31 August 2008

Robin the Half-Bat Superhero

This weekly Robin is brought to us courtesy of my godson, whom I was visiting last weekend. Godson drew this comic book for his younger cousin, and kindly allowed me to share it. Since godson is only seven and a half, his draftsmanship and lettering have room to improve, so I've recreated the script to make sure the story's clear.


TITLE: Robin the half-bat superhero vs. Mouse Man

Big picture of Robin flaring the black wings growing from his arms and shins. Mouse Man voices his displeasure in one lower corner.

MOUSE MAN: sqek!



Long shot of Robin soaring over cityscape on his batwings. Far below, we catch a glimpse of Mouse Man.


Medium-length view. Holding a set of handcuffs, Robin swoops down on Mouse Man.


Closeup of Mouse Man in handcuffs.


Pull back to show Mouse Man behind bars.
And there, naturally, the story ends. Since that might have seemed a bit short to the publisher, the artist also provided a maze captioned "Get Robin through the map to the body."

You might assume that godson's interest in Robin is evidence of the moral guidance of his godfather. But no, I'm still rather lackadaisical in that department. Godson's uncle had supplied Superman and Batman collections from the 1940s, '50s, '60s, and '70s, as well as a DVD of Challenge of the Superfriends. There was thus a plethora of DC Comics and Hanna-Barbera heroes to take inspiration from, and the kids played at being Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Man, and unnamed ninjas. On a day I set aside for writing, my most productive act was to point out that if godson wanted a yellow cape there was a set of yellow towels in the linen closet.

With all those models to choose from, when godson created his own comic-book hero he nonetheless chose to start with Robin. He didn't write a story for Batman's sidekick, he assured me, but for a half-bat superhero who just happens to be named Robin. I nevertheless suspect that the character is derivative enough that we might yet receive a call from DC's lawyers.

Like young Alex Ross, godson was drawn to Robin. I posit that a young, non-superpowered costumed hero fighting alongside the grown-ups has an inherent appeal for many younger readers. Not for all, as the example of Jules Feiffer shows (or perhaps Feiffer, born in 1929, was already past the crucial age when Robin appeared in 1940). I'll return to this when I eventually get around to my "reasons for Robin" postings.

30 August 2008

She's a Galaxy Girl

Francesco Marciuliano of Sally Forth and Medium Large got to do a guest comic in Bizarro this month, and this is what he came up with. In response, an Ontario reader complained:

At best, it elicits a sigh of disgust. At worst, it mocks The Little Prince, the wartime masterpiece by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. This runaway world best seller may be understood on several levels. It captivates as a children's tale. It symbolically tells the story of creation. At its peak, it is the autobiography of a sensitive and lost soul dedicating his work to a dear friend in need of consolation. The friend is cold and hungry in Nazi-occupied France, while the author is safe in New York. . . . Writing like that deserves better treatment than an ill-considered distortion.
Meanwhile, webcomic readers who commented were almost entirely interested in identifying the interplanetary objects in the background. Okay, I know that Marciuliano (bio here) invited us to do so, but that still seems to say something about different community priorities.

29 August 2008

Giving Credit Where It's Due

In the July/August 2008 issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine, indefatigable quote-tracker Fred R. Shapiro not only documents multiple forms of the Serenity Prayer predating the earliest credit to or claim by Reinhold Niebuhr, but also touches on Wizard of Oz quotations in the "Arts & Culture" column. Shapiro, a law school librarian, writes:

In the Yale Book of Quotations, I have a large section of film lines, but some of the most famous lines in motion pictures are not included there. Sometimes I am asked, for example, why there are ten quotes from the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz--such as "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore" and "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!"--but not other celebrated ones. The answer is that the others appeared earlier in L. Frank Baum's 1900 book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and they are listed under Baum's name:
There is no place like home.
--Chapter 4

"I am Oz, the Great and Terrible. Who are you, and why do you seek me?" . . . "I am Dorothy, the Small and Meek. I have come to you for help."
--Chapter 11

I'm really a very good man; but I'm a very bad Wizard.
--Chapter 15
To me, it makes no sense to a[s]cribe "There is no place like home" to a movie if it is really a Baumism.
To me, however, the "no place like home" line that Baum put into Dorothy's mouth isn't a Baumism at all. "There's no place like home" was the refrain of a song that John Howard Payne (1792-1852) wrote for his 1823 opera Clari, the Maid of Milan. The sentiment became so popular--so cliché, one might even say--that John Bartlett included it in his Collection of Familiar Quotations in 1856, the year Baum was born.

Shapiro goes on to note how some movie lines have their roots in Baum's text, but should be credited to the screenwriters.
One complication is that subtle changes in the adaptation from novel to film might qualify the movie line as a new creation. Perhaps the screenwriter's keen sense of diction and cadence was just the touch that resulted in a quotation that earned cultural immortality. L. Frank Baum wrote, "I never thought a little girl like you would ever be able to melt me and end my wicked deeds" (Chapter 12). In the hands of the screenwriters Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, and Edgar Allan Woolf, it became "Who ever thought a little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness?" Clearly the latter is the superior version.
My only caveat here is that although Langley, Ryerson, and Woolf are the credited screenwriters for the MGM movie, some of its most memorable funny lines--particularly the Wizard's speech while giving the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion their symbols of brains, heart, and courage--were written by lyricist E. Y. "Yip" Harburg. (The image from that scene above comes from Film Night's salute to Frank Morgan.)

28 August 2008

Best Metaphor of the Summer

From David Denby's review of The Dark Knight in The New Yorker, on the film's pounding soundtrack:

At times, the movie sounds like two excited mattresses making love in an echo chamber.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.

27 August 2008

The Link Between The Grapes of Wrath and My Father’s Dragon

As long as I’m talking about John Steinbeck and Penguin, I might as well retell the story of how he became a successful literary author. He didn’t start out that way, as this biography from the Educational Paperback Association explains:

Throughout his early years, Steinbeck's tenure with publishing companies tended to be short. Each of his first three books was issued by a different press, and after To a God Unknown failed to sell Steinbeck was in danger of having no publisher at all.
Then Steinbeck had the luck to attract the attention of Pascal Covici, a Romanian immigrant who headed a small publishing house named Covici-Friede. It had published The Front Page and The Well of Loneliness, and Covici decided to take a chance in 1935 on Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat.

In fact, Covici decided to gamble bigger than a small literary press could usually afford to do. He decided to commission illustrations for Steinbeck’s book. And not just from any artist--he hired Ruth Chrisman Gannett.

Gannett would go on to illustrate her stepdaughter’s My Father’s Dragon books and to earn a Caldecott Honor for My Mother Is the Most Beautiful Woman in the World. But in 1935 I don't think she'd started working on children’s books yet. In fact, her career might not have gotten any further than Steinbeck’s.

But Gannett’s husband Lewis happened to be book critic for the New York Herald Tribune. Covici was undoubtedly hoping that by slipping the manuscript into the Gannett household he could get his new California author some extra attention--if not necessarily a good review, but at least more than the same consideration as all that year's other novels from little-known authors.

And it worked. Lewis Gannett wrote in the 19 May 1935 Herald Tribune:
I like Tortilla Flat, and I do not think that I am prejudiced in its favor merely because I lived with Danny [the hero] for two months before I read the book, while Ruth Gannett was drawing pictures to illustrate it. John Steinbeck is a born writing man, and Tortilla Flat a book to cherish.
And that review made other critics notice Steinbeck, too.

Covici-Friede published three more Steinbeck novels in the next two years: In Dubious Battle, Of Mice and Men, and The Red Pony. Then it went out of business. Covici went to work for Viking, taking Steinbeck along; they continued to work together for the rest of their careers. (Friede went to work for Zeppo Marx.) Eventually Viking became part of Penguin, which is why the current copyrights lawsuit involves Penguin and some Steinbeck heirs.

26 August 2008

“Appropriate Reward for Artistic Gifts”

This month brought an important ruling in the ongoing copyright suit between Penguin and heirs of John Steinbeck's second wife, though it will probably have little impact on other authors' copyrights. The judges seem to be ruling on matters specific to the Steinbeck literary estate, such as when his third wife negotiated new contracts. (And don't think there aren't family tensions involved, too.)

However, I'm glad that the latest judicial decision overturned an unusual, and highly impractical, dictum within a 2006 decision. As Publishers Weekly just reported:

In the 2006 decision, a judge ruled that the author's heirs should be able to renegotiate the original publishing contract Steinbeck signed in 1938, since no one could have predicted how popular his works would go on to become. As reported elsewhere, the judge who made that 2006 ruling, Richard Owen, said the copyright law allows for renegotiation and "appropriate reward for artistic gifts to our culture."
According to the same logic, publishers should be able to renegotiate contracts with authors whom they've overpaid on the basis of accumulated royalties. Obviously, those works have turned out to be worth much less to the culture than author and publisher originally anticipated.

As in, "I'm sorry, Mr. Segal, but when we read your book twenty years after our predecessors signed it up, we realized it was a load of crap. And since sales are way down, it's clear that the rest of the country thinks so, too. Therefore, we want to drop your royalty rates and ask you to repay us half of the original advance."

Or perhaps we consumers could apply this idea, and ask publishers to pay us back for all those books we bought because we thought they were important, but have never read. Right now our best option is to truck them out to the local library's used-book sale, and how many copies of A Man in Full can one community ingest?

Or perhaps--and this is where I get serious--we should realize that publishing contracts, like many other business deals, are crap shoots, and neither party knows the long-term value of a book at the time they make the deal. Both author and publisher go into negotiations assessing their risks and probabilities, hopes and realities. The contract terms reflect those considerations and the two parties' relative power (usually the publisher has more, of course). Sometimes one side ends up luckier than the other.

In the case of John Steinbeck, the books covered by this lawsuit includes some of his most popular, and therefore most lucrative: Of Mice and Men, The Red Pony, and The Grapes of Wrath. After their publication he negotiated more favorable contracts with the same firm for new novels. East of Eden and Cannery Row are well regarded, but most critics don't consider The Moon Is Down, The Wayward Bus, or The Winter of Our Discontent to be great artistic gifts to our culture. Would a judge order those contracts to be renegotiated in Penguin's favor?

25 August 2008

On Having to Hang About a Station

Today's a travel day for me, with tickets and stations and transfers. Naturally, I'm not looking ahead with unalloyed joy.

However, I've been visiting some young fellows who are still young enough to enjoy nothing more than train systems. So I remind myself of what G. K. Chesterton wrote in "On Running After One's Hat":

And most of the inconveniences that make men swear or women cry are really sentimental or imaginative inconveniences--things altogether of the mind. For instance, we often hear grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train. Did you ever hear a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train?

No; for to him to be inside a railway station is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetical pleasures. Because to him the red light and the green light on the signal are like a new sun and a new moon. Because to him when the wooden arm of the signal falls down suddenly, it is as if a great king had thrown down his staff as a signal and started a shrieking tournament of trains.
Shrieking can definitely be involved.

24 August 2008

At Least He’s Wearing Eye Protection

This image comes from the DC Super Heroes Super Healthy Cookbook, published in 1981, via scans_daily.

23 August 2008

To a Verdigris

From Publishers Weekly's interview with Frances Hardinge, author of Fly by Night:

I read that when you were six, you wrote a short story that included an attempted poisoning, a faked death, and a villain being thrown off a cliff--all in just one page! Would you say that your style has changed since then?

Yes. I have clearly become less concise.

You’ve also written a book called Verdigris Deep that was published in the U.K. last year. Is this a different book than Well Witched, or the same? If the same, why the title change?

Yes, Well Witched and Verdigris Deep are indeed the same book. My U.S. publisher changed the title because they felt that “verdigris” was too difficult and unfamiliar a word for many American readers, including adults.
If only Americans had continued spelling the word "verdigrease," as I've seen it rendered in eighteenth-century newspapers, we might be able to puzzle it out. "Verd" as in "verdant"; "grease" as in slimy stuff.

Then again, we Americans may not have to feel inferior to the Brits. All the copy I've seen from the UK publisher, such as this webpage, includes a helpful definition of "verdigris."

22 August 2008

BIG New Oz Reprint Coming in 2009

I hear there's a very big Oz project coming our way next year. Sunday Press Books, publisher of the massive Winsor McCay collection Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays, is planning to issue the full run of L. Frank Baum and Walt McDougall's Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz comics pages in the same format.

That means the pages will appear at their original broadsheet size, and in color. They've almost certainly never been reprinted that way since their original appearance in 1904-05. The same oversized volume will include some of W. W. Denslow's rival Scarecrow and Tin Woodman comics.

Folks who want to get onto the mailing list for more info about this title can write to "Oz" at sundaypressbooks.com.

And as long as money's no object, the Woggle-Bug button above, also from about 1904, is one of many Ozzy artifacts now on sale through Gasoline Alley Antiques. My favorite is the poster of posture advice from the Patchwork Girl and the Scarecrow.

21 August 2008

Carving Out the Ocean’s Power

This magnificant carved wooden seahorse is part of an exhibit at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester, Massachusetts, showcasing the work of carver James T. McClellan (1910-2005). There's a photo of him on the museum's "special exhibits" webpage.

The Boston Globe said that the exhibit:

shows the artist's deft hand, his love of curves, and his passion for mythology. He was a romantic, a sculptor with 19th-century sensibilities making work in the 20th century. . . .

Look at his mahogany sea horse with a gilded fishtail: A filigreed mane accents the muscled, curving neck; the tail spirals back playfully. The doors he carved for the Gloucester Lyceum and Sawyer Free Library follow the same maritime theme, with a magnificent, watery Poseidon pulled by a stormy team of horses. McClellan found his voice in the stories of the sea; his best work here channels the ocean's power.
"Carved and Gilded: The Sculpture of James T. McClellan" is on display until 15 October.

20 August 2008

Group Therapy in the Emerald City

This cartoon, by Lee Lorenz, is the latest in the New Yorker caption contest. See the three options to choose from and vote here.

19 August 2008

The Fonz in Bronze

Today in Milwaukee, the city is unveiling a bronze statue of Henry Winkler as the Fonz, his character from Happy Days.

To commemorate this event, I point back to my little essay about the SCBWI conference where Winkler was a keynote speaker.

18 August 2008

Catch Us If You Can

I call it "Dave Clark Five marketing." Back in January 1964 (not that I was around then), the Beatles had held the top spot on the UK singles chart for many weeks with "She Loves You" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." But after a while, nearly every teenager in Britain owned those records, and their sales and airplay faded.

The Dave Clark Five's "Glad All Over" happened to be the single peaking best that week, with good but not phenomenal sales. But immediately that group's record label crowed that the "Tottenham sound" had beaten the "Liverpool sound." The group was brought to the US as the Beatles' main rivals, and were successful here, too. Now I like the Dave Clark Five's sound a lot when I'm in the right mood, but history has shown that group was no rival to the Beatles in either creativity or sustained sales. Despite all the hype, as shown by the magazine cover above preserved at the Ward-o-Matic.

We see the same phenomenon in publishing after a huge bestseller's numbers start to slide. Once everyone in the world has bought the latest Harry Potter novel, then of course its sales taper, and whatever novel is posting the best above-average numbers will be said to have "knocked Harry Potter off the top of the bestseller list."

This week's example was a raft of headlines announcing that Tropic Thunder had toppled The Dark Knight from the top of the movie box office charts. Ben Stiller's comedy earned $26 million on its first weekend while the Batman movie earned $17 million on its fifth, so Tropic Thunder's marketers got to boast of being number one.

Two weeks ago, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor earned $40 million in its opening weekend, and the week before that Stepbrothers took in nearly $31 million. Because The Dark Knight was still raking in huge amounts of cash then, neither of those movies got to be number one, but any studio accountant would prefer their opening weekends to Tropic Thunder's.

And don't get me started about this Monday's other box-office-based stories that The Dark Knight has overtaken Star Wars in total domestic box office revenue. When we adjust for inflation, as we must when comparing dollar figures from different years, Gone with the Wind remains unsurpassed as the all-time box-office moneymaker. The Dark Knight is #39 and gaining on Beverly Hills Cop, Cleopatra, and Pinocchio.

17 August 2008

Grant Morrison on Robin

The Batman line of comic books, including Robin, is in the throes of a crossover story called "Batman, R.I.P." And boy, are its fans tired! Because the current Batman scripter, the highly celebrated comics writer Grant Morrison, is tossing in so many allusions to old Batman stories in so many new forms that no one can understand what's going on.

A few months back, the comic-book news outlet Newsarama talked with Morrison about what lay behind his plans for this story arc. It turned out that we'd all read the same Batman anthology back in the '70s. And Morrison has been pulling from that tradition rather than sticking to the "post-Crisis" adventures most of today's fans are more familiar with.

This is the part of the Newsarama interview in which Morrison talks about--what else?--Robin.

NRAMA: The strangest Batman story I remember was from this reprint book I found at the library in middle school, Batman from the ’30s to the ’70s.

GM: Yeah, yeah, I had that! That was my favorite book and I still refer to it. Re-reading [it] encouraged me to think of Batman’s adventures from the ’30s on as one big life story.

NRAMA: There’s this one where Batman and Robin have to do this thing underwater, only they can’t come up because they’ll get the bends, and they wind up spending like a week fighting crime underwater in a bat-submarine...

GM: Yeah! God, that was a great one! (laughs) Those were the days, when Batman and Robin on a riverbed was enough to sell millions of copies. Those stories represent the time in Batman’s life when he was first being influenced by Robin. I imagine that Batman--the 20-year-old Batman of Year One and the Golden Age stories, who’s given himself this mission--is working his issues out, but he’s still very grim and angry and lacks responsibility.

And then he meets this little poor kid, a carnival kid, a trapeze artist. And I figure that as soon as he met Robin, it changed his life, because suddenly he had someone to talk to. Bruce Wayne was emotionally frozen when his parents were killed, so he really needed Robin. He never got to have a pal like this when he was young because he was grieving. And where Bruce was a fairly sheltered rich kid, Dick Grayson is a rough-and-tumble street-smart circus boy so Batman learns a lot from the kid.

And I can kind of imagine Robin introducing all this cool stuff to the Batcave, the submarines and dinosaurs, all these crazy kid elements, and maybe even convincing Batman to wear a lighter-colored costume. They were like kids together. Emotionally Bruce was still a boy and some of those goofier older stories work more ‘realistically’ when seen in that light.

And again, when Robin leaves to go to college--at that point, we get the Denny O’Neill/Neal Adams stories which returned to a grimmer, ’30s-influenced Batman...and that’s obviously his emotional response to losing his little best friend to the grown-ups. (laughs)
Morrison's current story arc is inspired by the idea that Bruce Wayne has undergone all the experiences the comics ever showed Batman having--or at least something reminiscent of them--within the short life of a man in his thirties. So naturally he's gone crazy. Bat-Mite, the fannish imp with magical powers from 1959, is back as Batman's hallucination. Unless he's real. Or something like that. I'm waiting for the trade.

16 August 2008

Wisest Thing I've Read Today

Every so often I discover why I'm keeping around old copies of the New Yorker when in my heart I know I'll never finish reading a fraction of them. This reason comes from Adam Gopnik's essay on G. K. Chesterton, “The Back of the World,” published in the 7-14 July 2008 issue:

There are two great tectonic shifts in English writing. One occurs in the early eighteenth century, when Addison and Steele begin The Spectator and the stop-and-start Elizabethan-Stuart prose becomes the smooth, Latinate, elegantly wrought ironic style that dominated English writing for two centuries.

Gibbon made it sly and ornate; Johnson gave it sinew and muscle; Dickens mocked it at elaborate comic length. But the style--formal address, long windups, balance sought for and achieved--was still a sort of default, the voice in which leader pages more or less wrote themselves.

The second big shift occurred just after the First World War, when, under American and Irish pressure, and thanks to the French (Flaubert doing his work through early Joyce and Hemingway), a new form of aerodynamic prose came into being. The new style could be as limpid as Waugh or as blunt as Orwell or as funny as White and Benchley, but it dethroned the old orotundity as surely as Addison had killed off the old asymmetry.

Chesterton mannerisms--beginning sentences with “I wish to conclude” or “I should say, therefore” or “Moreover,” using the first person plural unself-consciously (”What we have to ask ourselves...”), making sure that every sentence was crafted like a sword and loaded like a cannon--appeared to have come from another universe.

Writers like Shaw and Chesterton depended on a kind of comic hyperbole: every statement is an overstatement, and understood as such by readers. The new style prized understatement, to be filled in by the reader. What had seemed charming and obviously theatrical twenty years before now could sound like puff and noise. Human nature didn’t change in 1910, but English writing did. (For Virginia Woolf, they were the same thing.)
And what will come next?

15 August 2008

Fake Footprints in the Sky

I don't follow the Olympics, so I didn't watch the opening ceremonies. But I was struck by the news from the Telegraph in London earlier this week that the television images of fireworks "footprints" making a path across the sky were actually computer-generated. There were real fireworks in those shapes, the Beijing Times assured the world; they just wouldn't have looked so good on television.

Shortly afterwards, BBC News reported that a nine-year-old girl shown singing "Ode to the Motherland" was actually lip-synching the voice of a not-so-pretty seven-year-old girl. There have been plenty of lip-synched "live" TV performances before. But this time, the musical director said, ""The reason for this is that we must put our country's interest first."

NBC responded to criticism for going along with the CGI fireworks by pointing out that its announcers referred to those visuals as "actually almost animation" and "quite literally cinematic." Nineteen syllables to say "fake."

Nationalism isn't the only motivation for such fakery, of course. Three years ago the M&Ms balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade hit a tree and injured a woman and a child. NBC's announcers not only didn't mention the accident, but the network actually took footage of the previous year's balloon and broadcast that in the place of the damaged one. Why? M&M/Mars had paid for commercial time, and the announcers still had to read their lines.

14 August 2008

“A Piece of Scholarship”?

Jerome Corsi, a coauthor of the book whose lies started the "swiftboating" of the John F. Kerry presidential campaign, is back with a book on Barack Obama. And it's a bestseller, confirming the old Republican wisdom that you can fool some people all of the time--those people being the modern party's "base."

Corsi's approach to Obama appears to boil down to complaining that the candidate has never said that he'd stopped beating his wife. And when that doesn't go far enough, the book rolls out lies. As Media Matters has shown, Corsi criticized Obama for leaving many things out of his memoir, Dreams of My Father, such as:

Interestingly, Obama did not dedicate Dreams from My Father to his mother, or to his father, Barack Senior, or to his Indonesian stepfather. Missing from the dedication are the grandparents who raised him in Hawaii...
Yet at the end of his introduction Obama had written:
It is to my family, though -- my mother, my grandparents, my siblings, stretched across oceans and continents -- that I owe the deepest gratitude and to whom I dedicated this book.
And that's just one of several things Corsi--who boasts a Harvard doctorate--managed to miss in reading Obama's book. The selecive

Corsi told the New York Times that for Media Matters to point out his lies was "nitpicking." I would have thought that making a big deal of how someone else had chosen to dedicate a book would be nitpicking.

Corsi doesn't always deal in minuscule matters. Back in 2004, Media Matters collected some of Corsi's online comments on topics ranging from the Catholic church to Chelsea Clinton. Since then he's written that "President Bush intends to abrogate U.S. sovereignty to the North American Union" and that oil doesn't come from fossils.

Who's publishing this man's book? A Simon & Schuster imprint called Threshold Editions, headed by longtime Republican operative Mary Matalin. (Note how the title for that webpage still gives the old URL MatalinGOP.com. Matalin appears above.) And commercially, it's hard to fault an imprint that's published an instant bestseller, however embarrassing its contents.

Matalin claimed to the Times that Corsi's book “was not designed to be, and does not set out to be, a political book,” but was instead “a piece of scholarship.” Obviously she hadn't coordinated her lie with her author since the same article says:
“The goal is to defeat Obama,” Mr. Corsi said in a telephone interview. “I don’t want Obama to be in office.”

13 August 2008

Single Bounds in Superman Research

At Newsarama, Jeff Trexler has just written about the early correspondence between DC Comics and Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creators of Superman. An ongoing lawsuit has produced a document dump that's "a gold mine for folks interested in comics history." It's too late for Marc Taylor Nobleman to include this information in Boys of Steel, but then it isn't really picture-book material, anyway.

The DC legal team is releasing these documents letters to show that Siegel and Shuster were taking direction as "work-for-hire" creators during the first decade of Superman comics. So they focus on details that DC wanted Shuster (and his staff) to change, showing who was making the creative decisions. A taste of Trexler's reporting:

Another alleged problem with [Joe] Shuster’s artwork is that it made Superman look gay — or in the period slang of [Whitney] Ellsworth’s January 22, 1940, letter, “lah-de-dah” with a “nice fat bottom.”

What’s worse, the pose in the second panel also reminded Ellsworth of “certain FLIT ads done by a cartoonist who signs himself ‘Dr. Seuss.’”
In other not-safe-for-picture-book Shuster news, Abrams's new ComicArts "sub-imprint" is preparing to publish Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster as one its inaugural titles. In July, Publishers Weekly described these drawings:
an unusual collection of S&M comics secretly created by Superman’s co-creator Joe Shuster. Thought to have been destroyed, the comics were discovered in a shop in Britain by [Craig] Yoe, who has verified that Schuster was the creator. Called Nights of Horror, the comics are fetish fantasies with characters that look just like Clark Kent and Lois Lane. “They’re chained and being whipped and there’s women kissing women,” said Kochman, “It’s a great story and no one ever connected them to Schuster [sic].”
Of course, the people could look like Clark Kent and Lois Lane simply because that was how Shuster drew men and women.

Yoe previously assembled Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings, which also included some of Shuster's drawings. They were, reportedly, some of the few examples in that book that went beyond the raciness of a Playboy cartoon. Even Robert Crumb complained, and he wrote the book's introduction. Judging by the samples I found on the internet, there's more explicitly depicted sex in the Young Adult Graphic Novels section of my local library.

12 August 2008

Dawn Returns?

Publishers Weekly's reported on unusually heavy reader disappointment in Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer's latest installment in her Twilight series last week. Other popular series have reached crucial turning-points without such a reaction.

Gail Gauthier has interesting comments on what readers should and shouldn't have expected from the Twilight books. Her description of the heroine's domesticization makes me think of Natasha at the end of War and Peace, or Jo March becoming a mother and surrogate mother in the sequels to Little Women. However, Meyer's description of the actual process of becoming a mother in Breaking Dawn seems, by all accounts, to be horribly off-putting.

Like Roger Sutton, I was struck by the fan movement to return read books for refunds, or at least store credit. That brought up some interesting issues on the nexus of literary tastes and ethics, as PW reported:

In one heavily trafficked thread entitled “Unhappy with Breaking Dawn? Don’t burn it--RETURN it!,” commenters debated whether returning the book was a valid way to express unhappiness with the book.

“Technically, reading a book and returning it is theft of knowledge,” read one post, while the original commenter, a former bookstore employee, wrote, “I don’t advocate making a habit of buying new books, reading them, and returning them. But once in a while... I do think mass returns are a useful form of consumer protest.”

Another poster recounted, anecdotally, returning the book at Borders: “They took back my book with no problem. Got into a discussion with the cashier about how I was the 15th (!!!) person to bring my book back today.”

Oren Teicher, COO of the American Booksellers Association, said that there is no official ABA policy governing book returns by customers. “I can tell you that it’s certainly my experience that most stores will absolutely accept returns provided the books are in good condition,” he said, adding that independent booksellers are more interested in preserving longterm relationships with their customers than quibbling over a return.

Regarding books returned because a customer was displeased with it, Teicher said he thought some independent booksellers would be receptive to accepting such a return if they had recommended the book to the customer, though he noted, “I believe there was not a lot of handselling going on Friday night.”
In other words, readers knew what sort of writing they were getting when they paid for it.

I ponder how this sort of reader response might play out in the future. What will happen to protest returns as books migrate toward a digital format, with more people downloading titles instead of buying hard copies? In that case, all we'll be buying, really, is the intellectual content. There would be no physical way to give that back, or ensure we don't secretly continue to enjoy it. Would publishers and booksellers still offer full refunds to keep their potential customers happy enough to buy someone else's book instead? Or should authors in a download age get the benefit of non-returnable sales?

11 August 2008

G. P. Taylor Seizes His Opportunities

In the fall of 2007, G. P. Taylor, author of Shadowmancer and less successful books, issued an open letter to his American fans on the dire threat of the Golden Compass movie. Here's one example of it being spread around the 'net.

Taylor stated:

The reason why I wrote the book [Shadowmancer] and all the others in the series was because of one man and the damage that his books were likely to do to the Christian Church.

Almost two years earlier, I’d been at home in the vicarage, reading a copy of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. I’d heard a great deal about the book. Newspapers and literary critics praised it. Christian groups wanted to burn it. I wanted to know what all the commotion was about.

Fifty pages into this award-winning, best-selling book for children twelve and up, here’s what I’d learned: God is a liar. God is senile. God is the enemy of humanity. I started to get mad.

Pullman’s book reworks Milton’s Paradise Lost so that Satan’s side are the heroes. Early on in the book, two rebel angels spill God’s great “secret”:

'The Authority, God the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adoni, the King, the Father, the Almighty – those were the names he gave himself. He was never the creator. He was an angel like ourselves – the first angel, true, the most powerful, but he was formed of Dust as we are … He told all who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie.' - (so Pullman said - notice he doesn't give God any other name such as Allah or Shiva - I wonder why?)
It's curious that Taylor described the book as The Golden Compass rather than using its British title, Northern Lights. It's even more curious that he'd told the same story about reading Pullman's later book in that series, The Amber Spyglass. Indeed, Taylor's description of the book, with its "fifty pages in" and "two rebel angels," doesn't fit The Golden Compass at all. And does anyone recall that "Christian groups wanted to burn" The Golden Compass in 2000-01 (the period Taylor was describing)?

It's also notable that back in 2004, when there was no brouhaha in America over the Golden Compass movie but Harry Potter movies were already big, the Los Angeles Times reported: "Taylor has said that he was moved to start writing out of his concern that the dark powers in [J. K.] Rowling’s Potter books are given too much weight." That article contained no mention of Pullman. This 2003 Guardian article is likewise silent on Taylor writing in reply to Pullman.

Indeed, there seems to be a general discrepancy between what Taylor has told the American press and public and what he said to reporters in his British home. Taylor painted a different picture of how religion flavored his writing in an interview with the BBC about four years ago:
Andyc: Does being a vicar help you to be a good writer?

G.P. Taylor: No, because everybody thinks the book is a Christian book, so I have to explain it is not. Just because I'm a vicar does not mean I have to write a Christian book. It has hindered me in a way, because some of the reviewers look for things which are not there.
Even this article on his website written by the author of his autobiography portrays Taylor quite differently from his open letter to Americans:
Taylor says that Christian themes in his works are a natural part of the writing process. “If I was a Buddhist,” he says, “my books would be influenced by Buddhism.”

Taylor takes exception with the suggestion that his novels are “Christian books,” meant as entertainment for true believers. And he doesn’t want to “brainwash” anyone with Christianity. Instead, he wants to engage readers in a game of “what if.” “I want my readers to think, ‘what if there’s another force that lies beyond death?’ It’s trying to get people to open their minds, to think the impossible thing.
In contrast, the open letter shows little interest in open minds. It does, however, urge everyone to buy G. P. Taylor's books.

Taylor has a new book series out, adding some comics to his usual prose. The BuddyHollywood.com announcement of that series contains this paragraph:
Taylor surmises this interest in his works is due to the film success of another English children’s author. “I was talking to some kids at a school and this guy shows up in a very old tweed suit. He sat at the back of the room and looked very musingly at me all the way through [my presentation.] I thought, What’s going on here? Is he one of the teachers or what? He turned out to be an Oxford don. He said, 'I’ve heard all about you. We think you’re the new C.S. Lewis.' I thought, Poor old one! (laughs). Then he went off and wrote a thesis about G.P. Taylor being the new C.S. Lewis; when that went out, that was it.”
An "Oxford don" speaking in the first person plural ("We think...")? That's almost a laying on of hands. Yet before that press release, Taylor's website credited the "new C. S. Lewis" meme to the BBC, a Korean broadcasting service, and unspecified American news media. No Oxford dons were ever mentioned.

Taylor has displayed some ambivalence toward that comparison. Once he vowed to stop writing the Shadowmancer series because of being "branded as the new CS Lewis." Yet oddly enough, he keeps using that phrase in press releases and interviews. If you Google "G. P. Taylor" and "new C. S. Lewis," most of the hits are on his own websites or in material issued by him, his publicists, and his publishers. And toward the end of his open letter, Taylor proudly claimed that his books "have earned me the title of 'The new CS Lewis.'"

Finally, here's an update on Taylor's magical form of aging. His MySpace page, updated as recently as this month, describes him as 43 years old. He was also 43 five years ago in the Guardian. In 2006 Spero News reported both that he was born in 1958 and that he was 42 years old in 2002. The LA Times agrees with the former date, reporting Taylor as age 46 in 2004. Taylor himself told the Independent that he had been five years old in 1963. In that case, since MySpace was founded in late 2003, Taylor was 45 years old at the earliest moment he could join.

10 August 2008

If the Secrets Must Be Told

Newsarama's interview with current Robin scripter Fabian Nicieza shows how assembly-line comic books are a collaborative, deadline-driven, and sometimes improvisatory storytelling medium:

NRAMA: Okay, by the end of #175, Tim [Drake, the current Robin] has somewhat convinced himself, thanks to Bruce [Wayne]’s journals, that Batman may have gone nuts, and if that’s the case, he’s going to take him down...again, take us inside his head. That seems like a rather hasty conclusion to jump to in light of no evidence that he has, or that he may be lying in an alley, bleeding to death somewhere...

FN: Well, if the secrets behind the comics must be told, [artist] Joe Bennett did a great job under incredibly tight deadline pressure on both these issues, but in #175, he gave me a little more of a superhero dramatic pose than I’d expect for that last splash page, so I had to change my script, which resulted in a little more testosterone on the page--and my dialogue--than I’d intended.

That being said though, I don’t think Tim is jumping to conclusions based on everything that’s been going on the last few months in the Batman title. He is stating possibilities. Of course he’s concerned about Bruce’s safety, but he’s also concerned about what a mad-dog Batman could do to the people of Gotham.

And Tim’s a smart guy. He knows he was drawn puffy-chested on a cliffhanger splash page, so he has to say something appropriately Eastwoodian to carry us over to the next issue. He is very helpful to writers that way. [laughs]
The artwork above is for that issue #175 of Robin. DC's announcement of the magazine still carries the initial credits for scripter Chuck Dixon and artist Chris Batista, who were suddenly replaced this spring.

The cover art, which didn't change, is by Freddie Williams II. Shown above, it's an obvious visual echo of Jim Aparo's cover for A Death in the Family, which chronicled the death of the second Jason Todd, the Robin before Tim, back in 1988. And that in turn was a visual echo of Michelangelo's Pietà.

The new comic book's subtext, in both story and art, is that this Robin might be more mature than Batman.

09 August 2008

Captain Marvel Takes Off Again

Readers eagerly awaiting the next volume of Jeff Smith's Bone comics as reissued by Scholastic should check out the big comics project he turned to next after completing Bone in its original, black and white form.

It's Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil, created for DC Comics. This volume retells the origin and an early adventure of Captain Marvel, as well as his sister Mary Marvel. It also picks up elements of a 1940s Captain Marvel story arc, a rare multi-volume story from American comic books' "Golden Age." However, readers don't have to know anything about Captain Marvel before picking up this book.

Like Bone, Smith's Shazam! is both layered and easy to follow, poking at deep ideas but fun for all ages. The art reflects his personal style, which is in between the very simple cartoons that C. C. Beck used for the original Captain Marvel stories and the "default style of the superhero mainstream." Though it changes some elements of the Big Red Cheese's mythology, such as making Tawny Tiger a shape-changing ifrit instead of a tiger in a business suit, Smith sticks to the simple values beneath any good Shazam story.

For readers wanting more after this, Judd Winick and Josh Middleton's take on the first meeting of Captain Marvel and Superman, Superman/Shazam!: First Thunder, has some of the same simplicity and a few very good moments, but less depth in the end.

08 August 2008

New Kind of Advocacy Journalism

Salon offers an interesting story about pro-war veterans who've published little beyond newspaper op-ed pieces taking advantage of the US military's "embed" program to set themselves up as journalists reporting from Iraq. The magazine notes that the organizers of this group, Vets for Freedom, have close ties to the John McCain presidential campaign. The writers are being sponsored by the Weekly Standard and National Review.

Not mentioned in this article, but obviously hovering above it, is how the Marine Corps and individual military units in Iraq are refusing to cooperate with photographers and other journalists whose coverage they dislike. No one should be surprised, therefore, if the news from Iraq starts to tilt.

Simpler Times

Thanks to the In Crowd's I'm Learning to Share! blog, here's a look at Do You Know What I'm Going to Do Next Saturday?, an early example of Random House's Beginner Books using photographs instead of drawings. (Choose the "slideshow" option for easy viewing.)

That easy-read series was built around Dr. Seuss, and the text of this title came from his wife, Helen Palmer. The photographs are by Lynn Fayman. The guns are by the US Marine Corps.

And some Oz-related content from the same Flickr user: A gallery of illustrations by Frederick Richardson from a 1914 reader. A decade earlier, Richardson had illustrated Queen Zixi of Ix, one of L. Frank Baum's finest fantasies. I especially like this monster pursuing a sailing ship.

07 August 2008

Misdirection and Magic

In a writing group last week, I brought up the topic of misdirection in writing fiction. There's the broad-scale misdirection of making sure there are enough red herrings in a mystery (something I didn't manage on my first try). And then there are smaller-scale misdirections an author might use when introducing important details so that they don't seem too important.

That group discussion was prompted by a scene describing a few items that, when combined later in the story, would produce a startling change in the hero. The author needed to establish that they were present, of course. But in this early draft they seemed to stand out so much that they threatened to break the verisimilitude of the scene. We don't want our descriptions to make readers think of blinking neon signs and ominous musical chords. We don't want them asking, "Now why did the author just tell me that?"

By coincidence, on Sunday the Boston Globe's Ideas section ran Drake Bennett's article on "How magicians control your mind." It included an unconfirmed observation from one sleight-of-hand expert, Apollo Robbins:

Robbins, a performing pickpocket and another of the magicians to coauthor the Nature Neuroscience paper, has found, he says, that semi-circular gestures draw people's attention better than straight ones. "It engages them more," he says. "I use them when I'm actually coming out of the pocket."
Robbins demonstrates and (at the end) discusses his techniques in this video from the 2007 meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Concentration in Las Vegas. Robbins's theory is that straight motions make it easy for our eyes to snap back to the place where the movement started, which is where he might be removing a man's watch or doing something else useful. An arc gives the brain more to track, and thus makes it easier to misdirect and distract.

Is there an equivalent in writing fiction? A way to make readers think about something other than the details we're establishing, or to make them think about those details in another way. One, word-heavy approach might be to pile on more details, camouflaging the important ones. Another might be to imbue the necessary details with an emotional weight that sucks up our attention, and thus stops us from wondering why the author put them in there.

As for Robbins's ASCS lecture, one element I found most impressive is his choice of dress for speaking to scientists. He blends. The video clips on Robbins's website and available through YouTube show a much slicker fellow, ready for his TV closeup. (ASCS? Just seeing if you were concentrating.)

Robbins's own website is called istealstuff.com, and he's a host of a TruTV show called The Real Hustle. Wired magazine reported on his move into the business of security consulting for big corporations. That is, after all, where the money is.

06 August 2008

A Somewhat Familiar Unfamiliar World

Economic straits force a newly single mom and her kids to move into an old family mansion, long deserted. As the kids explore their new home, they discover odd creatures--some friendly but trying, others outright hostile.

It turns out the ancestor who lived in that house was studying the fantastic beings around him, and has disappeared into their world. Then the creatures kidnap a member of the family. An older sister and younger brother left behind have to venture into the dangerous, fantastic, parallel world to restore their family.

The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black? Yes, that and probably some other stories, too.

But right now I'm looking at the first volume of Amulet, a graphic-novel series by writer-illustrator Kazu Kibuishi from Scholastic's Graphix imprint. Kibuishi also edited last year's Cybils nominee Flight, volume 4. Since this book ends at a cliffhanger and Book 2 (of three to five total) is scheduled for fall 2009, I don't feel up for assessing the story yet. The character development seems still to be at a very early stage.

Of course, if Kibuishi continues to finish a new volume every year and a half, the initial target readership will have grown up by the time the story is done. That may not matter with a series like Harry Potter, in which each installment has its own narrative arc, but this first volume of Amulet is definitely only part of a whole.

05 August 2008

No, I Do It Myself!

Nick Green on one of the joys of fatherhood at the British-author group blog An Awfully Big Blog Adventure:

Last night I was getting my three-year-old son Oscar ready for his bath. Lately he’s got it into his head that he will do everything, thank you very much, and does not need any help taking off his shirt. All attempts to assist, even the most surreptitious, blind-sided fingertip grip on the seam of his sleeve, to make it easier for him to extricate his arm, is met with screams of apoplectic fury. The only thing to do is stand back and offer the occasion word of advice, and even these don’t go down well. . . .

He just could not get that t-shirt off. He’d hoist it over his head, dragging it across his face as it changed from pink to crimson, only for it to slip back again. He’d yank on one arm till the stitches popped, but he but couldn’t achieve that crucial elbow-past-the-seam watershed, beyond which, as we smug grown-ups know, t-shirt removal is a formality. At times, both of the above were happening at once, and he was straitjacketed, blundering around the bathroom as if he could somehow outrun his shirt, bashing into things like Winnie the Pooh in the heffalump trap. All the while raging, screaming, sobbing and wailing like a soul in purgatory, while I, his father, stood by and watched.
This is why, while I delight in the company of children, I'm always happy to turn them over to their parents after a couple of hours. Less wailing all around.

(I think part of my pleasure in reading this anecdote was the increasingly rare proper spelling of "straitjacket.")

04 August 2008

In the World of Comics

Yesterday's Unshelved, the only webcomic whose T-shirts I wear, featured Eric Shanower's Adventures in Oz in its Sunday Book Club. Tamara and Dewey apparently agree that the Oz books and Eric's comics extensions of them have a rare combination of sweet and awesome.

Also, last week PW's The Beat reported that Ballantine will issue a Garfield Minus Garfield collection. With cartoonist Jim Davis's blessing. I guess he does still has a sense of humor.

03 August 2008

The End of Robin?

This past week, DC Comics released some hints about what next year brings for Batman's sidekicks, so that's the topic of this weekly Robin. Even as The Dark Knight is cleaning up at the box office, the comic books are in the midst of a story arc titled "Batman RIP" that climaxes with Bruce Wayne's (supposed) death. And next?

At the San Diego Comic-Con, DC unveiled the image above for a new story arc titled "Battle for the Cowl," to be written by Grant Morrison. (The figures are, from left, Selina Kyle as Catwoman, Wayne childhood friend Tommy something as uninspiring villain Hush, Dick Grayson as Nightwing, Jason Todd working on his anger issues, and Tim Drake as Robin.) Also, there are two January issues titled "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" to be scripted by Neil Gaiman and drawn by Andy Kubert.

Rich Johnston's Lying in the Gutters column of comic-book gossip stated that "both main Batbooks [Detective and Batman] will be put on hiatus" during "Battle for the Cowl," and that the Nightwing and Robin magazines will be renamed Red Robin and Batman and Robin, respectively.

I'd be more confident if Johnston had reported the title of the Morrison story accurately, and if his last "Batscoop this strong" hadn't turned out to be way off on every detail that wasn't obvious. It would be a very big step for DC to suspend publication of Detective and Batman. The first magazine has been published continuously since 1937, and gave the company its name. The latter has been on sale since 1940. Will they really stop, or will a "Cowl" story arc extend over both titles?

As for big changes to the Nightwing and Robin magazines, that seems more plausible because of the situation illustrated here:
This is a graph of the sales of the three comic books featuring past and present Robin in lead roles from May 2007 to May 2008. The figures are only from the Diamond distribution company, as reported by ICv2, and thus leave out a few thousand copies sold through other channels or outside the USA; it's the relative trends that matter. The numbers were tallied up and reported here at PW's The Beat.

Basically, all these books were on a steady downward slide--Teen Titans more than the solo books, but then it was a hot book only a few years ago. A crossover with the main Batman comic broke Nightwing and Robin's descent briefly in late 2007, but then the sales returned to their previous levels and the decline continued. Over two years, sales of all three titles were off by over a third.

Those magazines' decline reflects a broader trend in the comics industry, and DC in particular. In 1999 Trina Robbins could write in From Girls to Grrrlz, "The average mainstream superhero comic sells from forty thousand to sixty thousand copies." Robin, a name known even to Americans who've never read a superhero comic, is now selling only about 30,000 copies, and nearly out of Diamond's monthly top 100. Will making Batman a regular part of that magazine boost its sales? And what if that Batman is actually Dick Grayson?

02 August 2008

Back to Circus Smirkus

Yesterday I paid my annual visit to Circus Smirkus, the summer youth circus based in Vermont. It might even have been this performance.

After coming home from last year's show, I asked why Book Kennison hadn't done his juggling/contortion act for a couple of productions. This year I didn't even see him during the opening act, but eventually he popped up and had a big solo.

Circus acrobatics have always been a mix of athleticism, danger, and art. In the late twentieth century, the North American circus was rejuvenated by more emphasis on art, and less on death-defying thrills and "watch what I can do next" physical feats.

This year Smirkus had an act with four teens swinging on hoops that was one of the best that I can recall in terms of creating an artistic whole. It was far more than a series of gymnastic moves, but rather an integrated dance that just happened to take place about eight feet off the ground. This is just a sample from the Smirkus dad who took the other Flickr photos I've linked to.

Bold Republicans

Fresh off a television advertisement that FactCheck.org dubbed false, the John McCain campaign has produced a commercial that compares Sen. Barack Obama to Paris Hilton, and then says something else FactCheck calls false.

I think that ad was very brave of the Republicans, considering that their candidate married a 24-year-old blonde heiress who's had to fight an addiction, having started to date her before the end of his first marriage. Under those circumstances, I wouldn't have dared bring Paris Hilton into the political discourse. It would have just seemed too chancy.

01 August 2008

Rabbit Rabbit

Caitlin GD Hopkins photo of bunny in graveyardLast month on Vast Public Indifference, Caitlin GD Hopkins shared her photographs of the rabbits of the Lexington, Massachusetts, burying-ground. Surely there's inspiration for a new Bunnicula book here.

What's the Oz connection that has me placing this image on the right side instead of the left? I believe James Howe, coauthor of the original Bunnicula and author of most of its sequels, also wrote the short Mister Tinker in Oz for Random House in 1985.