26 February 2012

Flashback from Star Spangled Comics, #93

It’s always good to find a friend who shares your idea of fun.

24 February 2012

Amnesia as a Sign of OIP Derangement Syndrome

This week’s case study in OIP Derangement Syndrome is Rudy Giuliani. A year ago, he was trying to present himself one last time as a viable presidential candidate. On 29 Mar 2011 the Concord Monitor described his remarks in New Hampshire as:

calling Obama's handling of the uprising in Libya in the last week the worst foreign policy-decision making - or lack thereof - he's ever seen.

When France proposed instituting a no-fly zone, "Our president, the leader of the free world, said, 'A what? That's hard! A no fly zone is r-r-r-really hard!'" Giuliani said to laughter.

"Can we stand two more years of this? We have to. Can we stand six more of this? We don't have to," Giuliani said. "It's up to you, and it's up to me. It's up to the Republican Party. . . . This president has been a failure in just about everything he's done."
It’s hard to tell from Giuliani’s remarks, but at that point the US and UK had been firing missiles into Libya for ten days, and the NATO alliance had agreed to patrol a no-fly zone.

Giuliani apparently felt that attacking and containing a country in a civil war while minimizing risk and civilian casualties is easy. That may show his lack of military experience, but more likely it displays his desire to criticize President Obama regardless of facts or logic.

Or rather, to criticize a stereotype of Obama that bears almost no resemblance to the President’s record. Believing in the stereotype allows people with OIP Derangement Syndrome to explain to themselves why they feel so viscerally that Obama shouldn’t be President. Their stereotype would never have taken aggressive action against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, just as it would never have authorized risky and ultimately successful military actions against Osama bin Laden and Somali pirates, it wouldn’t have built an international coalition for very tough sanctions against Iran, and so on.

Nearly a year later, we know how the NATO operation in Libya turned out. It ended after seven months without major losses to the US or its close allies. Qaddafi was captured and shot, and his regime is out of power. The country still isn’t stable, of course, but no one has offered a convincing argument for how the US government could have changed that without much greater risk and cost.

How do people with OIP Derangement Syndrome deal with the Libya intervention? They pretend it never happened and project the same false mental image of President Obama onto other regions. This week Giuliani went on television with a new complaint:
“We need a president who can say the words ‘bomb them’ and actually can do it if he has to protect us from Iran becoming a nuclear power.”
Very few actual experts suggest that there’s a simple military solution to preventing Iran from developing the capacity for nuclear weapons. That’s been the situation for years. But Giuliani claims to have the answers.

More pertinent for this discussion, Giuliani also claims that the President hasn’t shown that he “actually can” bomb a country. That’s not military or foreign-policy expertise talking; that’s OIP Derangement Syndrome.

23 February 2012

“Comics and Society” in Cambridge, 23 Feb.–22 Apr.

Some friends from the Boston Comics Roundtable are exhibiting their work at the Riverside Gallery in Cambridge starting today. E. J. Barnes spearheaded this effort, even offering a workshop in matting and framing so people’s art would look their best.

Now if there were only a way to make a script look just as good on a wall.

(One additional observation: that poster has a lot of fonts.)

21 February 2012

Pictures Worth About 40,000 Words

Last week David Maxine at Hungry Tiger Talk shared the thrilling cover of the German edition of Bridge to Yesterday, by E. L. Arch (occasional Oz novelist Rachel Cosgrove Payes).

And all I could think what that I really wanted to see that on Good Show Sir—Only the worst Sci-fi/Fantasy book covers. This week, for example, that blog featured Larry Niven’s The Patchwork Girl.

19 February 2012

The Paradoxes of Stephanie Brown’s Story

Stephanie Brown’s biggest fans appear to have two big beefs with DC Comics:
On the one hand, this is like complaining that the food is horrible and the portions too small. If Stephanie’s stretch in the red and green was so demeaning, shouldn’t we be pleased the company is tacitly admitting that treating the character that way was a mistake?

Similarly, DC’s revamp last year wiped out many of the least popular storylines of the past decades: Roy Harper losing his daughter and an arm; Superman’s mullet and blue period; the deaths and betrayals of about two dozen Titans; and so on. Just the things that many fans have said they wish they didn’t have to think about.

On the other hand, the loss of Stephanie’s work as Robin in the current continuity, and her departure from the role of Batgirl, leave her with a much lower profile. It’s not even clear if the character exists in the current continuity. The changes also push the moment when females can be Robin off into the uncertain Dark Knight Returns future; stately Wayne Manor is once again an all-boys club.

Either way, as I wrote back here, this change provides yet more confirmation that nothing ever comes easy for Stephanie.

My take on the change is to read Stephanie Brown’s story from 1992 to 2011 as a successful coming-of-age. In the final issue of her Batgirl she confronted her father, the villain Cluemaster, who originally inspired her to become Spoiler. In that magazine, Batman Inc.: Leviathan Strikes, and other recent stories, she’s shown herself to be a full, trusted member of the Batman team. Her unresolved foundational conflicts are over. Stephanie won.
Of course, it would have been nice to see more good stories along the way.

18 February 2012

Apparently It’s Art

The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research has listed the art edition of Hellbound 2, a horror-comics anthology produced by Riverbird Studios for the Boston Comics Roundtable, as a nominee for its 2011 New England Art Award in the Book category.

A story that Andy Wong and I created, “RobMeBlind.com,” is in that collection, along with many other originals from local artists and writers.

Voting is open until 24 Feb 2012. I’m just saying.

I must admit, however, that I’m even more excited to see the journal’s page on Worst Public Art in New England, and particularly that the godawful Irish Famine Memorial near Old South is at the top of that list.

17 February 2012

Snopes.com Documents OIP Derangement Syndrome

In April 2010, I analyzed the patterns at Snopes.com on internet rumors about recent American Presidents and presidential candidates. That posting got picked up by Salon and some other news outlets. My count showed that:

  • Snopes had found significantly more rumors about Democrats than about Republicans.
  • The rumors about Democrats were significantly more likely to be false.
  • Reports that were deemed a mixture of true and false tended to be complimentary to Republicans, denigrating to Democrats.

I revisited Snopes.com this month to see if anything’s changed—particularly in regard to OIP Derangement Syndrome, which usually manifests itself in criticizing President Barack Obama based on double standards or flat-out lies.

As a baseline, I used the sample of internet rumors Snopes.com collected about George W. Bush, who was President for eight years. The site now lists 46 rumors about him, of which:
  • 20 were deemed true.
  • 9 undetermined, unclassifiable, or mixed.
  • 17 false.
Among the false rumors, three were complimentary.

Barack Obama has been President for a little more than three years. In that time, Snopes.com has collected 107 rumors about him, or well over twice as many as his predecessor. The site classified those rumors this way:
  • 12 true.
  • 23 undetermined or mixed.
  • 72 false.
Thus, there have 50% more false rumors about Obama than rumors of any sort about Bush. There have been more than four times as many false rumors about Obama in three years as false rumors about Bush in eight. Of those 72 false rumors about Obama, only two could be taken as complimentary; one is clearly over-the-top satire, and the other a case of mistaken identity.

If anything, Snopes.com may be grading the Obama rumors gently. For example, a page created on 11 Feb 2012 discusses the statement “Georgia held a hearing to determine Barack Obama's eligibility to appear on that state's ballot as a presidential candidate.” On the main Obama page that’s tagged with a green bullet, meaning “true,” but the page itself has a “mixed” label suggesting that people are circulating a false version as well. Furthermore, that hearing was prompted by the lie that President Obama isn’t eligible for his office. In sum, while this rumor increases the number of “true” marks, it actually reflects how much President Obama’s critics lie about him.

Creating, repeating, and believing such lies is a major symptom of OIP Derangement Syndrome. Snopes.com provides an objective measurement of how virulent that syndrome is. On the plus side, the rate of new Obama rumors being added to the Snopes.com database has gone down; of course, many of the older ones are still circulating.

16 February 2012

3G, IEPs, ADHD, and Fangbone

When young prehistoric warrior Fangbone reaches “our world” in Michael Rex’s Fangbone: Third-Grade Barbarian, he tries to blend in with other children by entering a school. This might seem difficult since he’s shirtless, carrying a sword, and from a preliterate culture.

But Fangbone happens to tag along with Bill from room 3G. Bill’s teacher, Ms. Gillian, is unfazed by this new student. When she learns Fangbone can’t read, she just whispers (the lettering gets small), “You’re in the right class. Welcome to 3G. Everyone here learns at their own speed.” Of course, she hasn’t received an IEP or any of the other paperwork real schools require.

We might chalk this up to plot convenience, but the story actually foregrounds issues of disabilities. Bill takes medicine so, he tells Fangbone, “I don’t go all hyper, like BlAaAaAh!” The other kids in the class are eccentric or beyond. Two-thirds of the way through the book, Bill admits to Fangbone that room 3G “is the LOSER CLASS! . . . We’re just a bunch of messed-up LOSERS!!!”

Fangbone responds by dropping his prejudice against meaningless games and helping his friend’s class win the dodgeball tournament. In fact, he does nearly all the throwing himself. All of 3G gets “I’m a winner!” decals. But it’s worth considering what Fangbone would have done if the first student he’d met had been Duncan, the verbal bully. Would his warrior ethos have fit just fine in another classroom?

The theme continues into the book’s climactic fight. Fangbone tells Bill to relax and focus. Bill answers that he can’t because “I didn’t take my medicine!” Yet the story presents hyperactivity as a strength, not a liability. As a monster charges, Bill shouts, “I like it when things move fast!” He, Fangbone, and 3G take down their foe.

In that respect, Fangbone: Third-Grade Barbarian falls squarely into the recent trend to portray official disabilities as special powers, as Sayantani DasGupta discussed at From the Mixed-Up Files…

(Comments based on autographed advance copy from Renin Publishing Services.)

15 February 2012

Fangbone Through the Portal of Time

Fangbone: Third-Grade Barbarian is a new book-length comic for middle-grade readers by Michael Rex. It’s a story about believing in yourself, accepting differences, being loyal to friends, and cooperating to fight off bad guys. In sum, the same themes as in many other modern stories for children. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The premise is that Fangbone, a boy growing up in the sword-and-sorcery genre, must undertake a magical quest that brings him to North America today. Not unlike Beastmaster 2: Through the Portal of Time, in fact. Fangbone has to deal with modern plumbing, spicy chicken wings, and the overall rise in living standards.

I wonder whether the book’s target readers are familiar with the sword-and-sorcery genre. The heyday of Conan the Barbarian in pop culture seems as far back as the heyday of Conan in magical prehistory. So perhaps kids who really like this comic should also be treated to a family viewing of the sublimity that is the original Beastmaster.

I had bigger questions about Fangbone’s warrior tribe. It doesn’t appear to contain any women. It doesn’t appear to contain any other children. The adult male warriors don’t seem to recognize that Fangbone, whom they call a “runt,” is growing bigger day by day, and that in a few years they might depend on him.

Young Fangbone may be premature in claiming the status of a warrior, I thought, but simply by running with them he seems to be extraordinary in his world as well as in ours. The grown men’s contempt feels driven by a storytelling need to make Fangbone seem a little more put-upon and thus sympathetic.

Graphically, Fangbone is a two-color, “digest-sized” comic. Rex draws in a four-fingered cartoon style with a generally unvarying line. The art is deceptively simple, which might inspire readers to try their own comics stories. One interesting graphic element they can look for is how Rex’s panels break out of the orthogonal grid at moments of conflict and, especially, action.

TOMORROW: Fangbone and Room 3G.

(Comments based on autographed advance copy from Renin Publishing Services.)

14 February 2012

A Shelf with a Row of Little Green Books

At The Fox is Black, several designers have produced Re-Covered Books, or new cover designs for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Here are four that particularly struck me today.

More at the site. Almost all strike me as more adult in sensibility than the book itself.

(Thanks to Jane Albright and the International Wizard of Oz Club’s Facebook page for the pointer.)

12 February 2012

“This is all terribly wrong.”

Late in 1966, movie director Mike Nichols was trying to cast the role of Benjamin Braddock, hero of The Graduate. Nichols told Vanity Fair, “I interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands, of men.” He tested Robert Redford and Charles Grodin, among others. Producer Larry Turman’s list also included Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, George Peppard, George Hamilton, Tony Perkins, Keir Dullea, Brandon De Wilde, and Michael Parks. But those are the names we recognize because they became stars (and in some cases were on the rise already).

Among those many other Hollywood hopefuls was Burt Ward, who in 1965 had won the dual role of Dick Grayson and Robin the Boy Wonder in the Batman television series. That show became a huge hit in early 1966, making him unavailable for The Graduate.

For folks who loved the movie’s countercultural vibe, the idea that a producer or studio wanted to cast Ward showed how out of touch those people over thirty were. For Ward and his fans, his inability to pursue the role showed the irony of missed opportunities, or the tyranny of typecasting. But despite the tales from both sides, I haven’t found evidence that Ward was ever on anyone’s short list.

The Graduate would have been quite different with Ward as the lead, of course. Artistically, the movie benefited from audiences not recognizing the actor who played Benjamin. By the summer of 1966 Ward was a star; that would have thrown off the dynamic, just as casting Redford would have.

The movie also benefited from Dustin Hoffman’s acting. He underplayed most of his lines but was convincingly passionate at the end. To be charitable, the Batman show didn’t ask Ward to display that range.

Still, it’s interesting to consider how the movie could have been…different.

Mr. Braddock: The guests are all downstairs, Ben. They're all waiting to see you.
Benjamin: Look, Dad, Could you explain to them that I have to be alone for a while?
Mr. Braddock: These are all our good friends, Ben. Most of them have known you since, well, practically since you were born.
Benjamin: I’m just…
Mr. Braddock: Worried?
Benjamin: Well…
Mr. Braddock: About what?
Benjamin: I guess about my future.
Mr. Braddock: What about it?
Benjamin: I don’t know…I want it to be…
Mr. Braddock: To be what?
Benjamin: …different.

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: For God’s sake, Mrs. Robinson, here we are, you’ve got me into your house. You give me a drink. You put on music, now you start opening up your personal life to me and tell me your husband won’t be home for hours.
Mrs. Robinson: So?
Benjamin: Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me... Aren’t you?

Room Clerk: Are you here for an affair, sir?
Benjamin: What?
Room Clerk: The Singleman party, sir?
Benjamin: Ah, yes, the Singleman party.

Benjamin: Mrs. Robinson, I can’t do this.
Mrs. Robinson: You what?
Benjamin: This is all terribly wrong.
Mrs. Robinson: Do you find me undesirable?
Benjamin: Oh no, Mrs. Robinson. I think, I think you’re the most attractive of all my parents’ friends. I mean that.

Elaine: Why don't you drag me off if you want to marry me so much?
Benjamin: Why don’t I just drag you off? All right, I will. Right after we get the blood tests.
Elaine: I have to see Carl first.
Benjamin: Carl who?…Carl who?
Elaine: Carl Smith. He’s a medical student. We’ve known him for years.
Benjamin: Who, that guy at the zoo?
Elaine: Yes.
Benjamin: Why do you have to see him?
Elaine: Well, I said I might marry him.

Benjamin: ELAINE!

11 February 2012

The Darwins’ Aubergine and Carrot Cavalry

As a child, I was always drawing on the backs of surplus mimeographs from the college classes my father taught. Slightly younger kids, I suppose, used surplus photocopies. (And today?)

For Francis (1848–1925) and Horace (1851-1928), sons of biologist Charles Darwin, the equivalent material was pages from their father’s manuscript for On the Origin of Species (composed 1858). After all, the book had gone to the printer, and there was no use in wasting that paper.

The picture to the left shows Francis’s watercolor titled (perhaps by cataloguers at Cambridge University since I don’t see a label on it) “Aubergine and Carrot Cavalry.” The rider on the eggplant wears a turban and baggy pants, and bottles hang from his saddle. The carrot-rider in red is clearly on a mission to expand the British Empire. Both men carry pointy swords.

Another page displays bright birds, butterflies, fruits, and a castle on the reverse of a discussion of ants. And there’s a proto-Cubist house seen from both inside and outside, with a cat, gun, and clock.

Though on first glance we might think the boys defaced an important manuscript in the history of world thought, their artwork probably caused those pages to survive. Most of the rest are long gone.

(Thanks to the New York Times ArtsBeat blog for the tip.)

10 February 2012

The Declaration and OIP Derangement Syndrome

On 15 Sept 2010, President Barack Obama addressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. Here’s the end of his speech, according to the White House transcript.
Long before America was even an idea, this land of plenty was home to many peoples. To British and French, to Dutch and Spanish, to Mexican—(applause)—to countless Indian tribes. We all shared the same land. We didn’t always get along. But over the centuries, what eventually bound us together—what made us all Americans—was not a matter of blood, it wasn’t a matter of birth. It was faith and fidelity to the shared values that we all hold so dear. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights: life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

That’s what makes us unique. That’s what makes us strong. The ability to recognize our common humanity; to remember that in this country, equality and opportunity are not just words on a piece of paper, they’re not just words in the mouths of politicians—they are promises to be kept.

And that is our calling now—to keep those promises for the next generation. No matter which way the political winds shift, I will stand with you for that better future. (Applause.) And if you stand with me, and if we remember that fundamental truth—that divided we fall, but united we are strong, and out of many, we are one—then you and I will finish what we have started. We will make sure that America forever remains an idea and a place that’s big enough and bold enough and brave enough to accommodate the dreams of all our children and all our people for years to come. Si, se puede.

Thank you. God bless you, and God bless the United States of America. Thank you.
How did people with OIP Derangement Syndrome respond? They howled that the President had mangled the Declaration of Independence by quoting several phrases from its 110-word second sentence without including the three words “by their Creator.”

The American Family Association (shortly afterward listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-gay bigotry) emailed: “Watch the video to see this blatant disrespect for God and Christians in America.” The Weekly Standard’s blog questioned Obama’s beliefs. Herman Cain, man of fidelity, said the President had made an intentional omission. The CBN reporter Cain spoke to had earlier pointed out that the phrases from the Declaration were not in the President’s prepared text and therefore unplanned, but he doesn’t appear to have pressed Cain on that point.

Very quickly David Emery discovered that Obama’s remarks similar to those from other Presidents. On the sesquicentennial of the Declaration in 1926, Calvin Coolidge said:
Three very definite propositions were set out in its preamble regarding the nature of mankind and therefore of government. These were the doctrine that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights, and that therefore the source of the just powers of government must be derived from the consent of the governed.
In 1960, Dwight D. Eisenhower said:
Two hundred years, lacking sixteen, have passed since our forefathers proclaimed to the world the truths they held self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that governments are instituted among men to secure those rights, deriving their just powers only from the consent of the governed.
In 1986, Ronald Reagan proclaimed about Martin Luther King, Jr.:
He made it possible for our nation to move closer to the ideals set forth in our Declaration of Independence: that all people are created equal and are endowed with inalienable rights that government has the duty to respect and protect.
For that matter, way back in 1863 Abraham Lincoln publicly said:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
None of those four Presidents had used the phrase “by their Creator,” either. But people with OIP Derangement Syndrome have a double standard, holding Barack Obama to rules they don’t apply to other Presidents. They want to say that he’s done something wrong in order to justify their visceral reaction to seeing him as President.

To those people it doesn’t matter that Obama praised Americans’ “faith” just one sentence earlier in this speech. It doesn’t matter that he ended it with an explicit “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.”

To those people it doesn’t matter that President Obama had included the word “Creator” in quoting the Declaration in recent speeches at West Point and on Independence Day, as Media Matters pointed out. Or that he routinely uses religious language and participates in religious ceremonies, such as the recent National Prayer Breakfast.

No, for people suffering from OIP Derangement Syndrome, all that matters is finding some way to declare that Barack Obama has done something terribly, terribly wrong. So they don’t have to face the real reasons for their terrible, terrible feeling.

09 February 2012

Amelia's Path to Publishing Success

Publishers Weekly featured Brigid Alverson’s profile of Jimmy Gownley, writer, artist, and for a time publisher of the Amelia Rules comics series.

Gownley started out self-publishing in magazine form, improvised a paperback collection (his printing partner “shaved the staples of the single issues and bound them together”), worked with packager Byron Preiss, and went back to self-publishing after Preiss’s sudden death. Some efforts were surprisingly successful, some failures. And that was just the first five years.

Then came the biggest challenge yet—the fruits of unusual success. Alverson reports:
Getting Amelia into the Scholastic book fairs, which was nearly unheard of for a self-published book, was another important step; the best-of anthology that Gownley produced for Scholastic sold 83,000 copies. But with bigger sales came bigger headaches. Big book orders can completely paralyze small publishers who may not have the man power to deliver the order on time. "Six months or so after the Scholastic deal, when we could sell that book ourselves, we got an order for 4,000 copies," Gownley said. "My father helped [get the order fulfilled], and he was really sweating, and I said, 'Can you imagine how strong J. K. Rowling must be?'"
Finally in 2008 Gownley signed an eight-book deal with Simon & Schuster. That arrangement meant Gownley could focus on content rather than production and distribution. Another benefit, as I noted back here, was more support with proofreading, which I can’t help but think meant that the books got into more school libraries.

With the end of his S&S contract, the article reveals, Gownley is moving on to new projects. It’s too bad that there won’t be more Amelia, but she has been growing up, little by little.

07 February 2012

A Lesson from Sir Hokus

My thoughts on the value of a ongoing characters having an unresolvable foundational conflict have their roots, I realize, in thinking about a character far less known than Superman.

It was Sir Hokus of Pokes, the first recurring character that Ruth Plumly Thompson added to Oz. He’s an old knight that Dorothy and the Cowardly Lion find in The Royal Book of Oz (1921). He moves to the Emerald City and plays a supporting role in several more adventures, rather as L. Frank Baum used the Shaggy Man. He’s not rounded, and I doubt he’s many people’s favorite, but he becomes a comfortable part of the fabric of Thompson’s Oz.

As such, Sir Hokus reflects Thompson’s sensibility, based on older European fairy tales. In contrast, Baum’s usually tried to find magic in contemporary American culture for Oz.
I think Sir Hokus’s unresolvable foundational conflict is that he’s a man out of time. He speaks in a medieval lingo, constantly expressing a wish to rescue fair maidens and slay dragons. His anachronism is underscored by his age. Like Lewis Carroll’s White Knight, he’s an old man, still active but gray. In both respects, he’s removed from his prime period, no longer able to undertake all the quests he yearns for.

In The Yellow Knight of Oz (1930), Thompson made Sir Hokus one of her protagonists. He goes off on a solo quest at last. Along the way, complications ensue. By the end of that book, Sir Hokus is no longer a man out of time; he’s ensconced in a medieval-style culture. Furthermore, he’s young again.

As a result, the character is no longer the least bit interesting. Sir Hokus’s foundational conflict has been resolved. Even though Dorothy looks in the younger man’s eyes and says he’s the same friend she knew, it’s no surprise that he makes only token appearances in the rest of Thompson’s series.

John R. Neill liked drawing Sir Hokus so much, evidently, that he brought the old knight back in his three Oz books, once more chasing dragons without being able to slay them. Neill offered no explanation of how, but neither consistency nor logic was part of his storytelling.

06 February 2012

Superman’s On-Again, Off-Again Relationship

Thinking about serial characters led me to consider Superman’s relationship to Lois Lane, and his relationship to his unresolvable foundational conflict.

For more than fifty years, starting with Action Comics, #1, Lois was in a love triangle with Superman’s two identities: mild-mannered, often doofy reporter Clark Kent and world-saver Superman. Clark loved her, she loved Superman, Superman didn’t want to reveal his other identity, and the whole situation seemed unresolvable.

Not only did that tension fuel many stories in Action Comics and Superman, but it was the drive behind Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane (reported monthly sales in 1960: 458,000).

Occasionally DC editors would let their writers explore resolutions, but only in “imaginary” stories. After the company developed the concept of Earth 2, it showed an aging Superman marrying an aging Lois—but in that secondary universe only.

Alan Moore’s saga-ending “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” resolved the triangle by showing Lois married to a friendly fellow named neither Clark nor Superman—but, curiously, he had the same chin as both.

That love triangle was also part of the Superman radio show of the 1940s, the television show of the 1950s, and the first Christopher Reeve movies. And it was right at the core of the early 1990s television show Lois and Clark.

To give viewers something new after a couple of seasons, the producers of that TV decided to have their title characters marry. DC Comics scrambled to follow. The magazines showed Lois realizing that Clark and Superman are one and the same and eventually marrying the big lug (with a one-year delay while he was dead).

I wasn’t keeping up with superhero comics at the time. I heard that Superman had died, and knew he would come back to life. But when I resumed reading the comics a few years ago, I was shocked to find that the Clark-Lois-Superman triangle was no more. What had seemed like an unresolvable foundational conflict had been resolved—yet the story was still going on.

But not on TV. The ratings for Lois and Clark plummeted in its fourth season, coincident with the change in the title characters’ relationship. Even heavily hyped wedding episodes didn’t help. I suspect that version of the mythos was so tied to the three-way relationship as an unresolvable foundational conflict that it lost its raison d’être and appeal once that tension changed.

In contrast, breaking the love triangle didn’t seem to damage the comics much at all. (Well, their sales fell over time, but so did sales of all superhero comics.)

By the 1990s, Lois Lane’s role in the older comics had become embarrassingly anachronistic, anyway. The love triangle’s classic form rested on misogynistic assumptions: girls were icky, women’s desires were shallow, a married woman would give up her career, and so on. With the new relationship, DC could finally acknowledge that Lois Lane, ace reporter, had been right about Clark Kent’s secret all along.

And it turned out that Superman stories could be fueled by a different unresolvable foundational conflict: the title character’s struggle to protect his adoptive planet from every threat while also living on it as a regular human.

In its new universe, DC has returned to the status quo sevente: Clark Kent is once again single and pining for Lois Lane, who once again won’t give him the time of day but is curious about this new super-man. I don’t know if that relationship is at the center of the saga again, though.

05 February 2012

Dick Grayson’s Unresolvable Foundational Conflict

This weekly Robin is a follow-up to last week’sToB’s comment on it, and the thoughts that inspired about how open-ended series need main characters with unresolvable foundational conflicts.

Adventure comics, in both newspaper and magazine form, have for the most part been open-ended, and thus demanded such characters. As Robot 6’s Tom Bondurant wrote in a Grumpy Old Fan column on the Watchmen prequels:
Superman and Swamp Thing were created to be ongoing characters with no definite endpoint, but Watchmen, [James] Robinson’s Starman, [Garth] Ennis’ Hitman, and [Neil] Gaiman’s Sandman were all finite series.
(At least they became so—I don’t recall Gaiman describing such a plan at the outset of Sandman when he was still a starry-eyed British freelancer happy for his big break.)

That’s why DC has commissioned prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel. Those new stories won’t affect the characters’ ultimate fates as Watchmen portrayed them. They’ll play out the characters’ foundational conflicts, but everyone who’s read the novel will know how those conflicts resolve. (And how different is that from the usual superhero comics?)

From the 1940s to the 1960s, the unresolvable foundational conflict of Batman and Robin was the tension between their comfortable “real” lives and the challenges of fighting crime while dressed in garish costumes and masks.

Every story about secret identities played off that conflict. Every time Bruce Wayne’s life as a playboy millionaire or Dick Grayson’s as a high-school kid interfered with the Dynamic Duo, that plot grew out of the same foundation.

In most 1940s issues of Batman, one of the four stories focused on the Dynamic Duo’s relationship under pressure from their double lives. “Bruce Wayne Loses the Guardianship of Dick Grayson” (issue #20) was one example. Others include:
  • “Batman Plays a Lone Hand” (#13): Bruce kicks Dick out of Wayne Manor with no explanation in order to protect him from criminals.
  • “Robin Studies His Lessons” (#18): Dick can’t fight crime until he gets his grades back up.
  • “Collector of Millionaires” (#19): Bruce is kidnapped and a double takes his place.
Most of those stories would be impossible if Bruce and Dick gave up their secret identities, their crime-fighting, or their millions. (Or if they just talked to each other more.)

Batman and Robin let some partners in on their secret identities, starting with Alfred and Superman. That didn’t change the foundational conflict, however, because most of the world still didn’t know.

The imaginary tale “The Marriage of Batman and Batwoman” (#122) shows Bruce marrying Kathy Kane. Later imaginary tales of that couple show that the stories could keep coming as long as there was some circle of secrecy. But in that tale, Kathy accidentally reveals Batman’s identity, and the saga screeches to an imaginary end.

Of course, most Batman stories from those decades were driven by that month’s villains, or aliens, or plan to travel back in time through hypnosis. They could have worked with other heroes. It wasn’t until the 1980s that writers began to focus on longer story arcs and more complex motivations for ongoing readers. And then the “we have to preserve our secret identities” conflict just wasn’t enough.

Since 1980 or so, the unresolvable foundational conflict for Bruce Wayne has been his drive to fight crime, avenging his parents and defending innocents, even though that impossible mission threatens his health, his sanity, and his relationships.

For Dick Grayson, the unresolvable foundational conflict has been his relationship with Bruce Wayne. As critic Douglas Wolk put it in Reading Comics, Robin’s “symbolic value is as a son trying to learn from his father’s experience and wisdom without making his father’s mistakes.”

As Nightwing, Dick took a step away from Batman and had his own adventures, but his larger story kept coming back to his relationship to Bruce Wayne. Could he measure up to his mentor? Is taking his own path disrespectful, or a cop-out? Is being the most liked, respected hero on the planet enough when your father figure is so emotionally distant?

When Grant Morrison led DC into making Dick Grayson into Batman for a couple of years, that resolved the hitherto unresolvable conflict. Yes, Dick could be Batman. In some ways, he was a better Batman. He mentored his own Robin, more damaged and dangerous than his predecessors. He defeated Batman villains, Titans villains, and some new villains. He helped to get Bruce Wayne back from time.

But the problem with resolving a character’s unresolvable foundational conflict is that there’s no place further to go. The central question has found its answer. The story has reached its end. DC could put that Dick Grayson back into the Nightwing costume, but why? Better to let that version of the Dick Grayson saga end successfully, and then go back a few steps and a few years to start another one with the same symbolic value but no resolution in sight.

04 February 2012

“Superman was a super New Dealer”

Faster than a speeding bullet, The Horn Book has posted a webpage of my short Q&A with Rick Bowers, author of Superman Versus the KKK, a history of what led up to the 1946 radio broadcasts depicting the Man of Steel’s conflict with a racist hate group.

In a review to run in the next issue of the print magazine, I call that book a “crackerjack work of nonfiction” that harnesses superhero appeal to tell a story about civil rights, and also to show how historians investigate the past.

Bowers wrote a previous book for young readers on an aspect of the civil rights struggle, but he was new to, and impressed by, comic-book history. Early in our online conversation he observes:
Superman was first dubbed the “champion of the oppressed” and only later became famous as the champion of truth, justice, and the American way. The original Superman had a strong social conscience that led him to thwart wife beaters, corrupt politicians, greedy industrialists, foreign dictators, and Nazi spies.

Spawned during the FDR years, Superman was a super New Dealer who stood up for the little guy and believed we could all work toward a better world. He reflected the ideals of the New Deal and the hopes and aspirations of immigrants.

Given all that history it figures that the Man of Steel would one day take on the men of hate.
Superman would, but would a profit-seeking corporation take the risk of politicizing one of its biggest trademarks? In 1946, the answer was yes. But that seems to have been an unusual time, between V-J Day and the Red Scare. It was also the period of Gentleman’s Agreement, Intruder in the Dust, and the Dodgers’ contract for Jackie Robinson. Someday I’ll come back to those Superman broadcasts in a weekly Robin installment.

(See also “When Superman Was a Leftist.”)

03 February 2012

Romney’s OIP Derangement Syndrome by Proxy

Captain America's ShieldLast month in his State of the Union address (PDF download), President Barack Obama said (among other things):

Tonight, I want to speak about how we move forward, and lay out a blueprint for an economy that’s built to last – an economy built on American manufacturing, American energy, skills for American workers, and a renewal of American values.

This blueprint begins with American manufacturing.

On the day I took office, our auto industry was on the verge of collapse. Some even said we should let it die. With a million jobs at stake, I refused to let that happen. In exchange for help, we demanded responsibility. We got workers and automakers to settle their differences. We got the industry to retool and restructure. Today, General Motors is back on top as the world’s number one automaker. Chrysler has grown faster in the U.S. than any major car company. Ford is investing billions in U.S. plants and factories. And together, the entire industry added nearly 160,000 jobs.

We bet on American workers. We bet on American ingenuity. And tonight, the American auto industry is back.

What’s happening in Detroit can happen in other industries. It can happen in Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Raleigh. We can’t bring back every job that’s left our shores. But right now, it’s getting more expensive to do business in places like China. Meanwhile, America is more productive. A few weeks ago, the CEO of Master Lock told me that it now makes business sense for him to bring jobs back home. Today, for the first time in fifteen years, Master Lock’s unionized plant in Milwaukee is running at full capacity.

So we have a huge opportunity, at this moment, to bring manufacturing back. But we have to seize it. Tonight, my message to business leaders is simple: Ask yourselves what you can do to bring jobs back to your country, and your country will do everything we can to help you succeed.
A few days later Mitt Romney, after buying a solid primary victory in Florida, translated that for people who suffer from OIP Derangement Syndrome:
Like his colleagues in the faculty lounge who think they know better, President Obama demonizes and denigrates almost every sector of our economy.
Which prompted Daily Beast columnist Andrew Sullivan’s immediate response to Romney:
8.44 pm. Everything this man says is a lie. He's doubling down on the big lies I tried to counter in that Newsweek piece. The president Romney is describing does not exist. Obama is demonizing and denigrating every sector of the economy? That is a pure lie. As is the repeated lie that Obama is an appeaser. Has Romney understood what has happened to the Iranian economy these past few months? Does he think Osama bin Laden thinks he was appeased?

Let me just say right now: this speech is the most dishonest, manipulative, disgusting series of lies I've heard in a very long time. And its core premise: that the president hates this country, whereas Romney believes in it. As I said: disgusting. I'm with Newt on this. The man will say anything to gain power.
And that’s both the saddest and the most disturbing part. I don’t think Mitt Romney suffers from OIP Derangement Syndrome. He doesn’t actually believe what he says about the President. He knows that as governor of Massachusetts he championed many things he now says are horrible. He understands that his campaign ads and speeches quote Obama out of context even as he demands that people consider his own words in context (which doesn’t actually help him).

But Romney is convinced that he has to sell this line to the Republican electorate in order to become their nominee. In doing so, he both reassures those voters that he’ll play dirty in the fall and confirms a portion of them in their delusions. Romney doesn’t suffer from OIP Derangement Syndrome, but he’s a carrier.

(Photo illustration above by Dean Trippe.)

02 February 2012

The Second Oz Series

When L. Frank Baum returned to the Oz series, he had left Dorothy and Ozma in a good place. Too good a place, in fact. Supposedly he wasn’t even able to contact them any more. Solving that problem (through the new technology of wireless) was less challenging, however, than coming up with a new fuel for stories about Oz now that Dorothy could live with her family in the Emerald City and Ozma could feel safe about Oz.

Furthermore, since Baum evidently now planned to keep writing Oz books as long as he could, he was no longer thinking ahead to a series end. He needed to keep his characters interesting, or come up with new ones.

With a story called “Little Dorothy and Toto” in The Little Wizard Stories of Oz (written for younger readers than the novels), Baum found a new unresolvable foundational conflict for Dorothy. Though she has a perfectly comfortable, safe home in the royal palace, she insists on wandering into the countryside and heading off on dangerous missions. In that story, the Wizard tries to cure Dorothy of this bad habit. It doesn’t work.

Thus, in The Magic of Oz, Dorothy’s idea of birthday shopping means going into a forest of wild beasts and asking to borrow a dozen monkeys. In Glinda of Oz she’s eager to go to the edge of Prof. Wogglebug’s map to get involved in a war. In The Patchwork Girl of Oz she invites herself on Ojo’s quest, and in Rinkitink in Oz she heads to the Nome Kingdom.

As for Ozma, she continues to be so kind-hearted that she has trouble governing. In Glinda of Oz, the title character advises her to stay out of the turmoil in one corner of Oz, and she insists on heading there anyway and telling her subjects they should be nice. In The Lost Princess of Oz she gets kidnapped, and Dorothy (of course) heads out to rescue her.

But for most of in his second series of Oz books, Baum had antagonists drive the plot, or found other young protagonists: Ojo, Betsy, Trot, Button-Bright, Inga, and Woot. Most of those new kids didn’t hold up for more than one adventure because they didn’t have unresolvable foundational conflicts. Once Inga rescues his parents, or Betsy finds a home, there’s nothing left for their characters to do.

The two young characters who play important, distinct roles in more than one of Baum’s novels came with foundational conflicts that continued to drive them into adventures. Trot is little, but curious and just as brave as Dorothy. Button-Bright gets lost whether he means to or not. If either of those sources of conflict ever disappeared, so would their stories. Like Dorothy and Ozma, Trot and Button-Bright are built for an open-ended series.

01 February 2012

Characters in Need of Unresolvable Foundational Conflicts

In a traditional story with a closed ending, we want the main characters to resolve some conflict. Bud (not Buddy) finds a family. Jim in Treasure Island finds the treasure. Harriet the Spy learns a valuable lesson about friendship. Huck Finn manages to get freedom for Jim. That resolution doesn’t have to come at the end of one book: Harry Potter doesn’t defeat Voldemort until book 7/movie 8.

However, when authors ask us to follow characters through a series of stories with no planned ending, those characters need some foundational conflicts that they don’t resolve. If they ever put those conflicts to rest, then their story has effectively reached an ending. And perhaps run out of fuel for more.

That foundational conflict could be a frustration that will never end: Bruce Wayne will never get his parents back, for instance, and he will never preserve Gotham City from all crime. It may be an internal contradiction: Princess Ozma’s wish to be kind to all will always make it hard for her to deal with really nasty people.

To be sure, there are some characters in series whose personalities and situations don’t include some unresolvable. The Hardy Boys, for example, don’t have inner lives or difficult circumstances. But kids don’t read those books (at least the older versions) for character growth; they’re all about external events, and they depend on a never-ending supply of crime. If criminals ever stay out of Idaville or Bugs Meany gets sent away to reform school, there would no longer be an engine to produce Encyclopedia Brown stories.

Applying this thought to the Oz books, at the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, all the main characters have had their problems solved: Dorothy is back in Kansas, and her three companions have gained what they thought they were missing.

But the 1903 Broadway hit produced a market for a new book, and L. Frank Baum came up with The Marvelous Land of Oz. That story also seemed to end with resolutions all around: Oz has a rightful ruler, Tip has found a new life, and the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman can go off into the sunset together.

Returning to Oz for more books, however, Baum chose to tell more stories about Dorothy. For the next three adventures, she’s once again faced with the conflict of the first: she’s away from home and wants to go back. Each book ends with her back with her family, so what’s the foundational conflict? It’s how she’d be welcome (and powerful) in the beautiful Emerald City, but needs to return to her family.

At the start of The Emerald City of Oz, Baum resolves that foundational conflict for Dorothy. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em loses their farm to the mortgage-holder, and Dorothy insists that they all move to Oz. So Dorothy no longer has an unresolved foundational conflict.

The rest of the book has a mildly adventurous travelogue interspersed with the Nome King’s preparations for a terrible invasion. That takes us to Ozma’s foundational conflict: how she can preserve her values even when faced with such a threat. The Scarecrow helps her, and then (as quoted back here) Glinda apparently removes all such threats in the future. So Ozma no longer has an unresolved foundational conflict.

That wasn’t a problem because Baum planned to end the series with that book. He had brought his main characters to resolutions of their problems. There was no evident engine for future stories.

TOMORROW: But what about the next eight books?