31 May 2010

She’s a Guitarist, Fer Sure

Over the years the Muppets have been rightly criticized for not creating enough prominent female characters. The troupe and its writers have tried, sometimes explicitly. Meanwhile, a few female Muppets with strong personalities, such as Miss Piggy and Prairie Dawn, pulled themselves out of the background.

One long-time female character is Janice, lead guitarist in the Muppet Show house band. I read in the Muppet Wiki that the first sketch of this character was actually male (those are Mick Jagger’s lips), and that her Valley Girl speech pattern arrived when a male puppeteer, the late Richard Hunt, performed her in the second year of The Muppet Show.

That said, Janice is an all-too-rare distinctive female in the Muppets gang: a feminine equal within the otherwise male group of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.

All the pictures I’ve found of Janice performing show her with her guitar. Sometimes that guitar is upside-down or reversed; most Muppet guitarists play left-handed because their operators are busy using their right hands to talk.

So I was a little dismayed to see that The Treasure of Peg-Leg Wilson, a collection of Muppet Show comics from Roger Langridge and BOOM! Studios, introduces Janice as the band’s tambourine player.

I’m not saying Janice isn’t capable of playing the tambourine. Heck, I’m capable of playing the tambourine. In fact, the Muppet Wiki records that different productions have shown Janice playing seven different instruments, and a tambourine was one of the accessories that came with her action figure. But she’s not Tracy Partridge or Betty Cooper or Davy Jones. She’s a lead guitarist.

In the latest Muppet Show comics collection, parodying Peter Pan, Janice has the role of Wendy. It’s good to read that she’s gaining more visibility. On the other hand, that casting shows the troupe’s shallow female personality pool; once Miss Piggy has seized the role of Tinkerbell, there aren’t many other candidates for the story’s female lead. (Muppets created for Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock come under different licenses.)

Incidentally, Langridge’s Muppet Show comics are a hoot, neatly repackaging the old variety show humor. If only they came with musical numbers. And a guitarist.

30 May 2010

When Robin Might Have Had AIDS

Mary Borsellino, co-founder of the Girl-Wonder.org website and author of Girl and Boy Robins, interviewed Judd Winick for Sequential Tart this week. The occasion was the release of the Batman: Under the Hood animated feature that Winick scripted, based on his comics storyline depicting the second Jason Todd’s return from the dead.

Borsellino wrote:

Deciding to put my disturbingly encyclopedic knowledge of all things Jason Todd to good use, I ask Winick if he’s ever heard about a storyline that was planned but never done, wherein Jason’s death would have been from AIDS.

“I think it was a stunning, unbelievable thing. In the time of fears and epidemic, to have had a superhero have it, I was stunned and proud to hear about that. But they were not able to do it. I always forget to ask Denny [O’Neil] about that, about what happened.”
Winick speaks from his present perspective, having become friends with AIDS educator Pedro Zamora on The Real World and writing Pedro and Me (2000), the most influential treatment of AIDS in the comics format (and also, I’ve argued, a milestone in the acceptance of graphic novels in American libraries).

However, the idea that Borsellino spoke of appears to have had a less noble beginning. Back in 2003, former Batman scripter Jim Starlin had this to say to Adelaide Comics:
I always thought that the whole idea of a kid side-kick was sheer insanity. So when I started writing Batman [in 1987], I immediately started lobbying to kill off Robin. At one point DC had this AIDS book they wanted to do. They sent around memos to everybody saying “What character do you think we should, you know, have him get AIDS and do this dramatic thing” and they never ended up doing this project. I kept sending them things saying “Oh, do Robin! Do Robin!” [laughs] And Denny O’Neil said “We can’t kill Robin off”.
Starlin eventually got to depict Jason Todd’s death in a different way. Such a slapdash way, in fact, that I’m pleased DC didn’t take up his idea for a storyline about Robin contracting HIV, which was clearly not motivated by a wish to educate the public or to explore the character. In fact, I doubt the company seriously considered his suggestion.

In 1987, American popular culture was just waking up to the reality of AIDS. That year brought ACT UP, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and Randy Shilts’s And the Band Played On. Children like Ryan White and the Ray brothers were being kept from school even though experts said ordinary contact with HIV-positive people posed no unusual health risks.

In that environment, progressive executives at DC Comics might well have discussed how to use the company’s conduit to readers in their teens and twenties to spread useful information, as it had tried a few years before with the very special issues of New Teen Titans. But the corporation would surely have balked at linking one of its oldest and most valuable trademarks to the still-dreaded disease.

In 1988 DC Comics published stories about gay and HIV-positive characters in New Guardians, Swamp Thing, and Hellraiser, a title from its more mature Vertigo imprint. But those characters were new creations, and they weren’t teenagers.

In the early 1990s the company addressed AIDS in all its magazines by featuring its heroes in a series of one-page public-service advertisements. Some of those ads were nearly explicit about the fallacies behind gay-bashing mobs or assuming “nice women” couldn’t be infected.

But the popular new Robin, Tim Drake, was seen as a character for younger teens. The ad that featured him was therefore especially circumspect about AIDS. It offered reassurance that “casual contact” was safe, advice to learn more, and complete silence on how HIV is transmitted. Ironically, Tim complains, “Nobody tells us. It’s like adults think we can’t handle it or something.”(Remember when getting some facts meant leaving the supercomputer?)

29 May 2010

Can Publishers Think This Sneakily?

Yesterday I contemplated how series publishers are finally formalizing the distribution of small snatches of fiction in digital form as appetizers for longer series. But, I noted, the fear of book piracy remains strong. Angelophile reported thusly on the Bristol International Comics Expo’s panel discussion of digital comics, and the challenge of pirated copies:

Kieron Gillen [of Phonogram] then talked about piracy again and mentioned one developer in the games industry, who, recognizing in advance that their game was likely to be pirated, deliberately leaked a version onto torrent sites.

However, they'd built into the version that it used a certain server for all online peer-to-peer multiplayer games. So every now and again, they'd simply turn off that server, frustrating the users enough that they'd then go out and buy the legal version of the game, then after a while, [the company would] turn on P2P play again.
Because by that time, of course, many of those underground users had been hooked.

Can we imagine an equivalent for electronic publishing? For instance, every digital edition of a book (especially in a series) could contain a link to a dedicated discussion site with extras from the author, but the versions secretly released to torrent sites all feed through a balky server. Hmmm.

28 May 2010

The First Chapter’s Free

Kathy Temean’s Writing and Reading blog pointed me to this article from the Wall Street Journal headlined “Publishers to Issue Digital Works Intended as ‘Appetizers’ for Novels”:

Ballantine Books and Harlequin Teen each plan to issue short standalone digital works intended to serve as “bridges” to coming novels.

On June 1, Toronto-based Harlequin Enterprises, a unit of media company Torstar Corp., intends to give away e-book copies of Julie Kagawa’s “Winter’s Passage.” The 15,000-word novella will serve as a link between Ms. Kagawa’s February debut novel, “The Iron King,” and her second teen novel, “The Iron Daughter,” which goes on sale July 27. . . .

Harlequin plans to offer “Winter’s Passage” at $2.99, beginning in late August.

Separately, Ballantine Books, an imprint of Bertelsmann AG’s Random House Inc. publishing arm, plans to publish in September a digital short story, priced at $1.99, from thriller writer Steve Berry.
This is a variation on the rule common in other forms of commerce: “The first one’s free.” It has the best chance of success in series publishing, where giving away a bit of one book (or even one whole book) can produce sales of many more.

Digital downloads also offer a way for book publishers and their authors to make money from short stories and novellas, particularly those tied to larger series. In print publishing, those were usually too small to fit the economics of the business.

Yet publishers see risk in this sort of giveaway, fearing that readers will get the idea that texts can come much cheaper than they are now. Such worries made firms insist that Amazon split its Kindle bestseller list into paid and free downloads.

TOMORROW: And then of course there’s the fear of piracy.

27 May 2010

Whenever an Appeal Is Made to Law

Late in Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, his fourth novel in the series, L. Frank Baum took a cue from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and tried to create a bitterly satirical courtroom scene. Of course, he had a different sensibility, so instead of nonsense and madness the scene was full of vaudeville cross-talk and some genuine moral questions (with the cross-talk eventually drowning out the moral answers).

The case began when people suspected Dorothy’s pet kitten Eureka of eating a piglet. Princess Ozma, still relatively new at ruling, did her best to bring about justice.

“I will summon the Court to meet in the Throne Room at three o’clock,” replied Ozma. “I myself will be the judge, and the kitten shall have a fair trial.”

“What will happen if she is guilty?” asked Dorothy.

“She must die,” answered the Princess.

“Nine times?” enquired the Scarecrow.

“As many times as is necessary,” was the reply. “I will ask the Tin Woodman to defend the prisoner, because he has such a kind heart I am sure he will do his best to save her. And the Woggle-Bug shall be the Public Accuser, because he is so learned that no one can deceive him.”

“Who will be the jury?” asked the Tin Woodman.

“There ought to be several animals on the jury,” said Ozma, “because animals understand each other better than we people understand them. So the jury shall consist of the Cowardly Lion, the Hungry Tiger, Jim the Cab-horse, the Yellow Hen, the Scarecrow, the Wizard, Tik-tok the Machine Man, the Sawhorse and Zeb of Hugson’s Ranch. That makes the nine which the law requires, and all my people shall be admitted to hear the testimony.”

They now separated to prepare for the sad ceremony; for whenever an appeal is made to law sorrow is almost certain to follow—even in a fairyland like Oz.
I mention this episode because at this moment I’m reporting for jury duty.

26 May 2010

When Did Problems with Gulf of Mexico Oil Drills Start?

Earlier this week the New York Times got an advance look at the U.S. Interior Department inspector general’s report on how the its Minerals Management Service dealt with companies drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico. But Ian Urbina’s article on it neglected to drive home an important point, so I’ve edited accordingly:

Federal regulators responsible for oversight of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico allowed industry officials several years ago to fill in their own inspection reports in pencil — and then turned them over to the regulators, who traced over them in pen before submitting the reports to the agency, according to an inspector general’s report to be released this week.

The report, which describes inappropriate behavior by the staff at the Minerals Management Service from 2005 to 2007 [under the Bush-Cheney administration], also found that inspectors had accepted meals, tickets to sporting events and gifts from at least one oil company while they were overseeing the industry. . . .

In mid-2008 [under the Bush-Cheney administration], a minerals agency employee conducted four inspections on drilling platforms when he was also negotiating a job with the drilling company, a cover letter to the report said. . .

The inquiry began after investigators at the Office of the Inspector General received an anonymous letter, dated Oct. 28, 2008 [when it was clear that Barack Obama would soon replace the Bush-Cheney administration], addressed to the United States Attorney’s Office in New Orleans, alleging that a number of unnamed minerals agency employees had accepted gifts from oil and gas production company representatives, the report said. . . .

The report said the inspector general had developed confidential sources “who provided additional information pertaining to M.M.S. employees at the Lake Charles District Office, including acceptance of a trip to the 2005 Peach Bowl game [during the Bush-Cheney administration] that was paid for by an oil and gas company; illicit drug use; misuse of government computers; and inspection report falsification.” . . .

Some industry experts have speculated that the Deepwater spill and the report’s findings could explain the sudden resignation this month of Chris C. Oynes, who led the Gulf of Mexico region for the Minerals Management Service for about 12 years until he was promoted to a senior position in Washington in 2007 [by the Bush-Cheney administration].

Mr. Oynes is not mentioned in the inspector general’s report, and Interior Department officials have declined to answer questions about his resignation.

In a cover letter to Mr. Salazar, Ms. Kendall, the acting inspector general, said she wanted to emphasize that all the conduct highlighted predated Mr. Salazar’s tenure and his January 2009 revamping of the ethics code [right after the Bush-Cheney administration].
Back in February I did the same editing for a newspaper article about the Toyota recall. Of course, the Bush-Cheney administration had a consistent approach to policing large corporations.

25 May 2010

It’s Pronounced “Check-Eye”

I’m just back from moderating the Foundation for Children’s Books celebration of “New England Voices.” This year’s session featured three talented and friendly authors with three very different types of books and types of presentations:

And then came the question session. I always think the best questions for a panel of three authors address the work of two or ideally all of them. So where’s the common ground?

Um, wasn’t it hot today?

Did you like dinner at Tartufo?

Where do you get your ideas?

But in fact there are some areas of overlap. First, the baseball team in Super Sluggers is haunted by ecological disasters: thunderclouds over their slumping hitter, unseasonable winter, plagues of locusts. A Place for Frogs talks about how changes in habitats affect animals. Kevin and Melissa were thus able to discuss the environmental awareness of today’s kids, how the idea of ecological trouble is now part of our world-view.

Second, the picture-book authors are using text in non-traditional ways, not just a single thread of third-person narration that an adult can read. A Place for Frogs has three levels of text: a simple main text, additional information about each species, and a more complex description of an effort to save that habitat. Hip and Hop is in comics style, with speech balloons in addition to the narration.

That opened the door to Jef talking about how comics techniques have become acceptable in picture books; he used to write his stories as comics, then convert them to traditional picture-book forms, but now he doesn’t have to. Melissa and audience members talked about how kids can process different levels of texts, particularly when reading together (PDF download).

24 May 2010

Feeling Grateful for Martin Gardner

I was sorry to read yesterday of the death of Martin Gardner, longtime columnist for Scientific American and, somewhat surprisingly, one of my favorite childhood authors.

I may have first come across Gardner’s name as coauthor of The Wizard of Oz and Who He Was, which Michael Patrick Hearn built on to create The Annotated Wizard of Oz. Gardner also wrote introductions to most of Dover’s 1970s reprints of L. Frank Baum’s non-Oz fantasies, and I was abundantly pleased to follow in his footsteps in introducing a centenary edition of John Dough and the Cherub a few years back.

But Martin Gardner stimulated my growing brain even more outside the Nonestic world. My parents had a copy of The Annotated Alice, and I read and reread that book many times—eventually only the annotations. Gardner later assembled another volume of Alice annotations and a short Annotated Hunting of the Snark, though the original contained his best material. I ended up writing my undergraduate thesis on Lewis Carroll’s Hunting of the Snark.

Another book I reread several times was Gardner’s The Incredible Dr. Matrix, collecting his columns about a fictional numerologist and con man. Like the Wizard, Dr. Irving Joshua Matrix is a charming humbug—but in his tales there’s always the whiff of money changing hands. The essays in that volume and some later additions are now in The Magic Numbers of Dr. Matrix.

Gardner’s books showed me how stories, even children’s adventures, could be read at many different levels, some possibly intended by the author and others just for fun. They showed that storytelling and mathematics didn’t have to be separate disciplines, though I must admit I didn’t even try most of the puzzles. Gardner’s amused take on Dr. Matrix fed my interest in con men and how people delude themselves.

One of my most important lessons from Gardner was skepticism. In 1974, he wrote a Dr. Matrix column about “pyramid power,” parodying ideas that had circulated in France for some decades. Soon American authors published books titled Pyramid Power, trumpeting how this marvelous discovery had been discussed in Scientific American! In The Incredible Dr. Matrix Gardner laid out that sequence of events for me, thoroughly amused by the folly.

23 May 2010

You’ll Know Who I Am by the Songs that I Sing

This Sunday Oz and Ends once again features the musical stylings of Mr. Richard Grayson.This performance was captured during a high-school campout in “The Teen-Age Gap!” a story published in Detective Comics, #386, dated April 1966. The script was written by Mike Friedrich, and the art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito.

The song is “Today,” composed by Randy Sparks for the New Christy Minstrels and used in the 1964 Civil War western Advance to the Rear. Here’s a video of the group performing.

Here are the full lyrics and guitar chords if you want to play along. I should note that a later issue of Detective revealed that Dick could finger-pick a twelve-string, so he may not just be playing the chords.

Today “Today” might be best remembered for John Denver’s live version from 1974, eight years after Dick Grayson essayed it. Denver’s performance is one of many by country musicians, but Dick’s biggest fans know which version they prefer.

21 May 2010

Beware the Coming of Casual Friday!

From “The Fighting Yank’s Notebook” in Fighting Yank, #28, published in 1949.

20 May 2010

This Is Not My Mother’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz

From the Guardian newspaper:

After Dorothy had been walking for an hour, she came across a Scarecrow that winked at her. "Are you alive?" she asked.

"Of course I am."

"Then why don't you move?"

"Because I've got a pole rammed up my arse."
This comes in a series of “Digested Classics” by John Crace. This one may not have fully agreed with him.

19 May 2010

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

And quite likely the wisest thing I’ll ever read prompted by an issue of I, Zombie. In Mark London Williams’s review for Guys Lit Wire and Nexus Graphica:

Are there really such things as “single issues” of comics now, or are they essentially individually released chapters of longer books, since the graphic novelization/collection is nearly inevitable in most cases; and if so, will it affect the way “prose” books are someday released?
Indeed, the arrival of digital delivery to handheld devices means the serialization of prose fiction is once again economically viable—indeed, quite probably it will be economically necessary as a way to build readership.

Publishers or authors themselves will distribute their novels in installments, hoping readers get hooked at the start and are ready to buy as they consume more chapters. Remember, the first one’s always free.

18 May 2010

Page One, Panel One

One of the comics creators on yesterday’s list of names I dropped in my comics workshop at the SCBWI New England conference is Eric Shanower. He’s the Eisner-winning creator of Adventures in Oz and Age of Bronze, and scripter of Marvel’s ongoing adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books with artist Skottie Young. And in fact he’s the most important name behind my workshop.

Years back, Eric gave me my first clues about the difference between comics scripts and picture-book manuscripts. Even earlier he’d admonished me about writing “bubbles” instead of “balloons,” and later he assured me that everyone in the “graphic-novel” business still calls the medium “comics.” He helped me calibrate how much visual detail a script should state and how much it should leave to an artist.

Most important, a couple of years ago I mentioned how I was still hesitant about writing the comics script about the Revolutionary War that I was imagining. “It’s not that hard to start,” Eric told me. “‘Page one, panel one…’”

“It’s the part after that which worries me!” I snapped. But really it was getting started at all on a new form of storytelling. Eric’s encouragement finally got me going after months of research.

If my workshop hadn’t run through all the allotted time and a bit more, I would have repeated that advice to the attendees. So for anyone interested in exploring the comics form and still listening—

Just try it. Adapt a story you like into comics form. Convert one of your picture-book manuscripts. Tell a joke or anecdote in pictures and dialogue. Try a five-panel foldy comic. Grab some practice with the script form, and play with graphic techniques. Have fun!

It all starts, “Page one, panel one…”

17 May 2010

Names I Dropped on Sunday Afternoon

For yesterday’s SCBWI New England workshop on how comics writing differs from picture-book writing, I created a handout listing how-to books, studies, and web resources I’ve found useful. But I didn’t create a full list of the titles that I showed or mentioned as examples. Some people asked about those, so I’ve assembled this nearly-exact reading list.

comics work by comics theorists
Will Eisner, The Spirit series
Will Eisner, A Contract with God
Scott McCloud, Zot! series

heavily illustrated novels that aren’t quite comics
Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid series
Ruth McNally Barshaw, Ellie McDoodle series
Greg Fishbone, Penguins of Doom
Lucinda Landon, Meg Mackintosh series
Jules Feiffer, The Man in the Ceiling
Brian Selznick, The Inventions of Hugo Cabret

picture books that use comics techniques
Peter Spier, Noah’s Ark
Susan Meddaugh, Martha Speaks and sequels
Maurice Sendak, In the Night Kitchen
Jules Feiffer, Meanwhile

comics for young readers and teens
Ann M. Martin and Raina Telgemeier, Baby-sitter’s Club series adaptation
Eleanor Davis, Stinky
Eleanor Davis, The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook
Matthew Loux, Salt Water Taffy series
David Hutchison, Oz: The Manga adaptation
Shannon, Dean, and Nathan Hale, Calamity Jack
Keith Giffen, John Rogers, et al., Blue Beetle series
Linda Medley, Castle Waiting series
Jeff Smith, Bone series
Jimmy Gownley, Amelia Rules! series
Eric Shanower and Skottie Young, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz adaptation
David Petersen, Mouse Guard series
Lora Innes, The Dreamer series
Matt Phelan, The Storm in the Barn

comics for teens and adults
Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Cameron Stewart, et al., Batman and Robin series
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen
Beth Varon, Robot Dreams
Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, Y: The Last Man series
Neil Gaiman, Sandman series
Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, The Killing Joke
Eric Shanower, Age of Bronze

16 May 2010

The Wit and Wisdom of Comics Alliance on Robin

I had a different idea for this weekly Robin, but then Chris Sims and David Uzumeri discussed the top kid sidekicks in comic books at Comics Alliance, and I simply had to quote from their conversation:

  • Uzumeri: I love Dick Grayson, the original, the carnie kid taken in by a billionaire who indulged him in his own delayed childhood, Bruce’s physical younger brother and emotional older. I love Jason Todd, the angsty, rebellious teenager with the cojones to lift the wheels off the Batmobile. I love how he was the pissy, you’re-an-asshole Robin who kept calling Bruce on his hypocrisy. He was the punk Robin. I loved Tim Drake, the self-made, self-motivated Batman and Robin fanboy who forced himself into the legacy purely with his wits and his drive. I even love Stephanie Brown. And my GOD, do I love Damian Wayne.
  • Sims: I mean, he was really easy for me to relate to as a kid because I didn’t necessarily want to BE Batman, but I definitely wanted to hang out with Batman.
  • Uzumeri: Nobody wants to have their parents horribly murdered, but everyone wants to hang out in a cave that looks like the TARDIS meets FAO Schwarz.
  • Sims: I’ve always wanted to have a miniature version of myself that would run around and distract people while I punched them in the face. It’s kind of the American Dream, when you think about it.
  • Uzumeri: Dick Grayson’s problems largely have to do with trying to figure out which superhot lady he’s going to get with that night, or having to call up Batman again and remind him to talk to people.
  • Uzumeri: I totally picture Batman as the kind of guy who realizes he’s lonely and wants to hang out with Robin so he calls in a bomb threat at the nice restaurant Robin’s having dinner with some lady at.
  • Uzumeri: Speedy is the most editorially abused of all kid sidekicks. His life is a nonstop train of tragedy. It’s like if Green Arrow is supposed to be a lighter version of Batman, then all of his sidekicks need to be really dark.
  • Uzumeri: Dick Grayson keeps getting older but Bruce Wayne stays the same age
  • Sims: I’ve read a lot of Silver Age Batman comics, and I can pretty much assure you that the story with Gaggy is the most weirded-out I’ve ever seen Batman and Robin. All of their reactions seem to be just totally creeped out.
It becomes clear from Uzumeri’s comments and conceptions of the Robins that he became a fan after Tim Drake took on the role in the early 1990s. Similarly, Joshua S. Hill just wrote at Robot 6: “I’m 25 years old, and…Dick Grayson is not my Robin.” Such perspectives remind me how old I am: Tim didn’t even exist until a few years after I’d reached adulthood and stopped reading comics.

The Comics Alliance conversation comes complete with a photograph of young Uzumeri in a Robin costume modeled on Tim Drake’s.
Uzumeri: I forced my mother to make one that was COMPLETELY ACCURATE, down to the ridges on his sleeves. I also attempted, and failed, to fabricate a retractable bo.

Sims: Oh man, you too? I totally used to wear a Robin t-shirt and green dishwashing gloves and bike around a park near my house on the lookout for thematic crime.
These gents thus join David A. Zimmerman, author of Comic Book Character, as comics critics who once dressed in home-made Robin costumes. In a fruitless attempt to reestablish his maturity, Sims later refers to Speedy as “like Robin, only more useless,” but let’s face it—conversation clearly reinforces how the character appeals to many young readers.

15 May 2010

My May Speaking Engagements

Today I’m at SCBWI New England’s annual conference, this year taking place for the first time in Fitchburg, Massachusetts. I’m leading two workshops for children’s writers:

  • on what it means to write within a genre, and an author’s implicit contract with readers.
  • on scripts for comics, and how they require following very different rules from manuscripts for picture books.
This is the first time I’ve been booked for two different workshops on one day. I may need extra dark chocolate.

On Tuesday, 25 May, I’ll once again be the moderator for the Foundation for Children’s Books celebration of “New England Voices.” This year’s featured authors and artists are: “New England Voices” starts at 7:30 pm in Walsh Hall at Boston College. Come see if I’ve learned how to pronounce “Czekaj”!

14 May 2010


At A.Word.A.Day this very day, Anu Garg features the phrase “Land of Oz.” He defines its common usage as “An unreal or magical place,” which may be half right.

Garg links to Snopes.com’s page on the derivation of the word “Oz”. From early on, L. Frank Baum said his inspiration came from a filing cabinet marked A–N and O–Z. The problem is that Baum wasn’t above improving stories for the sake of publicity.

“Land of Oz” is part of a series of Word.A.Day postings on words and phrases derived from mythical places, including one that’s been in my mind as I considered legends of abundant salmon: cockaigne.

12 May 2010

An Unrecorded Adventure in Oz?

The May 2010 issue of American Recorder magazine, published for recorder players, has a Wizard of Oz theme for its cover.

R. DiNunzio’s illustration, “You’re Out of the Woods,” is inspired by the MGM movie, and thus shows red rather than silver shoes on Dorothy’s feet. With the Tin Woodman, Scarecrow, and Cowardly Lion, and Toto in her basket, she’s walking through a forest made up up giant recorders. They’re on the Yellow Brick Road, suggesting that this is a previously unknown episode on their journey to the Emerald City.

11 May 2010

What Doesn’t Happen in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Back in July 2008, when DC Comics started to promote its upcoming storyline about Bruce Wayne’s death, one of the company’s big projects was a two-issue story by Neil Gaiman, with art by Andy Kubert. Dates on Kubert’s sketches indicate he started working on character designs just the month before, and the issues appeared in print in early 2009.

Those special (i.e., heavily promoted) issues of Batman and Detective have now been collected with Gaiman’s older Batman-related tales in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? The collection was nominated for a Hugo Award.

Gaiman writes in his foreword to Whatever Happened…?, not for the first time, about his childhood love for Batman, starting with the TV show and flowering with American comic books. Born in 1960, he was at elementary-school age for the TV show, and entered adolescence as Batman became serious again. Gaiman was in his later teens when DC published “Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed?” (discussed yesterday), and I think he must have read that storyline.

“Where Were You…?” and Whatever Happened…? have a great deal in common. In both series, Gotham is buzzing with rumors that Batman is dead. In both, a coterie of villains and other characters gather to tell stories about how he died. Gaiman adds Alfred, Bat-Girl, and other allies to the Catwoman, Riddler, Joker, and other villains in the earlier series.

Naturally, there are differences. “Where Were You…?” takes the form of a coroner’s inquest. Whatever Happened…? is a surreal funeral, with Bruce Wayne’s spirit apparently watching and narrating; the story soon takes off into a mystical dimension. But fundamentally both comics are a series of conflicting, competing tales of Batman’s death. One is unabashedly schlocky entertainment, and the other is supposed to be a meditation about the power of stories and the evolution of a mythic character.

However, Gaiman was working with only two issues and today’s “decompressed” storytelling style. As a result, I don’t think his version develops much narrative momentum. The best character moments occur early on, outside the funeral, as an alley waif tries to park villains’ cars. But we never see the end of that story, so the moments don’t add up to anything.

Similarly, the different characters’ versions of Batman’s death don’t braid together. Each narrative thread floats free, not tied to anything else. Bruce Wayne ends up leaving and conversing with his mother. This might have meant more to me if I’d cared for Goodnight Moon, the book that provides the literary backdrop for the final panels. (As I’ve said before, I always preferred The Runaway Bunny.)

Andy Kubert’s artwork in Whatever Happened…? is frequently stunning. In addition to magnificent panels in his own style, Gaiman had him pack in visual references to other eras of Batman history. Even so, the issues don’t seem to offer enough space to develop all the team’s ideas. Why, for instance, are there two Jokers in the funeral crowd?

Finally, the treatment of Robins is perfunctory, almost obligatory. In one panel, Dick Grayson welcomes people to Batman’s funeral, apparently blowing the whole secret-identity thing. On another page, he appears as the Robin of the mid-1960s—mask tied around his whole head, rather than magically stuck to his eyes—and laments Batman’s passing. Damian Wayne appears silently in two images, and Tim Drake silently (but acknowledged with one caption) in two more. Betty Kane, the original Bat-Girl, actually gets more characterization, and once again I thought that vignette was cut off before it could develop.

To my surprise, I found The Strange Deaths of Batman collection more entertaining.

10 May 2010

“Now to Tickle the Cerebellum”

After the first two stories in The Strange Deaths of Batman, discussed yesterday, the volume’s Robin content falls off precipitously. There’s a tale by Gerry Conway from World’s Finest, #269, which shows his fondness for suspension bridges but not his usual ability to build logical plots. Dick Grayson is injured by a mad bomber because Superman apparently forgets which one of them is superfast and invulnerable.

Near the end of the book is an image of Tim Drake consumed with glee because Batman is marrying Catwoman. This turns out to be Catwoman’s dream—it surely isn’t Tim’s.

In between comes a legendary example of comic-book storytelling, originally published in The Brave and the Bold, #115. After the Caped Crusader is fatally wounded, the Atom shrinks to cellular size, enters Batman’s brain, and steers his body by kicking the appropriate neurons. Only Bob Haney could have come up with this approach to crime-fighting.

The heart of the collection is titled “Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed?”—a four-issue series from 1977 written by David V. Reed and illustrated by John Calnan and Tex Blaisdell. The premise of this tale is that the Gotham underworld is buzzing with rumors that Batman is dead. A coterie of villains gathers to conduct an inquest and determine who can claim the honor of killing him.

In successive issues Catwoman, the Riddler, Lex Luthor, and the Joker each explains how she or he killed Batman. Former prosecutor Harvey Dent as Two-Face dissects their stories through a combination of Encyclopedia Brown-style trivia (wood from the Brazilian pepper tree doesn’t float!) and outlandish plot revelations (that was actually Superman pretending to be Batman!).

I don’t think it will spoil anything if I reveal that at the end of these four installments it turns out Batman isn’t dead after all.

I found Calnan’s art distracting. His drawings show extreme foreshortening, especially hands and faces thrust out at the readers, and the pointy ears on Batman’s cowl are unusually thick. (Rather like bats’ ears, to be fair.) Calnan was primarily a commercial artist, and he also worked on the Catholic comic book Treasure Chest. According to a Comic Book Artist interview with letterer John Workman, DC’s editors worried that Calnan “just didn’t have that spark” for superhero stories, and he left the genre.

“Where Were You on the Night Batman Was Killed?” kept readers uncertain if Batman was really dead for a whole four issues. Stories in earlier decades had to wrap up everything within a couple of dozen pages. Nowadays, the pace of superhero comic-book storytelling is quite different:

  • Four issues is a short time for a comic-book company to explore a major change to its universe. Major arcs seem to be taking six to twelve issues.
  • Within each of those issues a lot less happens because of “decompressed storytelling.”
  • Nonetheless, the stories have the same rhythm of early defeats, reversals, and mysteries solved only at the last minute, just at a slower tempo. This means that the frustrations and stumbles that the Dynamic Duo suffered in pages 3-10 of their early stories are now stretched out over two or three issues in the middle of an arc, leaving some readers frustrated as well.
  • At the same time, marketing and the internet mean that fans can see the covers of upcoming stories months in advance, taking back some of that suspense.
In fact, it looks like DC went only about four months between the apparent death of Bruce Wayne in Batman and Final Crisis and the announcement of the upcoming miniseries The Return of Bruce Wayne.

09 May 2010

“I’ll Bring Your Killer In, Batman”

Back in November I reviewed Batman: The Black Casebook, a collection of weird-ass Batman stories from the 1950s and ’60s that DC Comics published in conjunction with writer Grant Morrison’s recent riffs on that tradition.

In the same vein, DC published the collection titled The Strange Deaths of Batman to coincide with the apparent demise of Bruce Wayne in both Batman and Final Crisis. These tales depict Batman’s apparent demise from 1966 through 2001. Of course, the flagship character always survived—in some fashion.

For example, the first story shows Batman and Robin subduing a villain, and the next page shows writer Gardner Fox pondering a hypothetical: What if, instead, that villain had actually killed Batman? It’s reassuring to know that premise is imaginary because otherwise the first criminal to get the better of the Caped Crusader would have the superpower of bouncing.

The remaining stories use other storytelling mechanisms to show Batman being dead without really being dead: an explicitly imaginary story, a dream sequence, escape from being buried alive, coma with medical rescue, and so on. And there are other, contemporaneous stories that show Batman dying in Saga of the Super-Sons (Bruce Wayne was only faking!) and Justice Society, vol. 2 (okay, that Batman really did die—but he was in a whole ’nother universe so it doesn’t count).

What makes the Strange Deaths collection suitable for the weekly Robin is that the first two stories address the question many fans would naturally ask after Batman’s death: What does this mean for the Boy Wonder? Both tales show Batman’s adult colleagues gathering to mourn him, and then Dick Grayson vows revenge.

In the first tale, Robin needs only a few panels to track down the villain and subdue him. (Take that, Bouncer!) Then Gardner Fox springs a new surprise on us: the older Batman of Earth-Two moves to this hypothetical Earth-One at the urging of his grown-up partner.

Thus, back in 1966 young fans didn’t have to worry about even a hypothetical young Robin being without a mentor. As in so much series fiction, this tale shows the status quo threatened, even apparently destroyed, but then we’re back to essentially the same situation at the end.

The second story, from three years later and by much younger writer Cary Bates, takes more time and space to explore the same question.

After a villain (the Automator!) apparently disintegrates Batman, Dick Grayson takes on a whole new identity—a blond college student in a Nehru jacket named Rick Danner. Years pass. Robin starts fighting crime in a new uniform with pants and long sleeves, signaling his adulthood. Superman’s temples grow gray. Metropolis gets moving sidewalks. It must be at least 1982.

Now called “the Man of Wonder,” Robin tracks down the Automator, plus an accomplice who’s used superpowered gloves to blind Superman. Robin subdues both those criminals—only to discover that the gloved accomplice is Bruce Wayne with amnesia!

The final panel shows Robin contemplating life with a Batman who can’t remember and a Superman who can’t see—kind of like very elderly parents. Needless to say, we never see a follow-up to this less reassuring tale.

08 May 2010

Another Recollection of Tolkien

Back in March I quoted recollections of Prof. J. R. R. Tolkien from Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper, found in Leonard Marcus book of interviews, The Wand in the Word.

Yet another future children’s-book author who encountered Tolkien at Oxford was Philip Pullman. He’s a decade younger than Jones and Cooper, so by the time he was at university Prof. Tolkien was a wealthy celebrity, retired from the classroom. Pullman told Marcus:

He was a genial old fellow in his seventies, world famous by then. The rector of our college…invited me and a couple of my friends to dinner to meet the great man. . . . it was Tolkien who fought the great battle to retain Anglo-Saxon as a subject of study at Oxford. Because he won that battle, every undergraduate had to read and study—and suffer—Anglo-Saxon.

And so we were all introduced and sat down to dinner. One of my friends was on one side of him; the other friend was on the other side. I was seated across the table. Professor Tolkien turned to the first fellow and said, “How are they pronouncing Anglo-Saxon these days?” That was one of the things the scholars argued over, you know: the different ways of pronouncing the wretched language! My friend had done as little work as I had, and had no idea. So he just sort of gaped and goggled and tried to make up an answer.

Which displeased Tolkien, who turned to the other fellow and said, “Now then, you man, did you enjoy The Lord of the Rings?”

My other friend had to say, “Well, I’m awfully sorry but I haven’t read it.“

I could have answered that question, at least. But that was the end of Tolkien’s conversation. He never got round to asking me anything.
The young Pullman was a fan of Tolkien, but he’s become more critical. Perhaps if the professor had paid him more attention back then…

06 May 2010

Saving the Biggest Adventures for Later

Steve Shreve’s The Adventures of Benny is an early reader that contains five stories, each liberally illustrated in cartoon style.

Those five stories contain Bigfoot, a mummy with a curse, pirates, a giant squid, an under-bed monster, a ghost, monkeys, snakes live and cooked, a treasure map, smelly socks, wedgies, boogers, and farts.

Four of the five stories include a toilet. Four mention underwear. Four include the word “butt,” “fanny,” or “poop.”

One notable thing that The Adventures of Benny doesn’t have at all: females.

Some booksellers have labeled this book a “graphic novel” because of Shreve’s art style and because that’s now a hot label. But Shreve doesn’t use comics techniques. The art and text in The Adventures of Benny interact exactly like Dr. Seuss’s easy readers fifty years ago.

05 May 2010

Aquapocalypse: The YA Paranormal Romance

Jenny is finally becoming friends—maybe more?—with Rutan, the cute guy who moved in next door two months into the high school year. He comes from another country, or maybe a part of another country that’s trying to become independent, she’s not sure. Rutan and his family have mostly kept to themselves.

But only a day after Jenny gets Rutan to walk home from high school with her at last, the governor declares a water emergency for the whole county.

Some horrible parasite might have gotten into the water supply, the authorities say. There’s no test for the parasite, and no way to cure it once it gets into your body. If you’re infected, in six days its evolutionary instinct takes over your own and you lose control of your actions. The parasite grows inside, hollowing out your body over the course of eight months as you attack and eat other people.

Jenny and her family try to go on with normal life, using bottled water and furiously boiling what comes out of the tap. Rutan proves to be a big help, sharing advice about the water shortage and folk remedies for avoiding the parasite. Rutan explains that he and his family are used to living with such problems.

As the six days tick off, the community becomes more anxious and suspicious. There are rumors of infections already breaking out, rumors of hoaxes, rumors of cures. People argue about who might already have swallowed the parasite. Jenny wonders, if I’m already infected, is it better to stay beside the people I love or to run away from them?

On day 5, Jenny hears on the news that a little-known terrorist organization has taken credit for releasing the parasite. Her father points out that the group’s spokesman sounds a lot like Rutan. Jenny scolds him for implying something horrible, even though she noticed the accent herself.

That night, Jenny starts to wonder about the political arguments she’s heard at Rutan’s house, the family religious rituals she thought were exciting and fresh. Could Rutan and his family really have come to America to infect the water supply? But if they did, why would he give her family so much advice? Or is Rutan’s advice actually any good?

Day 6 arrives…

04 May 2010

Oz Art in Progress from Glenn Alexander Hernandez

This moody, evocative image of “The Road Through the Forest” is from Glenn Alexander Hernandez’s ongoing project of illustrating The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It’s a digitally-created color sketch for a watercolor he’s planning.

Hernandez is showing the stages of his artwork at his Hermitage Illustration blog. There are character designs, inked sketches, and completed scenes.

Hernandez describes himself as “a Watercolorist in the tradition of Golden Age Illustrators.” His use of line and color reminds my untrained eye of the illustrations of the late Trina Schart Hyman.

03 May 2010

Vital Update

Back in 2007, I shared news of a fad among the youth of the Netherlands and surrounding countries to perform “jumpen” dances in public places for the greater cause of YouTube. (Example from Ahmed and Sven, starting at about the one-minute mark.)

It seems only natural that some people objected to that potentially disruptive activity. And of course that in turn has prompted an indignant protest movement.

02 May 2010

Robin Isn’t Evil, But Batman…?

At last the weekly Robin returns to exploring how the tenet that Robin isn’t evil became an important part of what the character symbolized in the DC Comics mythos. Before the 1980s, all superheroes weren’t evil. Robin’s solo stories had depicted him as struggling to follow Batman’s model. But a new characterization showed him trying to help people with Batman as one inspiration among several.

Concurrently, DC writers were edging toward the possibility that Batman might be evil. In the early ’80s The Comics Journal quoted comics artist and writer John Byrne calling the character a “brooding psychopath.” Not everyone in the business agreed with him, of course, but that possibility became more and more central to Batman stories.

Does Batman operate so close to the edge of human endurance that he might go over at any time? Is he so driven by his mission that he’s willing to sacrifice ordinary human relationships? Is his life as Bruce Wayne such a sham that it’s made him as hollow as he acts? As his ward, Dick Grayson was Bruce Wayne’s natural foil in such stories.

In Detective, #500 (1981), scripted by Alan Brennert, Batman got a chance to enter an alternative universe where Bruce Wayne is still a boy and his parents haven’t been murdered—yet. He jumps at the chance at saving some version of his parents. Robin (already a star of New Teen Titans) races to accompany Batman because he doesn’t trust what Bruce might do when he sees his parents under attack. While Batman gets tunnel vision, Robin worries about disrupting this alternate universe before deciding what his values require. This story ends with a curious twist. Batman does save his parents, but his young alter ego nevertheless starts to dedicate himself to being a crime-fighter. That implies that Bruce wasn’t necessarily motivated by his parents’ murder; rather, their murder may have simply been his rationale for doing what he’d have been naturally driven to do anyway.

DC started to separate Batman from its other heroes with Batman and the Outsiders, #1 (1983). Scripter Mike W. Barr showed him storming out of the Justice League of America to start his own, more aggressive superhero team. A crossover with New Teen Titans a few issues later underscored the new rift and differences between Batman and Robin—the younger man is the better team leader.

Which brings us to Batman’s working methods. Back in 1939, Gardner Fox’s origin story explained that after his parents’ murder he chooses to dress as a bat to scare criminals. He became more cuddly under the Comics Code of the 1950s and early ’60s, then returned to the dark side. And any persona based on vengeance and fear naturally lends itself to questions of evil. In the early 1980s writers began to explore how close Batman came to that evil. Could Bruce Wayne be driven to kill? Does the Batman persona actually attract supervillains like the Joker? Might Batman’s methods end up producing the injustice that he wants to eradicate?

Frank Miller brought those themes to the fore in The Dark Knight Returns (1986). This volume also explored how Superman might become evil, so ready to serve “the American way” that he’s the tool of a repressive US government. Where in that book does the ideal of heroism shine purest? In its new Robin, of course: Carrie Kelley.

Miller’s vision of Batman fed into Alan Moore’s characterization of Batman in A Killing Joke and Grant Morrison’s in Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, both depicting the Dark Knight as a mirror of his villains. These stories aren’t outliers in the modern Batman mythos; they’re fundamental. Most of the examples I’ve discussed are among the ten greatest Batman stories ever told as recently announced at Comics Should Be Good!

In the last two decades, Batman’s storytellers have maintained his potential for evil—never fully realized, of course—as part of his basic characterization, even in the DC Animated Universe. Meanwhile, the most successful young Robins provide solid examples of sanity and virtue. Some notable storylines:

  • Knightfall: After being injured, Bruce Wayne chooses a replacement Batman who can’t stand the pressure, goes crazy, and starts killing criminals. Meanwhile, Robin isn’t evil.
  • JLA: Tower of Babel: After suffering hideously effective attacks, members of the Justice League discover that Batman has assembled information on how to beat each of them, and a villain has obtained those files. The League members wonder if they can trust Batman, and their young counterparts in Young Justice wonder the same. But Robin isn’t evil.
  • In one of DC’s many lead-ups to its Infinite Crisis event, Batman has created a satellite called Brother Eye to keep watch over everyone on Earth with superpowers or criminal tendencies. Naturally, this gets out of his control and threatens everyone on Earth. Meanwhile, Robin and Nightwing aren’t evil.
We can see those themes in today’s magazines and movies: Batman being driven to kill in Final Crisis, the Joker’s soliloquies in The Dark Knight, Tim Drake putting on a dark cowl in Red Robin and then having to pull himself out of a dark place, and of course the “goddamn Batman” of Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin.

COMING UP: But what about the second Jason Todd—wasn’t that Robin evil?

01 May 2010

Free Comics Day!

So I’m sharing a comic for free. I just created this very simple graphic story for the workshop on comics that I’ll deliver at SCBWI New England’s annual conference on 15 May. I conceived these panels to demonstrate what I’m thinking of as the four hallmarks of the medium and style:

  • sequential, juxtaposed images for readers to compare.
  • words and art telling a story together.
  • words and punctuation as graphic elements.
  • showing the invisible: cutaway view, motion lines, symbols of emotion, and of course word balloons.
The hardest part was the frog.