31 January 2012

Never Work with Children or Animals

Terry Byrne at the Boston Globe really liked the Wheelock Family Theater's production of The Wizard of Oz. Of course, that might be an overdose of the cutes:

All four friends are nearly upstaged though, by Toto, played by second-grader Sofia Pilar Villafane with just the right amount of spunk and enthusiasm. Although she is adorable, and just the right size to be picked up by the Commander of the flying monkeys and by the Cowardly Lion, she never overdoes it, punctuating songs with little barks, while understanding her role as loyal friend.
As a corrective dose of reality, the review also includes these comments from the audience:
Dalice Rodriguez, 8, who was there with her brother Johann, 5, tapped along to the beat of “Jitterbug” and later said the dancing in that number was her favorite. Toto, however, was her favorite character, while Johann preferred the Tin Woodman, not because of his sensitive soul, or his dancing, but because “he had an ax.”
Someone needs to discover Axe Cop.

29 January 2012

Three Dick Graysons and the Representation of Change

Reviewing the Robin news this week, I was struck by a statement in Vaneta Rogers’s interview at Newsarama with current Nightwing scripter Kyle Higgins:
Nightwing is one of those few characters that is actually defined and built on a core of change, which is very weird in an industry and a medium that relies on the illusion of change. Dick Grayson is one of the few characters that are built around the idea of growing up.
Dick started out serving Reason for Robin, #9: Robin is still a kid. He represented potential. He was learning, making mistakes, but held the promise of being better. For almost thirty years he barely changed, but he always represented the possibilities of change in the future.

When Dick Grayson became Nightwing in the 1980s, he gained a new symbolic significance. He had been a kid; now he was a young man. But he was still younger than Batman, Superman, and the other heroes he’d looked up to. As Higgins says, his growth now defined his role in the DC Universe saga. He was a twentysomething looking for his place in the world. Would he ever match up to his mentor, or had he unknowingly already done so?

Grant Morrison’s proposal to make Dick Grayson into Batman brought that grand storyline to a close. Dick stepped into his mentor’s boots, and successfully. There was no place new for him to go, or grow. DC Comics would almost certainly have made him Nightwing again, to preserve the trademark if for no other reason, but the company never came up with a satisfactory way for Dick to make that choice which would imbue his character with significance again.

Instead, for a variety of commercial, legal, and creative reasons, the publisher rebooted its entire universe. That change let the editors put Dick into a new Nightwing costume, a few years younger than before. We never saw his choice to step away from being Batman; characters seem to treat his time in the cape as a job everyone knew would be temporary, as in Batman: Prodigy. Once again Nightwing is a young man looking for his place in the world. Higgins’s first story even took him back to his roots at the Haly Circus.

I view the current Dick Grayson character as separate from the character of 1964 through 2011, just as that was a different character from the Dick Grayson of 1940 through 1964 and beyond on Earth-2. The original Dick Grayson came of age as an adult Robin. The second came of age as Nightwing and took over as Batman when almost everyone thought Bruce Wayne was dead. Now we have a third Dick Grayson, also Nightwing. What will his future hold? The possibilities are open once again; all we know is that he still symbolizes growth and change.

In other Robin news, Bleeding Cool reported a rumor that Jeff Lemire would write an adventure for the present DC Universe’s four former and current Robins. But can we trust a gossip website that can’t even spell Damian Wayne‘s name right?

Probably so, for two reasons. Once ideas leak, it appears they’ve been approved. Furthermore, this idea is a no-brainer in terms of serving fans’ wishes. Of course, the potential for disappointment is very high since no actual all-Robins adventure comic could satisfy everyone’s hopes. There’s too much nostalgia to compete with.

Finally, Bully had the Dynamic Duo meet the Infinite Canvas of Scott McCloud. Even more impressive, the little stuffed bull got that scene to work within the confines of a Blogger template!

27 January 2012

Teleprompter Fixation as a Sign of OIP Derangement Syndrome

After winning the Republican primary in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich (shown above in June 2009) threw out an unrealistic plan to challenge President Barack Obama to seven “Lincoln-Douglas debates” and added, “I will concede up front that he can use a teleprompter.” In saying that, Gingrich was repeating himself and repeating a cliché of today’s American right. Folks have even set up a blog for the presidential teleprompter (now inactive).

Everyone can see that President Obama uses a teleprompter when delivering prepared remarks. So do many other politicians, such as Gingrich himself (as shown above), Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, and Sarah Palin. It’s standard equipment for television personalities and convention speakers.

Obama uses a teleprompter in more locations and situations than his predecessors, as the New York Times has observed. He eschews note cards and papers for three reasons. First, the machines have become more portable. Second, he’s very good at reading from a screen so that he seems to be speaking naturally. (In contrast, John McCain struggled with that task.) And third, he values good writing and precision, as every profile of the man has said.

The teleprompter goes away (I understand the traveling version telescopes down to the floor) after the President has finished his prepared remarks. Then he speaks extemporaneously, as anyone can see—anyone who doesn’t suffer from OIP Derangement Syndrome, that is. Many of those people have apparently convinced themselves that President Obama can’t express himself without a teleprompter.

Large audiences saw Barack Obama speak extemporaneously in twenty-five Democratic debates and three presidential debates in 2008. As for press conferences and interviews, President Obama did more of those in his first years in office than his predecessor. In May 2010, Mark Knoller at CBS News reported:
By my count, Mr. Obama has done six formal, full-scale White House news conferences, including the one on February 9. Four of the six were prime-time events in the East Room that lasted between 52 minutes and 59 minutes. Then there was a 53 minute session in the Briefing Room on June 23 and the disputed 35 minute event on February 9.

But add up all the press availabilities Mr. Obama has done, including abbreviated sessions with foreign leaders, and some solo news conferences at home and abroad, and the number of press events he's done since taking office climbs to 49.

During the same period of time in his presidency, George W. Bush took part in a total of 33 press availabilities of all varieties of which five were formal, solo White House news conferences. Only one was an evening event in prime time. The others were daytime sessions lasting about half an hour.

Besides press conferences, Mr. Obama has also sat for 190 interviews with members of the press, far more than any of his recent predecessors during their first 16 months in office.
And then there are televised events like the “health care summit” in February 2010. You’d think Gingrich’s followers would have seen that Obama can express his ideas (whether or not they like those ideas) without needing a machine.

But some apparently people can’t see that. They’ve convinced themselves that the President is an inarticulate puppet. Either that, or they’re using the “teleprompter” meme to let themselves sidle up to saying this black man is naturally too stupid to think for himself. Since they vociferously deny being that bigoted, the only explanation left is OIP Derangement Syndrome.

26 January 2012

The Real Glinda

From the penultimate chapter of L. Frank Baum’s The Emerald City of Oz, as Ozma, Dorothy, and her family go south to visit their friend:
With hearts light and free from care they traveled merrily along through the lovely and fascinating Land of Oz, and in good season reached the stately castle in which resided the Sorceress.

Glinda knew that they were coming.

"I have been reading about you in my Magic Book," she said, as she greeted them in her gracious way.

"What is your Magic Book like?" inquired Aunt Em, curiously.

"It is a record of everything that happens," replied the Sorceress. "As soon as an event takes place, anywhere in the world, it is immediately found printed in my Magic Book. So when I read its pages I am well informed." . . .

"Then," said Ozma, "I suppose you know what is in my mind, and that I am seeking a way to prevent any one in the future from discovering the Land of Oz."

"Yes; I know that. And while you were on your journey I have thought of a way to accomplish your desire. For it seems to me unwise to allow too many outside people to come here. Dorothy, with her uncle and aunt, has now returned to Oz to live always, and there is no reason why we should leave any way open for others to travel uninvited to our fairyland. Let us make it impossible for any one ever to communicate with us in any way, after this. Then we may live peacefully and contentedly."

"Your advice is wise," returned Ozma. "I thank you, Glinda, for your promise to assist me."

"But how can you do it?" asked Dorothy. "How can you keep every one from ever finding Oz?"

"By making our country invisible to all eyes but our own," replied the Sorceress, smiling. "I have a magic charm powerful enough to accomplish that wonderful feat, and now that we have been warned of our danger by the Nome King's invasion, I believe we must not hesitate to separate ourselves forever from all the rest of the world."

"I agree with you," said the Ruler of Oz.

"Won't it make any difference to us?" asked Dorothy, doubtfully.

"No, my dear," Glinda answered, assuringly. "We shall still be able to see each other and everything in the Land of Oz. It won't affect us at all; but those who fly through the air over our country will look down and see nothing at all. Those who come to the edge of the desert, or try to cross it, will catch no glimpse of Oz, or know in what direction it lies. No one will try to tunnel to us again because we cannot be seen and therefore cannot be found. In other words, the Land of Oz will entirely disappear from the knowledge of the rest of the world."

"That's all right," said Dorothy, cheerfully. "You may make Oz invis'ble as soon as you please, for all I care."

"It is already invisible," Glinda stated. "I knew Ozma's wishes, and performed the Magic Spell before you arrived."
She doesn’t say, “I did it thirty-five minutes ago,” like Ozymandias in Watchmen, but she’s still mighty high-handed.

And from the third chapter of Tik-Tok of Oz, after Queen Ann Soforth has set out to conquer all of Oz from her little corner:
Princess Ozma was all unaware that the Army of Oogaboo, led by their ambitious Queen, was determined to conquer her Kingdom. The beautiful girl Ruler of Oz was busy with the welfare of her subjects and had no time to think of Ann Soforth and her disloyal plans. But there was one who constantly guarded the peace and happiness of the Land of Oz and this was the Official Sorceress of the Kingdom, Glinda the Good.

In her magnificent castle, which stands far north of the Emerald City where Ozma holds her court, Glinda owns a wonderful magic Record Book, in which is printed every event that takes place anywhere, just as soon as it happens.

The smallest things and the biggest things are all recorded in this book. If a child stamps its foot in anger, Glinda reads about it; if a city burns down, Glinda finds the fact noted in her book.

The Sorceress always reads her Record Book every day, and so it was she knew that Ann Soforth, Queen of Oogaboo, had foolishly assembled an army of sixteen officers and one private soldier, with which she intended to invade and conquer the Land of Oz.

There was no danger but that Ozma, supported by the magic arts of Glinda the Good and the powerful Wizard of Oz—both her firm friends—could easily defeat a far more imposing army than Ann's; but it would be a shame to have the peace of Oz interrupted by any sort of quarreling or fighting. So Glinda did not even mention the matter to Ozma, or to anyone else. She merely went into a great chamber of her castle, known as the Magic Room, where she performed a magical ceremony which caused the mountain pass that led from Oogaboo to make several turns and twists. The result was that when Ann and her army came to the end of the pass they were not in the Land of Oz at all, but in an adjoining territory that was quite distinct from Ozma's domain and separated from Oz by an invisible barrier.
In Baum’s books, Ozma has a tendency to want to talk nicely to people threatening Oz so as to convince them of the error of their ways. Glinda doesn’t play by those rules. You threaten Oz—she will take you down. And she may not even bother to tell anyone about it.

25 January 2012

What if the Deadly Desert Isn’t Deadly?

Yesterday I described how over the course of five books L. Frank Baum developed the desert around Oz from a natural barrier that apparently hid that fairyland within North America into a magically fatal barrier that protected Oz from its magical neighbors and everyone else.

But was the Deadly Desert really deadly? Certainly folks in the Oz books believed it to be. Someone even went to the trouble of erecting signs warning travelers not to venture onto the sands or be turned into dust. For understandable reasons, no one tested that. No one we read about, at least.

A few years back, in an Oz discussion group I put forward the cheeky hypothesis that the Deadly Desert isn’t actually deadly at all—that the legends and signs are simply a way to scare off potential invaders. Again, the books never show us anyone turned to dust.

Who could or would construct such a hoax? The obvious candidate is Glinda, the Good Sorceress of the South. She has a record of taking swift, unilateral, and somewhat ruthless (though far from cruel) actions to protect Oz. She has the intelligence and magical resources to put up those signs.

Not many Oz fans like my realpolitik conception of Glinda, I’ve found. And, to be honest, I don’t actually ascribe to that Deadly Desert theory. In my own stories the swirling sands are still a threat to people made of flesh, even if no one’s died yet.

In the latest Baum Bugle, Nathan M. DeHoff of the VoVatia blog kindly acknowledges my question of whether the Deadly Desert is actually deadly, but he devotes most of his “‘Great Dates and Deserts!’: Some Thoughts on the Deadly Desert of Oz” article as he should: assembling a coherent picture of how the desert works across all the Oz books, including those by Baum’s successors. It’s a thorough overview, useful for writers wanting to review that feature of the Nonestic world.

Also in that Bugle is Marilynn Strasser Olson’s paper about how a humorous article on Death Valley published in the Los Angeles Times in 1890 might have maybe influenced Baum’s invention of both the Deadly Desert and the Emerald City. Unfortunately, Prof. Olson can’t actually show a link from the article to Baum. And I don’t think the parallels are that compelling.

As with Evan Schwartz’s Finding Oz, that if we read late-1890s US newspapers and magazines looking for “Ozzy” details it’s easy to find material that reminds us of Baum, in either its topic or its tone. But that was the cultural milieu. The American press had a lot of humorists in the mode of Twain and Nye. Baum set out to create a fairy tale that seemed modern and American, so of course it reflected the same general topics and concerns tackled by other writers of the day. I want to see a clear link to Baum, not just an assumed connection.

(Illustration above by Eric Shanower.)

24 January 2012

Developing the Deadly Desert

The new issue of The Baum Bugle, the International Wizard of Oz Club’s main journal, includes two articles about the Deadly Desert that surrounds and protects Oz.

The desert wasn’t deadly at first; like a lot of details about Oz, L. Frank Baum developed the desert gradually as ideas and plot points occurred to him. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a sandy waste cuts Oz off from the rest of the world, particularly that odd place (the Midwest) where the Wizard and Dorothy came from.

In The Marvelous Land of Oz, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and their companions fly over that desert out of Oz, where they find a country that apparently uses paper money denominated in dollars. As Michael O. Riley pointed out in Oz and Beyond, Baum’s first two books implied that Oz was nestled somewhere in arid southwestern North America.

But then in Ozma of Oz, Baum had Dorothy travel to Oz by starting in the Pacific Ocean, landing in a fairyland called Ev, and finally crossing the desert on an unrolling carpet. So the countries beyond the desert from Oz are definitely not America. In fact, they seem far from America. Furthermore, while the previous book showed characters standing on the desert, this one implied that doing so would be harmful, or at least unpleasant.

A couple of books later, Baum introduced the alliterative phrase “Deadly Desert.” He quoted this sign erected in front of it:

For the Deadly Sands will Turn Any Living Flesh
to Dust in an instant. Beyond This Barrier is the


But no one can Reach that Beautiful Country
because of these Destroying Sands

Curiously, that signs stands in an inhospitable, unpopulated spot, so we have to assume that either (a) it was placed there for the benefit of Dorothy and her companions at that moment, or (b) there are a lot more signs elsewhere along the edge of the sand.

Thereafter, the Deadly Desert is always said to be deadly, even when characters like the Wise Donkey manage inexplicably to cross it. In Baum’s penultimate book, The Magic of Oz, it even gives off nauseating fumes that force birds to fly at high altitudes.

And yet, for all the desert’s deadliness, in the entire Oz series no one ever dies on it.

TOMORROW: Tossing out a theory.

23 January 2012

“On the shelf, he noticed another novel…”

A story from Nicholas D. Kristof’s New York Times column yesterday about Judge Olly Neal:
One day in 1957, in the fall of his senior year, Neal cut…class and wandered in the library, set up by Grady, the English teacher whom he had tormented. Neal wasn’t a reader, but he spotted a book with a risqué cover of a sexy woman.

Called “The Treasure of Pleasant Valley,” it was by Frank Yerby, a black author, and it looked appealing. Neal says he thought of checking it out, but he didn’t want word to get out to any of his classmates that he was reading a novel. That would have been humiliating.

“So I stole it.”

Neal tucked the book under his jacket and took it home — and loved it. After finishing the book, he sneaked it back into the library. And there, on the shelf, he noticed another novel by Yerby. He stole that one as well.

This book was also terrific. And, to Neal’s surprise, when he returned it to the shelf after finishing it, he found yet another by Yerby.

Four times this happened, and he caught the book bug. “Reading got to be a thing I liked,” he says. His trajectory changed, and he later graduated to harder novels, including those by Albert Camus, and he turned to newspapers and magazines as well. He went to college and later to law school. . . .

At a high school reunion, Grady stunned Neal by confiding to him that she had spotted him stealing that first book. Her impulse was to confront him, but then, in a flash of understanding, she realized his embarrassment at being seen checking out a book.

So Grady kept quiet. The next Saturday, she told him, she drove 70 miles to Memphis to search the bookshops for another novel by Yerby. Finally, she found one, bought it and put it on the library bookshelf.

Twice more, Grady told Neal, she spent her Saturdays trekking to Memphis to buy books by Yerby — all in hopes of turning around a rude adolescent who had made her cry. She paid for the books out of her own pocket.
Neal told his own story at Storycorps and to NPR.

22 January 2012

Sitting with the Tiny Titans

DC Comics is bringing Tiny Titans to a close soon at issue #50. I’ve read only occasional issues and pages of this magazine, mostly those with an especially high Robin quotient. A put-upon version of Robin is at the center of its cast, who are school-age versions of the second generation of DC superheroes.

The third and fourth generations, each with their own Robins, appear as babies and toddlers. That leaves plenty of opportunity for the older kids to babysit. But not really all the kids, at least equally.

I think the babysitting theme started in issue #4, which DC marketed with this line:
Meet the Little Tiny Titans as they show Wonder Girl just how tough babysitting can be!
Inside, Wonder Girl and another heroine named Bumblebee babysit four teeny-Tiny Titans while Robin, Speedy, and Cyborg go play baseball.

The copy for #15:
And it’s Rose's turn to babysit the Terror Titans when a group activity yields fiery results.
In #23, Robin visits Batgirl and meets two of his little fans.

In #27:
When Raven has to watch Kid Devil for the weekend,…
Have you noticed a pattern?

The cover at top is #29, which came with this copy:
It's Supergirl's turn to toddler-sit the tiny Tiny Titans! Can she handle this crisis of infinite toddlers – or will she burst into tears?
But I don’t recall seeing Robin take on that job. Sometimes he hangs around Batgirl as she does the job because he has a crush on that little red-haired girl. In the “All-Robins Issue” he volunteers to pick up her charges from a daycare center (run by a woman), but he doesn’t actually look after them.

The story in issue #26 has Beast Boy watching over Miss Martian, but the word “babysit” wasn’t part of its marketing copy, and Beast Boy actually insists it’s not his turn. Even if we agree that he really is babysitting here, he’s the only example of male parity I could find. (Did I miss an important panel?)

Most recently, Tiny Titans, #47:
It’s Mrs. Atom’s turn to babysit the Baby Titans – Damien [sic], Arthur Jr., Smidgen, Kid Devil and Jason Toddler. Can she do it alone? Maybe Miss Martian can help!
And Bumblebee is back to babysitting as well. Even when a Tiny Titans story involves multiple baby-sitters, all three are female. Furthermore, Mrs. Atom is a character with no equivalent in the regular DC Universe. [Trust me, Ray Palmer’s love interest Jean Loring is not the same.] She seems to have been created to care for her children and others.
Overall, Tiny Titans appears to perpetuate the idea that child care is naturally a job for girls rather than boys. Ironically, some of Tiny Titans’s biggest fans include readers vocal about pressing DC to expand the exposure and range of female superheroes.

20 January 2012

Rick Santorum’s OIP Derangement Syndrome

For this week’s example of OIP Derangement Syndrome I’m indebted to Nathan DeHoff for his pointer to this report by Charles M. Blow. Because without that evidence, I would have had trouble believing a major politician—even Rick Santorum—would come out strongly against education.

Before finishing a distant fourth or fifth in the New Hampshire primary, Santorum criticized President Obama this way:
I was so outraged by the president of the United States for standing up and saying every child in America should go to college. Well who are you? Who are you to say that every child in America go … I mean the hubris of this president to think that he knows what’s best for you. I … you know there is … I have seven kids. Maybe they’ll all go to college. But, if one of my kids wants to go and be an auto mechanic, good for him. That’s a good-paying job – using your hands and using your mind. This is the kind of, the kind of snobbery that we see from those who think they know how to run our lives. Rise up America, defend your own freedoms. And overthrow these folks who think they know how to orchestrate every aspect of your lives.
This statement exhibits OIP Derangement Syndrome in two ways. First, Santorum’s mind had obviously been unable to take in and repeat President Obama’s actual policies. For instance, in an address to Congress in February 2009, the President said:
I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.
Not only did Obama say nothing against becoming an auto mechanic, he acknowledged that possibility when he spoke of “vocational training or an apprenticeship.” As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, American manufacturers like educated workers.

Santorum must have felt there was something wrong in Obama’s policy simply because it came from Obama. Under OIP Derangement Syndrome, his mind came up with a distorted version of that policy that enabled him to express his actual gut response to President Obama: “Who are you [my emphasis] to…run our lives”?

Santorum vocally opposes the power of ”this [my emphasis] president to think that he knows what’s best for you.” Of course, Santorum thinks he knows what’s best for us in a lot of ways, and he thinks the government should have to power run many parts of our lives. But to him “this president” is different.

19 January 2012

Moorcock: “the prose of the nursery-room”

From Michael Moorcock’s essay “Epic Pooh,” as archived at Revolution SF (it was originally written in 1978, revised in 1989, and revised again to note recent authors):

The sort of prose most often identified with "high" fantasy is the prose of the nursery-room. It is a lullaby; it is meant to soothe and console. It is mouth-music. It is frequently enjoyed not for its tensions but for its lack of tensions. It coddles; it makes friends with you; it tells you comforting lies. It is soft:
One day when the sun had come back over the forest, bringing with it the scent of May, and all the streams of the Forest were tinkling happily to find themselves their own pretty shape again, and the little pools lay dreaming of the life they had seen and the big things they had done, and in the warmth and quiet of the Forest the cuckoo was trying over his voice carefully and listening to see if he liked it, and wood-pigeons were complaining gently to themselves in their lazy comfortable way that it was the other fellow's fault, but it didn't matter very much; on such a day as this Christopher Robin whistled in a special way he had, and Owl came flying out of the Hundred Acre Wood to see what was wanted.

Winnie-the-Pooh, 1926
It is the predominant tone of The Lord of the Rings and Watership Down and it is the main reason why these books, like many similar ones in the past, are successful. It is the tone of many forgotten British and American bestsellers, well-remembered children's books, like The Wind in the Willows, you often hear it in regional fiction addressed to a local audience, or, in a more sophisticated form, James Barrie (Dear Brutus, Mary Rose and, of course, Peter Pan).

Unlike the tone of E. Nesbit (Five Children and It etc.), Richmal Crompton (the 'William' books) Terry Pratchett or the redoubtable J.K.Rowling, it is sentimental, slightly distanced, often wistful, a trifle retrospective; it contains little wit and much whimsy.
Wait a minute! Milne’s characterization of Eeyore is hilarious. But his narrative voice is indeed the voice of an adult looking back/down on childhood. Nesbit’s narrative voice, on the other hand, is an author in conspiracy with young readers.

Perhaps the “voice of the nursery-room” is one reason why some of the novels Moorcock mentions—Lord of the Rings and Watership Down among them—are treated as books for young people even though their authors conceived them as books for adults.

18 January 2012

Historicity as a Difference Between Baum’s Oz and Maguire’s Oz

Last month I had the pleasure of hearing Gregory Maguire interviewed about Out of Oz and his entire Wicked Years series at the Cambridge Forum. There’s an edited recording of that conversation here at the Forum Network.

Among other things, Maguire described his childhood experience with L. Frank Baum’s Oz books. His local library had only the first two: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Marvelous Land of Oz. He read in Edward Eager’s novels that there were more, but he never saw them. Maguire therefore went on to Narnia, Prydain, Earthsea, Middle Earth, and other fantasy worlds.

As an adult studying children’s literature, Maguire returned to the Baum novels he had missed. “When I finally got to Oz,” he said [according to the best notes I could take at the time], “I found they were a lot thinner than the first two. It doesn’t matter in which order you read them. L. Frank Baum had not been a historian after the first two books. The country did not change as time passed.”

There is a great deal of change in the government of Oz in those first two books. In the Emerald City, the Wizard is swiftly succeeded by the Scarecrow, General Jinjur, and Ozma. Outside, the Wicked Witches perish, and the Tin Woodman becomes emperor of the Winkies. That could leave an impressionable lad with the idea that the other books would also show such historical changes.

But once Ozma takes the throne of the Emerald City and soon all of Oz, every book’s plot is basically a restoration of that status quo, except a little bit better. Ozma’s occasionally kidnapped, confined, and in one book (The Wishing Horse of Oz) magically deposed, but she’s always back in power at the end.

Dorothy and her family, the Wizard, and Button-Bright from The Road to Oz eventually come to live in the Emerald City. But those are the only characters we meet in one Baum Oz book whose lives change significantly later.

Oz not only doesn’t change, but becomes less changeable. Baum established new facts to keep it that way: ageless immortality for all residents, a barrier cutting off the outside world, restrictions on who could practice magic.

For most Oz fans, that’s not a problem—it’s part of the series’ appeal. Oz will always be as you remember. Later books that made major changes in the Emerald City or Ozma’s realm have tended to be less popular. The favorites always return to the beloved status quo.

Maguire acknowledges that his version is different: “What I left out of Out of Oz was that ability of Oz to be permanent in the present.” But since much of his series was fueled by politics, that mutable quality was important to him: “Unless things can change in time, we have no need or reason to work for them to change.”

Of course, unless we can imagine an ideal, we don’t know what change to work for.

16 January 2012

Faust on Family Reading Rituals

Yesterday's Boston Globe asked Drew Gilpin Faust, Civil War historian and president of Harvard, about her reading. At the end, after name-checking Nancy Drew, she offered a provocative take on a beloved family tradition:

...in my family there were ritual occasions of adults reading to children. For example, my grandmother wanted to develop one-on-one relationships with us by inviting a single child to be read to.

I hated it. I wanted to read to myself. I didn’t want anybody between me and the magical world of the book. My brothers have these memories of sitting with my grandmother and drinking hot chocolate as they disappeared into King Arthur. I would have none of it.

15 January 2012

“The Guardianship of Dick Grayson!”

“You must have read how Batman first took charge of a young boy named Dick Grayson...whose parents, The Flying Graysons of circus fame, had died in a tragic fall from their trapeze!

“Since that day, the mutual affection between this man and boy has been as strong as that between father and son!”

That’s the start of “Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson!”, a classic but badly-titled story in Batman, #20 (cover date Dec 1943-Jan 1944). It came out of Bob Kane’s apartment studio, with his pencils, Jerry Robinson’s inking, and George Roussos’s lettering bringing out a script by Bill Finger.

And as far as I can tell, this was the first Batman story based on exploring the legal relationship between Bruce Wayne and his ward Dick Grayson, established in an afterthought back in 1940. In fact, back then the comics rarely mentioned Dick’s circus upbringing, the murder of Bruce’s parents, or what brought them together. Crime-fighting was just what they did.

But then Dick’s paternal uncle George shows up. (The whirling head effect in the first panel is a technique Kane brought from humor comics, his real love.)
It’s striking that Bruce says, “Not after all these years!” Dick has burst onto the scene less than four years before in real time, and in comic-book time Dick Grayson had barely aged. (There was one birthday story.) The same balloon also establishes that Bruce sees Dick “like a son!”

Uncle George goes to court, requiring anguished testimony. Per Reason for Robin, #4, Dick shows more emotion on the stand, but even Bruce is “strained” as he pulls out the word “love.”
But the judge decides that a “nightclubbing, shiftless, café society playboy” is no good guardian for a teenager and awards custody to Uncle George. The Dynamic Duo enjoy a panel of reminiscing…
That upper panel might be the first time the phrase “good soldier” appears in a Batman comic. It’s been echoing since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Back in 1943 it was an allusion to actual soldiers, of course.

I’m also struck by how Roussos chose to draw Bruce’s “Goodbye, kid, goodbye” in such small letters; that’s a very rare technique in 1940s superhero comics, and it again reflects Bruce’s feelings.
Bruce starts to mope around Wayne Manor (which in this era looks much bigger from inside than from outside). While complaining about unfairness as fervently as any thirteen-year-old, Bruce now calls Dick “the person I love the most!”

Being alone again even affects Bruce‘s work as Batman.
But after the fight Dick has to go back to his newfound relations. A few pages on, it becomes clear that Uncle George is simply trying to extort money from Bruce Wayne, offering him his own teen-aged boy for a mere million dollars. At the suggestion of Alfred the butler, Bruce steps in as Batman. But without his partner, the criminals lure the Caped Crusader “into a man-trap!”

How bad do things look? Batman’s only back-up now is Alfred, and not the ex-special-forces Alfred of today. This was the original fat, comic-relief Alfred. But he knows where to get help: he knocks on Dick’s new bedroom window, and the two of them race off to rescue Batman.

The outcome of that fight hinges on one of the Penguin’s trick umbrellas—a detail established back in that panel of reminiscing. It wasn’t necessary to have read a lot of earlier Batman comics to follow this story. Nevertheless, Finger clearly created it for readers who were already fans of the Dynamic Duo and wanted to learn more about their relationship.

Finally, we have another scene in court, where the judge reverses himself.
Interestingly, this story doesn’t end with Dick’s uncle revealed as a complete fraud; it suggests that he really is a brother of the late trapeze artist John Grayson. I don’t think Uncle George ever resurfaces in the Batman mythos, though.

This story was successful enough that Finger wrote a variation on it in “The Trial of Bruce Wayne!”, published in Batman, #57 (Feb-Mar 1950), with art by Dick Sprang. In this tale, a criminal whom Bruce somehow helped sent to prison seeks revenge by hitting the millionaire where it will hurt the most: he orchestrates a legal hearing to take away custody of Dick.

The crooks in this story attack Bruce instead of Batman, and there are no lost relatives for Dick. Once again, Bruce’s public persona as a shiftless playboy works against him. And in the end he calls the same character witness as before, only this time Finger has Batman speak to the court on panel. (Meanwhile, it appears that Bruce can’t be bothered to show up for his own hearing.)

The “Trial” story never rises to the emotional pitch of “Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson!”, but it’s a solid example of a story type that usually showed up about once a season: something threatening the partnership of Batman and Robin. I don’t think, however, there were any more stories about Bruce and Dick’s legal relationship, not even when Aunt Harriet appeared, until the 1980s.

COMING UP: The Jason Todd soap opera.

13 January 2012

An Individual Mandate Challenge

In a comment over at my history blog, I recently threw out a challenge. A commenter had called the Affordable Healthcare Act of 2010 “taking control of the entire medical establishment.” Given that the program is designed to preserve and even drive business to private insurers, that Congress shied away from creating a public option to provide competition, and that the system falls far short of the single-payer system that works better for our neighbor Canada, that view strikes me as ludicrous.

I hypothesize that characterizations like that (other examples include “socialized medicine,” “death panels,” “baby-killer,” and so on) are so inaccurate and so ignorant of the spectrum of health-care policy proposals that they can’t be a product of rational thought. Rather, they reflect deeper fears that the critic is unable to acknowledge.

But there’s a simple way to refute my hypothesis. Show that significant figures in the Republican Party used such rhetoric about the same health-care policy before Barack Obama became a prominent proponent of that approach.

I invited anyone to find three examples of significant figures in the Republican Party calling Gov. Mitt Romney’s program for Massachusetts something like a “complete takeover of the health care system” before Barack Obama won the 2008 Iowa caucus and became a presidential frontrunner.

Those three Republican figures can even be Romney’s opponents in the 2008 race. One can even be Ron Paul. But their criticisms can’t simply be “My plan is better than Mitt’s.” They have to be at the same level of extreme vituperation and accusation that Republicans have used about the same program after it became associated with President Obama.

So far no one has replied. And with good reason. In today’s Boston Globe, Scott Lehigh explains:
…the moment Obama came out for an individual mandate, which back then was an idea acceptable to Republicans like Romney and Newt Gingrich, conservatives decided they loathed it because it was an idea acceptable to Obama. That doesn’t make much sense but, hey, that’s politics.
Back in June 2011, Lehigh documented how the Heritage Foundation not only invented the individual mandate but had people advocating for it in the mid-2000s. (Obama, of course, ran against the individual mandate in the Democratic primaries, then moved right and adopted it to placate the insurance industry.)

If people can’t find even three examples of significant Republicans harshly criticizing the policies they now call “Obamacare” before Obama came on the scene, then that’s evidence that it’s not the plan those critics really fear. It’s the man.

Instead, this is an example of what I call “OIP Derangement Syndrome.” That’s the feeling some people have suffered ever since they realized that, despite their own preferences, Obama Is President. Their viscera go “OIP!” and they stop thinking rationally. I plan to highlight more examples of OIP Derangement Syndrome in coming weeks. There seems to be a steady supply.

12 January 2012

Limits to Anglophilia

I’m happy to acknowledge my Anglophilia, but even I found the Anglophilia in Jane Louise Curry’s The Bassumtyte Treasure over the top.

It’s not just ordinary Anglophilia, even. It’s all about the aristocracy, indeed the old aristocracy that remained loyal to Catholicism and Mary, Queen of Scots. The book asks us to root for the aristocratic Bassumtyte family to keep their big house and grounds and servants in the 1970s.

Since it would be awkward to delve into how that wealth was accumulated in previous centuries, or the value of the public services that the tax revenue is now funding, Curry instead embodies that threat as an off-stage villain who’s eager to buy a house. And wouldn’t you know, he’s an Arab prince with lots and lots of money. Arabian aristocracy isn’t so appealing as English.

As with The Lost Farm, Curry starts with a young protagonist—in this case, ten-year-old Tommy Bassumtyte—and his problems—suddenly being sent from New Hampshire to England. The opening chapters are firmly and consistently in his point of view.

But the story doesn’t stick with Tommy. By the second half of the book, the point of view is shifting suddenly among him, his older cousin, an aged ancestor, and other adults as need be. Though Tommy plays a part in the unfolding plot, just as often he’s standing aside as adults do things. And the book’s language doesn’t seem particularly kid-friendly, even for young Anglophiles:
Old Sir Thomas’s plan for the Tudor garden consisted of [a] planting diagram in which each box tree was indicated by a small circle representing its trunk and, on following pages, a series of elevations and one perfectly round tree drawn separately like a lollipop on a short, thick stick. The elevations were side views which showed a long expanse of severe, flat-topped hedge surmounted at each corner and at the pathway opening by a leafy ball. Unlike the present arrangement (or as much as could be judged of it in its shaggy state), on only one of the four sides was there an opening through the outer ledge. Through it could be seen a sketchy representation of another, inner hedge.
Finally, the book is a mix of fantasy and mystery without being really satisfactory as either. As a fantasy it’s timid, with three short visits of a ghost and one peek through time. As a mystery it relies on those fantasy-aided insights rather than rational thinking to reveal crucial details.

10 January 2012

The Symbolic Weight of a Dead Munchkin

At the Mysterious Press, Greg Rucka, scripter of Gotham Central and other well-regarded comics, contributed an essay on how reading Stuart Kaminsky’s Murder on the Yellow Brick Road changed his life.

Granted, he didn’t have much of a life before then. Which is to say, he was an ordinary ten-year-old kid—nothing wrong with that. But, thanks to a bookseller who obviously hadn’t read what she or he was recommending, little Gregory went straight from Encyclopedia Brown and a few chapters of the Hardy Boys to Toby Peters, private eye at the height of the Hollywood studio system.
I'm ten, and my mother hands me this book. On the cover there's a Munchkin with a tiny knife in his chest, and he's lying on the Yellow Brick Road. There's a thin thread of blood that's escaped, and now runs between the bricks. The Munchkin lies in a puddle of light, and the Yellow Brick Road bends away, into murkier shadows. You can just see the lamp itself on the right, but barely, hinting that this isn't Oz.

I stared at that cover for a long time. The title threw me. I was ten, I was a boy, and anything smacking of Oz also reeked of "girl," so I was wary. But that cover, I look at it today - it's to my right as I type this - and I can still remember the delicious sense of menace it gave me, the double-dog-dare to come inside. . . .

The plot, in a nutshell, is this: Judy Garland hires private investigator Toby Peters to keep the murder of the Munchkin out of the papers. Toby learns that Garland's life is in danger. The bodies start stacking up.

Straightline enough. Except I'm ten, and aside from the fact that Raymond Chandler and Clark Gable also show up in the novel (I had heard of the first, had seen films of the second), what Toby uncovers isn't just dead Munchkins. No, no, see, because someone's been making porn films on the old Wizard of Oz sets.

And then Toby has sex in a dentist's chair. 
I’m a few years older than Rucka, and I read Kaminsky’s novels as they appeared. I don’t know if I started with Murder on the Yellow Brick Road because of my Oz interest; the first may have been Bullet for a Star, which came out when I was eleven. I was already reading at a high level, including some of my mother’s adult mysteries. I’d read a number of books about prewar Hollywood. I didn’t realize till much later how much Kaminsky played off the southern-California school of private eye novels.

But I never found the emotional connection with Kaminsky’s stories that Rucka did. In fact, in every summer of the late 1970s and early 1980s I probably drifted off in the middle of a Toby Peters mystery. The days were hot, and we didn’t have air-conditioning. I preferred Harry Kemelman and other authors. But for years I did keep trying each new Toby Peters book.

09 January 2012

A Westernized Easternized Cinematized Oz

Once Upon a Blog features Cathy Pavia’s illustrations for The Zen of Oz: Ten Spiritual Lessons from Over the Rainbow, by Joey Green. They meld the characterizations of the MGM movie (which steers Green’s understanding of the story) with classical Japanese art.

(Hat tip to Charlotte’s Library.)

08 January 2012

Life-Sized Robin Trophy Case

This holiday season, Scott Cummings, the editor of The Baum Bugle, kindly sent me this photograph from the Tampa Bay History Center. It shows the Robin costume in a round glass case, just waiting for some fight to symbolically smash.

Actually, that’s not from the bat-cave. As the label says, it’s one of Burt Ward’s costumes from the Batman TV show. (Another view here and a video here.) This case is in an exhibit titled “Out of This World: Extraordinary Costumes from Film and Television,” organized by Seattle’s Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.

The costume exhibits I’ve been to seem to attract a primarily female audience, but this one is aimed at sci-fi fans, and apparently male fans at that. It includes one of the hats Margaret Hamilton wore as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz and an outfit Darryl Hannah wore in Blade Runner, but every other listed costume was made for a male star. Most, if not all, of these artifacts come from the collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

The exhibit has been traveling around medium-sized museums for three years. It closed in Tampa yesterday, and will open at the end of the month at the Midland Center for the Arts in Michigan. And then, the host website says, it’s available through January 2013. So with the right budget, you can host your own authentic life-sized Robin trophy case for months!

07 January 2012

“Our brain wants to turn everything into a story”

At the Tottenville Review, poet R. Salvador Reyes agues that our brains are wired not just to recognize patterns but to recognize predictive patterns because that’s biologically useful. And that wiring is at the root of our human attraction to stories:
When you think about the kinds of patterns that are useful for prediction—patterns that are defined by a certain string of actions and reactions that occur within a specific set of conditions—it is easy to see that these types of patterns are, in essence, stories. Most predictive patterns are ultimately a type of narrative. Think again about how we just defined a pattern that’s useful for prediction: a certain string of actions and reactions that occur within a specific set of conditions. Aren’t those also descriptions of plot and setting? When we step back and look at how we experience our world, aren’t we always trying to turn the data from what we study and experience into a narrative pattern that we can make some sense of—and which, consequently, we might be able to make use of in the future?

…not only does narrative provide us with a pattern that can aid in future prediction, it first connects and arranges the data we’re consuming in order to give a comprehendible form and meaning to our experiences in the present. It’s another version of the way our eye and brain translate the tree’s raw pattern data into a macro tree. Our brain wants to turn everything into a story—the same way it wants to turn line, color, texture and light into objects that can be identified and managed by our consciousness. . . .

From this perspective, narrative no longer looks like an ancillary human intellectualizing tool, used primarily to help organize and communicate stories and events between humans. Instead, narrative looks like one of our brain’s core consciousness and universe-building tools. It’s something that we were using to assemble our understanding of existence long before we were using it to assemble the plots of our novels.
So far I’m with Reyes: narrative forms reduce the complexity of life into more understandable, meaningful, or emotionally fulfilling patterns.

But why do we keep seeking out new stories, especially those in modes like fantasy or historical fiction which don’t seem to have much value to our biological survival? Reyes suggests that’s because our narrative-seeking brain is also wired to seek out new stories to make sure it experiences everything useful:
The more unique a pattern is, the greater its potential usefulness. Keep in mind that our pattern junkie is a collector, he’s out to gather and hoard every different kind of pattern he can get his hands on. But like any maniacal hobbyist, he’s always looking for the pieces that he doesn’t already have in his collection.
Actually, unique and even impossible stories would seem to have less potential usefulness than mundane ones. This strikes me as a place to argue for an evolutionary adaptation that goes beyond what’s necessary. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Reyes throws out capitalized terms like Literary Darwinism and Story Theory, and goes into more detail on the “Narrative Complexity” part of his own website.

05 January 2012

The Best Movie Adaptation from a Children’s Book

The Salon article on good and bad cinematic adaptations of children’s books (quoted here and here) got me thinking about my own list.

To judge simply by the artistic distance from the written source to the cinematic reworking, my top choice is The Black Stallion. The novel by Walter Farley was serviceable. Written when Farley was in high school and college, it’s a standard boy’s adventure with ordinary prose and better-than-average horsemanship.

In contrast, Carroll Ballard’s movie looks gorgeous, thanks to Ballard and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. The plot is pretty much the same, and very basic it is. But there are real feelings of loss and risk, giving the triumphal story more layers. And the performances by Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney, Teri Garr, and Hoyt Axton are wonderfully natural.

04 January 2012

Judging MGM’s Wizard of Oz as an Adaptation

Last week I quoted a Salon article collecting thoughts by a bunch of writers about their favorite and least favorite adaptations of children’s books. Several had interesting (and varied) things to say about the most famous Oz movies.

Gregory Maguire, author lately of Out of Oz:
I would insist that the 1939 film of “The Wizard of Oz” is better constructed than the 1900 novel on which it is based, and that “Return to Oz” is an overlooked masterpiece much better than the several Baum novels upon which it is based.
(More to come on the contrast between Baum’s and Maguire’s approaches to Oz. I need to get my notes together.)

Jane Yolen, author of so much:
I think the Judy Garland “Wizard of Oz” is better than the book, which, while wildly inventive, has such flat affect and overly simplistic prose that it makes my teeth ache.
(More of Yolen’s thoughts on the book, and my response to that assessment, back here.)

Daniel Nayeri, editor and author:
I don’t think “The Wizard of Oz” can rightly be called a “good” adaptation. It might be a good movie, but it didn’t do the world of Oz any favors (aside from keeping it in print for so long).
While the MGM Wizard of Oz does a lot of things right, it also gets a lot about Oz wrong. The need to add a valuable lesson about life to the story—“She had to learn it for herself”—both brings absolute jibberjabber out of Judy Garland’s mouth and turns her whole trip to Oz into a punishment. I think that’s even more off the mark than making Dorothy a wimp and making Oz a dream.

03 January 2012

Musical of Last Month: The Wizard of Oz

In December the New York Public Library celebrated the Wizard of Oz stage extravaganza that reached Broadway in 1903 as its “Musical of the Month.”

A huge and influential hit when it appeared, the show prompted L. Frank Baum to write sequels to his novel. It provided Dorothy with the surname Gale, the Tin Woodman with his original name Nick Chopper, and Oz with a former king named Pastoria. For fans of the MGM movie, the snowstorm that saves Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion from the poppies was borrowed directly from this show. But hardly anyone remembers the show itself.

As organized by Doug Reside, Digital Curator at the NYPL’s Library for the Performing Arts, the website offers four essays on the show:
These essays are illustrated with some of the images from the NYPL’s huge archive, including the photo of Fred Stone and David Montgomery as the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman above.

02 January 2012

Cybils for 2011

The Cybils Award shortlists for 2011 have been announced, representing blogging volunteers’ judgments of what children’s books offer the best combination of quality and kid appeal.

There’s a new category this year of Book Apps. Nominees include three brand names established for decades (Harold and the Purple Crayon, Pat the Bunny, and The Monster at the End of This Book) and what look like four originals:

It’s notable that two of the three adaptations are of picture books that were interactive before electronics, and the third plays with the reality of its world. It’s also notable that the originals lean toward the didactic. I’ll probably try some of these out now that iHave an iPad.

01 January 2012

Definitely Un-round, part 2

Early last month the Box Heroes Corps of Atlanta introduced their orthogonal versions of Batman and Robin at a holiday parade.

Also last month, I stumbled across the fact that in 2010 the University of Queensland accepted an undergraduate thesis in the Film and Media Studies honours program titled “Robin the Boy Hostage: The Evolution of the Superhero Sidekick”.

Unfortunately, access to this work is limited beyond this abstract:
The superhero's youth sidekick has become a mainstay within superhero narratives since their introduction in the late 1930s [sic]. This research will attempt to illustrate the change within the sidekick archetype, from their origins within mythology through changes within youth culture and the comic book industry. This Dissertation will also view how these changes have been implemented with the relationship of the most popular superhero and sidekick partnership, Batman and Robin, and view how the characters[’] popularity has halted changes seen within other sidekick characters.
The entry says this item is “Anonymous” but placed in the repository by Mrs. Isabel Bentley—perhaps a university administrator. If anyone has access to the Queensland file, it would be interesting to know more.