29 April 2010

The 99’s Name Is Legion

The Atlantic Monthly is devoting a lot of pixels and ink to The 99, a comic book about young Muslim superheroes. In addition to the print article, there’s a slide show of characters and an interview with creator Dr. Naif al-Mutawa.

The 99’s website offers a free download of the series’s “Origins” issue, written by Mutawa and Fabian Nicieza (who has once again taken up the mantle of writing former Robin Tim Drake for DC Comics). That issue also shows the emergence of one young hero, but eventually the series promises ninety-nine, each with a distinct power.

Which makes me think that Dr. Al-Muttawa has basically reinvented DC’s Legion of Super Heroes. Originally conceived for a Superboy story, this is a group of young people from the future who develop various powers and band together to fight…well, that varies somewhat depending on which “continuity” one reads. As does the lineup of heroes, beyond a core handful.

The 99 offers some innovations, to be sure. One character appears to be a superpowered grant writer. And the kid with circuit lines on his face? He’s not green like Brainiac 5. Most significant to its launch, all of the 99 are Muslim; each is supposed to represent a different Islamic virtue. Though those virtues look very much like the virtues of other belief systems.

In one way, this approach is a good fit for the symbolic nature of modern superheroes, as Douglas Wolk discusses in Reading Comics. Each character offers a chance to explore what his or her defining power and virtue mean. In practice, however, The 99 faces some big storytelling challenges.

One is that such a large group presents too many heroes for most readers to track. The Legion of Super Heroes has the same problem. Some fans argue that its characters are simple to keep straight since their professional names state their powers: Lightning Lad, Triplicate Girl, Invisible Kid, Bouncing Boy, Shadow Lass, and so on. That worked fine back when the comics showed them addressing each other by those names every other balloon. Now, in the cause of realism, stories show more of the characters’ private lives, and they address each other by their given names. For most readers a new Legion issue is like tuning into a long-running soap opera they’ve never watched before.

For its established fans, in fact, the Legion’s size appears to be a plus. They apparently go gaga over pictures of the whole group, judging by the number of images available. Can The 99 build to that level of following without half a century of gradual growth?

The second challenge is the tension between collective and individual heroism. Al-Muttawa is trying to make a point about worldwide unity. He sends his characters out on adventures in teams of three or four. (Batch-processing seems inevitable when you’ve got ninety-nine heroes to introduce.) Though readers might identify with favorites, they’re supposed to follow the entire group.

But superhero fans the world over might be seeking a different sort of story. The Atlantic found a “a 36-year-old [Muslim] filmmaker, photographer, and comic-book enthusiast” who said he’s looking for something else:

“I like the image Dr. Naif is bringing with The 99, but unfortunately it’s not very successful here,” he said. Al-Duwaisan still preferred his Batmans to The 99—and not because of too little Islamic subtext, but too much. Al-Duwaisan felt that groups of heroes working collectively missed the very point of the Western comics he adores: the triumph of the individual.

“In the West, there’s one hero,” he said with visible longing. “If there are too many of them, you can’t idolize anyone. I don’t feel the heroism. I am reading Batman because I see part of myself in it.”

27 April 2010

Still Trying to Pin Down Mary Sues

Liz B. at the Tea Cozy pointed me to Laura Miller’s interesting Slate essay on the danger of “Mary Sue” characters. Along with the usual warnings about how annoying such characters can be, Miller writes:

Because genre fiction tends to trade in wish fulfillment to begin with, you’re far more likely to find shameless Mary Sues in mediocre mysteries, science fiction and romance novels. Even in the most routine series fiction, however, there’s a distinction between the kind of character who embodies the fantasies of readers—Nancy Drew, for example—and a character who’s really only working for the author.
The focus on literary wish-fulfillment does indeed help to explain where Mary Sues congregate. And genre fiction does offer easier wish-fulfillment since it tends to offer clearer stakes and resolutions: solving the mystery, finding true love, winning the big game, escaping the zombie,…

At the same time, if the acid test is reader response, that means that no character is a Mary Sue until the story is published and read. And then it’s too late. Miller’s definition seems tautological:
The Mary Sues of literary fiction are seldom as flat-out perfect as the ones found in fan or genre fiction, but they do share the defining quality of Mary Sues everywhere: They irritate readers. Not all readers, maybe, but most of them, which is why there are so few true Mary Sues in literary classics; great writers don’t do Mary Sues.
So characters that irritate most readers are Mary Sues, and Mary Sues are bad because they irritate readers. Literary authors can create stand-in or autobiographical characters because they’re such great writers that they don’t irritate most readers.

So how do folks feel about Levin in Anna Karenina?

And are there genre writers getting their jollies through their characters but skilled enough not to irritate their readers?

26 April 2010

Seeking Clues to the Future of Storytelling

Earlier this month, Publishers Weekly reported on the ashbound London Book Fair’s panel discussion on digital books for children, and I was particularly interested in the comments of author Naomi Alderman:

Alderman suggested that the industry really needs new nomenclature for this digital medium. Neither “book” nor “game” is quite apt to describe something like Alderman’s The Winter House, an online short story, with visuals by Jey Biddulph, that is both linear and interactive. Trying to pigeonhole evolving technological developments doesn’t do justice to the work or honor the medium it is being lumped in with, Alderman reasoned.

For Alderman, new media is exciting, not something that compromises traditional and beloved forms of storytelling. “I hear a lot of fear from writers and publishers, but there are a lot of amazing things you can do onscreen that you can’t do on the page,” she said. Digitized books create new roles between writers, designers, illustrators, and publishers—all of these parties want to tell stories, and with this shared desire at the heart, their collaboration can have compelling results thanks to the fusion of different skills, she added.

Alderman feels that the best use of these new methodologies is “something native to the format,” saying that to attempt a transposition of what already exists won’t do it justice outside of the way it was conceived. Adapting traditional imagery is not always possible onscreen, she said, or even necessarily desirable. Digital books are still in an interim period where creativity can be stretched, but a balance between what is commercially viable with what experimental methods could bring has yet to be established.
I visited The Winter House, and three things struck me:
  • Though the story has undeniable graphic and sonic dimensions, words are the crucial, driving element.
  • The tale has quite a feminist underpinning.
  • I had to restart twice because the animation got stuck at different places, and could find no way to jump in at a particular spot (though I could avoid unnecessary loops in the algorithm).
For the “Divided by a Common Language” category, I note that the “About” section of the website suggests students can try to create their “own Cluedo-inspired board game.” In North America, we call that game Clue.

(The picture above shows a ”modernised” Cluedo layout by the DKPM design firm.)

25 April 2010

Grant Morrison on His Robin

DC Comics has just published the first hardcover collection of Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin comic book, with art penciled by Frank Quitely and Philip Tan, and is also promoting the simultaneous climax of that sixteen-issue magazine and the Return of Bruce Wayne miniseries. So naturally Morrison’s been doing interviews with comic-book and pop-culture websites.

Even more than many other storytelling forms, adventure comics depend on unexpected plot twists. In promotional interviews, therefore, creators and publishers have to conceal most of what’s coming up while piquing readers’ interest. This game is fairly transparent, yet so many fans don’t seem to see through it—nor to acknowledge that if we actually did know all about what will happen next, reading those stories wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.

The value in such interviews for me is their review of the recent past, the storylines that have been played out and are safe to talk about. Creators can discuss their thinking, working methods, abandoned paths, and serendipitous ideas. In Morrison’s recent interviews, he opened up more about his creation Damian Wayne. For example, he told Comics Alliance:

one of the first ideas I had was “Batman R.I.P.” when I got the “Batman” job back in 2005... all that stuff was there to begin with, the whole Dr. Hurt plotline and Black Glove plotline were there. And as it progressed, as with most of these things, when you get into the work and you start to understand the things that you’re doing, it takes on a life of its own and starts to expand. There are certain things that seem to make sense at the time like making Damian a little bastard and killing him off…
Morrison thus originally planned Damian Wayne as a short-term character, not a permanent addition to the bat-cave. He told Topless Robot of the source for that inspiration:
I always liked those old “Bat-Boy” stories where you would see another kid coming in and taking Robin’s place and Robin would sob in the background, that kind of thing. I wanted to do that story where suddenly Robin was confronted with a very real threat to what he was. So it was the idea of taking the various kind of versions of Batman’s child that we’d seen before, and doing a new one, a real one. . . .
I found that we were able to give him a son and that doesn't really mess up his mythology too much; it seemed like something Batman could have done and still stay true to the integrity of the character. I was quite surprised it worked, because we planned to kill Damian off in the first four issues, and then he seemed too full of potential. . . .

I knew I’d be doing RIP, but I kind of figured that was the end of the line for my story, and then the idea for Batman and Robin came along and the team just seemed such a great dynamic that I had to keep on with it. So no, it wasn’t planned. As I mentioned, we originally intended to kill Damian and do a poignant four-part storyline where he starts out as a really bad kid and ends up as a good kid but dies tragically.
In other words, Morrison intended to write his version of “Punish Not My Evil Son,” a Batman/Teen Titans crossover from 1969 written by Bob Haney and illustrated by Neal Adams.

In that tale, Bruce Wayne gains a new foster son, Lance Bruner, who’s, well, evil. He does things like fake his own kidnapping. Dick Grayson takes some of the blame for the kid’s misdeeds, to the disgust of his superpowered buddies. In the end, Lance is inspired by Robin’s heroism, puts on the red and green costume to help Batman, and gets fatally shot. And that’s all in one issue!

Despite that initial plan, Morrison and DC quickly saw enough potential in Damian Wayne to make him survive that first story arc (Batman and Son), reappear in another (The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul), and finally take over the role of Robin.

As I discussed back when the Batman and Robin series began, it reverses the usual dynamic of the Dynamic Duo, especially as exaggerated in Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Morrison spelled out that reversal once again in an MTV web interview:
It’s the opposite of the traditional Batman and Robin, because in this case, Batman is a little more happy-go-lucky, a bit more of a lighthearted, upbeat guy, and Robin’s a little bad-ass, scowling monster. We kind of reversed the dynamic, which makes it quite interesting.

I didn’t expect to be doing it, but once I got into it, it became so much fun. It’s really fresh, because these two characters can get involved in stories that might not suit Bruce Wayne, or had a lighter touch, a stranger touch, or some psychedelia. . . .

Dick Grayson makes a great Batman because he’s been developed over the years as this consummate superhero. He was Batman’s original partner, so he’s been trained by the best. So we kind of knew what he would be like, but to throw Damian into the mix and suddenly have Batman’s evil 10-year-old son as the new Robin really created the dynamic that makes the bit work.
It’s notable that Morrison continues to use the term “evil” for Damian, but no surprise. That given name has one overwhelming connotation for us guys who grew up in the 1970s: the devil-spawn in The Omen. All along Morrison’s character has been a test of what the Robin role can accommodate, and conversely whether this boy, even with all his physical talents and training, is up to the job. Because, as I’ve been exploring, Robin isn’t evil.

24 April 2010

Where That Number Came From

On Thursday I posted an analysis of the rumors about recent US Presidents and presidential candidates catalogued on Snopes.com, and how there are many more rumors and false rumors about President Barack Obama than his predecessor. To my surprise, Salon picked that up for its readers.

The folks at Salon were concerned about this statement: “the Secret Service reported a 400% increase in threats to the President when Barack Obama took office.”

They substituted another sentence with a link I supplied: “there was a disturbing spike in death threats to the president in the months after President Barack Obama took office.” Which works just as well.

I decided to revisit the 400% statistic in more detail. It appeared in Ronald Kessler’s book In the President’s Secret Service, published in the summer of 2009. Kessler had the cooperation of the agency and (off the record) past and present agents. He’d written many similar books on Washington doings, including a flattering election-year profile of the George W. Bush White House and an authorized biography of Laura Bush. He blogs for the right-wing news service Newsmax. Politically, Kessler has no reason to overstate violence or threats from the American right.

Three of Kessler’s points made the most news:

  • “There were about 3,000 threats a year under President Bush and now there are about 12,000,” as Kessler told CNN in October 2009.
  • The agency was “cutting corners” on security because of budget limitations.
  • Agents occasionally saw the President sneaking a cigarette.
This article from the London Telegraph shows the worldwide attention that In the President’s Secret Service received.

When Kessler spoke about his book with CBS News, the agency issued a statement denying some of what he had written:
Any suggestion that the Secret Service has “cut corners” in carrying our protective mission is just false. It is always difficult to defend your record against anonymous sources. However, it should be noted that we currently dedicate more personnel, funding and technical assets to our protective mission than at any time in our history and our protective measures and methods continue to increase in scope and complexity, not diminish.
So far as I can tell, the agency didn’t then address the 400% figure, only the “cutting corners” suggestion. Indeed, at that point the Secret Service said it had put more people and resources into protection than ever, implying there were indeed more threats to protect against.

Kessler’s reporting matches what other journalists wrote about the same period when Obama took office. In November 2008, the Associated Press reported:
Threats against a new president historically spike right after an election, but from Maine to Idaho law enforcement officials are seeing more against Barack Obama than ever before.

The Secret Service would not comment or provide the number of cases they are investigating. But since the Nov. 4 election, law enforcement officials have seen more potentially threatening writings, Internet postings and other activity directed at Obama than has been seen with any past president-elect, said officials aware of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue of a president's security is so sensitive.
In the same month that Kessler’s book came out, the Congressional Research Service issued a report on the Secret Service, which the Boston Globe described in October 2009:
The domestic threat is also growing, fueled in part by Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president, according to specialists who study homegrown radical movements.

Obama, who was given Secret Service protection 18 months before the election - the earliest ever for a presidential candidate - has been the target of more threats since his inauguration than his predecessors.
Like Kessler’s book, that report also said that the agency was under strain because of its mission was expanding faster than its budget.

We should expect the agency to have a mixed reaction to such reports. On the one hand, its managers want Congress and the American people to recognize its importance and provide a budget that can cover all its responsibilities. On the other hand, they don’t want to appear inadequate or rash, they don’t want responsibilities taken away from them, and when testifying before Congress they’re obligated (like the managers of other federal departments) to support the executive branch’s budget requests.

Secret Service head Mark Sullivan went before a House committee on 3 Dec 2009, and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) asked him particularly about the level of threats against the President. Sullivan’s response was quite interesting:
NORTON: Given death threats to this president, was there any attempt to increase the security at this event, yes or no?

SULLIVAN: Ma’am, I can’t talk about that. I would be more—number one, I will address the threats. I have heard a number out there that the threat is up by 400 percent. I’m not sure where that number...

NORTON: Is it up at all? We’re not asking for the threat number.

SULLIVAN: Well, I would—I think it can answer you, ma’am. It isn’t at 400 percent. And I’m not sure where that number came from, but I can... [CROSSTALK]

NORTON: Please don’t assign to me a number in my question. I just asked you if the threats were up. Are the threats up or not, Mr. Sullivan?

SULLIVAN: They are not. The threats right now in the inappropriate interest that we’re seeing is the same level as it has been for the previous two presidents at this point.
Sullivan was obviously eager to put the “400 percent” number into the record (while insisting he didn’t know its source) so that he could deny it was accurate. And Norton, who knows how this game is played, was eager to have Sullivan answer the basic question of whether President Obama had received more threats than his predecessors. Sullivan said no—but qualified his statement with the words “right now” and “at this point.”

Some media outlets interpreted Sullivan’s carefully chosen “It isn’t at 400 percent” to mean that Kessler’s figure had never been correct. But more questioning from journalists revealed that Sullivan’s answer downplayed the number of threats seen just a few months earlier. In December 2009 the New York Times reported:
[There was] a spike of threats against Mr. Obama before his inauguration and in the early months of his presidency, raising deep concerns inside the Secret Service and at the White House.

The threats have leveled off in recent months, officials said, and Mr. Obama now receives about the same as his two most recent predecessors. But several officials said they took no solace that the volume of reports had receded because it was the nature of the threats that concern them and because the factors behind the increase remain — Mr. Obama’s race prime among them.
So as I see the situation, Kessler confirmed the 400% figure as he completed his book during the transition into the new administration and its early months. Or, as I wrote, “when Barack Obama took office.” Kessler’s sources were anonymous but apparently solid: he claims to have spoken to people at two agencies. Other journalists reported before and since that there was an alarmingly high level of threats against Obama at that time. And the Secret Service has issued only the most carefully worded denials of the statistic without providing a different number.

I therefore suspect 400% is reasonably accurate, though only for that period; later months were average. Of course, arithmetically that means the average over the entire year was up. I may have been too bold in writing that “the Secret Service reported” the 400% number, however, because it never issued a formal statement to that effect.

More accurate would be: Secret Service personnel, when cooperating with an established Washington journalist on what they expected to be a favorable book that would reinforce their agency’s importance, anonymously confirmed a 400% increase in threats to the President in the period when Barack Obama took office. After the book proved to be more gossipy than they’d hoped, and not to provide a good picture of the agency’s discretion, Secret Service managers have worked to undercut that figure—without ever explicitly denying it.

23 April 2010

Learning Something New Every Day

Number of children’s books that sold more than a million copies in 2009, according to Publishers Weekly: 20.

Number written by Stephenie Meyer, or based on her novels: 10.

Number written by Jeff Kinney: 5.

Number written by Rick Riordan: 2.

Number written by J. K. Rowling: 1.

Number written by Maurice Sendak: 1.

Number I hadn’t heard of: 1.

So I found the publisher’s synopsis for Tempted: House of Night:

In the sixth installment of the Casts’ [P. C. Cast and Kristin Cast] award-winning, “New York Times”-bestselling teen vampyre series, Zoey Redbird, High Priestess-in-training, finds herself juggling three guys—one of which is so into protecting her that he can sense her emotions.
Teens, vampires, stalking, multiple male leads. It sure sounds familiar. Where did this idea come from? According to an interview with Mama Cast:
Well, it started out with my agent saying “vampire finishing school”…at the [RWA National] Conference in Reno [July 2005, three months before Meyer’s Twilight appeared]. . . .

We were drinking, and she says, “Hey hey hey, I have an idea for a series I need to give you.”

I said, “Okay.”

She’s like, “Vampire finishing school.”

I had been reading a lot of young adult, and I was thinking I would really like to write a young adult series. She was thinking bondage and like college co-eds. I was like, “Meredith, no. No.” I could write that, that would be fine, but I talked her into young adult. It’s made my career. These books have put me in a completely different place.
Indeed.

22 April 2010

The Party of No Credibility

American right-wing leaders are responding to complaints about their adherents’ insults, threats, and acts of violence by claiming that such problems occur on the left as well. Of course, they don’t dare to compare and quantify such behavior. That would mean acknowledging that, for example, Congressional historians find no precedent for Rep. Joe Wilson shouting at the President during a joint session of Congress. Or that the Secret Service reported a 400% increase in threats to the President when Barack Obama took office.

To keep on top of urban myths of all kinds, I subscribe to the Snopes.com update list, and I noticed a pattern there that I thought deserved to be examined more arithmetically. It struck me I was seeing a lot more rumors about President Obama, and a lot more false rumors, than I remembered from earlier years. So I ran the numbers, as of this week.

After eight years in the White House (with Snopes.com around all that time), George W. Bush has been the subject of 47 internet rumors. After less than two years in office, Barack Obama has been the subject of 87, or nearly twice as many.

Even more telling is the relative accuracy of those stories. For Bush, 20 rumors, or 43%, are true. Only 17, or 36%, are false. The remainder are of mixed veracity (4), undetermined (4), or unclassifiable (2).

In contrast, for Obama only 8 of the 87 rumors, or 9%, are true, and a whopping 59, or 68%, are whoppers. There are 16 of mixed veracity and 3 undetermined.

I delved down to the stories that the site designates as a mixture of truth and falsehood. For Obama, in most cases the truth is innocuous while the lie reflects poorly on the President, particularly photographs that are misrepresented or show behavior that produced no complaints when his predecessors did the same. In contrast, in this mixture of truth and falsehood about George W. Bush praying with an injured soldier, the lie reflected well on that President from the perspective of the religious person spreading it.

I looked on Snopes’s Politics page for another pair of politicians in parallel situations, and found the losing candidates of the last two presidential elections. Snopes’s page on John Kerry lists 22 rumors, and only 3 are true (14%). Its page for John McCain lists only 11 rumors, and 4 are true (36%). There are far more rumors about the Democratic candidate, and fewer true ones.

This evidence accumulated over ten years shows a shameful but undeniable fact of American politics: our right wing now contains a lot more liars, and a lot more folks who spread lies out of gullibility or wishfulness, than our left wing.

(Image above from the Teabonics Flickr set.)

21 April 2010

Exploring New Themes in Oz

From the Winkie Convention email update comes news of a new Oz comic: The Royal Historian of Oz, by Tommy Kovac and Andy Hirsch. The publisher’s copy:

Frank Fizzle wishes his father would have just a single original idea, instead the Jasper Fizzle sees himself as the new “Royal Historian of Oz” as he insists on writing new Oz stories.

When the failed writer discovers that Oz really exists, he makes an error in judgment that brands him a criminal in two worlds. Frank, may be doomed to pay for the “sins of the father” at the hands of the axe-wielding Tin-Man and the ghost of the Wicked Witch. Can Frank save the day and redeem the Fizzle family name, or will the drizzly ghost of the Wicked Witch of the West destroy them all?
That description suggests this comic will bring a couple of themes to Oz that are notably absent from the original novels. The first is a postmodern discussion of storytelling within the story itself. L. Frank Baum portrayed his fairyland as either a real place or a setting he’d invented to entertain young readers, but not both.

The second is familial tension. Such conflicts drive a lot of old European fairy tales: Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Snow White, and so on. But it’s largely absent from the official Oz series. None of the American children who travel to Oz appears to have any siblings until Twink and Tom in Jack Snow’s The Shaggy Man of Oz (1949), and those twins travel together.

Many of those kids are missing parents, but they appear to have good relationships with the relatives who care for them. (One comes out of an orphanage.) The single possible exception is Baum’s little girl Trot, whose mother when she first appears in Sea Fairies (1912) is a short-tempered scold, but who basically vanishes from the page when Trot enters the Oz series in The Scarecrow of Oz (1915).

Nor are Baum’s young heroes from inside Oz having problems with their parents. They’re orphans or young people out on their own. The one exception to prove this rule is Kiki Aru, antihero of The Magic of Oz (1919), and his biggest problem is that when he’s in an adolescent snit and refuses to attend a community picnic, his parents sigh and leave him at home. (So annoying!)

20 April 2010

Divided by a Common Language in The Ghost Writer

As someone who’s ridden the Lake Champlain ferry annually for the past few years, I found the opening sequence of The Ghost Writer to be very evocative: the crew of a big ferry tries to unload cars, but one SUV won’t move. Gradually the car bay empties out around that empty vehicle, leaving it to be towed away. And soon we hear that its driver jumped off the ferry during its voyage.

The movie is set off the coast of Massachusetts, but because its director, Roman Polanski, was a fugitive from justice in the US, it was shot in Europe. Every so often, that fact leaked through. Not because of the landscape, but because of quotidian details.

When the title character drives onto that ferry later, the ticket seller asks him, “Single or return?” instead of “One-way or round trip?”

And when he spends the night in a sleepy, off-season hotel, his bed is equipped with a duvet instead of blankets and sheet tucked severely under the foot of the mattress. That rarely happens in the US, alas.

18 April 2010

Dig This Now

I had drafted a weekly Robin posting continuing my thoughts on the 1980s symbolic distancing of Batman and Robin, but then I read the lead story in World’s Finest Comics, #195, and it was all I could think about.

As you see, this magazine shows Superman and Batman forcing Robin and Jimmy Olson to dig their own graves. Furthermore, Batman is threatening to shoot the young men with a machine gun. This image is so incongruous that Dr. Wagner has written:

The best thing about the covers to WF was they were all lies. They would show you Superman running down Batman in steamroller and then in the story NOTHING like that would happen. . . . I don't even know what really happens in this comic, but I bet that this particular scene never takes place!
And yet it does. This is actually one of the more accurate comic-book covers of its period. The only non-verbal detail missing from the scene inside is the machine gun; there Batman carries a pistol with a silencer.

Indeed, I wonder if DC Comics came up with this arresting image first, then assigned Bob Haney to write a story around it. Because the story sure doesn’t make sense on its own.

The narrative begins in the previous issue of World’s Finest. Superman has infiltrated a mafia gang by posing as a bald man named Scarns. The boss, with the unstereotypical name of Lukaz, requires Scarns to prove his loyalty by killing one of the underworld’s enemies—lazy playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne! Actually, in 1970, when this magazine appeared, DC had made Bruce Wayne a socially conscious, activist millionaire, so that murder might have made a little sense. The two crimefighters concoct a way to make Scarns appear to kill Wayne in a horse-riding accident, which in no way now brings on thoughts of Christopher Reeve’s paralyzing injury.

Lukaz then shows Scarns that he’s keeping evidence of that murder to ensure his new underling’s loyalty. Superman sets out to retrieve that evidence in order to…protect a fake identity from being accused of a fake murder. Even with X-ray vision, he can’t find the hidden material, so he and Batman capture the mafia boss and—
  • Take Lukaz to jail for attempting to instigate the murder of Bruce Wayne?
  • Scare Lukaz until he divulges his secrets?
  • Stash Lukaz in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude while Batman disguises himself as the boss and infiltrates the gang that Superman’s already infiltrated?
Naturally, Haney’s plot follows the third path.

But that riding accident has given Bruce Wayne a very unusual brain injury. He starts to believe that he actually is the mafia boss he’s disguised as. Yet he also remembers that Scarns is Superman. Lukaz-Batman exposes Scarns-Superman to green kryptonite, rendering him so weak that the only way Superman can save himself is to—
  • yank Batman’s disguise off, thus endangering them both but shocking the rest of the gang?
  • call his superdog Krypto to his rescue?
  • use ventriloquism to make it sound as if Krypto is hovering outside the window, causing the whole gang to rush out, even though the kryptonite would work just as well against the dog?
Once again, we go through door number three.

Superman then acts as if the kryptonite has produced a very unusual brain injury: he pretends to have lost his memory. The mafia boss, who’s still the amnesiac Batman, tells Superman that he’s Scarns and has been fortunate enough to develop superpowers. (Don’t you love when that happens to you?)

Superman fakes being able to crush a crystal of kryptonite, which should tell any mob boss—let alone one who’s actually the world’s finest detective—that something fishy is happening. But instead Boss-Batman remains convinced that Superman now actually believes he’s a mob underling with superpowers.

To recap: Superman thinks that Batman thinks that Superman thinks that Superman’s an underling in the mob that Batman thinks he’s leading. Boss-Batman secretly knows that his underling is actually Superman while Scarns-Superman secretly knows that his boss is actually Batman—but Batman doesn’t know that.

Batman then has Superman (pretending to be Scarns pretending to be Superman) summon Robin and Jimmy to Metropolis and orders them to dig their own graves. This seems fair since World’s Finest, #141, a mere six years before, showed Robin and Jimmy faking their own deaths to fool their adult pals. That tale (written by Edmond Hamilton) involved intelligent, mind-controlling gemstones that simply wanted to return to their home planet and used the young men to raise funds for them. But I digress.

Having completed his grave, Robin tells the man he thinks is Lukaz:
Let Batman know…I died thinking of him! He taught me to live bravely…and to face death the same way! I love him as I loved my own father!
This expression of filial love snaps Batman out of his amnesia. He pulls off his Lukaz mask and puts back on his Batman mask.

But it’s too late! The real Lukaz suddenly appears with real underlings holding real machine guns. He explains that up in the Fortress of Solitude, one of Superman’s robot servants became loyal to him after falling and suffering a very unusual processing injury.

Lukaz then—
  • realizes that having a superpowered, completely loyal robotic servant means he doesn’t need human underlings?
  • recognizes that shooting Batman, Robin, and Jimmy Olson would mean there would be nothing left to stop Superman from grabbing the whole gang?
  • accepts Superman’s offer to kill Jimmy and Robin with his heat vision?
I don’t want to spoil the entire story for you, so I’ll let you figure out that last one on your own. I’ll just say the dénouement involves wax dummies, picking a lock with superbreath, and a lucite box containing charred organs labeled:
Hearts of Robin and Jimmy Olson Killed by Alonzo Scarns
Because that’s the only way Superman can think to make Lukaz think that Superman still thinks he’s Scarns.

17 April 2010

Awww

For Godson’s birthday I sent him copies of Batman and Robin, #7-9, written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Cameron Stewart. As shown here, some of the action takes place in London along the Thames, and Godson lives in London along the Thames. If you were a nine-year-old boy, wouldn’t you want Batman to visit your home town?

I got back a very special thank-you card: Godson customized a photo of twin polar bear cubs to give one of them a bat cowl and batarang. (A professional’s variation of the same theme.)

For Godson’s Brother I sent one of Eric Shanower’s Oz comics, and got back a hand-drawn picture of an Oz book.

16 April 2010

The Atlantic Gets Diary of a Wimpy Kid

In a review of the recent movie adaptation, James Parker writes perceptively for the Atlantic Monthly about how Jeff Kinney’s books work:

Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its three sequel volumes are droll, coolly experimental, and quite clearly—as far as the kids are concerned—on the money. The cartoons are in a continual and rather sophisticated dialogue with the text, answering, amplifying, or ironizing it, and it’s amazing how much funniness Kinney can inject into his spare little images.
In contrast, I was disappointed in the reaction of the Boston Globe’s Ty Burr:
The movie’s bigger problem is that its live-action Greg Heffley is a jerk. In his quest for instant fame, our hero treats his friend like dirt, trash-talks the school’s perfectly reasonable alt-girl (Chloë Moretz), ditches a group of kindergartners in a construction pit in the rain (and blames it on Rowley), and otherwise behaves like a little Hun.
Yeah, Greg is ruthless. That’s the point. His ruthlessness in self-preservation is, like his humiliations, elevated a bit above what most books reveal about middle school. Maybe this doesn’t come across as nicely on screen, but I got the sense Burr was expecting a more typical movie.

Finally, an even less kindly review from Godson’s Brother when first looking into Diary of a Wimpy Kit Do-It-Yourself Book, the spin-off meant to encourage kids to try their own writing and cartoons:
they are just blank because Jeff Kinney is too lazy to think up anything more himself

15 April 2010

Rowling’s Patriotism

The Times of London, a right-leaning newspaper but eager as any media outlet for a superstar byline, just published this essay by J. K. Rowling on why she dislikes the Conservative Party platform.

Even more important, Rowling explains why she pays taxes on her many millions of pounds in income in Britain when many other subjects with incomes nearly as high—including, it appears, the deputy chair of the Conservative Party—live outside the UK for most of the year in order to pay less. It’s a little something called patriotism.

the first time I ever met my recently retired accountant, he put it to me point-blank: would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.

I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism.
Rowling goes on to say, “Child poverty remains a shameful problem in this country, but it will never be solved by throwing millions of pounds of tax breaks at couples who have no children at all.”

Indeed, I like to think that the guiding purpose of a democratic government should be to provide more equal opportunity in an unequal world, for the benefit of future generations. Which gives me an opportunity to note that this is National Library Week, and public and school libraries are one great equalizer.

14 April 2010

Designing the Imaginary Novelization of Oz

Jessica Hische, professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has posted a blog entry about her students’ responses to an assignment:

Because I only had five weeks with the students, I decided to assign one main project with multiple components — book cover design + endpapers, titlepage, and bookplate for a special edition novelization of The Wizard of Oz.
The results are quite impressive, though I wasn’t the only visitor miffed that the copy for this imaginary book says, “A Novelization of the Original Motion Picture.”

To commenters who pointed out that The Wizard of Oz is already a novel, and that the MGM movie isn’t “original” (there were earlier movie adaptations), Hische explained:
I figured because the course was only 5 weeks, I couldn’t assign the book to read as I would barely get a cover out of them by the end of my time there. I chose something a bit more familiar, with a ton of excellent visual reference.
A lot of the covers do evoke the 1939 look nicely. The jacket studded with candy puzzled me because food is very basic in L. Frank Baum’s book, but then I realized it must refer to the Lollipop Guild. And the overall Technicolor art direction.

The images above were created by Michael Olivo, but I recommend the whole array.

13 April 2010

A Sudden Turn in The Flash Companion

At last weekend’s Boston Comic-Con, I found myself chatting with Keith Dallas, compiler of The Flash Companion. I’m not a Flash fan, but I knew from the same publisher’s Titans Companions volumes that this series offers lots of behind-the-scenes stories of comic-book publishing. I’m intrigued by that process, especially its collaborative and corporate qualities, and this book had plenty to keep me interested despite not knowing one Rogue (Flash villain) from another.

Like other books in the series, The Flash Companion assembles many detailed interviews with the major writers, artists, and occasionally editors involved in the series. Most of the questions address fans’ interests, narrow as those might be, as in:

  • What Flash story are you most proud of? [81]
  • Were there other Rogues you had wanted to re-design? [178]
  • On your website you offer a theory on how Barry Allen could have been “resurrected” despite the seeming finality of his Crisis on Infinite Earths death. Can you describe this theory? [111]
But Dallas suddenly got a lot deeper in an interview with Mike Baron, the writer chosen to restart the Flash series in 1987.
KD: The late 1980s were a particular heyday for you. At the time you started writing Flash in 1987, you were also writing Nexus, Badger, Robotech Masters, and Marvel had you on The Punisher.

MB: I was a busy boy.

D: [chuckles] Can you describe your career at that point? What was it like writing all those titles?

B: Well, there was a lot of confusion.

D: How so?

B: [pauses] Keith, at the time I was making a lot of money, and I was doing a lot of cocaine.

D: Really?
Dallas told me that his interview tape at that moment preserves the sound of him dropping his pen. Because we comic-book fans don’t usually expect to be invited to those sorts of parties.

Yet comics writers and fans are as susceptible to addiction as other people. Dallas’s friendly curiosity and Baron’s willingness to talk about his recovery add a valuable note to the book. Not that there’s anything wrong with analyzing all the ways that DC Comics and its creators have reimagined the Scarlet Speedster, but there are some problems one can’t run away from.

12 April 2010

The Versatile Chris Wormell

I’m very fond of Chris Wormell’s picture book George and the Dragon, which I discussed back here.

But I’m even more impressed by this British illustrator after seeing Seven Impossible Things’ wonderful interview and sampling of his work in other media. The same guy who created this bunny also painted the cover above. And that’s a wood engraving. By the same guy. Really.

11 April 2010

Gerry Conway on Robin in 1981

In December 1981, The Comics Journal published an interview with comics scripter Gerry Conway. This conversation took place during the period when, as recent weekly Robins have traced, Conway was helping to move Dick Grayson out of the shadow of Batman’s cape.

In the interview Conway stated, “I’m tentatively scheduled to write the Robin backup feature in Batman.” Depending on when the interview took place, this might be an early reference to the mid-1981 three-part story about Dick returning to a traveling circus that I described last week. Or it might refer to plans for an ongoing feature that never came about.

Conway expressed a traditional view of Robin, as well as Captain America’s boy sidekick:

Bucky ideally should be about 15 years old, just as Robin ideally should be about 15 years old. They should be on the verge of manhood, they should be on the verge of taking on the responsibility for their own lives, and they should be looking toward Captain America or Batman or whoever as the model on which they want to build their own lives. . . .

Robin now is almost a college graduate in his early 20s, I would guess, or late teens; at the very earliest he’d be 19. So you’ve lost that essential connection.
Conway thus helped to bring Dick Grayson to independence without having a clear sense of what the character would represent after that. No wonder the conclusion to his three-part story—“I am myself!”—is tautological. The question remained: Who is Dick Grayson to be?

Of course, most young people face that question as they enter adulthood. Finding his priorities and confirming his values helped to define Robin’s symbolic value for the next couple of years—but within the pages of the New Teen Titans magazine by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez.

Conway was already scripting most issues of Detective Comics, and he took over Batman with issue #348, in mid-1982. That story brought the Caped Crusader back to Wayne Manor and the bat-cave, returning the saga to its pre-1969 settings. Robin helped moved Batman home, but did Conway have more in mind for him?

As it turned out, he didn’t. Titans artist Pérez described the situation in a 1984 interview archived at the Titans Tower website:
Gerry Conway, who was handling the Batman series at the time, had priority over Robin. Since he was the leader of the Teen Titans, it put us in a compromising position. Marv was being complimented on his characterization, I was being complimented on making Robin look like an adult at last. Yet we couldn't do anything more than just maintain a certain facade; we'd just make a very virile Robin. but couldn't do anything with his personality or his basic character. That was all the responsibility of whoever was writing Batman.

It wasn't until Gerry Conway said that he had no intentions of using Robin that we were given carte blanche. Then, there was talk that they wanted to give Batman a new kid sidekick, in order to bring back the father image of the character.
Conway’s vision that Robin “should be on the verge of manhood” thus opened the door for an older Dick Grayson to become Nightwing, affirming his step into adulthood. Conway went on to introduce the first Jason Todd who, in Detective Comics, #526, first went into a fight as the new Boy Wonder.

10 April 2010

Meinhardt Raabe Dies at 94

Today’s New York Times brought news of Meinhardt Raabe’s death at age 94. Raabe is best known for playing the coroner in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz, though the character’s voice was dubbed. When I heard Raabe speak at Oz conventions, however, I was most impressed by other parts of his life and his overall drive.

Many of the Munchkin performers were in their late teens in 1938, when they shot their scene. That means they were about twenty years old when the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into World War 2. Many of the young men were eager to serve their country, but because of their height they were all classified as 4-F, ineligible for military service.

Raabe ended up training pilots as part of the Civil Air Patrol. He was the smallest licensed pilot of the time, and ended up flying more types of airplanes than he would have in military service.

Raabe discussed that work, and other parts of his career, in Memories of a Munchkin, assembled with Daniel Kinske. I feared this book would be a hodgepodge, but it hangs together well, and the production values are excellent.

09 April 2010

The Eisner Award Nominations of Oz

Among this year’s nominees for Eisner Awards for excellence in American comics are three with an Oz connection.

Eric Shanower and Skottie Young’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz was nominated for Best Limited Series or Story Arc, and for Best Publication for Kids. Shanower has won two Eisners for his Age of Bronze series, but for Young, judging by his reaction on Twitter, this is an exciting new honor.

Philippe Ghielmetti’s design for the Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz collection from Sunday Press was nominated for Best Publication Design [and, the Wonderful Blog of Oz points out, for Best Archival Collection/Project—Strips]. This is a giant-size reissue of the newspaper comic page Baum wrote in the early 1900s, along with a competing series from his former colleague W. W. Denslow.

And, though it’s several steps off the Yellow Brick Road, the magazine Fables received nominations for Best Continuing Series and Best Writer in Bill Willingham. A young magic-worker named Ozma has been appearing in this comic book’s recent storylines.

David Small’s Stitches received nominations for Best Reality-Based Work and Best Writer/Artist–Nonfiction. It’s notable that this book was not nominated as Best Publication for Kids or Best Publication for Teens. Within the comics community, there’s no assumption that the comics form automatically makes a work suitable for younger readers.

08 April 2010

Are Used Copies the Biggest Competition for POD Reprints?

Last month Mike Shatzkin mused on the life of In Cold Type, by his father, Leonard Shatzkin—a high-level dissection of trade publishing issued in 1982. In particular, he noted Houghton Mifflin’s curious disclaimer (PDF) that, although the company found the ideas in the book interesting, it did not share or endorse them.

Shatzkin noted that after In Cold Type went out of print, his father quickly got it into a print-on-demand system. But that prompts a new observation:

While Dad’s book is in Lightning [Source], there’s hardly any reason for somebody to buy the POD version anymore. The combination of the ones we’ve sold over the past 10 or 12 years and the relentlessly-increasing efficiency of the online used book supply system means there are probably enough copies in circulation to require bulk demand — for, say, 25 or more copies — for it make sense to do anything but shop the net for used. This is happening book by book. It would mean that the valuable shelf life of many scans for POD purposes might be considerably shorter than forever and that some books probably sell their very last newly-printed copy every day.
Of course, the digital file used to create the print-on-demand In Cold Type might become the viable version now that so many people in the book’s small but dedicated target audience are using electronic readers.

By the by, I own a copy of In Cold Type in case anyone wants to make an offer.

07 April 2010

“Children’s books are not real literature”?

John Hogan’s interview with Toon Books publisher and New Yorker art editor Françoise Mouly moves away from easy-reader comics for a while to discuss the larger question of how that literary magazine views children’s books:

I had a conversation with a colleague at the New Yorker where I was pushing and saying how come we don’t review more children’s books and more children’s literature? The only thing I can get the New Yorker to do is a yearly paper on it, but not on a regular basis. We don’t do book reviews in general, but still, we do mention books.

And my colleague was bluntly saying, “Well, it’s because children’s books are not real literature.”

I said, “Oh, okay. Explain that.” And he did.

He said, “Well, they are geared for a specific audience, and in literature, the author writes for himself, doesn’t have a specific audience in mind. But by definition, for children, you have to know who you are writing for and you have to take into account the limitations of your reader, and that makes it genre literature, not true literature.”
(I plan to discuss whether all children’s literature is genre literature in my workshop on what it means to write within genres at the SCBWI New England conference in May. But I think genres are defined by readership expectations, not limitations. And I suspect that authors who don’t write with the thought of communicating to their readers don’t get published by major presses or magazines. But back to Mouly.)
Now that’s interesting. To him, that’s obvious. To me, that made me realize even though it’s true we were specifically as editors trying to help the author come up with his or her best version of his strip, not worrying whether people would like it or how complex it might be, and that’s true for the New Yorker as well.

When you work for kids, especially the Toon books, for example, you have to take into account the reading level, not just the age, but the vocabulary, and we work within those limitations. I even had a conversation with my husband [Art Spiegelman], who wasn’t at first that interested in having to do something for kids because of those limitations. It’s only when he did it that he realized it’s akin to doing formal poetry. You have a set of limitations; you can only do your sonnet with so many beats—but then within that there is room for art.
Mouly has further interesting things to say about Jeff Smith’s Bone and Spiegelman’s Maus as unintended literature for young people, what defines a classic, and why major publishing corporations shy away from establishing new types of books.

06 April 2010

Gasp! A Short History of Comic-Book Exhalations

Last month master comics letterer Todd Klein looked at the evolution of a form of punctuation unique to comics: breath marks.

Those are little radiating lines—Klein notes they became standardized to three on each side—around certain words in comic-book dialogue. Experienced readers understand that the character doesn’t speak that such a word, nor does it approximate any sound from the character’s mouth.

Rather, the word within breath marks is a label for the sound the character makes and its emotional meaning. Breath marks and the word balloon’s tail are the equivalent of “he sobbed” or “she sighed” or “the whole crowd gasped” in prose.

Using panels from early DC Comics, Klein traces early comic-book letterers’ struggles to show characters’ non-verbal sounds within word balloons. At first they used parentheses—which were also part of how some comics signaled thoughts. But after a few years letterers codified the use of this new punctuation mark.

Letterer Nate Peikos has said that breath marks are also called “cat’s whiskers,” “fireflies,” and “crow’s feet.” On Klein’s blog writer Kurt Busiek offers another alternate term: “roachlegs.” He comments:

I remember working with one editor [Cat Yronwode, this discussion suggests] who insisted that anything that would ordinarily be enclosed in roachlegs be spelled out as a sound, so “gasp” became “H-hh!” or something. [T]he reasoning was that no one in a book or movie would actually say “gasp,” and so such things were comic-booky.

My argument that in books they do it through narration, but comics evolved other methods, and if we were going to shy away from comic-booky things, it was worth noting that in books and movies when people talked, big white ovals with their words in them didn’t appear over their heads, and loud noises didn’t manifest as floating letters, either, fell on deaf ears.
Opinion appears to be divided on how best to signal breath marks in a script:
>cough!< *wheeze* =puff puff=
I recently typed my first *sigh*, but I was trying to match this classic style. I actually prefer the sound-effect approach—more showing than telling.

05 April 2010

Why Thought Balloons Burst

Having traced the development of American comics thought balloons, their typical use, and alternate systems of narration, I approach the question of why they’ve virtually disappeared from mainstream American comics. Why did one comics publisher recently tell a star novelist not to use them at all?

This conversation among comics scripters offers several competing explanations:

  • That certain dominant editors in the late 1980s and 1990s, particularly Jim Shooter at Marvel and Cat Yronwode at Eclipse, insisted that magazines move away from the comics techniques that I call “showing the invisible”: thought balloons, sound effects, cutaway views, etc.
  • That comics were supposed to replicate movies, where the big money is, and most movies don’t use narrators or voiceovers to tell characters’ thoughts.
  • That Frank Miller’s Daredevil and Batman stories from the late 1980s and Alan Moore’s scripts for V for Vendetta (1982-89) and Watchmen (1986-87) didn’t use thought balloons, and were so striking and influential that they made the traditional comics narrative style look cheesy.
Within that conversation scripter Steven Grant added another influence:
This is going to sound self-centered, but I know one thing that greatly influenced overuse of the “first person caption as substitute thought balloon” in the mid-80s: my use of the gimmick in the PUNISHER mini series. Now I wasn't particularly influenced by Frank or anyone else when I used them, I just had a vision of The Punisher as someone who felt under no compulsion to explain himself to anyone, but he had been established as keeping a diary/war journal…so the first person captions became essentially this running diary he kept in his head, his dislocated commentary on his situation.
Grant’s use of the “diary/war journal” to help tell his story is what my Six Parameters of Narrative Voice calls a “Paper Trail”: narration through what purports to be a document created within the story.

But why was there such a big artistic change in such a relatively short time? I think a big part of the explanation has to lie in economics. In the 1980s, the major American comics publishers recognized that their audiences had become smaller, older, and found in specialized stores. The companies were no longer publishing for kids picking out what magazine covers grabbed them at the newsstand.

Older comics readers could keep up with more sophisticated storytelling techniques, and wanted it to keep them interested. They wanted scripts that did more showing and less telling. Readers knew the classic characters, so they didn’t need everything spelled out in each issue; instead, they wanted to see those personalities explored more deeply. They wanted more nuanced discussions of heroism and the values or conflicts different characters symbolize.

The result was a a greater emphasis on characters’ internal lives, which made first-person verbal narration more powerful than the third-person omniscient approach that had dominated the first decades of superhero stories.

It’s notable, however, that most adventure comics aren’t really told in the first person. They continue to include scenes that the central character/narrator can’t be privy to: villains conspiring, for example. But those scenes usually have no verbal narration or commentary. We readers are simply privy to what the hero can’t see, for the sake of the story.

Of course, it would have been possible for comics creators to focus on one character’s thoughts while continuing to use thought balloons. But once third-person narrative captions went away, that freed up space at the edges of panels, and captions don’t block as much art as thought balloons and their tails. (They’re also a lot easier to produce on a computer.)

The first-person narrative approach, once the exception, has become so established that creators can now play with readers’ expectations for it. For instance, Jeph Loeb’s Superman/Batman scripts from 2003 track both title characters’ thoughts in each scene through two set of narrative captions in contrasting colors. The result is dramatic, though also easily parodied.

04 April 2010

Thought Balloons and Systems of Narration

Thought balloons (discussed at length yesterday) were part of a system of narration that dominated American adventure comics for decades. This system also involved an omniscient narrator, often bombastic and occasionally redundant.

Using thought balloons, this narrative approach could reveal any character’s thoughts, including hero or villain, as long as it served the story. Conversely, since adventure comics depended on sudden plot turns, this style also involved concealing characters’ thoughts if they would give away the next twist too early. (See “Reason for Robin, #2.”)

Other comics genres took different approaches to narration. Romance comics were often told in the first-person voice of the central character, like magazine “confessions”; both captions and thought balloons let us into that character’s head, and hers alone. Horror comics were introduced and narrated by recurring figures like the Crypt Keeper, who had supernatural insight into characters’ thoughts and fates. And of course there were experiments and exceptions within every genre.

To find examples of the typical adventure-comics approach in full flower, I looked at Batman issues from the early 1980s, since they were handy. Batman, #336, has a script by Roy Thomas, based on a Bob Rozakis plot. The captions are in the voice of an omniscient narrator. There are thought balloons from Batman/Bruce Wayne, Alfred Pennyworth, Commissioner Jim Gordon, and two villains, the Spellbinder and the Cluemaster. That narrator knows everything!

This style offers leeway for a character to take over the narration for a while. Gerry Conway’s main story in Batman, #338, has an omniscient narrator, also displays the hero’s voice in both thought balloons and captions, and quotes the villain’s voice in captions for a flashback. The captions in characters’ voices include quotation marks around the words. (This tale also has one passing thought balloon for a saleswoman we never see again.)

Yet that same stretch of Batman magazine offers an alternative way of narrating adventure comics, a way that would come to dominate the form. That style appears in the back-up feature in Batman, #337-9, featuring none other than Robin.

Written by Conway, this three-part story shows Dick Grayson looking back on his life, exploring his roots in a traveling circus, and solidifying his identity beyond being Batman’s sidekick.

That story is narrated by Dick himself. The captions are all in his voice; there are no quotation marks to set them off from an omniscient narrator‘s captions.

Likewise, Dick is the only character trailing thought balloons. As narrator, he’s not privy to other characters’ thoughts, only to their actions and words. And as the following panel shows, the captions and thought balloons run into each other. (One theme of this installment is that Dick’s fretting about his past can distract him from the present.) This first-person narrative approach makes perfect sense for this story. The external plot—a murder mystery at the circus—is minor. So minor that Dick appears in his Robin costume in only three panels of the third installment, all flashbacks.

What matters in this tale is Dick’s internal journey to figuring out who he is, separate from Batman, with a different drive. That continues a process which began in preceding issues of Batman and which we also saw in concurrent issues of The New Teen Titans. And it was a forerunner of recent decades of superhero stories that are, at least nominally, as much about the heroes’ individual emotional lives as about their ability to catch bad guys and hit them.TOMORROW: Along the thought balloon trail.

NEXT WEEK: Gerry Conway on Robin.

03 April 2010

Thoughts on Thought Balloons

As early Superman panels showed yesterday, it took a few years for American comics to settle on a way to communicate characters’ thoughts: a new kind of word balloon. But in the last couple of decades, mainstream publishers largely discarded that system, and thought balloons aren’t that common in more artistic “indie” comics, either.

In a recent publicity interview, novelist Stephen King discussed how he learned that DC’s Vertigo imprint no longer uses what the reporter calls “thought bubbles.”

Thought bubbles—those puffy, dotted clouds that were a staple of early comics—have been phased out. “I got this kind of embarrassed call from the editors saying, ‘Ah, Steve, we don’t do that anymore.’ ‘You don’t do that anymore?’ I said. ‘No, when the characters speak, they speak. If they're thinking, you try to put that across in the narration, in the little narration boxes.’”

So King happily re-wrote to fit the new style—though he still laments the loss of the thought bubble. “I think it’s a shame to lose that arrow out of your quiver. One of the nice things about the written word as opposed to the spoken word in a movie is that you can go into a character's thoughts. You do it in books all the time, right?”
King’s interview led Joe McCulloch into a discussion of what thought balloons symbolize.
captions can be a…cool device, sharp-edged and—this is vital—aloof from the thinking character, hanging away from their head or drifting through entirely unrelated scenes, panels with no characters at all. In contrast, thought balloons have a ‘chain’ that latches them to the applicable thinker, a forced, perhaps confining intimacy, very revealing in looking so silly like fresh thoughts would seem if seen.
Scott McCloud expresses a similar understanding in his response:
The important difference for me is that a thought caption—with or without borders—embodies each thought in a way that encourages us to assume ownership of it as we read. We literally bring each sentiment into existence as a thought, creating an instant bond with the character.

The thought balloon, regardless of shape or style, just by virtue of its pointer, brings a third party into the relationship: the author, gently putting his/her hand on our shoulder and pointing to the face of the thinker with the words “he thought.” Maybe thoughts are just too private for that kind of parental intrusion.
Barry Deutsch thought that analysis doesn’t hold up, and, like McCulloch and McCloud, shared some imaginative uses of thought balloons.

TOMORROW: My take on why mainstream comics let thought balloons drift away, deftly intertwined with the weekly Robin.

02 April 2010

Superman Battles the Challenge of Thought!

This panel is from Action Comics, #6, the sixth comic book to contain a Superman story. Lois Lane and Clark Kent are building that wonderful relationship which, a mere half-century later, convinced fans they were meant to be together forever.

In this panel, writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster clue us in on Lois and Clark’s unexpressed thoughts. But to understand that, we have to know the code the creators used to set off characters’ thoughts from their spoken words in the same balloon: parentheses, dashes, and quotation marks.

I assume some American comic-strip creators tackled the challenge of showing thought before Siegel and Shuster, but I don’t know what they came up with. The early strips I could find are surreal tales like Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland and George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and those characters rarely had unexpressed thoughts. (When Ignatz was puzzled in this strip, Herriman gave him a regular word balloon filled with a big question mark.)

That approach wouldn’t work in a more realistic scene. It’s notable that these examples show Clark Kent thinking secretly; Superman didn’t need to conceal his thoughts in these early stories.

In Action, #11, Clark expressed his thinking inside what later became codified as a “whisper balloon.” Indeed, it’s possible that Clark is whispering to himself here, the way a character in a radio or stage play can speak thoughts aloud while all the other actors pretend to ignore him. But that solution is obviously limited. A hero wouldn’t want to give away his game plan, even quietly, when he was around the Ultra-Humanite or some other villain.

In the early 1940s most American comic books adopted a standard form for showing thoughts: the thought balloon. These word balloons had a trail of ovals to the thinking character rather than a sharply pointing tail, and borders that differed from those of speech balloons, usually by being more cloudy.

Even so, the first of these panels from Action, #64, in 1943 show Siegel and Shuster’s successors pulling out the old technique of parentheses, hyphens, and quotation marks to squeeze a thought into a crowded panel. And they still use dashes and quotation marks inside Superman’s thought balloon to make its meaning doubly clear.