28 February 2010

Tracking Down “The Most Serious Thing That Ever Happened!”

Earlier this month, I bought a cheap used copy of Batman: From the ’30s to the ’70s, the 1971 collection that introduced me to Batman and Robin comics as a young reader. [Midlife crisis? What midlife crisis?]

E. Nelson Bridwell’s introduction starts:

I don’t remember the date...or the exact year...of that fantastic concurrence. I knew I was a fan of the “Superman” radio show, and on this particular day Superman found a wounded boy in a drifting rowboat—a boy clad in a red vest and yellow cape.

It was, of course, Robin, the Boy Wonder!

And thus began the fabulous Superman-Batman team.
That was the first joint adventure of DC Comics’s three most popular characters, before their team-ups in comic books. And naturally Robin was the central character, bringing the men together.

When was that show broadcast? Bridwell obviously didn’t have exact information, but Jim Harmon’s The Great Radio Heroes (2001) and Radio Mystery and Adventure (2003) describe the episode:
In 1945, near the end of World War II, Superman performed one of his many rescues, this time of an unconscious boy from a drifting rowboat. The man of steel notices the boy is wearing a red vest with the letter “R” on it, under his more ordinary clothes. “Great Scot,” Superman intones[;] “if this is who I think it is, this is serious business!”
Not just “serious.” On recovering, Robin tells Superman, “It’s the most serious thing that ever happened! . . . Batman has disappeared!”

“You’d better tell me about this,” Superman replies, showing how he can detect trouble even without Batman. Harmon continues:
The listeners were invited to think it over until the next show to see if they knew who the boy was. He was Robin, the boy sidekick of the famous Batman—as the show put it—“the most fabulous and glamorous figure in the whole world, save only Superman himself.”

Later Robin, in his civilian identity of Dick Grayson, tells Clark Kent of the disappearance of Batman. After an attack by armed men at their home, Dick heard one of the men mention the name of Zoltan. Using that clue, the two crimefighters go to Zoltan’s Wax Museum, where through a window the boy thinks he see[s] Batman—but he is a wax figure.
Harmon’s The Great Radio Heroes dates the momentous meeting to 3 Mar 1945.

But that date was a Saturday, and the Superman show was broadcast only on weekdays. Furthermore, many websites repeat the information that Superman and Batman first met on 5 Sept 1945.

So when did young Bridwell hear the radio broadcast about that boy in the rowboat, in March or September?

TOMORROW: The answer: neither. Same bat-time, same bat-site!

27 February 2010

“The Little Dried-Up Cookie Cook”

This afternoon I finally got to listening to the Royal Podcast of Oz’s discussion of John R. Neill’s illustrations for The Lost Princess of Oz. The conversants were:

I won’t recommend this recording for anyone who isn’t a hard-core fan of the Oz books, but of course that doesn’t bother me.

One detail of Neill’s Lost Princess illustrations that the gents didn’t talk about was how the artist depicted the character of Cayke the Cookie Cook. L. Frank Baum offers no physical description of the character when he introduces her in chapter 3, but chapter 13 refers to “the little dried-up Cookie Cook.”

“Dried up” is a term Baum usually used for very old people. Both the Wicked Witches in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz are described as “dried up.” The Road to Oz calls the Wizard “a dried-up, little, old man,” and The Emerald City of Oz says he is “little and old and withered and dried up, but as merry and active as a child.”

That phrase implies that Baum envisioned Cayke as an elderly woman, and there’s nothing in the story that would contradict that. Of course, there’s very little description at all, but the last chapter mentions the cook’s “skinny arms,” and Baum didn’t use that adjective as a compliment. Yet Neill gave Cayke the face he usually gave to pretty young women. Probably he started sketching her like that from the early chapters, and never revised his mental picture, even after the “dried-up” passage.

26 February 2010

Superpower to the Workers!

Dennis O’Neil was one of the “new generation” of comics creators who started working for DC Comics in the late 1960s. He shared this reminiscence of just how that happened with The Comics Journal:

Steve Skeates and I were hired away from Charlton to go to work for DC. . . . In the arrogance and the ignorance of youth, we thought, “Well, the stuff we’ve been doing for $4 a page, they’re probably knocked-out by it, boy! They want to get us.”

Although the reality—which was given to me by [writer and publisher] Paul Levitz years later—is that those guys who created the DC pantheon—the writers and the freelancers—had asked for a little help with the health insurance and the response was to dump ’em.

So, Skeates and I were warm bodies who knew how to type. We had worked with Dick [Giordano] for a year each at Charlton—Dick would come into Manhattan once a week and we’d both had some experience at Marvel. But Skeates and I were hippies and did not wear jackets and ties to the office, so we were told not to walk past the big boss’ office—to go out and go the long way around—because, I dunno, maybe if he’d happened to open his door and saw somebody with long hair and tie-dye, he’d have had a coronary.
Which prompted comics younger creator Matt Fraction to comment on the reality of a buyer’s market:
Someone will always be willing to write Batman for free. You said you guys were warm bodies and you could type—there’s always going to be somebody. You sit at a bar with an editor at a show and you see 19 people come up and pitch ideas at them. If everybody writing the top 20 books all quit and demanded “Union Now–Union Forever,” those 19 guys would be getting phone calls. There will never be a union.
O’Neil again:
We get really pretty good working conditions for freelance writers: You don’t have to pitch a news story or reintroduce yourself every week or every month. Once you get established, you get work. What you pay for that is that you don’t have total freedom.
And of course those writers have to deliver on deadline.

25 February 2010

Is Their Children Reading?

In a typical example of British press overstatement, the Telegraph just published an article that claimed a study found such things as:

  • “Less than half of children aged nine to 14 read fiction more than once a month.”
  • “Little more than four in 10 boys (42 per cent) regularly open the pages of a work of fiction, while among girls the proportion is only marginally higher, at 48 per cent.”
The newspaper cited Britain’s National Literacy Trust. And the trust felt compelled to issue a press release clarifying what its research had actually found. Among the head author’s actual conclusions was:
a huge percentage of [self-identified] non-readers DO read, just not the kinds of materials that are traditionally associated with reading.
Furthermore, that summary makes clear that the study actually asked children about what they read “outside of school.” As most of these sorts of studies do.

Of course it’s important to know if kids are developing the habit of reading for pleasure when they don’t have an assignment. But if they’re reading lots of fiction for school, it might be only natural for them to choose other activities for their free time, even if they enjoy that reading.

The response to headlines like this might be to assign more fiction for school, which could indeed make kids read more. But it would also mean the percentages of kids saying they read not for school would go down further.

24 February 2010

Do You Want to Be in Not in Kansas Anymore?

Blair Frodelius’s Ozmapolitan Express alerted me to this call for submissions:
Diversion Press is looking for well-crafted poetry, fiction, flash fiction, and creative nonfiction for We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, an anthology of responses to the cultural phenomenon of The Wizard of Oz. Topics of interest include—but are not limited to—the idea of place and/or displacement, identity, disguises, memory, transformation, and objects of desire or disappointment.

Please send your imaginative and previously unpublished submissions (1-3 poems, up to 6,000 words fiction or creative nonfiction, maximum 3 flash pieces up to 1,000 words each) with a cover letter, an active email address, and brief biography to museflash@aol.com or to Oz Anthology, c/o Darla Crist, Editor, Indiana State University, Department of English, Terre Haute, Indiana 47809. Electronic copies will be necessary for accepted work.
The press posted this call last July. And repeated it in October. But there’s never been a deadline attached, which might be one reason not enough people are responding. So make your own deadline!

23 February 2010

Wizard of Oz Exhibit Reaches Long Island

The Great Explorations Children’s Museum of St. Petersburg, Florida, has developed a traveling exhibit based on L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, which is now at the Long Island Children’s Museum. Its iconography appears to have just enough reminiscent of the MGM movie to appeal to the American populace, and not enough to get sued.

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

From Lester Dent’s Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot:

First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble.
Plus, make sure there’s a “surprising plot twist” every 1,500 words.

22 February 2010

Not a Bit of It

Doing far more than is called for, Mari Ness recently reviewed The Cowardly Lion of Oz, by Ruth Plumly Thompson, at the Tor website. Published in 1923, this is the earliest Oz book still under copyright protection. It’s also one of the few strong arguments I know for keeping books that old out of the public domain.

Ness zeroes in on one of the annoying aspects of this book, the character of Notta Bit More, the neurotic circus clown:

The clown follows, he explains, four rules whenever he is in danger. One, try to disguise himself. Two, be polite—very polite. Three, joke. And Four, when all else fails, run away. And not at all to his credit, he follows these same four rules over and over throughout the book, leading to the same scene, over and over:

Clown sees, or thinks he sees, danger.

Clown puts on disguise.

People react with fear/anger/weapons/claws/large buckets of water.

Clown attempts to be polite to justifiably irritated/angry/frightened/distrustful people who are now in no mood for politeness.

Clown tells unfunny jokes.

People tie up or sit on clown. Readers wait in unfulfilled hope for someone to kill the clown.
In addition, Notta Bit More overshadows the book’s young American protagonist, erasing one of the strengths of the Oz books, even others with poor plots: empowered children.

One recurring theme of Ness’s reviews of the Oz series is “Ozma fail,” or poor decisions by the young ruler of the Emerald City. Of course, the biggest challenge of telling stories about Oz is that after the first eight books or so Ozma and her mentor Glinda are so powerful and have so much information available to them that it’s hard to build up a real threat. Some things we have to accept for the sake of the story.

But Notta Bit More isn’t one of them.

21 February 2010

Portrait of a Young Artist as a Robin Fan

Last year Sean Kleefeld, author of Comic Book Fanthropology, looked back on his early-childhood interest in Robin, prompted by his parents’ discovery of a drawing he’d made at about age four. Kleefeld wrote:

it looks like it was done by a child, of course, but it had all the elements that defined Robin visually, including the lacing up the front of his shirt. (Interestingly, while I managed to get those types of details in place, I still only gave him three fingers on each hand.)
Which shows how much comics characters are defined by the visual traits that set them apart, like a costume, rather than those we can simply assume, like five fingers. After all, there’s a whole school of cartooning that eschews unnecessary fingers.

On the topic of that costume, Kleefeld muses:
I have to say that I actually did like the short cape and flared bootlets. It definitely gave the impression of a child/elf with a flair for the dramatic and acrobatic. The collar around the cape was a nice touch, I always thought. He looked like a circus performer having fun.
He even got his mother to make him a costume.

Other very young artists’ versions of Robin here and here.

18 February 2010

”The Idea That the Story Is True”

In Bringing Down the House, an ostensibly nonfiction book, author Ben Mezrich acknowledged creating composite figures and adding details that were totally new to the MIT students he claimed to have written about. Mezrich’s next book, on the founding of Facebook, apparently signals concocted scenes with phrases like “We can picture what happened next...”

When Drake Bennett of the Boston Globe confronted Mezrich about how many details in Bringing Down the House were fictional, the author offered this reply: “The idea that the story is true is more important than being able to prove that it's true.”

Unfortunately, he's right.

17 February 2010

Serialization and Stories with No End

As long as I’m talking about not knowing when stories end, I’ll discuss the two types of mass-entertainment stories that usually don’t offer an end these days. One comes to us in comics form, including monthly comic books and some daily newspaper strips. The other comes to us in televised form: dramas with overarching plots (e.g., The Sopranos, Lost) and even some situation comedies.

In every other narrative entertainment medium I can think of, we expect a full story with an ending in each unit that we consume: novel, movie, play. Sure, the story might leave room for a sequel, and a very large book might need to be split into volumes for physical reasons (I’m talking about you, Lord of the Rings). But the storytellers have a clear ending from the start, and know when it’s supposed to arrive. They’re not improvising according to market response.

The situation used to be reversed. Novels would reach the public first as magazine serials, sometimes with authors still struggling to finish (e.g., Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island). A trip to the movies included a short serial for the kids.

On the other hand, comic books offered complete adventures, at one point three or four in each magazine. And most television episodes had a beginning, middle, and end (soap operas being the notable exception). In fact, in most early sitcoms, the “sit” barely changed; we don’t have to watch episodes of Our Miss Brooks in any particular order because the characters and relationships are the same.

Dennis O’Neil saw the shift happen in superhero comics as a reader, writer, and eventually editor of the most respected Batman crossover events in the 1990s. He described it in a conversation for The Comics Journal:

For the first 25 years of my life, every story that I experienced had a beginning, middle and end.

Sure, there were continuing characters all over the place. But it was Boston Blackie solving this crime in this movie. Not Boston Blackie getting a start on solving this crime but you have to see his next movie to find out whodunit. Same way with radio shows.

So I think I knew about structure before I had a vocabulary to express the concept, because that’s the stories that I grew up experiencing. The major change [in comic books], I think, in the last 50 years is going into a predominately serialized narrative form. . . .

TV has learned from us about structure. Seems to me, the predominant structure on narrative TV is: The protagonist has an ongoing problem. Just like Burn Notice; he’s gotta find out who sabotaged his life. But, in the meantime, he has a problem that’ll be solved in the next 50 minutes. In order to make money, or to help out his mother or something like that — he has a set of problems, he solves them, but he still doesn’t know who screwed him up and he’s gotta keep working to find that out.

Almost every major television show has some of that element. They have the same problems that comic-book people do. Continuing characters. They need to figure out a way to deliver your $2.50’s worth of entertainment and still give you a reason to come back. We’ve all solved it the same way.
O’Neil’s approach, detailed in his DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, was much as he describes Burn Notice above: small adventures, each with its own beginning, middle, and end, strung together like links in the chain that defines the larger narrative.

In the last decade, however, the American superhero comics industry has adopted “decompressed” storytelling with bigger panels and more reaction shots for emotions. That means stories are spread out over arcs of four, six, or twelve issues, with no story resolution until the last. The most buzzed-about TV dramas take that approach as well. And that seems to produce a whole new set of emotions among the people consuming that entertainment, waiting with increased expectations and impatience for an ending.

16 February 2010

Seeking “the Heft of the Book”?

Earlier this month author Tracy Chevalier had some observations about the experience of reading printed books and reading the same texts on electronic readers:

the only thing an e-book has going for it is its size. Hornets' Nest is a hefty tome, hard to carry in a normal-sized handbag and a little awkward in bed, whereas the Kindle is slim and easy to handle.That was also one of its problems, though: the Kindle felt flimsy and insubstantial, making the book I read seem flimsy and insubstantial too.

In fact, it was a fascinating experiment because it made clear to me that reading is a three-dimensional experience. When I read I'm not just taking in words on a page. Also affecting me is the geography of the two-page spread, where I can see more of the text than I'm reading. I can look ahead and notice dialogue coming up, or how long or short paragraphs are, or how someone's name is recurring a lot on a page.

And then there are the physical pages, the heft of the book that physically represents the heft of the story. I can literally feel how far I am into a story, when I'm halfway, when I have just a little bit left.
It’s only natural that we’ve gotten used to the quirks of the printed codex, such as being able to see each recto page as we turn to the preceding verso page. But I don’t think those sensations are inherent in the act of reading a novel. Before the codex was invented, people read scrolls, and today some people read manuscripts; neither of those forms allows or forces readers to look ahead every other page, and the narrative experience isn’t significantly different.

I agree with Chevalier that knowing how much of a narrative remains to be consumed is significant to the experience of reading a book. I’ve been brought up short by histories that have unusually large backmatter, thus ending “early,” and by stories that turn out to be only the first volume of several, thus ending not at all. (I’m talking about you, Gideon the Cutpurse and Children of the Sea.) But most electronic readers provide just that information.

As Chevalier goes on to note, “the Kindle told me I was on, say, ‘locations’ 5432-37 out of 12,789, and that I'd read 42% of the book.” She calls that data “meaningless.” Apparently she prefers to see 42% of the pages in her left hand and 58% in her right—exactly the same information in an analog “display.”

At the end of the day, when we want to curl up with a book, I think these differences will turn out to be as insubstantial as the electrons in a digital file. The point of reading an engrossing narrative is to become immersed in its world. A good story makes us think a lot about stuff that isn’t there at all, and as little as possible about the weight of the object in our laps.

15 February 2010

Looking Back on American Virtue

Today’s New York Times offers Janet Maslin’s review of The Death of American Virtue, a history of the Clinton impeachment debacle by Duquesne Law School professor Ken Gormley.

The review calls the book “tough, labyrinthine,” and sometimes in its detail “impressive but not entirely necessary. . . . But by and large Mr. Gormley has packed his narrative with intense, overdue and definitive testimony about the still-surprising investigation of Mr. Clinton’s activities spearheaded by Kenneth W. Starr.”

I edited Ken’s previous big book, Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation, which also offered a very detailed account of an impeachment—in that case, of Richard Nixon for abusing the powers of the presidency. The Watergate controversy was the first national news I remember paying attention to, and I was honored to work on that book and meet Cox.

Somewhere back then Ken told me about his idea for this new book, and I was skeptical. Not of the importance of delving into how a failed development in Arkansas became a constitutional crisis that ended in offers of free plastic surgery. Rather, I thought it was too soon: sources might not be ready to talk, and the public certainly wasn’t ready to read more about the controversy.

But that was ten years ago, before the Supreme Court assigned George W. Bush the presidency, before the terrorist attack on New York, before the Iraq War and Guantànamo prison. Now we can even feel nostalgia for the days when Congressional Republicans wanted to impeach the President for lying about an affair.

You remember those defenders of American virtue: Rep. Newt Gingrich, Rep. Bob Livingston, Rep. Henry Hyde, Rep. Bob Barr, Rep. John Ensign, Rep. Mark Sanford, Rep. Joe Scarborough, Rep. Dan Burton, Rep. Vito Fossella, Rep. Helen Chenoweth, Rep. Bill Thomas, Sen. Strom Thurmond, Sen. Larry Craig, Sen. John McCain,…

14 February 2010

A Cybils Winner that Shines

I’m pleased to share news of the winner of the Cybils Award for Nonfiction Picture Book published in 2009.

The Day-Glo Brothers
by Chris Barton; illustrated by Tony Persiani
Nominated by: Cynthia Leitich Smith

It’s hard to imagine a world without Day-Glo’s shocking greens, blazing oranges and screaming yellows. But before World War II, those colors didn’t exist. After an accident in a ketchup factory derailed Bob Switzer’s hope to be a doctor, he and his brother Joe, who was interested in magic, set out to find a paint that glowed. Eventually, the Switzers did what nobody else had — they invented new colors. The war produced a need for fluorescent paint, and today it’s everywhere. The brothers’ invention allowed both to do what they wanted; save lives and dazzle crowds.

This book is the first on its topic, a result of original research from family interviews and newspaper clippings. Barton explains the science with a kid-friendly manner and an easy narrative style. Readers can relate to the brothers’ thwarted plans and celebrate their persistence. Persiani’s stylized art evolves with the story, from a dull gray to splashes of color to brilliant Day-Glo tones at the end.
Helping to judge this Cybils category was a pleasure, and not just because the books are short and colorful. They all have strengths, and I learned a lot. Our final vote was close. I look forward to saying more about The Day-Glo Brothers and the other finalists in the coming weeks.

Here are all the Cybils winners for this year.

An American Batman in London

This weekly Robin has no Robin per se, but it’s all about the original Robin, Dick Grayson, as Batman.

Cameron Stewart, artist for recent issues of Batman and Robin, kindly posted some of his layouts on his blog. Stewart wrote:

Note some of the differences between the layouts and the final printed artwork in the traffic scene. This was my first attempt at it, and I did some revisions to punch it up for the final.
So I’m noting. The major difference comes on page 4 of the magazine, as Batman makes his way through London traffic on Westminster Bridge.

Here is Stewart’s sketch for much of that page. The top panel in its original form shows the Big Ben Tower at the left; that has disappeared from the final version below, probably because it was on the wrong end of the bridge. Omitting that detail allows for a closer image of Batman swinging up onto the bridge from a river boat. We see the biggest change in the second panel. The sketch version shows Batman bouncing from vehicle to vehicle until he lands on a van headed in the right direction. Multiple images of the same character in one panel is one way comics artists have discovered to show fast action over a short span.

In the version below, Batman does the same acrobatics, but Stewart has broken each step into its own smaller panel. I find the action in the original to be more clear, especially on the right side, where below there are suddenly two Batmans in one panel and the more prominent is the one we should read second. (Stewart inserts a visual clue that the rear Batman comes first by having his cape overlap into the previous panel, but that’s somewhat lost in the dark border.)

That said, a black and white sketch is naturally going to be clearer visually than a color version with the usual Gotham/London gray laid over the line art. I doubt the original layout would have been as successful in color. The last of these panels shows another change: Stewart brings us closer to Batman’s face, showing us his characteristic grim determination as he speaks by radio to his sidekick for the day.

Stewart’s second batch of page layouts contains a panel from the same issue in which two characters confront each other. As printed, this conversation has become a bit confused, ending with the new Batwoman saying, “I’m the new Batman.” Stewart explains:
As you can see, the page was laid out with the characters oriented consistently from left to right, but after I’d completed the final artwork I was asked to reverse panel 3 because the dialogue (which is written after the art is completed) required Batwoman to be on the left. I did make the change [electronically] but somewhere along the way the original art file was used by mistake, and thousands of readers scratched their head in puzzlement.

12 February 2010

Looking Forward to SCBWI New England’s Spring Conference

SCBWI New England’s annual spring conference is coming up on 14-16 May 2010, and registration has opened here.

I’ll lead two workshops at that conference, on:

I proposed the latter workshop because it was on the list of topics that attendees had requested in previous years. I figured I’d been collecting information about the topic, studying comics scripts, and trying out ideas, so I’ll have plenty to share. And if people with more experience proposed a workshop on the same topic, the organizers would choose them instead.

This month I saw the full conference program, and realized that the organizers had recruited an award-winning comics creator to lead another workshop about graphic novels…Matt Phelan.

Of course he has the great advantage of being able to draw and write, which produces a different process. The conference organizers did a swell job of arranging his appearance before Roger Sutton announced that The Storm in the Barn won the Scott O’Dell Award, which both raised the book’s profile and set me to questioning whether the story leaves the realm of historical fiction for fantasy. And now I may have the chance to discuss that question with Matt Phelan himself!

This is the second year in a row that Roger has gotten me in mildly warm water this way. Back in 2008 The Horn Book invited me to review Road to Oz, the picture-book biography of L. Frank Baum written by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes. I generally liked the book, but questioned the overall narrative and what I felt was a stylistic quirk in Krull’s text.

Last July I went to California for the Winkie Convention of Oz fans, and one of the speakers was…Kathleen Krull! In fact, due to the randomness of seating in the Asilomar dining hall, we ended up sitting next to each other at lunch. Half a second of frozen time after glances at name tags, and then we had a fine discussion.

But really, I have to watch out for Roger.

11 February 2010

It’s a Floor Wax and a Dessert Topping!

This week’s “Notes from the Horn Book” includes editor Roger Sutton’s quick interview with Matt Phelan, creator of The Storm in the Barn. It starts with the news that Storm won this year’s Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction from a panel of judges that include Roger, who wrote:

After some blogosphere discussion about whether The Storm in the Barn, a graphic novel with some ambiguous fantasy elements, was historical fiction [that would be me], I decided to see what the author/illustrator himself thought. . . .

Do you think of The Storm in the Barn as historical fiction?

Yes. I also think of it as a supernatural thriller and a family drama and a Jack tale. But when I was writing it, I only thought of it as a story. It wasn’t until after it was finished that I could step back and try to label it. It was a story first and foremost, even before I decided it would be a graphic novel.
Which is indeed how stories should start out. I’m just not convinced that any book can combine “historical fiction” and “supernatural thriller” at their core, but The Storm in the Barn certainly starts off by recreating life in the Dust Bowl in a most, well, graphic fashion.

Roger also asked about the differences between illustrating a picture book and creating a graphic novel, and this was Phelan’s reply:
From an illustration standpoint, they are fundamentally the same. Both are about rhythm and tone. The page turn is important in both. The illustrations have to convey the beat of the scene (or panel) in a clear and effective way. Of course, the really big difference is the number of illustrations needed for a 200-page graphic novel. The drawing time is much longer, and you need to stay focused and disciplined month after month.
It looks like I might have a chance to ask Phelan such questions myself this May.

TOMORROW: And that could be awkward.

10 February 2010

When Did the Toyota Problem Start?

Both my parents drive Toyotas, so I’ve kept track of news of the recent recalls. I did some editing on Eric Lichtblau and Bill Vlasic’s New York Times article “Safety Agency Scrutinized as Toyota Recall Grows”, about how the federal government dealt with reports of problems with Toyota vehicles before last year.

Not once in more than six years of reviews of Toyota’s problems [under the Bush-Cheney administration, and before the Obama administration got an administrator approved in December] did officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates automakers, use their power to subpoena Toyota’s records, even though they said they believed the automaker was withholding critical information.

Now, with the recalls of some eight million Toyota vehicles since late last year, including more than 400,000 models of the 2010 Prius and other hybrid models this week, the traffic safety agency promises to be scrutinized as much as Toyota itself. Members of Congress, independent experts on auto experts and others say they want to know why the agency did not act more aggressively in investigating Toyota’s problems [under the Bush-Cheney administration]. . . .

Some Congressional officials and outside experts say they believe the safety agency has become too close to the industry it is charged with regulating [under the Bush-Cheney administration], as a number of agency employees have gone to work for Toyota [such as Christopher Santucci, appointed in the first year of the Bush-Cheney administration]. Among other issues that need to be addressed, they also cite the agency’s limited use of fines or subpoenas against auto manufacturers [during the Bush-Cheney administration], a dearth of technical expertise in areas like electronic throttle problems and frequent turnover in its leadership [under the Bush-Cheney administration]. . . .

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has the most active defect investigation program in the world,” Mr. LaHood said on Tuesday in a statement to The New York Times. “Its safety experts are dedicated to finding and fixing safety problems, and they review 30,000 consumer complaints every year. Over just the last three years [once Democrats took over Congress], N.H.T.S.A.’s investigations have resulted in 524 recalls involving 23.5 million vehicles — a stellar record.”

But internal agency documents and interviews with auto safety experts demonstrate that the safety agency and the auto giant it regulated engaged in a Kabuki dance of sorts in the months and years [of the Bush-Cheney administration] before tensions coalesced. Drivers would file complaints by the dozens about mysterious accelerations and other hazards, federal regulators would open official reviews, Toyota would promise answers, the regulators would complain about not receiving the information they needed, and in the end, almost nothing would come of any of it [under the Bush-Cheney administration].

Six times since 2003 in fact, the safety agency opened inquiries into possible Toyota safety problems, and six times it closed them without any significant action [by the Bush-Cheney administration].

In 2008 [the last year of the Bush-Cheney administration], for instance, the agency examined a request from the owner of a Toyota Tacoma pickup to investigate “sudden and uncontrolled acceleration.” After a preliminary review, the safety agency concluded in a memorandum given to House investigators that: “In view of the need to allocate and prioritize N.H.T.S.A.’s limited resources to best accomplish the agency’s safety mission, the petition is denied.”

In recent years [under the Bush-Cheney administration], the agency has dealt with financing and staff cuts in some areas. The [Obama administration’s] Transportation Department announced last week that the administration was seeking money for 66 new positions.

The agency also has had a revolving door of leaders [under the Bush-Cheney administration], with about a half-dozen directors since 2005. The current administrator, David Strickland, was confirmed only in December. . . .

Even though the agency was not getting all the information it wanted from Japan, it did receive data about possible defects from State Farm, the insurance firm, beginning in 2007 [under the Bush-Cheney administration]. . . .
Late last year the Los Angeles Times reported, “In the last fiscal year [i.e., the last budget submitted by the Bush-Cheney administration], Congress authorized less than half of the inflation-adjusted $39 million it had in 2001 for NHTSA’s enforcement activities,” before the Bush-Cheney administration.

Nicole Nason, appointed head of the agency in 2007 by the Bush-Cheney administration, told the LA Times, “It is hard to tell what we would have done in the two years I was there if we had more money.” Yes, if an administration is determined not to do anything that the industry dislikes, it can do that very cheaply.

09 February 2010

“It’s Already In My Pocket” Appeal

From a posting by Andrew Karre at CarolRhoda Books on the future of books:

Now that every carrier has what David Pogue calls an app phone on one of the three major platforms (Apple, Android, and Blackberry—four if you count Windows Mobile) and now that they’re competing on price, I suspect we’ll see more teens with phone capable of downloading ebooks from retailers and libraries.

Teens are used to text on LCD screens, and I don’t think they’re likely to respond to the “it looks like paper” appeal of Kindle’s epaper nearly as much as they’re going to respond to the “it’s already in my pocket” appeal of a smartphone.
The “in my pocket” factor also affects the appeal of the new but backpack-sized iPad for readers who still have eyes good enough to read long texts on smartphone screens. And that device still has an adult price as well.

I think Karre is correct that the “feels like a book” factor isn’t that important, especially for younger readers. Last year I used my PDA to reread Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows for the first time since childhood—a Gutenberg text, nothing with special formatting. It was an odd experience, but I don’t think that was a result of the mix of forward-looking book format and backward-looking book. That’s just a weird book.

08 February 2010

Taking Liberty with the Label “Graphic Fiction”

This weekend Boston 1775 posted a dissatisfied analysis of Timothy Decker’s For Liberty: The Story of the Boston Massacre, starting here.

Leaving the historical issues behind, I note here that Calkins Creek Books lists For Liberty as the sole title in the “Graphic Fiction” section of its catalogue. Which makes no sense because For Liberty is:

  • nonfiction, or at least claims to be.
  • a perfectly traditional picture book, with most page spreads containing one or two large illustrations accompanied by narrative text.
There are no word balloons, motion lines, or other graphic techniques for “showing the invisible” that I argue have become a hallmark of the comics style. (Okay, on one spread artist-writer Decker uses radiating lines to isolate our attention on a soldier firing his gun.)

I have to read this as a sign that “graphic novels” are so popular now that publishers are slapping such a label on any title they can. Curiously, Decker’s previous book, Run Far, Run Fast, which does use the basic comics element of multiple panels on a page, is still classified by the same company as a “Picture Book.”

07 February 2010

Behind the Scenes of Battle for the Cowl

As I discussed last week, in 2005 Grant Morrison proposed a Batman storyline that would result in Dick Grayson inheriting the role of the Caped Crusader from Bruce Wayne, with a new character—apparently Wayne’s son—as his Robin. DC Comics signed onto that plan.

Morrison was obviously interested in telling the story of Bruce Wayne taken to his limits, and the story of Dick Grayson taking over. But he wasn’t interested in the transition between those stories. Perhaps he didn’t think much transition was needed. After all, Grayson was the first Robin, and Robin has always been Batman’s natural successor.

DC Comics, on the other hand, saw potential in that shift. Perhaps editors felt the characters would need time to work through their grief at Wayne’s apparent demise. Perhaps they thought fans of Wayne’s other adopted sons and Robins—the second Jason Todd and Tim Drake—would want to see them considered as potential Batmans. Most likely the editors saw a boatload of money to be made from a very special miniseries that could keep fans in suspense about how things would turn out.

The company went looking for someone to script a “Battle for the Cowl”! The first choice appears to have been Judd Winick, who had written Grayson in The Outsiders and scripted Todd’s return from the dead in Under the Hood. But that didn’t work out. Last March Winick told Comic Book Resources:

I was writing “Battle for the Cowl.” I actually wrote the first two issues. And I was very, very ahead of schedule. I knew where things were going to end and I was excited to do it, so I decided to get a jump on it. So I had two issues in the can and was moving along while the other six [related] titles were picking the creative teams and getting going.

But once I sat down with the editors for these books, Mike Marts being one of them, because of the immensity of the story I was writing, we found I was actually mining territory that they wanted to touch upon in the other monthlies. I was burning a lot of fire wood, because those were my marching orders. I was supposed to tell this big, gigantic story of what got us here. . . .

All the characters were going to be represented. And I was robbing, inadvertently, all of this great story from the monthlies. And a lot of their motivations for things they were going to come to and what not, I was covering.

So everyone took a breath and they came back to me and first they said, “We have to scale it back.” And then [DC Executive Editor] Dan [DiDio] and Mike Marts just said, screw it. “We’re going to take 1/8 of the story you are working on, just this part, this part right here, and that’s the part we’re doing for ‘Battle for the Cowl.’ You take the rest of what you’re working on and put it in the [Batman] monthly. But let’s take these elements out, so the other monthlies can have it and go to work.”

And I offered to finish “Battle for the Cowl.” And they were like, “No, screw it. Go keep running with the monthly.” And I was pretty much on fire at that point. So instead of me going back and re-working it, they said, “Let’s give it to Tony. He’s geared up. He’s working on this story anyway. He’s right here.” Because Tony and I were going to do it together. “Let him do that. And you just merrily march forward with the monthly.” Which is what I did.
“Tony” is Tony S. Daniel, who was penciling Morrison’s Batman RIP issues. Three months before Winick’s interview, Daniel had told Newsarama how DC editors had decided to hire him to write and draw Battle for the Cowl:
I was casually talking to [editor] Mike Marts about the story and my thoughts on how great it could be. I consider myself a storyteller, so in my mind I guess the wheels of the story were naturally spinning. And in this case, you couldn’t shut me up.

I mentioned how this could be something really great and not just a stop gap before Grant’s or my return to the title. That we can really get behind the feelings and motivations behind the characters with this. But at the same time thinking this should be “John Woo” style, crazy, epic action. . . .

So after spilling my guts for about 10 minutes about the ideas that were pouring out of my head, I jokingly told Mike that I would gladly accept the invitation to write Battle for the Cowl. Only he hadn’t done that and we both laughed. But I emailed him later after thinking about it more and it was too late. I was ramped up on my second cup of Starbucks and there was no turning back. I asked him to consider it.

Dan DiDio called me after speaking with Mike, and he had liked what he heard. So by then I had been thinking over the weekend more about the story, and at that point, it started to really come together as a story. So I relayed some of the same ideas I told Mike, but much more in depth since I had the advantage of the 48 hours of the story percolating.
DiDio and Marts thus took Winick off the transition story because they wanted to spread the changes over a larger number of titles, and probably a larger number of issues. After all, their job is to sell the maximum number of magazines. Just how many titles and characters orbit Batman can be seen in the pair of interviews Marts granted to yet another comics-news site, IGN, in the same period.

The editors narrowed Winick’s focus, and he produced some well-regarded Batman issues after the transition before moving on to other heroes. Daniel got the tough assignment of pumping out a “Battle for the Cowl” miniseries, both script and artwork, on a fast schedule.

In fact, the need to give Daniel time to work might have been why the final issues of Nightwing and Robin were stretched out. In addition, Morrison ended up writing two more Batman issues after Bruce Wayne had disappeared from Gotham.

That time also allowed a big marketing build-up for Batman RIP, Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert’s elegiac Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, Daniel’s Battle for the Cowl, and a largely unnecessary Battle for the Cowl Companion, collecting stories of other characters’ reactions to the change.

Daniel’s story showed Dick, Jason, and Tim sitting down and talking about what Bruce Wayne meant to them and how they would carry on—No, of course it didn’t! This is the superhero genre. Characters work out problems by hitting things, particularly each other. If they can make long speeches about their values while hitting, that’s fine, but they have to hit.

Daniel’s story consisted of Robin #2 hitting crooks harder than a real Batman should, Robin #3 hitting Robin #2, Robin #2 hitting Robin #3 back harder, Robin #1 getting upset about Robin #3 and hitting Robin #2,… Lest that seem too much to read, last month J. Caleb Mozzocco at Every Day Is Like Wednesday summed up those developments succinctly and completely in three panels, of which this is the first.
Those are Robins #1, 3, and 2. Click on the panel to see how this gets resolved.

05 February 2010

Links to Look at

There are responses to Wednesday’s posting on whether we can assume kids choose books without regard to race in the comments, from Roger Sutton at Read Roger, and from Colleen Mondor at Chasing Ray responding. (See also her remarks additional to the article that got me thinking about that aspect of the topic.) Zetta Elliott has contributed to the discussion even as she gears up for the reissue of her novel for teens combining history and science fiction, A Wish After Midnight.

Elsewhere, I enjoyed Catherynne M. Valente’s remarks about the realities of self-publishing as a model for publishing in the future. They’re especially meaningful because she’s the author of an award-winning web-published novel, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland (which was picked up by a print publisher).

At the Spectacle, I admired Jo Whittemore’s analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of using a protagonist who’s an insider or an outsider in a fantasy world. Do you want a hero who has to learn about everything, so readers can follow along, or someone who’s already familiar with that world, so readers can plunge right in?

Finally, Dave Elzey at Fomagrams has started his series on what boys like in books:

But let’s be brutally honest for a moment: boys are a pain in the ass.

They’ll say they hate books and reading, and the next thing you know they’re driving books like Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series onto the bestsellers list.

They’ll ask for something exactly like what they just finished reading, a beginning reader series like the Time Warp Trio or Geronimo Stilton, and then quickly lose interest because they’ve discovered and become bored with the formula.

They’ll read a page of grade-level text aloud in a halting stammer, then read the sports section of the newspaper as smoothly as professional television announcers.
Do I recognize anyone in those descriptions? Well, I can still describe the exact architecture of any Encyclopedia Brown or Three Investigators title. And my brother taught himself to read in order to keep up with the Bruins scores.

03 February 2010

What’s Acceptable to Believe about Kids’ Reading Choices?

In the ongoing discussion about representations of race in and on children’s books, Colleen Mondor asks in “Kids of Color and the New American Whitewashing”:

The cover issue is only one aspect of a much larger problem: why it is acceptable to still believe (and use as a business model) the notion that Caucasian readers will not relate to Kids of Color in general titles? Is this an issue that originates with publishers, or does it lie with “gatekeepers” like librarians, large booksellers, and big-box stores?
This analysis appears to be based on the proposition that young “Caucasian readers” will relate to “Kids of Color in general titles” at the same rate that they’ll relate to similar books about other white kids. Therefore, the thinking goes, someone else—adult “publishers” or “gatekeepers” or parents and grandparents—must be making false assumptions about what those kids will enjoy.

I see some evidence for that proposition (e.g., the mainstream success of some kids’ TV shows, surveys showing more prejudices among older adults than among younger). But I don’t see an explanation for why publishers, librarians, or teachers persist in believing something false about kids’ preferences despite seeing sales or circulation figures to the contrary, and despite the fact that publishing and library cultures are predominantly inclusive and progressive (at least on a conscious and public level).

And are those book professionals the most influential tastemakers and gatekeepers? In responding to Mondor’s essay, Liz B. at the Tea Cozy uses the term “mirror” for the attempt to find books whose characters reflect particular readers in every possible outward way; she says, “I see adults more likely to select books that are pure mirror than kids.” This corresponds to observations I quoted from Alison Morris and Elizabeth Bird last month.

In that situation, to complain about a librarian or bookseller lamenting that “they don’t have a ‘community to support such books’” might be missing the real problem: that that librarian or bookseller’s community truly isn’t supporting books about kids of color with their selections, compliments, or money (as in purchases or taxes).

Sadly, in this world we have to consider the possibility that people—even kids—don’t behave the way we wish they would. Some, even many, “Caucasian readers” may enjoy books about “Kids of Color” equally with books about white kids. But as long as some don’t, their numbers can be enough to affect sales or circulation in a noticeable way. That preference doesn’t have to be vocalized, or even conscious, to exist.

People have no difficulty acknowledging that books about boys generally have more appeal for boys (especially at certain ages), and books about girls have more appeal to girls. Lots of folks agree that teenaged boys are turned off by pink covers. Much of the pressure on our field to create more books about kids of color is based on the idea that those titles would hold more appeal for kids of color than yet more books about white kids.

So is it really impossible to imagine that books about white kids have more appeal in the aggregate for white kids? Or is it just uncomfortable? Do we really have evidence that kids are colorblind? Or do we have evidence that they aren’t?

The quoted passage above implies that it’s not “acceptable to still believe” that white kids prefer books about other white kids. But if all the numbers add up that way, it would be a fact, however discomfiting, and we should believe it. Especially since today’s publishing and bookselling corporations are designed to respond to the facts of the market, not to change society.

Mondor’s essay suggests that accepting such a belief would mean accepting that “enticing Caucasians to spend money on books is more important than providing an accurate depiction of America’s multicultural life.” To capitalist publishing and bookselling corporations, enticing anyone to spend more money on books is more important than providing an accurate depiction of anything. That’s why there are so many books about vampires, who really aren’t part of an accurate depiction of America.

The job of enticing people to open up to other sorts of books falls on people and institutions that aren’t set up to make profits: schools, libraries, families, neighborhoods, and so on. Individuals within corporations can act on their own tastes and values, but they have less freedom. And, quite possibly, less influence.

02 February 2010

1903 Stage Wizard of Oz to be Restaged

Jane Albright sends news that the Canton Comic Opera Company of Canton, Ohio (not China), will offer two performances of material from the The Wizard of Oz, the blockbuster stage extravaganza from just over a century ago. The company’s website explains:

While entirely forgotten today, the 1903 THE WIZARD OF OZ was one of the most successful musical comedies of the turn of the century and firmly cemented the timeless story and characters in the hearts and minds of the American public, 37 years before the widely known MGM film.

THE WIZARD OF OZ opened on Broadway in 1903 and ran for a total of 464 performances. The original cast starred the comedy team of Fred Stone as the Scarecrow and David Montgomery as the Tin-Woodsman. THE WIZARD OF OZ toured the country for seven seasons following its Broadway run, stopping at Canton’s Grand Opera House on October 27, 1904, May 1, 1905, April 24, 1906, and August 28, 1908.
Back then, the songs in musical plays were only slightly related to the plot or characters, and producers supplied their audiences with novelty by adding new numbers and taking out old as a show toured. Thus, over seventy songs were part of this Wizard’s score between its Chicago tryouts in 1902 and its petering out around 1909. Some of those songs L. Frank Baum himself had a hand in. Some became hits. Some were based entirely on offensive ethnic stereotypes.

The Canton Comic Opera Company has broken that sprawling score into two parts. On Friday, 9 July, there will be a free concert and lecture featuring songs that went the show after its premiere and Larry Moore, a historian of the American musical theater.

The following evening, 10 July, the company will perform a fully staged production of the show, with the script and songs as close to what arrived on Broadway in 1903 as scholars can tell. And on that evening seats will cost actual money—but only $20 for grown-ups, $10 for kids.

01 February 2010

Looking Back at the Book Futurists

Last Friday night I attended the first meeting of the Boston Book Futurists, a group interested in exploring the evolving forms, meanings, and business of books in a digital age.

The meeting was held at Microsoft’s New England Research & Development (NERD) Center, in a meeting room with two screens set up to show digital slide shows and mouse-clicking. And we soon confirmed a rule I also noticed during my OAH panel in Seattle last March: the more a session depends on technology, the worse the technology behaves.

We appeared to start a half-hour late (unless that was supposed to be networking time, in which case most of us book futurists used it to fiddle with digital projectors or sit in chairs watching other people do so). By the end of the evening, one of the screens was showing only about 2/3 of the images, and we all had the chance to say whether we wanted to update the Norton Antivirus software.

Joanne McNeil of the Tomorrow Museum moderated the program, introducing three narratives in unusual form:

The first speaker was Joshua Glenn, coeditor of Hilobrow and author of Taking Things Seriously. He talked about his Significant Objects project, conceived with Rob Walker. They bought 100 cheap secondhand objects and auctioned them at big markups after having fiction writers invest each with some “meaning” through a story. The profit went to those writers, who thus had the incentive to maximize their objects’ appeal. Even though the stories were identified as fictional, they gave the objects enough perceived significance to inrease their value (in most cases) several hundred percent.

Sean Fitzroy, a local filmmaker, then presented his idea for how marketing these days corresponds the three-act structure of classic myths and popular entertainment. I didn’t think the periods lined up exactly. Or, to put it another way, we can divide any endeavor into three or four stages. But I agree with Fitzroy that the “making of“ story has become a crucial part of attracting and rewarding an audience for many types of stories. The most obvious examples are the on-set interviews used to promote movies, but writers’ websites and social networking posts, interviews, and public presentations are also increasingly about how they produced their tales.

Putting Fitzroy’s ideas together with Glenn’s, I foresee a market for people able to massage “making of” stories into more entertaining, compelling forms with fictional material. (“The road to a Newbery Medal began in a deep cavern underneath Corvallis, Oregon—and it almost ended there. . . .”)

Novelist Stona Fitch discussed the Concord Free Press, which published books in a familiar form—the paperback novel—but a new manner. The non-profit endeavor gives away 2-3,000 copies through its website and independent bookstores, “demonetizing” distribution to lessen the risk and anxiety for all involved. The press asks readers to give a donation to charity in lieu of the purchase price, and to pass on the copy to another person. So far the enterprise has issued three books and raised $127,000. I haven’t read any of the books, but I did go home and buy the snazzy T-shirt.

Peggy Nelson introduced her Twitter narrative In Search of Adele H., tweets in the voice of Victor Hugo’s daughter, who became obsessed with a suitor who didn’t deserve her, but also didn’t deserve to be pursued across two continents. This series started last June, and will run through March.

Finally, Matthew Battles, author of Library: An Unquiet History, offered a “Terms of service agreement for the book.” His presentation involved such remarks as “Book futurism is about that type of negative capability,” so I could tell that it was time for me to go home.

One question that occurred to me about all these innovative ventures and forms is whether they would get attention and support if they weren’t innovative. To reach their potential, most artistic forms have to be revisited and refined by other minds. Will the second attempt in each of these areas be seen as, well, meaningful? To take a small example, will the second meeting of the Boston Book Futurists attract as many people as the first?