."

Cooper passes up other opportunities to address ideas of homosexuality. Shakespeare gives Nat a copy of his sonnet beginning "Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments." This is usually identified as one of the batch dedicated to a "fair [male] youth." However, Cooper's Shakespeare says he wrote it "for a woman."

Shakespeare tells Nat to read that sonnet as about "thee and thy father," which illuminates how Cooper eventually restructured her characters' relationship in what turned out to be "a children's story." She had originally planned to write about Shakespeare's homosexual love for a young player, but in the finished book Shakespeare is Nat's surrogate father and Nat is the playwright's replacement son.

This becomes clear in the scene beginning on page 73, when Nat dissolves in tears before the playwright and reveals his father's suicide for the first time. Shakespeare in turn talks about losing his son Hamnet, who was about Nat's age. It turns out that Nat's father was a writer, too. Shakespeare later speaks of visiting his wife and surviving children at Stratford. In this context, when the playwright moves the young player into his rooms for more rehearsal, that comes across as Nat regaining something of his life with his father (his mother had died years earlier) rather than as a potentially romantic relationship.

Well, at least from one side. Even though Shakespeare shows only paternal fondness for Nat, the boy develops some sort of crush on the playwright. "I'll never leave you. I want to act with you forever," Nat thinks, and later asks to be Shakespeare's apprentice. Nat misses the man terribly when he returns to the 20th century. And although he never identifies his feelings as romantic love, he comes to sees his portrayal of Puck alongside Shakespeare's Oberon as a "spirit in love with his master."

Thus, while the William Shakespeare in King of Shadows doesn't appear to be gay or bisexual, it's certainly possibly to read Nat as at the start of realizing his homosexuality. Of course, that mix of filial and romantic love can be disquieting, especially in a young boy--hence the explicit emphasis on finding a family.

Earlier I quoted an interview Cooper gave to a British newspaper in 2000, in which she mentioned the genesis of King of Shadows in the love between Shakespeare and a young player. Perhaps she said the same to American journalists, but as the book was coming out in 1999 she emphasized a different inspiration in an interview with Publishers Weekly:
About 10 years ago, I had a flicker of an idea that I would like to write about a boy who is acting at the new Globe and finds himself going back in time to act at Shakespeare's Globe. But I thought, "Oh, God, all that research!" I had just finished The Boggart, and the [main character] hadn't quite left my head, so instead of doing my Elizabethan boy, I wrote a sequel. But the Elizabethan boy didn't leave my head either. So then I did bite the bullet.
Though some readers have latterly wondered about Cooper's Shakespeare being gay, the book's earliest reviewers picked up its clear theme of Nat finding a replacement family rather than its misty whiffs of romance. Publishers Weekly said "Shakespeare [is] cast as a wise, intuitive father figure," and Library Journal spoke of the playwright and Nat's "father/son relationship."

Seeing Cooper shift her story from a love story to a tale of rebuilding a family makes sense when we consider her oeuvre. In her books, families are sources of stability and strength, not tension and anger. She writes little about romantic love and sexual attraction; as she described in her Cambridge Forum presentation, that's one reason she likes writing about pre-adolescent kids. (The recent movie The Seeker was particularly un-Cooperish because the screenwriter gave Will Stanton a teenage crush and a treacherous sibling. We can find such things in Diana Wynne Jones's novels, but not in The Dark Is Rising.)