31 July 2010

Summer Reading—Or Not

And speaking of M. T. Anderson, last weekend I had the following exchange.

Me, tapping a copy of Jasper Dash and the Flame-Pits of Delaware on the kitchen table: “I think you’d like this book.”

Godson’s Brother, eyeing the volume warily: “Oh.”

And then he carefully stayed at least five feet away from it for the rest of the day.

I may have been at fault for bringing Godson and Godson’s Brother a copy of DC Comics’ Greatest 1950s Stories Ever Told, which is heady competition on a sunny day. But I think the real factor is that the twins have reached an age where, even though they like reading, they’re determined to resist their very expensive school’s summer reading suggestions. And any other suggestions that involve prose.

The next day, however, Godson got into a Stare-Eyes contest with his cousin. So I really do think I have one holiday present picked out this year.

And to make sure Godson’s Brother won’t read this posting and find out, I’ll recommend that he do so.

30 July 2010

Hearing Voices

From Lee Wind’s interview with M. T. Anderson:

In writing middle grade, I imagine the voice going TOWARDS the reader. In YA and adult, I imagine the voice coming FROM the narrator. I guess it’s because, naturally, I think of writing middle grade fiction as akin to story-telling or reading aloud.
Of course, for his young adult novels Anderson has (so far) chosen first-person narration, meaning that the voice is a major part of the characterization.

In his middle-grade “Pals in Peril” books and tween Game of Sunken Places and sequelae, Anderson’s narrative voices aren’t characters within the story. Rather, they’re filters between the action and the reader, and somewhat chatty about it, especially in the former series.

I see that reflecting the reëmergence of the intrusive third-person narrative voice in children’s literature after Lemony Snicket. In novels published during my childhood (and Anderson’s, and Handler’s), third-person narrators tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, murmuring flatly into readers’ ears and ducking away whenever one looked around to see where the story was coming from. It’s no surprise that Anderson’s opinionated narrators pop up in books that also involve knee socks—they reflect inspiration in storytelling about a century old.

Anderson’s observation makes an interesting pairing with this comment from Wind’s interview with Scholastic editor Nick Eliopulos:
In simplest terms, I think of voice as a bridge from the author to the reader. It’s about your style, how you express yourself and your characters, how you choose to communicate.

I wonder if those involved in kids’ books fret over voice more than those in adult publishing? Because, allowing for some noteworthy exceptions, a children’s book involves an adult writer communicating with a child or teen reader. So the author has a lot to keep in mind when it comes to the voice.
This is one of the better explanations of “voice” that I’ve heard. Usually editors and agents seem to use the word to mean, “I know what I like.”

28 July 2010

An Impossible Thing Before Modernity

Earlier this month Fuse #8 aired this issue:

There was an interesting discussion on the child_lit listserv that I think is worth mentioning here today. In the event that a children’s author is convicted of a heinous crime like owning child pornography or abusing children, should one keep that author’s books on the shelf?

This is not a hypothetical question when you learn that author William Mayne was once convicted of abusing kids and, more recently, in Oregon author K.P. Bath (of The Secret of Castle Cant) was sentenced to six years in prison for possessing child porn. It’s an interesting question.

Castle Cant sits on my own library shelves and as a book it has committed no crime, though its author has. What is the responsibility of the children’s librarian in such a case as this then? There are no easy answers.
There was a parallel discussion at Maw Books.

I kept waiting for someone to point out that we’ve already run a version of this experiment. No public library or children’s-lit scholar would be without copies of at least two books by a man who not only possessed images that could almost certainly be prosecuted as child pornography under current US law, but produced them. That man is, of course, Lewis Carroll.

The material that Bath was convicted of possessing appears to be much more harmful to the young victims than anyone has alleged about the nude photographs Carroll made (and eventually destroyed). But the discussions don’t seem to have come close to that distinction, or the question of historical context. Most people expressed support for either “zero tolerance” or keeping “the work separate from the author.”

And Carroll’s work is merely the foundation of all modern English-language children’s literature. Once we’re done comparing and contrasting his novels to Mayne’s and Bath’s, we can move on to the fact that Plato’s Socratic dialogues, which provide much of the foundation of all modern thought, portray pederasty as one of the highest forms of human love. “Zero tolerance” is impossible.

27 July 2010

Working Through the Horowitz Family Lore

Back when I read the first Alex Rider book by Anthony Horowitz, I disliked the snobbery and xenophobia built into it. Those qualities may have been borrowed from the British spy thriller’s genre conventions, but Horowitz chose to perpetuate them. (And revisit them.)

All the odder, I thought, given that Horowitz hadn’t grown up as an insider in British society, especially when attending the Rugby public school in the 1960s as, well, a Horowitz. But then I read that his family legend, as described among other places in this interview with the Jewish Exponent, actually presented his father as a rich insider:

his father’s secret service as a so-called “fixer” for Prime Minister Harold Wilson couldn’t fix the financial problems at home once the Jewish family’s fortunes evaporated. . . .

But secrets got the best of his dad, whose survival of bankruptcy banked on certain Swiss accounts that held a secret fortune in his name.

Unfortunately, says his son, those accounts held numbers as unfamiliar to the rest of the family as the Da Vinci codes. “He died of cancer at age 55, when I was 22,” his cache of cash unfound.

“And all of a sudden, these letters started arriving from different banks, starting out the same way, offering their condolences about my father’s death, but then saying how he owed them hundreds of thousands of pounds.” . . .

“Somewhere in Switzerland, he had all this money. My mother went there two or three times searching for it. She never found it. We had to sell everything,” says Horowitz. “My mother had to go back to work.”
I’ve read enough family and local lore that my historian alarms immediately went off. That narrative seemed far too tidy, explaining away all faults and losses and lack of evidence.

Back in mid-2007 I prepared some notes for a blog posting expressing doubt that the senior Horowitz ever had much actual money, or close ties to Harold Wilson (who was known within British politics as his own “fixer”). I was going to suggest the senior Horowitz’s possible similarities to the father figures in John Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy (based on the author’s own father) and Graham Greene’s The Captain and the Enemy—i.e., men conning the world, their loved ones, and themselves.

But at the end of that year, without any butting in from me, Horowitz began to rethink his family lore, as revealed in this Telegraph profile:
He took his family’s wealth for granted; but when his father died, he found himself, aged 21, a pauper. There was only a notebook filled with indecipherable squiggles related to Swiss bank accounts. Despite a year-long attempt to find the missing wealth, it has remained a mystery — as has its origin. “I don’t think my father was a crook, but I don’t know,” he says. “I recently found that one of his closest associates was wanted on fraud charges.[”]
The old story still surfaced occasionally, as in this 2008 interview with the Independent, but the senior Horowitz was never such a mythical hero as first described. Horowitz now writes of his family [hat tip to Gail Gauthier] with more overt and admirable skepticism. Leaving me with less to complain about.

26 July 2010

Equal Work for Lower Billing?

Back in March, Snow Wildsmith reviewed the first Max Finder Mystery collection of middle-grade mysteries in comics form with this praise:

Both boys and girls should enjoy the stories as each of the two detectives has their moment to shine, so even though the series is named for Max, it’s obvious that they are equal partners.
Except that one gets his name in the title, and the other doesn’t. So are they really equal?

In the Encyclopedia Brown books, the hero also had a female helper, Sally Kimball—though she wasn’t in on every case. In a break with gender stereotypes, Donald J. Sobol made Sally the muscle of the outfit; she was tough enough to keep Bugs Meany from beating up brainy Leroy Brown. But she was clearly in a supporting role, and the guy got top billing.

Are there counterexamples for this pattern? For example, what about the Sammy Keyes mysteries, by Wendelin Van Draanen? Those have a young female detective front and center.

Well, not front. The current paperback packaging features the villains, not the detective, on the front covers. Sammy does appear on the hardcover jackets, but as one element in a design, sometimes hard to recognize in the background.

But everyone knows Sammy’s a girl’s name, right?

25 July 2010

Buy This Magazine or We’ll Kill This Robin

In early 1988, Batman magazines editor Dennis O’Neil faced two novel challenges. First, he’d proposed that DC Comics set up and publicize 900 numbers to let readers vote on some question in the DC Universe. This would strengthen the link to readers and get some publicity, O’Neil argued. But what question would be appropriate?

Publisher Jenette Kahn didn’t want to use the effort for a minor issue, such as a new costume or a year’s free membership in the Justice League. At the same time, the vote’s effect had to be limited enough that one magazine could be ready to reflect the readers’ choice. Readers couldn’t be invited to vote on something that would affect the entire line, such as reversing the recent Crisis on Infinite Earths.

O’Neil’s second challenge was the “Robin problem” that arose after writers Max Allan Collins and Jim Starlin had given Batman’s young sidekick Jason Todd a new background and more challenging personality. To O’Neil’s surprise, readers disliked the result. For example, in Batman, #424, reader George Gustines wrote of recent issues:

The best part of all these stories is that there have been few appearances of Robin, who I think is an insult to the real hero who once wore that costume.
Even Starlin was reportedly lobbying to get rid of the new Robin. The character had stopped appearing in Detective Comics as Alan Grant and John Wagner became its writers. (Here’s Greg Burgas’s appreciation of those issues.) O’Neil and his Batman team had already decided to remove Jason from the Robin role, but not how to do that or what to do with him next.

O’Neil saw the “Robin problem” as the answer to his 900-number challenge, and the 900-number vote as the answer to his Robin problem. Jason was on his way out, but readers would be invited to decided whether he would die or would survive but no longer be able or eager to serve as Robin. Turning the result over to readers would also spare O’Neil the need to impose a choice himself.

Starlin scripted a series of Batman issues under the title “A Death in the Family.” The family was Jason’s: he discovers that the mother he remembered wasn’t his birth mother and runs away from Gotham City to track down three candidates. As for the death, that would be his mother’s—and it could be his as well. Ads in all the DC magazines told readers:
Robin will die because the Joker wants revenge but you can prevent it with a telephone call.
The options under the two phone numbers were, “The Joker fails, and Robin lives,” and “The Joker succeeds and Robin will not survive.” (The copywriters appear to have shied away from using the word “die” or “kill.”)

The issues went out. The calls came in. Readers voted for Jason to survive the Joker’s bomb. Batman found him badly injured in the wreckage, and the character was shipped off for rehabilitation, thus removing him from the comics for an indefinite time. But before he disappeared, Jason promised Bruce Wayne that he would adopt a new attitu—

Oh, wait, that’s what happened in an alternate universe. In our universe, fans voted 5,343 to 5,271 for Jason to die. Artist Jim Aparo had prepared two versions of the final panel in Batman, #428. One showed Batman anguishing over Jason’s corpse, the other Batman celebrating that Jason had survived. The panel to the left is the one that never got colored.

The difference was only 72 votes out of more than 10,000, or .68% of the total. O’Neil, who had been reading the fan mail, expected the vote to be much higher in favor of death. Editorial Director Dick Giordano bet that the fans would go the other way.

In an interview O’Neil later said, “I heard it was one guy, who programmed his computer to dial the thumbs down number every ninety seconds for eight hours.” But it’s not clear whether the source of that statement was the company that recorded the calls or an untraceable comics-convention rumor.

Either way, Jason Todd was dead.

COMING UP: Reactions from a couple of Robin fans, and why death was the best thing that ever happened to the character of Jason Todd.

24 July 2010

“We’re rubbish, even though we are as gods.”

Super scripter Alan Moore had stuff to say about superheroes in a recent Quietus interview published in The Stool Pigeon:

In the past I’ve tried to say, ‘Look, we are all crappy superheroes,’ because personal computers and mobile phone devices are things that only Batman and Mr Fantastic would have owned back in the sixties. We've all got this immense power and we’re still sat at home watching pornography and buying scratch cards. We’re rubbish, even though we are as gods. . . .

I’ve come to the conclusion that what superheroes might be — in their current incarnation, at least — is a symbol of American reluctance to involve themselves in any kind of conflict without massive tactical superiority. I think this is the same whether you have the advantage of carpet bombing from altitude or if you come from the planet Krypton as a baby and have increased powers in Earth’s lower gravity.

That’s not what superheroes meant to me when I was a kid. To me, they represented a wellspring of the imagination. Superman had a dog in a cape! He had a city in a bottle! It was wonderful stuff for a seven-year-old boy to think about. But I suspect that a lot of superheroes now are basically about the unfair fight. You know: people wouldn’t bully me if I could turn into the Hulk. . . .

Initially Watchmen gained a lot of its readership because it was taking an unusual look at superheroes, but actually it was more about redefining comics than it was about redefining one particular genre. I think both me and Dave Gibbons had a lot of knowledge about that scene and we were able to take it and change it around to our advantage.

And, as you say, there hasn’t been a more sophisticated comic released in the 25 years since, which I find profoundly depressing, because it was intended to be something that expanded the possibilities of comics rather than what it has apparently become — a massive psychological stumbling block that the rest of the industry has yet to find a way round.
Of course, many nations have superheroes. But perhaps they’re all simply imitations of a fundamentally American innovation.

And perhaps Moore’s disenchantment with the genre has more to do with his stage of life than with the roots of the genre, geopolitics, or the state of the industry.

23 July 2010

More Bartimaeus? Too Much Bartimaeus?

I saw Publishers Weekly reporting that Jonathan Stroud has two new Bartimaeus books on the way. I loved reading the Bartimaeus trilogy, but I wasn’t sure which new title bothered me more.

One is a comics adaptation of The Amulet of Samarkand, written by Stroud and Andrew Donkin, who also scripted the Artemis Fowl comics with Eoin Colfer. I liked the first Fowl comic better than the corresponding novel; that story’s strengths played to the potentials of the comics form and its weaknesses recessed a bit.

In contrast, I like the Bartimaeus novels very much, and don’t see how all their strengths can make the jump. Comics are a good medium for shifting points of view, but not necessarily for such profoundly changing narrative voices. And the story is so much bigger than Artemis Fowl’s siege. Check out this preview.

In addition, PW reported that Stroud will publish a fourth novel in his series, The Ring of Solomon, in November. I thought the original trilogy was excellently structured, and couldn’t really see that story being stretched into a foursome. I worried that I might have contributed to the problem by passing over Stroud’s non-Bartimaeus books, pushing him back to the well.

But Monica Edinger assures us all that the upcoming Ring of Solomon is:

  • a prequel, with Bartimaeus at work about three thousand years ago.
  • about a new heroine and a whole new set of humans.
  • very good.

21 July 2010

She’s a Guitarist, Fer Sure!

A while back, I wrote about how Janice, the guitar player in Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, had been turned into a tambourine player in the comics magazine inspired by The Muppet Show.

I’m pleased to add that in the Muppet comics adaptation of Peter Pan, Janice not only gets to play guitar, but it’s a significant element in the plot. She “plays” the major role of Wendy in this free-wheeling adaptation. The scripter for this volume is Grace Randolph, and the artist is Amy Mebberson; the female-led creative team might have been a little more sensitive to Janice’s established musical role.

Being a Muppet, Janice as Wendy gets a left-handed guitar, which she plays right-handed. Puppetry is subtle that way. The volume also has excellent work from Sam the Eagle.

18 July 2010

Jason Todd: Capable of Killing?

The last two weekly Robins have discussed how the personality and narrative function of the second Jason Todd varied greatly depending on who wrote the stories. Those differences arose from the approach of the new editor on DC’s Batman books, Dennis O’Neil. He had helped to usher in the modern Batman after 1969, then worked as an editor at Marvel, and finally returned to DC.

O’Neil recently described his ideal approach to editing:

During my first stint as a card-carrying, full-time comic book editor entitled to health benefits, personal days and my own invitation to the office Christmas party, I screwed up. I thought that the bossfolk had hired me because they thought I could write and therefore all I had to do was make the work of the writers I hired indistinguishable from my own. Which was dunderheaded. . . .

the editorial task was simply to get the best possible stuff from the creative people, given whatever limitations and restrictions were established. To cram another’s prose into the procrustean bed of my own productions was to get, at best, third rate O’Neil when what we should have wanted was first rate (fill in the name of some poor freelancer whose labor was massacred by the younger and dumber me).
Artist Norm Breyfogle confirmed what it was like to work for O’Neil at DC in an interview with Graphic Novel Reporter: “He allowed his creative teams great freedom while providing basic visionary parameters.”

What did that mean for Jason Todd? It meant O’Neil okayed the ideas that his writers thought would produce the best stories. As quoted at Titans Tower, O’Neil described this genesis for Jason’s reinvention:
In 1986, Max Allan Collins inherited the Batman writing assignment and told his editor he had an idea for an improved Jason Todd. Make him a street kid, Collins said. Make his parents criminals. Have him and Batman on opposite sides at first.

Sounded fine to the editor and, since DC was in the middle of a vast, company-wide overhaul of storylines anyway, Collins was told to go ahead. I was the editor; I did the telling. And I’d do it again, today. Collins’s Robin was dramatic, did have story potential.

But readers didn’t take to him. I don’t know now, and will probably never know why. Jason was accepted as long as he was a Dick Grayson clone, but when he acquired a distinct and, Collins and I still believe, more interesting back story, their affection cooled.
O’Neil’s hands-off approach allowed Collins’s Jason to differ from Mike W. Barr’s, which in turn differed drastically from Jim Starlin’s. O’Neil let each writer play to his strength rather than dictate a single approach. With troubling consequences.One of Starlin’s storylines in 1988 involved Batman and Robin tracking down a serial rapist, only to learn that he has diplomatic immunity because of his father. Jason, hot-headed and angry, wants to go after the guy. Bruce, eyes on the law, tells Jason to hold back.

It’s easy to see why O’Neil approved this plotline: it has good storytelling potential (as well as being gritty, the way the new DC wanted). Starlin laid out an interesting conflict between Batman and Robin, letting them act out important debates:
  • What do you do when justice appears to be in conflict with the law?
  • How do you balance the good of an individual against the good of a principle?
  • Can a crimefighter lose his sense of justice by becoming too emotionally involved, or sacrifice it by not being emotional enough?
  • What are the downsides of Batman’s principle not to kill?
In Batman, #424, Jason finds one of the rapist’s victims has hung herself, fearing he’ll come after her again. He swings over to confront the man on his balcony. In the next panel we see the man plunging to the street. Batman arrives.
Jason says the man slipped and refuses to answer any questions. What happened on that balcony remains ambiguous twenty years later. In some stories, that sort of ambiguity can be powerful. But for Jason Todd it was fatal.

Because Robin isn’t evil.

COMING UP: The decision point.

16 July 2010

Least Surprising Q&A of the Year

Comics Alliance spoke to Ethan Nicolle about Axe Cop, the webcomic he’s created with his five-(now six)-year-old brother Malachai:

CA: How have you quantified what your core demographic of readers is right now? Who do you think reads "Axe Cop?"

EN: It's mainly guys.

Axe Cop reflects a masculine sensibility just because it contains an all-male cast, weekly explosions and fights, and enough phallic symbols to keep Dr. Freud busy for weeks?

Next we’ll see little girls creating superheroes with the powers of flowers, lambs, and hearts. (Though, to be sure, “She can use the sharp part at the bottom of the heart to poke people.”)

15 July 2010

Counting the Votes on Avandia

Today’s Boston Globe reported on its front page:

A Food and Drug Administration advisory panel recommended yesterday that the diabetes drug Avandia be allowed to remain on the market despite a variety of studies that show it poses elevated risks of heart attack.
Today’s New York Times reported on its front page:
A federal medical advisory panel recommended Wednesday that Avandia, a controversial diabetes drug, should either be withdrawn from the market or have sales severely restricted because it increases the risks of heart attacks.
What gives? The two papers, both part of the same corporation, headlined opposing interpretations of the FDA advisory panel’s complex vote. The panel considered several options with the following vote totals:
  • Take Avandia off the market: 12.
  • Restrict Avandia sales and beef up its warning labels: 10.
  • Beef up the warning labels: 7.
  • Make no changes: 3.
  • Weaken the warning labels: 0.
  • Abstain: 1.
Depending on how you group the options, either two-thirds of the panel voted to withdraw or restrict Avandia, or slightly less than two-thirds voted to keep it on the market in some way.

I don’t have diabetes or a close friend or relative who does, so I have no personal experience or feeling about the drug. But the recent revelations about how GlaxoSmithKline manipulated and concealed studies revealing its dangerous side effects make me feel a little sick.

The Times notes that the FDA has left a risky drug on the market with restrictions only if it provides unique benefits, but studies (including some that Glaxo suppressed) show Avandia’s competitors are just as good without the side effects.

If Avandia does remain on the market, perhaps Glaxo can lose its patent for scientific misconduct.

13 July 2010

How Much Can Change in Two Years

Eric Gjovaag’s Wonderful Blog of Oz notes an Ozzy challenge on Jeopardy last night, and notes that the “answer” was inaccurately worded in two ways. The more interesting error was that, having died in 1919, L. Frank Baum was in no position to publish or manage any active verb a year later.

I’d seen this challenge in the show’s daily New York Times ad, and also noted that inaccuracy. In addition, I was struck that the category for this challenge was “1920s LIT.” Glinda of Oz was published in 1920, and thus indeed entered the cultural discourse of that decade. But it could only reflect the previous decade when Baum wrote. Like Billy Budd, which Herman Melville left unfinished when he died in 1891 but came into print in 1924, the book is part of two cultural eras.

Of course, a lapse of two years between composition and publication doesn’t mean much for Glinda. Hey, authors today have to expect to wait at least that long! (Good thing they can work on their book trailers.) But in one respect I think we can see that time gap affecting Baum’s last three Oz books.

Baum apparently wrote The Tin Woodman of Oz, The Magic of Oz, and Glinda of Oz one after another in 1917-18. He finished Magic in the fall of 1917, and Glinda in February 1918 (as I reconstructed events in an article for The Baum Bugle a few years back).

All three of those books depict soldiers or war, none in particularly favorable terms. They don’t show the boosterism of Baum’s Army Alphabet and Navy Alphabet rhyming books from 1900. We don’t see any military as an efficient source for good, like Glinda’s army in The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904).

Instead, Baum’s last two books revolve around wars motivated by egotistic, greedy manipulators. The Tin Soldier in the preceding novel is a stiff personality, not particularly useful, and harder to love than the Tin Woodman. We never see the harmless bumbling of Ozma’s army in Ozma of Oz.

However, larger events soon changed the environment for those books. In mid-1917 Woodrow Wilson decided not to keep us out of war after all. Baum’s eldest son, Frank Joslyn Baum, rejoined the army. (He’d previously served in the US attempt to subjugate the Philippines.) Both personally and politically, poking fun at warriors probably became harder for Baum.

I think we can see that atmosphere affect The Magic of Oz, even though the World War was over by the time it was published in 1919. At one point a villain plots to turn each of several monkeys into “a giant man, dressed in a fine uniform and armed with a sharp sword.” The “sword” suggests Baum pictured the sort of comic-opera soldiers who had appeared in his previous stories. But John R. Neill drew those giants as modern US soldiers straight off a recruiting poster.

Similarly, Magic shows the Nome King conning animals into a war that’s in nobody’s best interest, the way people against US entry into the World War described that situation. Yet Baum’s dedication says:

I dedicate this Book to the Children of our Soldiers, the Americans and their Allies, with unmeasured Pride and Affection.
Baum’s manuscript indicates that he added that line months after writing his story.

12 July 2010

Tommy Kovac on Oz and Oz Fandom

Comics Should Be Good! reminded me of this interview with scripter Tommy Kovac about his comics series with Andy J. Hirsch, The Royal Historian of Oz, which just came out from Slave Labor Graphics.

Among other things about L. Frank Baum’s series, Kovac says:

I started reading the original books when I was in about 3rd grade. . . . Before that, like every other human being in the civilized world, I had seen the movie, and of course loved it.

But once I became attached to the blond & sassy version of Dorothy in the original books (due largely to illustrator John R. Neill, who illustrated 13 of the 14 Baum books), I completely rejected Judy Garland’s whiny, weepy, chicken-shit portrayal.
Kovac’s story includes (again, among other things) an Official Oz Society, enforcing particular portrayals of Oz, as shown in the preview pages accompanying that interview. Its power depends on an “eternal copyright,” which of course doesn’t exist. (It would be unconstitutional in the US, though Jack Valenti and the Great Ormond Street Hospital are willing to overlook that.)

In fact, Baum’s Oz books and many of their sequels are in the public domain, meaning anyone can do anything they want with those texts, their characters, and their ideas. The challenge isn’t getting permission or (these days) getting printed; it’s getting anyone else to notice or care.

The Official Oz Society is really, Kovac admits, a parody of every avid Oz fan’s wish not to see that fantastic place and its citizens depicted in ways he or she dislikes.
I'm sort of making fun of myself with my version of the Official Oz Society, because my knickers get majorly twisted when I see someone take Baum’s creative property and do something I think is lame or just plain wrong. . . . It’s because those characters are so real in my head, seeing them fucked with is like slander, or defamation.
Of course, one fan’s slander is another’s brilliant new idea.

11 July 2010

The Two Paths of Jason Todd

As the last weekly Robin described, in 1987 Max Allan Collins turned Jason Todd into a new kind of Robin, offering new storytelling possibilities. He explored Jason’s criminal background, rashness, and anger for a handful of issues, and then left the Batman magazine.

Meanwhile, at Detective Comics Mike W. Barr was writing a very traditional and fun set of Batman and Robin adventures. Alan Davis drew many of those stories, depicting Jason as a cute, spindly-legged kid in his early teens. (Greg Burgas has profiled the Barr/Davis run of Detective for Comic Book Resources.)

This run of issues straddles the period when Collins introduced Jason’s new origin, but Detective made almost no reference to the boy’s now-troubled past. Instead, Barr’s Robin acts very much like Dick Grayson from the 1940s through the 1960s, fulfilling the usual reasons for the character:

Barr’s scripts did edge into the darker universe that DC was trying to create in the late 1980s. Detective, #571, ends with an image of Jason’s tombstone, albeit an imaginary one. In issues #573-4 Jason gets shot, forcing Bruce Wayne to examine the danger he exposes his sidekicks to. Those stories show the dark side of Batman himself. In #570, he almost beats up a helpless Joker, but Jason holds him back—because Barr’s characterization also fulfilled Reason for Robin, #10: Robin Isn’t Evil.

Barr’s last story gave Jason another encounter with Two-Face, who killed his father. To his surprise, Jason discovers he can pity the villain. Those two issues, illustrated by Jim Baikie, depict Jason in his late teens, and in addition to growing up physically he’s clearly grown up emotionally.

However, over at the Batman magazine new scripter Jim Starlin moved in the opposite direction, going deeper into the dark side of Jason Todd that Collins had established. Starlin worked mainly with artist Jim Aparo, who had already illustrated many Batman stories in The Brave and the Bold and Batman and the Outsiders.
In a 2001 interview, Starlin declared that the character of Robin simply didn’t make sense: “The idea of taking a kid along to fight crime is ludicrous.” Barr had probed that very topic, but for Starlin the remedy was more drastic: “I wanted to kill off Robin as soon as I started writing Batman.” At least that’s what he said over a decade after that fact.

Back in late 1987 Starlin’s built stories around conflicts between Jason and established characters. In issue #416, he brought Dick Grayson back to Gotham to meet the new Robin, and to confront Bruce Wayne over their break-up. The result was an emotion-packed issue, worthy of reprinting. In the end Dick praises Jason’s potential. But for a lot of readers that tale probably turned them against Jason Todd.

Because it’s one thing to show Jason sassing Batman, acting cocky, or roughing up criminals. It’s quite another to show Jason disrespecting Nightwing—the leader of DC Comics’s most popular team, the character readers had grown up alongside, the one hero who’s most assuredly not evil. Jason was in serious trouble.
This recent panel from The Black Cat captures the character of Jason Todd by late 1987, tugged between competing portrayals.

COMING UP: Jason goes to the dark side?

10 July 2010

Book Trailers—Why and Whither?

I’ve given book trailers a shot, and they aren’t doing anything for me.

Part of the problem is that my computer set-up and the number of other programs I tend to run mean that videos can be slow to download. And even if they do display smoothly, I usually find myself just listening to the audio while I work on something else. It’s not like I have to see what suit Jon Stewart was wearing.

But even among internet videos, book trailers keep striking me as a solution in search of a problem. I understand they can be part of branding—creating an appropriate feeling about the book and the author. Trailers might be effective at enticing reluctant readers, though I can’t help thinking that truly reluctant readers would simply go on to more videos.

Of course, trailers do help to occupy authors as they wait and wait for their books to be produced. And they do give publishers a way to assure booksellers that those authors are raring to market their wares.

But for me, I feel like I’m much further along if I spend the time that book trailers demand reading about the book in question, or even reading the book itself.

Yet trailers may be becoming necessary. I say this after watching the trailer for M. T. Anderson’s Suburb Beyond the Stars. Here’s an author who’s developed a following for types of books without even having a website until earlier this year. But of course that website needs a book trailer.

Naturally, the trailer is well done. There’s some funny Rutles-like deconstruction of the form, as I would expect. And the visual surprises that Betsy Bird warned us about. But this is M. T. effin’ Anderson. If the prose doesn’t win over potential readers, will footage of bare trees and cellars in Vermont do the job?

I fear book trailers will become like author blurbs. Blurbs are a pain to generate, some are better than others, and no one in the business believes they mean much. But people fear that an absence of blurbs means a lot. A book without blurbs (or extracts from previous laudatory reviews, which are better anyway) looks like it has no support. And you wouldn’t want your book to be the only one left out, would you? Would you? So we keep chasing blurbs.

Am I missing something about book trailers? Do they actually reach new readers, and how? Do publicists push for them? Do authors enjoy making them? Are they a flash in the pan? Will they be tacked onto digital book reissues, like DVD extras? Has this simply been an excuse to type “M. T. effin’ Anderson”?

08 July 2010

Must Be 18 or Older to Go to Oz?

Michael Cart reported on last month’s International Wizard of Oz Club convention at the Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Cal State Fresno.

I was, myself, a devoted Oz fan when I was a kid and typically received at least one Oz book every Christmas. In 1952, though, I received two—The Shaggy Man of Oz, by Jack Snow, and Hidden Valley of Oz, by Rachel R. Cosgrove.

How do I know this? Simple: on the page before the half-title page of each, I find written—with a flourish—“Michael Cart, Date: December 28, 1952; Age: 11. 1319 Sycamore Street. Logansport, Indiana.” Ah, good times . . .
Those were nearly the last titles in the series from Baum’s publisher, published in 1949 and 1951, respectively.

On a different note, Cart reports on the program’s scholarly papers:
titles such as “L. Frank Baum and Harriet Beecher Stowe: Using Sentimentalism to Inspire a Female Audience” and (my personal favorite) “Eroticism in the Emerald City: The Awakening of Dorothy’s Sexuality in Oz as Discussed in Alan Moore’s Lost Girls.” (A note in the conference program stipulated that you “must be 18 or older to attend this session”; since my emotional age is still about 12, I skipped it.)
I had to skip the whole event since I was speaking at another conference on another side of the country, so I’m grateful for reports like this one.

06 July 2010

Crogan’s Moral Uncertainty

Crogan’s Vengeance, by Chris Schweizer, is a nicely told pirate comic. I especially liked the panels’ timing. There’s a moment on page 56 when I lost the narrative logic, but the other 184 pages sailed by.

Schweizer draws in a “cartoony” style and offers lots of visual humor. His lettering is thick, usually leaving space for only one character to speak per panel. That overall look makes for a curious mix with characters who take themselves very seriously and a story with a high body count.

The main story includes no female characters with dialogue, but it is set on a pirate ship, after all. There’s an important female character in the framing story, but she’s the antagonist, an elderly lady who wants kids to stay off her lawn.

That narrative frame for Crogan’s Vengeance raises the biggest questions in my mind. In the first six comics pages and the last three, young Eric Crogan’s father sets up the story of their pirate ancestor as a lesson in dealing with “a situation of moral uncertainty.”

So what do we learn from the pirate yarn in between? Like most pirate tales, it’s full of attacks, counterattacks, subterfuges, mutinies, storms, shipwrecks, strandings, brawls, whippings, and duels. There’s also a treasure, though we hear about it more than we see it.

Also like most pirate tales, the story is close to amoral. Readers root for one greedy, sneaky group instead of another because:

  • The first group is slightly less ruthless than the second, and/or
  • The narrative point of view forces our hand.
Both factors apply in Crogan’s Vengeance.

In the end Catfoot halts a particularly bullying pirate from sacking a port on a English-speaking Caribbean island. To me that would come across as more heroic if the story hadn’t established that Catfoot has several selfish reasons for doing what he does: personal revenge, winning back treasure, keeping the region safe for pirates, simple survival.

As a reward Catfoot receives a British letter of marque—a license to commit piracy on other empires for the duration of whatever war has just broken out. Of course, the British officials we’ve seen are craven incompetents, not worthy of such protection. This simply extends how Crogan’s Vengeance depicts all life at sea as an unjust struggle to survive. The reward thus comes across not as Crogan’s redemption in a “situation of moral uncertainty” but as another excuse for amoral behavior.

Or, as Eric’s dad explains, “Catfoot was given free rein to plunder…provided he kept to a set of rules.” How’s that for a valuable lesson about life?

(Here's a glimpse of Catfoot Crogan later in life, imparting a valuable lesson to his own son.)

05 July 2010

Picturing Scientists

Yesterday’s Boston Globe mentioned this small study from Fermilab, which was conducted ten years ago but recently picked up by Restructure and Geek Feminism.

Thirty-one seventh-graders were asked to describe and draw their ideas of a “scientist” before and after a visit to Fermilab, where they met actual scientists. The before sketches often depicted stereotypical mad scientists in lab coats. Following the field trip, the students were more likely to refer to scientists as “normal people,” and to depict them in normal dress.

There was a striking contrast between girls and boys in the small sample. Before the visit, 36% of the girls drew a female scientist. Afterwards, 57% did.

Among boys, before the visit 100% drew male scientists. Afterwards…100% did.

04 July 2010

Jason Todd Remade: ”Promises to Be a Real Thriller”

In late 1986, two new writers took over the Batman stories from Doug Moench: Mike W. Barr on Detective Comics and Max Allan Collins on Batman. Around the same time, Dennis O’Neil returned to DC Comics as editor of the Batman magazines.

Early in 1987, four issues of Batman were turned over to Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s telling of Bruce Wayne’s first year fighting crime in Gotham City, which set a new, grittier tone for the series. Then Collins returned and tackled the challenge of Jason Todd, the current Robin.

At the time Collins was also scripting the daily Dick Tracy comic strip and the Ms. Tree comics with Terry Beatty, featuring a hard-boiled female detective. He would go on to write Road to Perdition, a bloody crime drama. He proposed a way to make Jason Todd part of Batman’s new, rougher milieu.

In Batman, #408, subtitled “The New Adventures,” Collins zipped readers into a new “continuity” for the Dynamic Duo. Dick Grayson’s departure to become Nightwing was no longer a drawn-out but peaceful story of a young man discovering his adult role. Jason Todd was no longer a second boy trapeze artist with murdered parents who found a new home in Wayne Manor.

Instead, the Joker shoots Dick, Bruce Wayne “fires” Dick as Robin out of poorly expressed concern for his safety, and Dick leaves to become Nightwing with the Titans. (New Teen Titans was still one of DC’s bestselling titles, so that last part was a given.) This sort of retroactive rewriting of characters’ history is known among fans as a “retcon.”

As for Jason, he now enters the scene by stealing the tires off the Batmobile in Crime Alley, the same place where Bruce’s parents were killed. When the Caped Crusader tracks down the young thief, he turns out to be living on his own in an abandoned tenement. This scene raises a number of logical questions. How can a young teen boost four tires from a supercar with a state-of-the-art security system? What abandoned tenement still has electricity, and how does Jason keep that stereo from being stolen? Where did he get those red jeans, and why does he wear a vest (aside from his clothes offering visual links to the Robin costume)?

But hey—it’s a superhero comic. Logic matters less than what the new character symbolized. Criminal activity, black vest, hard rock, even (gasp!) smoking—those markers showed us that this Jason Todd was bad!

In the following Batman issues, as Jason takes over the Robin role, Collins revealed that his father was a criminal. Jason learns that his father was murdered by the villain Two-Face, and for a time is devoured by rage, only to learn a valuable lesson about life.

From a storytelling perspective, Collins’s idea was very good. The new Jason was distinct. As reader Anne Guerra said in a letter four issues later:

[Jason’s] first origin was much too similar to Dick Grayson’s and, let’s face it guys, it wasn’t very original. This latest explanation shows imagination and promises to be a real thriller. . . . A gifted writer like Max Allen [sic] Collins could have a field day with a potential storyline like this.
Readers noted how Jason’s new past and personality reshaped the dynamic of the Dynamic Duo, opening the door for never-before-told stories. In that same letters column Adam Schultz wrote:
I hope Jason will remain belligerent for awhile, even after he becomes Batman’s partner. It will be an interesting change from the idol-worshipping that we can usually expect from Robin.
Dick sometimes took impulsive gambles because he was too eager to help. Jason could take the same aggressive risks, even knowingly disobeying Batman’s orders, out of anger at the criminal world. This Robin’s coming-of-age story could thus explore choosing values as well as learning skills.

But there was a problem with a Robin who has a criminal past, who’s driven by questionable motives, who habitually disobeys. DC’s creative team didn’t realize the importance of one thing the character represents:

COMING UP: The two paths of the second Jason Todd.

03 July 2010


At a critique-group meeting earlier this week, Mitali Perkins showed us a new cover for Extreme American Makeover, the start of her First Daughter series about a teenaged girl adopted from Pakistan whose father runs for President of the U.S.

One of these covers is for HarperCollins’s Indian edition of Extreme American Makeover, and the other is for Dutton’s American hardcover. (The American paperback has yet a third design.)

We thought this was an interesting dot in the “whitewashing” controversy because the American cover depicts the heroine with darker skin than the subsequent Indian cover.

Of course, for US audiences the intriguing premise of the book is the possibility of a foreign-born, “foreign”-looking girl in the White House—hence the flag motifs. The Indian publisher appears to have eschewed the red-white-and-blue iconography in favor of emphasizing glamor that knows no borders. But does that mean pink skin?

02 July 2010

Tigers and Dogs and Blogs, Oh My!

Hungry Tiger Press now has a blog. Of course, the specialized press has been sharing goodies on its website for many years, but this format looks like it will allow publisher David Maxine more flexibility to share announcements of new books, stories behind one of the country’s great Oz collections, and little-known writing and art from Oz creators. Forgive me if I suggest entering by this door.

Eric Gjovaag’s Wonderful Blog of Oz notes that tonight Turner Classic Movies is showing the 1939 Wizard of Oz musical, and that this year the channel focuses on one featured performer: Terry.

Terry? That’s the little Cairn terrier who played Toto. TCM will run two more movies in which she played significant roles, Fury and George Washington Slept Here. See Classic Movie Musicals for more of Terry/Toto’s films.