30 December 2012

How Young Dick Grayson?

Young Dick Grayson fine. How you?

With birthdays on my mind, I’m indulging myself in a discussion of how young Dick Grayson was when he became Robin, and what age the comic books have given him since.

In 1976 Michael L. Fleisher wrote in the Batman volume of The Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes:
It is not possible to establish Dick Grayson’s age with any real precision. There were fourteen candles on his birthday cake in April-May 1942, indicating that he turned fourteen during this period, or, if one of these candles was only a “good luck” candle, thirteen. On this same occasion, curiously enough, Bruce Wayne ceremoniously spanks his young ward eight times, plus “one for good measure” and another “to grow on,” but it seems absurd to suggest that Grayson was only eight years old at this time.
The two data points Fleisher cited appear not only in the same story, “The Isle That Time Forgot,” but on the same page of Batman, #10. Clearly DC Comics creators and editors weren’t concerned about providing consistent information. They probably preferred ambiguity, letting readers imagine that Robin was whatever age they chose.

Fleisher went on to state: “The chronicles, at any rate, treat Grayson as a student of high school age until December 1969, at which time, having apparently attained college age, he departs Gotham City to attend his first year of classes at Hudson University.” The comics weren’t explicit about Dick being in high school until the late 1940s, though. That offers some possibility of the character aging after his initial appearance, but Dick remained a teenager for at least thirty years.

In New Teen Titans, #39 (1984), Marv Wolfman and George Pérez showed Dick talking about having been Robin since age eight. It’s even possible that Wolfman picked up that detail from Fleisher’s reference book. Devin Grayson followed Wolfman’s lead in Gotham Knights and the prose novel Inheritance. But most writers of the period didn’t see a need to specify that detail any more than stating Dick’s current age. Again, there was value in ambiguity.

Of course, there are alternate continuities as well. The Dick Grayson that Tim Sale drew for Dark Victory is even tinier than the barrel-chested boy of the early 1940s. The Tiny Titans Robin (shown at top) is evidently six or seven years old. Frank Miller pounded the phrase “Dick Grayson, age twelve,” through the first issues of All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder. In the soon-to-resume Young Justice television cartoon, Dick started training with Batman at age nine. And in DC’s current continuity, Dick was with the Haly Circus into his mid-teens. (I don’t recall if the magazines have gotten more specific.)

But I don’t think those details matter much. The web records many attempts to fit the events of the new DC continuity and its predecessors into solid timelines; while I admire the ingenuity and diligence of their makers, I think they’re exercises in futility. With all respect to Wolfman’s specific detail, exact ages don’t matter so much as life stages and symbolism. Realistic aging is an unrealistic expectation for an unrealistic genre.

29 December 2012

Wholly Six Yards

Back in 2007, I was fairly certain that the mystery of “the whole nine yards” had been solved, with citations starting to focus on Cold War military aviators.

But today’s newspaper brings news that Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Fred Shapiro have found the phrase “the whole six yards” used the same way in American newspapers from the 1910s and 1920s.

Those periodicals are the Mount Vernon (Kentucky) Signal and Spartanburg (South Carolina) Herald-Journal, suggesting that the phase was invented in the upcountry South. As for the growth from “six” to “nine,” Shapiro suggests that was “part of the same ‘numerical phrase inflation‘…that turned ‘Cloud 7’ to ‘Cloud 9’.” (In other words, our phrases may go to eleven.)

The imprecise number, furthermore, suggests that the number was never important to the phrase: there’s unlikely to be something six yards long to find. Rather, people spoke of “six yards” or “nine yards” to invoke the power of specificity itself.

28 December 2012

FactCheck Reviews a Year of OIP Derangement Syndrome

FactCheck.org just released its list of “The Worst Viral Emails of 2012,” those messages sent around by political rumormongers and conspiracy theorists.

As usual in the regular American media, the article works very hard to create a balance of left and right, starting its bullet points with “Dueling graphics on the debt both overstated and understated President Obama’s contribution to the debt.”

But after that, there’s only one more example of a viral email from the left, about Tagg Romney being part-owner of a firm that made electronic voting machines.

Every other example in the article—sixteen in all, or eight times as many—came from the right. Examples from FactCheck:

  • No, Obama didn’t give Alaskan islands to Russia, and his early records weren’t “sealed.”
  • Over-the-top “death panel” claims about the Affordable Care Act included purely invented stories about elderly Americans being denied dialysis or brain surgery.
  • In the tin-foil-hat category, one conspiracy said Obama was creating martial law and a “standing army of government youth.” The adult-aged FEMA Corps members help with natural disasters and can’t carry weapons.
  • General Motors is still firmly based in the U.S., despite claims that it’s becoming “China Motors.”
This pattern matches what I found by looking at rumor-checking on Snopes.com in 2010 and again this February.

The FactCheck report notes how the modern American right creates and spreads these lies much more often than the left:
Much of what we’ve seen lambasts the president, or Democrats. It’s to be expected that whoever is sitting in the White House would bear the brunt of online discontent. But we can’t give a definitive reason for why the viral chatter is more conservative in nature.
It’s not just “viral chatter,” of course. It’s outright lies from people who don’t respect the truth. It’s an epidemic of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

27 December 2012

A Clearly Important Manga

Over thirty years ago, I sat down to read Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa’s graphic novel about the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. The Cold War was still cold, and I was in the movement for a nuclear-weapons freeze. I was also reading American comics on a monthly basis.

Barefoot Gen was the first manga I saw, I now realize. And I didn’t get it. I couldn’t reconcile the “cartoony” art with the story’s casual violence plus the nuclear ultraviolence. I didn’t get the pace, especially after vaguely realizing that Nakazawa continued his story in more volumes. At least the pages had been flopped for the English edition; if I’d been trying to read right to left, I would have been completely lost.

I like to think that with more background information about how Japanese comics were created and published I would have gotten much more out of Barefoot Gen. As it was, I got only the vague guilt of not being able to appreciate something that was Clearly Important.

Nakazawa, who was six when the bomb dropped, just died from lung cancer. Barefoot Gen remains in print around the world and has inspired three cinematic adaptations.

26 December 2012

How Tolkien Built His Mythology Gradually

PBS’s Art Beat blog ran an interview with Jason Fisher about J. R. R. Tolkien’s creative process, starting with his language study:
Once Tolkien had made a thorough study of the history of English and its literary artifacts, he discovered the native English had actually lost their mythology when the French came during the Norman conquest. So Tolkien became interested in trying to figure out whether he could restore some of that mythology. Eventually he gave up the idea that he would be restoring an actual mythology for England. But this mythological backdrop continued to permeate everything that he wrote for the rest of his life.
Tolkien’s paternal ancestors apparently arrived in England half a millennium after the Norman Conquest, but he identified with the earlier Anglo-Saxons. The notion that England lost its original Good Things to the Norman Conquest was also part of Whig political thinking in the eighteenth century. So in that respect The Lord of the Rings is a cultural cousin of the Declaration of Independence, sharing an intellectual root.

Fisher also notes that The Hobbit was originally more tweely English and contemporary in its first edition:
Tolkien was actually an inveterate niggler. He constantly tinkered with his works. For most people, The Hobbit that they know today is the version that includes all of these changes and revision. But if you read the first edition of The Hobbit you see all kinds of strange things, like references to policemen on bicycles, references to Lilliputians, a reference to the Gobi Desert, the wild wireworms of the Chinese, all of these references to the real world. After the first edition, Tolkien cut all of those references and made it more of its own separate world.
Eventually, it appears, Tolkien tumbled to the fact that he was creating a mythology not for England but for himself.

25 December 2012

Who Brings Dad His Neckties and Stockings?

The last act of The Road to Oz is basically cross-marketing, with L. Frank Baum bringing in characters from most of the other fantasies he’d published in recent years as guests at Ozma’s birthday party.

Among those titles was The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, whose title character makes a grand entrance, as I’ve quoted before:
“The most Mighty and Loyal Friend of Children, His Supreme Highness—Santa Claus!” said the Chamberlain, in an awed voice.

“Well, well, well! Glad to see you—glad to meet you all!” cried Santa Claus, briskly, as he trotted up the long room.

He was round as an apple, with a fresh rosy face, laughing eyes, and a bushy beard as white as snow. A red cloak trimmed with beautiful ermine hung from his shoulders and upon his back was a basket filled with pretty presents for the Princess Ozma.

“Hello, Dorothy; still having adventures?” he asked in his jolly way, as he took the girl’s hand in both his own.

“How did you know my name, Santa?” she replied, feeling more shy in the presence of this immortal saint than she ever had before in her young life.

“Why, don’t I see you every Christmas Eve, when you’re asleep?” he rejoined, pinching her blushing cheek.

“Oh, do you?”

“And here’s Button-Bright, I declare!” cried Santa Claus, holding up the boy to kiss him. “What a long way from home you are; dear me!”

“Do you know Button-Bright, too?” questioned Dorothy, eagerly.

“Indeed I do. I’ve visited his home several Christmas Eves.”

“And do you know his father?” asked the girl.

“Certainly, my dear. Who else do you suppose brings him his Christmas neckties and stockings?” with a sly wink at the Wizard.

“Then where does he live? We’re just crazy to know, ’cause Button-Bright’s lost,” she said.

Santa laughed and laid his finger aside of his nose as if thinking what to reply. He leaned over and whispered something in the Wizard’s ear, at which the Wizard smiled and nodded as if he understood.
Santa displays his magical power in two ways:

  • by awing not only Ozma’s chamberlain but Dorothy Gale herself. She hasn’t acted “shy” or “meek” since her first meeting with the Wizard.
  • by knowing where Button-Bright lives—something I’m not sure even Baum had settled on by that time.

On the other hand, even Santa’s power has limits: he can’t think of any better presents for Button-Bright’s dad than neckties and stockings. Dads can be like that.

24 December 2012

Three Thieves and the Danger of Trilogic Assumptions

This weekend I read The Captive Prince, volume 3 of Scott Chantler’s Three Thieves series.

Back when I was enjoying the first volume, Tower of Treasure, I got the impression that this was a trilogy. And I wasn’t alone. At YA Books Central, editor Francesca Amendolia called that book “The first of a trilogy.” Stephen at Page 45 guessed the same. Robot 6 referred to the “Tower of Treasure trilogy” earlier this year (mixing up the series and volume titles).

Maybe the “Three” in the series title spilled over into our expectations for three volumes. Maybe the first volume announced a couple of titles ahead. Maybe a trilogy is a default setting for multi-volume fantasies. I note that even Chris Schweizer, who as creator of the Crogan Adventures series is certainly not wedded to three volumes, assumed back in 2009 that Chantler’s upcoming project would be “an adventure trilogy.”

That wouldn’t matter except for the expectations that assumption set up as I read The Captive Prince. The overarching plot of the series involves teen-aged acrobat Dessa’s search for her brother, kidnapped years before. In or just before the last volume, we can assume, she’ll discover her brother’s fate; odds are 99-1 that she’ll rescue him in some way.

This volume showed Dessa meeting a slightly smaller boy—the captive prince, oddly named Paladin. Naturally I expected that he’d turn out to be Dessa’s brother, adopted by childless royals. Or perhaps Dessa and her brother were royal all along. We’ve all seen that happen, right?

But instead The Captive Prince kept setting up Dessa and Paladin as a young romantic couple. And as the story moved closer and closer to the volume’s final pages, I started feeling like Han Solo in this viral video.

But it turned out that this wasn’t the series’s last volume. As Chantler assured me on Twitter, and as he assured Schweizer years back, he planned Three Thieves to fill seven volumes. So Dessa has plenty of time to find her brother and return to this prince. But first I need to reread The Captive Prince with an open mind. It’ll be much less creepy that way.

23 December 2012


Brian Cronin at Comics Should Be Good just mused about the many covers of World’s Finest Comics from the 1940s which show Robin, Batman, and Superman basically goofing off: “I think it is fun if you just pretend that all of these covers happened on one really amazing day.”

The weekly Robin discussed those covers back here: “Robin appears delighted at having the two coolest older brothers ever.”

Cronin’s essay brought my attention to this cover of World’s Finest, #16, by Jack Burnley with Charles Paris. I hadn’t studied it before because the image on Cover Browser is so blurred. And now I’m puzzled as to what’s going on.

Is this one of the many examples of Robin slipping and falling from the first three decades of Batman comics? If so, Batman and Superman are blasé about it. Perhaps they’ve seen it too many times before. “Oh, there goes the ‘Boy Wonder’ again. I bet you wonder, Batman, when he’ll get past adolescent awkwardness.” “You’re lucky you don’t have to watch him chase after crooks, Superman.”

Then again, Robin himself appears to be smiling. Though he’s let go of a perfectly good mountain-climbing axe, he may well have flung himself off the cliff for fun. “Flying Graysons ruuuuule!” After all, he knows he’s got two expert catchers.

21 December 2012

OIP Derangement Syndrome Lives in Arizona

Men claiming to be Presidential Electors from Arizona cast votes this month while voicing skepticism about the fact that President Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1963, as noted in legal records and newspapers of the time.

Local station KNAU reported:
The Electoral College voting is pretty much pro forma: The electors for whoever got the most votes for president in Arizona come to the Capitol to cast their ballots. But during the voting, state GOP Chairman Tom Morrissey said doubts remain about the legitimacy of Obama's birth certificate.

"I'm not satisfied with what I've seen," Morrissey said. "I think for somebody in the president's position to not have produced a document that looks more legitimate, I have a problem with that."

Elector Don Ascoli said the fact Obama got more popular votes is irrelevant to the truth.
The third man claimed to be an Elector named John Rhodes. Ascoli and Rhodes both claimed to have been Republican county chairs, according to the Associated Press.

As the article noted, the man who identified himself as Tom Morrissey also claimed to be chairman of the state Republican Party. In July he sat silent as a radio host said of the President: “I call him a monkey. I don’t believe in calling him the first black president. I call him the first monkey president. . . . I voted for the white guy myself.” He was apparently satisfied with what he heard.

Back in January 2009, before Obama took office, Ascoli hijacked a comment thread on CNN.com to rant against his legitimacy as President:
Guess what, Obama is illegitimate as he wasn't born in the US, He is of Kenyan birth! I defy any Democrat on this comment string to name the hospital that Obama was born at. Also, can you tell us what race is check marked for Obama, was it marked Black, White, Indian, or what [There was no such race as 'African' back in 1961]. Try and answer these two questions before you try and talk about a legitimate President. You guys voted for a fraud. Barack Hussein Obama wont even show the American public his birth certificate! [Don't you fools talk about his published Certificate of Live Birth, that is not a Birth Certificate]. What is Obama hiding?
So Ascoli’s Republican Party colleagues have undoubtedly heard him raising those false issues for years.

Are Morrissey, Ascoli, and Rhodes qualified to be Presidential Electors? I’m not satisfied. If they were supposed to represent me, I’d ask to see the results of a mental-status exam first. But the National Archives states that “A state’s certification of its electors is generally sufficient to establish the qualifications of electors.”

Ironically, a state certification—as Hawaii already provided to Arizona officials and the public in regard to the President’s birth—empowers these three foolish bigots to represent their state before the nation.

20 December 2012

Assault on Redundancy

Many firearms fans are angry about the term “assault weapon” because they feel it has no technical definition. Of course, the 1994 federal ban on assault weapons offered a precise definition, singling out particular brands and all other guns with enough of certain traits more suitable for military attack than hunting. Laws define terms and categories all the time.

Imagine if that law had simply banned private ownership of semiautomatic weapons. Despite being based on a technically precise category, it would have made firearms fans even angrier. (And some are plenty angry to begin with.)

I dislike the term “assault weapon” for another reason: it’s redundant. Anything sold as a weapon is, by definition, designed for assault.

19 December 2012

More Derangement from America’s Political Right

Lest we think that derangement on the political right is limited to when some people think about President Obama, the National Review published this essay by Charlotte Allen on the Newtown school shooting last week:

There was not a single adult male on the school premises when the shooting occurred. In this school of 450 students, a sizeable number of whom were undoubtedly 11- and 12-year-old boys (it was a K–6 school), all the personnel — the teachers, the principal, the assistant principal, the school psychologist, the “reading specialist” — were female. There didn’t even seem to be a male janitor to heave his bucket at Adam Lanza’s knees. Women and small children are sitting ducks for mass-murderers.
Many news reports and pre-shooting websites state that Sandy Hook Elementary School served kindergarten through grade four. It was not “a K-6 school,” and it had no “11- and 12-year-old boys.”

Furthermore, news outlets like NBC reported this account:
A custodian warned of the gunman by running through the halls, said 4th-grade teacher Theodore Varga.

"He said, 'Guys! Get down! Hide!'" Varga said. "So he was actually a hero."
Thus, in direct contradiction to the basis of Allen’s essay, there were at least two men in the school.

Allen was obviously so convinced of the correctness of her beliefs and so lazy that she didn’t bother to do basic research. The National Review’s editors were so equally convinced and lazy and didn’t bother to do basic fact-checking.

But it gets worse. Allen’s suggestion for how to stop Adam Lanza, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, two pistols, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, was:
Male aggression can be a good thing, as in protecting the weak — but it has been forced out of the culture of elementary schools and the education schools that train their personnel. Think of what Sandy Hook might have been like if a couple of male teachers who had played high-school football, or even some of the huskier 12-year-old boys, had converged on Lanza.
Charlotte Allen thus blamed feminism for the death toll and wished that those entirely imaginary “huskier 12-year-old boys” had charged straight at the gunman. Apparently the alternative possibilities—spending more money on mental-health treatment or restricting people’s freedom to buy military weaponry—are so anathema to her that her mind goes into fantasy mode.

One more detail: At the bottom of her essay, the National Review identified Charlotte Allen as author of The Human Christ. Yes, this author who wished twelve-year-olds had been around to attack a man with a semi-automatic rifle also styled herself an expert on Christian thinking.

18 December 2012

The Little Man with a Little Gun

L. Frank Baum’s first book for children was Mother Goose in Prose, a collection of stories inspired by nursery rhymes. One of the rhymes has fallen in popularity. It starts, “There was a little man, and he had a little gun…”

The little man, named Jimson, suffers from feelings of inadequacy: “This little man was very sorry he was not bigger, and if you wanted to make him angry you had but to call attention to his size.” So he gets a gun and goes off duck-hunting.

When Jimson shoots only one duck, however, his wife Joan pooh-poohs the feat and the evening newspaper prints a verse poking fun at him. Jimson consoles himself that “Mr. Brayer, the editor, is probably jealous because he himself cannot shoot a gun.” And eventually:
After a time the little man woke up, and in looking around for the drake he saw Johnny’s red wig sticking out of the top of the bushes.

“That is surely the drake,” he thought, “for I can see a curl and something red;” and the next minute “bang!” went the gun, and Johnny Sprigg gave a great yell and jumped out of the bushes. As for his beautiful wig, it was shot right off his head, and fell into the water of the brook a good ten yards away!

“What are you trying to do?” he cried, shaking his fist at the little man.

“Why, I was only shooting at the drake,” replied Jimson; “and I hit it, too, for there it is in the water.

“That’s my wig, sir!” said Johnny Sprigg, “and you shall pay for it, or I’ll have the law on you. Are you the man who shot the duck here yesterday morning?”

“I am, sir,” answered the little man, proud that he had shot something besides a wig.

“Well, you shall pay for that also,” said Mr. Sprigg; “for it belonged to me, and I’ll have the money or I’ll put you in jail!”

The little man did not want to go to jail, so with a heavy heart he paid for the wig and the duck, and then took his way sorrowfully homeward.

He did not tell Joan of his meeting with Mr. Sprigg; he only said he could not find a drake. But she knew all about it when the paper came out, for this is what it said on the front page:
There was a little man and he had a little gun,
And the bullets were made of lead, lead, lead.
He shot Johnny Sprigg through the middle of his wig,
And knocked it right off from his head, head, head.
The little man was so angry at this, and at the laughter of all the men he met, that he traded his gun off for a lawn-mower, and resolved never to go hunting again.
Maxfield Parrish illustrated Mother Goose in Prose, and his portrait of the little man appears above.

17 December 2012

Year Eleven

Godson and Godson’s Brother visited from London today. I shepherded them to the New England Mobile Book Fair, where the new management is actually starting to shelve new books by category and author regardless of publisher! Later we went to the Outer Limits comics store, and Godson’s Father became concerned the boys’ heads would explode.

In the photo above by Godson’s Mother, Godson and I discuss the available Nightwing graphic novels. But our real find was the stack of Sonic the Hedgehog floppies in the 50¢ bin. Godson’s Brother staggered out with four volumes of The Flash, but declined an Impulse collection as not serious.

16 December 2012

Don’t You Hate When This Happens?

Frankly, if your “special mummy ray gun” doesn’t work on monsters because they’re “already dead,” you need to rethink the whole concept of a mummy ray gun.

15 December 2012

I Am [in] “The Greatest”!

A story I wrote makes its debut today in a new anthology from Ninth Art Press: The Greatest of All Time Comics Anthology, edited by Dan Mazur and Jesse Lonergan.

Opinion is divided as to whether this should claim to be the greatest comics anthology of all time, but it definitely collects twenty stories in 124 pages clustered around the theme of “The Greatest.” Topics include the greatest rock band of all time, the greatest conspiracy theory ever, and one creator’s argument for the greatest bruise. Most of the book is in black and white, but two stories are printed in full color.

I was very fortunate to have as a collaborator Braden Lamb, currently sharing the art chores on the Adventure Time comic book with his wife, Shelli Paroline. (I’m also impressed that Braden got to do some colors on Teen Boat!)

Our story is titled: “The Greatest Spy of All Time.”

14 December 2012

Guns and Nuts

In 2008, the National Rifle Association told its members that Barack Obama, if elected President, would “ban use of firearms for home defense,” “pass federal laws eliminating your right-to-carry,” and “mandate a government-issued license to purchase a firearm.”

None of those things came to pass, Reason magazine’s Steve Chapman pointed out in April. In fact, firearms restrictions loosened under President Obama even as Americans used guns to carry out several high-profile mass murders. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence gave Obama an “F” grade on its priorities.

As many reporters have noted, including this piece in the Daily Mail and this Associated Press dispatch, gun and ammunition purchases in America rose sharply in recent years. In January 2009 Outdoor Wire, “the outdoor industry’s daily transactions newsletter,” called the new President “Gun Salesman of the Year,” as noted by Jim Hoft at Gateway Pundit. Hoft also watched gun manufacturers’ record sales continue into 2012.

At the same time, however, the proportion of American households that owned guns continued to drop. In other words, people who already owned guns have been buying a lot more for themselves. Why? Well, for one thing the NRA keeps telling them to.

The NRA’s dismal record at predicting policies for the President’s first term did nothing to deter executive vice president Wayne LaPierre from warning last February that Obama planned to “get re-elected and, with no more elections to worry about, get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms freedom.” The NRA issued another set of wild predictions (PDF download). After its campaign spending failed, LaPierre started another cycle of fear-mongering, as Media Matters reported.

LaPierre and his colleagues of course have an economic incentive to stoke those fears. It’s therefore difficult to say whether they’re sincerely suffering from OIP Derangement Syndrome or simply carriers of it. But the NRA has proven handily that its policy positions are not based on reality. American legislators should look elsewhere for real solutions to our real problems.

12 December 2012

Top Ten Trendiest Trends

In December 2010, Scholastic’s book club, book fair, and publishing editors looked back at the preceding months and agreed on “Ten Trends in Children’s Books from 2010.” They were:

  1. The expanding Young Adult (YA) audience.
  2. The year of dystopian fiction.
  3. Mythology-based fantasy.
  4. Multimedia series.
  5. A focus on popular characters – from all media.
  6. The shift in picture books [actually a shift from them, with picture-book characters “showing up in Beginning Reader books”].
  7. The return to humor.
  8. The rise of the diary and journal format.
  9. Special-needs protagonists.
  10. Paranormal romance beyond vampires.

This year (I couldn’t find if editors prognosticated in 2011), Scholastic’s editors looked ahead and “Forecast Top 10 Trends In Children's Books For 2013.”

  1. Bullying is THE Timely Topic in Kids’ Books.
  2. ’13 Will be a Lucky Number for Science Fiction Fans.
  3. Intriguing Nonfiction.
  4. Novels-in-Cartoons.
  5. Kid Lit on the Screen.
  6. War.
  7. Tough Girls.
  8. Survival Stories.
  9. Spotlight on Diversity.
  10. Nature Runs Amok.

These predictions come with “hot” titles attached, some from Scholastic and others, I bet, carried by its book clubs. So does this list simply reflect what the editors already believe? Is it a form of marketing within the industry? Or does the company’s market share mean that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

11 December 2012

Gentlemen of the Jury

I’m partway through writing an article that will end up with this scene from The Patchwork Girl of Oz, the 1914 movie adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel that he oversaw as co-founder of the Oz Film Manufacturing Co. of Hollywood, California.

The figure seated farthest on the right, in minstrel-show blackface, is both shamefully racist and reassuringly progressive. That’s the paradox I’m trying to explore in this article.

09 December 2012

The Handsome Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Nightwing: Traps and Trapezes is the first collected volume of Nightwing comics since the launch of DC Comics’s “New 52” universe. Written by Kyle Higgins and penciled mainly by Eddy Barrows, these installments of the ongoing series reestablished Dick Grayson’s character by showing his return to the Haly Circus—evidently his first significant visit since his parents’ deaths.

That, of course, wipes out the visits we’ve seen in previous universes. Indeed, returning to the circus where he grew up is a staple of stories since Dick Grayson became a man. It was while on the flying trapeze that he expressed his independence in Detective Comics in the early 1980s. Dick was buying the circus when he befriended Tim Drake in New Teen Titans. In the first season of the Young Justice TV universe, teen-aged Dick returned to the Haly Circus as a masked teenager, fooling no one.

All those stories portray the Haly Circus as a welcoming home. The elephants remembered Dick well, of course, and so did the regular performers. While the traveling tent show was often in dire economic straits and/or threatened by mysterious crime that only an acrobatic young detective could solve, it was a refuge for Dick from troubles at Wayne Manor, Titans Tower, or elsewhere. At the end of those tales he always realizes he can’t stay; he has responsibilities elsewhere. But Dick can feel happy that the circus will always be there.

(The one exception is Dick’s visit in Batman and Robin Adventures, #15, spun off the animated cartoons of the 1990s. There the circus owner is named Haley, perhaps writer Ty Templeton’s tip-off that this is a different reality but more likely just normal inconsistency.)

Traps and Trapezes rewrites Dick Grayson’s origin, and not just by saying he was with the circus until he was about sixteen, or five years before the present. As part of the “Court of Owls” storyline that Scott Snyder was directing from the Batman magazine, it reveals the Haly Circus to be a breeding-ground for young assassins.

We might ask why gangster Tony Zucco would try to shake down an enterprise connected to the Court of Owls. Nonetheless, he did, and he killed two-thirds of the Flying Graysons (as in every iteration of the Batman universe since 1940), causing Dick to leave the show and start living in Wayne Manor. That’s the only thing, it turns out, which preserved Dick from becoming just another assassin. Everything was already set up, including the dental plan.

The two magazines’ combined storyline thus plays on fans’ visceral dismay at any violation of Reason for Robin, #10: “Robin isn’t evil.” In addition to the overarching narrative, the first issue of the new Batman ends with Alfred finding Dick’s DNA under the fingernails of a murder victim. This Traps and Trapezes volume ends with one of our hero’s escrima sticks showing up at another crime scene. But in all cases the dénouements assure us, after the requisite worry in the middle acts, that Nightwing isn’t evil.

The other thing that this volume reassures us hasn’t changed in the new universe is that Dick Grayson is the pretty one. We see that even in the flashbacks that show him with other circus kids. The boy named Zane has a big, unexplained scar down one side of his face. Another boy, Raymond, starts out basically indistinguishable from young Dick, except perhaps not smiling as much, but he returns with terrible scarring around his eyes. (A detail apparently not yet settled when the first issue showed him taking off his sunglasses.)

And Dick? Despite spending five years in a business that involves being kicked in the face, he remains unblemished and oh-so-handsome. Barrows supplies many pinnable pictures of Nightwing swinging through the urban skies, muscles flexed and hair flowing. The new Nightwing uniform, while not as sleek and distinctive as the blue “fingerstripes” package, is skintight and shiny. Barrows also designs a lot of those panels that show a series of Nightwings bouncing across the rooftops.

Will the surviving traits be enough to keep Dick Grayson as a distinctive character with his own following? The new universe has replaced his long history as Robin with a couple of years at most. It’s wiped out his ascendancy with the Titans. There’s no hint of his years in Blüdhaven or his team-ups with many other heroes. But he does look pretty.

08 December 2012

Argo Nots

The movie Argo is a triumph of production design, recreating the look and sound of Teheran, Washington, and Hollywood in 1980. Which is absolutely necessary for the picture to work since the story is so outlandish that without complete realism in everyday details it would seem like Hollywood bullshit.

Director Ben Affleck was nine years old when the Iran hostage crisis began. He was thus recreating the milieu of his childhood, from new Star Wars action figures to grown men in three-piece suits. Early on there’s a scene in which his character watches television, and he made sure to show us the man standing up and clicking the dial from one VHF station to another. Every time the scene shifts to an office, we hear the busy sound of a Selectric typewriter. With no answering machines in sight (though they were on the market), the story’s telephone connections become even more tenuous.

During the closing credits, the filmmakers show off their work, pairing period photographs of the Iranian Revolution or decaying Hollywood with their careful recreations of the same sights.

Those credits also show the fake passports of the real American diplomats at the center of Argo’s story, and their haircuts really did look like that. Again, such details helped immensely to make them seem real since we see little of those characters beyond their plight. Affleck’s own performance as CIA “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez consists mainly of looking serious in a beard. The acting energy comes from the pacing and the supporting cast of pros: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston, and Victor Garber.

It’s disappointing, therefore, to learn that the movie’s realism in little things masks big liberties with what actually happened. The movie’s basic concept is true: Mendez and the CIA used the production of a science-fiction epic in turnaround called Argo as cover to fly six American diplomats out of Teheran.

But the exciting scenes—the last-minute interventions, the Republican Guards tumbling to what’s happening, the airport chase—are completely fictional. The Tony Mendez character arc, from separation back into his family’s bosom and from professional exile back to being a CIA hero, also doesn’t seem to reflect reality. Argo is a movie about Hollywood bullshit proving useful in the real world that’s actually built of Hollywood bullshit.

In real life, all of the challenges in the movie’s tense, exciting third act had already been cleared away through the least exciting activity American filmmakers can probably imagine: careful, quiet work by Canadian bureaucrats.

One visual element of the real story that didn’t make it into Argo consists of Jack Kirby’s designs for the planned epic and its related theme park, Science Fiction Land. This PDF from the Kirby Museum uses Kirby’s drawings to illustrate interviews about that grand project. The image above is the original announcement that the movie would start filming soon.

07 December 2012

From Mighty ACORN Grows?

Back in September I wrote about how Public Policy Polling had found most Republicans unwilling to say that President Barack Obama deserved more credit for the elimination of Osama bin Laden than Mitt Romney, who wasn’t involved in that event in the least.

PPP’s surveys have been viewed with some wariness by traditional pollsters because the organization has ties to Democratic candidates and because it operates with touch-tone phone polls instead of live people asking questions. But in the 2012 election its forecasts were among the most accurate, so its methodology appears to have been vindicated.

After the election, the firm asked people a question (full survey PDF) similar to one it had asked in 2009 (PDF):

Do you think that Barack Obama legitimately won the Presidential election this year, or do you think that ACORN stole it for him?
Of self-identified Romney voters, 50% said that ACORN had stolen the election. Among self-identified Republicans, that number was 49%. In considering that theory, it’s important to note that ACORN dissolved in 2010. (Back in 2009, 49% of John McCain voters and 52% of Republicans accused ACORN of stealing the election, which was also a wild false accusation but at least possible.)

The firm also asked:
Do you think Democrats engaged in voter fraud to ensure that Barack Obama won the election, or not?
There was no similar question about Republican voter fraud, despite the court cases. There’s also no evidence of widespread Democratic voter fraud. But to that question, 55% of Romney voters and 50% of Republicans said yes.

Thus, there are many people still suffering from OIP Derangement Syndrome and willing to tell their phones about it. At The American Prospect Jamelle Bouie wrote that he didn’t think most respondents really believed in their answers:
a large number of Republicans don’t like President Obama, and when offered a chance to endorse something that signals that dislike, they did it, even if the “something” is absolutely insane.
But it doesn’t matter whether OIP Derangement Syndrome is sincere or self-induced. What matters is the “absolutely insane” part.

Buried in PPP’s numbers, however, is a sign that many Americans are quietly moving away from the condition. Only 41% of respondents recalled voting for Mitt Romney a few weeks before; he actually got about 47% of the popular vote. Similarly, only 32% of respondents identified themselves as Republicans, a drop of five points from the same firm’s last poll before the election. Thus, although the percentages of unrealistic accusers in those groups remains strangely high, the groups are shrinking.

06 December 2012

Glinda by Thomas Haller Buchanan

While working on the last couple of posts about Glinda, I ran across this portrait of the Good Sorceress by Thomas Haller Buchanan. A watercolor sketch for a project that never came to fruition, Buchanan featured it on his blog fifteen years later. Maybe if we all ask him he’ll make this available as a print or a cover for the Int’l Wizard of Oz Club’s magazines.

05 December 2012

Glinda as a "respectable sorceress”

As I wrote yesterday, in The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904) L. Frank Baum started describing Glinda the Good as a “Sorceress” instead of a “Good Witch.” In later books he referred to her as “the Royal Sorceress” or “the Good Sorceress.” But Glinda wasn’t his first sorceress.

The first in Baum’s oeuvre was Maetta, a Glinda-like character in A New Wonderland, completed in the mid-1890s and finally published in early 1900. Three years later that book was republished as The Magical Monarch of Mo. The second sorceress was Gayelette, who created the Golden Cap that enslaved the Winged Monkeys at some unspecified time before the Wizard’s arrival in Oz.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz mentions sorceresses elsewhere as well. The Good Witch of the North says, “In the civilized countries I believe there are no witches left, nor wizards, nor sorceresses, nor magicians.” The Munchkins keep calling Dorothy a sorceress because she’s killed the Witch of the East and taken her shoes, and because she wears white: “only witches and sorceresses wear white.”

Those statements suggest that “witch” and “sorceress” are similar, overlapping categories. But then there’s this remark early in The Marvelous Land of Oz:
Mombi was not exactly a Witch, because the Good Witch who ruled that part of the Land of Oz had forbidden any other Witch to exist in her dominions. So [she], however much she might aspire to working magic, realized it was unlawful to be more than a Sorceress, or at most a Wizardess.
That implies that a Wizardess was somehow superior to a Sorceress, and both inferior to a Witch.

However, later in that same book Glinda herself suggests that a major difference between a Sorceress and a Witch involves the type of magic each does:
“Really,” said the Sorceress, “that is beyond my magic. I never deal in transformations, for they are not honest, and no respectable sorceress likes to make things appear to be what they are not. Only unscrupulous witches use the art…”
That said, in Rinkitink in Oz (1916), Glinda disenchants a character without discussing such scruples. So it’s not that she can’t do transformations as a sorceress; with Mombi available to reverse her own spell, Glinda chooses not to.

Baum often has characters discuss different types of magic, as in Ozma’s remark to Dorothy in his last book, Glinda of Oz (published 1920):
“I am a more powerful fairy than any other inhabitant of Oz, I am not as powerful as Glinda the Sorceress, who has studied many arts of magic that I know nothing of. Even the little Wizard of Oz can do some things I am unable to accomplish, while I can accomplish things unknown to the Wizard. This is to explain that I’m not all-powerful, by any means. My magic is simply fairy magic, and not sorcery or wizardry.”
That novel also introduces a “krumbic witch,” who esoteric spells baffle even Glinda, and offers our second view of a “yookoohoo,” a magician who specializes in transformations.

Baum was not a consistent writer, and he never laid out all his different forms of magic and which type of magician was more powerful than another. If he had done so, he might well have contradicted that system a few books later when he had a better idea.

But one thing Baum was consistent about was that Glinda is the most powerful magician in Oz. That might imply that a Sorceress is more powerful than a Witch, but perhaps that particular Sorceress is simply more powerful than any Witch. In any event, if Glinda wants to call herself a Sorceress, not many people would dare to object.

04 December 2012

“Baum’s audience sensed a threat”?

In an essay on witches in The New Yorker last month, Michelle Dean wrote:
We’ve always had a good witch to go with the bad, of course. Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (though it was South in the books) was no innovator there. She was just a modern ambassador for an ancient tradition of wise women and cunning folk, her powers submerged in yards of tulle and masked by a treacly voice. But as Alison Lurie once pointed out, just the word “witch,” applied to an allegedly good character, once held enough menace for [L. Frank] Baum to be forced to change it (Glinda is called a “sorceress”). Baum’s audience sensed a threat in there, the kind of thing feminists will tell you is really an instance of the fear of the uncontrollable wildness of the feminine. The good witch was not approachable, because even in her beneficence she had a certain unpredictability; hold her close, and she might cut you.
I agree that Glinda is a formidable character, though not unpredictable. And Lurie is a true Oz fan. But I think she read too much into Baum’s choice to change Glinda from a “Good Witch” to a “Good Sorceress.”

It’s true that once Baum reintroduced Glinda in The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904), he referred to her only as a “Sorceress,” no longer a “Witch.” However, in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz (1908), the Wizard recalls Glinda as a “Good Witch,” and Ozma doesn’t correct him.

Furthermore, Baum continued to refer to the Good Witch of the North by that name in The Road to Oz (1909) and other books. Sky Island (1912) introduces an admirable character named Rosalie the Witch, who tells Trot, “I've always tried to be a good witch and to do my duty." For Glinda of Oz (published 1920) Baum created the Three Adepts of Magic, using a theosophical term; they “practiced only good witchcraft,” he wrote.

Baum’s clearest statement about “good witches” appears in his short story “The Witchcraft of Mary-Marie,” added to American Fairy Tales in 1908. A character tells the heroine: “You may find good people and bad people in the world; and so, I suppose, you may find good witches and bad witches.” Read the full conversation here.

Baum’s writings thus show that he never backed away from the concept of a “good witch.”

TOMORROW: So why did he make Glinda a sorceress?

02 December 2012

Weekly Robin Commentary Track

“Okay, this is a good action scene. But you know what I think it needs more of? Puns.”


“Like, right there Robin could say, ‘You’re toe-tally stuck!’”

“You’re not serious.”

“That’s the point—throw the mooks off. ‘You can’t fire me—I quit!’ ‘Don’t you know little kids shouldn’t smoke?’”

“That’s the most ridicu—”

“‘Tanks for the lift!’”


“All right, all right…‘Feeling too hot? Should’ve worn a sweater vest.’”

“That’s it. I’m leaving.”

(Panels from Batman & Robin, vol. 1, #16, composed by Cameron Stewart from a script by Grant Morrison.)