30 November 2009

Norman Rockwell and History Painting

NPR and Time have both run stories about a new exhibit/book from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge that discusses the painter’s use of photographs in detail. Not that Rockwell hid the fact that he used photos as well as live models and his imagination.

NPR interviewed a photographer who occasionally worked with Rockwell but looked down on his method and results—specifically disliking “the tracing techniques and saccharine subject matter.” (And yet he kept working with the man.)

It’s clear from looking at the photos alongside Rockwell’s finished art that he didn’t just trace what he’d had photographed. He tweaked poses, fabrics, settings, poses, and facial features and expressions to produce the image he wanted—usually a much more dramatic one than what the cameras had recorded. He may have traced details, but he chose which details to trace.

As for subjects, Rockwell worked for money and mass reproduction. He worried about being thought a mere “illustrator” instead of an artist. Of course, when he made paintings for Tom Sawyer, he was working as an illustrator. As was Leonardo da Vinci when he created his Last Supper or Henry Fuseli when he painted Titania Awakening, now at the Tate Gallery. They were all illustrating well known texts.

Rockwell’s best known paintings weren’t inspired by written stories, however. Rather, he used his composition and details, his titles, and his viewers’ knowledge to tell new stories in graphic form. And indeed he often aimed for emotional effects, even easy laughs and sugary uplift. But that’s what made Rockwell both popular and a chronicler of his nation’s values.

I think that part of Rockwell’s work has to be judged according to a standard the art world discarded in the late 1800s after it had had a long run at the very top of the heap—the history painting or genre painting.

29 November 2009

A Complete History of the Robin Logo

Many months back, the weekly Robin linked to master letterer Todd Klein’s essay on the unusual longevity of the logo for Robin magazine, which lasted (with one minor change) on magazines featuring the Tim Drake character from 1991 to 2009.

This fall Klein offered a complete study of logos for Robin, including the original medievalist lettering, the mix of the Boy Wonder’s name with the Batman symbol, casting about for an independent symbol in the 1970s, and finally the Robin magazines. See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. There was also a bonus posting on how Jerry Robinson also designed the Batman logo.

Klein himself designed the logo for the new Tim Drake magazine, Red Robin, based on the Robin logo. And in another informative post he traces the entire design process, with alternate versions and creative dead ends.

28 November 2009

Invincible but Not Infallible

Invincible is a comic book launched in 2003, written by Robert Kirkman and drawn by Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley. It explores the life of a new teen-aged superhero. Special powers run in Mark’s family—his dad is also a costumed hero, though that turns out to be less pleasant and inspiring than one would think.

Kirkman’s interview at Newsarama on the occasion of the series’s fiftieth issue makes clear that his hero’s youth was what defined the series:

NRAMA: When you sat down and came up with something “different,” what was it about Invincible that fit that description and made you want to give him a chance?

RK: When I was growing up, they did a Robin series with the Tim [Drake] character, and I really enjoyed reading that. Some of the older Spider-Man comics when he was actually a teenager—I had read some of those. So I decided that I wanted to do a teen superhero.
And what surname did Kirkman choose for the teen-aged costumed hero who represents the experience of growing up in a superhero universe?


I’m just saying.

That name choice reflects how, although Kirkman is working with Image Comics rather than Marvel or DC, he plays off readers’ cultural knowledge of older superheroes. The best moments in the first issues show how teens with high-school classes, fast-food jobs, and supportive if occasionally embarrassing parents really would react to developing special powers. We see both fulfilled dreams and upended expectations. The panels are illustrated in a clean and bright style, and the pages are paced for emotion and comic timing.

The series has a lighter tone than Image’s other superhero titles, many of which still show their 1990s roots. Each story arc/paperback volume is named after a TV sitcom, mostly from the 1970s and 1980s. Volume 12 (due out next February) is Still Standing, which I had to look up to find it was a sitcom aired in this decade. Mark attends the Reginald Vel Johnson High School, and TV characters pop up in backgrounds. Starting after the 50th issue, Mark even has to deal with an annoying little tagalong named Oliver.

Invincible tales appear first in magazine form, then in paperback volumes that each contain four to six issues of the magazine, then in hardcover “Ultimate” volumes that contain the material in two to three paperbacks, and most recently in The Complete Invincible, vol. 1 (which challenges our understanding of the words “ultimate” and “complete”).

Once again, I find myself wishing that more editorial care went into such collections. Here’s a scan from the back of the first Ultimate hardcover, and Mark’s name is misspelled. Inside the book, the contents page credits both artists for half the issues and none for the other half. And this copy was from a third printing of the book, when such typos should have been caught and corrected.

27 November 2009

Pirates Go After the Big Ships, Not the Little Ones?

Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin offered more to think about in a posting addressing established publishers’ fears about piracy. In particular, Shatzkin invoked a couple of points that non-establishment publisher Tim O’Reilly made in 2002, including:

Piracy is a kind of progressive taxation, which may shave a few percentage points off the sales of well-known artists (and I say “may” because even that point is not proven), in exchange for massive benefits to the far greater number for whom exposure may lead to increased revenues.

Our current distribution systems for books, music, and movies are skewed heavily in favor of the “haves” against the “have nots.” A few high-profile products receive the bulk of the promotional budget and are distributed in large quantities; the majority depend, in the words of Tennessee Williams’ character Blanche DuBois, “on the kindness of strangers.”
Shatzkin elaborated:
…piracy, or file-sharing that may fall short of actual piracy, can serve the purpose of spreading the word about a book and triggering more sales.

Except there are some authors, and those are the ones that sell the most books for the biggest publishers, who don’t need marketing to inform their audience; their audience, in effect, informs their audience! And those are the ones who would surely lose sales if there were no DRM [i.e., anti-copying protections] and books could be freely shared or are made available through illicit channels.

But those authors are also the ones who have the biggest personal followings. They are the most capable of adding material: notes about what they’re working on, correspondence with fans or critics, even observations about other people’s books, that would add some value for many of the readers of their stories. In fact, a regular “update to my readers” from a top-flight author that is available only in their ebooks, or to purchasers of their ebooks, would be an attraction to many and could serve as a constant reminder that downloading their books from illegitimate sources is cheating them.
A lot of Americans perceive their interests as aligned with the wealthy. Indeed, back in 2000 a Time-CNN poll asked a cross-section of voters if they were in the top 1% of income earners; 19% said yes, and 20% said they expected to be. (One almost suspects 5% planned to do so by playing in the NBA.)

That perception helps to skew national discussions of progressive taxation, inheritance taxes, health insurance reform, and many other political issues. Even people who insist they’re acting only for their self-interest don’t know what will really benefit them, much less benefit society as a whole.

Does a similar perception affect how beginning and intermediate authors and other creative artists view piracy? Do we worry about unauthorized copying when that’s really a problem only for the people and companies who can best afford the costs (and make the loudest complaints)?

26 November 2009

Trees That Furnish Plenty of Food

So many passages in L. Frank Baum’s Oz books involve the magical availability of food—perhaps a reflection that that was a much bigger concern for American children a century ago. For this traditional feast day I’m quoting Dorothy Gale’s discovery of a lunch-box tree in Ozma of Oz, when she’s feeling hungry after being shipwrecked:

At first she was greatly disappointed, because the nearer trees were all punita, or cotton-wood or eucalyptus, and bore no fruit or nuts at all. But, bye and bye, when she was almost in despair, the little girl came upon two trees that promised to furnish her with plenty of food.

One was quite full of square paper boxes, which grew in clusters on all the limbs, and upon the biggest and ripest boxes the word “Lunch” could be read, in neat raised letters. This tree seemed to bear all the year around, for there were lunch-box blossoms on some of the branches, and on others tiny little lunch-boxes that were as yet quite green, and evidently not fit to eat until they had grown bigger.

The leaves of this tree were all paper napkins, and it presented a very pleasing appearance to the hungry little girl.

But the tree next to the lunch-box tree was even more wonderful, for it bore quantities of tin dinner-pails, which were so full and heavy that the stout branches bent underneath their weight. Some were small and dark-brown in color; those larger were of a dull tin color; but the really ripe ones were pails of bright tin that shone and glistened beautifully in the rays of sunshine that touched them.

Dorothy was delighted, and even the yellow hen acknowledged that she was surprised.

The little girl stood on tip-toe and picked one of the nicest and biggest lunch-boxes, and then she sat down upon the ground and eagerly opened it. Inside she found, nicely wrapped in white papers, a ham sandwich, a piece of sponge-cake, a pickle, a slice of new cheese and an apple. Each thing had a separate stem, and so had to be picked off the side of the box; but Dorothy found them all to be delicious, and she ate every bit of luncheon in the box before she had finished.
This passage comes shortly after Dorothy’s discussion with Billina the hen about the ethics or aesthetics of eating insects. Lunch-box trees allow Dorothy to eat a “ham sandwich” without worrying about what or who’s gone into that ham.

25 November 2009

Take Offs

Kids suffering from a shortage of even newer Wimpy Kid books could do a lot worse than Chris Giarrusso’s G-Man: Learning to Fly.

Overbearing older brother? Check. Clueless parents with unrealistic expectations? Check. Strange but loyal friends? Check. Lots of elementary-school humor? Check.

The big differences between Giarrusso’s story and Jeff Kinney’s are that:

  • Mikey (G-Man), his brother David (Great Man), and their young friends have superpowers.
  • G-Man is actually told in comics form, and hasn’t simply been labeled a “graphic novel” because it has lots of cartoons.
G-Man: Learning to Fly isn’t a “graphic novel” by my definition, either; it’s a collection of stories. The brothers’ origin tale (“Hey, Mom, where’s our magic blanket?” “Check the hall closet.”) takes up about 40% of the book. The rest is a series of G-Man’s adventures at school, at superhero camp, and in strange alternate dimensions.

Some of those tales are as short as a single page originally published in the back of Savage Dragon and other Image comics magazines. Others are longer, though still made up of collections of such pages. Different adventures appear to have been initially printed at different sizes, and the G-Man/Skullboy crossovers are co-created by Jacob Chabot. Giarrusso is now publishing a G-Man miniseries which could lead to a more unified second volume.

G-Man’s stories find most of their humor in kids’ lives: sibling relationships, parental nagging, playground fights, incompetence in all forms. Superpowers and attendant expectations are just frosting on the cake. Anyone can get those jokes.

Other jokes—especially in the latter half of the book—rely on readers’ knowledge of comics history. There’s an homage to the cover of Flash, #123, and another of DC’s Infinite Crisis, for example. The reaction to G-Man’s new outfit is a parody of how comics publishers use costume changes and how fans react (“It sucks!” Super Cardinal keeps yelling). These details will fly over the heads of readers who haven’t immersed themselves in superhero history, but, having run the experiment, I don’t think they’ll interfere with their enjoyment of G-Man.

(Extensive previews available at Giarrusso’s website.)

24 November 2009

Three Degrees of Maginel Wright Enright

I knew before reading it on Jacket Knack that illustrator Maginel Wright Enright was the sister of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. But I didn’t recall that she was the mother of author Elizabeth Enright.

Maginel Wright Enright illustrated Twinkle and Chubbins, L. Frank Baum’s pseudonymous fantasy for younger and brain-damaged children. (Can you tell I don’t think much of the book?)

Jacket Knack shows more of Enright’s work, as well as that of some contemporaries. Among them is Maxfield Parrish, whose first book-illustration job was Baum’s first children’s book, Mother Goose in Prose.

23 November 2009

“Anything to Do with Harry Potter!!!”

I doubt this week I’ll read more trenchant criticism than thirteen-year-old Rebecca Landau’s letter in the New York Times Book Review on Sunday:

More than three-quarters of the paperbacks I own have quotes on the back cover from The Times or some other respected literary source comparing the book to Harry Potter. None of these books have anything to do with Harry Potter.

It seems that the only fantasy novel critics have read is Harry Potter and that they assume that all fantasy will be like Harry Potter. Children’s fantasy should be reviewed by children or adults who actually read fantasy.
Of course, marketing determines which quotes go on the backs of books, not the reviewers themselves. A reviewer who’s well read in children’s fantasy literature might see more similarities between a new book and, say, George MacDonald’s The Light Princess or Raymond Abrashkin and Jay Williams’s Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine or Diana Wynne Jones’s Homeward Bounders. But that learned analysis won’t have the value of a golden Harry Potter comparison.

22 November 2009

Reviewing The Black Casebook

Batman: The Black Casebook is marketed as the stories that inspired Grant Morrison’s issues of Batman magazine, and the direction he’s driven DC’s leading character since 2006. But really it’s the best collection of weird-ass Batman and Robin adventures from the 1950s and late 1960s now on the market.

There’s some overlap with Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told (“Robin Dies at Dawn”), Batman in the Fifties (“Batman: The Superman of Planet X”), and other, less widely available collections. But half of these tales haven’t been reprinted before. Indeed, these stories—of interdimensional travel, inexplicable monsters, and alternate Batmans—have had a bad reputation in comics fandom since the overly hyped “New Look” of 1964 wiped them out of continuity.

A little over half of these tales were written by Bill Finger, the Dynamic Duo’s co-creator. Edmund Hamilton scripted the two adventures of Batman’s counterparts from other countries, and France Herron told the tales of Batman filling in for other crimefighters in other lands. Almost all the pages were penciled by Sheldon Moldoff, Bob Kane’s usual ghost artist in this period. But the big name on the cover is Morrison’s—though all he wrote is the introduction.
It would be nice if the collection had been edited better. One might think it hard to mishandle a book that consists simply of reprints with a new introduction from a practiced writer. But let’s look at that introduction.

It begins, “Back in 1995 when editor Peter Tomasi approached me about writing the monthly BATMAN comic…” Actually, Tomasi approached Morrison in 2005. DC Comics obviously didn’t fact-check its own recent corporate history.

Later Morrison writes of two stories in the collection:

I’ve only ever seen the cover images for these stories and haven’t actually read them, so I hope I’m in for a treat.
Since the covers were more influential than the stories themselves, it would also be nice if we could see those covers in this volume. But they don’t appear, even in the little space at the ends of stories, which are instead filled with the Batman logo. As a public service I’ve included the images here, courtesy of the Grand Comic-Book Database.
The Black Casebook cover might be yet more evidence that this volume was hastily assembled. Rather than showing an evocative new image of Batman and Robin, or a historic one, it’s made to look like a leatherbound notebook—a design assembled from type, texture, and that Batman logo again. On the plus side, that plain cover means you can carry The Black Casebook to the office without anyone outside the fandom tumbling to the fact that you enjoy weird-ass Batman adventures.

These stories were originally published for a young audience when the Comics Code was in effect. They thus lack things that we expect in comics today, such as significant female characters and psychological consistency. On the other hand, they’re perfectly appropriate for kids of all ages who appreciate the oddball side of comics. And, strange as they are, they hang together better than Morrison’s Batman R.I.P.

20 November 2009

“Just Wait Until Self-Pubbing Becomes the Norm.”

Yet more quoting of what the brave new world of publishing might look like, this time from literary agent Rachelle Gardner:

If you think the published books are bad now, just wait until self-pubbing becomes the norm. Holy cow. Folks, you don’t see an agent’s daily slush pile. Sure, some of it is good. But let me tell you. At least half of it is seriously not good. As I look at all the books I say “no” to, and then realize these books could be for sale [through self-publishing] within a matter of months, I get depressed.

If you think the overall quality of literature has already declined substantially in the last, oh, forty years or so? I shudder to think how it will be ten years into a new world of self-publishing. “Literature” as we know it could be a thing of the past.
Gardner sees what quality exists in standard book publishing now as the product of an evolutionary struggle: each manuscript has to convince a lot of people in the industry who’ve read a lot of other books that it will make money before it gets printed.

Publication of “literature” is somewhat skewed because our capitalist publishing economy uses “making money” as the criterion rather than “literary quality.” But of course the latter does have some connection to the former, and the former actually pays the bills.

I think there will still be an evolutionary struggle even if every manuscript in the world becomes a book through self-publishing. That struggle will simply occur at a later stage—the stage of attracting readers instead of industry partners. Wealthy authors will be able to buy more promotion. (Of course, they can do that now; we don’t see the phenomenon often because “wealthy authors” is usually an oxymoron.) But in the end the books that please the most people will have the highest visibility.

I suspect the danger to “literature” will come if potential readers feel overwhelmed with available choices, and decide to get their story fix from another medium instead. We know that too much choice can make the human brain shut down, rather than open up.

The much higher cost of making a movie or television show could bring two unintended benefits to the cinematic medium: it will always have fewer choices, and professional quality will be more immediately apparent. In other words, those forms of entertainment will always have a tougher evolutionary struggle, and the winners may thus have an advantage over prose stories in holding onto an audience.

Thanks to Nathan Bransford for the link. For old times’ sake, here’s another look at part of Tor's slush pile in 2006, recorded by SF Revu.

19 November 2009

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin posted some thoughts on “What it will mean when the ebook comes first”—i.e., before the printed version. Some of these wrinkles I’d thought of, and some are making me think now:

1. “Space” will no longer be scarce. That means that nothing of value should be discarded; the question becomes how to best employ any thoughts, writing, or images, not whether to include them. (Warning of a likely unintended consequence: putting mediocre material in the finished product can become a temptation and that does not achieve desired effects.)

2. Background material of any kind will become useful. For fiction, that might mean more in-depth character descriptions or “biographies”. For non-fiction, that might mean source material.

3. Multiple media are desireable. Anything that is relevant to the book in video or audio form or art of any kind should be included. . . .

4. Linking is essential. The author should be recording deeplink information for every useful resource tapped during the book’s creation.

5. New editorial decisions abound. Should the reader be given the option to turn links off (to avoid the distractions)? Does it “work” if linked or multiple-media elements become essential to the narrative of the book? And, if that becomes the case, what are the work-arounds for the static print edition? Should “summary” material be added, such as a precis of every chapter than can be a substitute for reading the whole chapter? . . .

6. How should all of this complexity flow? Books are pretty straightforward: you start at the beginning and turn pages until you get to the end. But ebooks can allow different sequencing if that becomes useful. Can we have beginner, intermediary, and expert material all in one ebook that “selects” what you see by what you tell the book you are?

7. When is the book “finished”? An ebook that is continually being enhanced and updated by the author, perhaps even by the addition of relevant blog posts (to imagine a situation which would be very easy to execute) is a great antidote to digital piracy. But it would surely separate the ebook from the print, which couldn’t keep up with that kind of change.
Thanks to PhiloBiblos for the tip.

18 November 2009

A Kubert and a Span

Heritage Auction Galleries got exceptional coverage from the New York Times yesterday (including a slide show) for its upcoming sale of work from the collection of comic-book artist Joe Kubert. His career matches nearly the entire span of the business since he began work as an artist’s assistant at the age of (at least in this article) eleven. Between Kubert’s work, his sons, and the many people who’ve attended his school for comic-book artists, he’ll continue to influence the field for decades to come.

The Times article was illustrated by the image Kubert created for the cover of DC Comics’ The Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told. By coincidence, I’m reading another edition of that very volume (to see if it’s appropriate for Godson, natch). As a result, I could actually identify most of the characters Kubert had drawn.

I couldn’t help noting whose face is closest to the center of the image, and thus who symbolically stands at the center of the DC Universe.
I’m just saying.

17 November 2009

Art to Capture the Imagination

Michael Patrick Hearn and the New York Times have both brought the news that Bloomsbury Auctions is preparing a 9 December sale on the theme of “Capture the Imagination: Original Illustration & Fine Illustrated Books.”

Among the lots are original John R. Neill artwork of Cap’n Bill smoking his pipe underwater in Sea Fairies and young Ervic meeting Reera the Red in Glinda of Oz, and page proofs from Neill’s three Oz novels, including an unused illustration of the Wizard.

Other Ozzy items include a 1969 letter from Margaret Hamilton to Ray Bolger and illustrations for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Michael Hague, by Barry Moser, by Charles Santore, and by Thea Kliros, whose edition appeared this year. The picture above is one of Moser’s sketches of the Wizard as a giant head.

Much of this auction consists of Tom Feelings’s artwork, including the stunning images for his Middle Passage, with an estimated price of over a quarter million dollars for the lot. I had the honor of meeting Feelings once, driving him to an SCBWI conference and showing him how a history book I was reading referred to his work. At the hotel we found a photocopier so he could add that to his files.

Among the other items that caught my eye in the online catalog:

Some items come from James Marshall’s estate, some from International Wizard of Oz Club founder Fred M. Meyer’s collection, and some from the artists themselves.

16 November 2009

“It’s Really About Language.”

Last week I read a short news item in a great metropolitan daily that puzzled me so much I went to the original report in the Salem (Massachusetts) News for more detail.

I found it, but the story only deepened the mystery:

Danvers High parents recently got an automated call from the principal warning them that if students say or display the word “meep” at school, they could face suspension. . . .

Murray did not elaborate on how the students were acting out. But he did say the phone call home was an attempt to head off a disruption being planned on the social networking Web site Facebook.

The disruption never happened, and Murray credited students for heeding his warning.

Murray said the school must react when online activity crosses paths with the school day. To that end, some students — Murray did not say how many — were suspended, but there were additional factors involved in their suspension unrelated to simply saying “meep.” . . .

Murray said students were not using the term to harass another student or a teacher.

“It’s really about language and conduct,” Murray said. “For me, it boils down to respectful conduct.”

It’s unclear what meaning “meep” has, other than it is a popular thing for kids to say when they are at a loss for something to say, according to various Web sites.

A group on Facebook called Meep has 370 members, for instance, and lists three Danvers High students as members. . . . Entries for the word “meep” in the online Urban Dictionary include “ouch,” “uh-oh,” a substitution for a swear word, a greeting, an exclamation or ”a random expression of happiness used to fill gaps in conversation.”

Some Danvers High students said yesterday they were not sure what “meep” means. . . . One student said nearly all the students think the whole thing is ridiculous.

Murray said the matter should be a wake-up call to parents about how kids are using social networking sites.
That’s so much clearer, isn’t it? And obviously we should blame Facebook because…it’s new relatively technology that we don’t understand so well.

This must have been a curious article for reporter Ethan Forman to write. He obviously asked the principal what the trouble was (“Were kids using this word to tease someone?”), and got no useful answer. He talked to high school students, and none of them could offer much. He looked up the word online, and found nothing. You know a journalism job isn’t going well when you’re reduced to scrounging in Urban Dictionary.

The principal declined to talk to National Public Radio later in the week, but the network was able to track down a student in the thick of things who explained the meaning (none) and derivation (videogames) of “meep.” Meanwhile, that Facebook group grew to over 1,000 members by Saturday.

15 November 2009

When Robin Grows Up, version 2: on Earth-Two!

For the first twenty-plus years of Batman comics, Robin was an unaging symbol of youth. Indeed, as the last weekly Robin showed, for Robin to become a man was a horrible disruption of the status quo. Such a change was, like an escaped criminal or errant meteorite, a problem to be fixed by the end of the story. Occasionally readers saw an adult Dick Grayson take over the role of Batman—but only in imaginary tales. Eventually, however, that situation changed. In the late 1950s, DC Comics began to reinvigorate its old trademarks with new heroes using the same names: Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Atom, and so on. In Flash, #123, the new Flash ran so fast he ended up in the world of the Flash published in the 1940s. The company’s writers gradually built up that “Earth-Two,” where all the old heroes had started operating twenty years before what were now the standard “Earth-One” versions.

What did this mean for Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and Robin, who had all been published continuously since the 1940s or earlier? (What did it mean for Aquaman and Green Arrow, who had also never gone into abeyance? Well, far fewer people cared about them.) DC told readers that Earth-Two had versions of those heroes who started fighting crime decades before their Earth-One analogs. Batman, with no Kryptonian or Amazonian powers to ward off aging, was approaching retirement, and Robin was...

Earth-Two offered writers the opportunity to explore paths they couldn’t try in the standard DC “continuity” without jeopardizing what made the characters work. As one example of such experimentation, in the late 1970s the Earth-Two Superman married Lois Lane. The standard version of that character didn’t do so until 1996, when TV’s Lois and Clark proved the public wanted that change.

By setting a story on Earth-Two, therefore, DC could preserve its continuity but offer readers a new vision of a “Grown-Up Robin” on the cover of Justice League of America, #55, published in 1967.

And that vision was, frankly, unappealing. Not just because that Robin’s costume is an ugly blend of details from his childhood outfit and Batman’s costume: batwinged “R” on the chest, bright yellow cape over gray tights.

In addition to haberdashery troubles, this grown-up Robin struggles hard with the challenge of being Batman’s successor. His Justice Society teammates still treat him as a youngster. When the Robins of two worlds get together in Justice League, #91-92, they spend a fair amount of time whining about how inadequate they feel. And it doesn’t help that in 1979 the Earth-Two Batman dies, shot by a petty criminal.

DC eventually gave the Robin of Earth-Two a nicer costume, as shown in the panels at the top (and in the Brave and the Bold cartoon on TV). That costume reflects the character’s adulthood by covering his legs and arms. I think its style of mask signals his roots in the past; it has to be tied on while the Earth-One Robin’s little domino mask appears to stick with just willpower.

But the Robin of Earth-Two never seems to escape a dark cloud that hangs over his adventures. Here are panels from a 1982 issue of The Brave and the Bold in which the Batman of Earth-One visits “the Ex-Boy Wonder.” The villain of this tale takes control of a certain old-fashioned automobile.
Dick Grayson of Earth-Two is a successful lawyer, a prosecuting attorney and ambassador to South Africa—as well as a member of his world’s most important superhero team. Yet “the best years of his life” have come decades earlier, when he was a boy. And this adventure forces him to blow up a reminder of those years.

As I interpret these stories of Earth-Two, they carry the same message as the earlier decades’ rare tales of Dick Grayson as an adult. A “grown-up Robin” is a problem to be resolved, not a character readers can identify with. He’s never as real as the Dick Grayson who’s still young.

In 1985-86 the Crisis on Inifinite Earths miniseries did away with Earth-Two and its Robin, after more awkward moments. The only Dick Grayson who survives is a former Boy Wonder—Nightwing, leader of the Titans.

Even on an alternate Earth, it appears, a character who symbolizes youth can’t grow up without running into insurmountable problems—for himself, for writers, for the world he lives in. The only Dick Grayson to become a happy adult is the one who left the identity of “Robin the Boy Wonder” to younger heroes.

13 November 2009

Let’s Examine That

I enjoyed the great march of Bill Willingham and (mostly) Mark Buckingham’s Fables comic to issue #75. In fact, I’ve been planning a “Willingham week” for a while; that prospect was both strengthened and postponed when I received a review copy of his new novel, Peter and Max.

Nonetheless, I haven’t read either of the Fables volumes that followed War and Pieces, the one that brought the heroes’ war against their Adversary to an end. I fear that further Fabletown stories would be an anticlimax, and am instead thinking about picking up the first issues in the deluxe edition.

But now I understand that a young magic-worker named Ozma is a major character in the current story arc. Here she is illustrated by Buckingham in issue #90, with the telltale poppy in her hair.

But didn’t John R. Neill drew Ozma with dark hair in most of the Oz books? Yes, but in the character’s first appearance in The Marvelous Land of Oz L. Frank Baum described Ozma’s hair as “tresses of ruddy gold,” and Neill’s one portrait of her is consistent with that. Only when Neill had started drawing Dorothy Gale as a blonde did he make Ozma and brunette. When Dorothy is brunette, as in the Return to Oz movie and in Fables, Ozma becomes blonde.

This isn’t the first time Willingham has borrowed characters from the Oz books for Fables. Early on we had glimpses of Dorothy and her companions, and of Glinda in her swan chariot. A bibulous winged monkey named Buffum is an ongoing presence, but his personality is Willingham’s own invention. Ozma seems to be the most prominent ongoing character from the Oz books to also become a prominent ongoing character in Fables.

However, there’s a lot more to Ozma than simply having a flower in her hair and being able to work magic (a talent she developed only late in Baum’s series). And the few preview pages I’ve seen don’t convince me that this girl is the real Ozma.

12 November 2009

“Trashy” is High Praise!

Today’s newspaper brought word of a silly controversy that’s just too embarrassing for the American right wing not to highlight.

Two years ago, as documented here, Sesame Street aired a parody of cable news channels featuring CNN host Anderson Cooper. Oscar the Grouch brought him on to report for the Grouch News Network (GNN), with a slime-covered logo and grumpy, bickering commentators. (I’m not sure how that last part is parody.)

Near the end of the skit an irate grouch called in to complain that GNN wasn’t disgusting enough for her, and threatened to switch to “Pox News—now there’s a trashy news show.” Thus, the skit parodied both the best-known cable news networks.

The episode was rerun a couple of times since 2007, most recently on 29 October. And these days any mention of Fox News appears to be enough to prick the delicate and humorless sensitivity of some of its viewers. They posted complaints like this one on blogs, and a handful of people wrote to the PBS ombudsman.

I think that ombudsman fumbled the ball at first, featuring the Fox fans’ complaints without either seeking a comment from Sesame Street or exercising a sense of humor. Five days later the ombudsman got around to providing actual information and balance.

An executive with the Sesame Street Workshop had to point out the obvious:

“Children who watch Sesame Street (and adults who remember what it felt like to be a kid watching Sesame Street) know that Oscar the Grouch is a contrarian. He lives in a trash can and loves everything ‘yucky,’ and ‘disgustin.’ For a Grouch, ‘Trashy’ is high praise!”
Oscar’s song “I Love Trash” was the A-side of the first and perhaps last 45rpm record I ever owned. (The B-side was “Going for a Ride.”) For nearly forty years American children have known and enjoyed the irony of the fact that Oscar and other grouches “love trash.”

I can only assume that the people who complained about Pox News being called “trashy” aren’t part of that American mainstream that’s learned about Oscar. Perhaps those political conservatives didn’t let themselves become familiar with Sesame Street since it’s on public television and presents other things they have at various times argued vehemently against, such as an integrated neighborhood and bilingual education. Or perhaps watching Fox News has simply inured them to seeing that living in a trash can and lobbing insults at people isn’t really normal.

The most devastating recent parody of Fox News wasn’t Sesame Street’s brief mention. It wasn’t even Jon Stewart’s imitation of Glenn Beck. It was the Sean Hannity program’s forced admission that it had used file footage from one Washington rally to make another one look bigger than it really was. Now that’s comedy.

11 November 2009

“Adult Anxieties in the Costumes of Innocent Make-Believe”

I rather liked what A. O. Scott wrote about the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are in the New York Times this Sunday:

No place is free of conflict and bad feeling, and no person has the power to make problems disappear. Where there is happiness — friendship, adventure, affection, security — there is also, inevitably, disappointment. That’s life.

When you stop to think about it, this is a pretty strong message, and not what you might expect from children’s entertainment. But at the same time, this kind of honest, realistic assessment of human relationships has gone missing from far too many supposedly grown-up movies, which are almost hysterical in their eagerness to dispense comfort, sentimentality and neat, tidy endings.

However violent or foulmouthed they may be, most of these commercial entertainments offer soothing scenarios of wish fulfillment. Justice is served. The bad guys pay. Love conquers all. The naughty boys come home from their crazy adventures and find that their mommies still love them. (That’s a plot summary of “The Hangover,” by the way, not of “Where the Wild Things Are.”)

But things are much more complicated in some children’s movies, it seems, where the regressive infantilism of grown-up comedies and action pictures is answered by a grave precocity. A movie like “Where the Wild Things Are”…play[s] a kind of reverse dress-up, disguising adult anxieties in the costumes of innocent make-believe and fanciful spectacle.
And by “rather liked,” I mean, “saw many points of agreement with what I said about the same topic.”

It’s interesting that books created to look like picture books for adults are often simplistic and maudlin, even compared to picture books for kids. Yet this movie for adults created to look like a kid’s movie is complex and troubling.

10 November 2009

Signs of Things to Come?

A good friend of mine sent me this after seeing it on BoingBoing. Not the link; I had to hunt that down myself. He sent me an actual print of Professor Marvel’s weathered-looking caravan sign, which I now need to find space to hang.

The print comes from Jon Heilman’s Metropolis Graphix design studio, though it doesn’t seem to be offered for sale at that website. But this is: a replica of the map the six dwarfs carried in Time Bandits. My favorite movie of all.Yeah, yeah, Heilman has some other recreated stuff as well, like a Lord of the Rings map and a light saber and a bunch of documents from Harry Potter.

But this is the Time Bandits map, people! The Time Bandits map!

09 November 2009

“Growing Up When the Time Comes”

From A. S. Byatt’s review of Maria Tatar’s The Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood for the Guardian:

Perhaps Tatar’s most original contribution to thought about children’s stories and what they do to their inhabitants is about how the addicted readers are also learning (most of them) to deal with growing up. The great powers of the mind in the world of children’s books are a capacity for wonder, and an insatiable curiosity. The writers feed both with colours never seen on sea or land, with moons and stars and gold and silver and monsters and dangers. But they are also teaching mastery of language which is the stuff of thought and necessary to growing up when the time comes.

A particularly telling chapter is called “The Great Humbug”. It discusses The Wizard of Oz and what Dorothy learns from discovering that the great magician is in fact only a timid illusionist who makes an emerald city by handing out green spectacles. Dorothy ends the story by saying that she wants to go home to Kansas and Aunt Em – thus making herself alive in the real world.
Of course, Dorothy returns to Oz four more times in L. Frank Baum’s series, and eventually goes there to live, never growing up. But by that time, she’s helped the country become truly magical, not just illusive. She’s helped the humbug Wizard become a real one. And she’s even helped her aunt and uncle find a new home when the bank is about to foreclose on the farm.

Dorothy remains, Baum assures us, an ordinary little girl of the sort who still has “a capacity for wonder, and an insatiable curiosity.” But we readers know she’s also grown up as much as she needs to.

08 November 2009

Weekly Robin: Election Week Extra

Every day in October, Brian Cronin at Comics Should Be Good! offered his readers a poll on a different question about American superhero comics. Here’s the complete list of questions.

About a third of the way through the month he asked, “Who’s Your Favorite Robin?” That question received 2,280 responses, more than any other poll in the month and about 20% higher than the next most popular that week. And not one of those votes was mine; I knew I couldn’t decide.

(The next biggest responses for the month, also above 2,000, were to “Who[m] do you prefer Cyclops [of the X-Men] with?” and “Who is the top Spider-Man villain, besides Norman Osborn?”)

And the results were:

Not listed as options were several minor but distinct versions of Robin who have all appeared in more than one DC story: the first Jason Todd, the Earth-2 Dick Grayson, the imaginary Bruce Wayne, Jr., the Teen Titans Go! Robin, and the Tiny Titans Robin.

When Robin Grows Up, version 1: Owlman!

I’m finally getting back to exploring the implications of “Reason for Robin, #9: Robin is still a kid.” Indeed, within the DC Comics universe, Robin (whichever character is in the costume) represents youth and its potential. But can a symbol of youth grow up?

For decades successful growing up for Robin was portrayed in imaginary or alternative-history stories of Dick Grayson becoming Batman after his mentor’s retirement or death. In all of these scenarios, new boys take on the role, and representational function, of Robin. The exemplary image above comes from the cover of Batman, #119, published in 1958. DC is playing out yet another variation on that scenario now.

In the 1980s the success of the New Teen Titans magazine prompted the publisher to imagine a different way for Dick to mature successfully: he found a new identity as Nightwing. Once again, another boy became Robin.

Indeed, Dick’s maturation was so successful, and Bruce Wayne’s character has since been portrayed as so arrested in some ways, that there’s ongoing debate among fans and within the comics about whether Dick should remain Batman or resume being Nightwing when Bruce inevitably returns.

Even more revealing about the importance of what Robin symbolizes, I think, are the company’s portrayals of Dick aging unsuccessfully. Scripter Bill Finger explored this idea in 1957 with a story called “The Grown-Up Boy Wonder!”

At the start of that adventure, a box Superman has brought back from outer space gives Dick an accidental dose of “maturing gas.” “Golly!” he says the next morning. “During the night I’ve grown—grown as big as a man!

Dick’s costume no longer fits; symbolically, he can longer fulfill the Robin role. He proposes becoming a second Batman, and the first—the preternaturally well-adjusted hero of the 1950s—nixes that idea. “But when Batman leaves,” a caption tells us, “Dick reacts like an impulsive youngster…”

Dick dons an owl costume and makes his debut as Owlman! This costume has short pants, just like the Robin outfit; symbolically, he’s still a boy. Dick’s not used to his new weight, and still has a tendency to fall down and get captured. As Batman rescues him, just like so many times before, Dick says ruefully, “I’ve got a lot of growing up to do before I can be a real man!”

Owlman’s career ends when the extraterrestrial gas wears off. Dick has learned a valuable lesson about not trying to grow up too soon, as the story’s final panel shows. Note that he’s once again dressed in the bright Robin colors. All is well in the DC Universe.

NEXT WEEK: Dick Grayson matures unsuccessfully—on another planet.

07 November 2009

Comics That Go Both Ways

I’d like to find a comics page spread that starts with two characters talking in the upper left, then separating. The reader can follow one character across the spread and then down to the lower right, or follow the other down the page and across to the lower right.

Either way, each character has an individual experience before rejoining the other, and only the reader knows what’s happened to both. It’s quite possible Chris Ware has done something like this already, and I just haven’t had the eyesight and patience to enjoy it. If I can’t find an example, I may have to write one.

While waiting, I keep my eyes open for comics pages that play with our idea of panel order. There’s one in Chris Giarrusso’s new G-Man: Learning to Fly collection, which you can find by going to his “Comic Bits” page and selecting strip 28.

A more algorithmic approach to the same issue appears on Jason Shiga’s “April Fooled” poster, originally created for Nickelodeon magazine.

And Sunday Press has collected Gustave Verbeek’s Upside-Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo comics from 1903-05. Each illustration serves its story twice, once when viewed right-side-up and differently when viewed upside-down. I saw a selection of these Sunday strips in Art Out of Time (reviewed here), and, while I don’t think the concept ever got past the novelty stage, I’m still amazed Verbeek was able to keep up the gimmick as long as he did.

06 November 2009

Proof: The Power and Pitfalls of Self-Marketing

I was looking back at posts I never finished writing, and found one inspired by a December 2007 story on fantasy author Troy (Tompkins) CLE in a local section of the New York Times. The article’s opening hook was how CLE had created a fictional publicist for a press release for his self-published fantasy novel.

A similar press release dated May 2007 and preserved on the Hip Hop Cosign explains how CLE wasn’t just his own publicist, he was also the book’s original publisher:

When Troy couldn’t find an agent or major publisher for his novel, he published it himself with the help of David Finn, co-founder of the worldwide corporate PR firm, Ruder & Finn, and then created a fictitious publicist to get the word out.
Though that raises a question: If the co-founder of a “worldwide corporate PR firm” (which actually prefers to be called “Ruder Finn”) is helping to publish your book, why do you have to create a publicist? Isn’t that the one type of expert you already have behind you?

That same May 2007 release says of the book:
Combining the best and hottest elements of fantasy, science fiction, hip-hop, video gaming, Nascar and Anime, “The Marvelous Effect” has been likened to a “Black Harry Potter,” for the outrageous adventures, over the top sci fi gadgets and memorable characters Troy has created, as well as the passion it elicits from the hundreds of high schools [sic] students in some of the toughest neighborhoods who’ve attended Troy’s readings.
So CLE’s fictional publicist didn’t lack audacity.

After the Times story, some publishing pros criticized CLE’s tactic. MediaBistro’s Galleycat countered by asking, “Is Having An Imaginary Publicist So Wrong?”

Even asking that question seems quaint now that publishing staffs have been decimated and publicity efforts outsourced. Worldwide media conglomerates are asking first-time authors what they can do on their own to push book sales.

Furthermore, CLE’s method worked. His press release about a reading caught the attention of someone at Simon & Schuster. The company saw enough potential in the Marvelous World series to republish the first book, The Marvelous Effect, and this month is bringing out the second, Olivion’s Favorites. (So this posting isn’t two years late, after all.)

I see two downsides to marketing one’s book through a fake publicist or the story of one, however. The first is that it makes natural cynics like me even more suspicious of any claims. Just who was likening The Marvelous Effect to a “Black Harry Potter”? Did Simon & Schuster really offer “a six-figure advance” for CLE’s book rights? Beyond cross-cultural name-dropping, what exactly is a hybrid of hip-hop, anime, and NASCAR?

And the second pitfall is that publicity can draw attention to a book for the wrong reasons. There are two ways to promote a novel: the story in it, and the story of it. The second can bring attention (CLE was on Tavis Smiley’s talk show and PBS’s Now) and initial sales, but only the latter can please readers and lead to lasting sales.

As I’ve written before, the story of Harry Potter (impoverished single mother finds magical riches!) produced the book’s first spate of publicity in Britain, and dovetailed surprisingly well with the story in Harry Potter (impoverished orphaned boy finds magic and riches!). If the book hadn’t delivered, however, J. K. Rowling’s life story would have been a flash in the British tabloid pan.

I’m not seeing the same overlap between how CLE steered himself to publication and what I read of his hero, Louis Proof, who sets out to win a radio-car race in a junkyard and ends up in a coma. (The fact that the opening chapter is all circumstance and no character doesn’t help.)

And as for the series’s potential as a “Black Harry Potter,” the first book’s jacket showed African-American characters. Its paperback and the second book have abstract science-fiction images on the front.

05 November 2009

Designing Superheroes for Fun and Profit

Today I’m highlighting two sites devoted to the important enterprise of superhero design.

I was delighted to find a pointer to The Superest, an ongoing game of rock-paper-scissors with superheroes. Start anywhere (such as that link above), and move down to see who that hero has been designed to vanquish, up to see who was invented to beat that hero.

Thus, for example, the Cord Marshal, with power over extension cords, can defeat General Contractor, but he falls to Midwife, “snipping cords of all shapes and sizes.” And she in turn meets her match in… Well, you’ll have to explore. It really is the Superest.

In addition, months back the Graphic Novel Reporter offered a link to The Hero Factory, a site that allows visitors to design their own superhero by plugging in variables about gender, hair, facial features, uniform colors, weapons, and so on.

The site doesn’t offer a choice of body shape. Which may, with superheroes, be the whole point.

04 November 2009

“Scarcely Anything in It to Please the Eye”

Jeremy Dibbell at PhiloBiblos alerted me that the Times of London website had unearthed the paper’s review of MGM’s Wizard of Oz, in connection with some behind-the-scenes footage. It’s apparent that the Times critic didn’t appreciate the art direction:

It is presumably to the credit of Hollywood that it can afford to deploy a whole army of dwarfs for the illustration of a single incident in a simple fairy story; this innumerable band of midgets reduces to insignificance the collection of the Gonzagas or, if it comes to that, of Philip IV of Spain.

The rest of the spectacle is equally lavish; there are extraordinary vistas of artificial scenery, many amusing tricks and devices of the cinema, witches who fly in a very natural fashion, puffs of scarlet smoke, and a horse which changes its colour from brilliant purple to orange.

In fact the ingenuous fairy story from which the film is adapted, the story of a little girl who wanders in a strange country in the company of stranger creatures to look for a wizard to send her home, is quite overlaid by the fantastic elaboration of the setting.

The only drawback to the spectacle is that there is scarcely anything in it to please the eye; although many of the conjuring tricks will certainly arouse one’s curiosity the scenery and dresses are designed with no more taste than is commonly used in the decoration of a night-club.

The film is, no doubt, a triumph of technical dexterity and especially of skill in colour photography, but what is the use of making a hollyhock out of cellophane, painting it an ugly colour, and then photographing it with complete accuracy?
A portion of the same column not shown on that page introduces The Wizard of Oz as “a lavish American fairy-story told, for the most part, in technicolour,” in contrast to two other new movies described as “British and characteristic.” Which seems to have aroused some resentment.

Though, to be fair, the movie arrived in London in January 1940, the middle of the “phoney war” as the British anxiously anticipated a fight with Nazi Germany. That may not have been the best time for Hollywood to show off its dwarfs and cellophane.

(Lobby card image above courtesy of Conway’s Vintage Treasures.)

03 November 2009

“Dorothy is American.”

The major impetus for me becoming fond of the Oz books was a second-grade production of The Wizard of Oz, in which I played the lead Munchkin and the Winged Monkey who grabbed Toto.

For Grace Lin, author of Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, the Wizard production came in third grade. And it didn’t produce such happy memories for her. As described in a recent profile in School Library Journal:

An awakening of sorts occurred when her elementary school put on a production of The Wizard of Oz and, like all the other girls, Lin endlessly practiced for her audition in the playground, singing “Over the Rainbow.”

Her career in musical theater was cut short in the third grade when a classmate said, “You can’t be Dorothy. Dorothy’s not Chinese. Dorothy is American.”

Her friend had called her Chinese. “But I did not feel Chinese. I spoke English, I watched Little House on the Prairie, learned American history, and read books about girls named Betsy and boys named Billy. But I had black hair and slanted eyes, I ate white rice at home with chopsticks, and I got red envelopes for my birthday. Did I belong anywhere?”

When the teacher called her name to try out for the play, Lin passed, saying that at the time she didn’t feel so much “angry, as stupid.”
I can imagine that happening among the kids at my school. Children in the early elementary grades are mighty rigid about the “right” way to do things. But would Grace’s teacher—in the early 1980s in upstate New York—have reinforced the idea that Dorothy as an American couldn’t be a Chinese-American, or corrected it?

02 November 2009

Look, Do You Want Me to Tell the Story or Not?

Intrusive narrators are old hat, especially since they’ve been reintroduced into children’s literature by Lemony Snicket. But I was tickled at how over a century ago Carlos Collodi opened The Adventures of Pinocchio with an intrusive audience:

Centuries ago there lived—

“A king!” my little readers will say immediately.

No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood.
Which reminds me that Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer, which I featured back in May, is now available in paperback.

01 November 2009

The Most Important Comic-Book Movie Ever?

Earlier this year Kevin Feige, production president at Marvel Studios, said that the 1997 movie Batman & Robin “may be the most important comic-book movie ever made.”

Although Feige made that remark back in June, as paraphrased by The Geek Files, it doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention until late October, when Geoff Boucher quoted him in a Los Angeles Times article.

Feige wasn’t praising Batman & Robin. In fact, he said about that movie:

It was so bad that it demanded a new way of doing things. It created the opportunity to do X-Men and Spider-Man, adaptations that respected the source material and adaptations that were not campy.
Feige isn’t paid to praise the competition, but we can also acknowledge Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, as well as less successful but thoughtful adaptations like Superman Returns.

The problem wasn’t that Batman and Robin was bad, as far as Hollywood was concerned. The problem was that it made so little money, compared to its costs and to the preceding Batman titles: “only” $107 million in the US, less than 60% of the take of its immediate successor (not adjusted for inflation). It also seemed to poison the well for any new Batman movie, at least for a few years, thus breaking one of Warner Bros.’s summer franchises.

Director Joel Schumacher went back to making small- and medium-budget movies. Screenwriter-producer Akiva Goldsman had to “beg” producer Brian Grazer for the assignment of adopting A Beautiful Mind for the screen, according to the LA Times article.

Of course, it was logical for Grazer to ask whether a specialist in adapting bestselling thrillers (particularly by John Grisham) was the best choice to dramatize the life story of a schizophrenic mathematician, but Goldsman’s experience as the child of psychiatrists running a group home had prepared him for that challenge.

Goldsman won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay, and then went back to working on popcorn movies. He’s even planning a return to superhero stories through Marvel. But, as the profile indicates, with a different approach:
“What got lost in Batman & Robin is the emotions aren’t real,” Goldsman said, picking his words carefully. “The worst thing to do with a serious comic book is to make it a cartoon. I’m still answering for that movie with some people.”
Now I’ve never seen Batman & Robin all the way through—just enough on television to confirm that I don’t want to see more. I did go to the theaters to watch Tim Burton’s Batman and then Schumacher’s Batman Forever, which brought Dick Grayson into that version of the story. And I didn’t think either of them got the tone of the Batman and Robin legend right. They felt fairly campy and emotionally false from the start.

So I don’t blame Goldsman or Schumacher for Batman & Robin. I blame the American moviegoers who paid nearly $600 million to watch the preceding three movies. Given that track record, of course the studio was going to serve up more of the same until we got tired of it. And in 1997, we finally did.