31 May 2012

Desert Island Discussions

At Vanity Fair, culture blogger Bruce Handy and New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff discussed the enduring popularity of the desert island cartoon well after people stopped being stranded on desert islands. I recall sketching one myself back in college, which just shows how common a trope they are.

Mankoff implies that such cartoons wouldn’t have seemed so funny back when sailors were really being stranded on unmapped shores. During the Age of Sail desert islands produced adventures like Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Coral Island, Haakon Haakonsen, and more.

Lord of the Flies (itself a rewrite of Two Years’ Vacation) and John Dollar (a response to Lord of the Flies, and set nearly a century in the past) might be the last of that literary line. What remains are lifeboat sagas (Life of Pi) and science fiction that replicates the same situation off-Earth.

In the 1930s, when the cartoon genre seems to have become entrenched, the situation was still close enough for people to picture Amelia Earhart surviving for years on a Pacific island. Since then, Mankoff said, the database of New Yorker cartoons (360+ examples) has shown a pronounced change in the realism of desert-island cartoons:

The original ones were more about isolation from the strictures of society, especially the moral strictures of the time. If a man and a woman were on the island in the 30s or 40s, the cartoon probably has a sexual content. The woman might be asking the man, “How can I be sure you’re a millionaire?”

Then, later, the cartoons represent different things, mostly just isolation. And eventually they just represent the cartoon trope, if you will. For instance, I did a cartoon in the 80s that has a man on a desert island thinking, “No man is an island, but I come pretty damn close.” And he’s tiny, and the island is tiny. And that’s one of the interesting things that happened over the years, that it’s not a real island anymore. Originally it was a real island. Now it’s more the idea of an island, an icon. . . . And also now the jokes tend to be almost completely self-referential.
Curiously, castaway movies are still going strong.

30 May 2012

Reconciling with the Wizard of Oz

Yesterday I described a review of a latter-day Oz book by Hugh Pendexter III. Among Oz fans he’s best known for his short book Oz and the Three Witches, published in 1977. It was inspired by two contradictory passages that L. Frank Baum left us about the Wizard of Oz, the evil witch Mombi, and the baby princess Ozma.

First, near the end of The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), Baum narrated Glinda the Good’s interrogation of Mombi this way:
“I will ask my first question: Why did the Wizard pay you three visits?”

“Because I would not come to him,” answered Mombi.

“That is no answer,” said Glinda, sternly. “Tell me the truth.” . . .

Mombi now saw how useless it was to try to deceive the Sorceress; so she said, meanwhile scowling at her defeat:

“The Wizard brought to me the girl Ozma, who was then no more than a baby, and begged me to conceal the child.”

“That is what I thought,” declared Glinda, calmly. ”What did he give you for thus serving him?”

“He taught me all the magical tricks he knew. Some were good tricks, and some were only frauds; but I have remained faithful to my promise [to hide] the Princess Ozma—the child brought to me by the Wizard who stole her father’s throne.“
Baum wrote that book because of the popularity of the 1902 stage extravaganza adapted from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. That show used the Wizard as an antagonist, a charlatan and mountebank who had stolen the rightful king’s throne, and the book reflected that characterization.

But in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908), Baum brought the Wizard back as a capable and reliable protector for Dorothy. What happened when they reached the Emerald City and the Wizard met up with its new ruler, Princess Ozma? She asks him about his first arrival in Oz.
“At that time,” continued the Wizard, busily eating his soup while talking, “there were four separate countries in this Land, each one of the four being ruled by a Witch. But the people thought my power was greater than that of the Witches; and perhaps the Witches thought so too, for they never dared oppose me. I ordered the Emerald City to be built just where the four countries cornered together, and when it was completed I announced myself the Ruler of the Land of Oz. . . .”

“That is quite a history,” said Ozma; “but there is a little more history about the Land of Oz that you do not seem to understand—”
Aha—the J’accuse moment when Ozma confronts the Wizard with his misdeeds: “Do you remember the child you handed over to an evil crone? I, sir, was that little baby you sold into slavery!”

But no. She continues:
“Many years before you came here this Land was united under one Ruler, as it is now, and the Ruler’s name was always ‘Oz,’ which means in our language ‘Great and Good’; or, if the Ruler happened to be a woman, her name was always ‘Ozma.’ But once upon a time four Witches leagued together to depose the king and rule the four parts of the kingdom themselves; so when the Ruler, my grandfather, was hunting one day, one Wicked Witch named Mombi stole him and carried him away, keeping him a close prisoner. Then the Witches divided up the kingdom, and ruled the four parts of it until you came here. That was why the people were so glad to see you, and why they thought from your initials that you were their rightful ruler.”

“But, at that time,” said the Wizard, thoughtfully, “there were two Good Witches and two Wicked Witches ruling in the land.”

“Yes,” replied Ozma, “because a good Witch had conquered Mombi in the North and Glinda the Good had conquered the evil Witch in the South. But Mombi was still my grandfather’s jailor, and afterward my father’s jailor. When I was born she transformed me into a boy, hoping that no one would ever recognize me and know that I was the rightful Princess of the Land of Oz. But I escaped from her and am now the Ruler of my people.”

“I am very glad of that,” said the Wizard, “and hope you will consider me one of your most faithful and devoted subjects.”
And nothing more is said of kidnapping and baby-selling and other disagreeable subjects.

Ruth Plumly Thompson explored the history of Ozma’s father and Mombi in The Lost King of Oz (1925), but many gaps and inconsistencies remained. (Indeed, we haven’t even touched Baum’s later statement that Ozma was really a fairy left by a fairy queen in the far distant past.)

Pendexter’s Oz and the Three Witches picks up after the second conversation above as Glinda comes to the Emerald City to quiz the Wizard about the whole Ozma matter. The result is a lively little tale of the Wizard trying to fend off the Wicked Witches of East and West through his humbug illusions while navigating the tricky politics of pre-Dorothean Oz. He doesn’t realize who Mombi is, and he’s very, very sorry. All in all, it’s about as good a reconciliation of Baum’s contradictory statements as possible.

First published in 1977, Oz and the Three Witches was reprinted in its entirety with Patricia Ambrose’s quite competent illustrations in Oz-Story, #6.

29 May 2012

A Crochety Review of Oz

Last week my mother alerted me to an intersection of the far reaches of two orthogonal hobbies: crochet and Oz fanfiction.

Chain Link is the newsletter of the Crochet Guild of America. It’s eight pages, two-color printing, bound inside subscriber copies of the guild’s Crochet! magazine. I assume that it’s not included in copies of the magazine sold in stores.

The summer 2012 issue of Chain Link includes Karen C. K. Ballard’s review of The Crocheted Cat in Oz, by Hugh Pendexter III. Published in 1991, this is one of the many latter-day Oz stories written by fans for other fans.

In her review Ballard quickly and accurately catches readers up on much that came out of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, including the authorized series, significant differences between book and movie, and even the end of Gregory Maguire’s series. Nonetheless, it’s a “plumber’s review,” paying close attention to matters of needlework, from the Patchwork Girl to lace on costumes in the Wicked traveling show.

Pendexter’s book attracted Ballard only because it was about a crocheted character. She’s probably correct in suspecting that the title character was a favorite toy of the author’s granddaughter. That’s the problem with the intersection of fandoms: the number of people entralled by both is small.

TOMORROW: The mystery L. Frank Baum left us.

28 May 2012

Jules Feiffer Tries Yet Another New Thing

Christopher Borrelli’s interview with Jules Feiffer in the Chicago Tribune brings out several interesting remarks about his multifaceted career:
Q: You've done so many different things — where do your biggest royalty checks come from?

A: (Laughs.) A diversity of places. Mostly children's books, I suppose. A lot of it comes from "The Phantom Tollbooth," the book I did with Norton Juster. That book has become a great annuity for me, a sizable one. It just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and it's amazing how well it still sells. It's also amazed me how much the book and my art has been remembered. At the time, in the early '60s, it was work that I didn't really appreciate that much. I had difficulty doing it and didn't feel like I was a natural at that kind of thing.

Q: Was it hard because so much of "Phantom Tollbooth" feels abstract?

A: No. Maurice [Sendak], in the new edition, wrote that I was one of the few cartoonists who can illustrate ideas. I've always felt that illustrating the abstract — drawing ideas — is one of the primary jobs of the cartoonist. . . .

Q: How did the death of Maurice Sendak affect you?

A: When you said his name my heart sank. I loved him. We rarely saw each other because he was in Connecticut. But we had deep affection for each other. When he had his first heart attack, he was in London and I happened to be in London, so I spent time with him. But we were very different in temperament. He was much more of a Russian Jew than I was, much more given to doubts of depression and grimness, and I never entirely lost some of the giddy boy-cartoonist traits I've always had. We would sit for hours and talk.

Q: And like Maurice, you seem too acidic to write children's books.

A: True. (Children's books) were a means to an end, a way to make me a living. Children's books were not a passion. That's how I felt in the '50s — once I met Maurice, I didn't think I would dare compete with him. But years later, after one of my plays, "Grown Ups," got beat up badly, I thought I needed another obsession. My idea was about this kid cartoonist, and that became "The Man in the Ceiling." I wrote it, then I called Maurice, and he gave me the name of his editor, Michael di Capua, and I've been with Michael ever since.
Feiffer’s current project is Kill My Mother, a graphic novel drawn in a film noir style he expects his fans not to recognize.
Yes, thought I could write a graphic novel, someone else could illustrate it. But as it developed, it ended up being long, starting in 1933, then switching to 1943, going from the Depression to World War II. And I couldn't find anyone to draw it right. For this kind of Chandler-Hammett noir thing, you need shadows, rain. So I had to learn how to do it. Fortunately, I have Turner Classic Movies. I record all this film noir, "The Maltese Falcon," "The Big Sleep," and hit pause on my remote. That's been my research medium. It will not be drawn (in a) traditional Feiffer style. I stole from [Will] Eisner. I hope it will be finished by the end of next year.
Last month Feiffer told Publishers Weekly about this project:
Feiffer went on to explain that, “when I started out in the comic book business, I didn’t plan on producing social and political commentary,” and said he really wanted to produce action/adventure comics strips like his cartoonist heroes, Will Eisner (The Spirit) and Roy Crane (Wash Tubbs). “But I couldn’t draw like them. Since I had no qualifications and couldn’t imitate them, I tried to do my own thing,” Feiffer said.
The Tribune interview also contains remarks about Hugh Hefner as an editor, Philip Roth as a joker, Jack Nicholson starstruck by Warren Beatty, and more.

27 May 2012

Designing a 21st-Century Robin for Young Justice

Among the interviews that Young Justice producer Brandon Vietti did to promote the show’s second season is this article at IGN, which quotes him on designing the show’s first Robin:
We set out to create a more realistic world for our characters to be in. There's a lot of focus on the tailoring of outfits to make them look like real-world outfits. Robin in particular, we wanted him to look like his outfit maybe had Kevlar on it, like it could stop a bullet. Spandex doesn't give you that. We had to add seams to his costume and stuff to make it look like he's padded and ready to street-fight alongside Batman.
That article also discussed how many fans thought that show’s Robin “seems to walk the line between the Dick Grayson and Tim Drake Boy Wonders at times.” Back in November 2010 the weekly Robin suggested there was some Drake in the mix based on early publicity and the first episode. But “Vietti pretty strenuously disagreed with the notion”:
I think our Dick Grayson is very Dick Grayson, and … I guess there are two small aspects [that are different]. . . . His costume has some Tim Drake influence, but frankly, the little elf shorts weren't going to fly in the 21st century, so anything we did to give him long pants was going to feel sort of Tim Drakey.

Then the other thing is that we gave him hacking skills, which we think would just suit the Dick Grayson of the 21st century as well.

But personality-wise, I think our Dick Grayson is clearly Dick Grayson. His background is the circus. He's the acrobat first, martial artist second. … How this evolves going forward throughout this season or potential future seasons, I don't really want to get into. But I really do feel that aside from a couple of pretty superficial elements, our Robin is and always has been very Dick Grayson and has never been very Tim Drake.
One other element pointed toward Tim Drake: he was the Robin in the original Young Justice comic book, the one on a team with Superboy and Artemis. So at first it was natural for that series’ fans to hope that the cartoon of that name would feature Tim.

But the biggest difference between the Young Justice Dick Grayson and all previous characterizations, as I noted back in 2010, is that he’s the team’s youngest and smallest member. Though Robin’s been heroing the longest, his youth means he’s not the team’s natural leader. He’s even a bit of a nerd with his word quirks and math trophy.

In contrast, in all earlier versions of the Teen Titans in comics and on TV, there’s no doubt that Dick should be in charge. This cartoon Young Justice is the first portrayal of any other possibility. While that doesn’t make that character more like Tim Drake (who was the first leader of his comic-book team as well), it does make that role less like the Dick Grayson we’re familiar with. Only with Aqualad’s defection has he become the unquestioned leader.

Not that there’s anything wrong with rearranging aspects of DC Comics’s past continuities for the sake of interesting stories.

I can’t help but notice that the DC Nation Secret Files précis of the second season’s Robin combines a large picture of Tim with vignettes of Dick. If the conglomerate can’t tell them apart, it’s no wonder fans perceived some overlap.

(Portrait of Dick Grayson, mathlete, by Jerome K. Moore for Young Justice. It made a blink-and-you-missed-it appearance in one episode of the first season.)

26 May 2012

Swell in Possibility

From the Boston Globe and Jeannine Atkins come descriptions of the “Little White House Project: Dwell in Possibility,” an art installation at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts.

It consists of 34 white sheds displayed on five contiguous acres.
Each house is made from sustainably harvested wood and features a line from a Dickinson poem; a word or two is stenciled on each of its four outer walls and the roof panels.
The black serif type on the white boards reminds me of pages from a book. (Or those refrigerator magnets.)

The artist is Peter Krasznekewicz, a junior at Deerfield Academy. His original installation was on the grounds of that school, but a flood meant the athletic teams needed more land. (Stop me when this sounds too much like a YA novel.) The museum and its neighbors offered a wider canvas.

For fundraising, publicity, and archiving the project, Krasznekewicz launched the Action Art website, which shows the little houses in Deerfield over the New England winter.

“The Little White House Project” will be up at the Dickinson Museum through the end of June.

25 May 2012

Rep. Mike Coffman Displays OIP Derangement Syndrome

This week’s expression of OIP Derangement Syndrome comes from Mike Coffman, now in his second term representing a portion of Colorado in the US House of Representatives.

In a 12 May speech to Republican supporters, KUSA-TV reported, Coffman concluded by saying:
I don’t know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America. I don’t know that. But I do know this, that in his heart, he’s not an American. He’s just not an American.
After a pause, the audience applauded. A supporter posted the recording on the web, stating, “I’m glad the congressman said it. Not enough have.”

A few days later, after Democratic activists and journalists picked up on Coffman’s words, he issued a written apology denying that he really believed what he’d told that closed meeting—and repeating another common lie about President Obama:
I don’t believe the president shares my belief in American Exceptionalism. His policies reflect a philosophy that America is but one nation among many equals.
Back in November 2010, Andrew Sullivan identified right-wing claims that Obama doesn’t believe that America is a preeminent nation as “The Big Lie,” showing how the President had said exactly the opposite in the speech those critics quote.

Complaining about lack of “American exceptionalism” is a mask for conservatives’ real, irrational response to seeing Barack Obama exercising executive power like previous Presidents. And that same unnameable anxiety surfaced when Coffman told his audience that Obama is “just not an American.”

24 May 2012

More Creeped-Out Hellbound II Reviews

More Hellbound II reviews, starting with Roz Young at Sequential Tart:
As a fan of the horror genre, I am impressed by the passion of the group to create and compile such a wonderful set of frighteningly fiendish stories. Hellbound 2 is a wonderful homage to things that go bump in the night, and our affection for what terrifies us the most. . . .

For anyone interested in the art and crafting of horror tales, this is a terrific collection. I’m particularly a fan of "Eye Contact" and "Dolly," because I am totally creeped out by both eyeballs and dolls. Demon lovers will enjoy "Necrocomicon" and "Eugene," and the smiles of "robmeblind.com" gave me a serious case of the heebie jeebies.
Those smiles are the creation of artist Andy Wong. My script for “RobMeBlind.com” suggested S&M devotees. Andy saw that and raised with what he called “flesh mummies.”

The next review from Brigid Alverson at Robot 6:
The craftsmanship in this volume is impressive, especially given that none of the creators are full-time cartoonists. John Hilliard’s “Eugene” is the story of a hairy, vampire-like monster stalking innocent victims, but the cheerful storytelling style makes it seem charming–right up until the surprise ending. Joshua D. Hoagland’s “Mt. Auburn Night,” set in the Cambridge cemetery, is a beautiful romp of skeletons and gravestone statuary, drawn with strong blacks and white in a style reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley. Both are wordless stories (well, “Eugene” has one word balloon) that use strong visuals and creative panel layouts to pull the reader in and tell the story. I have to mention “Robmeblind.com,” written by my MoCCA travel companion J.L. Bell and drawn by Andy Wong, a clever story about burglars who use the web to scout out potential victims.
Thanks, Brigid!

Hellbound II is on sale at some Boston-area comics shops and from Ninth Art Press.

22 May 2012

Darkside Is Coming, Now Nothing Is Real

The Morton Report recently featured Bill Baker’s online conversation with artist Tommy Castillo about a book called The Art of The Darkside of Oz. The second capitalized T in that title is the tip-off that this book is a teaser for Castillo’s comics series called The Darkside of Oz.

Most of the drawings shown with the interview have appeared on Castillo’s earlier collections and website, so I’m not completely sure how they represent the ultimate product. Baker writes of Castillo’s plans:
…if the images and ideas he’s slowly begun to reveal are any indication, we’re about to see Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the cowardly Lion and the Tin Man in a whole new twilight.
And Castillo says, among other things:
How do you tell an epic tale of woe and love, desire and greed, wars and betrayals? How do you tell of revenge and have all of it wrapped up in the idea of redemption? And how can you do this all with the highest amount of respect for the creator of Oz, Frank Baum?
To be frank, I’m not impressed with the respect for Baum displayed so far. It’s details like:
  • Misspelling Glinda’s name as “Glenda.”
  • Using the MGM movie (still protected by copyright and trademark) as the basis of plot comments instead of Baum’s books (in the public domain).
  • Promising not to render Dorothy as “some scantily clad teen with giant boobs,” but dressing her in a very short skirt.
Furthermore, the notion that “everything we knew about our beloved Oz was a lie” isn’t that new, especially in comics form. After The Oz Squad, Dark Oz, Woe Is Oz, and so on, it’s no surprise to see Dorothy and her companions panelized in grim and gritty ways. It looks like Castillo will show us another Tin Woodman as a robot with a giant axe, another Scarecrow with a sinister slant to his eyes, another Lion as an anthropomorphic warrior, and so on.

Of course, Castillo could still create a compelling, eye-opening story out of those elements. Gregory Maguire certainly did with Wicked. But it would require knowing Baum’s work deeply, and intervening reinventions as well. Deciding to take a myth in the exact opposite direction may seem revolutionary, but it doesn’t really take as much imagination as digging deeper, or going off at an angle.

21 May 2012

Oh, the Irony!

Yesterday I quoted a mention of Men Without Hats, the Canadian New Wave band that had a big hit in 1983, helped by an inexplicably medieval music video featuring Mike Edmonds of Time Bandits.

I can’t let that pass without adding my high-school classmate Randy’s exasperated observation at the time that one of the band often wore a hat.

20 May 2012

Book Trailers and Boy Wonders

Having blogged about books and publishing for six years now (you can look it up), I’ve been witness to the rise and establishment of the book trailer. And I still don’t see much value in them.

In the amount of time it takes to download and watch a book trailer, I can take in a lot more information about that book through, you know, reading. And that experience is probably a much better preview of actually reading the book than watching a short shoestring-budget movie about it.

I know of no market research that says online trailers help to sell books, or even particular types of books to particular types of readers. Then again, it‘s the publishing industry, and there’s practically no market research at all.

I cynically suspect that the main value of book trailers is that they keep authors busy between copyedit approval and pub date. Without having trailers to make, we’d be on the phone every hour to the Marketing Department asking if they’ve thought about sending an advance copy to Orhan Pamuk. No wonder Marketing Departments recommend that authors make trailers!

Tim Kreider, author of We Learn Nothing, expressed similar thoughts in this New York Times oped today:
The first time I’d ever heard that there were video previews for books was when I was told I had to make one. A few months before my own book was to be released, my publisher advised me that official book trailers were now routinely posted on YouTube as a promotional device. I was skeptical, but remembering how instrumental video was in advancing the career of Men Without Hats, I acquiesced. . . .

The sudden, insane hula hoop-like popularity of social media and mass dinosaurian die-off of print has publishers panicked and willing to try anything, and so writers, typically reclusive types who are used to being able to do their jobs without putting on pants, now find themselves shoved on camera and hawking their books like mattresses on Presidents’ Day. . . .

The sympathetic audience for complaints about the terrible problems associated with having your book published turns out to be small. So I will just say that this is not a part of the process that most kids who sat at typewriters dreaming of growing up to be Authors ever fantasized about. Most writers are closet exhibitionists, shameless only on paper, and having to perform and promote themselves is a kind of mild custom-designed torture, like forcing the theoretical mathematics faculty to come up with something for skit night.
All that on a Sunday is my way of a running up to the trailer that Marc Tyler Nobleman and friends made for his upcoming picture-book bio Bill the Boy Wonder. Illustrated by Ty Templeton, the book tells more fully than ever before the life of Bill Finger, co-creator of Batman and Robin. What do we learn from the trailer? Well, it does look like it was fun to make.

19 May 2012

The Earliest “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”

For most Americans, the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is insuperably linked to the 1964 movie adaptation of Mary Poppins and its score, written by the Sherman brothers.

Ben Zimmer at the Visual Thesaurus, with the help of Merriam-Webster, recently shared a much earlier printed use of the term “Supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus.” As shown above, it appeared in Syracuse University’s Daily Orange newspaper in 1931. Humor columnist Helen Herman claimed to have concocted the word several years before, “or at least, I have my own interpretation of its pronunciation.”

The Shermans themselves never claimed to have invented the word. Instead, they recalled hearing it at a summer camp in the 1920s. There’s no obvious connection between them and Helen Herman, though it’s hard to imagine the word would have developed independently.

In 1949 and 1951, songwriters Gloria Parker and Barney Young published a song with the spelling “Supercalafajalistickespialadojus.” After Mary Poppins, they sued the Sherman brothers for copyright infringement. The judge ruled that the songs were different enough. But weren’t the titles basically the same? Yes, but titles can’t be copyrighted.

18 May 2012

Romney on the National Debt: Piling Up IOUs to the Facts

When Barack Obama became President, the US economy was in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. The preceding administration had inherited a budget in surplus and then run up large deficits, including tax cuts due to expire and an expansion of the Medicare entitlement. Remember the headlines from late 2008? Remember the Onion’s Election Day joke, “Black Man Given Nation’s Worst Job”?

People with OIP Derangement Syndrome are unable to remember those facts. Their guts are so affected by who became President in January 2009 that their minds can’t remember what happened in the preceding months.

As a candidate for his second elective office, Mitt Romney is playing to that selective amnesia. This week’s look at OIP Derangement Syndrome comes from the Associated Press’s fact-checking of Romney’s campaign speech in Iowa.

When Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney decried the “prairie fire” of U.S. debt Tuesday, he ignored some of the sparks that set it ablaze. One was the Great Recession that took hold before Barack Obama became president. That landmark event went unmentioned in Romney’s speech. Another was a series of Bush-era tax cuts that Romney wants to follow with even lower rates. Instead he laid the blame on Obama…

ROMNEY: “America counted on President Obama to rescue the economy, tame the deficit and help create jobs. Instead, he bailed out the public sector, gave billions of your dollars to the companies of his friends, and added almost as much debt as all the prior presidents combined.”

THE FACTS. Hardly. Presidents from George Washington through George W. Bush ran the national debt up to $10.62 trillion, the amount it was on the day Obama took office. Today, it is $15.67 trillion, according to the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Public Debt. So it has gone up by $5.05 trillion under Obama. That’s roughly half of the amount amassed by all the other presidents combined.

In short, the debt has gone up by about half under Obama. Under Ronald Reagan, it tripled.

ROMNEY: “I will lead us out of this debt and spending inferno. We will stop borrowing unfathomable sums of money we can’t even imagine, from foreign countries we’ll never even visit. I will bring us together to put out the fire.”

THE FACTS: Romney's tax and spending plans don’t support his vow to dampen the debt fire. He proposes to cut taxes and expand the armed forces, putting yet more stress on the budget, and his promise to slash domestic spending isn’t backed by the big specifics. . . . A study by the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget concluded earlier this year that Romney’s plans would not make a dent in deficits, and could worsen them considerably. That study was done before Romney upped his tax cuts, inviting even deeper debt. . . .

ROMNEY: “The people of Iowa and America have watched President Obama for nearly four years, much of that time with Congress controlled by his own party. And rather than put out the spending fire, he has fed the fire. He has spent more and borrowed more. ... When you add up his policies, this president has increased the national debt by $5 trillion.”

THE FACTS: Much of the increase in the debt is due to lower tax revenues from depressed corporate and individual incomes and high joblessness in the worst recession since the Great Depression. The recession officially began in December 2007, when George W. Bush was president and the national debt stood at just over $9 trillion. Financial bailouts, stimulus programs and auto rescue spending that started under Bush and continued under Obama contributed to the run-up of the debt.

But so did the Bush-era tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003. With bipartisan support, Congress has extended the tax cuts until the end of this year, and Romney’s proposals for big cuts of his own would risk another squeeze on revenue.
Romney’s tendency to shift positions and lie, noted many times by his Republican rivals and critics right up until the moment he clinched the party nomination, dovetails with the visceral desire of some voters to believe anything bad about President Obama. It’s a campaign based not on policy differences—which would certainly be possible—but on lies.

17 May 2012

Sendak as a Born Curmudegon

Among all the encomia for Maurice Sendak that have appeared in recent days, I particularly appreciated Michael Patrick Hearn’s clear-eyed remembrance posted at Educating Alice. Rather than focus exclusively on Sendak’s storytelling talent and contrarian statements about childhood, Hearn wrote about the personality that produced that work:
Almost every conversation began with the kvetching. Oh the kvetching! It was not a word I really knew until I met Maurice Sendak. He was constantly upset with this and that, with that person and this person. His anger fueled him. Look in the dictionary under the noun kvetch and you will find:
  1. A chronic, whining complainer.
  2. A nagging complaint.
  3. Maurice Sendak, American picture book artist-author.
But once he got that off his chest, he was the funniest person you could ever meet.
Hearn also writes about how Sendak “loved being the provocateur,” and “was emotionally needy.”

Such comments reminded me of Leonard Marcus’s recollection of meeting Sendak in Publishers Weekly:
I arranged to be introduced to Maurice at the giant children’s breakfast at ABA, and at first he didn’t really look me in the eye. “Another interview?” he must have been thinking, as he commented on the banquet hall’s sprinkler system, which he said reminded him of a Nazi gas chamber.
That remark would make sense for someone who’d actually been threatened by, you know, a Nazi gas chamber. But Sendak was born in Brooklyn in 1928. He lost Polish relatives in the Holocaust (the same sort of foreign relatives he cited as the scary inspiration for the Wild Things), and later described that news as introducing him early to thoughts of death. But Sendak was already eleven when Hitler invaded Poland, and I’m pretty sure every American child growing up during World War 2 had to think about death.

As with the Lindbergh kidnapping (another memory Sendak invoked, this one really from his early childhood), the Holocaust seems more likely to have provided a focus for his anxiety and fears rather than their cause or inspiration. He explored themes of endangered children in his later books, when he could tell any story he wanted, because that situation struck deep chords with him.

Not that Sendak wasn’t also a charming person and a terrific picture-book creator, as both Hearn and Marcus describe. His critical writing was often very insightful, but I think it was at its best when he wrote about other people’s work rather than when he made pronouncements about childhood and literature based on his own idiosyncratic world-view.

Back to Hearn:
No matter how many other directions he went into and how far he grew as an artist, everyone wanted another Wild Things. Once a book was published, he was through with it. He did not go back. He never wanted to repeat himself. He was constantly evolving. He called Wild Things the first in a trilogy that also embraced In the Night Kitchen and Outside Over There. But their artistic connection is dubious. What they did have in common was that Maurice was working out his therapy through them. The traumas of his childhood came out as metaphors. The books are fraught with Freudian symbols.
Hearn calls attention to Sendak’s 2005 edition of Ruth Krauss’s Bears, a “sequel of sorts” to Wild Things since it included a wolf-suited Max. It was “one of the most delightful of Sendak’s books in many years,” Hearn says, but “almost universally ignored by the reviewers and the public.”

16 May 2012

They Grow Up So Fast

Back in 2007, I shared this photo of Godson’s Brother. It so captured the intensity of reading that a literacy organization contacted me to ask the photographer (Godson’s Mother) about using it in a report.

This is the latest photo of Godson’s Brother, on his way to the cricket pitch.

15 May 2012

“We ought to be friends.”

From the first chapter of L. Frank Baum’s Sky Island:
The boy sat down beside her on the flat rock.

“Do you like girls?” asked Trot, making room for him.

“Not very well,” the boy replied. “Some of ’em are pretty good fellows, but not many. The girls with brothers are bossy, an’ the girls without brothers haven’t any ‘go’ to ’em. But the world’s full o’ both kinds, and so I try to take ’em as they come. They can’t help being girls, of course. Do you like boys?”

“When they don’t put on airs or get roughhouse,” replied Trot. “My ’sperience with boys is that they don’t know much, but think they do.”

“That’s true,” he answered. “I don’t like boys much better than I do girls, but some are all right, and—you seem to be one of ’em.”

“Much obliged,” laughed Trot. “You aren’t so bad, either, an’ if we don’t both turn out worse than we seem, we ought to be friends.”
Sky Island is one of Baum’s best novels, and one of the books that will be commemorated at this summer’s Winkie Convention at the Asilomar Conference Center in Pacific Grove, California. I plan to be there, moderating a panel on Oz blogs and judging a writing contest or two. I’ve also submitted an unconventional piece for the convention booklet.

13 May 2012

Doing Justice to Young Justice

One of the most interesting aspects of the Young Justice television cartoon is how its creators have played off of, and played havoc with, all the continuities that DC had previously established. There’s a Justice League of America headed by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the other household names, and a set of eager sidekicks organized into a somewhat rebellious junior team. Beyond that, we viewers can’t assume anything.

Supporting characters have familiar names (Mal Duncan! Rita Farr!), but it’s not clear they’ll follow the same paths as in the comics. Hero names (i.e., valuable corporate trademarks) like Artemis are assigned to characters with completely new backstories. The cartoon’s Beast Boy receives his powers as a green shapeshifter from another green shapeshifter, Miss Martian—a character invented about forty years after Beast Boy’s first appearance.

In some cases these changes are improvements. Last week Braden Lamb, one of the artists on the Adventure Time comic, pointed out to me that the cartoon’s Adam Strange has a much more logical background for a space adventurer than the comic-book version. In other cases, the changes allow new stories. Peter David wrote an episode using two characters he’d developed in the original Young Justice comic books, Secret and Harm, but aside from their relationship as sister and murderous brother nothing was the same.

Over the course of the season, it also became clear that Young Justice’s producers were playing the long game: setting up tensions, mysteries, and relationships to pay off a dozen episodes or more down the line.

Probably the most obvious example of that was the character of Miss Martian, the first girl to join the team. Fans complained that Miss Martian was a perky sitcom caricature, baking cookies for the boys and repeating the phrase “Hello, Megan!” whenever she did something the least bit dumb. They showed their displeasure by compiling videos of that catch phrase repeated for ten minutes or Hitler reacting angrily to it. And eventually it turned out those complaints were right. Miss Martian was acting like a sitcom caricature, and the producers had been planning that revelation all along.

In fact, the first season of Young Justice was basically all about adolescents desperate to hide embarrassing secrets: their pasts and identities, their weaknesses and habits. And over the last few episodes, the teens repeatedly learned that the people they were trying to fool (a) already knew, and/or (b) didn’t care. Even Dick Grayson, who was mostly in the already-knew camp (of course), had to learn that lesson when he went back to the Haly Circus “undercover” and expected no one to recognize him.
The second season of Young Justice has started fast with a five-year jump from where the first season ended. Nerdy little wise guy Dick has grown up into hunky Nightwing, and some version of Tim Drake has taken over the Robin role to show how nerdiness is done. Beast Boy is old enough to join the team. Superboy has mellowed, Miss Martian turned harsher, and new teens are on board.

And fans are complaining about the new mysteries. Where are the characters from season one who haven’t appeared yet? What’s the status of the romances from that year? What happened to the other Speedy? And so on.

Viewers seem to forget what made the first season compelling: the gradual development of the storylines, the nagging mysteries, the big reveals. Those turns in the overall plot have the power to entertain us only if the producers keep some secrets up their sleeves.

12 May 2012

The Coolest Coin in the World

We all know that Canadian coins have images of animals on them, right?

Last month the country’s mint issued the first of four quarters featuring images of prehistoric animals that once roamed that part of the continent. The first shows Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai, a dinosaur in the same family as Triceratops.

If that wasn’t already cool enough, in the dark (or in your pocket) the coin’s image glows. Or, to be more specific, the dinosaur‘s skeleton glows in the dark.

The luminosity depends on exposing the coin to some strong light beforehand. Exactly how this works is a proprietary secret, but the effect is supposed to be permanent.

Unfortunately, this coin is meant for collectors, not general circulation. Though it has the legal value of Cdn$.25, it’s bigger than a standard Canadian quarter and is actually being sold at post offices for Cdn$29.95. So, alas, it’s not going to show up in our change.

11 May 2012

Where Romney Puts His Energy

In November 2008, as I noted last month, Mitt Romney condemned the Bush-Cheney administration’s plan for loans to General Motors and Chrysler. More recently he condemned how President Barack Obama’s administration managed those companies’ bankruptcy, even though (a) it produced a healthier industry, and (b) he had actually called for a “managed bankruptcy.”

In the three weeks since my posting, Romney and his campaign have shifted to take credit for suggesting the action he’d just been condemning—without, of course, praising President Obama since that would alienate core supporters who exhibit OIP Derangement Syndrome.

“Even by Romney standards, this is ridiculous,” wrote Steve Benen on the Maddow Blog. Talking Points Memo noted the difficulties the new claim was causing for Romney’s Republican allies in Congress, who have attacked Obama for his success. But Romney’s inconsistency on this point simply reflects his overall inconsistency on how the US government should treat the car industry.

Back in 2007, Romney touted the value of more fuel-efficient cars this way:
I’m hopeful that with $3 gasoline being charged by [Venezuelan chief] Hugo Chavez and [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin and others, that you’re going to see Americans, slowly but surely, move to vehicles that are far more fuel efficient and you’ll see our manufacturers start competing on the basis of fuel efficiency.

I sure hope we’ll see more and more hybrids and much better fuel economy, but it’s a must. We have to make our automobiles far more fuel efficient. I’d like to see to us really get up to 50 miles per gallon. The time will come that people will look back and say, “you’re kidding me, cars only got 25 miles per gallon then, you’re kidding.”
But when the post-bankruptcy General Motors started selling its Chevrolet Volt, that hybrid car with better fuel economy became anathema to Republicans, as discussed here. To reflect his target voters Romney had to adopt the same attitude, as reported in December 2011:
If you want to know exactly what Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney thinks about the Chevrolet Volt, listen to his laugh before he answers a question about the car posed to him during a radio interview on WRKO in Boston recently. Romney was asked what he thought about the car, and he responded with a dismissive-sounding laugh by labeling the plug-in hybrid an ”idea whose time has not come.”
So in 2007 Romney said he was “hopeful” that $3/gallon gas would make hybrids popular, which was “a must”—but in 2011 he chuckled about how, even though gas was near $4/gallon, the Chevy hybrid’s “time has not come.”

We can search charitably for consistency in Romney’s statements. For example, he might be speaking from a free-market stance, arguing that the government shouldn’t aid the industry in any way—no financial support, even tax rebates for hybrid cars.

Yet back in November 2008 Romney also wrote that the US government should increase spending to benefit carmakers:
I believe the federal government should invest substantially more in basic research—on new energy sources, fuel-economy technology, materials science and the like—that will ultimately benefit the automotive industry, along with many others. I believe Washington should raise energy research spending to $20 billion a year, from the $4 billion that is spent today. The research could be done at universities, at research labs and even through public-private collaboration.
Since then, the Obama administration has pushed for more spending on new-energy research. Yet Romney broadly condemns the administration’s policy, especially on “new energy sources.”

Romney was thus for a “managed bankruptcy” of General Motors and Chrysler—except when Obama was in charge. He saw more efficient, hybrid autos as “a must”—except when Obama was in charge. He advocated much more federal spending on energy research—except when Obama is in charge. So the consistency is Romney’s opposition to President Obama being in charge.

10 May 2012

New Oz Poster by Brian Floca

Books on Tape is offering a poster of the art that Brian Floca created for a new audio edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This page provides an email address for people who want a free poster—while supplies last, presumably.

Brooke Shields recorded this edition, and Paul Rudd read the “introduction.” I don’t know if that means L. Frank Baum’s note before the novel, but here it is:
Folklore, legends, myths and fairy tales have followed childhood through the ages, for every healthy youngster has a wholesome and instinctive love for stories fantastic, marvelous and manifestly unreal. The winged fairies of Grimm and Andersen have brought more happiness to childish hearts than all other human creations.

Yet the old time fairy tale, having served for generations, may now be classed as ”historical” in the children’s library; for the time has come for a series of newer “wonder tales” in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incidents devised by their authors to point a fearsome moral to each tale. Modern education includes morality; therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.

Having this thought in mind, the story of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” was written solely to please children of today. It aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.
As critics have noted, Baum actually created an American legend with plenty of heartaches and nightmares included, not to mention morals. But he was working in marketing at the time.

09 May 2012

Gandalf the Oppressor?

From Damien G. Walter’s unfathomably headlined article “Is science fiction literature's first international language?” in the Guardian:
Russian SF has a long and well-documented history as an outlet for political perspectives that were otherwise repressed. But it is as a critique of the values of western capitalism that the genre has recently caught attention.

The Last Ringbearer by Kirill Eskov is set in the Middle Earth of JRR Tolkien, immediately after the climatic [sic] battle of The Return of the King, and has recently been issued in its second edition translation free online, despite objections from the Tolkien estate. The book reimagines Lord of the Rings as a history written by the victors, with Mordor recast as an emergent industrial nation crushed under the heel of a war-mongering western alliance lead by Gondor, and Gandalf described as "engineering a final solution to the Mordorian problem".

If this mirrors a large proportion of European / Russian history it seems entirely valid, given how easily exactly the same reading can be made of Tolkien's fantasy epic.
Now is this really a critique of Lord of the Rings or a rip-off of it? Or does a rip-off constitute a form of political critique of such a dominant intellectual property?

What does it mean to identify with orcs, even if you present them as misrepresented? Is the “war-mongering western alliance” that Eskov and Walter see the Axis or NATO?

08 May 2012

Maurice Sendak on Oz

Here’s the late, great Maurice Sendak on the power of the MGM Wizard of Oz, from the pages of the New York Times:

“Children make crucial decisions at that point,” he said, “and it happens in the wink of an eye. It’s those crucial seconds when the mother and father can’t watch. This was so absolutely, beautifully, rendered for me when I was very young and I saw ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ There’s a scene that I think was a little bit St. Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus for me. It was near the end of the movie, when Dorothy is imprisoned in the room with the Wicked Witch, and the witch takes the hourglass and turns it over and says: You see that? That’s how much longer you’ve got to be alive.

“And Dorothy says, I’m frightened, I’m frightened, and then the crystal ball shows Auntie Em, and Auntie Em is saying, Dorothy, Dorothy, where are you? and Dorothy hovers over it and says: I’m here in Oz, Auntie Em. I’m locked up in the witch’s castle. Don’t go away, I’m frightened. And I remember that when my sister took me I burst into tears. I knew just what it meant, which was that a mother and child can be in the same room and want to help each other, and they cannot. Even though they were face to face, the crystal ball separated them. Something separates people now and then. And I think it’s that moment that interests me, and compels me.”
When Disney was planning a quasi-sequel to that movie, the studio hired Sendak to help design it. Ultimately he had little to do with Return to Oz, but he did produce this poster for the publicity campaign. This image is from Surrender Dorothy’s Etsy site.
I’m not sure who the somewhat sinister gent on the right is supposed to be.

Sendak also drew the more cheery cover art for Books of Wonder’s Oz: The Hundredth Anniversary Celebration. But why would the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman have eating utensils?

06 May 2012

Chris Giarrusso’s Brother Act

My favorite set of brothers in superhero comics appears in Chris Giarrusso’s G-Man series. Mikey, called G-Man by his friends, is the younger brother: eager, imaginative, perseverant, and naive. David, who took the name Great Man, is his elder: capable, exasperated, bossy, and protective.

Giarrusso was at the MoCCA Festival last weekend, and I did something I’d never done before: commissioned a sketch.

Specifically, I asked for “Great Man cosplaying Nightwing and G-Man cosplaying Robin. The Tim Drake version.” To which Giarrusso answered, “Really?” and “Um, I don’t have all the costume details in my head.”

I assured him I wouldn’t sweat the small stuff. After all, he publishes with Marvel. (And he knows the costumes well enough to produce these versions of Batman, #1, and Superman/Batman, #26.)

By the end of the afternoon, I was the proud owner of this piece of art.
I asked Giarrusso about the next volume of G-Man. He said he was more than halfway through creating that story, in which the fraternal dynamic of Great Man and G-Man will be tested by the arrival of…a baby brother!

(And speaking of annoying baby brothers, last week Caanan, creator of Max Overacts, posted this convention sketch of Damian Wayne and his babysitters, titled “Don’t Be Rude—Be a Hero.”)

04 May 2012

“I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama”

In April 2007, the Bush-Cheney administration had taken the public position that finding Osama bin Laden wasn’t that important in its global war on terrorism. That’s why that administration had pulled resources out of Afghanistan to invade Iraq, a dictatorship unrelated to al-Qaeda.

Mitt Romney had just completed his one term in elected office and was running for the Presidency. He dutifully echoed the Bush-Cheney message in an interview with the Associated Press:
MR: I wouldn’t want to over-concentrate on Bin Laden. He’s one of many, many people who are involved in this global Jihadist effort. He’s by no means the only leader. It’s a very diverse group—Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood and of course different names throughout the world. It’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person. It is worth fashioning and executing an effective strategy to defeat global, violent Jihad and I have a plan for doing that.

LS: But would the world be safer if bin laden were caught?

MR: Yes, but by a small percentage increase—a very insignificant increase in safety by virtue of replacing bin Laden with someone else. Zarqawi—we [i.e., the Bush-Cheney administration] celebrated the killing of Zarqawi, but he was quickly replaced. Global Jihad is not an effort that is being populated by a handful or even a football stadium full of people. It is—it involves millions of people and is going to require a far more comprehensive strategy than a targeted approach for Bin Laden or a few of his associates.
That dispatch was headlined “Romney says he's not the only one switching positions, rivals do it too.” True to form, Romney quickly switched positions on the importance of bin Laden when rival John McCain and others on the right criticized his remarks as naive. In a May 2007 debate Romney took the opportunity to say:
Of course we get Osama bin Laden and track him wherever he has to go, and make sure he pays for the outrage he exacted upon America. . . . We’ll move everything to get him. But I don’t want to buy into the Democratic pitch that this is all about one person — Osama bin Laden — because after we get him, there’s going to be another and another. This is about Shia and Sunni. This is about Hezbollah and Hamas and al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Romney lied when he said that the “Democratic pitch” focused on “one person.” Rather, most Democrats focused on al-Qaeda rather than unrelated states that happened to have Islamic majorities and oil. Romney, like his party, was still arguing for a larger war.

By August 2007, Barack Obama was prominent in the Democratic race. He said he would order attacks on al-Qaeda leaders inside Pakistan whether or not the strongman then governing that country concurred. Romney shifted position again, abandoning “We’ll move everything to get him.” Reuters reported:
“I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to enter an ally of ours. . . . I don’t think those kinds of comments help in this effort to draw more friends to our effort,” Romney told reporters on the campaign trail. . . .

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who is one of the Republican front-runners, said U.S. troops “shouldn’t be sent all over the world.” He called Obama’s comments “ill-timed” and “ill-considered.”
But in a Republican debate the next day, Romney shifted yet again. He now said that the problem wasn’t Obama’s strategy but his willingness to tell the American people about that strategy. Romney insisted:
It’s wrong for a person running for the president of the United States to get on TV and say, “We’re going to go into your country unilaterally.” Of course, America always maintains our option to do whatever we think is in the best interests of America. But we don’t go out and say, “Ladies and gentlemen of Germany, if ever there was a problem in your country, we didn’t think you were doing the right thing, we reserve the right to come in and get them out.” We don’t say those things. We keep our options quiet.
The election proceeded. Obama won his party’s nomination, Romney didn’t win his. The actual Republican nominee, McCain, repeatedly criticized Obama’s policy on attacking al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan, calling that a threat to attack Pakistan itself.

People who suffer from OIP Derangement Syndrome can’t forgive Barack Obama for two things. One is being elected President. The other is doing just what he said he would in regard to Osama bin Laden: ordering an attack inside Pakistan, and a successful one. While Republicans have mustered up some ideological reasons to oppose Obama’s other successes, or claimed that their policies would somehow have produced better results, on bin Laden they can’t oppose his methods or results.

Talking Points Memo traced the “The Five Stages Of GOP Reaction To Osama Bin Laden’s Death,” starting with some Republicans refusing to mention Obama’s role in the event. Romney’s approach for months has been to claim that any President would have done the same.

Of course, when McCain insisted, “you work with the Pakistani government,” he was ruling out the unilateral action Obama took. When Romney said US troops “shouldn’t be sent all over the world” for bin Laden, that surely didn’t sound like, well, sending troops anywhere after bin Laden. But consistency has never been Romney’s strength.

Some Republicans groused that Obama campaign advertising took Romney’s remarks about bin Laden out of context, but the Romney campaign has already destroyed its credibility on “context.” And in this case “context” mainly shows how quickly Romney shifted his emphasis for political expediency.

It’s particularly interesting to compare Romney’s criticism of the Obama administration this week for not protecting Chen Guangdong after he left the US embassy in Beijing (Romney didn’t specify what to do or how) with his 2007 statement: “But we don’t go out and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen…, if ever there was a problem in your country, we didn’t think you were doing the right thing, we reserve the right to come in and get them out.’ We don’t say those things.”

03 May 2012

Who Would Win in a Debate—Batman or the Avengers?

The hype for the new Avengers movie (especially in the Boston Globe) has gotten so loud that it’s starting to make me forget the Kree-Skrull War. One item stood out: Alyssa Rosenberg’s brief essay at Think Progress:
I’m excited to see an intellectual debate between [The Dark Knight Rises] and The Avengers. Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies have always had an element of monkish sacrifice to them: to be an impactful superhero, Bruce Wayne’s had to surrender his true public image (in the first film, he acts the playboy to disguise his intentions), the love of his life and of the populace, and now, it’s implied, either his life or his physical health. . . .

The Marvel franchise, and The Avengers in particular (without spoiling anything), take the opposite tack. Its superheroes become better individuals more closely drawn to their communities for their experiences as superheroes. . . .

These two movies are going to make serious bank for their studios. But taken together, they’re also a vigorous argument about superheroism.
And the superhero genre is usually, I’d say, an exploration about what it means to be a hero, writ large and acted out while kicking other largely symbolic characters in the face.

The debate that Rosenberg envisions is, we should note, between Marvel’s mightiest team and Batman, not DC’s hero lineup or outlook. One theme of Kurt Busiek and George Pérez’s two-company crossover of the Justice League and the Avengers back in 2003-04 was the Marvel heroes’ surprise and suspicion that the DC team was so comfortable with popular acclaim. In that case the Avengers stood for “monkish sacrifice,” for doing the right thing without expecting praise or popularity. The Justice League was their world’s mightiest law-enforcement organization.

But Batman changes the equation. Since the 1980s the Dark Knight has stood apart from most of his DC Universe colleagues because of his lack of attention to social niceties and preference to work alone (albeit with a large “family” of supporters and protégés). Nolan’s movies give Bruce Wayne two in-the-know father figures (Alfred and Lucius Fox), but no other surviving confidants.

That Batman would fit with several of Marvel’s heroes as Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, and colleagues originally conceived of them: the Hulk is an anti-hero, Spider-Man an outsider, and so on. He wouldn’t get the modern Tony Stark, also a billionaire playboy but one who’s told the world that he’s Iron Man.

02 May 2012

Actual Conversation at My House

“Do you consider ‘outgrabe’ as a strong predicate or a modifier?”

“I always read it as the past tense of a verb. ‘Mome’ is in the place for an adjective.”


“Oh, and in The Hunting of the Snark, ‘outgrabe’ is a verb: the Beaver ‘outgrabe in despair…’”

“That would do it.”

01 May 2012

Pulling Out the Emerald City

As books become electronic, and public-domain texts are as easy to find online as ads for World of Warcraft, one response for print publishers is to make their books into beautiful objects—luxury goods that readers will want not just for the content but for the form and for what they say about their owners.

Among these ventures seems to be the Penguin Threads line, which describes itself this way (minus the all-caps):
Commissioned by award-winning Penguin art director Paul Buckley, the Penguin Threads series debuted with cover art by Jillian Tamaki and continues with art by Rachell Sumpter for gift-worthy Penguin classics. Sketched out in a traditional illustrative manner, then hand stitched using needle and thread, the final covers are sculpt embossed for a tactile, textured, and beautiful book design that will make truly special gifts and will be welcome additions to any craft or literature lover’s collection.
Last month Sumpter gave a publicity interview to the Huffington Post about one project, sharing some rejected designs and a picture of her work in progress. The public-domain book was an omnibus of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Emerald City of Oz, and Glinda of Oz. The canned interviewer asked:
In your own words, what is this book about?

A child figures out the rules of a strange land and helps others believe in themselves after getting stranded. She goes on a quest to return home. She’s reluctant to be exceptional, the person everyone in Oz thinks she is. Believes strongly that she is normal. Always does what is right. I think it’s a child’s perspective of how to be a hero.

What was the mood, theme or specific moment from the text you depicted with this cover? 
This is Dorothy and her companions approaching the Emerald City. Oz is such a dense world, it was challenging to pick out one moment. There are important elements from other parts in the book also. The poppies are so iconic and beautiful I had to include them. I also wanted to include the four main heroes since the book is about how they support one another.
Although Sumpter had created some noted book covers before, particularly for books associated with McSweeney’s, she didn’t have that much experience in stitchwork or embroidery design.

That may be one reason this cover strikes me as busy and unattractive. The approach to the Emerald City along the Yellow Brick Road is an iconic American image, but this mass of blobby colors doesn’t evoke that cultural memory. Though it’s possible to pick out the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion in the bottom half of the scene, Dorothy’s faceless figure appears as just another blob and Toto’s an asterisk.

Sumpter does a better job with The Wind in the Willows, showing Mr. Toad at the wheel, and Tamacki’s Black Beauty brings an older Penguin Classics look to the new medium.