31 December 2010

A Higher Level of Transition in Comics

At this transitional time, I turn to the matter of transitions in comics. Duy at the Comics Cube has provided a two-part review of the types of transitions between panels listed by practitioner and taxonomist Scott McCloud:

  • Action to Action
  • Subject to Subject
  • Scene to Scene
  • Moment to Moment
  • Aspect to Aspect
  • Non Sequitur
I think we should give equal weight to the transition from one page spread to the next, which are perforce also transitions between panels. Picture-book creators have long played with such page turns as an element of their storytelling and pacing. Comics creators do so as well, as McCloud was well aware, but this transition may have been overshadowed in his emphasis on what makes comics different from other forms of illustrated narrative.

Unlike a transition from one panel to the next on a single page, readers can’t see both images at once during a page turn. Their minds can’t compare and contrast panels even as they focus on one and then the next. The transition therefore depends more on readers’ memory.

Furthermore, a page turn can hide the entrance of something new in the scene—a character, a sudden event, a shift in tone. A page of many small, cramped panels can transition to a single, large panel, or vice versa. Mainstream adventure comics, which rely on plot twists and other surprises, use the page turn quite a lot to introduce some element the readers literally haven’t seen coming.

Finally, the physical act of turning the page is (while not as essential to the act of reading a book as many of us traditionalists like to believe) a signal to readers’ minds which may facilitate a shift of scenes, or a leap forward in time.

I’ve noted before how picture-book artists map out spreads while many comics artists—at least at one point—planned individual pages. The latter tradition was undoubtedly shaped by the large number of panels to get through, and the lack of control over where page turns would fall as stories were broken up with advertising and reprinted. Of course, comics creators still used the page turn at the end of a story.

Lately, I see the page turn becoming increasingly important in comics. “Decompressed” storytelling has produced fewer and bigger panels, and the advertising-free book form makes page breaks more predictable and permanent. Indeed, when a book in comics form doesn’t use page turns, I feel something missing.

TOMORROW: Comics without page turns?

(Image above showing a prototype page turn with Ty Landercasper’s Comic Reader Mobi app. And Yotsuba!)

29 December 2010

An Early Effort by Wodehouse

This month I read P. G. Wodehouse’s The Intrusion of Jimmy (1910) for the first time. I may have read it earlier under its alternate title, A Gentleman of Leisure. If I’d forgotten, that’s not because it’s a typical Wodehouse farce but because it dates from before he found his basic formula, and he didn’t have enough material to make a memorable novel.

I’m rather fond of Wodehouse’s work from the 1910s, before he decided to focus on English country manors and city clubs, with an occasional intrusion from the working classes.

There’s the wild but toothless satire of invasion literature in The Swoop (1910). The semi-serious picture of a couple expecting their first child in The White Hope/Their Mutual Child/The Coming of Bill (1915). And my favorites, which follow characters from Wodehouse’s public school stories into the working world: Psmith in the City (1910), and Psmith Journalist (1915).

Psmith appears one more time in Leave It to Psmith (1923), which brings him to Blandings Castle, introduced in Something New/Something Fresh (1915). And those books were so successful that Wodehouse rarely tried something so fresh again.

The Intrusion of Jimmy/A Gentleman of Leisure is clearly a transitional novel. It starts in the world of New York theater and journalism that Wodehouse was then trying to enter, with a dollop of crime and corruption.

The setting then moves to an English manor house with the cast of characters that would soon be familiar: a spineless and penniless young lord, an overbearing moneybags uncle, a stern aunt, a pretty girl. Also a rope of diamonds and amateur theatricals.

Unfortunately, Wodehouse didn’t really develop those elements of the story as he later would, perhaps because he hadn’t yet realized he would have to distinguish the characters in this book from others quite like them. It wasn’t enough to have a stern aunt—one must do something with her.

The book has only one girl, and only two boys, one in love and the other not. The one in love is also the title character, admirable, and rich, so there’s no suspense in the love story. The narration keeps telling us how much that boy is in love with the one girl, but we don’t see that happen. There’s a lovely moment at the end where it becomes clear that she’s fallen in love back—we know that because she actually believes the plot that’s unfolded so far.

I kept waiting for one of the story’s bigger crooks to get some sort of comeuppance, but no. Some secrets are revealed, but there’s not enough follow-up. In a short time Wodehouse would learn to do so much more with similar ingredients.

The small number of rooms where action takes place made me wonder if Wodehouse had adapted this novel from a stage play, but things worked the other way round. A Gentleman of Leisure was Wodehouse’s first book adapted for the stage. Douglas Fairbanks played the lead on Broadway, and then John Barrymore in Chicago. There were even two silent movies made from this novel. (Trying to imagine silent Wodehouse is the biggest challenge I’ve had all month.)

That made A Gentleman of Leisure a big success for Wodehouse, which is probably why he went on to explore more manor houses, to better effect.

28 December 2010

The Sky Is Falling, One Way or the Other

Last summer the industry-research firm Simba Information put out a report that it touted as finding that one in four comics readers is over sixty-five years old. I don’t know if that counts newspaper comics, but it doesn’t match the demographics I see in comics stores and sections of bookstores.

In any event, the thrust of the report was:

Despite notable efforts from many in the industry, comics and graphic novels continue to be repeatedly mislabeled as just another children’s book category…
And I’d certainly agree with that, having noted various examples of the comics form making people perceive stories are appropriate for younger readers than they really speak to.

Curiously, the reaction to this report within the mainstream American comics industry appeared to be just the opposite of its conclusion. “This confirms what we know!” people were writing. “Our core audience is dying off!”

Oh, yes! Adults read comics! Oh, no! Adults read comics!

25 December 2010

Weekly Robin Christmas Story

This weekly Robin is appearing one day early, and perhaps a few hours late, because it points to a fanfiction short story set on Christmas Eve.

This tale takes place in the DC Comics continuity as it existed in the mid- to late 1990s, I believe. Tim Drake is living with his dad in a Gotham suburb and serving as Batman’s Robin. Dick Grayson, the narrator, has moved to an apartment building in Blüdhaven, which is like Gotham City’s Newark, and tends bar nearby when not patrolling as Nightwing.

There are pretty obvious influences from New Titans, #65, when Tim visits Dick in New York for training before becoming Robin, and Nightwing, #6, when he drops in on Dick in Blüdhaven. The story even shares the title of that latter issue: “The Visitor.” And there’s another, seasonal influence floating behind the prose:

On the night before Christmas, across all Blüdhaven, not a siren was wailing, not a babe needed saving. No crimelords or mooks had abruptly reformed. It was twenty degrees out! They were home, staying warm.

I was in my apartment, atop all those steps, preparing to shower after doing some reps, when all of a sudden came a noise overhead—not a clatter, or thumping, but a single foot-tread.

My visitor might not have meant any harm, but whoever it was had sidestepped the alarms. I threw on a bathrobe and killed all the lights to see out the windows and scan that dark night.

With a glance to the north side, I froze like the weather: whoever was up there had let down a tether and was clambering hand under hand to my floor. I crept to my balcony, opened the door, and blasted him with an extinguisher hose.

It took me a sec to distinguish the clothes: my caller was costumed in red and green tights, and wearing short sleeves on this blustery night.

“Cut it out, Dick! It’s me!” shouted Tim with a sputter as he slammed back and forth on the wall like a shutter. . . .
The little story continues here. Best wishes of the solstice season to all readers.

24 December 2010

“Wizard of Oz 2010”?

From Friday’s New York Times, Claudia La Rocco’s profile of a bar in Bergen County:

...there we were on a chilly November night in Ridgefield Park, N.J., in the Westside Village Tavern, a distinctly working-class bar nicknamed the Zoo. Dan Greco was bartending and had commandeered not one, but four of the five flat-screen televisions behind the blond-wood bar for that Technicolor classic [The Wizard of Oz]. (He’d thrown football fans a bone, leaving a game playing on the fifth).

“It’s the Emerald City part!” Mr. Greco barked. “A little quiet, please.”

The command was superfluous; everyone was watching, even the kitchen staff, peeking around the saloon doors during down moments. A pleased Mr. Greco surveyed his happy kingdom, a hangout frequented by cops and ironworkers in a town where many people stay their whole lives. He chortled mischievously: “It would be great if the Good Witch’s skirt blew up and she was wearing a red thong. ‘Wizard of Oz 2010’!”

A customer — by the looks of him, all too regular — ambled by, slightly bleary-eyed: “I don’t even remember this movie. I know she gets home in the end.”
That is indeed one of the most important parts. And Greco at least understands what color of thong Glinda would wear.

While searching for images to accompany this posting, I stumbled into FrockTalk, dedicated to motion-picture costuming. Here’s its discussion of The Wizard of Oz.

22 December 2010

Comfort and Joy

If you’re in the mood for Ozzy holiday decorating, check out this posting from John Nickolaus’s Adventures in Oz blog. I suspect that’s one of Karyl Carlson’s handmade Woozy dolls; I keep mine at my bedside.

The effort of creating that holiday display might have worn Mr. Nickolaus out since he hasn’t posted much more, but he left quite a bit to explore in just those images.

More recently, Bill Campbell at the Oz Enthusiast has shared pictures of his handmade Jack Pumpkinhead and Sawhorse and Tik-Tok, to go along with the Scarecrow and Scraps.

I prefer to decorate vicariously by posting links like these. Otherwise, it seems too much like work.

20 December 2010

Exploring Oz through Google Books Ngram Viewer

As I discussed yesterday, I played a little with the Google Books Ngram Viewer last week. This program graphs the relative frequencies of words and phrases in Google’s growing database of English literature. At this point it seems most useful as a dipstick for measuring the verbal context of a literary work, or its verbal impact.

For example, we may associate the phrase “rags to riches” with Horatio Alger’s novels of a century ago, but that phrase actually flourished after 1925. In Alger’s time “get rich quick” or “strike it rich” were more prevalent.

And what have English speakers called readers in their teens? We can watch the term “teenage” swamp the older phrase “young adult,” with “teenaged” a late arrival.

So what can the Ngram Viewer tell us about L. Frank Baum’s Oz books? I started at the beginning, with the storm that carries Dorothy away from Kansas. Technically it’s a tornado, as Baum acknowledged in a letter after publication. But “Kansas cyclone” was a very familiar phrase back in 1900, perhaps even cliché.

And what do we call Dorothy’s friend Nick Chopper? In Baum’s books, he’s the “Tin Woodman.” The 1939 MGM movie called him the “Tin Man,” and that phrase became much more prevalent in the late 1900s as the movie aired over and over on television. Meanwhile, ”Tin Woodsman,” which has no textual support but sibilants, is also on the rise.

Glinda of Oz introduces three Adepts of Magic. That noun was unfamiliar to me when I first read the book, and I was interested to read later that Baum borrowed it from theosophical usage. The Ngram Viewer shows how the popularity of the capitalized “Adepts” spiked around 1880 and hit a second high around 1920, the year that book was published (after Baum’s death).

I was surprised to see a recent sudden spike in the use of the word “Ozma.” Because of the musical performers who use the name? Because of Project Ozma? Knowing more about Google’s sample might explain that.

Finally, I used the Ngram Viewer to graph the frequency of three phrases:

  • “no place like home,” which Baum borrowed from John Howard Payne, as I discussed back here. It was near the peak of its popularity around 1900, when Baum wrote.
  • “Munchkin,” Baum’s own coinage, which has entered our language for something small. It had a burst of usage a century ago, and has been growing more common since 1970.
  • And, as a comparison, “Muggle,” which has been around for decades but achieved new heights after J. K. Rowling used it in her Harry Potter books.

19 December 2010

Weekly Robin Ngram Viewer

Like a lot of other researchers, I put in a little too much time with Google’s new Books Ngram Viewer this week. It allows one to search Google’s entire corpus of digitized English literature to see how the relative frequencies of published words or phrases change over time.

I learned how the programming is case-sensitive, hates hyphens and other forms of punctuation, and makes graphs with familiar colors.

I’m sure there are still bugs in the database. Look at the blip in mentions of “Bruce Wayne” and “Dick Grayson” during the 1970s; that must be an effect of the sampling, not a natural plateau. On the other hand, that same graph may accurately reflect the doldrums of the mid-1980s Superman movies when people stopped caring so much.

The phrase “boy wonder” was on a steep rise in 1940, when DC Comics introduced Batman’s sidekick, and started to level off soon afterward. So did “the boy wonder of,” indicating the use of the phrase in varied contexts. But since 1960 the capitalized forms “Boy Wonder” and “the Boy Wonder” have become more popular than before. Does that mean our culture now has only one Boy Wonder, at least not labeled unironically?

Similarly, the growing popularity of “Batman,” capitalized, may be making the uncapitalized term for a type of servant less popular.

How about “dark knight/Dark Knight”? The phrase was coined by the Romantics, as I wrote back here, and spikes first in the early 1800s. Then it fades for a while, returning with a vengeance (and capital letters) in the mid-1980s after Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. I mean, right after.

Likewise, the capitalized and specific “Superman” now soars over the uncapitalized and generic “superman.”

And here we see the spread of the terms comics, comic strip, comic book, graphic novel, and bande dessinee (no accent marks) at different moments in time. TOMORROW: Google Books Ngram Viewing and Oz.

18 December 2010

Unconditional Superpowered Love

Confirming that I’m not a Superman guy, I actually let last night’s posting appear with the name of the Man of Steel’s dog mentioned as “Astro.” That is, of course, the name of the dog on The Jetsons. Superman’s dog is named Krypto.

I actually enjoy what DC’s writers have done with Krypto over the past decade, recognizing the inherent goofiness of a superpowered dog in a cape while also recognizing how comfortably he fits into the myth. Isn’t Clark Kent all about all-American traditions? Who wouldn’t want a little unconditional superpowered love? (Well, the current Superboy has had to get used to his taking care of his “cousin’s” pet.)

That said, I have a problem with Krypto’s name, which is probably why I don’t remember it well. “Krypto”—is he cryptic? No, he’s a dog! Dogs don’t do deceit. Symbolically, the name doesn’t fit.

Krypto’s a dog from outer space, so “Astro” would be more appropriate. Maybe if I were a Superman guy with more feeling for the planet Krypton, I’d better appreciate a living memorial of that doomed world.

17 December 2010

It’s Not Superman (at least as I understand the story)

I finally figured out what in Tom De Haven’s It’s Superman! strikes me as a fundamental shift away from the core Superman myth, which of course reveals what I think that myth fundamentally is. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, but I wish I’d realized this point earlier so it wasn’t nagging at me as I read.

In the extended essay he wrote after this novel, Our Hero: Superman on Earth, De Haven says, “I’ve always been a Superman Guy.” I don’t make the same claim, so my reaction might be based on a more limited idea of the myth’s capacity.

My problem isn’t the book’s setting in Depression-era America. That fits perfectly with De Haven’s aim to offer a backstory for Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor up to 1938, when Action Comics appeared on newsstands. Nor do I mind De Haven’s choice to shift the saga’s urban setting from generic Metropolis to New York City under Fiorello LaGuardia.

Like many other people writing novels about superheroes, De Haven seems to revel in long scene-setting descriptions and internal monologues that the comics don’t have space for. But he also does a good job with the twists and turns of plot, looping a relatively small cast of characters together to make the narrative keep flowing briskly.

Rather, my problem is with a single character: Willi Berg, aspiring photographer. All my unease comes down to this one addition to the usual cast of characters.

Otherwise, the story in It’s Superman! is familiar, if not exactly like any previous telling. The novel establishes Clark’s childhood in Smallville and his sole-survivor status. It leaves him as a new, bespectacled reporter at the Daily Planet.

Lois Lane is a more experienced reporter at the same paper. Clark is gaga for her; she thinks he’s a hick, a rival, and an unworthy shadow of his friend Superman. Lex Luthor is a criminal genius on the edge of respectability who once had red hair.

The novel eschews the aspects of Smallville established in the Superboy stories of the 1950s through 1980s. There’s no Pete Ross, Lana Lang, or Krypto. Clark doesn’t go to college or spend junior year abroad in Atlantis (added to the comics in the post-GI Bill 1950s, I think). But I never assimilated those details into my basic idea of Superman, anyway.

The myth has proved to be accommodating about whether Ma and Pa Kent are dead (the old canon), alive (the current canon), or dying in the course of the story (All-Star Superman, Smallville, etc.). Again, De Haven’s choice seems to fit into the acceptable limits.

But then there’s Willi Berg. At the start of the novel, he’s Lois Lane’s boyfriend, hustling photos to the tabloids. Soon he becomes an unwitting enemy of corrupt alderman Lex Luthor.

About a third of the way through the book, Willi meets Clark Kent in Kansas and tumbles to his immense strength. The two then travel America, hopping freight trains, working odd jobs, and ending up in Hollywood—Clark as a near-invulnerable stuntman, Willi as a cheesecake photographer.

All that while, Willi urges Clark to test and develop his powers. Together they come up with the notion of a “Superman” separate from Clark. Together they return to New York, connect with Lois, and take on Luthor again.

(It’s Superman! also depicts Clark finding a girlfriend in Hollywood before he starts wearing glasses. She sees he’s close to invulnerable, and she designs the suit with the S on the chest. I doubt she’ll have a problem recognizing Superman from the newsreels. But at least she’s on the opposite coast, and thus out of the picture.)

Unlike De Haven’s other additions, Willi strikes me as a fundamental change to the basic story. His presence means Clark has a friend in the city who knows all about his powers and secret identity. It means that the fraught relationship between Lois, Clark, and Superman has yet another corner. Indeed, Willi is lodged so deep into this version of the story that it’s impossible to imagine subsequent tales that don’t involve him (or at least his memory).

Even more important, Willi Berg changes Clark’s psychological situation. He’s no longer the only person outside his family who knows his secrets, no longer isolated—which in the usual story echoes his status as Krypton’s last survivor. When in the comics Superman shares his secrets with Batman, Lois, and/or the Justice League, that feels like a connection he’s earned from having spent decades alone.

Adding an intimate friend at the start of the Superman myth doesn’t just change its plotting, I think, but also its symbolic meaning. And symbolism is what superheroes are all about.

15 December 2010

Worlds Are Colliding

From Tom De Haven’s authorized novel It’s Superman!:

Clark Kent is more than just passingly familiar with robots.

As a boy, he read all of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels, and from his introduction in Ozma of Oz, Tik-Tok the Clockwork Man became Clark’s favorite of all the series characters.
I’m still mulling over the rest of It’s Superman! Usually the tension in Superman coming-of-age stories is between Smallville and Metropolis. De Haven takes the whole country as his setting, with episodes in Hollywood and elsewhere, and Clark and Lois ending up in La Guardia’s New York instead of its shiny comic-book stand-in.

Among other touches I think are new is Clark as science-fiction fan. A Kansas boy of the 1920s reading the Oz books makes sense. Clark writing sci-fi stories like Jerry Siegel—that made me pause.

14 December 2010

Harry Potter and the Flawed Interpretation

Last month The Awl published Maria Bustillo’s attack on the Harry Potter series in the guise of a review of the movie adapted from the sixth-and-a-half book. The essay struck me as far more ad hominem and nasty than it needed to be, and simply erroneous in some aspects.

Bustillo is correct, however, that J. K. Rowling’s books undercut her progressive surface themes through the structure of the magical world where they take place. Most particularly, as the article notes, there’s the congenital divide between wizards and muggles, and the never-resolved issue of the house elves.

But Bustillo misses how the books give so many of their good characters solid Anglo-Saxon names (Harry Potter, Granger, Weasley, Dumbledore, Black) while the worst villains have Latinate and French names (Lucius Malfoy, Voldemort, Lestrange). And foreigners are always funny—even as the books depict a modern multiethnic British society. In other words, Rowling’s fantasy world is both founded on some deep British prejudices and inclusive in how it defines being British.

Bustillo errs in identifying the Weasleys—middle-class civil servants—as aristocrats in Rowling’s world simply because they’re wizards. In fact, the Weasley clan is dedicated to good governance, deference to democratic authority, and protection of “muggles.” Symbolically, I think their ancient homestead actually reflects another deep prejudice: that the countryside is nicer than the city, regardless of class.

Bustillo closes with praise for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which I can’t fault but I also can’t see as a ground-breaking recommendation. I wonder if she’s ever applied her critical eyes to that series and how it, too, reflects British notions of class. (All servants’ daemons being dogs, for example.) And perhaps we can discuss whether fantasy literature’s potentially Manichean presentation of good and evil needs to be reflected in critical thinking about it.

12 December 2010

Our Little Boy Has Grown Up

Fabian Nicieza, the current scripter of Red Robin, has a very perceptive understanding of that magazine’s hero, Tim Drake, and the entire Robin mythos. And by “very perceptive” I mean “we agree on a lot of things.”

Nicieza just did an interview with Newsarama to promote the magazine’s issue #18. Along with the usual praise for collaborators and hints at exciting things to come, he reminded readers of how this comic book differs from the Robin series of 1991-2009:

The Red Robin book is no longer about the training of a young hero, like the original Robin series was. It’s about the decisions and actions that an established young hero takes in learning how to best wield the power and intelligence he has.
In sum, Tim has gone through the same passage that Dick Grayson did in the mid-1980s, establishing a new, non-sidekick identity. But he’s doing it in a solo book, not as part of the Titans.

Two of the traits that set Tim apart from Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne for most of Robin‘s run were:
  • He wasn’t an orphan: his father was still alive, and he also had to keep secrets from a housekeeper and a stepmom. (Long-time writer Chuck Dixon talked about that storytelling choice back here.)
  • Tim kept insisting he would be Robin for only a while, and not fight crime in a mask and cape his whole life. He never really talked about any other career, though, and as time went on (and the character maintained its economic value) I found those statements less and less convincing.
Nicieza speaks explicitly about the change in his hero’s outlook:
Tim’s motivation, in my mind, changed a little after his father died [in Identity Crisis]. Whereas he originally became Robin to help Bruce Wayne become a better Batman, his father’s death has spurred him to embrace his costumed identity as his life’s mission and become a better Red Robin so that no one ever endures what he did.

For better or worse, Tim Drake is a crimefighter 24/7 now and we’ll explore when it’s for the better and when it’s for the worse as an ongoing aspect of his series. I’ve read some interesting comments on some message boards by a few people claiming that with Bruce’s return, there is “no purpose to the Red Robin” book, which I found almost sad in how little an understanding they had of the character they were reading every month.

Tim Drake carried 183 issues of his own series as Robin and the entire maturation process for him has been to show the purpose he has on his own, without the need for Batman as the reason to do what he does.

He is unique in his approach to his mission, just like Dick Grayson is and now Stephanie Brown.

I think the stage we’re at now with Tim is almost equivalent to watching your kid go from High School to living away at college. There is an independence, a process of learning responsibility, making choices on your own, making mistakes, etc. . . .

I don’t necessarily think it’s a new role, just an extension of the role he’d been playing, the difference being, now that he can do this as his “full time job” without the worries of school (or truthfully, worrying over his father and that family dynamic), he will be quite the little Machiavellian master chessman.
Nicieza is also usually frank about the technical aspects of superhero-comics storytelling. Here are his comments on building up Tim Drake’s “rogues gallery”—the recurring villains whose comebacks have some deeper meaning than “Oh, I guess she wasn’t dead after all” because their symbolic meanings complement the hero’s.
I broke down all of Tim’s attributes as a character, his personality traits, archetypes, etc. then I created a list of potential opposites of those trains, or similarities to hone the roster of antagonists for Tim. For example, Tim is all about rational thought and reason, so a great opposite to that would be a group of chaos-mongers like the madmen would make great foils for him (and they do in Issue #21!).
Nicieza also alludes to “a larger storyline between #22-25,” showing how far ahead he’s working. Contrast that with his last-minute, seat-of-the-pants assignment to finish the Robin magazine, and he’s clearly in a better position to tell well-thought-out stories about Tim Drake.

10 December 2010

What We’re Really Learning from Wikileaks

The wisest commentary I’ve seen on the Wikileaks disclosures of US diplomatic cables has come from Hendrick Hertzberg in the New Yorker:

Perhaps the two biggest secrets that the WikiLeaks leaks leaked are that the private face of American foreign policy looks pretty much like its public face and that the officials who carry it out do a pretty good job.
Of course, many of these cables come from the current administration, and from permanent Foreign Service staff rather than political appointees.

Today’s New York Times quoted a French journalist echoing that impression:
Renaud Girard, a respected reporter for the center-right Le Figaro, said that he was impressed by the generally high quality of the American diplomatic corps. “What is most fascinating is that we see no cynicism in U.S. diplomacy,” he said. “They really believe in human rights in Africa and China and Russia and Asia. They really believe in democracy and human rights. People accuse the Americans of double standards all the time. But it’s not true here. If anything, the diplomats are almost naïve, and I don’t think these leaks will jeopardize the United States. Most will see the diplomats as honest, sincere and not so cynical.”
Meanwhile, I don’t think it can hurt for foreign leaders to know that our diplomats actually notice that they’re prickly, egotistical, or authoritarian.

Surely the debacle of the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” and “links to al Qaeda” in Iraq did more damage to America’s international standing. The US government’s reputation for being able to keep its secrets has no doubt suffered, though
  • that may not be a bad thing, and
  • critics who focus on that problem should have been as critical of the previous Vice President’s decision to blow a CIA agent’s cover as political payback, or else they have no credibility on the issue.

08 December 2010

Overreacting

A Robot 6 column by Brigid Alverson alerted me to Caanan’s webcomic Max Overacts, and one page struck me particularly. It starts with young Max returning to elementary school after four days away with an allergic reaction to someone’s perfume. Here are the last three panels of nine; click on the picture to visit the rest. I did almost the same thing as Max’s friend, back in junior high. No, I didn’t get bored and spread extravagant rumors about a pal who was absent for a couple of days. I got bored and spread a very mild rumor about a pal who was absent for one day.

Aaron was in a minor car accident, I told one or two kids. The doctors wanted to observe him to make sure he was all right. No one else was hurt. He’d probably be back very soon.

By the time Aaron appeared in school the next morning, the whole grade was convinced he’d been on death’s door, limbs broken and family wiped out. And I hadn’t done anything.

Well, I did tell one or two kids I picked out because I was sure they’d spread the rumor. And I repeated the same story to anyone who bothered to ask me. But all the exaggeration—that happened on its own. I had no idea who spread the rumor into the teachers’ lounge.

It was a terrific lesson about human nature (if life in junior high counts as human). A few years later I was able to use that knowledge for evil. Well, mischief.

Which in turn led to a fine college essay, if I and two university admissions offices say so ourselves. Indeed, I can’t say I’ve hit the downside of this lesson yet.

(Here’s Max’s funny overreaction to the allergen scratch test. I had the same questions back when I was his age, but didn’t express them the same way.)

07 December 2010

Dress-Up Day in Portslade

Recently Eric Gjovaag’s Wonderful Blog of Oz brought news from England of this record-breaking feat:

Pupils from Mile Oak Primary School in Graham Avenue, Portslade, followed the Yellow Brick Road as they dressed as Wizard of Oz characters yesterday.

A total of 446 children set a Guinness World Record in the category ‘largest gathering of people dressed as characters from Wizard of Oz’.

They smashed the previous record of 250.
Even the London Telegraph carried the news. The image above is a detail of a photo from that paper.

The Mile Oak Primary School’s gathering was part of a concerted and marketed effort for different groups to set world records on 18 November.

What I remember about reading the Guinness Book of World Records (as it was called back then) aren’t anodyne crowd events like this, but the weird, scary individual feats. That guy with the fingernails, you know? The man who held his breath underwater for an amazingly long time. (What was that funnel for?) Frankly, juggling underwater in scuba gear (one of last month’s records) doesn’t offer the same thrill.

The record book has taken out some of its listings, or refused further entries, so as to discourage people from risking their lives or others. Instead, the organization seems to be promoting audience-participation stunts like the one at Mile Oak. Nobody’s going to hurt themselves dressing up as Scarecrows, to be sure.

Record-setting may even be reversing the course we’ve followed with major sports, which over the last couple of centuries have moved from participatory to spectatory. Guinness World Records may no longer be primarily for men sitting in pubs and kids sitting in libraries, but now for participants.

05 December 2010

All Star Robin

For whatever reason, I think it’s time for the weekly Robin to assess the highest-profile reexamination of Dick Grayson’s origin in recent years: Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Or, to call the series by the catch phrases it sparked off, The Goddamn Batman and Dick Grayson, Age Twelve.

When DC Comics launched this magazine in 2005, the company warned fans of two things. First, its version of Robin’s origin was “out of continuity”—it would not be part of the “official” story of the DC Universe. Second, because of the creators’ other responsibilities, issues would not appear on a regular schedule.

The company said the same about Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman. That magazine nevertheless came out on a regular basis. And people love it so much that many want to make it part of the official version.

Over three years, All Star Batman and Robin limped through ten issues, the first nine of which have been collected. As for continuity, Miller stated in interviews that he saw this magazine’s Batman as the same character he’d written in the future-set The Dark Knight Returns and the in-continuity Batman: Year One, as well as more controversially in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. To placate Miller and his fans, DC’s editors have dubbed this version of life “Earth 31.”

As for reader reaction, there was a huge split. All Star Batman and Robin sold extremely well. Some readers adored it, either because they saw it as satire or because they enjoyed how much it annoyed traditionalists. Others complained that Miller had turned Batman from a hero into a crazed, sadistic kidnapper. And then there were the delays, which put fans in the position of complaining that this comic book sucked and they weren’t getting enough of it.

Jim Lee, already an executive at DC (and since promoted), was apparently the source of the delays. And I think he was also a big part of fans’ complaints that this comic book corrupted Batman. That’s because Lee’s pencils are immensely handsome. He’s great at drawing in what critic Douglas Wolk has called “the default style of the superhero mainstream,” though his work also adapts well to modern coloring.

Unlike Miller’s own art in The Dark Knight Returns, Lee’s pages don’t look like an individual’s stylized rendition of the Batman mythos. This is the Dynamic Duo we’re used to seeing, more vivid and rounded than ever. This world looks like what we want Earth 1 to look like. And yet Batman behaves like a crazy asshole. Everything else is over the top, too. Boss Zucco’s men don’t just sabotage the Flying Graysons’ trapeze; a sniper shoots Dick’s parents. (Usually protection rackets are a tad more subtle than that.) The magazine piles on the cheesecake of ace journalist Vicki Vale in her underwear and the Black Canary as an angry Irish barmaid who has sex with Batman on an industrial wharf.

Basic storytelling gets shot down early. The time line is screwed up, as many readers quickly pointed out. Bruce Wayne is clean-shaven at the circus, but Batman shows up shortly afterward with a five-o’clock shadow. The goddamn Batman’s overnight drive to Gotham City with Dick Grayson (age twelve) takes three issues. Even before the duo reaches the batcave, however, Clark Kent has not only seen a report of Dick’s kidnapping in the Daily Planet, but he’s seen Dick’s photo as a missing child on a milk carton.

Nevertheless, the first volume of All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder succeeds in the criterion that matters for the weekly Robin: it gets Robin right. Dick and Alfred have the character to stand up to Batman like no one else. Pushed to his limits, Dick shows basic moral decency, and thus hope for the future. And in the final collected issue, the sight of what he’s turning Dick Grayson (age twelve) into pulls the goddamn Batman back from the brink. Because even in this insane, semi-satirical retelling of the mythos, Robin isn’t evil.

04 December 2010

Fur Coats on Sale, Size Extra Large

I remember being surprised to read in my teens that Edward Gorey was a “cult figure.” That was probably around the time WGBH commissioned him to create the animated opening credits for Mystery.

That news came years after I’d read Amphigorey or some of Gorey’s smaller books from (as I recall) the library of the college where my father taught. They appeared to be in comics form, so they had to be okay for little kids, right? I also spotted Gorey’s distinctive art on the covers of John Bellairs’s novels.

Sure, I’d realized early on that Gorey’s sense of humor wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, and his sense of taste not to everyone’s humor. But the notion that he had inspired a cult—i.e., a small set of people who feel superior for admiring Edward Gorey—struck me as odd. Wasn’t he just another illustrator who’d always been around?

I puzzled over that moment when I heard from associates of Bloomsbury Auctions that it will sell some items from Gorey’s estate. The auction house’s press release says:

Edward Gorey was one of the most conspicuous eccentrics in New York City of the latter 2oth Century. His strange, meticulous and often hilariously macabre drawings drew a cult [there’s that word] following around the world until the 1977 Tony Award-winning revival of Dracula (that he designed) put Gorey himself in the spotlight. For nearly two decades he could be spotted almost every night at Lincoln Center while New York City Ballet was in town by his opulent beard, tennis shoes and an enormous fur coat. . . .

In the 1980s, Gorey had a change of heart. He became an advocate for animal rights and put his fur coats in storage. He never wore them again.
Bloomsbury Auctions will offer fourteen of Gorey’s coats and other personal effects and collected items on Thursday, 9 December. Some of the proceeds will go to the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust to benefit animal welfare. Here’s the online catalogue, or visit Monica Edinger’s posting.

02 December 2010

Weekly Robin Wikileaks Special

Today’s New York Times reported:

A trove of diplomatic cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to a number of publications, disclose a perception by American diplomats that Canadians “always carry a chip on their shoulder” in part because of a feeling that their country “is condemned to always play ‘Robin’ to the U.S. ‘Batman.’”
The same paper also stated:
Asked about a cable that described President Dmitri A. Medvedev as “playing Robin to Putin’s Batman,” [Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin] said the author had “aimed to slander one of us.”
Clearly the US State Department should be shipping more comics from the late thirty years overseas. They show the relationship of Batman and Robin has become far more nuanced than simply the grown-up hero and the kid sidekick of the 1960s TV show. We could start with recent issues of Batman and Robin drawn by Cameron Stewart of Montreal.

01 December 2010

Finding a Lost Illustrator of Andersen

At the American Antiquarian Society’s Past Is Present blog, Laura Wasowicz describes how she identified the artist who produced this lithograph to illustrate an 1873 Boston edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Match-Girl.”

The trail led from the initials “S.G.P.” through two libraries, one misspelling, and the personal correspondence of the publisher. At the end was an upper-class woman, twenty-two years old, who undertook this illustration “to contribute something in aid of the Children’s Hospital.”

Or at least that’s how the publisher presented the situation to Andersen. Clearly, however, Sarah Gooll Putnam had serious artistic ambitions, and she painted portraits throughout her life. But because she was (a) female, and (b) too rich to have to work, she was seen as a talented amateur.

30 November 2010

All the Way Around the Half-Continent

At last I have a matched set! Kind of.

Some readers were bowled over by D. M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo and its sequels. I wasn’t one of them. I thought the first novel devoted too many pages to world-building, started too late, and ended too early. There was a lot of interesting stuff going on, and a lot more.

I remain impressed, however, with Putnam’s perseverance in seeking an audience for this series in the US. As you can see, the company revamped the cover design and even the series title with each new volume. But now the American editor has left the firm, and I’m not sure the books will get the same sort of attention.

Another series I’ve seen undergo that sort of ongoing reinvention is Linda Buckley-Archer’s time-travel series which began with Gideon the Cutpurse before it veered off into retitling. See the complete rundown of covers and titles so far at Damsels in Regress.

29 November 2010

Two Ways of Building a Balanced Audience

In yesterday’s posting about the Young Justice TV cartoon, I quoted from an interview with the producers. Among the non-Robin-centric things they said was this, which speaks to one way modern mass entertainment is created:

[Greg Weisman:] I think, from an economic standpoint, we have to hit boys 6 – 14 for Cartoon Network to sell their ad space or whatever, so if you think of it as a bull’s eye with concentric circles, that’s the bull’s eye we have to hit – but I’m not satisfied with that and I don’t think Brandon [Vietti] is either.

A, we want boys and girls, so there’s a lot of great relationship stuff in this, there’s humor in this show – I mean, it’s a serious show, but there’s a lot of humor in it, there’s a lot of eye candy for little kids. I think little kids could enjoy this show, and some stuff will go over their heads, but they won’t know it’s going over their heads.
The network’s need to “hit boys 6 - 14” might explain why this show not only features a team made up of twice as many boys as girls (four to two), but also why the pilot doesn’t show one of those girls until the very last moments, and the other not at all.

There’s a female trainer for the group, but in the pilot she doesn’t speak. Wonder Woman flies in the background, a female scientist walks around with a clipboard, and that’s about it for that half of humanity. (Now that I think of it, the female teammates might not even reflect humanity: one is an alien from Mars, and the other is Artemis, potentially a goddess. But maybe that’s how the target audience of boys six to fourteen view girls.)

This made me think of how Jacques d’Amboise introduced his celebrated dance classes into New York schools. As People magazine reported in 1982, “d'Amboise first invites only boys (‘otherwise all girls would sign up’) and girls later.“ The Young Justice pilot might be tilted toward the masculine more than subsequent episodes in order to assure sponsors it will attract young male viewers, and to assure those viewers it’s safe to start watching.

Contrast the development of that show to how Jimmy Gownley decided to center his comic for kids on a little girl, from a new interview with R. J. Carter for the Trades:
Somewhere along the way, you decided to make a run with a female protagonist. What caused this shift?

I was working on [a comic book called] Shades of Gray, and I loved doing it, but it was always going to be this sort of thing I did on the side. At this point I'd graduated college and was working as a graphic designer. I was publishing Shades of Gray, and it was doing okay, but it was never going to be a career for me.

I just took the page that I was drawing — I was drawing a page of Shades of Gray, what ended up being the last issue. I just flipped it over, and without any thought of what I was doing, I just started doodling. And I drew this little girl — Amelia, exactly how she appears in the first issue. I kind of liked the way she looked, and I held it up to the person who was sitting with me — at the time it was my long-suffering girlfriend, now my long-suffering wife, Karen — and I said, "Hey, what do you think of her?" And she said, "She's really cute," and I said, "Maybe I should do something with her. What should we name her?" We both thought about it, and then at the exact same second we both said, "Amelia." So I took that as my cosmic sign that I was supposed to write a comic book about this little girl.
The result was Amelia Rules, now published by Simon & Schuster. Gownley enjoyed the freedom of self-financed publishing, and of working in a medium that requires a lot less money than an animated TV show. Perhaps many other author-illustrators have tried to launch comics for kids with female protagonists, and Amelia Rules is the rare success. But the fact that it’s found an audience of both girls and boys might suggest that creating good stories matters more than marketing dicta.

28 November 2010

A New Role for Robin in Young Justice

The Cartoon Network debuted its new Young Justice cartoon on Friday. This series takes place in a different universe from those of the 1998-2003 Young Justice comic book and all known Teen Titans groupings.

Instead, DC has told us, it’s set on Earth 16, which is much like the standard world of DC superheroes except that...there’s a Young Justice group we’ve never seen before.

The show mashes up elements of several versions of the DC superhero mythos: the TV Justice League plus Superfriends, the Superboy of the 1990s, the Kid Flash of the 1960s, and the Robin…

Well, this Robin is a mix of old and new. The producers assure us that he’s Dick Grayson, and he’s been working with Bruce Wayne for four years. But he’s only thirteen while Kid Flash is fifteen and Superboy is physiologically sixteen. The premiere emphasizes Robin’s computer-hacking skills, which in the comics are associated with Tim Drake. In sum, in this episode he appears to be this team’s nerdy little wise guy—a new role for a Robin.

Most interesting for group dynamics, as Laura Prudom at TV Squad reported:

In an interesting twist, 13-year-old Robin will not be leading the team as he has in previous incarnations; that honor will instead go to the older Aqualad, AKA Kaldur’ahm, an entirely new version of the character created specifically for the show.
We can tell Aqualad’s the leader just going by height, but he’s also the most emotionally mature of the guys. (The first episode shows us barely one of the two girls.) Khari Payton, who voices Aqualad, also portrayed Cyborg on Teen Titans, with a very different characterization. This extra-strength Aqualad has powers over electricity and water. Visually, he has brown skin and African features, combined with blond hair and webbed hands. I suspect the young Young Justice audience will respond better to a black leader than their elders.

The Young Justice producers asked Jesse McCartney, the singer-actor who voices Robin, to pitch his voice up so he sounds less mature. McCartney told ET Online that the character is “a young, prepubescent superhero…who isn't ready to head a team like this yet.” But that “yet” hints at how Robin will grow.

Indeed, in a USA Today interview McCartney stated that later in the season:
Robin is given the chance to really lead the team at certain times. You’ll see how he deals with that, when he’s faced with literally life-changing or –altering or –ending situations, how he deals with it. You can see how he’s still green — he’s still a kid and still trying to figure it out.
And in a Comic Book Resources interview, McCartney went even further:
Robin also learns pretty early on that no else is going to be able to lead this team. And everyone does get a shot. Aqualad has a huge episode where he tries to take on this team and essentially can’t do it, and there’s a nice scene between him and Robin where you see Robin realize for the first time: “I’m not that kid anymore. I can’t just be this cocky, brash little kid that can’t step up.”
It’s striking that McCartney seems to be the only voice actor giving long interviews about this show. Of course, he’s the biggest star. But he’s also Robin.

The producers have warned fans that heroes can be killed in this universe. Zatara of the Justice League seems slated for death, and I suspect Red Tornado, Young Justice’s adult minder/mentor, could be dismantled. That would open up a new role for Robin. Still, starting from “cocky, brash little kid that can’t step up” is a big departure from the way DC has previously gathered its young superheroes.

In the original Teen Titans, and in the Young Justice of the 1990s, the Robin character came to the team the most experience, the best brains, and the biggest brand name. It made sense for him to be the teams’ leader. Indeed, the first team-up of Robin, Aqualad, and Kid Flash back in 1964 revolved around discovering that the “guy without super-powers” was the biggest badass of the trio.

In the first issue of Young Justice, scripter Peter David had Red Tornado state Tim Drake’s role explicitly: he was the team’s superego. Geoff Johns’s Teen Titans magazine put off Tim’s ascendancy to leadership for a few years, but only because the team started with some twentysomethings from the Marv Wolfman/George Pérez New Teen Titans.

Comics writers have even played off the expectation that Robin must be in charge. When Jason Todd had a couple of outings with the Titans in the mid-1980s, Wolfman and Pérez highlighted the tension between his inexperience and his teammates’ habits. The latest issue of Teen Titans shows Damian Wayne coming to Titans Tower and assuming he’ll be top dog. (Of course, he assumed that at Wayne Manor, too.)

Another element of this new Young Justice show which we haven’t seen since a few odd stories about the original Titans scripted by Bob Haney and Bob Kanigher is undercover work. The end of the TV premiere says Batman will give them undercover assignments that the Justice League has become just too famous to deal with.

The early Titans and Young Justice both started mostly as a way for teens in the superhero biz to hang out with friends who understand, secondarily a way to tackle worldwide threats their size. Since one of this show’s ongoing themes will be figuring out how you stand alongside your mentor, we’ll see how that desire will intersect with the group’s assignments.

26 November 2010

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in Germany

This week I heard a BBC report that the late Hawai’ian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s recording of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” has been #1 on German music charts for eight weeks. It’s also apparently spurred a boom in ukelele sales in that country.

The BBC reporter speculates that the song’s popularity might reflect the economic times:

“Over the Rainbow” was written by a left-wing New Yorker called Yip Harburg at the end of the 1930s as the world was coming out of depression.

He also wrote “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” in 1929, when the world was as deep in depression as it could go.

The earlier song is about economic despair, and the second one is about economic hope.

Does the success of “Over the Rainbow” mean Germans feel the worst is behind them?
But as I understand things, the worldwide recession never hit Germany as badly as a lot of other economies. Its current center-right government has certainly been antsy about other governments’ requests for aid or plans for domestic stimulus spending.

I suspect the recording’s popularity is simply because it’s a great song that Kamakawiwo’ole remade with lovely simplicity. And while Harburg was one of the most politically-driven of the great mid-20th-century American songwriters, at least some of the credit for “Over the Rainbow” belongs to composer Harold Arlen.

24 November 2010

News That Would Break His Heart

This week the Associated Press issued a story about tests it commissioned on drinking glasses bought at the Warner Brothers Studio store. Those tumblers turned out to have high levels of lead and cadmium.

AP’s testing, conducted by ToyTestingLab of Rhode Island, found that the enamel used to color the Tin Man had the highest lead levels, at 1,006 times the federal limit for children’s products.

Every Oz and superhero glass tested exceeded the government limit: The Lion by 827 times and Dorothy by 770 times; Wonder Woman by 533 times, Superman by 617 times, Batman by 750 times and the Green Lantern by 677 times.
Also involved are glasses made with a Return of the Jedi license, and those for particular soft-drink and fast-food brands.

It appears that these glasses were made in China, where standards are loose, and compliance and enforcement lax—which is one reason why American manufacturers can find such cheap prices there. Now American companies are scrambling to take these products off their shelves.

There are political dimensions to this problem. One is whether the glasses are children’s products, as opposed to products for adult collectors. For biological reasons, safety standards for lead are much more strict when it comes to things children are likely to put in their mouths. The glasses would therefore be illegal as children’s products, but legal as adult products.

Another question is whether the government should regulate cadmium on “design surfaces,” meaning the outside of glasses like these. Tests show that the lead- and cadmium-based paint flake off under normal use, but it’s unclear whether it would be ingested.

And of course there’s the broad political question: whether the Republican approach to safety regulation, giving businesses a freer hand in the name of…business, serves the public well when it comes to balancing costs with safety. We may soon find out.

23 November 2010

The Of Thee I Sing Sign-Off

Back in March 2009, the news media was a flutter with remarks on “President Obama’s New Book Deal.” I wrote an analysis of those news articles and what I thought was the truth about Obama’s publishing contract with Random House. The day after that posting, I received an email from one attorney involved in the negotiations which said simply, “Thanks for getting the Obama deal right.”

Having established my bona fides for you, I can now comment on a significant discrepancy between the news reports then and the recent publication of Of Thee I Sing, a classic celebrity picture book from the President and illustrator Loren Long.

By “classic celebrity picture book,” I mean that it has top-class production values, a big print run and matching marketing budget, and cover-to-cover didacticism. (See Kirkus.)

This book is not a quickie project; it’s been in the works for half a decade. The New York Times reported that after his career-making 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, Obama “agreed to write another nonfiction book and a children’s book” for Random House. In its press release about Of Thee I Sing, Random House stated: “The book was acquired and the manuscript completed prior to the President’s taking office in January 2009.”

However, in March 2009 the Times also reported that incoming-President Obama’s financial disclosure form—the source for the news about a revamped book deal—stated “that he intended to delay both books [under contract] until he left office.” And that’s what I see as a “significant discrepancy.”

Did Random House press the President to let it move ahead with his Of Thee I Sing picture-book text during his first term? Presumably the firm promised that the project wouldn’t interfere with his, you know, job.

22 November 2010

Yummy: There Is No Rosebud Here

I remembered the case of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer from 1994 before reading Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty. I didn’t remember the boy’s name, but I remembered the news reports about an eleven-year-old killer on the run, eventually found murdered by his own gang in a tunnel.

I therefore knew how the title character’s story would end in Yummy, the comics-style retelling of that episode by G. Neri and Randy DuBurke. Younger readers might not, despite the phrase “Last Days” in the subtitle and the mention of death on the front flap.

G. Neri structures the narrative to maintain that suspense. It begins with Yummy Sandifer shooting a teen-aged girl, then circles back to his upbringing, entrance into gang life, and early crimes. When we return to the shooting, the story seems to have caught up with its telling. Though still in the past tense, there’s no sign of what’s to come.

The narrator Roger is another boy about Yummy’s age, a fictional neighbor and classmate. But he comes from a normative American family: mother, father, one other sibling. But we also see that Roger’s older brother was the member of the Black Disciples gang who recruited Yummy.

Like the reporter in Citizen Kane, Roger undertakes to find out more about Yummy, asking neighbors and friends. He describes his own encounters with the boy, who has sometimes seemed abused, sometimes a bully, sometimes just another kid. Neighbors share contradictory thoughts about Yummy and his behavior.

Unlike Orson Welles’s film, however, Yummy ends without an answer, even a facile one. (Citizen Kane was always more about audacious storytelling than about its story.) We never learn what made Yummy so much more violent than other “shorties,” or exactly why he shot two people on one August day.

We do, however, get a sense that Roger’s family has helped to keep him from that path. There’s even a family reconciliation at the end, providing the requisite “sense of hope.” But for the questions the narrator asks about Yummy Sandifer and the girl he killed, there are no adequate answers.

The artwork fits that stark story. Randy DuBurke’s panels are all in black and white; he uses hatching to create the illusion of grays, but there are no washes or half-tones. It’s a high-contrast world full of shadows and looming perspectives, with spindly-legged kids running for their lives.

(These comments based on a review copy sent by the publisher, Lee & Low Books.)

21 November 2010

Is There a Great Nightwing Story?

In a September essay at The Comics Cube, Duy wrote, “A lot of comics fans - myself included - would name Dick Grayson as one of their all-time favorite characters. . . . But then if you ask people to name an all-time great Nightwing story, you’d be hard-pressed to get straight answers.”

Duy suggests that Nightwing is just too well adjusted and anchored to create opportunities for great solo tales:

Dick Grayson was the coolest guy in the DC Universe. He was the best big brother you never had. And he was so with it, so together, that there was nothing wrong with him at all. And that was the problem. . . .

The uncertainty that came with being Robin and the utter detachment and awesomeness (in the purest sense of the word) that came with being Batman wasn’t his. He could look Superman straight in the eye and tell him the real score. And because of the way the DC Universe worked, he couldn’t be put through the wringer like Daredevil has continually been. If you hurt Dick, Batman will come. If you take away his home, his money can buy him a new one. You can’t kill his supporting cast - they haven’t been around long enough for you to form an attachment to them. You can’t introduce things from his deep and dark past, because we’ve already seen his past. He was Robin. We’ve read and seen his adventures. So you can’t mine that.

What’s left when you’ve got an ultraconfident guy with no hang-ups with extraordinary abilities fighting crime? You’ve got, and I hate to say this, a generic superhero.
By which Duy means the pre-1960s, no-faults, catch-the-villain-in-one-issue hero. That would indeed mean little angst, suffering, or frustration. (Which brings up the question: are those elements necessary for a “great” modern superhero story?)

Duy’s suggestion for making the Nightwing magazine work starts with on “his greatest personality strength, which is his ability to lead and command respect from the entire DC Universe.”

But that of course leads to another, perhaps more powerful answer to why naming great Nightwing solo adventures is tough: because he appears in great stories with other characters. Created as a sidekick, Dick Grayson was defined from the start through his link to another hero; most other comics crime-fighters started as the only hero in their worlds. As Nightwing, Dick remains one of the most important characters in the Batman ensemble. And the character came into his own in a team magazine, The New Teen Titans.

Thus, for respected and beloved stories featuring Nightwing, we can start with The Judas Contract, the story by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez in which Dick takes that crime-fighting identity. That’s #13 in Brian Cronin’s November 2009 fan poll about favorite comics storylines, and on io9’s list of 75 DC Comics volumes every rich fan should own.

20 November 2010

Comics for Guys Only?

Graphic Novel Reporter is featuring an interview with Bill Zimmerman about his new book, Your Life in Comics.

One notable aspect of this project is that it’s explicitly aimed toward boys. The subtitle is 100 Things for Guys to Write and Draw. The pictures show boys. The second color printed inside is, of course, blue.

Zimmerman explains:

A few years ago, I had written a book for the same publisher, Free Spirit Publishing, to help boys navigate adolescence—it is called 100 Things Guys Need to Know. When I originally proposed Your Life in Comics, I saw it as a book for boys and girls, but the publisher wanted instead a companion book to the original 100 Things. The subjects covered in the book should appeal, too, to girls since there are a number of boy-girl situations, but I am now working on a similar book for girls that hopefully will join the boys book.
Which will have different illustrations and, presumably, a different second color. Later in the interview Zimmerman adds that he’s working on that second book “With my daughter and wife,” which makes sense for both content and marketing. Because once a book raises the issue of group identity, buyers want to know if the author belongs. (There is, at this point, no 100 Things Gals Need to Know.)

It’s interesting that the push for a gendered book came from the publisher, which describes itself as “known for its unique understanding of what kids want (and need) to navigate life successfully.” Of course, that approach also fits with some cultural expectations about the comics form, right or wrong.

16 November 2010

Round-Trip Journey to the Center of the Earth

Nathan DeHoff today posed several questions of how physics works in the land of Oz and surrounding countries, with the general conclusion that it’s questionable.

One particular matter is the tunnel through the center of the Earth depicted in Tik-Tok of Oz, redundantly called the Hollow Tube. The Nome King tricks all the book’s heroes into falling into one end of the tunnel, and they exit the other end like this:

Tik-Tok popped out into broad daylight and, after making a graceful circle in the air, fell with a splash into a great marble fountain. . . .

Queen Ann sailed up from the Tube, took a ride through the air as high as the treetops, and alighted squarely on top of the Peculiar Person’s head…
Later in the book, Quox the adolescent dragon takes all those heroes on his back and crawls into that end of the tunnel. When Quox comes out,
he shot into the open air a hundred feet or more and sailed so far away from the slanting hole that when he landed it was on the peak of a mountain and just over the entrance to the many underground caverns of the Nome King.
Does that accord with the laws of physics? Martin Gardner addressed that very question in The Annotated Alice, in his discussion of Alice’s fall into the Earth. And the basic answer is: gravity doesn’t work like that.

In a frictionless environment, people would travel exactly as far from the center of the Earth as they traveled down into it. Tik-Tok and his companions fall into the tunnel while hiking through some mountains, so conceivably they’re at a higher altitude, farther from the center of the Earth, than the garden at the other end. That would make it possible for them to pop up to some height on the other side and, with some wind and movement of the Earth, not fall right back down into the Tube.

But there are two problems with that scientific explanation:
  • The return journey wouldn’t work at all. Starting from the garden, Quox wouldn’t fall far enough to reach the other end of the tunnel as he rose, much less fly out the other side.
  • The tunnel is not a frictionless environment. In fact, Quox slows himself down by scraping his claws against the Tube’s inner walls.
In an environment with friction, Gardner wrote, air resistance would slow the travelers enough that they wouldn’t rise as far as they had fallen. They would therefore fall back down into the tunnel, pass the center of the Earth again, and rise not quite as far as where they had started from. Those unfortunate folks would continue to oscillate for many trips of decreasing length until coming to a stop at the gravitational center of the Earth.

So what explanation is there for how the Hollow Tube works? I can only assume that it’s magic. It does, after all, run from one fairyland to another, and the Nome King can even shift the opening around.

When creator Hiergargo the Magician first used the tunnel, according to Polychrome the rainbow fairy, “he tumbled through the Tube so fast that he shot out at the other end and hit a star in the sky, which at once exploded.” That hints that Hiergargo juiced the Tube with magic to make the journey faster, and some residual or revised magic might remain.

L. Frank Baum admired science, deliberately mixed it into his fairy tales, and even wrote a bit of science fiction. Occasionally he got some things remarkably right, but he never worked in the field, and never really treated science as more than a jumping-off point.