30 April 2009

Call for Oz Papers

The deadline for proposals for the Oz conference in Kansas this October has been extended to 9 May 2009.

PEN New England Children’s Book Discovery Evening for 2009

This Sunday, 3 May, PEN New England’s Children's Book Committee (formerly a “caucus”) is hosting its annual Discovery Evening at Lesley University.

This year's winners of the Susan P. Bloom Award for unpublished writers include the hard-working facilitator of one of the writing groups I attend: Maria Gianferrari for her nonfiction picture book, Terrific Tongues. So huzzah for Maria!

The other honorees will be:

  • Anna Staniszewski for her middle grade novel, The Tinkerers
  • J. James Keels for his YA novel, Starving Hysterical Naked
  • Shelagh Smith for her YA novel, A Mouthful of Straw
All four writers will read from their promising works, and then there will be a reception, free to the public.

The event starts at 6:30 PM in the Amphitheatre in University Hall, 1815 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge. There’s even parking in the lot behind the hall.

(Giraffe tongue by William Warby, via Flickr.)

29 April 2009

Picture Book Hall of Fame?

The American Booksellers Association recently announced “the first three inductees to the Indies Choice Book Awards Picture Book Hall of Fame”:

In addition, the organization named these finalists:
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst and Ray Cruz
  • Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault and Lois Ehlert
  • Corduroy, by Don Freeman
  • Curious George, by H.A. Rey
  • Goodnight Gorilla, by Peggy Rathmann
  • The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper
  • Madeline, by Ludwig Bemelmans
  • The Napping House, by Audrey Wood
  • Stellaluna, by Janelle Cannon
  • The Story of Ferdinand the Bull, by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson
I have no strong impression of The Napping House, but otherwise recognize all these titles as classics in the genre. Nonetheless, I think it's worthwhile to consider what's or who's not listed here.

Anything by Margaret Wise Brown, particularly The Runaway Bunny and Goodnight Moon. Anything by Virginia Lee Burton, particularly The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.

The Story of Babar, by Jean de Brunhoff. Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle.

Anything by Chris Van Allsburg, who spearheaded the picture-book revival of the 1980s. Anything by Dr. Seuss who, though he became synonymous for easy readers, wasn't bad at the old art. Anything by Richard Scarry, who filled up pages with words and pictures as well as anyone.

The Monster at the End of This Book, a monster seller for the Sesame Street Workshop produced by Jon Stone and Michael Smollin, which has delicious fun with the form. The Poky Little Puppy, by Janette Sebring Lowrey and Gustaf Tenggren; this title from the first Golden Books list helped bring full-color picture books to wider audiences and keeps selling.

My personal list would have a place for Ellen Raskin, now better known as a novelist but one of the masters of the picture-book form when most creators were expected to provide their own four-color separations.

But if this hall of fame is supposed to represent the range of American picture books and their history, I think the biggest omission is The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats. Do any of the chosen titles and finalists feature black people?

At Fuse #8, Betsy Bird has been doing the VH1 thing with a top 100 picture books. She's just reaching the high teens, where we might expect to see the most overlap between her voters' list and the ABA's list.

28 April 2009

Tick Talk

I was excited to read that the live-action TV version of The Tick is now on YouTube. With the exception of the original Eerie, Indiana, it might be my favorite American fantasy sitcom.

Unfortunately, a crucial ingredient in comedy is

timing. And my YouTube connection

just isn't smooth enough to serve the


There must still be some copies of the DVD set out there.

27 April 2009

The Lasting Impact of Joe Shuster's Secret Work

Last summer I first read about Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster, in a Publishers Weekly article:

[The book reprints] 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 [sic] 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].”
Yoe had previously assembled Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings; Shuster's work appears to be the rare example that gets beyond the mildness of a Playboy cartoon. I found more explicitly "dirty" cartoon sex in the Young Adult Graphic Novels section of my local library. Of course, that was From Hell, the Jack the Ripper book by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.

All Secret Identity seemed to show is that Shuster was desperate for work in the 1950s, and was used to drawing men who looked like Clark Kent and women who looked like Lois Lane. But Steve Bunch's more recent comments at Publishers Weekly mentioned those drawings' indirect effect on the industry:
With famed psychiatrist Dr. Frederick [sic] Wertham spearheading the anti-comics witch hunt over several years, the case against comic books was given more credence by an incident in 1954 that was committed by the Brooklyn Thrill Killers, a gang of four Jewish teens who idolized Adolf Hitler, flogged girls in Brooklyn parks with a bullwhip and murdered vagrants during evenings of “bum hunting.”

The shocking crimes of these disturbed youths lead to interviews with Dr. Wertham and the revelation that the leader of the Brooklyn Thrill Killers was inspired by horror and crime comics, including most damningly, the Nights of Horror series. [Wertham's encounter described here.]

By conveniently lumping the hard-to-obtain S&M porn material in with comic books, Wertham now had “proof” of the mind-warping contents found between the covers of comics and easily convinced high-ranking government officials that such publications were easily obtained by children. Thus it was that Joe Shuster, the co-creator of Superman, unwittingly helped bring about the Comics Code Authority of America
So Shuster's anonymous work turns out to have been significant after all.

26 April 2009

Chuck Dixon on Robin—and Spider-Man

From Joshua Lapin-Bertone's Batman Examiner, here's an interview with Chuck Dixon, the comics writer most closely associated with the character of Robin--at least in his modern forms. Dixon scripted the first Robin miniseries in 1991, the first hundred issues of the Robin magazine starting in 1993, and most issues of the Nightwing magazine starting in 1996.

As part of the Batman writing team, Dixon wrote other magazines as well and contributed to a number of landmark crossover events under editor Denny O'Neil. He also co-scripted the fine Robin: Year One miniseries with Scott Beatty. Dixon was excellent at keeping storylines strung out issue to issue--though, looking back, the drama wasn't always worth the suspense.

I've rearranged Lapin-Bertone's questions to make Dixon's comments more chronological.

Tim [Drake] was unique among the other Bat-characters in that he wasn't a total orphan at the time. Was there ever any pressure to kill off Jack Drake [Tim's father]?

All the time! I kept Jack alive for years past the point my editors wanted him dead. Their reasoning was always that Tim having a parent with all the limitations of that provided too many complications to Robin’s story. They saw that as a negative. I saw it as a positive.

I’ve never made a secret of the fact that I used the first fifty issues of The Amazing Spider-Man as a dramatic template for Robin. Those stories got much of their suspense from the dangers Peter Parker faced if his identity were revealed.

For Tim Drake, the stakes were even higher. The reveal of his identity would have affected his family and also unraveled the secrets of the entire Bat organization. You don’t throw away solid gold like that.
And indeed, in a letter column early in the magazine's run, the editors acknowledged that they'd originally planned to kill off Tim's father, but kept finding it more interesting to keep around.
Any stories that you weren't able to tell (Batman, Nightwing, Birds [of Prey] or Robin) that you can reveal? Any stories that originally had a different ending but it went in another direction?
Nothing I can think of right now except that my plans leading to Robin 100 and beyond were pretty cool and I regret not being able to do that story. My plan was to have Tim quit as Robin and become the new Blue Beetle under Ted Kord’s [i.e., the old Blue Beetle's] guidance. Batman would pick Steph to take on Robin’s role. Tim would then be featured in a six-issue mini as Blue Beetle until events in the Batbooks would bring him back to the fold.

The idea coming out of this would be a BB ongoing in which Ted gets the idea to create what amounts to a Blue Beetle franchise. He creates what amounts to Blue Beetle Inc and has a representative in every DCU city. I was shot down on this one over and over. As soon as I left the title they did a kind of pale version of the story I had been proposing for more than a year.
Dixon might be referring to Robin, #101, which featured Stephanie Brown as Robin, but no Blue Beetle. That was an alternate universe, part of a crossover from Peter David's wackier Young Justice series. Years later, Bill Willingham proposed making Stephanie into Robin for real, since the editors had decided to kill her off anyway.

Which brings me to 2008, when DC rehired Dixon to write Robin, with part of his mandate to bring Stephanie back from the dead. Those issues are now collected in Robin: Violent Tendencies.

But then Dixon and the company had a sudden and dramatic parting of the ways. DC found a new writer for the magazine, even reworked some cover art to reflect the new stories. The company dove into the "Batman RIP" and "Battle for the Cowl" storylines being played out in comic shops now.
Had you stayed on the title, what were your plans for the book?

Well, I written about eight more scripts. There was a storyline with Steph’s dad and the return of some Robin villains in a new way and the introduction of several new bad guys. Much of this is hazy in my mind already. Lots of changes were made as I was writing and the direction of the book was being altered even as I was in the middle of a story arc.
I've seen a lot of speculation, even from former comics editor Valerie D'Orazio, that Dixon became upset because of DC's plans for Tim Drake--i.e., that the honchos were insisting the character go in a direction Dixon didn't like. Those theories never convinced me. Furthermore, in this interview Dixon doesn't speak of quitting in protest; he says that he was "let go."

Dixon strikes me as a superhero-book veteran, well aware he was hired to enhance a large corporation's intellectual property. All of his own comments about the break indicated that he was getting sick of working with a particular executive who made what he considered late, wishy-washy, and poorly communicated decisions. In most jobs, the biggest pain isn't the work but the people you work with.

As I noted above, Dixon had worked on many crossovers for DC; had he been brought into discussions on these latest, he could surely have contributed rather than writing eight scripts that turned out to be unusable.
In the final issue of Robin, Tim finally confronted the Obeah Man, killer of his mother [back in 1990]. I understand you had your own take on the story during your first run on the title but never got to tell it. What was it and why?

I never intended to have a story in which Tim resolved the Obeah Man story. I felt that would be the end of Tim’s story. Apparently, I was right.
The Robin magazine is in abeyance, and we last saw Tim Drake with a batarang impaled in his chest. But I suspect his story will continue.

25 April 2009

Einstein Was Never in Dorothy’s Unique Position

In 1921, J. Malcolm Bird, an editor at Scientific American, compiled a book titled Einstein's Theories of Relativity and Gravitation: A Selection of Material from the Essays Submitted in the Competition for the Eugene Higgins Prize of $5,000.

The chapter “The General Theory: Fragments of Particular Merit on this Phase of the Subject” starts with this passage by Norman E. Gilbert, professor of physics at Dartmouth College:

When Dorothy was carried by the cyclone from her home in Kansas to the land of Oz, together with her uncle's house and her little dog Toto, she neglected to lower the trap door over the hole in the floor which formerly led to the cyclone cellar and Toto stepped through. Dorothy rushed to the opening expecting to see him dashed onto the rocks below but found him floating just below the floor. She drew him back into the room and closed the trap.

The author of the chronicle of Dorothy's adventures explains that the same force which held up the house held up Toto, but this explanation is not necessary. Dorothy was now floating through space and house and dog were subject to the same forces of gravitation which gave them identical motions. Dorothy must have pushed the dog down onto the floor and in doing so must herself have floated to the ceiling whence she might have pushed herself back to the floor. In fact gravitation was apparently suspended and Dorothy was in a position to have tried certain experiments which Einstein has never tried because he was never in Dorothy's unique position.
A poster of W. W. Denslow’s illustration of this moment in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is available as a poster from AllPosters.com.

24 April 2009

Alphabet Ahoy!

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz wasn't the only book that L. Frank Baum published in 1900. In addition to A New Wonderland, a collection of stories now better known as The Magical Monarch of Mo, he published two alphabet books on the themes of the army and the navy. (Which should have given pause to critics who described Baum as a pacifist with a lifelong resentment of his brief time in military school.)

The Army Alphabet and The Navy Alphabet had four-color pictures by Harry Kennedy. Charles Costello hand-lettered Baum's verses, using two colors and a q that looks like a g. These books are closer in shape and style to Baum's first best-seller with W. W. Denslow, Father Goose, than to the novels that we remember him for.

The color art made Baum's alphabet books prohibitively expensive to reprint until recently, when Applewood Books reissued the naval volume. That firm hasn't tried the army volume, but here's a look at the Oz Enthusiast's copy, scans at nocloo.com, and scans at the University of Florida's library.

I spoke at the Charlestown Navy Yard on Sunday night, and took the opportunity to buy my first copy of The Navy Alphabet. Here's Baum's topical verse for the letter P:

The naughty PIRATE, fierce and bold,
Oft sailed the seas in times of old
To seize our ships, and climb aboard
With marlin-spike and knife and sword.
And then he whacked, and cut and hacked
Until the helpless ship was sacked.
But now no Pirates over-run
Our seas, we've conquered every one.
Finally, the X question, the bane of all alphabet books. What can start with X? In The Navy Alphabet X is for xebec. In the army book, it's xalatin.

23 April 2009

Finding a Little Too Much in Oz

Last fall I met Evan I. Schwartz, whose book Finding Oz: How L. Frank Baum Discovered the Great American Story has just been published. Schwartz had been researching the historical context which inspired Baum. He's shared some of that on his website for the book.

The New York Post just ran a review of Finding Oz, focused on the book's suggestions of what inspired various details in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and/or what those details might represent:

Toto, Dorothy's dog, likely symbolizes the Eastern philosophy of Totality, a component of Theosophy. Schwartz suggests that the name Toto connotes Totality.

The connection between Toto and Totality is highly plausible. But here lies a quandary: What if Baum intended the name Toto to symbolize the concept of a totem, or animal protector?

Or what if the name comes from the concept of a tote, or small object that can be carried around?

For that matter, what if Baum had all of these ideas in mind, or something else entirely?
For that matter, what if Toto was a very common name for a dog a hundred years ago, on the level of Rover, Spot, or Fido?

Context is crucial in understanding the roots of a work of fiction. It’s relatively easy to skim through period literature, looking to familiar terms. But we can’t really posit that there’s a connection between those terms and the book we’re studying unless we gauge where else those same terms appear. Are those actual connections or mere coincidences?

It was once incredibly time-consuming to research such questions as whether it was common for dogs to be named Toto. That's why we invented graduate fellowships. But now Google Books can reduce that searching to seconds. Looking in that database for “Toto” and “dog” produces many examples.

“Canine Curiosities,” an article in Every Saturday: A Journal of Choice Reading, 19 Oct 1867:
There are dogs who are almost public characters. Toto, for instance, a white poodle of the purest breed, belonged to a Parisian cafe-keeper. As neat in person as lively in temper, he was the favorite not only of his master and his men but of all the customers who frequented the establishment. But besides his mere external graces the poodle rendered important service by performing errands intrusted to him.
Home Life on an Ostrich Farm, by Annie Martin (1890):
We found a comfortable little furnished house at Walmer, in which we spent the first five months after our arrival. It was just a convenient size for our small party, consisting, besides my husband and myself, of our two English servants, and Toto, a beautiful collie.
The Adventures of François, by Silas Weir Mitchell (1898):
The dog leaped on to his lap, and the boy, as he lay in the sun, began to think of a name for this new friend. He tried merrily all the dog-names he could think of; but when at last he called, “Toto!” the poodle barked so cordially that François sagaciously inclined to the belief that he must have hit upon the poodle's name. “Toto it shall be,” he cried.
So in 1898 readers were supposed to expect a French boy to have "Toto" among "all the dog-names he could think of."

“Toto,” a story in La Strega, and Other Stories, by Ouida (1899):
They had good health, good appetites, good tempers, good neighbors; and if many would have thought it a hard life to serve in a little dark shop all day, and spend the evenings counting up sous and centimes, they did not think so. They were used to it, and they gained enough by it to keep themselves and to afford one luxury, Toto--Toto, who ate as much as two dragoons, and for whom they were obliged to pay the tax regularly to have civic permission for him to live.
This passage is particularly notable because, while it becomes clear later in the story that Toto is a large dog, Ouida obviously didn’t think it necessary to spell that out in introducing the character.

The Fortunes of Fifi, by Molly Elliot Seawell (1903):
an Italian...was exhibiting the most entirely fascinating little black dog that Fifi had ever seen. He was about as big as a good-sized rabbit, and was trimmed like a lion. Around his neck was tied a card on which was written:
Toto is my name, and I am a dog of the most aristocratic lineage in France, and I can be bought for twenty francs. See me dance and you will believe that I would be cheap at a hundred francs.
“As Told by Mrs. Williams,” a story by Emily Wakeman in Cosmopolitan Magazine, 1907:
She's a beautiful, well-bred dog. Why, she and Toto had the same grandfather.
And there’s even a Spanish-English Grammar from 1901 which translates “Toto” directly as “dog’s name.”

Surely not all of these authors were independently naming dogs to symbolize “the Eastern philosophy of Totality.” Toto was simply a common “dog-name” at the last turn of the century. People appear to have thought it particularly appropriate for French dogs, and perhaps for small fancy ones.

So the real question of why L. Frank Baum named Dorothy’s little dog Toto isn’t whether the dog was meant to symbolize something Theosophical, but why a poor Kansas farmgirl has a little dog with a fancy French name?

22 April 2009

The Big Puzzle Party Wrap-Up!

Welcome to the last day of Winston Breen's Puzzle Party, observing the publication of Eric Berlin's The Potato Chip Puzzles! The first mystery to address is whether I'll be so cruel as to make visitors read (or at least scroll) all the way down to the end of this posting to find the link for the final puzzle challenge.

And that answer's easy. Of course I will.

Here's my interview with Eric Berlin about creating puzzles, creating stories, and creating the Puzzling World of Winston Breen (bonus bit of interview back here):

Which came first for you--creating puzzles or writing stories? What's your usual starting-point for a Winston Breen novel?

I’ve always been a writer, though it took me a long time to figure out what I should be writing. I spent a few years after college believing myself to be a playwright, and I’ve written a lot of magazine articles for tech-oriented magazines. The Puzzling World of Winston Breen was my first novel.

I don’t think I gave any thought to creating puzzles (as opposed to solving them, which I’ve always done religiously) until 1996 or so, and even then it was just, “Well, I have this single decent idea, let’s put it down on paper and then get some ice cream.” I started constructing crosswords as a hobby maybe five years later, and around that same time I had the idea for the first Winston book. Or rather: I had the idea for a novel that would center around a 12-year-old puzzle nut, and it would have puzzles all through it for the reader to solve. What that book was going to be about I still wouldn’t know for another six months.

Now that I’ve written two Winston Breen books, the pattern is clear: In each book, Winston needs to get involved in some sort of grand, high-stakes puzzle event, and there also needs to be an underlying mystery for him to solve. I’m not sure how many variations on these very particular circumstances I can come up with--the last thing I want is for these books to feel forced. But I do have both the puzzle idea and the mystery for a third story, so it’s likely that the series will continue for at least one more book. I’ll worry about book four some other day. Or I’ll move on to a whole other thing!

The Winston Breen stories involve some elaborate public puzzles, which we don't usually see in real life. How do you draw on your own life or childhood to add verisimilitude to your plots?

Oh, I see elaborate public puzzles all the time! Let’s see...every year I go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the “Mystery Hunt,” a weekend-long team puzzle competition. I’ve got a team of forty people or so, and we barricade ourselves somewhere on campus and pit our increasingly exhausted brains against 150 or more insanely difficult puzzles.

I also go to two events hosted every year by the humorist Dave Barry. He and his friends create the Miami Herald Hunt and, more recently, the Washington Post Hunt [coming up next month]. These events attract thousands of people, and feature puzzles every bit as theatrical as any you’d find in a Winston Breen novel.

I attend these events every year, and a couple of others to boot, and the experience is always the same: I feel massive frustration when I can’t immediately see through a puzzle to its solution. I banter with my equally confused friends as we brainstorm different ideas. And then suddenly one of us--and sometimes it’s even me--gets the euphoric satisfaction of having all the lights in his brain turned on simultaneously. Aha! The answer! Hooray! Then there is much high-fiving, and then a mad dash to the next puzzle.

In short: Except for the mysteries Winston has to solve, the Winston Breen books are biographical.

Hmmm. I guess when I wrote that “we don't usually see” elaborate puzzles in real life, I just hadn't looked hard enough. Puzzle fests might be no rarer than the murder victims or bank robbers or real-estate speculators in sheets that the heroes of other series keep stumbling over.

A lot of writers aiming for broad popular readerships give their protagonists friends or siblings of the opposite sex, so the central group contains both boys and girls.
The Potato Chip Puzzles starts with a completely masculine cast: Winston, his two best pals, his principal, the teacher who becomes team advisor, and the chip magnate who's invented the puzzles. But this is also the story in which Winston and his friends discover GIRLS. How did you go about planning that?

It wasn’t so much a plan. It was more me realizing that if there are thirty kids attending this event, some of them really ought to be girls. And, furthermore, there would be a nice symmetry if Winston’s all-boy team allied itself with an all-girl team. And further furthermore, I really liked Bethany Seymour, the most outgoing member of the girl’s team--her character took shape right away. So, boom, suddenly I had a bunch of girls in my book.

But I really like to keep the plot chugging along, and I didn’t want to get bogged down in a lot of does-he-like-me?/does-she-like-me? pre-teen angst. Winston and his friends are the right age for that, but it’s not really what these books are about. There’s definitely some boy/girl tension and awkwardness in there, but I was careful to keep all that stuff on a low boil.

What's the hardest part of coming up with new puzzles? How do you tailor them to audiences who are probably younger than your favorite pants?

That’s the hard part, all right--making them solvable for young audiences. The average classroom of twelve-year-olds is so diverse. You’ve got kids reading adult novels and you’ve got kids who get no mental exercise at all, all sitting in one room. Even the kids who are interested in Winston Breen--they cover a wide variety of solving levels. As a puzzle creator, I want to come up with original, clever, never-before-seen puzzles...but brilliant puzzles don’t mean anything if the audience can’t solve them. A brilliant puzzle that no one can solve is called a “failure.”

(One of the puzzles in this week’s Puzzle Party, in fact, was very pretty and original and I was very happy with how it came out. Except none of my testsolvers could solve it. I tweaked it to make it easier...and still nobody could figure it out. What could I do? I had to toss it. That’s the way it goes.)

In the Winston books, I cope with this problem by showing a puzzle multiple times. First you see a puzzle just as Winston sees it, without any instructions and with no clear idea what you’re supposed to do. If you want, you can stop reading and try to figure it out. If you can’t, that’s okay: As you keep reading, you’ll learn a great deal of information about how the puzzle works. A couple of pages later, you’ll get another opportunity to solve it, and hopefully this time it will be a little easier. And if you still can’t solve it--well, that’s okay, too. Another puzzle is coming up in just a little while. I think only the most gifted readers will solve every puzzle in the books, but almost everybody can solve at least a few of them.

A lot of your puzzles are specific to American English, or American culture. Has your publisher's foreign-rights department talked to you about that?

Weirdly, back in 2007 at the publishing industry’s big foreign-rights convention, the first Winston book received more inquiries than any other book in my publisher’s line-up. (Or so my editor informed me.) I predicted confidently to my wife that not a single one of those inquiries would result in a foreign edition. Because how could it? Many of the puzzles are untranslatable--they have to be in English. A really determined foreign publisher could probably figure something out, but that seems like an awful lot of work. I know if I was running a publishing house in Spain, I’d just as soon buy a different book and simply plonk the translated text onto the page.

So, yeah, no foreign editions for me. My publisher doesn’t seem to mind.

The big new thing in puzzles now seems to be logic puzzles that are pumped out on a computer: sudoku and Kenken. They're not culturally specific, they always have an answer, and they start with software. Are they changing the culture of puzzles?

Well, they’re bringing in a new group of solvers, and that’s always nice. I am thrilled that a bunch of logic puzzles have gone so wildly mainstream. If you told me back in 2004 this was going to happen, I’d have laughed myself sick. Logic puzzles are supposed to be this itty-bitty niche product, not a New York Times bestseller!
Thanks, Eric, for that look at the making of the Winston Breen books!

Now was there something else I was going to do? Hmm hmm hmm. Oh, yes! Here's the link to the final Puzzle Party challenge. Good luck, folks!

21 April 2009

Cutting Out the However Splice

Today's Oz and Ends is devoted to one of my writing peeves, which I call the "However Splice." This appears when a writer sticks together two perfectly fine English sentences with the word however, thinking that creates a grammatical compound sentence. It doesn't.

One example appears on the newly created website of the Rodeen Literary Agency:

Unsolicited submissions are accepted, however, we do not accept unsolicited hardcopy submissions
I don't mean to pick on that firm; that website just happens to have the latest example to catch my eye.

The problem can be easily fixed by forming two sentences, or two clauses joined by the sadly-neglected semicolon.
Unsolicited submissions are accepted. However, we do not accept unsolicited hardcopy submissions.

Unsolicited submissions are accepted; however, we do not accept unsolicited hardcopy submissions.
Even the following two sentences would be grammatically and punctually correct, though one would have to imagine a preceding sentence as a set-up:
Unsolicited submissions are accepted, however. We do not accept unsolicited hardcopy submissions.
In fact, I think that last example contains the root of the problem. We know the word however can appear at the beginning or end of a clause. In other words, we know each of these sentences is correct:
  • Unsolicited submissions are accepted, however.
  • However, we do not accept unsolicited hardcopy submissions.
So sometimes we let the howevers overlap, producing an error, though each of its parts seems all right.

Complicating matters further, we know that However can start also a sentence without being followed by a period, but only while functioning a little differently (as a conjunction rather than an adverb):
However much we might like to, we do not accept unsolicited hardcopy submissions.
That, however, gives our brains just one more thing to keep track of.

20 April 2009

“Everyone has elites; the important thing is to change them”

Okay, now I'm worried. Simon Johnson, recently chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, lays out his view of how the US economy has gone wrong in an article titled "The Quiet Coup" from the latest Atlantic.

The challenges the United States faces are familiar territory to the people at the IMF. If you hid the name of the country and just showed them the numbers, there is no doubt what old IMF hands would say: nationalize troubled banks and break them up as necessary. . . .

This may seem like strong medicine. But in fact, while necessary, it is insufficient. The second problem the U.S. faces--the power of the oligarchy--is just as important as the immediate crisis of lending. And the advice from the IMF on this front would again be simple: break the oligarchy.

Oversize institutions disproportionately influence public policy; the major banks we have today draw much of their power from being too big to fail. Nationalization and re-privatization would not change that; while the replacement of the bank executives who got us into this crisis would be just and sensible, ultimately, the swapping-out of one set of powerful managers for another would change only the names of the oligarchs. . . .

To paraphrase Joseph Schumpeter, the early-20th-century economist, everyone has elites; the important thing is to change them from time to time. If the U.S. were just another country, coming to the IMF with hat in hand, I might be fairly optimistic about its future. Most of the emerging-market crises that I’ve mentioned ended relatively quickly, and gave way, for the most part, to relatively strong recoveries. But this, alas, brings us to the limit of the analogy between the U.S. and emerging markets.

Emerging-market countries have only a precarious hold on wealth, and are weaklings globally. When they get into trouble, they quite literally run out of money--or at least out of foreign currency, without which they cannot survive. . . .

But the U.S., of course, is the world’s most powerful nation, rich beyond measure, and blessed with the exorbitant privilege of paying its foreign debts in its own currency, which it can print. As a result, it could very well stumble along for years--as Japan did during its lost decade--never summoning the courage to do what it needs to do, and never really recovering.
More from Johnson and colleagues at The Baseline Scenario.

19 April 2009

“Robin, who was supposed to be at Andover,...”

Today's weekly Robin starts with an extract from a short story titled "The Joker's Greatest Triumph":

With a swift movement, The Joker crashed the armored car into the side of the Terminal Building!


"Great Scott!" Fredric said to himself. "Batman is stunned! He's helpless!"

"You foiled my plans Batman," The Joker said, "but before the police get here, I'm going to lift that mask of yours and find out who you really are! HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!"

Fredric watched, horror-stricken. "Great Scott! The Joker has unmasked Batman! Now he knows that Batman is really Bruce Wayne!"

At this moment Robin, who was supposed to be at Andover, many miles away, landed the Batplane on the airstrip and came racing toward the wrecked armored car! But The Joker, alerted, grasped a cable lowered by a hovering helicopter and was quickly lifted skyward! Robin paused at the armored car and put the mask back on Batman's face!

"Hello Robin!" Fredric called. "I thought you were at Andover!"

"I was but I got a sudden feeling Batman needed me so I flew here in the Batplane," Robin said. "How've you been?"

"Fine," Fredric said. "But we left the Batplane in the garage, back at the Bat-Cave. I don't understand."

"We have two of everything," Robin explained. "Although it's not generally known."
That may read like fanfiction, down to the casual disregard for commas (especially around nouns of direct address). It may read like something Penrod would write, albeit with shorter sentences. But in fact it's the early work of a postmodernist master!

"The Joker's Greatest Triumph" appeared in Come Back, Dr. Caligari, the first short-story collection from Donald Barthelme, subject of a laudatory new biography. Barthelme's second wife recalled that he wrote it in the "spring of 1961" and then struggled to sell it to a magazine. However, the title and some details are lifted from Batman, #148, which had a date of June 1962.
Barthelme's story finally saw print in his book in 1964, coincidentally the year of the "New Look" Batman. That was of course before the Batman TV show, the big Hollywood movies, or the rise of fanfiction as a hobby of thousands. Barthelme played in the Batman sandbox shortly after Roy Lichtenstein started adapting comic-book panels into his fine art, when such appropriation was so novel and brazen that it had to be originality rather than the opposite.

What should we make of Fredric, the faceless observer who's nonetheless privy to Bruce Wayne's secret identity and liquor cabinet? (Barthelme was a lifelong drinker.) He's the biggest new element in the story, such as it is. Is he a "Mary Sue"? No, Fredric's not interesting enough to be wish-fulfillment for the author. But I note that Barthelme wrote this tale when his younger brother Frederick was still in his teens.

[ADDENDUM: The original comics story titled "The Joker's Greatest Triumph!" appears in the Batman in the Sixties collection.]

18 April 2009

The Paradoxes of Alvin Ho

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Girls, School, and Other Scary Things, by Lenore Look, was one of the finalists for last year's Cybils Awards in the category of Middle-Grade Fiction. Its strengths are humor, lively brush illustrations by LeUyen Pham, an unusually broad picture of the American population, and a good sense of life for an imaginative and scared-to-death second-grader.

Yes, Alvin's in second grade, though the book is written for kids up to age 10--i.e., significantly older than the protagonist. Furthermore, Alvin isn't the sort of second-grader that most other second-graders, or even first-graders, look up to. As with Junie B. Jones, this story breaks the usual pattern of showing young readers a hero they might aspire to be like. Instead, it gives them a first-person narrator they can feel a little superior to.

Look's subtitle lays out two of Alvin's biggest problems: girls and school. But they stand for a great many more fears that he lays out for us early on. Worry about girls is hardly crippling, given that Alvin's a second-grade boy. But in school, Alvin can't speak in class.

The book isn't about Alvin overcoming that fear, however. Nor most of his others. Eventually a secondary goal pops up: trying to be a gentleman. He also manages to (re)make a friend who happens to be a girl. (To be exact, she's a girl with physical disabilities, which gives rise to a nagging suspicion that their friendship isn't a bridge across gender lines so much as an alliance of potential outcasts.)

If anything, in fact, Alvin has more fears at the end of the book than at the start. His parents have signed him up for piano lessons, but he decides the teacher is a witch out of "Hansel and Gretel" and never goes back. There are a variety of other episodes, with Alvin's adult relatives showing their own comic potential. There's even a baseball-through-the-window moment, though without serious consequences. But for me those episodes didn't add up to much more than episodes. I kept waiting for the novel to kick in.

Yes, we've come to expect early novels to show kids suffering a problem and then working to overcome it (or just get over it). That's what we see in the series that Stephanie Greene started with Owen Foote, Super Strongman, for instance: a second-grade boy dealing with common worries in uncommon ways that other early-elementary boys can look up to. Alvin Ho doesn't work like that, which some folks have found refreshing. But I wasn't convinced the book worked in a new way, either.

Of course, if Alvin were to overcome his most significant fears, there might not have been room for a sequel.

17 April 2009

“Young People Don’t Want to Read About Characters Their Age”

A few years ago I attended an SCBWI conference in California where Richard Peck was speaking. At one point he pronounced (Peck never just says something when he's making a point) words to this effect:

Young people do not want to read about people like themselves.

They want to read about the people they
wish to be.
That had the snap of an aphorism Peck might have delivered in other talks and essays, so I went looking for it in his 2002 essay collection Invitations to the World: Teaching and Writing for the Young. (Some of that book had first appeared in 1994 in Love and Death at the Mall.)

But I couldn't find quite the same remark. I found some similar, less pithy thoughts on various pages of the book:
I’d wanted to hold up a mirror to my readers. I’d thought they wanted to be recognized by books. They did, but they wanted to see themselves in more interesting (less seriously challenging) settings. . . .

Whether in first person or third, a novel is told by its characters. My protagonists would have to be something more than recognizable. They’d need to be a blend of the real and the ideal. They’d have to be able to do something the readers couldn’t, or wouldn’t. . . .

Young people don’t want to read about characters their age. They want to read about people who are two years older. At whatever age they are, they believe that real life doesn’t start until twenty-four months later, when they will be fully evolved.
I think that model fits for most of the books that kids read--but not all.

One notable exception are Barbara Park's Junie P. Jones series. Junie's adventures in kindergarten and first grade are pegged for children age 4 to 8--i.e., some who are twenty-four months older than the protagonist.

As the New York Times reported a couple of years ago, some ideologically-minded adults dislike the Junie P. Jones books for their narrative voice, which is full of the grammatical mistakes of an enthusiastic but not very advanced kindergartner. They also complain that Junie is often impolite, hoggish, and generally a poor role model--again, like an enthusiastic but not very advanced kindergartner. But that's the whole point of Junie P. Jones.

Park's books are aimed at beginning readers, slightly older than Junie. The first one has publisher's copy that begins, "Remember when it was scary to go to school?..." In other words, readers are supposed to be able to look back on Junie's problems, not ahead. Of course, she can still do "something the readers couldn't, or wouldn't"--and they can watch her getting in trouble for doing that. As for the language, one convert commented over at CrunchyCon:
When Amelia was younger, I was constantly having to "edit" what I was reading to her. Now that she's old enough to read the books aloud to me, she gets a kick out of telling ME when Junie B's misusing the language.
So sometimes children enjoy reading about a person they don't wish to be.

TOMORROW: Alvin Ho--also allergic to aphorisms.

16 April 2009

Winston Breen Throws a Puzzle Party Starting Today

Today is the start of the Puzzle Party blog tour and puzzle challenge heralding the publication of The Potato Chip Puzzles, by Eric Berlin. Find all the contest details at the Puzzle Party website, including news of the impressive grand prize supplied by G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Each stage of the blog tour will offer a link to one more downloadable puzzle:

Yes, the tour winds up here! You can't solve the final puzzle and win the grand prize unless you come back.

On the 22nd I'll post, in addition to the link to that final puzzle, an interview with author Eric Berlin. Here's a little preview of our colloquy:
I'm guessing you were a fan of Encyclopedia Brown when you were young. What did those books mean to you as a reader? What lessons did you take from them as a writer? Any other childhood favorites?

I was indeed a fan of Encyclopedia Brown--I pretty much swallowed those books whole. I don’t know that I extracted any meaning from them at the time....but in retrospect it’s clear how pivotal they were in helping me discover who I am. I’m sure I read a sports story or two as a child, but I have no memory of it. No, for me, it was mysteries and puzzles: Encyclopedia Brown, Scott Corbett’s wordplay-drenched The Big Joke Game, and Alvin’s Secret Code by Clifford Hicks.
I made my guess not just because Eric's a puzzle fan and the Encyclopedia Brown books are built around solve-it-yourself mysteries. Rather, as I read The Potato Chip Puzzles I thought that Winston Breen and some of his friends would fit right into Donald J. Sobol's Idaville. In that town all the kids have individual quirks: collecting teeth, bull-fighting, running con games, animal welfare, solving mysteries. Winston's quirk is solving and making puzzles. Everyone knows that's what Winston likes, and his friends are cool with that.

15 April 2009

“Seriously, Open Court, what is it with you and woodcocks?”

At Vast Public Indifference, Caitlin G. D. Hopkins looks at one of the hidden pitfalls of teaching elementary school: the suggestive spelling test.

Our district used a scripted reading curriculum called Open Court — all the 2nd grade classes across the whole 20-school district read the same story during the same week and are supposed to do the exact same activities, etc. If you have a hardass principal, it can be awful, but parts of it aren't that bad. The 2nd grade curriculum has some really great units (Fossils, Camouflage) and some terrible units (Kindness).

The people who developed Open Court were never children. They have no children of their own and have never met any children. Proof of this: the very first lesson in the 4th grade Open Court curriculum, week 1, day 1, is a vocabulary lesson including the words "cockpit" and "abreast." All fourth graders think this is amazingly hilarious. First year teachers who've spent all summer working on ulcers and reading about "classroom management" do not.
But I don't think it's all Open Court's fault. From the Open Court Resources website, I learned that "cockpit" and "abreast" come out of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O'Brien. In other words, the problem isn't misguided cookie-cutter lesson plans and vocabulary tests--it's literature!

That same resources website offers a picture of a woodcock for when that word comes up in these lessons--which Caitlin says is far more often than one would expect.

14 April 2009

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

Clay Shirky distributed his essay "Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing" back in 2002, when people were trying to establish "micro-payments" for online transactions, and blogging was just starting to become more than a hobby. He wrote of that new format:

Weblogs are not a new kind of publishing that requires a new system of financial reward. Instead, weblogs mark a radical break. They are such an efficient tool for distributing the written word that they make publishing a financially worthless activity.

It's intuitively appealing to believe that by making the connection between writer and reader more direct, weblogs will improve the environment for direct payments as well, but the opposite is true. By removing the barriers to publishing, weblogs ensure that the few people who earn anything from their weblogs will make their money indirectly.

The search for direct fees is driven by the belief that, since weblogs make publishing easy, they should lower the barriers to becoming a professional writer. This assumption has it backwards, because mass professionalization is an oxymoron; a professional class implies a minority of members. The principal effect of weblogs is instead mass amateurization.

Mass amateurization is the web's normal pattern. Travelocity doesn't make everyone a travel agent. It undermines the value of being travel agent at all, by fixing the inefficiencies travel agents are paid to overcome one booking at a time. Weblogs fix the inefficiencies traditional publishers are paid to overcome one book at a time, and in a world where publishing is that efficient, it is no longer an activity worth paying for.
Instead, blogs, and thus publishing of a certain limited sort, have become like press releases--too many to read, always more coming along, and usually more important to the writer/sender than any individual recipient.

The micro-payments that people were talking about when Shirky wrote this eventually came in the form of "eyeballs," supposedly enraptured by online advertising. But the money's not there, at least not in this economy, or not on this platform. (Observers are noticing that people who balk at payments for content over the web experience much less "friction" buying content for their MP3 players or smartphones.)

With newspapers cash-strapped and thinking of charging for online content, once again the economics/ethics of the web swirl around the question of free versus pay-per-view. But Shirky's essay reminds us that, when it comes to words, supply and demand are not in balance. We're in a buyer's market.

13 April 2009

Hunting Down the False Passive

Mark Liberman at Language Log recently had cause to note how modern American prose stylists' dislike of the passive voice has morphed into something more:

In recording the mutation of the term "passive voice", I've been focusing on the way that the word passive has gradually lost its technical grammatical meaning, and taken on a sense crystallizing around notions of passive as "unassertive", "lacking in force", "failing to take responsibility for what happens", "submissive".
Specifically, a New Yorker writer had stated that Bernard Madoff spoke in "passive voice" when he said: "When I began the Ponzi scheme, I believed it would end shortly..." Grammatically, that's active voice (as well as a direct admission of starting a Ponzi scheme). But the second clause does have a bit of "failing to take responsibility."

Jan Freeman, the Boston Globe "The Word" columnist, noted how our relatively recent worry about the passive voice has long been linked to issues of gender:
Linguist Arnold Zwicky [also at Language Log] found the passive first described as a weakness in US writing handbooks of the 1930s and '40s, in discussion freighted "with images of strength, muscularity, and action (that is, symbolic masculinity)."

George Orwell spread the anti-passive gospel in "Politics and the English Language," his famous (and passive-laden) 1946 essay. American students imbibed it from Strunk and [E. B.] White's "Elements of Style," though probably a few of them noticed - as linguist Geoff Pullum did - that the book's section on the passive employs the passive...
Those mid-century decades were when Ernest Hemingway's muscular prose dominated American letters, part of a reaction to the ornate overstatement of the previous century. Naturally a literary technique labeled "passive" would be out of fashion (along with that "pathetic" fallacy).

In his new Chronicle of Higher Education attack on The Elements of Style, Pullum himself (another Language Log regular) noted that three of Strunk & White's four examples of passive constructions to avoid aren't grammatically passive at all. So nearly from the start our prohibition against the passive voice swept up other frequently vague or wishy-washy constructions as well.

Pullum explained the value of the passive voice this way:
We are told [by Strunk & White] that the active clause "I will always remember my first trip to Boston" sounds much better than the corresponding passive "My first visit to Boston will always be remembered by me." It sure does. But that's because a passive is always a stylistic train wreck when the subject refers to something newer and less established in the discourse than the agent (the noun phrase that follows "by").

For me to report that I paid my bill by saying "The bill was paid by me," with no stress on "me," would sound inane. (I'm the utterer, and the utterer always counts as familiar and well established in the discourse.) But that is no argument against passives generally. "The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor" sounds perfectly natural. Strunk and White are denigrating the passive by presenting an invented example of it deliberately designed to sound inept.
In my writing groups I've noticed some members suffering another misconception about the passive voice: that a "was" or "were" construction is the tip-off to it. Yes, "I was hit by a wombat" is in the passive voice (and properly so according to Pullum, if the wombat is a "newer and less established" element). But "I was hitting the the wombat" is not only active voice, but an image of strength and muscularity.

12 April 2009

Whom Are You Wearing, Caped Crusader?

Project: Rooftop is a website that invites artists to come up with new costumes for established superheroes--a cross between fanfiction and clothing design.

One recent challenge was to design a new uniform for Dick Grayson, in that he appears to be taking over the Batman role for a while. Above is Héctor Barros's proposal, a combination of the Nightwing and Batman costumes that has a nifty retro look. (Or maybe I just think "retro" because it reminds me of Frank D. Foster's superhero drawings from about 1939.)

DC is unlikely to make such a drastic change, of course. The Batman costume is too recognizable, the Batman trademark too valuable. Furthermore, the magazines' storyline will probably involve Dick trying to fool criminals into believing that the same Batman they've long feared is still patrolling Gotham City, as in Batman: Prodigal. Which means no major alterations to the outfit. Still, it's an interesting look.

Here are the honorable mentions from that call. Other Robin-oriented Project: Rooftop pages include:

11 April 2009

“Spend a Week at the ’39 World’s Fair”

I've been writing about how the British comic-book creators that DC hired to reinvigorate its line in the 1980s, such as Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and yesterday Dave Gibbons, found inspiration in the American comics of the 1960s that they had grown up reading.

Inspiration not just in the superheroics, but in what seemed mundane to the New Yorkers who had created those comics, such as pizzerias and apartment-house water tanks. Those details represented a different, more exciting way of life.

Where did the American comic-book artists who inspired those creators find similar inspiration in their youth? One major source comes up in Jon B. Cooke's interview with comics creator John Byrne, conducted for a volume in TwoMorrows Publishing's Modern Masters series:

Byrne: If they ever come up with commercial time travel,...I want to go and spend a week at the ’39 World's Fair. Because that was such an influence on comic book artists of that period.

Cooke: You're right! That whole Dick Sprang thing.

Byrne: Jack Kirby was drawing the ’39 World's Fair until the day he died.
Above is a magazine that DC Comics issued for the fair in 1940, showcasing the company's most popular characters. With the second issue, that magazine became World's Finest, and was published continuously until 1986. (In 1990 Dave Gibbons collaborated on a brief miniseries reviving the World's Finest name, bringing everything around again in one continuous loop of nostalgia for the future.)

10 April 2009

“America Was Like This Fabled Foreign Land”

I've quoted Neil Gaiman on trying to decipher American culture through American comic books. Here's Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons on the same topic, from an interview with Time:

When you and Alan [Moore] were making Watchmen, how important was it that you guys were English, and working in the UK, far away from the watchful eye of the mother ship in New York?

Actually it was a big deal. I think the whole thing of Brits working for American comics was a big deal. Because America was like this fabled foreign land. When I first came to New York City, what I was thrilled about was not the Empire State Building, or the Statue of Liberty, it was the fireplugs in the street. These things that Jack Kirby had drawn. Or these cylindrical water towers on top of buildings that Steve Ditko's Spider-Man fights used to happen in and around.

So it's always been this kind of exotic babylon. And that's so for Alan as well. We used to get the American comics imported, and it wasn't just the stories, it was the whole thing of Tootsie Rolls and Schwinn bicycles. This is the kind of thing we'd talk about for hours on the phone. All this stuff that to you Americans is everyday stuff, as boring to you as our everyday stuff is to us.

So I think that we were able to stand back from American culture, stand back from comic books, although we'd read them all our lives. I can't imagine that we could have done Watchmen if we hadn't had that detachment. You know? Love for the subject matter, love for the culture, but a detachment. And perhaps a slight British cynicism? Impressed, but not impressed.
Gaiman also mentioned the mystery of fire hydrants. Why did the New York water supply hold such fascination for London youngsters? Perhaps because they grew up in a climate where they didn't need to worry about water--it was more often than not falling on their heads.

TOMORROW: What inspired that previous generation of American comic artists the same way?

09 April 2009

Adapting Prose to Comics Form

Graphic Novel Reporter asked five editors who've worked on comics adaptations of prose works (particularly "classics"--i.e., still-recognized works without picky live authors or copyright protection) about what makes that transition work.

In answer to the question "What types of prose books are the most suited for adapting to the graphic format?", three of those editors offered responses that seem typically gung-ho for fans of the medium.

Ralph Macchio, Marvel: I think the kind most suited are the ones with the most visual elements. If you have a book which is largely a drawing room drama, which occurs largely in one room, it probably won’t work so well as a novel with great action scenes and stunning landscapes.

Ernst Dabel, Dabel Brothers: As long as it’s an excellent story, then it should be adapted for fans to enjoy.

Marco Pavia, Tokyopop: I don’t think there’s a limit; in my experience, it begins with an editor who has a vision.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's up to Betsy Mitchell of Del Rey Books to acknowledge market realities, the elephant in the room:
Betsy: Due to the costs involved in hiring so many contributors to the job--pencilers, inkers, scripters, letterers, colorists if the work is in four-color--economics demand that authors who have a large and loyal fan following are the best choice for adaptation. Titles with a strong dose of the fantastic seem to have been the most successful so far...
Big names and fantasy. Which is kind of where we came in.

08 April 2009

Spotting Oz Fans All Over

According to a recent profile in the New York Times Magazine, physicist Freeman Dyson escaped from his stereotypically hellish English boarding school by:

reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which gave him his first sense of America as a more "exciting place where all sorts of weird things could happen," and Jules Verne's comic science-fiction descriptions of "more crazy Americans" bound for the moon.
Jordan Weisman, coauthor of the bestselling multimedia Cathy's Book, has started a company called Smith & Tinker to develop "connected entertainment products that move seamlessly back and forth from online to offline." The original Smith and Tinker were, of course, the inventors of Tik-Tok, the clockwork man in Ozma of Oz.

And master comics letterer Todd Klein, whom I've quoted about the Robin logo, reviews the latest issue of The Baum Bugle.

07 April 2009

I Think This One Would Be Named Thwack

Apparently another bunch of collegiate drunks have stolen another of the Make Way for Ducklings statues from Boston Common.

If events proceed according to pattern, there will be a minor public uproar, followed by a new casting from artist Nancy Schön, a restoration of the missing duckling, and quite possibly a sheepish anonymous return of a now-superfluous piece of bronze. (One time this happened, thieves returned the duckling they had stolen the time before.)

Meanwhile, Irvine, California, gets public art like this, from the campus of the Blizzard videogame company. I bet no frat boys lever this thing off the ground.

(Thanks to Acephalous.)

UPDATE: Pack is back.

06 April 2009

Wisest Thing I’ve Watched This Week

I rarely link to videos, so this is exceptional: Harry Partridge's re-imagination of Watchmen as a 1970s-style Saturday morning television cartoon show. If you don't know Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's graphic novel, or The Super Friends and its imitators, then this will just be curious. If you do know those two art forms, it's the most brilliant thing you'll watch for a long time.

Thanks to the Absorbascon for the link.

Alison Bechdel’s Em Dashes

The New York Times Book Review touched up its credentials as a leading voice in criticism a bit last month by having memoirist Alison Bechdel review a prose book in comics form.

In the magazine's little "Up Front" meta-feature, Bechdel talked about the challenges of that approach. One detail caught my eye:

“Comics take a little more space to cover the same ground,” she said. “They also take more time — I’m pretty sure this took me much, much longer than a written review would have. By the second round of copy editing, as I was adding em dashes and changing word breaks by hand like a printer’s devil, I started to curse the whole undertaking.”
And indeed Bechdel’s review includes em dashes--one in a quotation from the book and one in Bechdel’s commentary on that quotation in the same panel.
As Oz and Ends has discussed before, standard American comics style eschews the em dash in favor of the double hyphen. I wondered if Bechdel was adapting to the NYTBR style in this review, but I managed to find one of her Dykes to Watch Out For strips with an em dash. (It took a while. Perhaps her characters are more apt to speak in complete sentences than other folks in comics, or for some reason less prone to interrupt each other.)

I'm convinced Bechdel made a conscious choice to go against the standard on this little point. She's a dictionary fan who even coined the joke, "Does 'anal-retentive' have a hyphen?" back in 1990.

05 April 2009

Wondering about The Teen Wonder

DC Comics has announced a paperback collection called Robin: The Teen Wonder, to be published this spring. It will contain seven stories in full color. It will have an Alex Ross cover, which is almost mandatory for DC's major anthology volumes.

So why isn't the Oz and Ends editorial staff more excited? Because this volume will include stories that I already own, or could easily obtain in in-print collections. Only one of the issues it collects will be reprinted for the first time:

Perhaps this paperback is meant to introduce new readers to all the teenagers who've been Robin as they maneuver over Bruce Wayne's legacy in the current Batman comics. Alas, most of the designated stories are only one part of a multi-chapter tale, and therefore likely to be more mystifying than satisfying for new fans. I think self-contained tales would work better.

Now it's easy to complain about a volume like this leaving out one's favorite stories. Anthology editors get the big bucks by making tough choices about what to include and what not to, and critics should acknowledge the limits that those editors work under. Otherwise, it's like naming nineteen favorites to a Top Ten list.

This volume is pegged at 160 pages long (the stories listed above total a little more than that, but sometimes anthologies skip some non-essential pages in the original magazines). So I'm going to confine my alternate choices to about 160 pages as well. It looks like all the stories have to come from the post-Crisis period, and they emphasize Robins' early adventures and encounters with each other, so I'll take those strictures as well.

I won't concern myself with other considerations that go into an anthology like this, such as including stories from big names in the field. (No Denny O'Neil? Too bad!) And of course I'm not privy to contract details that might make one reprint more profitable for the company than another.

One of my most important criteria is that, to the best of my knowledge, none of the stories I list already appears in an easily obtained anthology. As a result, my choices cluster in the 1990s since practically everything Batman-related in the last decade has been reprinted in one paperback or another.

I'll start with the re-telling of how Dick Grayson became Robin in Robin Annual, #4. In contrast to the version slated for DC's volume, this story comes from young Dick's point of view, and it shows him doing a lot more. It's also 55 pages long, which leaves space for only five regular stories. And they would be:
  • Batman, #416: This one tale from 1988 crams in how Dick stopped being Robin, a summary of how the second Jason Todd took up the role, and how those two met--plus Dick as Nightwing telling off Bruce in a soul-baring confrontation in the bat-cave. Amazing how much story they used to fit into the same number of pages!
  • Detective, #648-9: Tim Drake, early in his Robin career in 1992, figures out that the Spoiler is Stephanie Brown, estranged daughter of the villain he and Batman are tracking, and then all three take that man down. Unlike issue #648, my collection would print all the pages in the right order.
  • Robin, #10: From 1994, a temporal anomaly throws Tim and Dick together at the same age. Each Robin shows his strengths as they solve a case together.
  • Batgirl, #53: Stephanie Brown, having just become Robin in 2004, helps the second Batgirl on a case. A double dose of Batman's young crimefighting protegées!
Other Robin fans are welcome to play this game. But remember--only about 160 pages!

04 April 2009

“Your Pigs Are Far More Intelligent”

The British press is touting T. S. Eliot's letter rejecting George Orwell's Animal Farm on behalf of Faber & Faber in 1944. This letter was supposedly just "released" by Eliot's widow for a new BBC documentary.

In fact, the letter was printed in the Times of London in 1969 and has been quoted in several books about Orwell and Animal Farm since that date. Marcia Miner has the full text on her Room with a View blog.

The press spin this time is that Eliot and his fellow publishers were leery of offending Stalin because in 1944 he was a British ally. But that's not what the letter says. Though he acknowledges the delicacy of criticizing the Soviet regime, Eliot's political objection was that the only good guy in Orwell's allegory seemed to be Trotsky, and he didn't like Trotsky:

Now I think my own dissatisfaction with this apologue is that the effect is simply one of negation. It ought to excite some sympathy with what the author wants, as well as sympathy with his objections to something: and the positive point of view, which I take to be generally Trotskyite, is not convincing. . . .

After all, your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm, in fact, there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them; so that what was needed (someone might argue), was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.
In sum, Eliot wished the politics in this political allegory were more like his own conservative leanings. Having read Animal Farm, he felt the novel showed that some animals really were more equal than others.

03 April 2009

Seattle Scrapes the Sky

Seattle rises steeply from its bay to a number of hills, with mountains in the distance. The downtown infrastructure mirrors that verticality, with tall elevated highway exits, the overhead monorail, and some impressive skyscrapers.

More than any other American city I've seen, Seattle shares London's approach to building such skyscrapers: Why put up a building if you can't make it distinct? I suspect that with the Space Needle poking into the sky nearby, architects know that nothing they designed could become the city's goofiest folly. Not the Seattle Public Library, not the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Hall of Fame, not the Congregational church next to my hotel.

The office buildings and hotels also seem to have a large number of awnings and overhangs, the better to stand beneath in the rain while waiting for a WALK sign to appear.
The IBM Building provides one of those overhangs. Indeed, the whole twenty-story building appears to perch on the spidery legs of its ground-level arcade.

But obviously folks in Seattle didn't think that building looked precarious enough. So thirteen years later the same architectural firm created the forty-story Rainier Tower.