31 July 2012

The Legacy of Oz in Culver City

Yesterday I went on the Sony Pictures Studios tour, which shows people working sets and backstage departments instead of giving them a theme-park ride.

The guide told us that an area where the ground had been painted yellow was connected to Sam Raimi’s upcoming Disney movie Oz, the Great and Powerful, about young Oscar Z. Diggs’s arrival in Oz. This seemed resonant since Sony Pictures Studios is the remaining part of the old MGM lot, including buildings where Judy Garland went to school and where the studio recorded its music while making its 1939 Wizard of Oz.

Through a complex series of corporate setbacks and real-estate transactions, the regal MGM lot now celebrates the legacy of once-low-rent Columbia Pictures. (In the same way, the MGM Wizard of Oz is now Warner Bros. intellectual property.)

Right now the Sony studio is undergoing a major construction project: a 90-foot-tall rainbow that will arc from a spot in front of the executive offices, over some other buildings, to another spot. That of course commemorates The Wizard of Oz, even though no rainbow appears in the film. If we hadn’t already been on the border of tourism and movies, it would all have been very ironic.

30 July 2012

Robin Controversies, part 2

This extended version of the weekly Robin is brought to us by the letters B, I, and N.

Best Robin. GrayHaven Comics asked fans to vote on who was the best Robin. This question comes up often in fan forums, and perhaps we should consider what the Robins themselves might say.

I imagine that the second Jason Todd would refuse to participate, and the final results would therefore be four votes for Dick Grayson, one for Damian Wayne (his own), and one for Tim Drake (Dick’s vote).

Iconic Robin. TV Guide ran a preview of the Smallville comic book being scripted by Bryan Q. Miller, which will introduce Batman into that quirky version of the Superman myth. It showed a young woman as Batman’s partner, Nightwing. The article made clear that in that character Miller was writing a new version of Stephanie Brown.

At some point, however, DC’s top editors asked Miller to change plans, and that Nightwing is now Barbara Gordon, elsewhere known as Batgirl or Oracle. Fans of Stephanie Brown were upset, and a great deal of energy has gone into parsing the back-and-forth on DC’s extempore statements and excuses that the company wanted to use the most “iconic” or widely recognized versions of its characters.

This kerfuffle wouldn’t even be a kerfuffle if the comics industry and fan culture hadn’t come to depend on seeing “previews” of works in progress. If this issue of Smallville had simply hit the newsstands (not that there are those anymore, a major factor in the current marketing methods), then people could just have gotten excited at a new use of the Nightwing trademark and the Barbara Gordon name.

As it is, the only source of Milller’s writing about Stephanie Brown is the three volumes of his Batgirl series. And the last volume includes one striking page of Stephanie as Nightwing. It’s very satisfying work.

New Robin. In the national effort to dissect the enjoyable, impressive mess of The Dark Knight Rises, even Time, Forbes, and of course MTV have weighed in on possible futures for the character played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

I don’t think it gives away too much about The Dark Knight Rises to say that Gordon-Levitt plays a beat cop who’s figured out that Bruce Wayne was the Batman. He reveals that early in the movie. Did Officer John Blake observe the Batman in action when he was a child, as Tim Drake did? Did he stumble across important information in his work? Is he an especially brilliant investigator? The movie never says.

But in a series that digs into the compromises made by Wayne, his butler Alfred, his comrade Commissioner Jim Gordon, his love interest Selina Kyle, and many others, one thing stands out about Gordon-Levitt’s character: John Blake isn’t evil. He’s the voice of uncompromising integrity and perseverance. Along with his relative youth, that makes him the movie’s stand-in for Robin, and the final minutes explore that possibility further, with the symbolic message clear but the details ambiguous.

Perhaps lost in the shuffle is how the coming-of-age figure in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films isn’t any version of Robin but is Bruce Wayne himself. Batman Begins is of course an origin story. The Dark Knight Rises, more closely tied to that first movie than to The Dark Knight, returns to the question of how Bruce Wayne can become a successful adult. What part does being the Batman play in his growth? Is the Dark Knight a stage, a dead end (literally), or all that an adult man can be?

29 July 2012

Robin Categories and Controversies, part 1

This page from Detective Comics, #208 (June 1954), comes courtesy of little Bully’s Tumblr stream “What the ’Tec?” To play along with its categories, it’s useful to know that “Animals” means “Mammals.” And it’s useful to know a mammal that begins with N.

This weekly Robin plays categories with recent Robin controversies (which are really no more than kerfuffles).

Red Robin. DC Comics may already be revising the history of its Tim Drake character in the current continuity. Two of the much-hyped #1 issues stated that he had served as Robin. However, at the San Diego Comic-Con, Teen Titans, #0, writer Scott Lobdell suggested that that character went straight into the Red Robin identity.

Such speed could have been a response to fan complaints that new universe’s Batman had gone through kid sidekicks like they were Kleenex. But the change and the thought that this Tim has never been Robin (and thus never experienced even a version of the adventures people read from 1989 to 2011) produced even more fan exasperation. I wouldn’t be surprised if the final text of Teen Titans, #0, restores a bit of that history.

That said, I can imagine quick adoption of the Red Robin identity being quite in character for Tim Drake. His superhero origin would go something like this.

“Batman needs a Robin, sir.”

“Go home, kid.”

Two days later. “Is this Mr. Wayne? My name is Timothy Drake. Batman needs a Robin.”

“How did you get this number? Uh, why are you speaking to me about Batman? Hello? Hello?”

Three days later. “Good takedown, Batman, but a little rough. See, Batman needs a Robin.”

“Leave me alone! You know the last Robin didn’t work out.”

Six days later. “Hello, Batman.”

“Why are you wearing a costume?”

“Nightwing helped me with it.”

“I told you both: I don’t want another Robin.”

“I’m not Robin, sir. I’m Red Robin!”

Sigh. All right.”

Old Robin. Retronaut shared a portfolio of Andy Warhol and Nico dressed up as the Dynamic Duo for a magazine photo shoot in 1967. This was of course during the era of television-fueled Batman camp.

TOMORROW: Controversies for letters B, I, and N.

28 July 2012

“Online Oz” Panel Tomorrow

Tomorrow morning I’ll moderate a panel at this year’s Winkie Convention titled “Online Oz.” More specifically, we’ll talk about blogging.

The panelists will be:
In addition, I hope to show off other exemplary Oz blogs and websites:
My experience with presentations is that the more they’re about technology, the more likely the presentation tech will fail. The last time I did a panel on blogging, at the 2009 Organization of American Historians conference, we had to start forty-five minutes late using a laptop borrowed from someone in the audience. No one ever got to see the moderator’s introductory video.

So I’m trying to keep it simple. First step: Putting all the links into an Oz and Ends posting so they’re easy to find.

27 July 2012

OIP Derangement Syndrome and Conspiracy Theories

On Sunday the Boston Globe plumbed the depths of OIP Derangement Syndrome in Leon Neyfakh’s article headlined “Revealed! Obama’s Secret Agenda”:

On the fringes of American politics, on conservative radio, and even on the campaign trail, a whole parallel Obama has emerged over the course of the 2012 race—a shadowy figure who has craftily concealed his ideological extremism and is merely awaiting his second term to unleash it. Taken as a whole, this other Obama—and what you might call his “Muahahaha strategy” of post-election bait and switch—offers a vivid picture of the fears that the president has inspired in some critics, fears that appear only to have grown during a real-life first term that has failed to produce much in the way of radical legislation.

As fanciful as they may sound, these rumors reflect something real in the nation’s political imagination—and shine a light on the particular kind of distrust that tends to accumulate around those in power. And they’re also seeping into mainstream political discourse, even into the race itself. Mitt Romney has invoked the issue of Obama’s secret intentions, telling a group of newspaper editors recently that Obama “doesn’t want to share his real plans before the election, either with the public or with the press,” and that it was up to journalists to make him come clean. “His intent is on hiding; you and I are going to have to do the seeking,” Romney said. “He wants us to reelect him so we can find out what he’ll actually do.”
Of course, Romney is keeping plenty of secrets himself, both about his personal finances and about the cuts he’d have to make to keep his outlandish budget promises.

Neyfakh acknowledges that there’s long been a paranoid strain in American politics, but not on this scale:
But in modern times, no presidential candidate has been accused of keeping more secret plans in his back pocket than Obama. Part of it is rooted in suspicion of his strange name and his ethnic background, of course, but it’s more than that. The speed of his ascent to national fame, his early days as a hipster in New York, even the fact that he may or may not be sneaking cigarettes outside the Oval Office, have all combined to fuel a frothy, nightmarish vision of a comic-book-style supervillain: frightening, fascinating, and very good at hiding things.
As the Globe noted, people on the far right have spread and expanded upon their rumors without being able to point to much in Barack Obama’s policies to support them. For example, even after two highly publicized mass shootings by lunatics who bought extra-big ammunition clips to kill more people, the White House hasn’t campaigned for reasonable gun control. But that doesn’t stop conspiracy-minded  lobbyists!
Perhaps the most widely circulated theory about Obama’s secret intentions is that he’s going to go after the rights of gun owners and eventually abolish the Second Amendment. NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre has called it a “silent but sophisticated long-term conspiracy,” . . . As for the actual long-term plan that Lapierre has alluded to, [NRA spokesman Andrew] Arulanandam declined to be specific, returning instead to Obama’s existing record. “Who knows what he’s cooking up?” he said.
When one has no evidence whatsoever, it’s always wise to decline to be specific. Because people in the throes of OIP Derangement Syndrome don’t need evidence. The lack of evidence is evidence enough:
But the most significant reason why there have been so many theories about Obama’s radical second-term plans may be rooted in something less intuitive: namely, that his first term, so far, has turned out to be surprisingly—that is, suspiciously—moderate. And while the president’s most ardent critics on the right may disagree, the fact is his approach to foreign policy has been downright hawkish, while his signature domestic policy achievement to date is a health care plan whose most controversial provision was originally hatched by a conservative think tank.

For his most vocal detractors, that can only mean one thing: He’s been deliberately prudent, so as to save up his political capital for when he no longer has to worry about reelection. The less evidence of his radicalism, in other words, the stronger the case that he is, in fact, hiding something.
Especially for people who find the sight of this President disquieting all by itself.

26 July 2012

“An impressive job of publicising his work”

Yesterday I quoted from a recent BBC conversation with British fabulist G. P. Taylor. Back in September 2008 Taylor complained to the Telegraph that the BBC was refusing to book him on its interview shows. ”Once they had decided that I was promoting Christianity in my books I found the door firmly shut,” he claimed.

A BCC spokesman responded, “There is no truth in the claim that there is a BBC ban on G P Taylor.” Jonathan Wynne-Jones, the paper’s religious affairs correspondent, did some additional reporting on Taylor’s claim:

Internal correspondence between BBC staff, obtained by the author under the Freedom of Information Act, shows unease about the writer, although the documents question his character rather than his faith.

One email was sent by Christine Morgan, BBC radio’s executive producer of religion. She wrote: “He does an impressive job of publicising his work but he is not universally admired... He has a very high opinion of his own books and in recent press releases there were constant references to him being the writer to take on J K Rowling’s mantle. There’s something quite revealing about their tone."
In that same Telegraph article Taylor dropped another pronouncement:
He says that once his present series of books is complete, he will write under another name and employ an actor to do any public appearances, in an attempt to stop his work being “discriminated” against.
About a year later, in October 2009, told the Yorkshire Post that he was “ending his career prematurely to look after his 11 year-old daughter,” who was unfortunately having to deal with a chronic illness.

Since 2009 Taylor has published four books, including a new series. In addition to speaking to the BBC in favor of age labels on children’s books, he’s currently involved in some movie adaptations.

The Film Stage reports that European producers are casting for Taylor’s Mariah Mundi, with Martin Sheen among the actors considered. “Notarius316” commented on that story:
I think Sheen will be amazing and having read the full story in Variety I am looking forward to the Mariah film.
Interestingly, Notarius316’s Disqus profile indicates he/she also commented on a blog posting about the career of G. P. Taylor:
would you like a chat so I can tell you what went on with Putnam?
GP
email me via my website ...
An impressive job, indeed.

25 July 2012

G. P. Taylor, Vampire Hunter

A posting at Bookshelves of Doom made me look again at the intellectual peregrinations of G. P. Taylor. In 2005 he told the BBC about how concerns about children being attracted to the occult prompted him to write and publish Shadowmancer for children:

“If it wasn’t true that books like Harry Potter, Philip Pullman’s work, Buffy the Vampire Slayer weren’t leading children to the occult, why did the Pagan federation appoint a youth officer to deal with all the inquires from children who wanted to become witches? . . . look in the Buffy books or in some other witch books out at the moment and some of it is genuine stuff…”
For his British audience Taylor rejected the idea that he wrote “to promote the Christian agenda.” However, in 2007 he offered the American public an open letter that claimed:
The reason why I wrote the book and all the others in the series was because of one man and the damage that his books were likely to do to the Christian Church.
I dissected the discrepancies in that letter back here.

Already, however, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series was becoming a huge hit, with the Breaking Dawn volume winning a 2008 British Book Award. So what did Taylor do? As he just told the BBC:
“I was going to a lot of schools, I was seeing what kids were writing, and I just thought this is what children want to read,” he said. “So I wrote a book about vampires which was very dark and scary and realistic…”
So much for worries about Buffy! Within a span of ten months in 2010-11 Taylor published three volumes of the Vampyre Labyrinth series.

In October 2010, in the midst of his marketing campaign, Taylor told the Yorkshire Post that he was “having to keep the details of a nationwide school tour secret, for fear of lobbying from Evangelical Christians”:
“I am about to embark on a school tour and talk to 20,000 children. . . . I am concerned that there is a real threat that some people may start lobbying bookshops and schools to stop children buying the book. . . . The book has recently earned the title ‘the most terrifying children’s book ever written’. Many people are saying that it is far too frightening and that children should be warned before opening the pages.”
In fact, a search for the phrase “most terrifying children’s book ever written” doesn’t produce a single Google hit independent of this article. But that complaint about “a real threat” from religious zealots gained Taylor a little press in the UK. (He had made similar claims of “an insidious hate campaign” four years before, except then the undocumented threat was supposedly from anti-religious zealots.)

A year and a half later, and the latest voice to join the chorus against the Vampyre Labyrinth books is—oh, come on, you saw this coming!—G. P. Taylor. In his recent BBC conversation he declared:
“I wrote the Vampyre Labyrinth, it came out, I hadn’t really read it when I wrote the book, and people who were reading it and reviewing it were saying this is the most frightening thing that has ever been written for kids,” said Taylor. ”I have changed my mind: I think children’s literature has gone too far.”
So G. P. Taylor has now come out against a book that he himself wrote. But didn’t really read. Because it went too far. Or so he’s been told. And he’s happy to use the radio to proclaim his own book as “the most frightening thing that has ever been written for kids.” While also positioning himself as a proponent of traditional values.

24 July 2012

“I’ve the right to make new laws, haven’t I?”

For the last two Tuesdays I’ve been following L. Frank Baum’s discussion of governance in the Pink Country in Sky Island. What Polychrome called “the customs of the country, absurd though they may be,” require that:

Because of the first rule, the book’s heroine, Trot, is made Queen of the Pinks, and because of the second she has to wear a plain pink dress with no flounces and live in a rough hut.
Trot and Button-Bright, with Cap’n Bill and Rosalie the Witch, went to the humble palace, where they had a simple supper of coarse food and slept upon hard beds. In the houses of the City, however, there was much feasting and merrymaking, and it seemed to Trot that the laws of the country which forbade the Queen from enjoying all the good things the people did were decidedly wrong and needed changing.

The next morning Rosalie said to the little girl, “Will you make Tourmaline the Queen again when you go away?”

“I’ll send for her and see about it,” replied Trot. But when Tourmaline arrived at the palace, dressed all in lovely, fluffy robes and with a dainty pink plume in her pink hair, she begged most earnestly not to be made the Queen again.

“I’m having a good time just now after years of worry and uncomfortable living in this uncomfortable old hut of a palace,” said the poor girl, “so it would be cruel for you to make me the servant of the people again and condemn me to want and misery.”

“That seems reason’ble,” replied Trot thoughtfully.

“Rosalie’s skin is just as light a pink as my own,” continued Tourmaline. “Why don’t you make her the Queen?”

“I hadn’t thought of that,” said Trot. Then she turned to Rosalie and asked, “How would you like to rule the Pinkies?”

“I wouldn’t like it,” replied the Witch with a smile. “The Queen is the poorest and most miserable creature in all the kingdom, and I’m sure I don’t deserve such a fate. I’ve always tried to be a good witch and to do my duty.”

Trot thought this over quite seriously for a time. Then one of her quaint ideas came to her—so quaint that it was entirely sensible. “I’m the Queen of the Pinkies just now, am I not?” she asked.

“Of course,” answered Rosalie. “None can dispute that.”

“Then I’ve the right to make new laws, haven’t I?”

“I believe so.”

“In that case,” said the girl, “I’m goin’ to make a law that the Queen shall have the same food an’ the same dresses an’ the same good times that her people have; and she shall live in a house jus’ as good as the houses of any of her people, an’ have as much money to spend as anybody. But no more. The Queen can have her share of ever’thing ’cordin’ to the new law, but if she tries to get more than her share, I’ll have the law say she shall be taken to the edge an’ pushed off. What do you think of that law, Rosalie?”

“It’s a good law and a just one,” replied the Witch approvingly. So Trot sent for the Royal Scribbler, who was a very fat Pinky with large, pink eyes and curly pink hair, and had him carefully write the new law into the Great Book of Laws. The Royal Scribbler wrote it very nicely in pink ink, with a big capital letter at the beginning and a fine flourish at the end.
Trot then makes Rosalie her successor as queen because, she explains, “you’ve got more sense than Tourmaline has and your powers as a witch will help you protect the people.” That perpetuates the benevolent dictatorship usually found in children’s fairylands.

Baum thus had Trot institute equality between the governor and the governed, but not interfere with a law that conferred elite status on the color of a person’s skin. Did that reflect the dominant values among American progressives in 1912, when Sky Island was published?

Baum’s Sky Island is one of the books highlighted in the program at the Winkie Convention, which starts this Friday in Asilomar, California. I’ll moderate a panel on Oz blogs on Sunday morning.

23 July 2012

Gatsby as “a magical magic guy”

Sunny Chanel at Babble bribed her six-year-old daughter with toys to look at the covers of various famous adult novels and guess what they were about.

About The Great Gatsby, our young critic said:
I think it's a book about a haunted theme park and it stars a magical magic guy and he's good and evil and he's trying to get rid of the ghosts. And I think at the end, since it's haunted by a ghost, he tried to make the park go on fire and it did.
Now that could sell.

A few years back I was doing research in the Special Collections at Princeton University Library, and I spotted the Great Gatsby cover hung over one staffer’s desk. Except that it was the original cover art, part of the Charles Scribner’s Sons collection. How’d you like those eyes looking down on you all day?

22 July 2012

Dick Grayson’s First Kiss

Batman, #107 (Apr 1957) contained a story from Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff titled “Robin Falls in Love.” According to the Batman volume of the Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes, this was the first time Robin the Boy Wonder developed a crush on a girl.

Robin rescues Vera Lovely, a fourteen-year-old figure skater. She kisses him; I haven’t seen the panel in question, but I assume it was an unreciprocated kiss on the cheek. [ADDENDUM: The Robin Appreciation Group on Facebook have kindly posted that panel, confirming my hunch.] Nonetheless, for a while he’s gaga, with little red hearts orbiting around his head.

But at the end of the story, Robin and Vera agree to be just good friends, and the situation returns to the status quo ante.

In seven stories of the early 1960s, Betty Kane comes to Gotham and takes up the mantle of Bat-Girl, mostly because she has a crush on the dreamy Boy Wonder. For a long time he doesn’t return her feelings.
In “Prisoners of Three Worlds” (Batman, #153, Feb 1963), Finger and Moldoff showed Bat-Girl finally getting her wish. The teen crime-fighters share a full-on, lip-to-lip kiss. At the end of the story the young masked couple even goes off together, presumably to do some more necking.

But that’s the pre-“New Look” Dick Grayson. It’s not the Dick Grayson of the 1986-2011 DC Universe. His first kiss appears in the story “Grimm” in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, #149-53. (Since that magazine told stories outside the concurrent Batman continuity, it’s possible that this was yet another version of Dick Grayson, but I’m assuming not.)

In this story, Dick is eleven years old. It’s about a month after he started to patrol Gotham City as Robin the Boy Wonder, about two months after he became Bruce Wayne’s ward. (So much for years of careful training.) Batman and Robin are still struggling to trust themselves as a team and a family.

One night Robin chases down a young teen thief called Wily Wendi. She nearly kisses him, as shown in the panel at top, and slips away. After that, Dick can’t get Wendi out of his mind.
He sits in his oddly cluttered room “thinking about The Girl” and puzzling over “such a strange feeling rippling through me.”

In the adventure that follows, Robin leaves Wayne Manor to go into the underground world of Mother Grimm, where Wendi and other orphaned children live. There are various completely unbelievable twists, spectacularly illustrated by Trevor Von Eeden and José Luis Garcia-López. Von Eeden’s website discusses the background of the story and displays some of the line art.

Mother Grimm’s haven catches on fire. Batman and Robin manage to rescue all the children, with Robin carrying Wendi from a burning hospital. And at last they really kiss.
How do we know that’s this Dick Grayson’s first kiss? Because he tells us (even if he doesn’t admit as much to Wendi).
The story ends with Mother Grimm and her twin sister, both murderous loons, disappearing down a raging river, and Batman having to find new homes for all of the orphans. The whole experience cements Dick’s relationship to Bruce, and his confidence as Robin.

And what about Wendi? Dick, narrating the story in his third Nightwing costume and thus in his mid-twenties, tells us she’s “getting a master’s in journalism.” The art shows us that he keeps tabs on her through the bat-computer. The caption says she’s “just as…memorable” for him as before.

But are they still in touch in any way? Might he run into her in Gotham City, as either Dick Grayson or Nightwing? J. M. DeMatteis’s script leaves a loose thread just perfect for fanfiction, but I couldn’t Google up a single story about Wily Wendi.

How long will it take now before such a story appears?

21 July 2012

Farewell to Idaville

Donald J. Sobol’s Encyclopedia Brown series proffers a world amenable to reason and knowledge—a world that people could figure out, even if most of the time we had to peek at the answers. Sobol’s death this month cued an outpouring of internet nostalgia for many readers’ “gateway detective.”

I want to praise Sobol for a less obvious, less appreciated aspect of his series: world-building. He presented Idaville as a typical American small town, but it was an unusual place, and not just because of its inexplicably low rate of unsolved crimes.

The series’s first book, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, shows the title character setting up his agency in the garage for the first time, and then spending a lonely and embarrassing day waiting for his first client. That book also shows our hero’s first meeting with Bugs Meany and the Tigers; despite his knowledge of African zoology and Civil War nomenclature, Encyclopedia’s unaccountably ignorant of Idaville’s gang scene. Fortunately, we also soon meet Sally Kimball, voice for female capability from the start.

After that, the books can be read in any order. Idaville stays the same. More important, Idaville is chock full of young eccentrics like Encyclopedia, and nobody sees anything wrong with that.

Encyclopedia’s good friend Charlie Stewart, for example, collects teeth. Human teeth, animal teeth. In a big jar. In one story he and Encyclopedia go tooth-hunting, and Charlie takes off his shoes so as to sense half-buried teeth more easily. Then Charlie gets shot in the foot. (Life in Idaville can be rough.) But no one tells Charlie that he’s weird. In fact, a surprising number of kids want to get their hands on his teeth.

Cicero Sturgess is “the greatest child actor in Idaville.” Of course, a small town doesn’t have many outlets for child actors, so he’s forced to produce his own plays in churches. Cicero also hates boats, having gotten sick on a submarine sandwich; he seems to be a drama queen. But everyone accepts Cicero’s interests.

Similarly, Pablo Pizzaro is an abstract artist who wears floppy clothes. Sally actually develops a crush on him. (Encyclopedia always undercuts Sally’s dates; one of these years he might even work up the courage to ask her out himself.) Despite a rocky start stealing a wheel from another kid known for having two bikes, Pablo eventually becomes integrated into the kids’ community.

Nearly every kid has some distinctive trait. Tyrone Taylor is the town’s “youngest ladies’ man,” escorting one girl after another; “He was the only boy in Idaville who got up to give a girl his seat—even when they were the only two passengers on the bus.” Benny Breslin is known for thunderous snoring; everyone likes him awake, but the boys know not to invite him on a camping trip or a sleepover. And so on.

Even the villains—Bugs the bully, Wilford Wiggins the teen-aged con artist—are basically eccentrics in their way. Their quirks just happen to infringe on other kids’ property and rights. So Encyclopedia, Sally, and the threat of adult intervention tamp them back down.

The youth of Idaville do normal things like school, baseball, clubs, and camping. But they also, say, go watch Miguel Sebastian put on a bullfighting demonstration with a dog. (Encyclopedia attends to help rescue Charlie’s tooth collection.) And none of this is presented as outlandish, just interesting. I know Sobol built that world in part to justify his mysteries, but his picture of society encourages readers to develop their individual interests to the fullest, not just to be one of the crowd.

Furthermore, the Idaville kids’ society is largely governed by the kids themselves. Encyclopedia helps his dad the police chief out on a couple of cases each volume, but Sobol wrote that he doesn’t tell his parents how he helps out the other kids. That probably reflects a now old-fashioned culture of play, unlike the way most of today’s readers are probably being raised. Encyclopedia collects his agency fees on an old gasoline can—how many of today’s American parents would even let their kids touch a gasoline can? (Not that I had one to play with.)

The New York Public Library is collecting donations in Sobol’s memory. Penguin will publish Sobol’s final collection, Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme, this fall.

20 July 2012

OIP Derangement Syndrome: The Dark Knight Rises Edition

In 1993, Dennis O’Neil and the Batman team at DC Comics envisioned a long story of the Dark Knight meeting his match and having to retire from crime-fighting for a while. This story got the overall title of Knightfall.

What villain would be worthy of breaking Batman’s back? As with the concurrent “Death of Superman” storyline, the company thought that job called for a completely new character. Writer Chuck Dixon and artist Graham Nolan came up with Bane. He wore the full-face mask of a Mexican luchador wrestler and pumped himself up with a steroid-like drug called “venom” (thus making his victory over Batman a cheat). The name Bane reflects the character’s function within Knightfall: he was the bane of Batman’s existence and his name an abridgement of “Bruce Wayne.”

Knightfall led to a character named Azrael taking over as Batman and going crazy with great power and responsibility, to the Robin solo series, and eventually to Dick Grayson wearing the cape and cowl for a while in Batman: Prodigal. It remains one of the most popular Batman sagas, recently reprinted.

Bane has also remained a formidable villain. He’s smart as well as muscular, and knows Bruce Wayne’s secret. His upbringing, as a poor boy in a horrible prison, is the mirror image of Wayne’s privilege and creates natural sympathy. In subsequent stories, Bane teamed up with the Batman family. After Batman appeared to die, he even toyed with the possibility of taking the Caped Crusader’s place.

The character of Bane has also appeared in other media, including nearly all the DC television cartoons, several videogames, and the 1997 Batman and Robin movie. A few years ago, writer-director Christopher Nolan decided to make Bane, as played by Tom Hardy, one of the main villains of his highly-anticipated The Dark Knight Rises, opening today.

Earlier this week right-wing commentators began to speculate about what that character’s visibility might mean to the presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney, until 2002 the chief executive and sole stockholder of Bain Capital.

Dixon, a vocal political conservative, wrote on his website that any connection was “Ridiculous…Tho’ I got a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach that Rush may pick up on this.” (Dixon gave similar comments to Comicbook.com.)

And indeed Rush Limbaugh felt the need to comment on Bane. One might think that he’d feel some affinity for a drug-dependent character, or notice that the story of a heroic multimillionaire might make moviegoers more willing to admire Romney.

Instead, Limbaugh let his paranoia flow. “Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire breathing four eyed whatever it is villain in this movie is named Bane?” he asked, according to his own transcript. He declared that “a lot of brain-dead people, entertainment, the pop culture crowd” would indeed connect Bane and Bain when they voted. “You may think it's ridiculous, I’m just telling you this is the kind of stuff the Obama team is lining up.”

Of course, this conspiracy theory has no historical or logical basis. Limbaugh could have easily dismissed it. But he couldn’t resist any chance to say bad things about President Barack Obama. As has been clear for years now, the racist blowhard suffers from OIP Derangement Syndrome.

19 July 2012

Melody and Moonrise Kingdom

Yesterday I discussed the influence of the 1970s children’s-fiction canon on the work of moviemaker Wes Anderson. For his latest, Moonrise Kingdom, Anderson told Entertainment Weekly that he also took inspiration from certain films of that decade.

François Truffaut’s Small Change (L’argent de poche, 1976), Anderson said, was “really one of the inspirations for this movie, because it’s what made me start thinking about doing…[a] pre-teenage romance.” Among the many vignettes making up that movie is one about a young girl and boy falling in puppy love, sharing a first kiss, and then trying to sneak back into a school or camp assembly unnoticed.

While developing his story, Anderson came across another movie exploring the same idea: Melody (1971), directed by Waris Hussein and written by Alan Parker. For Entertainment Weekly he called that and Ken Loach’s Black Jack (1979) “kind of huge inspirations for Moonrise Kingdom.” (Black Jack is an adaptation of Leon Garfield’s historical novel; I haven’t seen it.)

Melody flopped when it first came out in the UK and US, but was saved from total obscurity by becoming a huge hit in Japan and Latin America. Even now it’s hard to find good cuts in the US; fans recommend the Japanese DVD and a region-2 player.

Melody is one of my guilty-pleasure favorites: I see its flaws, including a cloying undercurrent and an ending that exploits 1960s radicalism without taking it anywhere, but I find it terribly affecting nonetheless—even the pre-disco Bee Gees songs.

The movie is set in a London comprehensive school; as an American I can only begin to parse the film’s discussion of class. The first act introduces Danny (Mark Lester from Oliver!) and his boy-crush on Cockney classmate Ornshaw (Jack Wild, also from Oliver!); the second act shows Danny transferring his affection to a girl named Melody (Tracy Hyde); and the third follows what happens when that young couple decides to get married.

Yet another movie going over the same territory was George Roy Hill’s A Little Romance (1979), with young Diane Lane and Thelonius Bernard. Sir Laurence Olivier was on hand gulping down great mouthfuls of Continental scenery, and critics were unkind, but the kids are good.

What makes Small Change and Melody so enjoyable is that their love stories play out on a field of deep naturalism. The latter film shows us boisterous multicultural schoolrooms, London streets, Melody’s working-class family, Danny’s awful bourgeois parents, the school’s athletics day, and so on. Other movies about kids that share that naturalistic approach include Little Fugitive (1953) and Kenny & Company (1976).

In contrast, Wes Anderson creates arch, artificial worlds. In Rushmore some reality broke through its hero’s self-protective artifice; think of Bill Murray’s visit to the barbershop. But there’s no tether to the real world in Moonrise Kingdom, as hard as Bruce Willis tries. The young leads may be the best part of the movie, but they’re not playing real kids; their characters are brightly-painted Sims.

So after I saw Moonrise Kingdom, I came home and watched unauthorized extracts from Melody on YouTube.

18 July 2012

The Influence of Middle-Grade Fiction on Wes Anderson

Movie director Wes Anderson, born in 1969, grew up reading the children’s books that librarians praised in the 1970s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

That influence was clear the moment that the narrator of The Royal Tenenbaums tells us that two of the siblings had lived surreptitiously in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just as in E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Newbery winner for 1968. That scene took less than a minute, as I recall; any longer, and it would have moved from homage to outright theft.

Anderson of course adapted Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, published in 1970.

According to Hollywood.com, Anderson had some more fantastic middle-grade models in mind for his latest movie, Moonrise Kingdom:
…Anderson returned to many of books and movies he loved as a kid. Anderson recalls Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time [Newbery Medal, 1963], Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (which the director suggests shaped the characterization of his young hero Sam Shakusky) and Susan Cooper’s ’60s [actually 1965 and 1973-77] fantasy series, The Dark Is Rising [Newbery Honor in 1974, Newbery Medal in 1977].

Anderson calls the first book in the saga, Under Sea Under Stone, “a tease,” in that at the core of the epic tale was a touching family story. But that didn’t stop him from immersing himself in the more fantastic elements as a kid.
Anderson was right in detecting something different about that first volume: Cooper didn’t envision the more fantastic sequels when she wrote it. In the US it even came from a different publisher. The epic qualities arrive in the second volume:
“There’s a poem that includes all these different symbols and talisman, and there’s this whole sort of mythology associated with it,” Anderson fondly remembers. “But it does not have the complexity of Tolkien. It’s young adult novel feeling, from the ’50s, ’60s, so there’s a sort of simplicity at the same time that there’s a very fleshed-out fantasy world. I remember carrying and wearing objects that I was imbuing with the powers of these talismans that were in the series.”
I don’t think the term “young adult” applies to any of those books, however. (Even Huckleberry Finn is either middle-grade or adult.) They’re all middle-grade novels, most about finding capability instead of finding identity. But of course “young adult” is a hot term today.

TOMORROW: The greatest influences on Moonrise Kingdom.

17 July 2012

Queen by the Color of Her Skin

A week ago, I quoted the passage from Sky Island in which L. Frank Baum revealed how the Queen of the Pink Country must live in poverty in exchange for her authority. But how does one become queen?

A later chapter explores that aspect of the country’s governance. As the Pinkies plan to toss our heroes off the island because “They do not harmonize with our color scheme,” Polychrome the Rainbow’s Daughter (introduced in The Road to Oz) arrives and starts to research their laws:

Polychrome began turning over the leaves, while the others all watched her anxiously and in silence. “Here,” she said presently, “is a Law which reads as follows: ‘Everyone in the Pink Country is entitled to the protection of the Ruler and to a house and a good living, except only the Blueskins. If any of the natives of the Blue Country should ever break through the Fog Bank, they must be driven back with sharp sticks.’ Have you read this Law, Tourmaline?”

“Yes,” said the Queen, “but how does that apply to these strangers?”

“Why, being in the Pink Country, as they surely are, and not being Blueskins, they are by this Law entitled to protection, to a home and good living. The Law does not say ‘Pinkies,’ it says any who are in the Pink Country.” . . .

“I am indeed relieved to have you interpret the Law in this way,” declared Tourmaline. “I knew it was cruel to throw these poor people over the edge, but that seemed to us the only thing to be done.”

“It was cruel and unjust,” answered Polychrome as sternly as her sweet voice could speak. “But here,” she added, for she had still continued to turn the leaves of the Great Book, “is another Law which you have also overlooked. It says, ‘The person, whether man or woman, boy or girl, living in the Pink Country who has the lightest skin shall be the Ruler—King or Queen—as long as he or she lives, unless someone of a lighter skin is found, and this Ruler’s commands all the people must obey.’ Do you know this Law?”

“Oh yes,” replied Tourmaline. “That is why I am the Queen. You will notice my complexion is of a lighter pink than that of any other of my people.”

“Yes,” remarked Polychrome, looking at her critically, “when you were made Queen without doubt you had the lightest-colored skin in all the Pink Country. But now you are no longer Queen of the Pinkies, Tourmaline.”

Those assembled were so startled by this statement that they gazed at the Rainbow’s Daughter in astonishment for a time. Then Tourmaline asked, “Why not, your Highness?”

“Because here is one lighter in color than yourself,” pointing to Trot. “This girl is, by the Law of the Great Book, the rightful Queen of the Pinkies, and as loyal citizens you are all obliged to obey her commands. Give me that circlet from your brow, Tourmaline.” Without hesitation Tourmaline removed the rose-gold circlet with its glittering jewel and handed it to Polychrome, who turned and placed it upon Trot's brow. Then she called in a loud, imperative voice, “Greet your new Queen, Pinkies!”
Trot Griffith thus follows Dorothy Gale in overturning the governments of about half the countries she visits. And she becomes queen herself, not simply putting one of her companions on the throne.

But, as last week’s extract showed, it’s a hard life being Queen of the Pinkies.

COMING UP: Queen Trot’s reforms.

(Incidentally, Baum’s incomplete sentence in the last paragraph above was itself mistranscribed in the electronic text of Sky Island that circulated since at least 2003 and is the basis of some reprints. The line is corrected in the latest Project Gutenberg text released on 15 Mar 2012.)

16 July 2012

Avoiding Research as a Spur for Creativity

I doubt I’ll get to horror author Glen Duncan’s novels soon, but I enjoyed John Williams’s interview with him for the New York Times:
Did commercial considerations play a prominent role in these books?

Yes. I wasn’t making enough money. My original plan was to write a Victorian serial killer novel, “Oliver Twist” meets “The Silence of the Lambs” (which someone reading this will now write and clean up with), but the research was a drag. Nineteenth-century English literature I know; 19th-century sewage systems not so much.

Then, on New Year’s Eve 2009, a friend asked me what I was “hoping to achieve” in the next 12 months. Resisting the urge to break a bottle over his head, I said — for no reason I can now remember — that I was going to write a novel about the last surviving werewolf. Agreement that this was a good idea was slurred but unanimous. Moreover, it still seemed a good idea when I woke up the next morning.
In my workshop at the SCBWI New England conference last spring, I asked the attendees, “How do you kill a vampire?” After we accumulated a bunch of replies, I gave my answer: “Since vampires aren’t real, you can kill them any way you want.”

Of course, you have to acknowledge your readers’ expectations in some way and establish the rules of your vampire early in the story.

Williams’s continued curiosity about research led Duncan to talk about how he put that rule (or lack of a hard rule) into practice:
What kind of research did you do for these novels? How did you balance loyalty to the details of the vampire and werewolf myths with making them your own?

No research at all. The balance was determined partly according to taste (death by silver is cool; I was definitely keeping that) and partly according to thematic utility. Some versions of the myth allow for voluntary [werewolf] metamorphosis, but that doesn’t present the same dilemma of conscience. The lunar enslavement forces a choice between murder and death — a much richer moral quandary.
As long as the choices serve the story, an author can get away with nearly anything.

15 July 2012

Don’t You Hate When This Happens?


These panels are from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, #150. Pencils by Trevor Von Eeden, inks by José Luis García-López, script by J. M. DeMatteis. Note the fine use of shifting light sources in the first two panels and the multiple balloons pacing the query in the third. And of course the classic millionaire playboy’s dressing-gown.

More about kids sneaking out of windows here.

14 July 2012

How Teen Boat! Was Launched

Adolescence is a period of change, but in our culture we paradoxically view it as a period of change into what you really are the whole time. Almost all popular-media stories about teens consciously trying to change themselves end with some level of failure for not being honest about their true selves. Instead, our modern stories emphasize self-acceptance, recognizing the value of what you are all along. Whether that’s a purely Good Thing is another matter.

Which, by a roundabout course, brings me to Teen Boat!, a new collection of comics adventures by writer Dave Roman and artist John Green. Little Willow’s interview with Roman at Bildungsroman dredges up the start of this tale:
…the inspiration came to us while we were on a bus. Long trips can often lead to loopy thoughts, especially for comic creators. One minute John Green and I are discussing ’80s cartoons and the spectrum of cool vs. less-cool transformation powers, then we’re talking about imaginary boardroom meetings gone wrong, and before long we were pitching tag lines like “The ANGST of being a teen, the THRILL of being a boat.”

It easily could have stayed a joke amongst ourselves, but we felt compelled to share our idea of a teenager who transforms into a yacht with all our cartoonists friends. The more they laughed, the more John and I were motivated to turn the silly premise into something real. And one of the many beautiful things about comics is there's very little stopping you from making that happen.

Our first Teen Boat! books were printed on a black and white photocopier, hand stapled, and hand sold for 50 cents each at indie comic shows. Ten years later, it’s a full-color hardcover book sold in bookstores everywhere and endorsed by the Junior Library Guild!
Specifically, Teen Boat! appears to have been inspired by Turbo Teen, a 1984 animated cartoon about a boy who makes temperature-sensitive shifts to and from being a car. Hard to imagine why that show lasted only twelve episodes.

Teen Boat! began as a series of black-and-white minicomics parodying such adventures through a adolescent hero who can change into a small yacht. It grew into a substantial (though unfinished) collection of stories from Clarion, now fully colored (by a team that included Braden Lamb).

Mercifully, the collection doesn’t include an origin story. We have no idea how Teen Boat came to be both a boy and a boat. (In one flashback panel he has a mom.) Nor does he have a secret identity—his name is Teen Boat. But we don’t need those elements of the classic superhero narrative. All that matters for these stories is that our hero is stuck/blessed with being both a boat and a teenager.

Beyond that premise, Teen Boat! floats on an ocean of North American teen-comedy-adventure stories from cartoons, sitcoms, and comics. We see the rich and jockish bully, the pretty exchange student, the inveterate rule-breaker, and other familiar high-school types. Teen Boat’s best friend climbs in through his bedroom window as on Clarissa Explains It All or Doogie Howser, M.D. Stories revolve around the class trip, the big dance, the school election, the driving test, the mystery that only a teen-aged amateur sleuth can solve, and other common rites of passage.

Yet Teen Boat! goes deeper than parody. As other have noted, including the AV Club and Hal Johnson at Paste Magazine, these stories has real heart. Just because the situations that teenagers find themselves in can easily be parodied doesn’t mean the underlying emotions aren’t real.

Teen Boat’s everyboat quality makes him an appealing hero. While young readers may laugh at the parodic touches, they may also recognize their own concerns in him. And when they see that even Teen Boat worries about skin blemishes or how to buy “nautical accessories,” might that offer a little more perspective on their own angst?

13 July 2012

We Interrupt This Interview with the President…

On Super Bowl Sunday in 2011, President Barack Obama sat down for an interview with Bill O’Reilly. Five years earlier, O’Reilly had interviewed President George W. Bush.

Those two broadcasts provided Ryan Witt at Political Examiner.com with the data to compare how O’Reilly had behaved toward the two successive Presidents. Witt’s findings:
Both interviews were a little over 14 minutes long. . . . In the entire 14-minute interview of Obama in 2011 the President's longest answer was 51 seconds long. President Bush's first answer to O'Reilly's question lasts 69 seconds. Later in the interview Bush is allowed to speak for two minutes straight, something President Obama could have only dreamed of 2011. While O'Reilly does interrupt Bush a number of times in 2006, the nature of the interview is much less combative, and President Bush is generally given the right to finish what he is saying.

As documented in an earlier post, President Obama was interrupted 22 times in his interview with O'Reilly and given an average of 26 seconds to respond. In contrast, President Bush was given an average of 34 seconds to respond, and Bush is generally known as a man of less words than President Obama.

In 2006 everything was presented as a question to President Bush. Frequently O'Reilly would ask Bush about a criticism from Democrats like Hillary Clinton, and then ask Bush to give his rebuttal. In the 2011 interview, O'Reilly often would not ask a question but simply make a statement of fact. For example, after President Obama argued for the individual mandate in health care reform O'Reilly stated, "but you understand that a lot of Americans feel that you are a big government liberal who wants to intrude on their personal freedom." When Obama tried to respond that charge he was again interrupted and redirected by O'Reilly.
Other observers noticed the same pattern, using different metrics. Wonkette counted O’Reilly breaking into President Obama’s remarks 48 times, though he didn’t always succeed in derailing the sentence.

I looked at the transcriptions, which usually indicate interruptions only when they stop a sentence before it’s complete. FOX posted its transcript of O’Reilly’s Bush interview in three parts. All told, I count six times that Bush’s answers end in an incomplete sentence or request to finish a point.

FOX doesn’t appear to have archived O’Reilly’s interview with President Obama the same way, but Politics Daily has a transcript. I count nineteen times Obama’s answers end with a dash or ellipses mark, indicating that O’Reilly successfully interrupted the President’s statement.

As much as Bill O’Reilly likes to hear his own voice, he was largely able to curtail that desire when speaking to President Bush. But not when speaking to President Obama. Either he doesn’t respect this President as much as his predecessor, or he can’t stand to listen to generally intelligent, perceptive, and well-argued remarks from a man like Barack Obama. Either way, the videotapes and transcripts preserve clear signs of O’Reilly’s OIP Derangement Syndrome.

12 July 2012

Another Hellbound II Review

At High-Low, Rob Clough had some nice things to say about my contribution to Hellbound II:
JL Bell and Andy Wong's "RobMeBlind.com" takes a clever idea (a website that compiles facebook and twitter statuses indicating that someone is going out of town so that people can rob them) and gives it a horror twist. The initial idea is interesting enough on its own to follow through on, even as the reader knows that the robbers will not meet a kind end.
Hough also praises Caitlin Plovnick’s “Eye Contact,” Joshua D. Hoaglund’s “Mt. Auburn Night,” Ansis Purins’s “Slappy,” and (Ms.) Gabriel Robinson’s “The Red Calf,” plus the art in Patrick Flaherty and E.J. Barnes’s “The Plague” and Clayton McCormack’s “The Breath of Life.”

11 July 2012

And Then the Boy and the Balloon Soared Away to Seize Kamchatka

Top of this week’s list of Things I’m Having Trouble Getting My Head Around—

Albert Lamorisse (1922-1970) wrote and directed The Red Balloon (1956) and White Mane (1952), two beautifully photographed movies about young French boys, their unicolor companions, and how together they run away from this cruel world.

Both movies won prizes at Cannes, the Oscars, and elsewhere, and remain popular and admired. (I grew up with the picture-book adaptation of The Red Balloon, which was less scary because I could take it at my own pace.)

And here’s the Thing: Lamorisse was also the creator of the cut-throat strategy board game Risk. Its original name in 1957 was the, frankly, more accurate La Conquête du Monde.

10 July 2012

What We Can Learn from Tourmaline the Poverty Queen

L. Frank Baum’s 1912 fantasy novel Sky Island is one of the themes of the Winkie Convention taking place in California later this month. In that book, Baum continued his pattern of cheekily examining how nations organize themselves politically. As usual, he presented the governors of those nations as monarchs, simplifying the world to match how most children experience it. But he discarded the west’s traditional hereditary way of choosing rulers.

On the blue side of the island, the Boolooroo is supposed to rule for only 300 years, and is further be term-limited by the 600-year ceiling on his life. And on the pink side of the island:

The Queen gazed upon our friends with evident interest. She smiled—a little sadly—at Trot, seemed to approve Button-Bright’s open, frank face, and was quite surprised because Cap’n Bill was so much bigger than her own people. “Are you a giant?” she asked the sailor in a soft, sweet voice.

“No, your Majesty,” he replied, “I’m only—“

“Majesty!” she exclaimed, flushing a deeper pink. “Are you addressing that word to me?”

“O’ course, ma’am,” answered Cap’n Bill. “I’m told that’s the proper way to speak to a Queen.”

“Perhaps you are trying to ridicule me,” she continued, regarding the sailor’s face closely. “There is nothing majestic about me, as you know very well. Coralie, do you consider ‘majesty’ a proper word to use when addressing a Queen?” she added, appealing to the Pinky woman.

“By no means,” was the prompt reply.

“What shall I call her, then?” inquired Cap’n Bill.

“Just Tourmaline. That is her name, and it is sufficient,” said the woman.

“The Ruler of a country ought to be treated with great respec’,” declared Trot a little indignantly, for she thought the pretty little queen was not being properly deferred to.

“Why?” asked Tourmaline curiously.

“Because the Ruler is the mos’ ’risticratic person in any land,” explained the little girl. “Even in America ever’body bows low to our President, an’ the Blueskins are so ’fraid o’ their Boolooroo that they tremble whenever they go near him.”

“But surely that is all wrong,” said Tourmaline gravely. “The Ruler is appointed to protect and serve the people, and here in the Pink Country I have the full power to carry out the laws. I even decree death when such a punishment is merited. Therefore I am a mere agent to direct the laws, which are the Will of the People, and am only a public servant obliged constantly to guard the welfare of my subjects.”

“In that case,” said Button-Bright, “you’re entitled to the best there is to pay for your trouble. A powerful ruler ought to be rich and to live in a splendid palace. Your folks ought to treat you with great respect, as Trot says.”

“Oh no,” responded Tourmaline quickly. “That would indeed be very wrong. Too much should never be given to anyone. If, with my great power, conferred upon me by the people, I also possessed great wealth, I might be tempted to be cruel and overbearing. In that case my subjects would justly grow envious of my superior station. If I lived as luxuriously as my people do and had servants and costly gowns, the good Pinkies would say that their Queen had more than they themselves, and it would be true. No, our way is best. The Ruler, be it king or queen, has absolute power to rule, but no riches, no high station, no false adulation. The people have the wealth and honor, for it is their due. The Queen has nothing but the power to execute the laws, to adjust grievances and to compel order.”

“What pays you, then, for all your bother?” asked Trot.

“I have one great privilege. After my death a pink marble statue of me will be set up in the Grand Court, with the statues of the other Kings and Queens who have ruled this land, and all the Pinkies in ages to come will then honor me as having been a just and upright queen. That is my reward.”

“I’m sorry for you, ma’am,“ said Cap’n Bill. “Your pay for bein’ a queen is sort o’ like a life-insurance. If don't come due till after you’re dead, an’ then you can’t get much fun out o’ it."
Ironically, the Americans—particularly the little girl Trot—want to treat Queen Tourmaline with more deference than her own society accords her.

American society in Baum’s lifetime had struggled with the Pinkies’ problem of how to motivate government employees to work for the good of the people, resisting the temptation to work for themselves. The solution—the federal civil service system—was instituted in 1871. It promised protection from political shifts in exchange for salaries less volatile than in the private sector, pensions to reduce the motivation to amass money, and respect.

Currently a lot of American governments are cutting back on compensation and breaking contracts to public workers. I fear we’ve forgotten the original reasoning behind that social compact. Civil service systems aren’t perfect and can be exploited, but they’re one of those flawed arrangements that’s nonetheless better than anything else we’ve come up with. As Baum went on to explore, the Pinkies’ solution of an impoverished ruler with no respect until death had its own problems.

COMING UP: Choosing the Queen of the Pink Country.

09 July 2012

James Treadwell: “Teenagers are basically fantastical beings”

My conversation with James Treadwell about his new novel, Advent, wraps up with a question about the book’s young protagonists.

Advent’s main character is Gavin, a teen-aged boy. Horace and Marina, two other important characters, are younger adolescents. Did you conceive of the book as for readers of that age or a little younger, or is adolescence just a good period of life for a transformative fantasy?

This is another great question, and I don’t think there’s much hope of responding briefly, but I’ll do my best.

To take the second part of the question first: yes. Yes it is.

Which is brief, but not very helpful …

I think it’s because teenagers are basically fantastical beings. They don’t quite live in the real world. They’re intensely aware of the inadequacy of things as they are, they’re intensely resistant to the idea that the world has to be the way adults say it is. They also have a strange and wonderful mix of freedom and unfreedom. They can’t choose their own course in the world, they don’t have their own houses and incomes and they can’t decide what to do with their time; but at the same time they’re not caught up in the web of obligations and necessities which makes adults unfree. Someone else deals with bank accounts and dentists and bills and wills and the possibility of being fired or going hungry or having to move to Peoria.

(Of course there are all sorts of social and economic and ideological determinants that affect children massively; but their relationship with those forces is much more oblique than it is for adults. Anyway, if we’re going to have even slightly brief answers I’m going to have to generalise …) I suppose what I mean is that teenagers are unplaced, as it were. Their lives haven’t dried hard yet. They’re closer to being seven-year-olds than we (or they) think. So where an adult might just dismiss fantasy as a distraction or a delusion or a nice-idea-but-we-all-know-things-don’t-work-like-that, a teenager might hear it speaking to them directly, honestly, intriguingly.

As for the first part of the question: I have a distant memory of wanting to write specifically for YA readers, just because my own reading experiences between about twelve and eighteen don’t seem to be going away no matter how much older I get or how much other (and, sometimes, better) stuff I read.

The difficulty, for me, is that “writing for an age group” actually means “writing the way books for a certain age group are supposed to be written, according to current commercial requirements.” Publishers’ ideas of what a book for (say) fourteen year-olds ought to look like were very different in the 1970s from the way they are now, and very different again in the 1920s, and the 1870s, and so on. It’s a marketing issue, essentially. For all their differences, if you think about what Harry Potter and Percy Jackson and the Hunger Games have in common — imagine a sort of stylistic Venn diagram — then I’d say you’d have a good idea of the minimum current requirements for something to count as YA fiction.

Alas, whether I’d like it to or not, my pen just won’t write that way.

The simple answer is that I didn’t write Advent for any age group. Of course, I didn’t write it against any age group either; I very much hope readers of Gavin’s age (fifteen) will enjoy it. But all I could do was tell the story the way I felt it wanted to be told.


Thanks, James! This photo by Arthur Ka Wai Jenkins shows me with Godson, Godson’s Brother, and their dad (James) during a hike a few years ago. In just two more years, we’ll see exactly how fantastical teenagers are!

08 July 2012

Why Dick Grayson as Batman Reached a Dead End

If we can interpret the sagas of, say, Wally West and Stephanie Brown in the 1986-2011 DC Comics universe as successful and complete coming-of-age stories, can we do the same for their contemporaries Dick Grayson and Tim Drake? And what does that mean for the new manifestations of those characters in the company’s new continuity?

Although DC’s editors have promised fans that little had changed in the Batman saga, there were significant changes to both Dick and Tim in the transition. Ironically, Tim underwent more outward changes than Dick, but his overall character storyline has remained much the same while Dick’s shifted significantly.

The last issues of the old Red Robin and Teen Titans magazines left Tim as Red Robin, a step away from his first crime-fighting identity as Robin but not yet fully his own man. He was back living in Wayne Manor; indeed, he was more involved with Bruce Wayne’s business than any other adopted son.

As usual, Tim was smart, serious, and fretful about living up to the challenge at hand. Since his first appearance in 1989, he’s been unusually mature for his age, preserving his father figures from their faults. But he remained an adolescent.

Indeed, when Bruce Wayne appeared to be dead, Tim alone rejected that idea. He turned out to be right, of course, but that also showed how he wasn’t ready to go on without his father-figure, that in his saga he didn’t come of age yet. To the premature end, Tim was still working through the issues of being an adolescent hero. His unresolvable foundational conflict was still trying to grow up without becoming too dark.

The new continuity’s Tim Drake has a new costume, a new Titans team, and, it now appears, a new past. Teaser copy for Teen Titans, #0, describes him as a “would be Olympic star and computer genius.” The Tim Drake introduced in 1989 was more interested in Olympus camera lenses than the Olympic Games; his athletic history was limited to some karate lessons. (Will this change affect his appeal to comics readers?)

Despite those changes, Tim’s overall story is still about coming of age. He’s still worried about maintaining the best parts of the bat-tradition without becoming cruel. As founder of this universe’s first Teen Titans, he’s at the center of its symbolic generational struggle.

In contrast, in the 1986-2011 DC Universe, Dick Grayson did come of age. He became Batman, not just temporarily but permanently (at least as he and most characters believed). The “man” in that crime-fighting name signaled his fully mature status.

Unfortunately, that transition left Dick without an unresolvable foundational conflict. Once he confirmed his ability to be Batman without losing himself, that conflict was resolved. And that left no clear way for the character to develop.

Some of the stories told in the last couple of years of that universe, such as Scott Snyder’s Black Mirror, are quite good. But they didn’t grow from Dick’s individual history and qualities. Nor did the company make major changes to that character’s life, such as marriage or another relationship, injury, revelation of secret identity, loss of fortune, move to another city, and so on, which could produce a new overarching challenge. While successful in both fictive life and sales, the character of Dick Grayson had reached a dead end. On top of that, the return of Bruce Wayne from the past meant the company had two Batmen at once, and that was confusing for everyone.

The last time that Dick stepped back after being Batman, in the 1994 issues collected in Prodigal, he told Bruce that he felt he’d failed as a hero and was ready to give up costumes and retire.

This attitude seems uncharacteristic, and of course it didn’t last. But from a creative standpoint that moment reveals the difficulty of shifting Dick back to the role he adopted as an older adolescent without acknowledging that it looks like a step backward.

So this time DC simply skipped that transition. The new universe’s Dick Grayson was introduced younger than before and back in a Nightwing costume. Though he’s stood in for Batman at least once, that history seems to a minor part of his past. The stories once again focus on Dick figuring out his role in life, just as they have since the 1980s. Once more, he’s coming of age.

Thus, we can read the Dick Grayson saga from 1986 to 2010 as a successful coming-of-age, but one that left a lot more unanswered questions that Wally West’s growth to a family man or Stephanie Brown’s achievement of respect. And the new Dick Grayson saga dialed back to odometer and started that story again, with the same foundational conflict as before. Does that feel like a loss to the characters’ fans? Probably so, but it’s also a restoration of the character that attracted us in the first place. Because, although we root for Dick Grayson to grow up successfully, he’s not as interesting if he does.

07 July 2012

Differing Points of View and James Treadwell’s Advent

I’ve spoken at writing conferences about what I call the Parameters of Narrative Voice, one of the most important being Point of View. Does a story follow one character closely, or take a wider view? Is the narrator omniscient or limited? What signals (if any) a shift in narration?

I think that an author is best served by establishing the parameters of narrative voice early so that any later changes don’t throw off readers. That said, some novels I like a lot—Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer—shift points of view midstream, to greater or lesser effect.

I brought up that aspect of storytelling in my ongoing Q&A with James Treadwell, author of Advent.

Most of the first part of Advent sticks closely to Gavin’s point of view as he travels from London to Cornwall and meets people. Then we start to follow some other characters as well: Horace, the Chinese-British boy; the minister; and so on. Meanwhile, there are interstitial chapters tracing the story of Dr. John Fiste backwards through time. How did you develop that narrative strategy? What challenges did it bring?

“Strategy”?

Sorry.

But seriously … As far as I can remember, I had the idea of a double narrative in mind from the start. At one stage I think I conceived of it fairly schematically: shorter, more lyrical, more ornate chapters would relate to the more explicitly fantastical material, while longer, plainer sections would tell the story of the present-day characters. It wouldn’t stay as neatly organised as that, but once it was underway it felt roughly right: two apparently very different strands of plot converging on a kind of hinge moment.

Some of the shifts in perspective and narrative voice just arrived out of nowhere, though. It’s that odd experience of ventriloquism which a lot of writers must experience: suddenly it feels like another voice’s moment to start speaking.

The challenges. Mainly, I suppose, it’s trying to get the pace right: the flow from one kind of narrative or point of view to another, the rhythm of suspense, the proportions of the plot. I wish I could say I get this right all the time but I know very well I don’t. It’s one of the aspects where I depend most on my (marvellously helpful) agent and editors to tell me when things aren’t working.

The other big challenge of this rather non-linear and intricate way of fitting a story together is, if I’m honest, the challenge to the reader. In the absence of a single consistent more-or-less omniscient narrator who goes through the plot from beginning to middle to end, there’s no doubt that it’s harder for the reader to be certain of what’s going on.

I’m all right with that, though.

MONDAY: Teenagers as fantastical beings.