31 December 2010

A Higher Level of Transition in Comics

At this transitional time, I turn to the matter of transitions in comics. Duy at the Comics Cube has provided a two-part review of the types of transitions between panels listed by practitioner and taxonomist Scott McCloud:

  • Action to Action
  • Subject to Subject
  • Scene to Scene
  • Moment to Moment
  • Aspect to Aspect
  • Non Sequitur
I think we should give equal weight to the transition from one page spread to the next, which are perforce also transitions between panels. Picture-book creators have long played with such page turns as an element of their storytelling and pacing. Comics creators do so as well, as McCloud was well aware, but this transition may have been overshadowed in his emphasis on what makes comics different from other forms of illustrated narrative.

Unlike a transition from one panel to the next on a single page, readers can’t see both images at once during a page turn. Their minds can’t compare and contrast panels even as they focus on one and then the next. The transition therefore depends more on readers’ memory.

Furthermore, a page turn can hide the entrance of something new in the scene—a character, a sudden event, a shift in tone. A page of many small, cramped panels can transition to a single, large panel, or vice versa. Mainstream adventure comics, which rely on plot twists and other surprises, use the page turn quite a lot to introduce some element the readers literally haven’t seen coming.

Finally, the physical act of turning the page is (while not as essential to the act of reading a book as many of us traditionalists like to believe) a signal to readers’ minds which may facilitate a shift of scenes, or a leap forward in time.

I’ve noted before how picture-book artists map out spreads while many comics artists—at least at one point—planned individual pages. The latter tradition was undoubtedly shaped by the large number of panels to get through, and the lack of control over where page turns would fall as stories were broken up with advertising and reprinted. Of course, comics creators still used the page turn at the end of a story.

Lately, I see the page turn becoming increasingly important in comics. “Decompressed” storytelling has produced fewer and bigger panels, and the advertising-free book form makes page breaks more predictable and permanent. Indeed, when a book in comics form doesn’t use page turns, I feel something missing.

TOMORROW: Comics without page turns?

(Image above showing a prototype page turn with Ty Landercasper’s Comic Reader Mobi app. And Yotsuba!)

29 December 2010

An Early Effort by Wodehouse

This month I read P. G. Wodehouse’s The Intrusion of Jimmy (1910) for the first time. I may have read it earlier under its alternate title, A Gentleman of Leisure. If I’d forgotten, that’s not because it’s a typical Wodehouse farce but because it dates from before he found his basic formula, and he didn’t have enough material to make a memorable novel.

I’m rather fond of Wodehouse’s work from the 1910s, before he decided to focus on English country manors and city clubs, with an occasional intrusion from the working classes.

There’s the wild but toothless satire of invasion literature in The Swoop (1910). The semi-serious picture of a couple expecting their first child in The White Hope/Their Mutual Child/The Coming of Bill (1915). And my favorites, which follow characters from Wodehouse’s public school stories into the working world: Psmith in the City (1910), and Psmith Journalist (1915).

Psmith appears one more time in Leave It to Psmith (1923), which brings him to Blandings Castle, introduced in Something New/Something Fresh (1915). And those books were so successful that Wodehouse rarely tried something so fresh again.

The Intrusion of Jimmy/A Gentleman of Leisure is clearly a transitional novel. It starts in the world of New York theater and journalism that Wodehouse was then trying to enter, with a dollop of crime and corruption.

The setting then moves to an English manor house with the cast of characters that would soon be familiar: a spineless and penniless young lord, an overbearing moneybags uncle, a stern aunt, a pretty girl. Also a rope of diamonds and amateur theatricals.

Unfortunately, Wodehouse didn’t really develop those elements of the story as he later would, perhaps because he hadn’t yet realized he would have to distinguish the characters in this book from others quite like them. It wasn’t enough to have a stern aunt—one must do something with her.

The book has only one girl, and only two boys, one in love and the other not. The one in love is also the title character, admirable, and rich, so there’s no suspense in the love story. The narration keeps telling us how much that boy is in love with the one girl, but we don’t see that happen. There’s a lovely moment at the end where it becomes clear that she’s fallen in love back—we know that because she actually believes the plot that’s unfolded so far.

I kept waiting for one of the story’s bigger crooks to get some sort of comeuppance, but no. Some secrets are revealed, but there’s not enough follow-up. In a short time Wodehouse would learn to do so much more with similar ingredients.

The small number of rooms where action takes place made me wonder if Wodehouse had adapted this novel from a stage play, but things worked the other way round. A Gentleman of Leisure was Wodehouse’s first book adapted for the stage. Douglas Fairbanks played the lead on Broadway, and then John Barrymore in Chicago. There were even two silent movies made from this novel. (Trying to imagine silent Wodehouse is the biggest challenge I’ve had all month.)

That made A Gentleman of Leisure a big success for Wodehouse, which is probably why he went on to explore more manor houses, to better effect.

28 December 2010

The Sky Is Falling, One Way or the Other

Last summer the industry-research firm Simba Information put out a report that it touted as finding that one in four comics readers is over sixty-five years old. I don’t know if that counts newspaper comics, but it doesn’t match the demographics I see in comics stores and sections of bookstores.

In any event, the thrust of the report was:

Despite notable efforts from many in the industry, comics and graphic novels continue to be repeatedly mislabeled as just another children’s book category…
And I’d certainly agree with that, having noted various examples of the comics form making people perceive stories are appropriate for younger readers than they really speak to.

Curiously, the reaction to this report within the mainstream American comics industry appeared to be just the opposite of its conclusion. “This confirms what we know!” people were writing. “Our core audience is dying off!”

Oh, yes! Adults read comics! Oh, no! Adults read comics!

25 December 2010

Weekly Robin Christmas Story

This weekly Robin is appearing one day early, and perhaps a few hours late, because it points to a fanfiction short story set on Christmas Eve.

This tale takes place in the DC Comics continuity as it existed in the mid- to late 1990s, I believe. Tim Drake is living with his dad in a Gotham suburb and serving as Batman’s Robin. Dick Grayson, the narrator, has moved to an apartment building in Blüdhaven, which is like Gotham City’s Newark, and tends bar nearby when not patrolling as Nightwing.

There are pretty obvious influences from New Titans, #65, when Tim visits Dick in New York for training before becoming Robin, and Nightwing, #6, when he drops in on Dick in Blüdhaven. The story even shares the title of that latter issue: “The Visitor.” And there’s another, seasonal influence floating behind the prose:

On the night before Christmas, across all Blüdhaven, not a siren was wailing, not a babe needed saving. No crimelords or mooks had abruptly reformed. It was twenty degrees out! They were home, staying warm.

I was in my apartment, atop all those steps, preparing to shower after doing some reps, when all of a sudden came a noise overhead—not a clatter, or thumping, but a single foot-tread.

My visitor might not have meant any harm, but whoever it was had sidestepped the alarms. I threw on a bathrobe and killed all the lights to see out the windows and scan that dark night.

With a glance to the north side, I froze like the weather: whoever was up there had let down a tether and was clambering hand under hand to my floor. I crept to my balcony, opened the door, and blasted him with an extinguisher hose.

It took me a sec to distinguish the clothes: my caller was costumed in red and green tights, and wearing short sleeves on this blustery night.

“Cut it out, Dick! It’s me!” shouted Tim with a sputter as he slammed back and forth on the wall like a shutter. . . .
The little story continues here. Best wishes of the solstice season to all readers.

24 December 2010

“Wizard of Oz 2010”?

From Friday’s New York Times, Claudia La Rocco’s profile of a bar in Bergen County:

...there we were on a chilly November night in Ridgefield Park, N.J., in the Westside Village Tavern, a distinctly working-class bar nicknamed the Zoo. Dan Greco was bartending and had commandeered not one, but four of the five flat-screen televisions behind the blond-wood bar for that Technicolor classic [The Wizard of Oz]. (He’d thrown football fans a bone, leaving a game playing on the fifth).

“It’s the Emerald City part!” Mr. Greco barked. “A little quiet, please.”

The command was superfluous; everyone was watching, even the kitchen staff, peeking around the saloon doors during down moments. A pleased Mr. Greco surveyed his happy kingdom, a hangout frequented by cops and ironworkers in a town where many people stay their whole lives. He chortled mischievously: “It would be great if the Good Witch’s skirt blew up and she was wearing a red thong. ‘Wizard of Oz 2010’!”

A customer — by the looks of him, all too regular — ambled by, slightly bleary-eyed: “I don’t even remember this movie. I know she gets home in the end.”
That is indeed one of the most important parts. And Greco at least understands what color of thong Glinda would wear.

While searching for images to accompany this posting, I stumbled into FrockTalk, dedicated to motion-picture costuming. Here’s its discussion of The Wizard of Oz.

22 December 2010

Comfort and Joy

If you’re in the mood for Ozzy holiday decorating, check out this posting from John Nickolaus’s Adventures in Oz blog. I suspect that’s one of Karyl Carlson’s handmade Woozy dolls; I keep mine at my bedside.

The effort of creating that holiday display might have worn Mr. Nickolaus out since he hasn’t posted much more, but he left quite a bit to explore in just those images.

More recently, Bill Campbell at the Oz Enthusiast has shared pictures of his handmade Jack Pumpkinhead and Sawhorse and Tik-Tok, to go along with the Scarecrow and Scraps.

I prefer to decorate vicariously by posting links like these. Otherwise, it seems too much like work.

20 December 2010

Exploring Oz through Google Books Ngram Viewer

As I discussed yesterday, I played a little with the Google Books Ngram Viewer last week. This program graphs the relative frequencies of words and phrases in Google’s growing database of English literature. At this point it seems most useful as a dipstick for measuring the verbal context of a literary work, or its verbal impact.

For example, we may associate the phrase “rags to riches” with Horatio Alger’s novels of a century ago, but that phrase actually flourished after 1925. In Alger’s time “get rich quick” or “strike it rich” were more prevalent.

And what have English speakers called readers in their teens? We can watch the term “teenage” swamp the older phrase “young adult,” with “teenaged” a late arrival.

So what can the Ngram Viewer tell us about L. Frank Baum’s Oz books? I started at the beginning, with the storm that carries Dorothy away from Kansas. Technically it’s a tornado, as Baum acknowledged in a letter after publication. But “Kansas cyclone” was a very familiar phrase back in 1900, perhaps even cliché.

And what do we call Dorothy’s friend Nick Chopper? In Baum’s books, he’s the “Tin Woodman.” The 1939 MGM movie called him the “Tin Man,” and that phrase became much more prevalent in the late 1900s as the movie aired over and over on television. Meanwhile, ”Tin Woodsman,” which has no textual support but sibilants, is also on the rise.

Glinda of Oz introduces three Adepts of Magic. That noun was unfamiliar to me when I first read the book, and I was interested to read later that Baum borrowed it from theosophical usage. The Ngram Viewer shows how the popularity of the capitalized “Adepts” spiked around 1880 and hit a second high around 1920, the year that book was published (after Baum’s death).

I was surprised to see a recent sudden spike in the use of the word “Ozma.” Because of the musical performers who use the name? Because of Project Ozma? Knowing more about Google’s sample might explain that.

Finally, I used the Ngram Viewer to graph the frequency of three phrases:

  • “no place like home,” which Baum borrowed from John Howard Payne, as I discussed back here. It was near the peak of its popularity around 1900, when Baum wrote.
  • “Munchkin,” Baum’s own coinage, which has entered our language for something small. It had a burst of usage a century ago, and has been growing more common since 1970.
  • And, as a comparison, “Muggle,” which has been around for decades but achieved new heights after J. K. Rowling used it in her Harry Potter books.

19 December 2010

Weekly Robin Ngram Viewer

Like a lot of other researchers, I put in a little too much time with Google’s new Books Ngram Viewer this week. It allows one to search Google’s entire corpus of digitized English literature to see how the relative frequencies of published words or phrases change over time.

I learned how the programming is case-sensitive, hates hyphens and other forms of punctuation, and makes graphs with familiar colors.

I’m sure there are still bugs in the database. Look at the blip in mentions of “Bruce Wayne” and “Dick Grayson” during the 1970s; that must be an effect of the sampling, not a natural plateau. On the other hand, that same graph may accurately reflect the doldrums of the mid-1980s Superman movies when people stopped caring so much.

The phrase “boy wonder” was on a steep rise in 1940, when DC Comics introduced Batman’s sidekick, and started to level off soon afterward. So did “the boy wonder of,” indicating the use of the phrase in varied contexts. But since 1960 the capitalized forms “Boy Wonder” and “the Boy Wonder” have become more popular than before. Does that mean our culture now has only one Boy Wonder, at least not labeled unironically?

Similarly, the growing popularity of “Batman,” capitalized, may be making the uncapitalized term for a type of servant less popular.

How about “dark knight/Dark Knight”? The phrase was coined by the Romantics, as I wrote back here, and spikes first in the early 1800s. Then it fades for a while, returning with a vengeance (and capital letters) in the mid-1980s after Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. I mean, right after.

Likewise, the capitalized and specific “Superman” now soars over the uncapitalized and generic “superman.”

And here we see the spread of the terms comics, comic strip, comic book, graphic novel, and bande dessinee (no accent marks) at different moments in time. TOMORROW: Google Books Ngram Viewing and Oz.

18 December 2010

Unconditional Superpowered Love

Confirming that I’m not a Superman guy, I actually let last night’s posting appear with the name of the Man of Steel’s dog mentioned as “Astro.” That is, of course, the name of the dog on The Jetsons. Superman’s dog is named Krypto.

I actually enjoy what DC’s writers have done with Krypto over the past decade, recognizing the inherent goofiness of a superpowered dog in a cape while also recognizing how comfortably he fits into the myth. Isn’t Clark Kent all about all-American traditions? Who wouldn’t want a little unconditional superpowered love? (Well, the current Superboy has had to get used to his taking care of his “cousin’s” pet.)

That said, I have a problem with Krypto’s name, which is probably why I don’t remember it well. “Krypto”—is he cryptic? No, he’s a dog! Dogs don’t do deceit. Symbolically, the name doesn’t fit.

Krypto’s a dog from outer space, so “Astro” would be more appropriate. Maybe if I were a Superman guy with more feeling for the planet Krypton, I’d better appreciate a living memorial of that doomed world.

17 December 2010

It’s Not Superman (at least as I understand the story)

I finally figured out what in Tom De Haven’s It’s Superman! strikes me as a fundamental shift away from the core Superman myth, which of course reveals what I think that myth fundamentally is. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, but I wish I’d realized this point earlier so it wasn’t nagging at me as I read.

In the extended essay he wrote after this novel, Our Hero: Superman on Earth, De Haven says, “I’ve always been a Superman Guy.” I don’t make the same claim, so my reaction might be based on a more limited idea of the myth’s capacity.

My problem isn’t the book’s setting in Depression-era America. That fits perfectly with De Haven’s aim to offer a backstory for Clark Kent, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor up to 1938, when Action Comics appeared on newsstands. Nor do I mind De Haven’s choice to shift the saga’s urban setting from generic Metropolis to New York City under Fiorello LaGuardia.

Like many other people writing novels about superheroes, De Haven seems to revel in long scene-setting descriptions and internal monologues that the comics don’t have space for. But he also does a good job with the twists and turns of plot, looping a relatively small cast of characters together to make the narrative keep flowing briskly.

Rather, my problem is with a single character: Willi Berg, aspiring photographer. All my unease comes down to this one addition to the usual cast of characters.

Otherwise, the story in It’s Superman! is familiar, if not exactly like any previous telling. The novel establishes Clark’s childhood in Smallville and his sole-survivor status. It leaves him as a new, bespectacled reporter at the Daily Planet.

Lois Lane is a more experienced reporter at the same paper. Clark is gaga for her; she thinks he’s a hick, a rival, and an unworthy shadow of his friend Superman. Lex Luthor is a criminal genius on the edge of respectability who once had red hair.

The novel eschews the aspects of Smallville established in the Superboy stories of the 1950s through 1980s. There’s no Pete Ross, Lana Lang, or Krypto. Clark doesn’t go to college or spend junior year abroad in Atlantis (added to the comics in the post-GI Bill 1950s, I think). But I never assimilated those details into my basic idea of Superman, anyway.

The myth has proved to be accommodating about whether Ma and Pa Kent are dead (the old canon), alive (the current canon), or dying in the course of the story (All-Star Superman, Smallville, etc.). Again, De Haven’s choice seems to fit into the acceptable limits.

But then there’s Willi Berg. At the start of the novel, he’s Lois Lane’s boyfriend, hustling photos to the tabloids. Soon he becomes an unwitting enemy of corrupt alderman Lex Luthor.

About a third of the way through the book, Willi meets Clark Kent in Kansas and tumbles to his immense strength. The two then travel America, hopping freight trains, working odd jobs, and ending up in Hollywood—Clark as a near-invulnerable stuntman, Willi as a cheesecake photographer.

All that while, Willi urges Clark to test and develop his powers. Together they come up with the notion of a “Superman” separate from Clark. Together they return to New York, connect with Lois, and take on Luthor again.

(It’s Superman! also depicts Clark finding a girlfriend in Hollywood before he starts wearing glasses. She sees he’s close to invulnerable, and she designs the suit with the S on the chest. I doubt she’ll have a problem recognizing Superman from the newsreels. But at least she’s on the opposite coast, and thus out of the picture.)

Unlike De Haven’s other additions, Willi strikes me as a fundamental change to the basic story. His presence means Clark has a friend in the city who knows all about his powers and secret identity. It means that the fraught relationship between Lois, Clark, and Superman has yet another corner. Indeed, Willi is lodged so deep into this version of the story that it’s impossible to imagine subsequent tales that don’t involve him (or at least his memory).

Even more important, Willi Berg changes Clark’s psychological situation. He’s no longer the only person outside his family who knows his secrets, no longer isolated—which in the usual story echoes his status as Krypton’s last survivor. When in the comics Superman shares his secrets with Batman, Lois, and/or the Justice League, that feels like a connection he’s earned from having spent decades alone.

Adding an intimate friend at the start of the Superman myth doesn’t just change its plotting, I think, but also its symbolic meaning. And symbolism is what superheroes are all about.

15 December 2010

Worlds Are Colliding

From Tom De Haven’s authorized novel It’s Superman!:

Clark Kent is more than just passingly familiar with robots.

As a boy, he read all of L. Frank Baum’s Oz novels, and from his introduction in Ozma of Oz, Tik-Tok the Clockwork Man became Clark’s favorite of all the series characters.
I’m still mulling over the rest of It’s Superman! Usually the tension in Superman coming-of-age stories is between Smallville and Metropolis. De Haven takes the whole country as his setting, with episodes in Hollywood and elsewhere, and Clark and Lois ending up in La Guardia’s New York instead of its shiny comic-book stand-in.

Among other touches I think are new is Clark as science-fiction fan. A Kansas boy of the 1920s reading the Oz books makes sense. Clark writing sci-fi stories like Jerry Siegel—that made me pause.

14 December 2010

Harry Potter and the Flawed Interpretation

Last month The Awl published Maria Bustillo’s attack on the Harry Potter series in the guise of a review of the movie adapted from the sixth-and-a-half book. The essay struck me as far more ad hominem and nasty than it needed to be, and simply erroneous in some aspects.

Bustillo is correct, however, that J. K. Rowling’s books undercut her progressive surface themes through the structure of the magical world where they take place. Most particularly, as the article notes, there’s the congenital divide between wizards and muggles, and the never-resolved issue of the house elves.

But Bustillo misses how the books give so many of their good characters solid Anglo-Saxon names (Harry Potter, Granger, Weasley, Dumbledore, Black) while the worst villains have Latinate and French names (Lucius Malfoy, Voldemort, Lestrange). And foreigners are always funny—even as the books depict a modern multiethnic British society. In other words, Rowling’s fantasy world is both founded on some deep British prejudices and inclusive in how it defines being British.

Bustillo errs in identifying the Weasleys—middle-class civil servants—as aristocrats in Rowling’s world simply because they’re wizards. In fact, the Weasley clan is dedicated to good governance, deference to democratic authority, and protection of “muggles.” Symbolically, I think their ancient homestead actually reflects another deep prejudice: that the countryside is nicer than the city, regardless of class.

Bustillo closes with praise for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, which I can’t fault but I also can’t see as a ground-breaking recommendation. I wonder if she’s ever applied her critical eyes to that series and how it, too, reflects British notions of class. (All servants’ daemons being dogs, for example.) And perhaps we can discuss whether fantasy literature’s potentially Manichean presentation of good and evil needs to be reflected in critical thinking about it.

12 December 2010

Our Little Boy Has Grown Up

Fabian Nicieza, the current scripter of Red Robin, has a very perceptive understanding of that magazine’s hero, Tim Drake, and the entire Robin mythos. And by “very perceptive” I mean “we agree on a lot of things.”

Nicieza just did an interview with Newsarama to promote the magazine’s issue #18. Along with the usual praise for collaborators and hints at exciting things to come, he reminded readers of how this comic book differs from the Robin series of 1991-2009:

The Red Robin book is no longer about the training of a young hero, like the original Robin series was. It’s about the decisions and actions that an established young hero takes in learning how to best wield the power and intelligence he has.
In sum, Tim has gone through the same passage that Dick Grayson did in the mid-1980s, establishing a new, non-sidekick identity. But he’s doing it in a solo book, not as part of the Titans.

Two of the traits that set Tim apart from Dick Grayson and Bruce Wayne for most of Robin‘s run were:
  • He wasn’t an orphan: his father was still alive, and he also had to keep secrets from a housekeeper and a stepmom. (Long-time writer Chuck Dixon talked about that storytelling choice back here.)
  • Tim kept insisting he would be Robin for only a while, and not fight crime in a mask and cape his whole life. He never really talked about any other career, though, and as time went on (and the character maintained its economic value) I found those statements less and less convincing.
Nicieza speaks explicitly about the change in his hero’s outlook:
Tim’s motivation, in my mind, changed a little after his father died [in Identity Crisis]. Whereas he originally became Robin to help Bruce Wayne become a better Batman, his father’s death has spurred him to embrace his costumed identity as his life’s mission and become a better Red Robin so that no one ever endures what he did.

For better or worse, Tim Drake is a crimefighter 24/7 now and we’ll explore when it’s for the better and when it’s for the worse as an ongoing aspect of his series. I’ve read some interesting comments on some message boards by a few people claiming that with Bruce’s return, there is “no purpose to the Red Robin” book, which I found almost sad in how little an understanding they had of the character they were reading every month.

Tim Drake carried 183 issues of his own series as Robin and the entire maturation process for him has been to show the purpose he has on his own, without the need for Batman as the reason to do what he does.

He is unique in his approach to his mission, just like Dick Grayson is and now Stephanie Brown.

I think the stage we’re at now with Tim is almost equivalent to watching your kid go from High School to living away at college. There is an independence, a process of learning responsibility, making choices on your own, making mistakes, etc. . . .

I don’t necessarily think it’s a new role, just an extension of the role he’d been playing, the difference being, now that he can do this as his “full time job” without the worries of school (or truthfully, worrying over his father and that family dynamic), he will be quite the little Machiavellian master chessman.
Nicieza is also usually frank about the technical aspects of superhero-comics storytelling. Here are his comments on building up Tim Drake’s “rogues gallery”—the recurring villains whose comebacks have some deeper meaning than “Oh, I guess she wasn’t dead after all” because their symbolic meanings complement the hero’s.
I broke down all of Tim’s attributes as a character, his personality traits, archetypes, etc. then I created a list of potential opposites of those trains, or similarities to hone the roster of antagonists for Tim. For example, Tim is all about rational thought and reason, so a great opposite to that would be a group of chaos-mongers like the madmen would make great foils for him (and they do in Issue #21!).
Nicieza also alludes to “a larger storyline between #22-25,” showing how far ahead he’s working. Contrast that with his last-minute, seat-of-the-pants assignment to finish the Robin magazine, and he’s clearly in a better position to tell well-thought-out stories about Tim Drake.

10 December 2010

What We’re Really Learning from Wikileaks

The wisest commentary I’ve seen on the Wikileaks disclosures of US diplomatic cables has come from Hendrick Hertzberg in the New Yorker:

Perhaps the two biggest secrets that the WikiLeaks leaks leaked are that the private face of American foreign policy looks pretty much like its public face and that the officials who carry it out do a pretty good job.
Of course, many of these cables come from the current administration, and from permanent Foreign Service staff rather than political appointees.

Today’s New York Times quoted a French journalist echoing that impression:
Renaud Girard, a respected reporter for the center-right Le Figaro, said that he was impressed by the generally high quality of the American diplomatic corps. “What is most fascinating is that we see no cynicism in U.S. diplomacy,” he said. “They really believe in human rights in Africa and China and Russia and Asia. They really believe in democracy and human rights. People accuse the Americans of double standards all the time. But it’s not true here. If anything, the diplomats are almost naïve, and I don’t think these leaks will jeopardize the United States. Most will see the diplomats as honest, sincere and not so cynical.”
Meanwhile, I don’t think it can hurt for foreign leaders to know that our diplomats actually notice that they’re prickly, egotistical, or authoritarian.

Surely the debacle of the non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” and “links to al Qaeda” in Iraq did more damage to America’s international standing. The US government’s reputation for being able to keep its secrets has no doubt suffered, though
  • that may not be a bad thing, and
  • critics who focus on that problem should have been as critical of the previous Vice President’s decision to blow a CIA agent’s cover as political payback, or else they have no credibility on the issue.

08 December 2010

Overreacting

A Robot 6 column by Brigid Alverson alerted me to Caanan’s webcomic Max Overacts, and one page struck me particularly. It starts with young Max returning to elementary school after four days away with an allergic reaction to someone’s perfume. Here are the last three panels of nine; click on the picture to visit the rest. I did almost the same thing as Max’s friend, back in junior high. No, I didn’t get bored and spread extravagant rumors about a pal who was absent for a couple of days. I got bored and spread a very mild rumor about a pal who was absent for one day.

Aaron was in a minor car accident, I told one or two kids. The doctors wanted to observe him to make sure he was all right. No one else was hurt. He’d probably be back very soon.

By the time Aaron appeared in school the next morning, the whole grade was convinced he’d been on death’s door, limbs broken and family wiped out. And I hadn’t done anything.

Well, I did tell one or two kids I picked out because I was sure they’d spread the rumor. And I repeated the same story to anyone who bothered to ask me. But all the exaggeration—that happened on its own. I had no idea who spread the rumor into the teachers’ lounge.

It was a terrific lesson about human nature (if life in junior high counts as human). A few years later I was able to use that knowledge for evil. Well, mischief.

Which in turn led to a fine college essay, if I and two university admissions offices say so ourselves. Indeed, I can’t say I’ve hit the downside of this lesson yet.

(Here’s Max’s funny overreaction to the allergen scratch test. I had the same questions back when I was his age, but didn’t express them the same way.)

07 December 2010

Dress-Up Day in Portslade

Recently Eric Gjovaag’s Wonderful Blog of Oz brought news from England of this record-breaking feat:

Pupils from Mile Oak Primary School in Graham Avenue, Portslade, followed the Yellow Brick Road as they dressed as Wizard of Oz characters yesterday.

A total of 446 children set a Guinness World Record in the category ‘largest gathering of people dressed as characters from Wizard of Oz’.

They smashed the previous record of 250.
Even the London Telegraph carried the news. The image above is a detail of a photo from that paper.

The Mile Oak Primary School’s gathering was part of a concerted and marketed effort for different groups to set world records on 18 November.

What I remember about reading the Guinness Book of World Records (as it was called back then) aren’t anodyne crowd events like this, but the weird, scary individual feats. That guy with the fingernails, you know? The man who held his breath underwater for an amazingly long time. (What was that funnel for?) Frankly, juggling underwater in scuba gear (one of last month’s records) doesn’t offer the same thrill.

The record book has taken out some of its listings, or refused further entries, so as to discourage people from risking their lives or others. Instead, the organization seems to be promoting audience-participation stunts like the one at Mile Oak. Nobody’s going to hurt themselves dressing up as Scarecrows, to be sure.

Record-setting may even be reversing the course we’ve followed with major sports, which over the last couple of centuries have moved from participatory to spectatory. Guinness World Records may no longer be primarily for men sitting in pubs and kids sitting in libraries, but now for participants.

05 December 2010

All Star Robin

For whatever reason, I think it’s time for the weekly Robin to assess the highest-profile reexamination of Dick Grayson’s origin in recent years: Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Or, to call the series by the catch phrases it sparked off, The Goddamn Batman and Dick Grayson, Age Twelve.

When DC Comics launched this magazine in 2005, the company warned fans of two things. First, its version of Robin’s origin was “out of continuity”—it would not be part of the “official” story of the DC Universe. Second, because of the creators’ other responsibilities, issues would not appear on a regular schedule.

The company said the same about Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman. That magazine nevertheless came out on a regular basis. And people love it so much that many want to make it part of the official version.

Over three years, All Star Batman and Robin limped through ten issues, the first nine of which have been collected. As for continuity, Miller stated in interviews that he saw this magazine’s Batman as the same character he’d written in the future-set The Dark Knight Returns and the in-continuity Batman: Year One, as well as more controversially in The Dark Knight Strikes Again. To placate Miller and his fans, DC’s editors have dubbed this version of life “Earth 31.”

As for reader reaction, there was a huge split. All Star Batman and Robin sold extremely well. Some readers adored it, either because they saw it as satire or because they enjoyed how much it annoyed traditionalists. Others complained that Miller had turned Batman from a hero into a crazed, sadistic kidnapper. And then there were the delays, which put fans in the position of complaining that this comic book sucked and they weren’t getting enough of it.

Jim Lee, already an executive at DC (and since promoted), was apparently the source of the delays. And I think he was also a big part of fans’ complaints that this comic book corrupted Batman. That’s because Lee’s pencils are immensely handsome. He’s great at drawing in what critic Douglas Wolk has called “the default style of the superhero mainstream,” though his work also adapts well to modern coloring.

Unlike Miller’s own art in The Dark Knight Returns, Lee’s pages don’t look like an individual’s stylized rendition of the Batman mythos. This is the Dynamic Duo we’re used to seeing, more vivid and rounded than ever. This world looks like what we want Earth 1 to look like. And yet Batman behaves like a crazy asshole. Everything else is over the top, too. Boss Zucco’s men don’t just sabotage the Flying Graysons’ trapeze; a sniper shoots Dick’s parents. (Usually protection rackets are a tad more subtle than that.) The magazine piles on the cheesecake of ace journalist Vicki Vale in her underwear and the Black Canary as an angry Irish barmaid who has sex with Batman on an industrial wharf.

Basic storytelling gets shot down early. The time line is screwed up, as many readers quickly pointed out. Bruce Wayne is clean-shaven at the circus, but Batman shows up shortly afterward with a five-o’clock shadow. The goddamn Batman’s overnight drive to Gotham City with Dick Grayson (age twelve) takes three issues. Even before the duo reaches the batcave, however, Clark Kent has not only seen a report of Dick’s kidnapping in the Daily Planet, but he’s seen Dick’s photo as a missing child on a milk carton.

Nevertheless, the first volume of All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder succeeds in the criterion that matters for the weekly Robin: it gets Robin right. Dick and Alfred have the character to stand up to Batman like no one else. Pushed to his limits, Dick shows basic moral decency, and thus hope for the future. And in the final collected issue, the sight of what he’s turning Dick Grayson (age twelve) into pulls the goddamn Batman back from the brink. Because even in this insane, semi-satirical retelling of the mythos, Robin isn’t evil.

04 December 2010

Fur Coats on Sale, Size Extra Large

I remember being surprised to read in my teens that Edward Gorey was a “cult figure.” That was probably around the time WGBH commissioned him to create the animated opening credits for Mystery.

That news came years after I’d read Amphigorey or some of Gorey’s smaller books from (as I recall) the library of the college where my father taught. They appeared to be in comics form, so they had to be okay for little kids, right? I also spotted Gorey’s distinctive art on the covers of John Bellairs’s novels.

Sure, I’d realized early on that Gorey’s sense of humor wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, and his sense of taste not to everyone’s humor. But the notion that he had inspired a cult—i.e., a small set of people who feel superior for admiring Edward Gorey—struck me as odd. Wasn’t he just another illustrator who’d always been around?

I puzzled over that moment when I heard from associates of Bloomsbury Auctions that it will sell some items from Gorey’s estate. The auction house’s press release says:

Edward Gorey was one of the most conspicuous eccentrics in New York City of the latter 2oth Century. His strange, meticulous and often hilariously macabre drawings drew a cult [there’s that word] following around the world until the 1977 Tony Award-winning revival of Dracula (that he designed) put Gorey himself in the spotlight. For nearly two decades he could be spotted almost every night at Lincoln Center while New York City Ballet was in town by his opulent beard, tennis shoes and an enormous fur coat. . . .

In the 1980s, Gorey had a change of heart. He became an advocate for animal rights and put his fur coats in storage. He never wore them again.
Bloomsbury Auctions will offer fourteen of Gorey’s coats and other personal effects and collected items on Thursday, 9 December. Some of the proceeds will go to the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust to benefit animal welfare. Here’s the online catalogue, or visit Monica Edinger’s posting.

02 December 2010

Weekly Robin Wikileaks Special

Today’s New York Times reported:

A trove of diplomatic cables, obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to a number of publications, disclose a perception by American diplomats that Canadians “always carry a chip on their shoulder” in part because of a feeling that their country “is condemned to always play ‘Robin’ to the U.S. ‘Batman.’”
The same paper also stated:
Asked about a cable that described President Dmitri A. Medvedev as “playing Robin to Putin’s Batman,” [Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin] said the author had “aimed to slander one of us.”
Clearly the US State Department should be shipping more comics from the late thirty years overseas. They show the relationship of Batman and Robin has become far more nuanced than simply the grown-up hero and the kid sidekick of the 1960s TV show. We could start with recent issues of Batman and Robin drawn by Cameron Stewart of Montreal.

01 December 2010

Finding a Lost Illustrator of Andersen

At the American Antiquarian Society’s Past Is Present blog, Laura Wasowicz describes how she identified the artist who produced this lithograph to illustrate an 1873 Boston edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Little Match-Girl.”

The trail led from the initials “S.G.P.” through two libraries, one misspelling, and the personal correspondence of the publisher. At the end was an upper-class woman, twenty-two years old, who undertook this illustration “to contribute something in aid of the Children’s Hospital.”

Or at least that’s how the publisher presented the situation to Andersen. Clearly, however, Sarah Gooll Putnam had serious artistic ambitions, and she painted portraits throughout her life. But because she was (a) female, and (b) too rich to have to work, she was seen as a talented amateur.