30 December 2008

Is Our Children Reading E-books?

The Los Angeles Times is one of a number of news outlets reporting how the sales of electronic books grew by a large percentage in 2008. Of course, sales had been so low that nearly any market penetration would have produced a large percentage rise. But between the Sony Reader, the Amazon Kindle, and other devices, the format seems to have caught on.

Some people fret predictably that this new technology will change reading habits (of course it will) in fundamental ways (not really). Good fiction makes readers so mentally involved in the fictional world that they stop noticing their real surroundings--including whether they're turning pages, clicking a button, or listening to a recorded voice.

In the LA Times article, the opening case study (shown above, photo by Stefano Paltera) is an eight-year-old named Skye Vaughn-Perling, who likes Dr. Seuss's Horton Hears a Who in both printed and digital forms. Well, with a name like Skye Vaughn-Perling, he'd have to like Dr. Seuss, wouldn't he?

I always seem to feel rhymy toward the end of the calendar year, so I found myself summing up the LA Times article this way:

Skye Vaughn-Perling isn't heeding
Questions swirling over reading.
He has seen both printed matter
And a screen--so which is better?
Skye seems glad for either version
Since what matters is immersion.
What he looks for, he's surmised,
Can come in books or digitized.
I feel unseemly pride in the internal rhymes.

29 December 2008

How Old May You Be?

Early this month the Telegraph and other British newspapers declared that a tortoise named Jonathan was the world's oldest living animal.

Jonathan had arrived on the island of St. Helena in 1882 as a mature tortoise (i.e., at least fifty years old), making him at least 176 today.

But now some high-school students in Banbury, Oxfordshire, have interviewed a visitor from St. Helena and raised doubts about that conclusion. As they reported to the BBC:

  • big tortoises look a lot alike.
  • islanders might well have given the name Jonathan to more than one tortoise.
It's not that the current Jonathan can't be 176 years old, or even older. It's just that the evidence about his longevity on St. Helena isn't so clear as when the photograph above (from the Boer War) was first noted in the media.

According to Tortoise, by Peter Young, the Jonathan alive today inspired the Rev. L. P. Walcott to write these lines in 1924:
Said I to the Tortoise, ‘How old may you be?’
‘Two hundred or so,’ said the Tortoise to me.
‘That’s a very long time,’ to the Tortoise I said.
‘Not so long,’ he replied, ‘for most was in bed.’

28 December 2008

Not “Not Goofing Off!”

Last December I posted this image, taken from an online preview of the first issue of the comic-book miniseries Teen Titans Year One. The script is by Amy Wolfram, the art by Karl Kerschl.
That issue and the five that followed have now been collected in a paperback. But not every detail made it into that edition.

Robin's agitated speech balloon in the picture disappeared between the preview and the paperback. Twenty years ago, the likely explanation would have been that a balloon pasted onto the artwork at the last minute had fallen off on the way to the printer. But with the technology of that time, there was also no easy way to make one of Robin's words to appear in red.

These days, comics are assembled on computers. That makes lettering and coloring much more flexible. It also turns editing, moving, or removing an element inserted by the letterer a simple matter of finding the right level in the Photoshop file. So this was a deliberate change.

What could have been the reason? Kerschl's art makes clear that Robin is startled by Batman's comment, so a red-letter speech isn't necessary to show his emotional state. Still, he does have his mouth open. I suspect the explanation lies in how Robin doesn't talk back to Batman like this in the rest of the miniseries (more's the pity). Wolfram and her editors may have decided that even though there was enough space on the page for this balloon, it no longer fit the story.

27 December 2008

Unreliable

Lisa Von Drasek began her NYTBR review of Knucklehead, a new memoir about boys behaving badly, this way:

I have been a fan of Jon Scieszka (rhymes with Fresca) since “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs” by A. Wolf was published 20 years ago. Can you name another book that introduces the unreliable narrator to second graders?
Well, yes.

26 December 2008

LeakyCon Coming to a Hub Near You

I don't know how I feel about this. LeakyCon, a conference on the Harry Potter series sponsored by the fine Leaky Cauldron fan site, will make its debut in Boston on 21-24 May 2009. At the Park Plaza, no less.

I've been withholding comment on this news for months since the initial announcements about the conference were at this level of vagueness:

Formal Programming for LeakyCon2009 will include a variety of presentation formats. Emphasis will be placed on active discussion and audience participation in the form of debate, workshop, and question/answer sessions.
Will this be more like an academic conference, or more like a science-fiction convention, or more like the big midnight costume parties when the books were released?

The event is accepting $185 registrations, and there are still no answers. The event has announced a list of bands, but it looks like the spoken programming is still going to be whoever has volunteered to speak.

25 December 2008

Geeking Out for the Holidays

Dear Godson--

Just because your godfather sent you and your brother American comic books for Christmas doesn't mean he's reverted to being a hopeless fanboy.

On the other hand, the fact that he sent them to you bagged and boarded...

24 December 2008

Where Were You?

Since 2001, the Rev. Brendan Powell Smith has been constructing a Lego-illustrated Bible, brick by shiny little plastic brick.

Smith's website explains:

The Brick Testament is the largest, most comprehensive illustrated Bible in the world with over 3,600 illustrations that retell more than 300 stories from The Bible.
There are also printed books, such as the one above.

The latest addition to the site is the Book of Job. As a newcomer to the site who already knew the story, I found it best to jump right into the middle.

23 December 2008

Pictures of Him Smiling


From Kansas City comes a story of two elementary-school biographies of Barack Obama getting pulled from a Catholic school's library.

Priest Ron Elliott reportedly received complaints that the library of the St. John LaLande Catholic School of Blue Springs, Missouri, contained two books about Barack Obama. Who doesn't adhere to the Vatican line on abortion. (Neither do the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, which is what a US President is actually supposed to preserve, protect, and defend, but that's my idiosyncratic interpretation.)

Elliott pulled both books off the library shelves, examined them, and determined that "they don’t touch on anything controversial at all. . . . They’re just about him growing up, with pictures of him smiling.”

Nevertheless, Elliott "plans to return the books in February or March after the dust settles." Because there's no reason that kids at that school might be interested in Obama in, say, late January.

I get the feeling that Elliott himself isn't eager to remove the books. Rather, he seems to be acting to assuage some unnamed vocal parishioners, reassuring them and the world of his own anti-abortion views while preparing to reshelve the books. But again, that might be my idiosyncratic interpretation.

Above, a T-shirt of superhero artist Alex Ross's image of Obama, available through Stylin' Online.

22 December 2008

Update on E. H. Shepard Auction

In November, I noted an upcoming auction of E. H. Shepard drawings from the Winnie the Pooh books at Sotheby's in London. Last week Reuters reported that the sale exceeded even the high expectations, with "He went on tracking, and Piglet...ran after him" selling for £115,250 and "Bump, bump, bump--going up the stairs" for £97,250. Even the latter-day Piglet drawing I linked to turned out to be worth £8,750.

21 December 2008

Trained by the World’s Greatest Detective

From Batman, #2, script by Bill Finger and art by Jerry Robinson and George Roussos for Bob Kane.

20 December 2008

A Complete Change

Today is a travel day, so I'm going to post a passage from Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men on a Bummel, published in 1900:

"What we want," said Harris, "is a change."

At this moment the door opened, and Mrs. Harris put her head in to say that Ethelbertha had sent her to remind me that we must not be late getting home because of Clarence. Ethelbertha, I am inclined to think, is unnecessarily nervous about the children. As a matter of fact, there was nothing wrong with the child whatever. He had been out with his aunt that morning; and if he looks wistfully at a pastrycook's window she takes him inside and buys him cream buns and "maids-of-honour" until he insists that he has had enough, and politely, but firmly, refuses to eat another anything. Then, of course, he wants only one helping of pudding at lunch, and Ethelbertha thinks he is sickening for something.

Mrs. Harris added that it would be as well for us to come upstairs soon, on our own account also, as otherwise we should miss Muriel's rendering of "The Mad Hatter's Tea Party," out of Alice in Wonderland. Muriel is Harris's second, age eight: she is a bright, intelligent child; but I prefer her myself in serious pieces.

We said we would finish our cigarettes and follow almost immediately; we also begged her not to let Muriel begin until we arrived. She promised to hold the child back as long as possible, and went. Harris, as soon as the door was closed, resumed his interrupted sentence.

"You know what I mean," he said, "a complete change."
A bummel, the narrator eventually explains, is "a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started."

19 December 2008

Blades

Two highly compelling book-length comics that I found in the Young Adult Graphic Novels section of my local library, though I'm still not convinced they belong anywhere near there—

Clyde Fans, by Seth, because there's nothing teenagers like to read more than delicately paced studies of two brothers who tried to sell electric fans to Canadian retailers midway through the last century.

From Hell, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, because there's nothing parents like their teenagers to read more than a depiction of the Jack the Ripper murders in all their bloody, full-frontal, sex-and-gore detail.

Yes, this is part of my ongoing meditation/grouse about how in America the comics form makes people think that books are more appropriate for younger readers than their subjects, stories, and styles should really indicate.

Though I wonder if the real explanation for that shelving is that the YA librarian was more aggressive about buying well-reviewed graphic novels, just to make sure they got into the collection.

17 December 2008

Selling Nonreturnable

This could be big. From today's Wall Street Journal:

Borders Group Inc. has agreed to accept books from HarperStudio on a nonreturnable basis, departing from a decades-old publishing tradition.

Under the terms of the deal, the nation's second-largest bookstore chain by revenue will get a deeper discount on initial orders of books published by the new imprint of News Corp.'s HarperCollins Publishers--58% to 63% off the cover price.
Bob Miller, head of the HarperStudio imprint, was aiming to find such a deal back when he started.

It would be a huge change for the American book industry if frontlist titles are sold to retailers on nonreturnable terms. The "value publishing" wings of some companies already follow that model, but their books are often reprints or novelty packages that are designed not to need publicity.

HarperStudio's initiative is a limited experiment. It's a new, small (in output) imprint of the big, old HarperCollins company, with a mandate to try new ways to publish. Borders is struggling, and may have nothing to lose.

But if this works, we could see some rationalization in how books are sold. Since the Depression, retailers have been able to return unsold inventory for full credit. That makes it easier to convince stores to try out unknown authors or risky subjects, but it also means publishers never know how many copies of a book they've really sold, and thus how much money they'll have to pay the bills.

Under the new arrangement (which is really a century old), Borders will be responsible for discounting or otherwise disposing of its unsold inventory of HarperStudio books, in exchange for being able to keep more of their cover price. Instead of sending copies back, it would discount them.

Which brings us to another way that the book industry tries to play by rules that no other field of business follows. How many other products come with permanent price tags? In other businesses, producers and retailers have more flexibility to price according to demand. Will that be where HarperStudio experiments next?

Golden


Three books, eight to thirteen years old, previously read but not harshly, to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in London for an estimated £1,500-2,000. These are the ordinary first-edition British hardcovers, not a special issue, not signed by the author--and not stickered with the Carnegie Medal.

That’s about a quarter the estimated cost of a Hugh Lofting drawing for The Story of Doctor Doolittle, and less than a twentieth the estimated cost of a Beatrix Potter sketch of Peter Rabbit, pre-publication. But imagine what these books could be worth in another hundred years.

16 December 2008

Losing Sight of the Mission

From Wired magazine comes word of Eisenhower's military industrial complex morphing into what sounds like a military public relations complex:

A Defense Department project, supposedly designed to support U.S. troops, was used instead to channel millions of dollars to personal friends and allies of its chief. The "America Supports You," or ASY, program was led in a "questionable and unregulated manner," according to a Department of Defense Inspector General report, obtained by Danger Room. At least $9.2 million was "inappropriately transferred" by the project's managers. . . .

"Instead of focusing on its primary mission of showcasing and communicating support to the troops and their families, the ASY program focus [turned to] building or soliciting support from the public," the Inspector General's report notes. In 2006 and 2007, for instance, more than $600,000 was spent ginning up support for America Supports You among schoolchildren. . . .

By mid-2007, allegations began to surface that the Pentagon official in charge of the program, Armed Forces Information Service chief Alison Barber, was improperly redirecting millions of dollars in public funds.

From fiscal years 2004 to 2007, the Inspector General's report notes, Barber funneled $8.8 million in contracts to the public relations firm Susan Davis International--to set up the myriad events, and to promote the ASY "brand." The work was incredibly lucrative; Davis' executives made as much as $312,821 to $662,691 per year. "Paying a public relations contractor annual salaries approaching three-quarters of a million dollars does not appear to be a cost-effective means to support the ASY program and the war fighter," the report observes.

But what made it even harder to stomach was that Davis was a friend of Barber's, and a well-known Republican operative, according to former Defense Department lawyer Diane Beaver.
The institution most hurt by this initiative appears to be Stars and Stripes, which is known for its independence but was used to park funds for public-relations efforts. Stars and Stripes itself noted:
Friday’s report comes on the heels of a separate audit released Thursday which found problems with the internal controls separating Defense Department public affairs activities from American Forces Information Service, Stripes’ now defunct parent organization.
That office was also under Barber's purview.

"Support the Troops" should mean supporting American soldiers--e.g., making the best use of their willingness to serve, not misleading them or giving them illegal orders, equipping them well, ensuring their care if wounded. As this report shows, this Pentagon office wasn't supporting American troops so much as supporting the idea of supporting the troops. And if $8 million went to a friend's public-relations firm instead of body armor or medical care? Well, stuff happens.

The photo above, from the US Department of Defense, shows Barber at a 2005 ceremony with Donald H. Rumsfeld, Rob Steffens of Marvel Comics, Peter Parker, and Steve Rogers.

15 December 2008

Conjunction Junction

I'm signed up for Anu Garg's A.Word.A.Day email list, which was functioning like a blog even before blogging went viral. I especially enjoyed the week of archaic conjunctions from late November:

Must remember to work more of those into daily use, though I already use "albeit" more than normal.

A subscription to A.Word.A.Day makes a fine and inexpensive holiday gift for a wordlover who's already overloaded with stuff.

14 December 2008

Reason for Robin, #5

Now we come to a reason for including Robin in the Batman comic books that appears to have been very important in the first three or four decades of the mythos, less so today.

Reason for Robin, #5: He slips, he falls!

In countless Batman adventures from the 1940s through the 1960s, the Dynamic Duo are on the point of catching a gang of crooks when Robin trips over something. Or over nothing at all. He's rarely overpowered by bigger and stronger people. No, he falls down all on his own.
This bit of business served an important function in those adventure comics. Their narrative style depended on a series of sudden reversals: The good guys are winning! No, the bad guys are! No, the good guys! If Batman just captured all the villains right away, the story wouldn't be so exciting.

So the plotting required some way for malefactors to escape or, even better, capture Robin and/or Batman and put them in an imaginative but inefficient deathtrap. Robin stumbling was a convenient solution. Even when no villains were in sight, Robin could still trip just to heighten the sense of danger and emotion in the story.
In his first, solo adventures, Bill Finger and his fellow writers had addressed the same need by giving Bruce Wayne a glass jaw. A well-timed punch could knock him out of action for a while. But Batman couldn't keep losing fights like that without calling into question all that those comics said about him being a physical paragon.
So it fell to Robin to be the fall guy. Then Batman could stop his fight or pursuit in order to look after his little buddy, and the story would survive for another few pages. Since Robin was still only a Boy Wonder, learning and growing, the comic-book creators apparently expected readers to accept Robin's stumbles.

Which I had trouble doing, even when I first read those old Batman stories in first youth. Dick Grayson was a professional trapeze artist at an age when Bruce Wayne was still a rich kid whining about wanting to go to the movies. Adolescents often go through clumsy stages, but this amount of awkwardness for Dick was beyond belief. It was an obvious plot contrivance to the detriment of a character.
After the Batman stories became more realistic in the late 1960s, the Boy Wonder became remarkably more graceful. Indeed, in the last two decades DC Comics has declared that Dick Grayson is the most adept acrobat on Earth, able to leap off tall buildings in a single bound and survive. It's okay for him to be better than Batman in that regard since he's not as skilled a detective, or as obsessed.

The Robin stories have also been able to find meaningful contrasts between Dick, now Nightwing, and his successor Tim Drake, who's relatively awkward as a gymnast (though of course excellent by real-world standards). That's okay for Tim's fans because, the stories remind us, his strengths as Robin lie in other areas. He can have a few falls and seem more realistic, not less so.

13 December 2008

When You Emerge

Andy Hartzell's Fox Bunny Funny, published last year by Top Shelf, is another graphic novel that challenges traditional markers of reading age. It's wordless. It's about funny animals--or at least looks like it fits into the cartoon genre called "funny animal."

But it's about major issues that usually come up in adolescence and early adulthood. And there's more than a little cartoon violence and blood-letting, as this preview shows.

The book follows a fox growing up in a society divided between foxes and the bunnies they prey on. All along, he's secretly attracted to bunny society, and in fact wishes to be a bunny.

A blurb on the book from Leroy Douresseaux says the book "challenges the reader to think about himself, but also about his relationship to his own group and others." A blurb from Tom Knechtel says it "speaks powerfully about our insistent need to belong." And the front flap states: "What happens when a secret desire puts you at odds with your society? . . . When you emerge, you'll find yourself gazing at our own fragmenting society with new eyes."

While I admire the attempt to tell and market a story to as wide an audience as possible, I don't think Fox Bunny Funny really applies to all questions of group identity and being at odds with society.

The central character is a fox who starts by dressing up as a bunny in front of his mirror; his mother sees him and gets upset. On the book's final pages, that fox undergoes surgery to turn into the bunny that was inside all along. There's a glimpse of a secret fox-bunny hybrid community, but the larger society of foxes remains the same.

This isn't an allegory for growing up in a minority ethnic group (which would put the whole family in the same situation). Or having unusual political or religious ideas (a situation not affected by surgery). It's not about reforming society.

Fox Bunny Funny works for me only as an allegory about an individual's non-normative gender and/or sexuality, with the foxes embodying both a homophobic society and a stereotypical masculinity. And the solution, at least for the book's protagonist, is surgery and life in a separate community.

12 December 2008

Tears Have Stained His Cheeks

For seemingly ever the Boston Globe Sunday funnies section has been running a page spread a week from Undertown, created by author Jim Pascoe and artist Jake Myler, published by Tokyopop.

And nearly since the start those pages have struck me as busy, hard to follow, with a cloying edge of melodrama that the actual storytelling didn't do enough to deserve. The characters seemed to draw magical powers and allies out of their back pockets at convenient times, and while a lot of little things happened the story progressed hardly at all.

But maybe, I thought, the problem was that I was seeing snatches of this comic that were too small: too few pages at a time, visually reduced too much. So I picked up the first volume of this series at the library and read it.

And I learned that my first impression was correct.

11 December 2008

Second in Reading Pile

First in Space, by James Vining, was the other graphic novel published in 2007 about an animal used in an early space program--the better-known one being Nick Abadzis's Laika. Both were carefully researched by their creators, as the First in Space website shows. After I'd launched my thoughts on Laika, I decided to check out this book as a contrast.

First in Space focuses on a young chimpanzee named Ham. He was the first chimp in space, but not the first animal, nor the first NASA animal, nor the first animal to return safely. But I guess First Great Ape or Hominid to Return from Space wouldn't work as well as a title.

Abadzis's art for Laika is in color, but almost entirely drab, given the Soviet setting. In contrast, this black-and-white comic is almost glaringly sunny. Vining's style seems to owe a lot to cartoons of the period. He makes a stalwart attempt to keep all the characters distinct, but is somewhat undercut by the story's military and engineering cast. The main characters pretty much break down into three uniform groups:

  • airmen in T-shirts.
  • scientists in lab coats.
  • chimps.
The bright simplicity of the art mirrors the overall tone of First in Space. Though the sight of a chimpanzee killed during testing establishes the stakes for Ham and his handlers, this isn't a dead dog book. There are no Stalinist gulags hanging over the human characters, nor any mention of the fear of nuclear annihilation that fueled the space race.

Laika ends with the little dog's death and the Soviet space program's lies about it. First in Space has its own dark epilogue, showing Ham as an old and lonely denizen of the National Zoo in 1979. The implication is that his space training was the high point of his life. But that's all over in two pages, and we end with a flashback to his arrival at NASA.

Many other threads seem to have been snipped off early along the way. What's the point of those tasks that we see Ham being trained to do throughout the book? What happens to the other chimps we see, cranky Enos and pretty Minnie, and how are they part of Ham's story? Do the scientists and airmen who look after the chimps have any other lives? What's the purpose of the glimpses of what Ham's life would have been like in the wild--including the killing of a smaller monkey?

Overall, First in Flight seems better targeted to young readers who are already interested in space than Laika. It's a shallower book. But perhaps, given the history behind Laika, that's for the best.

10 December 2008

Good Graces

In the recent discussions about the shutdown of the Minx imprint, I saw people recommending its title Good As Lily, by Derek Kirk Kim (script, character design) and Jesse Hamm (final art). So I dug out my reading copy, read it, and enjoyed it. Not as much as The Re-Gifters, but Minx seems to have done well by comics about Korean-American teen-aged girls living in southern California--even if they were created by men, most of whom aren't Korean-American or Californian.

Good As Lily adds a touch of fantasy to the contemporary high school setting. After her birthday party with a picturesque group of bohemian friends, overachiever Grace is visited by three versions of herself: as a little girl, at age twenty-nine, and in old age. The rest of the tale is her struggle to deal with them, her parents, the school play, her crush on the drama teacher, etc., etc. At least she's already gotten into Stanford.

There's some physical comedy that doesn't work quite as well on the page as it would in a moving picture, where timing doesn't depend so much on the reader. But overall Good As Lily uses the comics medium very well. I was particularly struck by the use of borders to split the same scene into different moments.

I have major questions about the title, though. Lily, it turns out, was Grace's older sister, who died young. Grace has spent years trying to be as good as Lily. But that plot thread gets resolved a little more than halfway through the book, and the two older selves remain to be dealt with. They bring mature wisdom about seizing opportunities and advantages when you have them, guiding Grace to a happy final semester. So why wasn't Good As Lily called The Three Graces?

One interesting comment from Kim's blog: Good As Lily and other Minx titles had to fit into 144 pages. That settled production costs, but also established that the spines were never going to be as thick as all those imports from Japan.

09 December 2008

A Princess and a Dragon

Here's another image from Rod Espinosa's The Courageous Princess, a full-page panel from early in the story when Mabelrose meets her main protagonist.

Now that's a dragon. His name is Shalathrumnostrium.

08 December 2008

Last But Not Least: The Courageous Princess

And at last I come to the final finalist for the 2007 Cybils Awards for Graphic Novels: The Courageous Princess, by Rod Espinosa. I thought this was one of the most enjoyable of the nominees, and well suited for younger readers.

Espinosa's fantasy adventure quite consciously mixes traditional fairy-tale elements with some modern touches. For example, the title character, Mabelrose, is a princess. But she's not a stereotypical blonde, blue-eyed beauty. Her skin is a freckled tan halfway between her mother's pale pink and her father's light brown, and her brunette hair is usually a mess. (The human cast's visual variety may reflect Espinosa's upbringing in the Philippines.)

In other ways, however, The Courageous Princess doesn't veer far from what most readers probably want. Mabelrose is anime-cute, and spunky as all get out. She attracts cute animal companions. And while she takes care of herself, she also keeps hoping for a prince. On the other side of the conflict, the villain's animal henchmen are lizards and vultures--ugly animals reflecting traditional visual stereotyping.

Similarly, the story takes a lot of familiar fairy-tale plot turns, connected in new ways. A dragon kidnaps the princess. She journeys toward home across a landscape filled with talking animals, castles, and villages of little people. There are knights in armor, magical objects, deposed kings--almost everything a fairy-tale fan would demand.

Mabelrose has apparently read the same stories as her audience. When a warthog asks her for a kiss, she assumes that it will turn him into a handsome prince. But no.

Among the classic fantasies that The Courageous Princess alludes to is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, though not in a way that fits with the books or movie we all know.
In addition, the people even shorter than Mabelrose are called "Munken," apparently inspired by L. Frank Baum's Munchkins.

Two qualities hampered The Courageous Princess in the Cybils judging. First, the 2007 edition of this comic, published by Dark Horse, contained the same material that had appeared in a 2003 collection from Antarctic Press, except in a smaller trim size. Moreover, before that the same pages had appeared in serial form, and the volume shows its roots in magazines: the saga is incomplete, leaving Mabelrose at the end of a "story arc" but still not home.

Of more concern to me, the story's good guys are able to solve most of the challenges that confront them quite quickly. Mabelrose is constantly meeting nice characters and communities who look after her. A nasty baron besieges her family's castle, but before anything happens her grandparents show up with an even bigger army. Soldiers chase Mabelrose to the top of a tower, but she can swing across a gap to a second tower--a second tower which doesn't appear in any preceding illustration. Thus, while Espinosa's images give off a lot of visual excitement, humor, and of course spunkiness, the story doesn't build as much as I'd have liked.

Similarly, I thought the book established some themes and then didn't follow through. Early on, for instance, a caption and large panel tell us that "most important of all, [Mabelrose's parents] taught her always to pray." But the story doesn't explain what religion they follow (of particular interest since her parents are from different kingdoms), or how that form of faith fits into this magical world. As with the dangers Mabelrose faces and quickly escapes, The Courageous Princess is pleasing in the moment but doesn't reward extended study.

07 December 2008

Weekly Robin Extra

A mashup of the Boy Wonder and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, from undergraduate cartoonist Andrew Lorenzi. He saves the best panels for last.

Robin Has the Worst Dad in the World

My "Reason for Robin, #4" postings about the emotional contrast between Batman and Robin lead naturally to an analysis of the fraught relationship between those characters.

In the first several decades of Batman and Robin comics stories, Dick Grayson was officially Bruce Wayne's "ward." The difference between their ages was unspecified. The ambiguity of that relationship allowed readers to interpret it in various ways; a client of the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham famously took Bruce and Dick as a rare model of a happy homosexual couple. (I expect to discuss that interpretation in more detail someday.)

I think the first several decades of Batman and Robin comic books depicted the relationship as mainly fraternal. Occasionally the characters say as much, as in panels that appear here and here.

Nonetheless, as the adult guardian, Bruce tried to raise Dick responsibly. For example, in the 1943 story "Robin Studies His Lessons!" he insisted that Dick stick to his schoolbooks after his grades appeared to drop. That went so well.

The tenor of that relationship changed significantly after two developments in the 1980s:

Since then, the long-term narratives of all the Robins have been dominated by their difficult relationships with Batman. Bruce has adopted some of those teenagers. (He even legally adopted Dick.) Other Robins had biological fathers who were challenging in their own ways. But the constant for all those young characters is:

Batman is the Worst Dad in the World.

I'm not talking about Batman's habit of encouraging his protégés to fight insane and superpowered criminals while dressed in bright colors, foolhardy as that is. Many comics fans and creators (including artist Alex Ross, quoted here) say that this makes no sense, but what parents always make sense? Moreover, that behavior is the essential premise of the Robin role. And all those characters obviously like being Robin. No, the real problem with having Batman as a father or father figure is that his emotional ineptitude and his astronomical standards add up to an inconsistent, unreliable relationship. Bruce Wayne's money provides a fantasy life: luxurious home, wonderful toys. He believes his adolescent protégés can accomplish wonderful things, and gives them the rare chance to command respect from the adult world.

But most of the time Batman also withholds information and approval. He makes nearly impossible demands. He dismisses expressions of love. He's obsessed with work. He keeps secrets from his loved ones and spies on them.

But only most of the time. There's always the chance that next time he'll offer a great compliment. So the Robins—especially Dick Grayson—keep going back.

Just as the roots of Batman's emotional frigidity appear in "Golden Age" stories, so do signs of Batman's problematic paternalism. Dick was repeatedly left to worry about whether he was being replaced. The panel to the right comes from a birthday tale; the spanking (a 1940s tradition, oddly no longer recommended in parenting manuals) is followed by the gift of his own airplane. You just never knew what Bruce will do next.

DC's writers have played up Batman's difficulties with interpersonal relationships over the last two decades. As an example of how hard working with Batman is, for years he insisted that the fourth Robin, Tim Drake, keep his civilian identity secret from all his young crime-fighting colleagues. Then Bruce himself revealed that identity to Tim's girlfriend Stephanie Brown without asking Tim.

Later, after Tim quit being Robin, Batman invited Stephanie to become the new Girl Wonder, which his butler Alfred pegged as manipulative behavior. Batman soon fired Stephanie and brought Tim back. Stephanie appeared to die, yet Batman refused to memorialize her, later saying he wasn't sure she was really dead--but he'd never shared his doubts with Tim.

No wonder Tim resisted making Bruce Wayne his legal father for a while—and he's the Robin who deals with Bruce's limitations best.

Even so, some might think that calling Bruce Wayne/Batman "the Worst Dad in the World" is too harsh, considering the other fathers in the DC Comics universe. The father of the current Batgirl taught her to fight but not to read, and shot her in fleshy parts to enure her to the pain. Deathstroke raised two children as assassins and reluctantly killed the third.

Even among the good guys, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, apparently adopted a kid sidekick simply because he was jealous of Batman for having one, and then neglected that partner until he became a heroin addict. Queen also deserted a biological son. And then there's the whole Aquaman question.

In fact, it's not easy to find a young superhero comics character with a stellar dad. Among Dick Grayson's colleagues in the New Teen Titans, Changeling's stepdad was an occasionally insane telepath, Cyborg's dad a work-obsessed scientist, Starfire's dad a wishy-washy ruler who sent her into slavery, and Raven's dad a gigantic transdimensional demon of evil. The parents of Dick's best friend Wally West, the original Kid Flash, were originally a normal Midwestern couple; after the Crisis, Wally's father was rewritten to be a rogue secret agent.

So why do I say that Bruce Wayne/Batman "the Worst Dad in the World"? Because he, unlike most of those other men (and demons), really wants to be a dad. He idolized his own father. He embarked on his crusade against crime largely to shield other children from the loss he'd suffered when a mugger killed his parents. That's the real reason he keeps recruiting kid sidekicks.

Batman even lectures his superhero colleagues on dealing with teens. Which causes Dick's boyhood friends to respond with incredulity, as in this panel from a gathering of the Justice League.

The Robin characters—and their readers—know that Bruce is trying his best. He's as supportive and open as his personality allows. As a result, they can't just cut ties and move on, as the children of those other fathers do. They keep working closely with Batman, despite the frequent disappointment. Hence he's the Worst Dad in the World to deal with every day.

I think that Bruce Wayne's futile struggle to be as good a father as he is a crime-fighter makes him more interesting than the pre-Crisis paragon. That dichotomy also provides much of the humor in the "Batman and Sons" parody webcomic.

06 December 2008

The End of Endpapers?

To end a week that's turned out to be about children's-book illustration of my childhood, it seems appropriate to talk about endpapers. Drawger's handsome exhibit of older endpapers from members' libraries inspired Alison Morris's showing of recent examples at Shelftalker. Then Betsy Bird at the Fuse prodded Peter Sieruta into scanning and posting even more examples at Collecting Children's Books.

Finally, back in February, Oz Enthusiast Bill Campbell posted this image of W. W. Denslow's endpapers for the second edition of The Wizard of Oz.

In their classic form, endpapers were pieces of paper the size of a full page spread, often in a thicker stock than the paper on which the book was printed. Those sheets could be colored or marbled, or have artwork printed on them, as on the examples above. Naturally, that extra art and printing cost more.

Endpapers were not only decorative, but also served a function in the bookbinding, connecting the pages of the book to the flaps of the hardcover. In cheaper bindings, in fact, the endpapers were the only things holding those parts of the book together.

More recently, publishers have been using "self ends" or "self-endpapers," printed in the same signature as the nearby pages of the book. This makes it more efficient to print full-color endpapers. But it also means endpapers are no longer on different paper stock--one reason the Stinky Cheese Man was able to move the rear endpaper up in his book to finish it early. (Remember that?)

Self ends also reduce the number of pages available for content. Here's how they work for a 32-page signature. Page 1 is glued onto the front cover, and page 32 is glued onto the back cover; naturally, nothing gets printed on those pages. Pages 2 and 3 become the equivalent of the front endpaper, printed to look as if they're two halves of a single continuous sheet--but they're not really connected at all. Likewise, pages 30 and 31 serve as the back endpaper.

That leaves pages 4 through 29 to tell the story and include all the necessary publishing information: title page, copyright page, credits. Self ends thus make a 32-page signature into a 26-page book. As a result of that constriction, I suspect we see self ends more often in longer picture books, that start with two signatures to begin with.

05 December 2008

The Best and Wurst of Wallace Tripp

Yesterday I wrote about my childhood love of Richard Scarry and my current-day admiration for Brian Lies. In between in the illustrious tradition of illustrating animals is Wallace Tripp.

I must have seen Tripp's illustrations first in some of Peggy Parish’s Amelia Bedelia stories. But his first book that really grabbed me Headlines, written by Malcolm Hall. It connected because of the wordplay and the peek at old-fashioned typography, but it stuck with me because of Tripp's personality-filled anthropomorphic animals.

Then I found that Tripp was putting out collections of nonsense verse and simple nonsense to showcase his art: A Great Big Ugly Man Came Up and Tied His Horse to Me (1973), Granfa’ Grig Had a Pig (1976), Marguerite, Go Wash Your Feet (1985), and Wallace Tripp’s Wurst Seller (1981).

The last struck me at the time because I couldn't fit it into any category: it wasn't a traditional picture book, yet it didn't seem to be a collection of magazine cartoons, either. It was just a miscellany of wonderful, quirky, funny Wallace Tripp art. Which meant--I reasoned out--that there must be some other people out there who liked Tripp's work as much as I did.

Of course, there was no internet then, so I had no way to find those people. Now I can Google, and discover that Big Time Attic has featured some of the artwork from Wallace Tripp’s Wurst Seller. And that book dealer Stuart Ng's asking price for a signed hardcover is only $125.

04 December 2008

Scarry, Lies, and the Anthropomorphic Tradition

The first author I remember writing a fan letter to was Richard Scarry. I got back a reply on onion-skin stationery. It had an ink drawing of Lowly Worm and Dr. Bones, and typewritten word balloons showing their conversation about the artwork I must have enclosed.

Decades later, I realized that the drawing must have been printed onto that stationery, with only the characters' speeches added for me. But I didn't care. I still have that piece of paper.

It was therefore heartening, though not surprising, to see this comment in author-illustrator Brian Lies's recent conversation with Seven Impossible Things:

My favorite picture books were ones with detailed illustrations I could spend hours looking at--Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever, for instance...
In addition to creating images filled with visual detail for such books as Bats at the Library, Brian also follows Scarry in depicting animal characters, with more or less anthropomorphism. He's moved from scratchboard to watercolors to acrylic paints, but the animals have been a constant.

At a Foundation for Children's Books event this fall, I asked Brian if he ever felt "typecast" because he's become so well known for his animals. He's great at creating furry faces with immediately recognizable emotions and personalities, but is he secretly planning a picture book with a completely different approach?

Brian replied that he's far from tired of animal characters, and finds he can express all that he wants through them. So we can look forward to more fine books in this venerable tradition.

03 December 2008

Looks like a Case for Nate the Great

GalleyCat ran these side-by-side images from Nate the Great Goes Undercover (1974) and what the L. A. Times reported was the first appearance of a character named "Emily the Strange" in 1991.

The similarity was first documented by a sharp-eyed RISD student named Chelsea McAlarney on the website called You Thought We Wouldn't Notice, dedicated to cataloguing curious, uncredited similarities between samples of visual art. Al Sweigart at CoffeeGhost noted some other parallels between Rosamund and Emily in 2006.

Emily and her cats have reportedly appeared lots of Goth merchandise--not that I'd ever heard of her before. Apparently nihilism is big business. More recently, GalleyCat says, Emily has inspired comics and an upcoming series of YA novels.

The Nate the Great series was written by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat and illustrated first by Marc Simont, who are no doubt in touch with their representatives.

02 December 2008

Countless Bear Encounters

I heartily enjoyed teacher Mrs. G's story of reading Robert McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal to a group of third-graders, some of whom had already learned all about bears from the Discovery Channel. Sample of the classroom dialogue: "that mom is dead meat." (Thanks to Chris Barton at Bartography for the link.)

Some folks take issue with Blueberries for Sal for its unrealistically amiable portrait of wild bears. For instance, this camping columnist calls it a "delightful but erroneous book" and warns:

In my opinion, Blueberries for Sal should be on the banned books list as it can lull people into a false sense of security. . . . I am afraid this book may have caused countless bear encounters to go horribly wrong.
In fact, it gets worse. The success of Blueberries for Sal (1948, Caldecott Honor Book) led naturally to Lynd Ward’s The Biggest Bear (1953 Caldecott Medal winner). I read that picture-storybook (perhaps for the first time) at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art last weekend. It shows young Johnny Orchard, like Sal's mother, meeting a bear cub in the woods, and he brings it home.

Then Johnny watches his bear cub grow into, well, a bear. I don't want to spoil the ending, but no characters are shot or eaten in the making of this picture-storybook. However, Ward's ending doesn't fit with our current sensibilities either.

Where’s My Teddy?, by Jez Alborough (1992), explores some of the same territory: young human and young bear meet in the woods. But it's a less realistic story from the outset: the text is rhyming verse, and the cub has a teddy bear of his own. What's more, Alborough writes from the safety of Great Britain, which hunted down its last wild brown bear about a millennium ago, so we can't expect him to understand the dangers these books create.

Soon we may not have Blueberries for Sal to kick around anymore--at least not in new copies. In May booksellers started to report that the book was out of stock and not being replenished. In August the publisher told Publishers Weekly: "We have been in negotiations with [McCloskey's] estate and we are hopeful that we may be able to put Blueberries for Sal back into circulation." The book is still listed on the Penguin website, but I couldn't find any online retailers with new copies in stock. So in this case, protracted contract negotiations may have saved lives.

01 December 2008

Real, Soft Fur to Pat

Here's a sample of advertising copy from Simon & Schuster, circa 1940:

Oliver Wiswell is a wonderful book--but it won't squeak if you press it, the way Pat the Bunny will. For Whom the Bell Tolls is magnificent--but it hasn't any bunny in it--not with real, soft fur to pat, anyway.”

At the time, Dorothy Kunhardt's tactile book for tots was new on the shelves, costing only a dollar. Soon World War 2 forced Kunhardt and her publisher to re-engineer some pages, removing the rubber squeaker and then the metal mirror. Only the latter went back into subsequent printings.

I learned this history from the Pat the Bunny exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art this past weekend. The exhibit runs through next weekend only.

Curiously enough, Sparknotes has this to say about symbolism in For Whom the Bell Tolls:

Animal imagery pervades For Whom the Bell Tolls, but rabbits and hares appear most frequently. Robert Jordan's nickname for Maria is “Rabbit.” When Robert Jordan first meets Rafael, the gypsy is making traps for rabbits. Later, Rafael, distracted by trapping a pair of hares that he has caught mating in the snow, leaves his post. The guerrilla fighters have a somber meal of rabbit stew after the Fascists slaughter El Sordo's men. And shortly before his death, El Sordo invokes the image of a skinned rabbit when thinking about how vulnerable before enemy planes he feels on his hilltop.
Not pattable, to be sure. But I still feel we should check the early printings of Oliver Wiswell to confirm that they really don't squeak.