30 June 2010

Prologues and Passengers

Last month folks were discussing the value of prologues in novels; see comments from Nathan Bransford and his community and Dear Editor.

I’ve long heard that most kids don’t read prologues and other ancillary material. I did, but then I went into publishing. So did, I expect, many other people who grew up to write blogs about books. The problem is that authors have to aim for audiences larger than the kids who’ll read anything, even a bowl of Alpha-Bits.

As I’ve said before, I think writing the first chapter is like making a big airplane take off. You need a lot of forward thrust. Your readers are the passengers, wanting to feel that surge of power and be lifted away.

Flashbacks can break that forward momentum. Just as readers are supposed to focus on what’s happening right now and what lies ahead, flashbacks ask them to imagine some earlier time. Too many flashbacks (and I’ve seen manuscripts and books with handfuls of them in the first chapter), and readers don’t get a sense of narrative thrust. They’re back in the cabin, nervously muttering, “Come on, come on! Faster! Oh, god, we’re all gonna die!” Well, maybe not that last part, but some of them will bail out.

Prologues can produce a different problem. They can feel like a little puddle-jump flight before you get on the jet plane—you don’t cover much ground before you have to get off and do the whole boarding process again. Most people would rather take a non-stop. They can catch up on what they need from the in-flight reading material.

29 June 2010

What’s Really to Blame for the Deficit

From the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, using official projects from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office: Full article here. Nor should we forget that the Bush-Cheney administration inherited a budget with no deficit.

28 June 2010

Why Publishers Use Stock Photos for Book Covers

Publishers Weekly just ran a story by Judith Rosen about the making of the cover for a Young Adult novel. This story was, of course, part of the book’s marketing campaign, positioning it as a Big Title for January 2011. (Which means that this blog entry has also become part of that campaign.)

It would be a mistake to read the article as a description of how most book covers are assembled. Most books don’t have the budget that’s behind Sara Shepard’s The Lying Game. Not only is that book in a hot genre, but the author has a track record from her earlier series Pretty Little Liars, which now has popular exposure in the 99th percentile of all YA books as the basis of a TV show.

Those expectations allowed Alloy Entertainment and HarperCollins to spend $25,000 on a photo shoot with a model; photography team; and stylists for wardrobe, hair, and makeup. That’s even far above a typical cover budget for Alloy at $18,000.

In fact, it’s enough to professionally produce two entire short novels—even the covers. It looks like any firm could buy the photo on the right for less than $1,000 through iStockphoto.com. It’s not appropriate for The Lying Game, but it could be right for another story, and it took me about five minutes to find with no need to deal with stylists.

Stock photos have another advantage for publishing firms. A designer can create several comps using alternate possibilities, and everyone can see what the final product will look like. There’s no need to gamble on a photo shoot coming out well. To be sure, there are disadvantages, like the same photo showing up on different books. But dollar for dollar, using stock photos lets publishers produce more books.

27 June 2010

The Short, Happy Life of the First Jason Todd

When I posited that Reason for Robin #10 is that “Robin Isn’t Evil,” I promised to discuss the two major counterexamples. Actually, back when I conceived of that series, I had only one counterexample in mind: the second Jason Todd. And to lay the groundwork, I have to address the first Jason.

Back in 1940, Dick Grayson went from meeting Batman to becoming his costumed companion in the course of a few panels on one page. His decision to leave the partnership in the early 1980s took considerably longer, aided by the huge success of the New Teen Titans magazine. Leading DC’s hottest team (in every sense of the word), Dick became an independent young adult.

The pivotal moment arrived when a meeting of writers Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman, artist George Pérez, and their editors concluded that Dick Grayson should break free from the Batman books and adopt a new identity—eventually Nightwing. Meanwhile, Conway could develop a new character to take his place at Wayne Manor.

This was the first Jason Todd. Conway had a traditional understanding of how Robin functioned in Batman stories, and his Jason was very much like Dick Grayson. To the extent of being a young trapeze artist whose parents are murdered by criminals and goes to live with billionaire Bruce Wayne.

Jason fought crime in a costume and mask in Detective Comics, #526—the 500th appearance of Batman in that magazine, and Conway’s last issue. But it took the rest of 1983, and some black hair dye, before he officially became Robin. One milestone in that period was when Dick Grayson graciously passed on the red, green, and yellow outfit. For merchandising reasons (all those pajamas with Robin’s picture on them), Jason had to look exactly like Dick.

Just like the Robin of the 1940s through 1960s, the first Jason Todd was occasionally impetuous and immature. He made mistakes, and showed more emotional reactions than Batman. He was, after all, still a kid.

In that period, each superhero comic usually had a complete adventure in one issue, but subplots extending over many months. The first Jason Todd became the object of a custody battle between Bruce Wayne and Natalia Knight, the criminal Nocturna; basically, he went undercover as her adoptee. Again, that plot emphasizes how Robin is still a child.

Robin scholar Mary Borsellino quotes a letter from a reader in Detective Comics, #530, calling this Jason a “quiche eater,” an allusion to the 1982 bestseller Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche. But of course a Boy Wonder isn’t supposed to be a Real Man—yet.

In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s terrific Superman story, “For the Man Who Has Everything” (1985), an extraterrestrial conqueror dismisses Jason as “the little yellow one.” Yet who saves the world in the end? That tale is the first Jason Todd’s finest hour.

(In that story, Jason had also grown up enough for Batman to famously remind him, “Think clean thoughts, chum.” But different artists depicted him at different stages of adolescence.)

Then two major events jolted the DC Universe. The first was Wolfman and Pérez’s Crisis on Infinite Earths (1985-86), which opened the door for DC to relaunch and redefine all its major franchises.

The second was Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986), the story of a potential future Batman. Among its innovations was a female Robin. Among its allusions to the standard comics was a brief line about Jason Todd being dead; clearly, this was a rougher Batman in a rougher world. This series was highly stylized, highly violent, and highly successful.

Post-Crisis, DC commissioned Pérez to retell the origin of Wonder Woman, John Byrne to relaunch Superman, and Miller to set a new tone for the regular Batman series. Editors thought that the character’s origin myth still worked, but that readers would appreciate more grit. The audience for superhero comics now consisted of young adults in specialty shops, not kids browsing in drugstores.

In Batman, #404-7 (1987), Miller and David Mazzucchelli showed the start of Bruce Wayne’s career as Batman. Like Miller’s earlier series, Batman: Year One was stylized, stark, and very successful.

The first Jason Todd, cheerful former circus acrobat, had come out of the Crisis of 1986 intact, and appeared in a few more months of stories. But DC’s editors felt that his character didn’t fit the new, grittier Batman’s world. Therefore, in Batman, #408, the Caped Crusader met a new Jason Todd.

COMING UP: Battling for the soul of a new Robin.

26 June 2010

The Future of Publishing: Free Books at a High Cost?

Scott Adams, himself a bestselling author and even artist, recently wrote on his blog:

I predict that the profession known as “author” will be retired to history in my lifetime, like blacksmith and cowboy. In the future, everyone will be a writer, and some will be better and more prolific than others. But no one will pay to read what anyone else creates. . . .

The iPad [and its coming clones] has a browsing capability that allows you to see any content on the Internet, legal or not, and consume it from just about anywhere. . . . At some point, I assume, a Google search for any popular book title will return an illegal source at the top of the page.
Back in December, I quoted publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin saying much the same thing. He then proceeded to discuss other ways that authors will be able to make money, primarily by using their ability to attract eyeballs, just as storytellers in the free but advertising-supported media do now.

Other analyses of the future of publishing focus on bottlenecks. Currently the narrow spot is getting published. In future, the distribution part of publishing will be easy. The finding-a-significant-audience will be hard. The bottleneck will therefore move further down the pipeline toward readers.

Agent Nathan Bransford predicts:
bookstores are still going to work according to the current system, i.e. they’re going to be selling books published by publishers. What will expand further is online bookselling, where there are already millions of titles anyway and where you are already successfully navigating a giant jumble. I don’t really see this impacting how you find books, except that you'll have more options if you want them. . . .

Nor do I think everyone is going to have to self-publish first. Publishers are still going to exist and will still probably be the place where the biggest books are generated, including debuts! . . . What will change is that books that may not have been taken on by publishers because they weren't seen as a safe bet will have an opportunity to catch on with readers and spread through word of mouth via blogs, Forums, and other social media, and I see this is as a really awesome thing.
However, Laura Miller at Slate imagines the future of literature as the equivalent of publishers’ slush piles:
Everybody acknowledges that there have to be a few gems out in the slush pile -- one manuscript in 10,000, say -- buried under all the dreck. The problem lies in finding it. A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel. With slush, the cost is not only financial (many publishers can no longer afford to assign junior editors to read unsolicited manuscripts) but also -- as is less often admitted -- emotional and even moral.

It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters -- not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés -- for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that's almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn't been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue.
But of course that’s why Editorial Assistants get paid the big bucks. Hahahahaha!

Miller concludes: “it's a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it, and if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours. Also, no one will pay you for it.” On the bright side, according to Scott Adams, you won’t have to pay anyone for the privilege.

25 June 2010

Prime Material

Gene Luen Yang’s Prime Baby was one of the two comics serials published in the New York Times Magazine a coupla years back that I actually liked. Now it’s coming out in book form.

Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter interviewed Yang about creating this comic, designed to be published in short installments, as well as books like American Born Chinese. Yang said that he normally thinks in terms of page units:

I do rely heavily on the rhythm of the page turn when I write comics. I try to have something that entices the reader to turn each page, maybe a question to be answered or a mild punchline. My love for the page turn is why I’m reluctant to do Scott McCloud’s Infinite Canvas thing, despite being a computer nerd and very McCloudian in my thinking about comics.
The “Infinite Canvas” is McCloud’s vision of how comics can work in a digital environment with one panel leading into another (or several others) without regard to tiers, pages, or other relationships dictated by the shape and size of a printed page. In effect, the only building-block is the panel, and the only transition from one panel to the next.

But the page has proven to be a useful unit, allowing a comic to show readers more than one panel at once to compare and contrast. Page turns can punctuate a scene or make a transition to a new scene. On some recent practice scripts, I’ve found myself imagining what each page should show, then working down to panels.

Yang has a lot more to say about his Prime Baby storytelling process in this blog entry.
Because Prime Baby was both text-heavy (the protagonist is a wordy little sociopath) and limited in space (it was originally published in The New York Times Magazine), I laid out the words in Photoshop first and then sketched over print-outs of the dialog. I got the idea from reading about how they used to do those old EC comics.
I remember being blown away when I saw in Grant Geissman’s Foul Play!: The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics how the much-admired EC Comics visual storytelling was stuffed in around the factory lettering. I knew lettering wasn’t that line’s strength, but I hadn’t realized how little flexibility its artists had. (The line’s top editor allowed even less, sketching out every panel for his artists.)

Yang at least could go back and adjust his word balloons as he felt necessary.

24 June 2010

Gotta Wear Shades

Mike Shatzkin ran the math on the declining prospects for the Kindle, Nook, Reader, and similar dedicated devices setting the course for electronic publishing. Instead, he sees the near future in the land of Apple:

even if 2 million new iPad owners, on average, buy 1/3 as many ebooks as 700,000 new single-purpose ebook device purchasers, the larger, full-color, web-ready screens sold in the last two months would be responsible for as much ebook consumption as the book-dedicated devices.
Which means Editorial Anonymous was right to advise illustrators to keep their skills up with the technical capacities of those “larger, full-color, web-ready screens”:
I was shown a Dr. Seuss book on the iPad and had to wonder at the possibilities. As an illustrator I'm attempting to prepare for this brave new world by learning some animation techniques. As things become more digital do you think that this will be,
A) Incredibly useful
B) Kinda handy
C) A waste of time, static images will still be the norm
(A), and sooner than anyone thinks.

The future is not just ahead of us, it's sitting on top of us. It's sneaking up behind us. It's the milk in your cereal and the monster under your bed.
It’s also pleasant to consider that iPads will maintain the importance of interior page design. Electronic readers are all about the text, and often that’s all we need for a compelling read, as mass-market paperback editions show. But I like books that have a distinctive visual look as well.

23 June 2010

I Was Hoping to Have the Tower Room Myself

Rex Parker at Pop Sensation featured this back cover for a paperback edition of John Dickson Carr’s The Case of the Constant Suicides: The web tells me that Dell published many of these “mapback” editions in the 1940s. Commenters at Parker’s blog point out that the approach isn’t ideal for this particular setting. There is, after all, only one door visible, and it’s quite big; only one road that leads anywhere; only one wooden structure built out over the water. A reader doesn’t really need the map and labels.

On the other hand, an image of the Castle of Shira on the book exterior makes it look like an exciting place to visit. Except for the constant suicides, of course.

Pop Sensation’s asking price for this back cover is only $9, and for that you get an entire murder mystery as well.

22 June 2010

Virginia Lee Burton’s Kids Comic

Yesterday I showed a sequential-art print that Virginia Lee Burton created about 1940 for new colleagues in her Folly Cove Designers cooperative. We know she was studying the comics form around that time because the next year she published Calico the Wonder Pony, or the Saga of Stewy Stinker, an attempt to create a picture book that could compete with comic books for her sons’ attention. (A decade later, Burton was able to go back to Calico, rework some of the pictures, and reattach her original title; that’s the form available today.)

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt quotes Burton as saying: “Calico the Wonderhorse I did for both Aris and Mike in an attempt to wean them away from comic books.” In Virginia Burton: A Life in Art, Barbara Elleman quoted her as saying: “I really dislike the comic books for their lack of design and drawing more than anything.”

But she steeled herself to research the form of adventure comics, coming to these conclusions for The Horn Book:

the hero must be endowed with more than the average physical and mental powers, besides being all that was chivalrous and virtuous, and the villain the antithesis. There must be action, suspense, and tremendous but possible odds against the hero, but no one must get seriously hurt. Humor was welcome. Westerns were the most popular.
Curiously, Western comics weren’t flourishing in 1941, except as spin-offs of cowboy movies. But they may have been popular in Burton’s house; she recalled letting her boys listen to The Lone Ranger on the radio.

Elleman wrote that “In making her horse, Calico, female, Burton felt she was giving a tongue-in-cheek poke to Western comics, where women were mostly ignored.” That said, Burton had already established her habit of making her main non-human characters female.

Burton’s comments on comic books indicate she was assessing their content, not just their form. Thus, she came up with an exaggerated, fast-moving, action-filled, Manichean adventure. Calico contains sequential, juxtaposed images, one of the hallmarks of the comics form. But otherwise it seems to tell its story through a standard picture-book technique: third-person narration, set off in plain text from the illustrations. Nonetheless, the Burton family labeled Calico a “symphony in comics.”

The book’s original reviews were mixed. Parents said it “meets the sensational comics on their own ground,” while Bangor librarian L. Felix Ranlett wrote in The Horn Book, “We like our funnies and our books kept separate and we don’t know whether Calico is a book or a funny.” (As late as 2002, biographer Elleman wrote that the comics technique “is not often seen in today’s trade books.”)

Last year, James Sturm of Vermont’s Center for Cartoon Studies called Burton “Godmother of the Graphic Novel” in a slide show at DoubleX. He referred not just to Calico but also to The Little House and her more successful books. Peggy Burns at Drawn and Quarterly agreed with Sturm’s assessment while Tom Spurgeon at the Comics Reporter thought he hadn’t made his case. Heidi MacDonald’s The Beat archived the resulting debate and prolonged it.

21 June 2010

Virginia Lee Burton’s Adult Comic

This weekend I attended what I might call my first and last academic conference about fashion, co-sponsored by the Costume Society of America and the Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife.

Elena M. Sarni gave a presentation about Folly Cove Designers, a Cape Ann cooperative of designer-craftsmen who created prints, home goods, and clothes starting in 1940. Their leader was Virginia Lee Burton, also author-illustrator of Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel and The Little House.

Each designer submitted her or (in rare cases) his design to a jury of experienced members for approval. After a person finally had her first design accepted, Burton gave her a wall hanging printed with a series of vignettes about printmaking.

I’m showing a detail of Burton’s print here. Life magazine published the whole thing in 1945, and it appeared in a brochure that Folly Cove Designers issued to market their work.

The print fits my definition of the comics form. It’s made up of sequential, juxtaposed images, showing a printmaker in action from her search for inspiration through making the final print (by jumping on a linoleum block, in the absence of a press). The question marks in the top vignettes are elements of written language working with the images to tell the story; those punctuation marks become graphic elements of the whole, and they “show the invisible” by symbolizing the artist’s puzzlement.

TOMORROW: Burton’s attitude toward comics.

20 June 2010

Robin Tweets for the Week

I’m busy at a conference this weekend, so this weekly Robin consists of some links, most already shared on that Twitter feed.

First, in the thumbnail at left, artist Carly Monardo shares her vision of Robin as he’d look if designed and drawn by Edward Gorey. Her Batman may be even more Gorey than that. Each entry in Monardo’s blog is an attempt to draw an iconic character in an unfamiliar artistic style.

Comics Should Be Good! rightly featured Chuck Dixon and Jason Armstrong’s 1995 retelling of how Dick Grayson became Robin in Robin Annual, #4.

Comics Make No Sense demonstrates the dangers of fighting crime in the vicinity of a giant sewing machine, especially if you fall down a lot.

The Speed Force highlighted the moment in Young Justice, written by Peter David and drawn by Todd Nauck, when some of Tim Drake’s teammates realize just how much they resent him.

Finally, here’s an image of Robin as a member of The Breakfast Club, created by artist Cliff Chiang. (Despite being a “child of the ’80s” I’ve never watched more than five minutes of that movie or felt any desire to. So I can’t say if Robin makes sense in the Ally Sheedy position.)

19 June 2010

The Cover Story and the Real Story

This spring bookseller and author Elizabeth Bluemle shared an essay called “The Elephant in the Room,” that pachyderm being the related issues that:

  • Decision-makers in book publishing come largely from America’s upper- and upper-middle classes, with a resulting dominance of white people bringing certain experiences and values.
  • The book industry publishes disproportionately few books about non-white readers, particularly young ones, and by non-white authors.
I think it’s a valuable discussion-starter, but in a couple of places I thought the essay started off in the wrong direction. Most notably:

Never, ever advocate whitewashing a book cover. The moral cynicism of this action is a terrible betrayal of your authors and readers. It bankrupts your reputation and is not easily forgotten. In this age of instant social networking, it will be discovered and shared.
So has anyone “discovered and shared” examples of Sales & Marketing, a publishing executive, a chain buyer, or anyone else in the industry “advocating whitewashing”?

Children’s-book bloggers caught some recent book jackets that depict dark-skinned characters with skin lighter than as their authors describe, not easily recognizable as people of color. But in all that discussion I don’t remember any exposé about how a person within publishing pushed to misrepresent those characters’ appearances. Or asking to move a non-white character to a less prominent position because it would supposedly help sales.

Maybe those discussions are taking place—in which case, they’re not being “discovered and shared.“ More likely, I think, very few people are saying such things. Within that class of Americans who dominate book publishing (as noted above), the shared value system makes expressing such ideas anathema, even if people do believe them.

Putting “Never advocate whitewashing” on the to-do list isn’t going to get us far, therefore, if nobody thinks they do that. As Elizabeth’s article notes about more general preferences and prejudices:
This kind of bias is completely unconscious, [Mahzarin?] Banaji states, present in people who are absolutely positive they don’t have it and who are committed to treating everyone fairly (and think they do).
The effective to-do list has to start with unearthing unrecognized biases or assumptions—which is the target of most of Elizabeth’s other advice.

I suspect the problems with covers for Magic Under Glass and Mysterious Benedict Society titles arose because people involved in producing those covers didn’t get enough instruction on the characters, not because someone instructed them to “whitewash.” (The problem with Justine Larbalestier’s Liar is harder to figure.)

Elizabeth’s article also tells editors: “In committee, describe books by authors and illustrators of color, and/or about characters of color, the same way you would books about and/or by white people.” Except that an editor might have to speak up when a character is dark-skinned simply because that won’t be the default assumption for most people working on the book. (This is an exception in the essay’s recommendations about confronting matters of race, class, and privilege, so Elizabeth might have intended something different in “the same way.”)

Around the same time that Elizabeth’s article appeared, there was an interesting discussion of showing young people of color on book jackets through Hunger Mountain. To simplify things too much, Mitali Perkins asked if jackets would do better not to depict characters in any racially identifiable way so readers wouldn’t exercise their unconscious biases before trying out the books; Tanita Davis advocated for more books showing non-white people so as to serve non-white readers.

I’d like to see more commentary on this topic from people who have lots of discussions about book covers: art directors, designers, editors, sales and marketing staff. I think their input would give a better picture of what sort of discussion precedes a book design, and what factors are involved. I’m looking forward to the article Jacket Whys is preparing on the topic, and grateful for yesterday’s link to Beyond the Covers, which shows alternative ideas for covers. People outside the process—and that usually includes authors, alas—may not have a realistic sense of it.

17 June 2010

Reader’s Theater in a Theater of War

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and over at Boston 1775 I’m highlighting a new children’s book titled John Greenwood’s Journey to Bunker Hill, written by Marty Rhodes Figley, illustrated by Craig Orback, and published by Lerner for classroom use.

This book is so new, in fact, that it may not be on sale yet. The complimentary copy I received has a 2011 copyright notice, and my recollection is that publishers usually aren’t allowed to jump that gun until the final months of the year.

John Greenwood’s Journey to Bunker Hill adapts part of the memoir of a man who joined the provincial army outside Boston in the spring of 1775 at the age of fifteen. It’s a fun, lively reminiscence which isn’t widely available because it still has copyright protection; the world could use a good scholarly edition of that memoir.

This volume, in Lerner’s “History Speaks” series, starts with a standard thirty-two-page non-fiction picture book. You know the drill: full-color, full-bleed illustrations; third-person omniscient narration; dramatic moments in the life of the young protagonist. But then there’s a script and staging advice for performing the book as…reader’s theater!

Not having kids or a classroom job, I first read about this pedagogical thing called “reader’s theater” in kidlit blogs. The first example I saw was at an event organized by Melissa Stewart. It seems to be quite the fad now, both among teachers (as Lerner is responding to) and among writers trying to make their children’s books more appealing for classroom use. Certainly it’s easier for a fifth-grade class to do a theatrical reading of John Greenwood’s Journey than to stage the whole Battle of Bunker Hill.

15 June 2010

Update on “Crocs in Picture Books?”

Nigh on three years ago, I posed the burning question of whether those big ugly plastic Crocs shoes had started to appear in American picture books. After all, they were appearing everywhere on American children’s feet.

I don’t follow picture books as closely as professionals, and perhaps the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature or the Arne Nixon Center or the Cooperative Children’s Book Center has already issued a report on this important topic.

For myself, I can only state that this past weekend I spotted a children’s book whose cover displayed a boy in black Crocs. Granted, it was an activity book, and the cover was a posed photograph rather than an illustration reflecting an artist’s considered tastes. But the arrival of such a picture book seems inevitable.

14 June 2010

“They sounded vaguely fantastical”

I got a kick out of the essay on the back page of yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, in which John Feffer expresses gratitude for his teen-age hobby of buying paperbacks in bulk:

It all took place at a book sale that happened one weekend a year, just before Halloween, in a church around the corner from my house in suburban New Jersey. After Saturday soccer practice I’d hurry over to the church, still dressed in my sports gear, cleats skittering among the fallen leaves. . . .

Wandering through the tables piled high with unsorted books, I vacuumed up all the Heinlein, Asimov and Bradbury I could find at 10 cents a pop. I stocked up on authors — George Orwell, Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut — I mistakenly thought wrote nothing but science fiction. Then there were the titles that caught my eye because they sounded vaguely fantastical, like “Ten Days That Shook the World” (about an asteroid strike?) and “Invisible Man” (clearly the inspiration for Claude Rains). . . .

Drawn in by “The Metamorphosis,” I became a fan of Kafka. I read everything by Aldous Huxley, eventually reconciled to the fact that “Brave New World” and “Island” were not representative of his work. . . .

Right now, as I toy with the idea of writing a screenplay, I find a battered copy of “The Disenchanted,” Budd Schulberg’s roman à clef about F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, to be utterly enchanting.
Even if young Feffer might have bought that novel because he thought it was about…some sort of enchantment.

This gives me an opening to recommend the Good Show, Sir blog, featuring the most baffling, ugly, and embarrassing-for-the-species covers for science-fiction paperbacks; and Pop Sensation, an exploration of one person’s paperback library.

13 June 2010

Tom Wilson on Robin

Superhero metaphors permeate Tom Wilson’s memoir Zig-Zagging. Which isn’t too surprising since he’s a second-generation cartoonist, carrying on the Ziggy comic strip that his father started.

Wilson describes how he was a Batman fan as a little boy—around the time of the hit TV show or even earlier. After he snuck into the basement to watch his father work, he got a little drawing room of his own, labeled “Batcave.” Wilson contrasts his childhood favorites with his sons’ preference for Spider-Man (and he’s such a DC fan that he doesn’t remember the hyphen). The book contains several Ziggy cartoons and a few verbal metaphors contrasting the Wilsons’ shlubby round everyman with Batman and Superman.

But most often Wilson writes of his father as “my favorite superhero.” Aside from one reference to Andy and Opie, it’s the metaphor Wilson uses for their relationship.

On the other hand, there’s a costumed comic-book hero Tom Wilson really doesn’t like. Describing how he created a comic strip (called UG!) in his twenties, he writes of himself as a “Boy Wonder,” but then says:

What guy wants to be Robin, the Boy Wonder, anyway? If Batman wasn’t with him, it’d be a wonder the boy didn’t get the guano knocked out of him on a daily basis. The suit was a joke. It looked like Peter Pan’s Underoos. Batman had the cool suit. Batman had the gadgets. Hell, Batman probably had Catwoman! But did you ever see Robin get any of the cute chicks?

And when it came to the Batmobile, Robin was never in the driver’s seat. He was just a kid in a dorky outfit going along for the ride. He was there to make Batman look good. Robin was a wannabe superhero trapped in a boy’s body. . . .

Yet like Robin to Batman, I never grew jealous of Dad; I felt only admiration, respect, and a kind of hero worship. . . . [Looking back on a publicity photo,] I realize it’s the last time I can remember seeing Dad heathy, happy, and full of the passion, the exuberance he so generously shared and that naturally drew people to him.
That occasion was in 1985. Two years later, the older Wilson’s health started to fail (lung cancer after lots of smoking), and the younger went to work on the Ziggy cartoon full-time.

As his father declined, Wilson wrote gags and then drew cartoons, silently helped out at appearances and then did them himself. “Most people never realized the transition had taken place,” Wilson writes. “In private I was doing the comic strip, but in public I receded into the shadows while Dad met the audience he so loved and needed.”

With both men named Tom Wilson, the transition probably looked seamless from the outside. (There are five cartoons in the book signed “Tom Wilson + Tom II,” one dated 2001.) By now the son has been handling the strip longer than the dad, and during that time he was also looking after his dad, raising his sons, and enduring the death of his wife from cancer.

Wilson insists that he still thinks of his dad as his superhero, but clearly his own shoulders are carrying the family and the business. At many points in Zig-Zagging, I sensed unacknowledged conflicts and tensions in the author’s situation. And Wilson’s attitude toward Robin might exemplify those. The book quotes Herman Hesse:
If you hate a person, you hate something in him that is part of yourself. What isn’t part of ourselves doesn’t disturb us.
Wilson’s image of Robin was formed in the 1960s: a symbol of youth who never grows up, who always has something to learn, who falls down a lot—“a wannabe superhero trapped in a boy’s body.” Clearly Wilson doesn’t want to be that.

As a business owner and parent, Wilson has definitely grown up. Yet as Tom Wilson, Jr., carrying on his father’s job, that growth may be hard to see—is he just a wannabe? Throughout Zig-Zagging he compares himself unfavorably to his childhood image of Batman, and his childhood image of his father.

Wilson might find more inspiration in a hero who’s grown up and taken over for his fallen father figure, though he can’t let the world know. A hero dealing with grief while raising a kid (a really difficult kid at that). A hero who still admires his predecessor, knowing he can’t match that man in some ways but has surpassed him in others.

A hero like Dick Grayson, who right now is Batman. Because the story of Dick Grayson since 1980 is that even Boy Wonders can grow into superheroes themselves.

(Thanks to Tom Angleberger for alerting me to Zig-Zagging.)

11 June 2010

“The Golden Age of Science Fiction” Quotations

In 1977, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction quoted “some disillusioned fan (was it Terry Carr?)” as saying, ‘The golden age of science fiction is twelve.’” In 2000, author Thomas M. Disch reported hearing the remark from Carr, his agent.

That statement referred to how science fiction is never as exciting, as mind-blowing, as open to new possibilities as when fans first start reading it—which is often around the age of twelve. Each cohort grows up believing that the genre’s Golden Age ended shortly before they started reading because nothing since has ever felt quite as good.

(The same rules apply to adventure comics, and indeed people credit Don and/or Maggie Thompson with saying, “The Golden Age of Comics was twelve.”)

However, one important person disagreed with that attribution: Terry Carr himself. As early as 1973 the same Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction printed this line:

I owe it to Terry Carr for reminding us that it was Peter Scott Graham who first said that “The Golden Age of Science Fiction is thirteen.”
In 1777 Carr wrote in the same magazine about the quote (in its “twelve” version):
I didn’t say this, though I’ve quoted the remark a few times, such as in my Introduction to Universe 3. Actually it was said back in 1960 by Peter Graham.
Other sources peg the date around 1957 and suggest Graham wrote it in Void, a fanzine he edited. Graham also organized events, reviewed books, assembled anthologies, and the like. Then he “gafiated,” presumably because he didn’t feel twelve or thirteen anymore.

In 1992, David G. Hartwell wrote an article in Futures Past titled “The Golden Age of Science Fiction Is Twelve”; when he republished that essay in Visions of Wonder, he carefully credited the original saying to Peter Graham. How effective was that? Currently a lot of sources attribute the observation to…David G. Hartwell.

09 June 2010

“‘Crowdsourced’ Audiobook Production!”

Tom Angleberger, author of The Strange Case of Origami Yoda (“a delightful first [sic] novel” —New York Times Book Review), clued me into this Random House Audio announcement about the upcoming ALA conference:

This June, Random House Audio and OverDrive are partnering to ask you to Lend Your Voice—to our audiobook production of L. Frank Baum's classic The Wizard of Oz.

We'll be setting up an on-site recording studio inside OverDrive's Digitalbookmobile during the American Library Association's annual conference in Washington, DC June 25-27. Anyone interested in recording a section of the audiobook can come by to participate, and once we've completed the book, we'll edit all the voices together into one "crowdsourced" audiobook production!

The finished audiobook will be posted online for all the narrators to listen to and share with family and friends.

If you'd like to be a part of the recording, the Digitalbookmobile studio will be located near the Washington Convention Center, across the street from the Renaissance Hotel (999 9th Street Northwest, Washington, DC 20001) at the corner of 9th St NW and New York Ave NW. Just follow the Yellow Brick Road to find us!

We'll be recording Friday afternoon and all day Saturday and Sunday, and can't wait to hear all your voices for Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Wicked Witch!
The picture above is a detail of the Wizard’s laboratory as drawn by John R. Neill in The Wonder City of Oz. It approximates my brief experience of reading books in a recording booth.

08 June 2010

Reasons to Smile

Today Roger Sutton announced that Raina Telgemeier’s memoir Smile is an Honor Book in the Nonfiction category of the 2010 Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards.

Even before that news, the book’s first printing sold out—despite the fact that it’s still possible to read Smile on the web. Like Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid (discussed here), Telgemeier’s book took a path to publication that seems paradoxical yet worked.

Both Kinney and Telgemeier shared their stories on the web before finding publishers. That exposure helped them to build a following as they developed their vision. Lots of people liked the result. Some of those people probably still see no need to buy the books, but many more did buy, and told their friends as well.

Since I ended my SCBWI New England conference workshop on comics scripting by suggesting that this model looked like the best route to publication, I’m delighted to have a new example of success to point to.

Jason Green interviewed Telgemeier for Playback:stl about her choice to display finished pages on the web as she created them, starting in 2004. Telgemeier explained:

I really love the print medium, and so [that] was always what I wanted to do, was to make books. And the webcomics thing happened because people kept saying, “Put your stuff on the web! Put your stuff on the web!” I didn’t know how to do that! I didn’t know what an FTP program was, I didn’t know how to get comics from my page to a screen. I had to have it all explained to me, over and over again, in detail, before I sort of figured it out.

And once I did, it was like, “Oh, I get it, you can get a much bigger audience this way, and you can really do a lot of interesting things with page layouts,” and stuff like that. But, because I came from print, I was still not stretching my wings too far as far as the format of the story, and I knew that I wanted to print it someday. So, I think it was like I was making a print graphic novel, but I was serializing it on the web on a weekly basis.
Before then, Telgemeier had self-published her mini-comic Takeout, another way of developing an audience. That route was easier years ago, given the economics of comics distribution, but today the web is clearly more affordable and powerful. Of course, you’ve gotta have appealing content and the energy to promote it.

In the same year that Telgemeier started to share Smile, Scholastic’s David Saylor announced that the firm had commissioned her to adapt Ann S. Martin’s Baby-Sitters Club into comics form. The success of those books helped put her name on booksellers’ computers.

Telgemeier could probably have published Smile herself, based on that success, but the effort would have taken a lot of her time. Instead, she signed with Scholastic. That firm has a powerful distribution arm, including those school book fairs. It has the capital to invest in color printing, as with Jeff Smith’s Bone, which sets the print edition of Smile off from the web pages. And there’s still cachet in coming out through a major publisher—but that’s not as valuable as an already established readership.

07 June 2010

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

From the Wall Street Journal’s interview with Jeff Bezos of Amazon on the future of digital books:

If you think about books, it’s astonishing. It’s very hard to find a technology that has remained in mostly the same form for 500 years. And anything that has stubbornly resisted improvement for 500 years is going to be hard to improve.

That is what we’re trying to do with Kindle. To do that, you have to capture the essential element of a book, which is that it disappears when you get into the flow of the story. None of us when we’re reading a book think about the ink and the glue and the stitching. All that fades away, and you get into the author’s universe.

But you also can’t ever out-book the book. You need to look for a series of things that you can do with an electronic device like Kindle that you could never do with a physical book.
Things like easy searching, flexible formats (allowing larger type), hypertext links, automatic updates, narrative branches, links to discussion forums, and of course Bezos’s favorite Kindle feature: quick and easy purchases.

The spread of the printed book 500 years ago led to profound changes in literature, particularly the rise of the novel to its current perch as our top written art. The spread of digital book readers with all their features will probably produce new storytelling forms that may supplant the traditional novel by offering more or better ways to “get into the author’s universe.”

I’m not surprised to read articles like this one from the Naperville Sun, reporting that even teens still like to read “novels” as paper codices. The modern novel was developed in concert with the modern codex, after all. The real question is how teens and the rest of us will prefer to take in stories as entertainment when novels aren’t the last word.

06 June 2010

Red Robin’s Sales

Back in 2008, when DC Comics leaked their plans to “kill” Bruce Wayne, have Dick Grayson take over as Batman, and end the runs of the Nightwing and Robin magazines, I posted a sales analysis to analyze why the company was ready to make such a gamble.

The Robin magazine had appeared monthly since 1993. But in the most recent year its sales through the Diamond distributor were stuck at about 26,000 copies a month (except for two issues that were part of heavily promoted crossovers with the Batman stories).

In the following two years, the character of Tim Drake took up a new costume and identity as Red Robin, and a magazine of that name was launched. Twelve issues have now appeared—inaugural writer Chris Yost’s complete run—and the first collection is in stores. We can now evaluate how successful DC’s gamble was.

This graph compares the sales of the first eleven issues of Red Robin (those for which the Comics Chronicles has calculated sales) with the equivalent eleven issues of Robin before DC announced its big plan. There were big sales for the #1 issue, as to be expected, and a drop-off as readers made up their minds about the book. Red Robin sales have now leveled off at a little over 36,000, or more than a third better than Robin. And that’s without the benefit of crossovers, since the point of that first run was Tim Drake being off on his own.

It’s no wonder that Batman group editor Mike Marts told the CBR site in a publicity interview:

“Red Robin” I think was far and away the book that not only met our expectations quickly, but exceeded our expectations. We knew that we had great ideas from Chris Yost. We knew we’d have solid artwork from Ramon Bachs and Marcus To. But the book really took off with the readers, and they embraced it very quickly. I think that book was a surprise within the “Batman Reborn” titles.
Fabian Nicieza has now taken over writing Red Robin from Chris Yost. I thought Nicieza’s closing innings on Robin showed the strains of taking over suddenly, catching up to deadlines, and having to fit into the company’s larger plans. But his fondness for and understanding of the character is clear, and now he has space to spread his wings.

05 June 2010

Postapocalyptic Vampires Defeat Slender, Plotless Narratives

The publication of Justin Cronin’s The Passage, first of a “postapocalyptic vampire trilogy,” is bringing up a number of the issues I discussed last month at my SCBWI New England workshop on genre fiction.

One is the importance of plot in that approach to storytelling. Cronin told Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam:

At Iowa in the mid-1980s, we were all trained to write these slender, plotless narratives, in the manner of Raymond Carver. I don’t think I heard the word ‘plot’ uttered during the two years I was there.
So who encouraged Cronin in creating a plot? He told the New York Times:
He got the idea during afternoon jaunts around the neighborhood with his daughter, Iris, then 9, who rode her bicycle while Mr. Cronin jogged.

“The game I suggested was Let’s Plan a Novel Together,” said Mr. Cronin…
Because kids want plot! Young readers don’t stand for “slender, plotless narratives,” even if they do come with Iowa pedigree.

Interestingly, Cronin’s agent was able to sell the trilogy in 2007 when it was only “half written.” He may have mapped out the ending, which is a crucial part of any satisfactory plot, but he hadn’t written it. But that was enough to produce large sums for both book and movie rights.

Those large sums bring up the next big point: the artistic, and perhaps artificial, dichotomy between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction.” In our culture, one commands more money, the other more respect. According to the Times’s estimate off BookScan, Cronin’s first two “literary” novels, Mary and O’Neil and The Summer Guest, have sold “Probably about 74,000 copies combined.” That’s not bad for non-genre fiction, and his prizes indicated he was good for more, but it’s certainly not enough to pay for a college education when the nine-year-old grows up.

Cronin and his agent submitted the partial manuscript for The Passage under the pseudonym “Jordan Ainsley.” Back in 2007, the New York Times reported that “When the author’s identity was revealed to [winning bidder] Libby McGuire, Ballantine’s publisher, she said that the company would publish the book under Mr. Cronin’s name.” Which implies there was at least a possibility that the company could have chosen differently, and kept his name and perhaps his identity in darkness. If so, would that have protected Cronin from the taint of “Ainsley’s” genre work? Or protected “Ainsley” from the taint of Cronin’s midlist sales?

Cronin’s agent said in 2007: “We weren’t trying to hide who he was, but I didn’t want him to be typecast as one kind of author, and I thought this had vast commercial potential”—apparently lacking in the “one kind of author” Cronin already was.

In his Globe interview, Cronin characterizes the pseudonym in a more literary way:
I wanted to create an environment in which all categories were banished, so the editor wouldn’t know who the manuscript was from, or even if it was written by a man or a woman. I didn’t want them to think of the book with any predetermined qualities attached.
Beam queried if that was really a sneaky tactic, and Cronin replied, “If I was a good career tactician, I wouldn’t be a writer to begin with.”

04 June 2010

Concatenation Is Making Me Write

I rarely post roundups of links, but today brought some concatenations I decided to share.

Children’s science writer Melissa Stewart continues sharing Five Gross and Goofy Body Facts on Fridays, but she still has a long way to go to match the book that Guys Lit Wire reviews today: Why Dogs Eat Poop, and Other Useless or Gross Information about the Animal Kingdom.

The first issue of Jer Alford and Erin Ptah’s Emeralds: Hearts in Oz comic book is on sale. Meanwhile, in a very different take on Oz, Karl Altstaetter continues posting pages from the third chapter of his Emerald City Blues comic.

Bully the Little Stuffed Bull finds a new way to discuss comic-book numbering: in a joint parody of Encyclopedia Brown and 1970s detective TV shows. Shelly the Little Otter Puppet plays the same function as Sally Kimball, Encyclopedia’s enforcer.

[ADDENDUM: I realized I could add yesterday’s concatenation of Dave Elzey applying the Bechdel Test to children’s novels as Janni Lee Simner and friends discuss female friendships in fantasy literature.]

02 June 2010

The Mockingbird Lineage

Americans are united this year in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel and its 1962 movie adaptation are both very, very good, as well as popular, nostalgic, and largely reassuring.

I think it’s also worth noting that To Kill a Mockingbird (in both book and movie forms) has a literary lineage, and may even be the pinnacle of a genre. There were earlier stories of a Young Point-of-View Character (YPoVC) watching a Tall, Strong-Chinned, Upper-Class White Man (TSCUCWM) defend an Unjustly Accused Black Man (UABM) from a lynch mob.

William Faulkner published Intruder in the Dust in 1948, and helped with its movie adaptation the next year, when he also won the Nobel Prize. This was one of his most accessible late novels, though the narration was a challenging stream of consciousness. Faulkner’s plot is not reassuring about racial relations in the genteel, post-WW2 but pre-Movement way. His UABM is a snappish social rebel. His TSCUPWM, a lawyer, must be goaded by teenagers (including the YPoVC) and an old woman into defending the man.

In the movie, the UABM was played by Juano Hernández, his first big-studio role after a career on stage and in Oscar Micheaux’s black cinema. Claude Jarman, Jr., handled the YPoVC part, meaning he shouldn’t be remembered just for The Yearling.

Another example of this little genre is Stars in My Crown, filmed in 1950, three years after Joe David Brown’s nostalgic novel. Its UABM was portrayed by none other than…Juano Hernández! The YPoVC was played by the great Dean Stockwell, and the TSCUCWM—who this time is a minister, not a lawyer—by the great Joel McCrea.

Interestingly, in Trial (1955) Hernández played a judge trying to make sure an unpopular Chicano defendant received a fair trial. Of course, that movie’s main hero is a SCUCWM of average height, played by Glenn Ford. Even more clearly of its time, this movie’s villains are Communists who champion the unjustly accused Mexican man for nefarious purposes.

Hollywood had addressed lynching in other movies adapted from novels:

  • They Won’t Forget (1937), a fictionalized version of the Leo Frank incident; its anonymous director was Mervyn LeRoy, later producer of The Wizard of Oz.
  • The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), the western starring Henry Fonda.
  • The Silver Whip (1953), another western that comes down to lynching.
Those movies involved white lynching victims, and thus addressed America’s racial divide only by allusion. Harper Lee portrayed the oppression of blacks. But she wasn’t the first to do so.

01 June 2010


Here is artist A. G. Ford’s image of Dorothy Gale and Toto. Page down at Seven Imps for a couple more Ozzy paintings. One also graces the header of Ford’s blog, where he discusses and shows its development. In another posting Ford highlights his character designs, which are clearly inspired by the MGM movie.

Ford has already illustrated Jonah Winter’s Barack and Mina Javaherbin’s Goal! We’ll undoubtedly see more richly illustrated picture books from him.