28 February 2011

Making a Splash in Washington

Earlier this month on the New York Times oped page, Colin H. P. Buckley reveals how politics, a children’s picture book, and compassion mixed as he served an internship in the office of the ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy:

The senator, she explained, had recently written a children’s book called “My Senator and Me.” The book depicts a day in his life from [his dog] Splash’s perspective. Someone — I’m not sure who — suggested including an e-mail address where curious young readers could reach the supposedly computer-savvy Splash.

That’s where I came in. Someone had to reply to Splash’s e-mails, in his voice, lest the children think the dog had let the thrill of being a published author and Washington power broker go to his head. . . .

But beyond Splash’s indiscriminate eating habits and love of tennis balls, he was little more than a furry mystery to me. What would he say in response to the hundreds of e-mails that came to him from children across the country? School simply hadn’t prepared me for this.

Most of his messages went something like this:
Dear Splash,

My teacher read us your book. You are so cute! Can you come over and play with my dog? What kind of dog food do you like? My mom says your senator is a great man. I hope he feels better.
After checking with the senator’s assistants on Splash’s preferred dog food brand, and then reading the book myself to better prepare for my role, I answered every single e-mail, ending each reply with the mandatory “WOOF WOOF!! Splash.”
(My Senator and Me is a “celebrity picture book,” a species unloved by children’s-lit critics and bloggers. It came out in 2006, with illustrations by David Small. According to a reader comment at the Fuse, Small was already working on his graphic memoir Stitches, though he didn’t start final artwork till mid-2008. My Senator and Me, and its celebrity-level royalties, probably helped Small carry out the much larger project of developing and completing Stitches, which will probably now have a longer life in print.)

27 February 2011

Mascot Beyond Rescue

The number of novels inspired by the death of the second Jason Todd (the Robin of the late 1980s) is very small. Peter David’s Mascot to the Rescue! is almost certainly the best of the batch. Which is not to say it’s a good novel, or even a good “chapter book” for young readers.

The premise of Mascot to the Rescue! is that a boy named Josh Miller has become convinced that his life parallels that of Mascot, the kid sidekick in his favorite comic book. When that magazine’s publisher announces that it will kill off Mascot because fans have voted against his old-fashioned chirpiness, Josh and his new friend Kelsey set out to convince the publisher or auteur to keep him alive.

Josh periodically goes into a mental zone where he pretends to be Mascot, which comes in handy when he must fight off paint-ballers, rabid dogs, and other obstacles that pop up to provide an action sequence. The book has occasional line drawings of these scenes from Colleen Doran, who’s drawn for Teen Titans, among others.

David is a fine comic-book writer, with particular experience writing Jason Todd’s successor as Robin in the Young Justice series. But many storytelling techniques that work on the comics page don’t work so well in a prose novel.

Mascot to the Rescue!‘s narrative point of view jumps around, particularly from Josh to Kelsey and back, often within scenes. The narration frequently tells us what different characters are thinking. That approach is out of favor with most modern prose novelists, and even by the standards of other times the result seems clunky. In a comic or movie script, it’s often useful for writers to spell out what characters are thinking, but in prose subtlety works better.

David’s plot relies heavily on coincidences. For example, there’s a holy fool in the form of a mentally disabled man who works for the comic-book publisher; he appears at just the right moment to take Josh and Kelsey to visit Stan Kirby, the creator of Mascot.

But many of the plot’s coincidences just don’t add up. Josh’s mother keeps him from spending any time on the internet, yet she maintains a daily blog about being a single mother. Stan Kirby refuses to send his work electronically and doesn’t event check his email, but he turns out to read Ms. Miller’s blog regularly.

Josh’s elementary-school principal and a social worker from child protection services are the book’s two cardboard baddies. As I’ve written before, it makes no sense for authors to create child-hating villains from people who’ve gone into professions where they have to work with children.

We know from nearly the start that Josh’s mom and Kelsey’s dad are supposed to get together. Their pairing is apparently so imperative that David gives the two characters few scenes together, so we never see the attraction. Similarly, Josh and Kelsey are paired off, each of the good guys gets his heroic moment, and modern comic-book publishing is saved.

But the biggest problem at the start of the book is that Josh really does seem troubled and delusional. His character is probably the novel’s biggest weakness. While many young superhero fans might be attracted to the idea of a real-life adventure that crosses into comic-book publishing, Josh’s character may be too close to what they don’t want to be like. He’s more pathetic than sympathetic.

Through the character of Stan Kirby, an acknowledged homage to his predecessors, David gets to voice some of comics creators’ big recent complaints about the business:

  • “Fan” sites on the internet are relentlessly negative.
  • Sales reward gore over heroism.
  • There are no comics appropriate for kids.
Ironically, it was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation of the Fantastic Four that introduced antiheroes into superhero comics and started the genre toward more complex, mature, and eventually dark storytelling.

That portrayal of comics fandom, however, doesn’t accurately reflect the history of the Jason Todd vote. There have been fans who dislike the cheerful young mascot type, going all the way back to the 1940s. (See Feiffer, Jules.) But the second Jason became unpopular because he didn’t fit that mold. Readers might be discomfited by Josh Miller, but a lot more of them would like to be Mascot.

26 February 2011

“There Were a Lot of Them and They Were All 10”

Earlier this month Prof. Carlo Rotella of Boston College wrote in the Boston Globe about doing an elementary-school visit:

Recently I visited Mr. Sugarman’s fourth grade class at the Runkle School in Brookline to talk about writing. They’re doing a unit on researching and organizing information into essays. I do that for a living, and one of my kids is a fourth-grader, but that doesn’t mean I was prepared for the experience. The students were eager and engaged, and their teacher expertly cultivated a tone of purposeful curiosity that balanced classroom order and open inquiry . . . but there were a lot of them and they were all 10 years old.

The potent chaos of their collective thought process would produce a naively incisive question — “If a story is too long, how do you make it shorter without stopping in the middle of a sentence?” — and then one so tenuously connected to our conversation that it caused my mind to lurch wildly as I tried to retrace the logic that had led to it. I think I know how we got from a discussion of working with an editor to “How come my brother is always bothering me?,” but it still threw me.

The kids kept good decorum, but rogue flows of energy twisted their seated bodies into crazy shapes, and a bewildering variety of expressions raced across their faces. One fellow who frequently raised his hand had a habit of shifting his hoodie around his torso so that the hood hung down under his chin, and then all the way around to its normal position. Every time I looked at him, his parts appeared to have rotated another turn or two. He also seemed to grow visibly taller.
For some reason Rotella’s essay reminds me of P. G. Wodehouse’s short story “Bertie Changes His Mind,” the only Bertie Wooster adventure narrated by Jeeves. That tale appears in Carry On, Jeeves. (An untested audio recording is here.)

24 February 2011

To Ozopolis and Back

Ozopolis is a new Oz comic, written and published by Kirk Kushin and illustrated in black and white by Gonzalo Martinez. It’s firmly based in the Oz that L. Frank Baum left us, without severe reinventions for the sake of novelty or shock.

I also discern the influence of Eric Shanower’s older Oz comics, lately collected in Adventures in Oz. Martinez’s characterization of Dorothy, for example, looks a lot like Shanower’s, with strong chin, blonde hair, and dark Ann-Margret eyebrows. As in Shanower’s drawings (and John R. Neill’s before him), Dorothy dresses in contemporary style. Unlike in Adventures in Oz, however, Ozma has also updated her fashion, making her look a little more like General Jinjur.

If you understood that allusion, then you’re well positioned to appreciate the story in Ozopolis, #1. It really requires having read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, Ozma of Oz (the series’ first three volumes), and The Patchwork Girl of Oz (the 1913 relaunch). Fortunately, those are among Baum’s most enjoyable and widely available titles.

On the other hand, if you don’t know that the Woozy can shoot fire from his eyes, and what prompts him to do that, then the end of this episode will seem like a Woozy ex machina. Along with that cubical creature, the story’s stars are Tik-Tok, the Sawhorse, and the Glass Cat, with appearances from several more favorites. The result is a funny, action-filled adventure with the promise of a big conflict to come.

Ozopolis is available by mail through its website, which also offers a few preview pages. (I picked up one panel back here.) Delivery was swift, and I hope there will be more issues to come.

22 February 2011

Bufkin the Bibulous, Bufkin the Brave

From the very first issues of Fables, scripted by Bill Willingham and drawn mainly by Mark Buckingham with Steve Leialoha, L. Frank Baum’s Oz universe has been represented by the character of Bufkin, a winged monkey working in the Fabletown mayor’s office.

As a bibulous office grunt, not to mention a monkey with wings, Bufkin was natural comic relief. Every so often he might show some hidden ambition.
But like so many filing monkeys, it seemed clear that Bufkin wouldn’t actually do anything. (That page of art is by Jim Rugg. Note how it gets away with stacking panels on the left through clever use of text and balloon tails.)

In the issues collected in Witches, Bufkin takes center stage for one plotline. Trapped in the office with the evil witch Baba Yaga and a bunch of disembodied heads, he has to figure out how to survive.

Critics of Fables have pointed out how so many of the series’s stories involve its young male characters turning out to be fearsome warriors and genius tacticians. The first example was Bigby, the Big Bad Wolf—of course, we’d expect him to be sly and bloodthirsty. In fact, Bigby’s character journey over the first volumes was to become a stable husband and father.

But in subsequent issues, we see the deadly skills of Little Boy Blue, carrying the vorpal blade. Then Prince Charming, who’s simply a handsome cad in the first issues. Aladdin, ambassador from the Arabian fairy tales. And even the Frog Prince, a gawky janitor turned warrior-king.

In fact, this repeated plot might be inescapable. Heroic characters are supposed to grow. Adventure comics involve plot twists, surprises, and big ups and downs. The good guys usually win. Fables is essentially a war comic. The comics form puts a premium on working out conflict through dramatic physical action. Put that all together, and you keep coming back to heads being sliced off.

Still, to see Bufkin embark on the hero’s journey in the Witches volume is a surprise. To Willingham’s credit, he writes it as a surprise for Bufkin as well. Our little monkey also ends up with a bit of a swelled head.

Bufkin’s story continues in Fables, #101, which has the additional delight of Eric Shanower as guest penciler. It looks like Vertigo hired him to give Buckingham a bit of a breather after a big anniversary issue. Whatever the backstage story, it’s delightful to see Shanower’s traditional characterizations of Jack Pumpkinhead, the Sawhorse, and the Glass Cat, and a new version of lunch-bucket trees.

21 February 2011

Fables and Ozian Decadence

Yesterday I quoted comics scripter Bill Willingham’s 2009 essay against “Superhero Decadence,” which appears to be a politicized way of expressing the common thought that superhero comics aren’t as good as they were when a person was twelve.

Willingham’s major work in comics now is Fables, which takes fairy-tale heroes and moves them to our world, where they live in secret among us. (Other authors exploring this idea include Michael Buckley in The Sisters Grimm and Sarah Beth Durst in Into the Wild and Out of the Wild.)

All public-domain fantasy characters are available to Willingham. The unusual copyright situation of Peter Pan caused him some troubles, but L. Frank Baum’s Oz characters are fair game. Glinda and her swan-drawn chariot appeared in one frantic panel of an early issue of Fables, and Dorothy Gale and her companions have shown up several times in the companion series, Jack of Fables.

The most prominent refugees from Oz in the Fables comic books are Bufkin the winged monkey, whom I’ll discuss tomorrow, and a young witch identified as Ozma in issue #87. She’s not precisely like Baum’s Ozma: there’s no mention of fairy ancestry, early life as a boy, or the throne of the Emerald City. But with a poppy in her hair, she’s clearly meant to evoke the little queen of Oz.

Except that Baum’s Ozma was entirely benevolent, sometimes naively so—as in The Emerald City of Oz, when she’s willing to let evil creatures overrun her kingdom because she can’t think of any way to stop them without hurting them, and Ozma of Oz and Glinda of Oz, in which she heads off to help other kingdoms without thinking of how to protect herself.

In contrast, Willingham’s Ozma is a little schemer, fairly ruthless at the internal politics of Fabletown and promising to be more ruthless about its latest adversaries. She’s also very good at magic, while Baum’s Ozma gains her magical knowledge gradually, and never seems as capable as Glinda the Good Sorceress.

Indeed, the character in Fables is a much better match for Baum’s Glinda, who is far more authoritarian, secretive, and militaristic than Ozma in her approach to protecting Oz. But Glinda doesn’t offer the striking visual paradox of a little girl acting like a tough commander.

Meanwhile, Cinderella, a Fables spin-off scripted by James Roberson, has featured another version of Dorothy Gale, as Jer Alford reports at Emerald Hearts in Oz. That magazine features Cinderella as a deadly secret agent, and Dorothy shows up as a rival assassin from Russia. She’s fully grown, and—based on this panel, which is all that I’ve seen—goes around pointing guns in her underwear.

Willingham and his colleagues have every right to use Baum’s characters as they choose, and Fables continues to be an entertaining adventure comic. I don’t insist that depictions of Oz remain pure and childish, having frequently pointed out Glinda’s realpolitik and even published an article titled “Dorothy the Conqueror,” about the character’s tendency to wipe out her enemies.

But Ozma’s different. Open, unadulterated, and sometimes heedless kindness is what defines Ozma in Baum’s books. Willingham’s rant about superheroes becoming “decadent”—straying from their traditional characterizations to become violent, selfish, and cynical—seems to apply even more to his series’ treatment of Ozma.

20 February 2011

Willingham’s oh-so-Brave Stand Against “Superhero Decadence”

Back in January 2009, comics scripter Bill Willingham offered the world a long grumble about superheroes not being as great as they were when he was a child: “The ‘super’ is still there, more so than ever, but there seems to be a slow leak in the ‘hero’ part.”

The essay appeared on one of Andrew Breitbart’s websites, so it’s no surprise that it contained factual omissions and right-wing spin. Willingham’s complaint about lesser heroism turned out to really be about fewer explicit links to America, particularly jingoistic America. “Superman…no longer seems to be too proud of America,” for example.

Unmentioned was how the Marvel comics that Willingham read in his youth also included grumpy heroes, reluctant heroes, and even a Watergate-era Captain America who took another identity after being disillusioned by a right-wing government conspiracy. He had a lot to say about the unsuccessful movie Superman Returns, but nothing about the successful All Star Superman comic.

As commenters pointed out, Willingham was part of the team that plotted War Games, one of the grimmest Batman crossover sagas. It ended with the apparent death of Stephanie Brown, the fourth Robin. Perhaps that experience helped to sour Willingham on “superhero decadence,” but he continued scripting the same series for years afterward.

The essay’s only mention of the Dynamic Duo was:

In my run writing the Robin series (of Batman fame), I made sure both Batman and Robin were portrayed as good, steadfast heroes, with unshakable personal codes and a firm grasp of their mission. I even got to do a story where Robin parachuted into Afghanistan with a group of very patriotic military superheroes on a full-scale, C130 gunship-supported combat mission.
Willingham thus equated being a “good, steadfast hero” with going on a “combat mission” in a country where US troops were also fighting. The actual purpose of that mission matters less than that it’s “gunship-supported.” (It involved monsters. Really.)

In my eyes, that stopover in the military, which appears in the collection Robin: Days of Fire and Madness, was:
  • not an example of Tim Drake’s “firm grasp of [his] mission”; it pivoted on him trying to figure out what his mission should be as he looked ahead to adulthood.
  • out of character for Tim, a Gotham-based crime-fighter sworn to a no-killing ethos.
  • unnecessary as a way of showing Tim to have old-fashioned heroic values. As Robin, he always showed those. His challenge wasn’t morality but capability, given that he was the littlest guy in the fight.
This story came near the end of Willingham’s assignment on Robin. To me it came across as an indulgence of the writer’s own interest in the military; Willingham grew up in a military family, served himself, and routinely addresses martial issues in his series Fables.

Willingham ended his essay with a peroration that worked up the Breitbart crowd, including some who expressed dislike of how “DC went around ‘multiculturizing’ much of their characters” or asked, “Is it America’s fault Belgium doesn't produce comic books?”:
No more superhero decadence for me. Period. From now on, when I write within the superhero genre I intend to do it right. And if I am ever again privileged to be allowed to write Superman, you can bet your sweet bootie that he’ll find the opportunity to bring back “and the American way,” to his famous credo.
Personally, I’d prefer for “the American way” to always align with “truth and justice,” and to let other nations make truth and justice their way as well. But some folks have always preferred the simplicity of “my country right or wrong.”

Having been told by huge media corporations on the political right that huge media corporations are hostile to right-wing ideas, some commenters expressed worry that Willingham would lose his job in comics publishing. I think that’s exactly the wrong way to view this essay.

In January 2009, as Willingham published, he had just started writing Justice Society of America, anchored by DC Comics’s older generation of heroes (i.e., white male heroes invented in the 1940s). I see his essay as the equivalent of promotional interviews on comics websites, the sort in which writer and artist discuss how exciting the upcoming stories will be. It simply spun that buy-the-next-issue message for a different audience: right-wing American men who believed that comic books (and everything else) had gone downhill since their youth.

This essay was simply part of the mainstream comics industry’s entertainment and marketing efforts—which doesn’t mean Willingham wasn’t sincere in his statements. He continued to write Justice Society for years, and his Fables remains the star on DC’s Vertigo list.

Willingham’s abjuration of “superhero decadence” came back to my mind this month as I read some of his latest Fables stories, using characters from the Oz books.

TOMORROW: How is the Fables universe using Oz?

19 February 2011

How to Play Dorothy for a Whole Week

Here’s a detail from the Mixed-Up Files interview with author Kirby Larson:

I remember vividly the first moment I realized the power of story. In second grade, the thing at recess – at least for the girls – was to play Wizard of Oz. And of course, every girl wanted to be Dorothy. I managed to milk an entire week of playing that coveted role by letting it slip on the playground that my mother was in the hospital. Boy, did that get me the sympathy vote!

When the other girls discovered that the reason Mom was in the hospital was to deliver my baby brother, I quickly got demoted from Dorothy. But that incident stuck with me. And the fact that stories had a huge pull on me in my formative years contributed to my becoming a writer.
I also enjoyed Larson’s story about how her grandmother inspired her novel of the prairies, Hattie Big Sky, which won a Newbery Honor in 2007.

18 February 2011

Lilah Bell (1908-2011)

This is the picture of my grandmother, Lilah Bell, that accompanied her induction into the Davenport, Iowa, school system’s Hall of Honor.

Grandma kept busy her whole life in the Iowa half of the Quad Cities. She became a nurse, then a manager at the visiting nurse association. She founded the homemaking service of that organization, and in “retirement” served on community boards and as a volunteer organizer. When Grandma was in her nineties, she was looking after the affairs of women who were younger and more debilitated. After she lost a lot of her sight to macular degeneration, she started to organize speakers for a group of people with vision problems, which she was still doing this year at age 102.

Grandma Lilah helped Grandpa Bud built their little house in Pleasant Valley back in the Depression. He brought in professionals only for the electricity and the brickwork, I believe. All her life she kept the little notebook where she recorded the costs.

In that house Grandma and Grandpa raised two sons, who both became college professors—work that took them away from Iowa. We grandchildren are even more spread out. Fortunately, Grandma’s church provided a wonderful local community to help her in these last years when she had to give up driving. (No doubt to the relief of the Quad Cities area—ever ridden 15 MPH on an interstate? I have.)

Grandma never wanted to leave her little house. She had to go into the hospital earlier this year for pneumonia, and worked hard to get back home. Then she had a fall, and her doctors insisted she recover in nursing home where the facilities and supervision were better. She lasted there three days, and died in her sleep. A truly full life.

17 February 2011

It Must Be Valuable If a Guy Could Get 600 Ducats from the Emperor for It

The Voynich Manuscript, now in the collections of Yale University, is getting a lot of press because radiocarbon dating has determined it to be 600 years old…or about as old as the historical record would suggest.

The English astrologer John Dee owned this notebook in the 1500s, but didn’t create it since he couldn’t figure out what it said. He sold it to the Holy Roman Emperor. No one’s ever figured out the code that the pages are written in, or how those symbols relate to the elaborate drawings around them.

According to the university, the volume contains:

1) botanicals containing drawings of 113 unidentified plant species;

2) astronomical and astrological drawings including astral charts with radiating circles, suns and moons, Zodiac symbols such as fish (Pisces), a bull (Taurus), and an archer (Sagittarius), nude females emerging from pipes or chimneys, and courtly figures;

3) a biological section containing a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules;

4) an elaborate array of nine cosmological medallions, many drawn across several folded folios and depicting possible geographical forms;

5) pharmaceutical drawings of over 100 different species of medicinal herbs and roots portrayed with jars or vessels in red, blue, or green, and

6) continuous pages of text, possibly recipes, with star-like flowers marking each entry in the margins.
This sounds like a mediocre but financially successful Nicholas Cage movie waiting to happen.

16 February 2011

Supervillains Who Aren’t Really That Scary, #1

After World War 2, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, creators of Captain America, tried to get back into the superhero comics business with their own magazine, Stuntman Comics. (Discussion of what Stuntman owed to Robin the Boy Wonder here.)

That comic book lasted only a couple of issues before succumbing to market realities. Some of the material the team had prepared went back into Simon’s files, not to be published until last year’s Simon & Kirby Superheroes collection.

Among the unpublished material was a double-page spread that promised “the most insidious, cold-blooded character yet seen in comics pages!!!”

That was…The Panda!

Wielding the superpowers of…eating bamboo and not mating easily!

Kirby’s art suggests that the Panda commanded giant insects. Maybe giant insect robots. The way pandas do.

All considered, it was probably okay for this story never to have been completed and published.

14 February 2011

Cybils Award Winners for 2010 (with a few comments)

The 2010 Cybils Award list was announced this morning. I wasn’t involved in the judging, unlike past years, because of a big writing deadline. But I’m pleased to see the judges liked some of the books that struck me over the past few months, whether or not I got around to writing about them. And I’m delighted to have the whole lists of winners and nominees to consider in the months and years ahead.

And the winners are…

Fiction Picture Books
Interrupting Chicken, by David Ezra Stein

Nonfiction Picture Books
The Extraordinary Life of Mark Twain (According to Susy), by Barbara Kerley

Easy Readers
We Are in a Book!, by Mo Willems

Short Chapter Books
Zapato Power: Freddie Ramos Takes Off, by Jacqueline Jules; illustrated by Miguel Benitez

Mirror Mirror Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse, by Marilyn Singer, illustrated by Josée Masse
Nifty. Singer uses our familiarity with classic fairy tales to sum up some of those stories in “reversos,” free-verse poems that read the same whether from first line to last, or last line to first. As a bonus, the reversos usually provide a new perspective on the tales: from a different character, or a different point in time. Masse’s illustrations expand on the themes of mirroring and symmetry.

Graphic Novels
Meanwhile Meanwhile: Pick Any Path. 3856 Story Possibilities, by Jason Shiga
I wrote about Shiga as a “math cartoonist” back here, and about the possibilities of branching paths in traditional comics here. Meanwhile has gotten most of its attention for its algorithmic structure. However, the crazy scientific devices that the hero encounters also leave readers with interesting logical questions. For example, if you have a machine that wipes everything out of existence, can you ever experience having pushed that button?

Fantasy & Science Fiction
The Shadows: The Books of Elsewhere, Vol. 1, by Jacqueline West

Middle Grade Fiction
Yoda The Strange Case of Origami Yoda, by Tom Angleberger
I admire any author who can find fun in middle school. Another interesting aspect of this novel is the notion, raised by some readers, that one crucial character has Asperger’s syndrome. The past decade has brought a number of fine books touching on that condition, some with “Aspie” protagonists figuring out the world and others with protagonists living with “Aspie” relatives. Here the character, if indeed he qualifies, is simply one of many quirky kids in the quirky middle-school culture.

Young Adult Non-fiction
The Secret of the Yellow Death: A True Story of Medical Sleuthing, by Suzanne Jurmain

Young Adult Graphic Novels
Yummy Yummy; The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke
My still-somewhat-in-shock review here, and remarks on how Randy DuBurke worked with his collaborators here.

Young Adult Fantasy & Science Fiction

Rot & Ruin, by Jonathan Maberry

Young Adult Fiction
Split, by Swati Avasthi

13 February 2011

Alan Grant on Robin, and a Road Not Taken

In 1988, the British writer Alan Grant began writing Batman stories in Detective Comics, at first with partner John Wagner but soon on his own (though Wagner’s name continued to appear in the credits for a while). Grant would end up writing Batman scripts for well over a decade.

In a 2009 interview with Graphic Novel Reporter, Grant had this to say about the Robin the Boy Wonder:

I’m not a Robin fan. Jerry [Robinson] told me personally they introduced Robin because the stories were becoming so dark the publishers were getting worried. They needed a younger audience, and a bit of color; Robin would bring it.

I accept the argument. I’ve read good Batman and Robin stories as well as mush. I’m just not a Robin fan. At heart, I don’t believe Batman—not the Batman I see—would really have a Robin. I know, I wrote it for years, but that’s the demands of my employer.
Grant’s first two years of stories didn’t include Robin. That probably wasn’t just his personal choice. DC Comics editors were struggling to figure out what to do with the character of Jason Todd, whom readers disliked and then killed, so they encouraged Grant to write Batman’s solo adventures.

In November 1989, Grant introduced a character called Anarky. He was a new vigilante in Gotham, driven not by Batman’s simple anti-crime agenda but by a philosophical commitment to anarchy. (Grant himself was entertaining such ideas at the time.) At the end of a two-issue tale, Batman unmasked Anarky as a very smart teenager named Lonnie Machin. Readers responded well, which gave Grant ideas.

Here’s how Grant described his thinking to William Cooling in a 2004 interview, originally at 411mania:
Funnily enough, I never mentioned the following interesting fact about Anarky. I originally created him specifically to be the new Robin. Imagine forgetting that. Don’t be a writer, Will, it scrambles your brain. Anyhoo, that was the plan. Batman was so popular back then, we’d have 3 or 4 meets in New York per year, planning out the future. Norm [Breyfogle, the artist working on Detective,] and I knew we’d soon need a new Robin, and what an honour—and what a profit—it would be for our character to get the job.

Alas, ’twas not to be. Some smart Marv Wolfman kid was waiting in the wings.
Grant said much the same the next year to 2000 AD Review, expanding on his thinking:
I knew Robin was going to die, and figured we’d need a replacement. I wanted a kid whose beliefs were not the same as Batman’s, in fact whose beliefs would clash with Batman’s. I didn’t want any dead parents who needed to be revenged. I wanted a kid who could think.

What I didn’t know, until the script arrived on my desk, is that Marv Wolfman had already created the new Robin. Bastard.
However, a 2006 interview with both Grant and Breyfogle tells a slightly different story of a gradually developing idea, which is probably more accurate:
Breyfogle: And then there’s Anarky of course, which was based on your directions because I wasn’t really familiar with the character V for Vendetta at that point.

Grant: Yes! I remember all I said was he was a cross between V for Vendetta and one of the spies from Spy vs Spy in Mad Magazine. [laughter]

Breyfogle: That’s right! I’d forgotten that.

Grant: I thought he’d only be there for one or two issues, but then I started to get ideas above my station by thinking, “Well fuck, this guy could be the new Robin!” Unfortunately, because everything was so top secret at that time and there was very little contact between myself and Marv Wolfman, who was doing the Batman monthly, I didn’t know that they were already working on a new Robin…

Breyfogle: I still want to draw Anarky as Robin. [laughter] I mean, Lonnie Machin, I would love to draw him as Robin still. Someday.
Finally, here’s Breyfogle’s own take on how the Anarky character related to both Batman and Robin:
Anarky’s singularity is due partly to his being, at his age, nearly as competent as Batman. I’m amused by Alan’s originally grooming Anarky to be the new Robin; the Robin role now seems too small for him! The audaciousness of a non-super-powered teenager functioning as a highly effective adult without a mentor is pretty iconoclastic in a genre where it sometimes appears “it’s all been done before.”
The big problem with Grant’s idea was that the dynamic he envisioned for Batman and Anarky had been done before. DC had just tried a Robin who started out as a criminal, who clashed with Batman in provocative ways. And readers hadn’t liked that. Their response had confirmed that Robin can’t be evil. DC certainly wasn’t going to try that again.

Anarky ended up being a natural antagonist to the new Robin that Wolfman created, Tim Drake.

12 February 2011

Nothing But the Great Gray Prairie on Every Side

This image comes from the blog Imagine Kansas Without Art, which I learned about from Philip Nel’s posting on the topic.

Nel, a professor of children’s literature at Kansas State University, writes:

People associate Kansas with Oz, and think of Dorothy (portrayed by Judy Garland) saying, near the 1939 film’s end, “There’s no place like home,” and “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with!” But in the book, Kansas is a bleak, grey place. . . .

Dorothy’s journey to Oz — which, in the novel, is a real place (and not a dream) — is an escape into color, adventure, and art. Kansas without these things is, as [L. Frank] Baum wrote, “dull and gray.” That appears to be Governor [Sam] Brownback’s vision for the state.

I mean, never mind the absurdity of the economic argument. For each dollar the state spends on the Arts Commission, it brings $2 in federal money back to the state — giving $1 the power of $3 is a strong financial reason to retain the Arts Commission. Beyond that, the arts bring in revenues from tourism, which help broaden the tax base. . . .

But even an stronger rationale than the economics argument is this: life without art is bleak.
The situation in Kansas is mirrored by the situation for the US as a whole: Republicans who now control the House of Representatives want to make serious cuts in the federal arts and culture budget. The Senate and White House will oppose those measures, but we all inherited big deficits and a recession from the previous administration. The first vote on appropriations for these agencies is about to come up.

11 February 2011

Google? They Don’t Even Have Felt-tips Yet!

In the latest New Yorker, Adam Gopnik writes:

When the first Harry Potter book appeared, in 1997, it was just a year before the universal search engine Google was launched. And so Hermione Granger, that charming grind, still goes to the Hogwarts library and spends hours and hours working her way through the stacks, finding out what a basilisk is or how to make a love potion.

The idea that a wizard in training might have, instead, a magic pad where she could inscribe a name and in half a second have an avalanche of news stories, scholarly articles, books, and images (including images she shouldn’t be looking at) was a Quidditch broom too far.

Now, having been stuck with the library shtick, she has to go on working the stacks in the Harry Potter movies, while the kids who have since come of age nudge their parents. “Why is she doing that?” they whisper. “Why doesn’t she just Google it?”
Well, yes, but mostly no. While it’s true that the internet has run ahead of many authors’ foresight, J. K. Rowling wasn’t trying to depict even mid-1990s technology. Personal computers had been well established by the time she conceived and wrote the Harry Potter books, but it’s difficult to find them in her universe. And even without Google, an up-to-date Hermione could have used computerized library catalogs, Altavista, and Yahoo.

Rowling chose to make Hogwarts a quaintly old-fashioned place. Its students don’t even use ballpoint pens. They use quills, giving the WB Shop one more thing to sell. That sort of pen is so old-fashioned that it seems delightful, but preparing and maintaining a quill pen was a real chore, and people gave them up a century and a half ago as soon as metal nibs became readily available.

10 February 2011

Comics and Children’s Publishing—When Worlds Collide

As traditional children’s publishers issue material in comics form, their editors are being challenged to develop new skills and working methods. A couple of web interviews this month gave hints at managing the creative process.

First, at the Brown Bookshelf, Randy DuBurke describes his work on Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, scripted by G. Neri. With experience drawing mainstream comics that goes back to DC in the late 1980s (I think I have some of the issues of Action Comics that he contributed to), DuBurke was the veteran on this project:

Jennifer Fox at Lee and Low Books…contacted me partly because this was their first foray into graphic novels and since I had experience in doing comics they thought it would be a good idea if I worked on the project. . . .

Before I started, I told my editor I would need to make changes along the way, which is not unusual when doing stories for comics. Comic book stories are collaborations between the artist and writer. I did change some scenes to strengthen the visual impact. Once the page art was completed, Greg and our editor would do a rewrite to accommodate the changes if necessary.
Meanwhile, over at Cynsations, artist Neil Numberman writes about creating the art for the Joey Fly, Private Eye comics, scripted by Aaron Reynolds. One of his responsibilities is “to thumbnail the entire book”:
There’s a good reason they call these sketches "thumbnails," but even though they’re super tiny, they do give me a number of things I need to know before starting the real sketches. They help me pace out the entire book, to make sure scenes and act breaks end at the end of a page or spread. I also need to roughly figure out where everyone in the scene will be and their word balloons, in each panel. . . .

Our editor, Reka Simonsen, always requests to see these little thumbnails. I love that she wants to be so involved in the process, and she claims she loves looking at my thumbnails, but I have no idea how she gets anything from these sloppy little drawings.
That step was especially important in this project because Reynolds did not specify page turns, as his sample script shows. That’s how picture books are created; it’s up to the artist to decide what goes on which page. In contrast, comics scripts usually state where the page breaks fall, and often other details about page layout.

It struck me that neither DuBurke nor Numberman mentions interacting directly with their scripters. For example, Numberman describes a later stage like this:
So, after the sketch stage, I hand ’em over to Reka, and she hangs onto them for a month or two, making notes and passing them around to other folks at the publisher, so when I get it back, I have a giant printout of the entire book, with little stickie notes on them.
The editors of these two books appear to be working as children’s-book editors have usually done, standing between author and artist. In contrast, writers in mainstream comics—at least the more successful ones who get asked to write introductions to their collections—often describe direct interaction with their artists. They sometimes approach publishers as a team, and comics scripts can contain notes directly to the artist, though the editor is always in the loop.

There’s no evidence to suggest that one method is preferable to the other, or usually produces better results. Rather, these two parts of the publishing industry have different cultures, but now they’re starting to overlap.

09 February 2011

His Father Must Be So Proud

I know there are more young authors (i.e., younger than me) every year, but Max Brallier is the first I met when he was really young—going into middle school or so. I used to work with his dad.

The New York Daily News just interviewed Max about his opus Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse? It traces possible responses to a zombie assault on New York City, using branching paths. Max described the creative process this way:

"As I was writing, I kept thinking, man, I want to do this in the story, too. I wanted to do a dirt bike scene. I wanted to do an underwater scene. I also wanted to have zombies on fire and zombies at Yankees Stadium, but how do I get all of this into one narrative?" he says.

"I used to love these Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid, so I thought, why not get in as an adult, and put every stupid zombie thing that ever happened into one book?"
Max survived being on a TV series in his early teens, so I figure he can easily survive the rough life of an author. He might even survive the zombie apocalypse.

08 February 2011

That’s a Lot of Creamed Corn

Today’s edible Oz image comes from a charity event where “teams of Kansas City architects, engineers and contractors showed off their ‘can do’ spirit by creating structures using cans of food.” The photo above appeared on the Kansas City Community News site; Oz fans Ruth Berman and Alan Wise dug up the story and the link.

This is the Society of Design Administration’s tenth annual CANstruction, which “challenges teams to design and build large sculptures made only of canned food and other non-perishable food items.” The canned food used then goes to the Harvesters Community Food Network.

07 February 2011

Brian Jacques and Death

This morning I read of Brian Jacques’s death at age seventy-one. I didn’t grow up with his animal-adventure novels, and they proved to be hit-or-miss for me. I enjoyed his audio production of Redwall, with Jacques himself among the heavily-accented performers, but couldn’t finish his Castaways of the Flying Dutchman.

One lesson has stuck with me, however. Chapter 2 of Redwall introduces the story’s villain, a rat named Cluny. (As in other modern British fantasies, the villain is from the Continent, with a particularly Gallic tinge.) The chapter tells us—Jacques was a great one for telling—that Cluny killed the pike who injured his eye. Cluny killed the ferret whose skull tops his standard. Within a few more chapters, Cluny’s cart rolls over two of his own followers.

Jacques thus sets out the stakes for Redwall. This book about little talking animals isn’t cute. It isn’t afraid to draw blood. The battle for Redwall Abbey will be a battle for life and death.

06 February 2011

Jason Todd’s Memorial Trophy Case

There was a time when the Batcave contained no trophy cases devoted to the memory of the late Jason Todd.

Last year the weekly Robin reviewed the history of Jason, by my reckoning the second and third Robins in the Batman mythos, until his death at the hands of the Joker. The Batman comics then had to shift away briefly as DC’s editors and writers worked out the ramifications of fate their readers had chosen for Jason. In early 1989, the team dove into stories about reactions to Jason’s death.

The panel above, from Batman, #436, shows Dick Grayson’s first return to the Batcave after learning of that event. For decades that cave was graphically defined by the Dynamic Duo’s trophies, particularly a robot dinosaur (species variable, but eventually a T. rex), giant penny, and giant joker playing card. As technology burgeoned, the team installed a giant computer as well. There were also many smaller trophies in glass cases, wall-mounted batarangs, and other memorabilia. But, as Dick noticed, Bruce Wayne refused to memorialize any of his work with Jason.

Eventually, Dick, Alfred, and a potential new Robin named Tim Drake helped Bruce through the mourning process. Denial gave way to a new trophy case displaying Jason’s Robin costume, floating in space, mask and all. That costume looked exactly like Dick’s, but its emptiness symbolized loss.

Like so many other parts of the modern Batman mythos, the glass case with the costume actually appeared first in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. That story, set in one potential future, also suggested Jason’s death, and introduced the phrase that sometimes appears on the case’s label: “A Good Soldier.”

As I’ve written before, when Jason died, he finally acquired the symbolic definition that the living character had lacked. Indeed, we might say that Jason became that costume in the trophy case, haunting the Batcave. He and it were together a symbol of youth cut short, of Batman’s greatest failure, of the dangers of masked vigilantism.
In the following years, Bruce would brood in front of the case. Tim would gaze up at the costume, seeing both the allure and the danger of being Robin. The trophy case was how Tim’s friends on the Young Justice team learned about his late predecessor. If villains invaded the Batcave, their desecration of that ground became undeniably clear when the fight that followed always smashed Jason’s case.

Eventually that glass case with the costume floating inside supplanted the Batcave’s older landmarks as a visual shorthand for that setting. Its design varied from one artist to another, but it was always immediately recognizable. (Perhaps Bruce had it rebuilt in different styles every time it got smashed.) Comics fans embraced the importance of the case. Matt Cauley at Iron-Cow Productions hand-crafted his own action-figure version. When Stephanie Brown died after being Robin, fans at Project Girl Wonder demanded to know why Batman hadn’t created a trophy case for her costume as well. (She got better.)

Remarkably, the symbolic significance of the trophy case endures when even Jason is not dead. In the DC Animated Universe of the 1990s Batman cartoons, which never had a Jason Todd, Tim Drake gazes at a costume in a glass case, a costume that those cartoons never show Dick Grayson wearing. A sense of promise and danger hovers overhead, even though there’s no explanation for it.

In the comics Jason Todd has returned from the grave (a story for another week), but his costume is still on display, and the trophy case is still sacred ground. In Batman and Son Damian Wayne goes down to the Batcave, breaks into the case, and puts on parts of Jason’s costume; that seems like such defilement that it’s hard to recognize how Damian is seeking acceptance into the Batman family.

That parti-colored costume behind glass thus now carries a symbolic weight separate from the actual loss of a young man. Indeed, in recent years Batman comics have shown future or imagined Batcaves with multiple trophy cases holding multiple Robin costumes, some not previously seen in that DC Universe. The sight of a Robin costume behind glass now has a visual resonance and significance of its own.

05 February 2011


The Modern Language Association threatens to tackle one of Oz and Ends’ favorite topics: how does the picture book form differ from the comics form?

Of course, the MLA is ready to deploy…jargon! Here’s the call for papers for a possible panel at the January 2012 MLA meeting in Seattle:

This panel will explore the possible relationships between comics and picture books, two imagetext genres implicated in children’s literacy learning which, despite overlapping formally and aesthetically, nonetheless stand apart socially and culturally. The potential application of picture book theory to comics, and, conversely, comics theory to picture books, promises to challenge this apartness—that is, to call into question the generic distinctiveness of the two forms. In that spirit, this panel invites participation from multiple perspectives, including but not limited to genre theory, education, history, formalism, aesthetics, semiotics, and ideological criticism.
Yadda yadda, Nodelman, McCloud, usual suspects among critics.
This panel will seek to enliven that dialogue by posing questions such as:
  • What formal resources and aesthetic strategies do comics and picture books share? Do they tend to deploy those resources and use those strategies differently?
  • What similar or different demands do the two genres make of readers?
  • How does the typical experience—if indeed we may posit a typical experience—of reading one genre differ from that of reading the other? For instance, how conducive are comics to what Ellen Spitz calls conversational reading, that is, reading shared by adult and child?
  • How do both comics and picture books participate in discourses and projects related to literacy learning and cultural literacy? For example, the possible role of comics in reading instruction has garnered much interest in recent studies…—how might this development be regarded culturally and critically? How might comics differ from or resemble picture books in their classroom use?
Yadda yadda, Spiegelman, Davis, Sendak, Tan, Selznick, usual suspects among practitioners.

Several factors make this an opportune and even urgent topic for MLA 2012, including the many artists who have worked in both genres; the genres’ shared aesthetic and narrative resources, and the relevance of image/text theories to both; the new prominence of comics in both children’s book publishing and reading instruction; and the current struggle of the picture book market to respond to social, educational, economic, and technological change.

Prospectuses due 5 March, response by 1 April, allowing chosen panelists to join the MLA by 7 April.

04 February 2011

Edible Oz

Oz and Ends reader Judy Cataldo kindly sent me this photo of a gingerbread and candy landscape displayed at the Strawbery Banke Museum in December.

Titled “Trail of Oz,” it was created by Zachary, Alexia, Nicholas, and Mimi.

Fans of the Oz books will be pleased to see how more than one Yellow Brick Road converges at the Emerald City. Of course, this sticky terrain is more like what we’d expect to find in Mo.

03 February 2011

Banville, Black, and Beam

In my SCBWI New England workshop on writing within and without genre last year, I used the example of John Banville, the Irish novelist. Under his own name, he writes Man Booker Prize-winning literary fiction, such as The Sea. Under the name Benjamin Black, he writes murder mysteries—a popular genre.

The pseudonym isn’t even an open secret anymore, an the Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam makes clear in a new interview:

Q. How do Black and Banville divide their time?

A. I’ve got a schedule now. I do a Benjamin Black in the spring and early summer. I hate summer, so this is a wonderful excuse to sit in my room and pound away at a crime book. I write those quickly on the computer, in three to four months.

What I want from Benjamin Black is spontaneity; John Banville writes in longhand with a fountain pen. I can’t do them both at the same time. Banville was never much interested in character, dialogue, and plot, and Black is entirely character and dialogue and plot.
Which is indeed a common distinction between literary and genre fiction. Whether future generations will consider that distinction worthwhile is another matter.

02 February 2011

Stumbling Through Scott Pilgrim?

Back in July, Bryan Lee O’Malley posted one page from the third volume of his Scott Pilgrim epic on his website under the label “what not to do.” Specifically, what not to do in laying out panels and word balloons on a comics page.

As this counterexample from his fifth volume shows, a page can have a complex design but still provide the readers with a clear path from one panel and balloon to the next.

I think O’Malley was being too hard on himself in suggesting that the bottom of the earlier page doesn’t work. The balloon placement and characters’ eyelines strike me as setting out the proper visual path. Maybe the balloon over Wallace’s head could be a little lower so the reader’s eye doesn’t trip over it while moving down from the middle tier, but that’s it.

But the top half—what to do with the top? How to keep readers along the intended path (marked in red) and not following momentum and the direction of Wallace’s look to the big panel on the right, which should actually come last? This must be why most comics manuals recommend against trying to stack panels in a left-hand column alongside a tall panel on the right—though one can find plenty of successful examples of just that. Perhaps even some in Scott Pilgrim.

01 February 2011

They May Not Spell Precisely, But…

A new blog on my reading list is E Is for Book, started by a group of authors and illustrators for children who are exploring the possibilities of electronic publishing. Many of them have had books published or republished in digital formats, such as Emilie Boon’s Peterkin Meets a Star, as I mentioned back here.

Just last week Publishers Weekly reported on a Digital Book World panel about children’s packagers turning into app-makers by saying:

They are also focused on a category—kids' multimedia entertainment—so new and fast-changing that standards for quality barely exist and an underlying technology that seems to change on a weekly basis. Indeed, moderator Charlie Schroder was quick to ask the panel “how do you stay perpetually innovative?” in a field that seems to change by the minute.
The challenges for authors and illustrators used to working on their own are even more daunting. But some want to try themselves, both to explore the creative freedom and to keep a larger slice of the smaller pie. Loren Leedy just wrote at E Is for Book about book-app-making software in development. (I guess those would be apps for making apps.)