31 July 2008

Where I Went on My Summer Vacation, part 2

The Falkirk Wheel is a rotating boat lift that connects the Union and Forth & Clyde Canals in southern Scotland, which are separated by a vertical distance of 35 meters. Until the 1930s, moving from one canal to the other meant going through eleven locks, taking more than a day for each to fill and empty. Then that connection was broken altogether as the canals lost their industrial viability.

The wheel, opened in 2002, takes only a few minutes to raise or lower canal boats most of that vertical distance (there's another, traditional lock in the foreground of these pictures). Because each side of the wheel holds the equivalent of a lock's worth of water, it's so well balanced that it needs only 1.5 kilowatts of power to operate.

Photographs by Jerry Bell.

30 July 2008

The Evolution of Pop Culture Icons

I missed this back in March, but I want to link to Greg Hatcher's image-rich essay on the twists and turns of latterday sequels to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz at Comics Should Be Good! He traces how sequels, adaptations into other media, and revivals eventually gave way to deconstructions, reimaginings for adults, and deliberately dark versions.

Along the way, Hatcher sums up my general feeling about "dark Oz" adaptations after seeing one or two:

what started as a one-off novelty is now its own genre, almost. Once a startlingly novel approach, it’s rapidly becoming a cliche. Even the good stuff can’t help but look a little tired just because it’s one more in a long line. How many times and how many ways can you do a clever adult re-imagining of the same juvenile property?
Especially if the cleverness consists mainly in imagining the popular details turned 180 degrees. It's easy to find the exact opposite of something, so such "dark" versions become predictable fast.
Eventually, you come full circle. It reaches the point where a new juvenile version, told in modern idiom without any attempt to trade on nostalgia, is actually the novelty.
Hatcher then goes on to suggest that same pattern holds for a different sort of American mythos: the superhero universe.
...when you apply it [this pop-culture model] to Marvel and DC, you posit that things like the animated cartoons and DVDs are the new juvenile version, and the regular line of print comics that we see every Wednesday are the last gasp of the adult re-imagining of characters like Superman or Spider-Man.

Anyway. I can’t quite decide how I feel about it, if it’s good or bad or what.
One way to explore this idea further might be to go back earlier in popular culture than Oz, and see what happened to other fictional universes. For instance, Uncle Tom's Cabin started as a greatly affecting, hot political book, and soon became a staple of theater, then a music-house cliché and narrative for children. It inspired counter-narratives like The Klansmen and Gone with the Wind. Now it's read mainly by academics, and popular culture uses the title character's name as a pejorative.

29 July 2008

Wrong Answer in Spiderwick Movie

While traveling last month, I saw the film adaptation of The Spiderwick Chronicles on an airplane. Not the best place to see any movie, to be sure, but in this case I didn't feel I'd missed too much. The movie had far too little griffin, and the story felt small compared to the books. Of course, when most of the speaking roles are handled through computer graphics and the two main roles are played by the same actor, the cast is bound to seem small.

However, what really bothered me about the movie adaptation was the ending. Did that happen in the books? I wondered. This week I found an essay on Nick Owchar's Jacket Copy blog for the Los Angeles Times that expressed my feelings very well [***SPOILERS*** and all]:

In both cases -- books and movie -- the villainous ogre, named Mulgarath, is confronted by the children. And in both cases, the wily shapechanger tries to fool the children by taking the form of their father. It doesn’t work. In the books, Jared suspects that "Dad" is a phony and tells him so, causing the ogre to give up his ruse and resume his monstrous shape, tree-limbs and all. A showdown ensues in the ogre's shabby palace.

In the movie? Quite a different climax.

Here, we get a heavy undercurrent of family unhappiness, of marital collapse; the mother is a wreck and the father’s absence is painfully felt. When the father (played by Andrew McCarthy) finally does appear at the movie’s end, he gets asked a question by Jared as he walks through the mansion’s front door. Jared’s question is extremely general: He wants to know what message his father promised to give him when he arrived at the estate for a visit. Of course, it’s a test to confirm his father’s identity.

With a puzzled look on his face, Mr. Pretty in Pink says plainly: “I love you.”

There is no menace, no sarcasm nor any irony, nothing to cue us that lurking behind his aging boyish face might be a yellow-eyed creature of nightmares. He sounds like any beleaguered parent facing a child unhappy that his parents have split up.

What is Jared’s response?

“Wrong answer!” he declares, and then -- the horror of it -- he stabs his father in the chest with a kitchen knife. The father gasps in disbelief, and then, he hunches over and begins a transformation that makes his skin bubble and stretch as the true villain is revealed.

What’s going on here?

Why turn Jared's defiant challenge into a stabbing? Kids are savvy, I agree, but why force such an ugly scene on them?

Irony rules the day in Hollywood. I’m sure that Jared’s stabbing of “his father” was explained in some concept meeting as being a powerful expression of how much pain he feels because of his father’s desertion.

On the screen, though, it only makes Jared seem vicious, especially because it comes in response to being told he is loved. Jared’s brilliant ability to detect elfin fakery is never established, and Mulgarath’s shapechanging early in the movie is so minimal that it’s easy to forget. This change to the story loses sight of the bright tones and adventurous spirit in the series. The filmmakers evidently forgot something important: This is a story for children, not adults. Save the parricides for your R movies. Oedipus doesn’t play well with kids, ok?
And right after the stabbing, Andrew McCarthy reverts back into Nick Nolte--which is even more scary.

28 July 2008

Lucius Fox: In the Know

Yesterday I discussed how The Dark Knight uses the character of Alfred Pennyworth differently from how he first appeared in the Batman comics, back in 1943. Today I'll talk about the movie's approach to another supporting character, but this one goes back only to 1979.

Lucius Fox was introduced into the comics that year as a talented corporate executive who ran Bruce Wayne's corporation and foundation for him so he could sleep off his late nights chasing criminals as a vapid playboy. Fox is African-American, and his arrival expanded the "Batman family" beyond White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

In the comics, Fox's acumen lies in managing corporations and managing money. He even built Dick Grayson's small inheritance from his parents into enough money that the young man could live apart from Wayne Manor and buy the circus where he grew up.

Batman Begins, the first of the new Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan, gave Fox a new role: chief inventor of Batman's stuff. He's an engineer at Wayne Enterprises, unfairly shunted aside by a usurping CEO. Fox slips Bruce some of the technology that helps him become Batman, and eventually Bruce makes him the new head of the company.

The comic-book Lucius Fox has yet to tumble to his boss's secrets (or at least he has yet to let on that he has). Once Hollywood cast Morgan Freeman in that role, however, audiences wouldn't believe that he'd remain that ignorant. After all, he's the industry's current choice to play God. (A very long way from holding cue cards as Marcello on The Electric Company.)

Therefore, The Dark Knight shows Lucius Fox as fully cognizant of Bruce Wayne's activities. In essence, he's a second Alfred. Which brings me to this New York Post interview with Freeman:

What's the secret to making a superhero movie?

You gotta make the superhero believable. Batman is not super. He has extensive training in order to be able to do what he's doing. What made "Batman Begins" work is that you saw how he begins. He's not bitten by a spider or bathed in atomic rays or anything. The guy was trained in a certain art. That's very believable.

Part of that believability is also that Batman is disturbed.

He is. This is one of the things the new movie brings out. He sees his path, and he knows the price he pays for it. His mentors, the people watching over him, are saying, "You're getting into dangerous territory here."

27 July 2008

Alfred Pennyworth: Replacing Robin since 1986

I find myself in the midst of a little series of Dark Knight postings, yet it's time for the weekly Robin. Oh, what to do? I'll discuss how the Batman mythos we see in the new movies, as well as the previous movie series that started in 1989, manage to get along fine without a Robin.

Bruce Wayne's original supporting cast in the Batman comics consisted of Police Commissioner James Gordon, introduced in the very first story, and Julie Madison, Bruce's fiancée. Neither of those characters knew his secret identity as the Batman (or "the Bat-Man," as it was originally written). Julie eventually disappeared.

When the creative team introduced Dick Grayson in 1940, they didn't simply lower the average age of the cast. They also added a character who knew about Bruce Wayne's nocturnal activities and helped him. In the late 1960s, Batman co-creator Bill Finger described his thinking to comics artist and historian Jim Steranko:

Robin was an outgrowth of a conversation I had with Bob [Kane, the artist]. As I said, Batman was a combination of [Douglas] Fairbanks and Sherlock Holmes. Holmes had his Watson. The thing that bothered me was that Batman didn't have anyone to talk to, and it got a little tiresome always having him thinking. I found that as I went along Batman needed a Watson to talk to. That's how Robin came to be.
(Eventually I'll analyze this some more in a subseries I'll call "reasons for Robin.")

In 1943, the Batman team added another supporter to the Batman team: Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne's butler. As originally written, Alfred looked like a portly Arthur Treacher, but that same year a Hollywood serial portrayed the character as thin and mustachioed, so the comic-book butler went off to a spa and returned with less weight and more facial hair. (Cover at left courtesy of the Grand Comics Database.)

Alfred was originally comic relief, with a broad ethnic dialect. His shtick was wishing to be a great detective but achieving results--such as discovering his employer's secret identity--only through dumb luck. Later writers portrayed Alfred as actually smart and capable, with a background in British intelligence and the theater which had left him with very useful disguise skills.

And thus things remained (with a odd break in the 1960s that I've decided not to acknowledge) until DC Comics's Crisis in 1986. The company rewrote the origins of some of its major characters. For Batman, the big change involved Alfred. Now, the comic books told us, he had been a servant in the Wayne household when Bruce was a boy. He (and a local physician, Leslie Thompkins, introduced into the mythos in 1976) had cared for young Bruce after his parents were shot.

In other words, Alfred--not Dick Grayson--was Batman's oldest friend and assistant. He still had a theatrical and intelligence background, and he turned out to have another skill necessary in those darker times: combat surgeon. With Dick off with the Titans as Nightwing and the Robin situation in flux, Alfred became Bruce Wayne's most constant aide and confidant--in short, his Watson.

In all Batman stories since 1986, Alfred knows Bruce's secrets, perhaps better than the master himself. He offers snarky comments about Bruce's Batman habit, but in the end is what the recovery movement would label an enabler. He has helped to raise the orphan boys Bruce keeps bringing home, and assisted them on their own adventures. At a few points, Alfred even left Wayne Manor to reconnect with family in Britain or to look after Tim Drake at boarding school.

The 1989 Batman movie directed by Tim Burton and the 2005 Batman Begins directed by Christopher Nolan both adopted DC's "post-Crisis" history of Alfred. Even more than comic books, which at least had the option of thought balloons, moviemakers need sounding-boards for their heroes to talk to. And as long as Alfred is there for those conversations--particularly as depicted by a movie legend like Michael Caine--Robin doesn't have to be.

26 July 2008

Renee Montoya and Anna Ramirez

There's a character in the Batman mythos named Renee Montoya. She was created as a Gotham City police officer for the animated cartoon of the early 1990s, and quickly slipped into the comic books to tie the two media together. Montoya served several roles in those early stories, from providing Batman with a regular contact on the cops to offering a non-stereotypical role for a female and Hispanic.

Soon Commissioner Jim Gordon promoted Montoya to detective and assigned her to the Major Crimes Unit. Over the years her partners were Harvey Bullock and Crispus Allen, two other established DC supporting characters. Two-Face developed a crush on her in the No Man's Land arc.

Montoya was a major character in the Gotham Central series, which revealed more of her personal life: she had a girlfriend, and parents who disapproved of that relationship. Some fans disliked this revelation, seeing it as changing the character they'd imagined rather than filling her out. For others, Montoya became even more interesting and admirable.

In a series that DC published in 2006, Montoya took up the role of the Question, a superhero Steve Ditko had created for Charlton in 1967 as a mouthpiece for his Ayn Rand philosophy. (The Question became part of the DC stable when Charlton sold its superhero properties.) I've written about how this development exemplifies the dominance of costumed-hero adventures in American comic books.

I mention all this because early on in the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight, we see a young Latina detective working closely with Jim Gordon. She's played by Monique Curnen. More than a few Batman fans assumed that she was Montoya, as I did. Only late in the film do we learn that her name is Ramirez.

Earlier this month, Joanne at Comic Genius wrote about why the character of Det. Anna Ramirez was appearing not only in The Dark Knight but also in an animated film just released to DVD, Batman: Gotham Knight. Where was Montoya? she demanded.

The answer becomes clear once one sees The Dark Knight. [And now we get into ***SPOILER*** territory for people who haven't.] The screenwriters, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, undoubtedly used the sight of a Latina detective to lure fans into thinking that character was Montoya, and would behave as Montoya has behaved in numerous Batman stories since 1991. But Ramirez acts differently, providing a surprise for the cocky fanboys who think they can predict everything the Joker will do. The filmmakers could pull off that trick only because they were working within an established universe with a big fan base.

At the same time, having built Renee Montoya into a heroine and even a costumed heroine, DC and Warner Bros. got to preserve that character free of whatever fate Anna Ramirez might face.

Bagram Source of False Obama Rumor

A while back, I noted how Snopes.com's rumors collected on the internet about the Democratic Presidential candidates far exceeded those about this year's Republican candidate, and how the statements about Democrats were false far more often than true, and false far more often than the equivalent statements about the Republican.

The pattern continues. As of today, there are three rumors about John McCain listed on the Snopes website, none of them false. There are twenty-seven rumors about Barack Obama, seventeen of them false and only two of them clearly accurate.

The latest lie was drafted by an army captain in Afghanistan named Jeffrey S. Porter and spread around the internet this week. The New York Daily News identified Porter as a “Utah Army National Guard intelligence officer in a linguist unit at Bagram Airfield,” which is a major major detention and interrogation site. FactCheck.org preserves how the paper added:

Now the Bagram captain is dialing back, having signed the viral e-mail with his name, rank and unit - a possible violation of military regulations barring political statements. . . .

An Army officer familiar with the incident told The Mouth today that the writer is “devastated that the letter was made public. It was never his intention that it go beyond members of his family.”
It seems curious for Porter to have signed the email with his rank, unit, assignment, and the phrases "American Soldier" and "(married and father of 6 children)" if he were writing only to his family. You'd think they'd know all that stuff already.

25 July 2008

Poetry Friday: The Original Dark Knights

Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of the recent Boys of Steel, wrote about his disappointment that the new movie The Dark Knight didn’t credit Bill Finger with having first applied that title phrase to the Batman in Detective Comics, #40. Finger had created the character with artist Bob Kane a few months before, and wrote many Batman scripts from the 1930s through the 1960s, almost always uncredited.

Marc’s posting made me curious about where the phrase “dark knight” originally came from. Finger was obviously trying to evoke our cultural memories of the Middle Ages, just as one of the supposed inspirations for Robin was Robin Hood. A little searching for “dark knight” in Google Books’s “Full Texts” database led me to the British literary scene of the early 1800s, a time of medieval revivalism. So for Poetry Friday here are the two earliest examples of the “dark knight” that I could find.

The Anglo-Irish writer Charles Maturin (1782-1824) used the phrase in his play Bertram; or The Castle of St. Aldobrand (1816). A prior describes an off-stage character this way:

The dark knight of the forest,
So from his armour named and sable helm,
Whose unbarred vizor mortal never saw.
He dwells alone; no earthly thing lives near him,
Save the hoarse raven croaking o’er his towers,
And the dank weeds muffling his stagnant moat.
It turns out this dark knight is a personification of the devil, who corrupts Bertram. Walter Scott, Byron, and other top writers of the day admired Maturin's play. (In fact, it’s easier to find Scott’s review quoting this scene than to find a copy of the play itself.) Maturin knew that he had a good thing because he also used the phrase “dark knight” in his 1824 novel The Albigenses.

Maturin was never able to match the quality of Bertram, however. He overspent his income, got into quarrels with critics, and died (possibly a suicide) after a literary career of less than a decade.

Later, a Scottish poet named Henry Glassford Bell (1803-1874) wrote a ballad named “The Dark Knight” in pseudo-medieval style. It was first published in 1830 in The Edinburgh Literary Review, which Bell happened to edit. The poem is more easily read here in Bell’s collection Summer and Winter Hours.

Here’s the story in a nutshell:
There came a dark knight from a far countrie,
And no one ever saw his face, for he
Wore his black vizor down continuallie.

He came to a gay bridal, where the bride
Stood, in rich robes, her destined lord beside,
Who gazed upon her with a joyful pride.
Yet ever and anon her look would fall
On the dark knight who stood apart from all,
Dark as his shadow, moveless on the wall.
The hour grows late, and one by one depart
The guests, with bounding step and merry heart,--
Methought I saw that new wed ladie start.

None in her father’s hall are left but she
And her young bridegroom, who, as none may see,
Hath twined his arm around her lovinglie.

Yes, there is still a third,--the vizor’d knight,--
A shriek was heard at midnight, such as broke
On every ear, like the first pealing stroke
Of the alarm bell, and the sleepers woke!

In the old hall, where fitful moonlight shone,
There lay the bridegroom and the bride alone,
Pale, dead, and cold as monumental stone,--
A vizor’d helm was near, but the dark knight was gone.
Obviously, both Maturin’s and Bell’s dark knights are villains. Finger and Kane created the Batman as either a hero or an anti-hero, depending on the editorial direction. Nonetheless, Bell’s poem provides interesting commentary on the new movie’s love triangle among Bruce Wayne, his childhood friend Rachel Dawes (who has no equivalent in the comics), and district attorney Harvey Dent.

(The thumbnail above shows the determined Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as rendered in “plush with removeable limbs,” courtesy of Geek Venue's Monty Python Toys collection.)

24 July 2008

Why So Serious?

In today's Boston Globe, Ty Burr writes:

On Sunday I went to a memorial service in Mount Auburn Cemetery for the sister of a family friend. Afterward, as the group milled around drinking iced tea and eating finger food under a small tent next to the chapel, word got out among the teenagers and college kids that there was a movie critic present. One by one, they came up to me and asked the same question, with almost the same wording.

Is "The Dark Knight" the best movie of all time?
Burr goes on, but at that point my own responses were:
  • No. It's a very good superhero movie. But compared to The Bicycle Thief or From Here to Eternity or The General (to name just a few), it's an amplified thrill ride featuring two-dimensional characters.
  • At a memorial service? I hope the deceased was either a movie fan or a Batman fan. Otherwise, entertainment about a mass-murdering crazy man seems like the wrong topic for the occasion.
Burr has some interesting points on the rare combination of factors that--for some people--imbue this superhero movie with more emotional resonance than any other. Or, seemingly, than any other event of recent memory.
Go ahead and scoff at the analogy, boomers, but one of the kids at the memorial service likened the opening of "Dark Knight" to the JFK assassination and the Challenger disaster as quintessential where-were-you defining moments of his generation.
Good to know the kids are getting over that little "destruction of the World Trade Center" thing.

23 July 2008

Blogger Tags Can’t Exceed 200 Characters?

Some of my tags are on the long side (a habit I picked up from Fuse #8 and Read Roger). And some of my postings have a lot of tags that are pertinent--or impertinent, as the case may be. Every so often, when I try to save one of those postings, Blogger will tell me that the totality of the tags can't exceed 200 characters. So I've had to make the hard choice to cut a few.

Lately I discovered, however, that Blogger counts the spaces after the tags in its 200-character maximum. So I can simply delete those spaces, and Blogger will save the posting. It may also be possible to add tags over the 200-character limit to an existing posting from the "Edit Posts" page.

It's my ambition to one day write a posting that touches on so much so succinctly that the tags are longer than the posting itself. This ain't it.

21 July 2008

Our Sunday Odyssey

We started Sunday morning in Bettendorf, Iowa, with plans to drive across Illinois and catch a 1:45 PM flight from Chicago through Cincinnati to Boston, landing by 7:30. Our plans gang agley.

When we returned the car to the rental agency, we learned out the desk agent two days before (who was, to be fair, covering for colleagues on their lunch hour) hadn't coded our order correctly. We'd asked to buy the car's tank of gas so we could return it close to empty. The agency wanted to charge us for a refill--at $7.38 a gallon.

We moved on to the American Airlines terminal at O'Hare and tried to check in through the self-service kiosk. (Yet another way corporations are turning clerical work over to customers to save personnel costs while giving us a deceptive sense of control.) I couldn't find our reservation in the system, or our flight. Then I realized that although I'd bought the tickets through American, the actual flight was on Comair, a Delta Connection airline.

So we trooped down the terminal to Delta and fed the same information into its self-serve computer. And it came up with...nothing. So we asked for help from the attendants. One of them quickly found our names on the computer behind the counter. I guess that reserving the seats through another airline had hurt the Delta program's feelings, so it was snubbing us.

The fully packed flight from Chicago to Cincinnati was an uneventful 50 minutes--which ate up 110 minutes by the clock since we moved east into a different time zone. (The return flight seems like a real time-saver since it touches down ten minutes earlier by the clock than it takes off, but I digress.)

In the Cincinnati airport (actually across the Ohio River in Kentucky), we found the Delta monitors reporting that our flight to Boston was at a gate different from the one stated on our boarding passes. So we went to the new gate, only to see the departure switched back to the original. Then that plane was late arriving because of bad weather elsewhere. When the plane arrived, Boston was socked in by lightning storms, so it couldn't load and take off.

Finally the pilot and crew hustled us all onto the plane in order to beat a 7:22 departure window. We rolled out to the runway, took a right, took another right, and rolled back to the terminal. Along the way, we all had a good look at how the sky out one set of windows was white while the sky on the opposite side of the plane was inky black.

The pilot told us there was no way he was taking off in that weather. Furthermore, he advised parents to carry small children when crossing the gangplank into the walkway because the wind had become so strong. And indeed it was whipping hard. There were also some tendrils hanging down from the dark cloud--not tornado funnels, to be sure, but close enough to be reminiscent.

And we weren't the only ones who thought so. Soon after we arrived back in the gate, the airport staff evacuated everyone in the facility down to the tunnels where one normally catches the trams from one terminal to another. I helped carry a lady's stroller down about fifty steps on a stopped escalator.

After another wait, we got the all-clear and went back upstairs. Lightning had struck the control tower, requiring its staff to shut down and restart their computers before the airport could reopen. It was unclear what had happened to our flight; the plane was still on the tarmac, but the gate desk was listing another city. I was checking the phone directory for local hotels when we got the word that our flight was still on. We were all hurried back to our old seats.

Did I mention that we were seated right in front of brothers aged five and seven, who had been on planes and in airports all day?

The flight to Boston had some bumpy moments, but would probably have been even bumpier if we hadn't button-hooked over Canada and approached Boston via Lake Winnipesaukee. But when we reached the terminal, we discovered that many other flights had come in at the same time. The baggage treadmill became overloaded and jammed, and had to be shut down and cleared at least twice.

It was nearly midnight when we got into a cab headed for the Ted Williams Tunnel--only to find its entrance blocked by a police car. But that blockage turned out to be a temporary; the driver merely had to drive over the bumpy divider to get back into the lane for the tunnel. We resurfaced on the Mass. Pike, and then the skies opened up again. Driving rain reduced visibility to the length of the taillights ahead. Deep puddles appeared in poorly draining roads. It was Monday as I struggled up our steps with the suitcases.

And it all could have been much worse. In fact, it wasn't really that bad.

At the rental agency, the desk agent and I worked out the best deal the computer allowed. The Comair pilot was straightforward about balancing speed and safety, and inspired confidence with his choices. The Cincinnati gate manager remained cheerful despite facing scores of anxious people and a 6:00 AM shift the next morning. None of us customers behaved badly, either. Everyone recognized that the problem was weather--not that that's stopped other airport crowds I've known from getting nasty.

The two little brothers were especially well behaved, considering. They and their parents seem to be temperamentally cheerful. We all got to listen in as their mother read them a chapter from a Percy Jackson book--the one about Percy and Annabeth having a difficult journey past the sirens.

20 July 2008

Alex Ross on Robin

One of the biggest names in comic books these days is Alex Ross, known for painting superheroes and their adventures in strikingly photorealistic style.

Comics companies like to use Ross's portraits of iconic characters on special issues and anthologies. Collectors seek his originals and prints, and there's even a blog just for Alex Ross collectors. Currently the asking price for Ross's watercolor painting of Superman and Captain America together is $19,000.

One of Ross's masterworks, Marvels, authored by Kurt Busiek, retold the early history of the Marvel universe through the eye of an ordinary newspaperman. In another, Kingdom Come, Ross and writer Mark Waid looked ahead to the possible future of the DC universe. That original story included a middle-aged version of Dick Grayson, using the name Red Robin. But, frankly, it didn't include him much.

Indeed, I've found Ross's depictions of Robin to lack the vigor and realism he's brought to Superman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and other characters. (The biggest exception is his cover for Legends of the Dark Knight, #100, shown above, courtesy of the Grand Comics Database.) Ross's portrayals of Robin have struck me as stiff and generic, in contrast to the qualities he usually gives to Batman. See the difference on this Batman Family collectible plate.

In Mythology, a collection of Ross's work for DC Comics, editor Chip Kidd described Ross as "somewhat reluctant, at first, to do a rendition of Robin." What was the problem? The traditional character offended the artist's (and comic book fan's) sense of practicality:

The weird thing about my ever working with Robin is that, as a character, he just doesn’t make any sense. He’s the compromise Batman would never have logically made. Who would put a child at risk like that, in that garish outfit? But you can’t fight history, and I just remain faithful to it despite itself. There’s no point in trying to make his costume look tough, or menacing, or even practical. With Robin you don’t have a choice--it’s those gaudy colors or nothing.
Early on, however, I'm pretty sure that Ross liked Robin a lot, in just the way that the character's creators meant young readers to. Why am I so sure? Here's the very first example of superhero art reproduced in Mythology, drawn and colored when Ross was a preschooler.

[ADDENDUM: A very new addition to Ross’s gallery of heroes.]

19 July 2008

Favorite Public Sculpture of the Week

After I saw this photograph of Robert Chambers's sculpture "Molecular Dog/C3H8" in Chemical & Engineering News, I went looking for an image on the web. Not that I have anything against John Meisenheimer, Sr., the gentleman in the photo above who supplied it to the magazine, but I expected to find a page devoted to the statue.

Unfortunately, I couldn't even find another image of "Molecular Dog," but I did find a page on Chambers's other recent work, including the fairly canine "Ethanol." The city of Winter Park, Florida, home to "Molecular Dog," celebrated the artwork in 2005.

The C&E News webpage that shows "Molecular Dog" also includes a useful summary of the recent American Journal of Physics study of why Mentos produce such a bubbly effect in Diet Coke. It's a combination of chemistry and physics.

18 July 2008

Where I Went on My Summer Vacation, part 1

Bodiam Castle in east Sussex, England. Photograph by Jerry Bell.

17 July 2008

Indiana Jones and the Golden Soundtrack

I've decided that one of the problems with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is that nowadays an Indiana Jones budget can buy the rights to any pop song.

As a result, the movie's soundtrack establishes its late-1950s setting by playing some of the most familiar records of the period. We hear Bill Haley and His Comets' "Shake, Rattle and Roll" (not Big Joe Turner's earlier, dirtier version). We hear Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" (not Big Mama Thornton's, of course, or even Freddy Bell and the Bellboys' crucial intermediate rewrite). Most of the movie's music is John Williams's orchestral score, but by then the damage has been done.

Not that there's anything wrong with those recordings as such. They're great. They're also so familiar as to be cliché. We can barely hear the actual music over all the connotations and other memories that come along. Using less familiar songs from the 1950s could have produced a period feel without the overload.

For John Travolta and Uma Thurman's twist contest in Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino chose Chuck Berry's "You Never Can Tell." Playing a more familiar Berry tune, like "Sweet Little Sixteen," just wouldn't have been the same. Ditto John Waters's choice to have the a capella group in Cry Baby sing the Chords' and Crew Cuts' "Sh-Boom" instead of a later doo-wop love song already played to death on oldies radio.

When Rushmore's soundtrack started to pump out Unit 4+2's "Concrete and Clay," I knew we were in the hands of a filmmaker of elevated taste. And at the end we got the Faces' "Ooh La La" to sum up that movie. More money might have bought bigger hits, but it wouldn't have made a better movie.

16 July 2008

What an Editor Really Does

This spring Neil Gaiman responded to a reader wondering about an editorial career by sharing advice from editor Teresa Nielsen Hayden. She concluded:

although to be an editor you'd better enjoy reading, you'll find as an editor that there's never enough time to do all the reading you need to do. You'd better also enjoy writing copy, public advocacy, coordinating between multiple departments, and never quite knowing what the day's challenges are going to be.
All that rings true to me. Many people think publishers produce the finished books. They don't; that's the job of the printer. Publishers produce photocopies (and, these days, PDFs). And Editorial Assistants do most of that work.

Many people also think editors spend all their time reading manuscripts. In fact, they spend more of their time writing about those manuscripts. They write letters, memos, marketing copy, jacket copy, and more memos.

Editors don't just acquire books. Sometimes they have to sell the house to an agent and author. Editors then have to sell the books they acquire at every stage of the process: to the Editorial board, to the Marketing Department's launch meeting, to the Sales Department at the sales conference, through catalogue copy, through the dust jacket, through more memos, and on and on.

Meanwhile, an editor is the publishing company's main voice to the author, and the author's main voice to the publishing company, translating for both. And, unless a book contains an "Acknowledgments" section, the editor's name rarely appears in the finished product.

The best tip I ever read about being an editor? Don't say, "This part is confusing." Especially don't say, "I was confused here." Always couch your feedback in terms of that elusive future audience: "I worry this passage will confuse readers."

(Thanks for Fairrosa for the pointer.)

15 July 2008

Brother Wizards

Last month Jude sent me links to these two photos from a production of The Wizard of Oz in Ho Chi Minh City, which Simon Kutcher posted on his Saigon Today blog.

I've seen similar photos from many other parts of the world:

Red footwear for Dorothy is usually a sign that the show takes its inspiration mostly from the MGM movie, not L. Frank Baum's original book.

These stage productions can have innovative costumes and characterizations, sometimes reflecting the host country, or try to replicate the movie's look. Of course, presenting Toto on stage is always a challenge. I've seen real dogs, toy dogs, small children as dogs, and--if I recall the production of an American school in Arabia correctly--Dorothy's pet camel.

Some productions include a song cut from the film called "The Jitterbug." Since we never see that nerve-wracking insect in the movie, it offers stage directors nearly unlimited costume and makeup possibilities.

Not that there's anything wrong with basing a stage show on the movie rather than the book. After all, the movie has better music.

14 July 2008

United by a Common Language over What Was Lost

From the Boston Globe, Anna Mundow's book section interview with British Midlands novelist Catherine O'Flynn:

Q. The opening of your novel [What Was Lost] recalled for me the Enid Blyton adventures I read as a child. Does that make sense?

A. I think so because I was thinking back to my own childhood as I wrote this. I read Enid Blyton, of course, and things like "Alfred Hitchcock's Three Investigators." I also had the kind of books that Kate loves - "Clues and Suspects," "Fakes and Forgery" - which I took incredibly seriously. Being a detective is part of most childhoods, I think, because children spend a lot of time watching.

Q. We see the world initially through Kate's eyes. Why did that perspective appeal to you?

A. There's a lot to write about regarding what is lost between childhood and adulthood. I also found it almost embarrassingly easy to write in the voice of a 10-year-old. But it was important that she be real and vivid, not just a victim or a symbol of innocence. So I thought a lot about Kate; how seriously she takes things, how she doesn't see the humor in certain situations. . . . She's far more conscientious and professional than I was as a child detective.
Q. Did you make changes for the American edition? You use "mom," for instance, not "mum."

A. It's funny you noticed that because it's actually Birmingham speech. We say "mom," and I didn't realize that wasn't universal in England until the book came out. Actually if you look it up in Wikipedia it says "used in America or in the British Midlands."
Actually, you have to look up "mother," and as of tonight it says mom and mommy are current "in most of North America (especially the U.S.). It is used widely in the West Midlands, in the UK." Mom appears to come from shortening mamma and momma, and its written existence is a little more than a century old while mum goes back seven more decades.

13 July 2008

“Come On, Dad...You’re Suppose to Be the Batman.”

The best Robin work of the month didn't actually come from DC Comics. Rather, July 2008 is proving to be stellar for Webcomics about Fatherhood featuring Robin. Of course, every month should be good for that topic, but unaccountably they haven't appeared until now.

My first example is James Kochalka's single-panel "Robin and the Brain Cult," documenting a nightmare he'd had. Is it possible that a dream about looking after one's young son while dressed as Robin is a metaphor for feeling like a boy trying to do a man's job? And are there conflicted feelings apparent in saying both how "there’s hardly anything more ridiculous than Robin," and that one would "love to write a full length Robin adventure about his battle against the Brain Cult"?

Moving on, the best Robin parody I've seen in a long time was "Batman and Sons: Back to the Cave," credited to "The Black Cat (JM)" (or perhaps "The-BlackCat"). The drawing above is a preview.

The inspiration for this comic came from DC's own Tiny Titans magazine, which shows the young superheroes in early grade school. (Think Muppet Babies, with superpowers.) In one vignette, other kids tease Robin because he has no special powers and is therefore, they say, just a sidekick--but then he gets to ride home in the Batmobile! Another panel shows three little boy Robins strapped into one back seat.

Taking off from that panel, The Black Cat (JM) has put all three young Boy Wonders in Batman's family at the same time, and for good measure added a baby version of Terry McGinnis, the future Batman from the Batman Beyond TV show. Confused yet? Don't worry. There are plenty of references and in-jokes for fans, but all that really matters is that this version of Batman is a single dad with four sons--and all his usual hangups.

Click on the "Batman and Sons" image here for a full-sized version, and then on the links below that image for subsequent pages. Or you can read the whole sequence through LiveJournal.

(ADDENDUM: And, with the movie on its way, the webcomics keep coming. Here’s Least I Could Do, by Ryan Sohmer and Lar Desouza. No Robin, though.)

12 July 2008

“The First Show Conceived as a Fashion Marketing Vehicle”

I haven't seen the TV show. I haven't read the books. But I did read this New York Times article about how the Gossip Girl series was designed to sell clothing, and is doing its job:

Although the series has had only middling success in the ratings, in stylistic terms it “may well be the biggest influence in the youth culture market,” said Stephanie Meyerson, a trend spotter for Stylesight, a trend forecasting company. . . .

Thanks to the point-and-click shopping on its Web site and the fees it charges some brands to be featured in the series, “Gossip Girl” has been able to profit from its power to generate trends. It is not the first show to collect revenues from product tie-ins, but it probably is the first to have been conceived, in part, as a fashion marketing vehicle.
So the show was, "in part," a long commercial from the start. Why does this form of entertainment make me think of M. T. Anderson's Feed?

11 July 2008

Denslow and the Civilized Boy

Leonard S. Marcus's new history of American children's books, Minders of Make-Believe, features cover art that W. W. Denslow created in 1899 for Father Goose, his first collaboration with L. Frank Baum.

The image is licensed from Corbis (also known as "your chance to give Bill Gates even more money"). I don't see Denslow's name on online images of the jacket or copyright page, but his signature's there in the lower left corner, and Corbis credits him.

The illustration adorned Baum's poem "Civilized Boy," which I now offer for Poetry Friday:

Pray, what can a civilized boy do now,
When all the Dragons all are dead,
And the Giants stout, that we have read about,
Have never one a head?

Now, wasn't it mean that Jack o' the Bean
Should slay these monsters fast,
And the other Jack should cut and hack
When there weren't enough to last?

The boys today are as bold as they say,
As ever they were of yore;
And they'd spill a flood of Dragon's Blood
If Dragons lived any more.
As in many of his later fantasy stories, Baum was playing with the theme of traditional fairy tales in opposition to the modern world.

10 July 2008

Who Said That?

While I was in London, the Financial Times ran Anna Metcalfe's interview with Philip Reeve, author of the highly enjoyable Hungry City and Larklight series.

I was a little surprised that a business newspaper would interview a children's fantasy author not named Rowling, even if (a) he just won the Carnegie Medal, and (b) he gives good interview.

But when I looked for this page on the web to make the link above, I was more surprised by the formating. Folks at FT, let's be more consistent about typographically setting off the questions from the answers! The HTML's not that hard. Italics, boldface--the choice is up to you. But choose something.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

From Sheryl Gay Stolberg’s dispatch to the New York Times about the recent G-8 summit:

“Amigo! Amigo!” Mr. Bush called out cheerily in Spanish when he spotted the Italian prime minister.

09 July 2008

There Will Always Be an England (and Scotland)

Three entries from the letters column of the Guardian newspaper during my recent visit to the British Isles.

26 June:

In Alfred Hickling's review of Monkey (June 21), he wrote: "The character of the Monkey usurped the narrative ... which is rather like the Scarecrow taking top billing in the Wizard of Oz." What's wrong with that?

Hilton McRae (currently rehearsing as the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz at the Royal Festival Hall)
27 June:
Actually the Scarecrow (along with the Tin Woodman) did take top billing in Baum's 1902 stage adaption of The Wizard of Oz, devised as a showcase for the popular double act of Montgomery and Stone (Letters, June 26).

Harry Robertson
2 July:
It has come to our attention that our colleague, the Scarecrow, has been implying he is the starring role in The Wizard of Oz at the Royal Festival Hall this summer (Letters, June 26). In fact we, the Lion and Tin Man, carry the entire story and the Scarecrow is merely a subplot. We are sorry he seems to have an inflated sense of his importance. He is clearly clutching at straws, as he hasn't got a brain.

Gary Wilmot and Adam Cooper

08 July 2008

L. Frank Baum’s First Oz Series

Ozma of Oz coverLast week I started to muse about how open-ended series are different from those with a planned ending, given how storytellers have to maintain some dramatic tension and character conflicts rather than resolve them. How, one might ask (if one were I), does that apply to L. Frank Baum's Oz books?

Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with no thought to a sequel. Therefore, it ends with the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion's problems solved, each established as a ruler of part of Oz. The Wicked Witches are dead, Dorothy is back home, and we can all go home, too. But the success of that book and especially its stage adaptation prompted Baum to write a sequel, The Marvelous Land of Oz.

Because Wizard hadn't left dangling questions or conflicts, Baum had to start Land with a new set of characters. Oz turned out to have more wicked witches, a missing dynasty, and a rebellious female army. The book features the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman since they had become stars on stage, and they were still interesting. The Cowardly Lion is nowhere to be seen because a brave lion isn't an interesting character; it's a cliché. Again, Baum finished Land without expecting to follow it up with any more books about Oz.

The success of both those books, and a generous contract from Reilly & Britton, convinced him to expand the series further. The next four books constitute the first Oz series conceived as such, with a new title each year. And I think Baum had an overall narrative arc in mind as he wrote them, vague though it probably was.

Baum started by returning to Dorothy and the roots of that character. Even before the cyclone carries her to Oz, what had he written about her? She's a Kansas farmgirl, and the uncle and aunt raising her are old, poor, and sad. Baum's next four Oz books therefore address the problems of Dorothy's family.

The first of that four-book series, Ozma of Oz, starts with Dorothy and Uncle Henry on a trip to Australia for his health. Along the way, she makes her second journey to fairyland. She meets Ozma (protagonist of Land), reunites with the Cowardly Lion (once again feeling a lack of courage, and therefore interesting), and becomes a princess of Oz. The second and third books also show Dorothy traveling to Oz, each time with a different animal companion and a different set of humans. Having gone by air in Wizard, she makes the journey over the water, through the earth, and by magic.

Ozma also introduces the villainous Nome King. Although he's defeated at the end of that book, he's not destroyed like the Wicked Witches. The next titles tie off some loose ends from Baum's previous writing. Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz brings the Wizard back to the Emerald City and tries to resolve some moral questions about his conduct (in the stage show, the Wizard was a villain). The Road to Oz unites the Oz books to the universe of most of Baum's other fantasies by having their characters visit Ozma for her birthday.

Emerald City of Oz coverFinally, The Emerald City of Oz brings Baum's Oz saga to a close. Dorothy and her family, having lost their farm to a mortgage holder, move permanently to the Emerald City, thus resolving the problems established in the first chapter of Wizard. The Nome King returns with an army of immortals, but Ozma and her allies manage to dispatch them--seemingly forever--without compromising her values.

Finally, we come to Glinda, the sorceress who rules the southern part of Oz. In the first two books, she was the dea ex machina who provided the power and knowledge to resolve the plots. She plays little role in the next three, however. Baum turns to her once again to bring the series to a close. In order to protect Oz from invasion, Glinda cuts off the country from our Great Outside World. The series was over, Baum told his readers. And indeed most of the lingering problems and questions had been resolved.

Bankruptcy due to plowing too much of his money into a new stage show later caused Baum to return to writing Oz books. And when he did, he approached the series as open-ended, without the thematic unity or overall plot of the four books between Ozma and Emerald City.

06 July 2008

Robin’s “Storytelling Engine”

As I wrote yesterday, at Fraggmented John Seavey writes an ongoing series of posts called "Storytelling Engines," which analyze the situations that drive different superhero comics. These are the dilemmas, paradoxes, and never-resolved desires and questions that keep successful comic-book serials rolling year after year.

Last Monday, Seavey discussed Robin, both the original (Dick Grayson) and current (Tim Drake) incarnations. I suspect that two recent developments influenced how Seavey analyzed the Boy Wonder:

  • Fans are working themselves into a fever about the upcoming second Batman movie from Christopher Nolan, many debating whether the expected third movie could or should include the character of Robin.
  • Chuck Dixon, who scripted the first several years of the Robin comic (1993-) and the first few years of the Nightwing comic (1996-), recently returned to Robin, only to suddenly part ways with DC Comics.
Seavey's essay discusses what having a young sidekick has brought to Batman's stories since 1940:
The Boy Wonder is an essential element of Batman's storytelling engine, and has been for generations. He's a handy audience identification figure for younger readers who want to imagine themselves adventuring side by side with their hero, he's a handy means of providing exposition (so that Batman doesn't have to talk to himself quite so much), and as a crimefighter slightly less competent than the Darknight Detective, he's a useful source of plot complications if the writer needs to extend the story. (And he's also a source of comic relief, if your source of humor trends towards terrible puns...)
In the last twenty years, DC Comics writers have emphasized a couple of other ways that Robin adds to Batman's stories. He represents the innocence that Bruce Wayne lost when his parents were murdered, and he can talk back to the Caped Crusader when almost everyone else is afraid to. But those are relatively recent developments; they don't explain why Robin was immediately popular in 1940, and I agree with Seavey's explanations.

Off and on, DC published solo Robin adventures. The first batch appeared in Star-Spangled Comics in late 1940s and has been collected in the Archive volume shown at top. Another set appeared starting in the late 1960s, when Robin was the "Teen Wonder"; some are reprinted in the cheaper Showcase volume at right. However, neither set was really compelling.

Dick Grayson became a widespread favorite in his own right in the early 1980s when he was the leader of the New Teen Titans. DC had him take on a new identity as Nightwing. Eventually the company created Tim Drake as Batman's new young partner, giving this Robin some miniseries and then (when Bruce Wayne was temporarily replaced as Batman) his own magazine. Seavey writes:
So now, instead of one Robin who doesn't work as a solo hero, we have two that do (three, if anyone here actually cares about the resurrected Jason Todd. Anyone? Anyone? No, didn't really think so.) What made the difference? Arguably, Chuck Dixon. As a writer who's always been concerned with the nuts and bolts of good storytelling, he made sure to surround his characters with the elements that made their storytelling engines work. He made sure the characters had easy access to story ideas, if for no other reason than it made his job easier, and it made those characters work in a way they hadn't before...and in a way they haven't since. . . . A hero without a good supporting cast, a good setting, and a good antagonist is really just a sidekick.
Unfortunately, I don't think Seavey's essay ever gets to the question of what has made Robin's and Nightwing's solo stories successful enough to sell year after year. It's all very well to praise Dixon for creating good supporting casts and sticking with them, but the heroes themselves need to have interesting conflicts and challenges that arc from issue to issue. So here are my thoughts on those two characters' storytelling engines.

Nightwing's solo series began after he left the Titans in the early 1990s. (He's returned to that group at least twice since, but no matter.) Within the Titans, Dick had a role and even a family. Without them, he feels adrift and unaccomplished. He has to find a place in the superhero world outside of Batman's shadow and in the civilian world outside of Wayne Manor. Above all, he has to live up to the impossible standards he's inherited from his mentor.

As for Tim Drake, he was the first and most successful of several teen-aged heroes that DC launched in the 1990s. One ongoing theme of his magazine is what a young man has to do to grow up as a hero, but that theme also appears in the stories of the second Superboy and the speedster Impulse.

What's made Tim Drake's adventures last longer than those others is how clearly he sees the dark side of being a costumed hero. He admires Batman, but from the beginning he sees the harm that Batman can do to himself and others. Tim wants to learn, but he also wants to figure out how to avoid his teacher's mistakes.

For most of Robin's run, Tim also sought his father's respect, yet had to hide his nocturnal crime-fighting. More recently, his father and several friends have been murdered, and that's made Tim closer to and more worried about sliding into a dark, Batman-like adulthood.

Those challenges and paradoxes have run from issue to issue, evolving but never resolved. They were often more interesting than the villain of the month. They comprised this Robin's storytelling engine.

There's more commentary on Seavey's Robin essay at Comics Should Be Good.

05 July 2008

What Keeps Open-Ended Series Going?

Back in November 2006, I wrote about series of books as a genre unto themselves, different from the single novels that make up such series.

We can also make a useful distinction between:

Within the latter group are series in which the sequence of individual volumes is either invisible or unimportant: it's not necessary to read the Hardy Boys or Magic Tree House titles in order, if they even have an order.

Series in the first group have an overall plot that runs through the books, encompassing or parallel to the titles' individual plots. There's a major problem to be resolved (e.g., to destroy the Ring, to fight the Dark). The main characters go through important and permanent changes (e.g., leaving school, finding a family).

Those conditions don't pertain to open-ended series. While the protagonists may defeat villains, they never destroy evil itself or remake the world. Otherwise, there would be no story left. In the more interesting open-ended series, the protagonists have problems (or merely dilemmas or paradoxes) that make them interesting and individual. These personal problems often link thematically to the various stories' plots, but the protagonists can't resolve those problems without erasing some of their driving force and appeal.

Creating a successful open-ended series, especially in a mass-market form, requires more than telling a satisfying story. It requires creating a situation that leaves readers interested in (or perhaps dissatisfied enough to go on to) the next story.

A open-ended series is thus defined not by an overarching plot but by what John Seavey at Fraggmented calls "Storytelling Engines," which he writes about in the context of superhero comics. When constructed and used correctly, storytelling engines generate ideas for new stories, set out the themes those stories explore, and define the central characters' strengths, weaknesses, and basic appeal.

In addition to some books and many comics, the dominant storytelling medium dependent on ongoing plot engines is the television series. American TV has usually told open-ended stories. (In contrast, many British series are conceived for a specified number of episodes; that produces the artistic difference between The Prisoner and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.) Lost is an exception to the American rule, with its producers now working toward a definite end date.

People who create ongoing series rarely get to bring their series to a close because the whole point of the exercise is never to reach an end. Agatha Christie was unusual in writing a final case for Hercule Poirot to be published after her death. The Fugitive on TV concluded with Dr. Kimball finding the one-armed man. Peter David was able to plan out the end of his Young Justice comic because DC's editors told him when they would move its main characters into a new Teen Titans series.

It's interesting to explore what elements of a series' storytelling engine are crucial. In the Time Warp Trio books, Joe's struggle to learn magic, Sam's fears, and Fred's dumb impetuousness are rarely at the center of the plots. But if the boys ever resolve those challenges, then their comic interactions will fade and that series will lose most of the appeal that carries from book to book.

As long as the crucial parts of a storytelling engine remain intact, details can change. Our Miss Brooks required Eve Arden's character to be looking for a serious boyfriend; which man didn't matter, and the show went through multiple male leads. On the other hand, Cheers and Friends could play with the romantic entanglements among their lead characters because those situation comedies didn't depend on an unchanging situation but rather on tensions among personalities.

Sometimes it's surprising what elements in an open-ended series turn out not to be crucial. For many years the world assumed that part of Superman's storytelling engine was that Clark Kent was in love with Lois Lane, but she was enamored of Superman and looked down on Clark, who could never reveal his secret identity. However, in DC comics since 1996 (and two decades earlier on Earth 2), Clark/Superman and Lois have been happily married. It turns out the frustrated infatuation that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created in 1938 wasn't so crucial after all.

04 July 2008

Cheers to the British

On this Independence Day, having just returned from England, it seems right to comment on yet another little way American English has differentiated itself from British English, or vice versa.

When I returned the sunglasses a man was about to leave behind on the Underground (having to work hard to get his attention to do so), he was quite pleased and answered, "Cheers!" That got me listening for other uses of the word, which the English-to-American Dictionary defines this way:

informal substitute for “thank you.” Somehow derived from its use as an all-purpose toast.
The Best of British holds that "Cheers" is a bit more tricky:
This word is obviously used when drinking with friends. However, it also has other colloquial meanings. For example when saying goodbye you could say "cheers", or "cheers then". It also means thank you. Americans could use it in English pubs, but should avoid the other situations as it sounds wrong with an American accent. Sorry!
Lynne Guist at Separated by a Common Language has the most thorough discussion, of course. She has a lot more to say about the use of "thank you" in three different languages, and remarks:
Cheers is interesting because it is so flexible. In AmE, it is simply used as a salutation in drinking (or sometimes with a mimed glass in hand, as a means of congratulations). In BrE it has this use, but is also used to mean 'thank you', 'goodbye' or 'thanks and goodbye'.
In my own experience, especially in commercial transactions, I came to think of "Cheers" as signaling this feeling:
This has been all quite nice, and I'm glad to have interacted with you, but now we're done.

03 July 2008

Stitched Together

Shelley Jackson is the illustrator of The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County, written by Janice N. Harrington, winner of the 2007 Cybils Award in the Picture Book category. The judges' citation for that book says:

The illustrations are a perfect match in spirit, and they move the tale along with equal verve, using the rich texture of collage, skilled brush strokes, celebratory colors and charming whimsy.
FSG's webpage for Jackson says she's "the author-illustrator of several picture books and author of adult fiction. She lives in Brooklyn, New York."

Shelley Jackson is the ground-breaking author of the hypertext novel Patchwork Girl, published in 1995. It takes off of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and L. Frank Baum's Patchwork Girl of Oz.

After that, Jackson published a novel called SKIN through the tattoos of volunteer pages, as well as a conventionally printed books The Melancholy of Anatomy and Half Life. Having earned a degree in fine art, Jackson has also illustrated some books, including Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, and her own picture books Sophia: The Alchemist's Cat and The Old Woman and the Wave. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The second Shelley Jackson maintains a website called Ineradicable Stain, which includes a rundown of other Shell(e)y Jacksons. Though two Shelley Jacksons who are Brooklyn-based novelists and illustrators would surely get mixed up a lot, this list pointedly does not include the first Shelley Jackson.

All this makes perfect sense given how a recurring theme of the second Shelley Jackson's work is the rending and rendering of human identity and the human body. And it also shows how good the Cybils are at identifying talent.

02 July 2008

Tales from the Darkside

From today's Guardian newspaper, a story called "Painting by Numbers" by Emma John:

Last year, Tom Becker won the Waterstone's prize for children's fiction with his first novel, Darkside; last week he won another award, the Calderdale children's book prize. The talk among agents and publishers has been about his suspenseful prose, his great potential. But few people have been talking about a more salient fact: that the book's concept and story was generated not by Becker, but by focus groups.

The company behind Darkside is Hothouse, a London-based business that aims to give children what they say they want from stories, rather than what adults think they want. Becker's book was the company's first attempt at book-by-focus-group, and it is part of a successful supernatural horror series aimed at boys aged up to 12, published by Scholastic. In April, Puffin books launched a new series, Fright Night, also conceived and delivered by Hothouse.

Hothouse uses a market research company to put story ideas to children, who are observed from behind a one-way mirror. Using dummy covers, short excerpts and blurbs to prompt conversation, researchers ask the children their opinions on which characters, plots and ideas they enjoy most. Each child is also visited at home by a researcher, who finds out what kind of books they already own and read. Drawing on this research, Hothouse commissions a team of writers accordingly.
Some observations on this report:
  • It's interesting that the two projects to come out of Hothouse so far are both in the horror genre. The two awards that Darkside has won aren't the most prestigious in British children's publishing, but they also indicate that adult readers see Darkside as more than hackwork.
  • British newspapers no longer even try to set off titles of books or other works with italics (as in books and magazines) or quotation marks (as in American newspapers). Just a capital letter or two, and moving on.
  • How did Becker get this gig? On projects of this type, the packager usually chooses writers by balancing two factors: cheapest possible price versus proven reliability at delivering solid text on deadline. As a first-time author, Becker probably had the right price tag, but he had no track record--under his own name. He may well have worked as a ghost writer or editor, but I haven't found any mention of that on the web.
Two more Darkside books have been published in the UK, but Becker also wants to write in other genres. The focus group-generated formula might soon feel too confining.

01 July 2008

Mad, Mad I Tell You!

In April Paul Collins at Weekend Stubble did the world a great favor by identifying what so far appears to be the earliest recorded use of the phrase "mad, mad I tell you!"

He quotes page 293 of Caroline Hyde Butler Laing's 1855 novel The Old Farm House:

For a moment Mrs. Lorraine made no reply--then she said:

"You call her my daughter's child! I had no daughter, Amy, she was a serpent that stung the breast which nourished her--and he--he! Amy, I shall go mad--mad I tell you, if you don't take that child from my sight!"
Collins even dug up a portrait of this deathless author.

Thanks to Caleb Crain's Steamboats Are Ruining Everything for the pointer.