30 January 2013

Looking Back on Follow My Leader

Tami Lewis Brown at From the Mixed-Up Files interviewed Candlewick editor Kaylan Adair, and one passage rang a familiar chord for me:
I struggled with reading for much of my early life but in fourth or fifth grade, my (incredibly patient) school librarian convinced me to give the novel Follow My Leader a try. The book struck me as being intimidatingly long, but it was about a boy who’s blinded in an accident and gets a guide dog and I was obsessed with dogs at the time (particularly German shepherds), so I decided to give it a try. It’s the first middle-grade novel I remember reading for pleasure. And it’s no exaggeration to say that that experience changed my life.
I read that book, too, though it was in seventh grade and I was already an avid reader. My English teacher for the first half of that year, David Ticchi, was blind. He could hear any whisper in class and smell gum in any corner. He was also a weightlifter. No one messed with Mr. Ticchi.

I was curious about Mr. Ticchi’s experiences, so when I saw Follow My Leader by James B. Garfield in a library I picked it up. Of course, I picked up nearly every book back then. I think I read The Great Gatsby later the same year.

Garfield’s young protagonist, the equally presidentially named Jimmy Carter, loses his sight in a fireworks accident as a young teen. He learns new skills and bonds with a seeing-eye dog. Mr. Ticchi had very limited vision from birth and used a cane but not, as I recall, a dog. But details in the book about learning Braille, handling money, and other tasks stuck with me because I figured that’s how he did things, too. Those passages were certainly easier for a seventh-grader to understand then than The Great Gatsby.

Mr. Ticchi had someone read our essays and stories out loud to him at home. That was when I started typing my longer homework since I figured it would be easier on the reader (even though I used to have very good handwriting). As a result, I never learned to touch-type the normal way; by the time my high school offered that class, I had already developed bad but very fast habits.

Halfway through the school year, Mr. Ticchi left to evangelize for Ray Kurzweil’s reading machine—an early OCR and text-to-voice computer. Eventually he returned to the school system, but our paths didn’t intersect again. I never forgot him, though.

29 January 2013

A Darker Dorothy in London

Opening next month at the Immersion Theatre in London, Dorothy in Oz, a “skewed adaptation” of L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The troupe promises “a piece unlike anything that has ever been seen on the London fringe circuit.”

What does that mean? When playwright James Michael Shoberg directed his own company’s premiere of the drama in 2009, the Pittsburgh City Paper said:
Shoberg, Pittsburgh’s self-styled striver after “darker tastes in art,” usually combines a fixation with sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll and dazzling costumes with cumbersome scene changes and sloppy projections. Forcing the often-rambling style of Shoberg and/or his players onto a smaller stage, much closer to the audience, focuses the production. . . .

His Dorothy in Oz includes winking references from various versions of the story—The Wiz as well as generous dollops of the iconic 1939 movie—as he twists the familiar characters and their journey. The new setting is a psychiatric hospital for the unfortunate Dorothy, here named Dottie. . . .

The most fun comes from Carrie L. Shoberg’s glitzy and ditzy portrayal of Glinda, and from the stunning ensemble—costume, props and performance—of Brittany Spinelli as the doctor’s secretary. The three companions are a mixed bag: Chucky Hendershot almost boneless as he wrestles with gravity and a heroin addiction as a Goth “Skarekrow”; Sean Michael Gallaher appropriately loud as the anger-challenged multi-pierced punk “Rusty Tinneman”; and Joseph A. Roots totally smooth as the repulsive “Harry Lyons.” In the title role, Adrienne Fischer is credible and credibly brave, but the character just doesn’t have the fun the others do.
Dorothy in Oz is scheduled to run in London 26 Feb-17 Mar 2013.

28 January 2013

The Evolution of Grease Monkey

Tim Eldred has published his comic Grease Monkey in a variety of ways: as a series of indy comics starting in the mid-1990s, with presses Kitchen Sink and Image, in this 2006 volume from Tor Books, and on the web.

Evidently inspired by the opening scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Eldred imagined a gorilla in space alongside humans. He also wanted to explore slice-of-life stories instead of the usual battle-for-life sagas of superhero comics and space operas.

The result is a series of episodes set on a large military spaceship guarding Earth after one extraterrestrial race has nearly destroyed the planet and another has provided reparative technology and sped up evolution for gorillas to make them as intelligent as Homo sapiens. That spaceship isn’t at war; its personnel are training for war. But the tensions and rivalries of military life provide plenty of twists in the mild, character-driven plots.

Though Eldred started with his gorilla mechanic Mac Gimbensky, the main character really is Mac’s teen-aged assistant. That character—young, idealistic, and upright—is named Robin. (I’m just saying.) Most of the stories are coming-of-age episodes for Robin as he works through his role in the Barbarians fighter squadron, his crush on an assistant librarian, and his loyalty to dubious friends.

Indeed, Mac and an older gorilla in the custodial service provide so much help and wisdom to Robin that they might have become futuristic substitutes for the “Magical Negro” of single-species stories. But both those characters have their own plotlines, Mac especially, and Eldred provides a wide range of archetypal roles for both people and gorillas. Indeed, one of the few weaknesses of the saga is that most supporting characters fall quickly into familiar roles as antagonists or helpers.

Eldred draws in a classic American “realistic” comics style with some “cartoony” bulging eyes or floating hearts where called for. There’s a clear visual difference between the mid-1990s installments and when he picked up the series again a few years later, but the shift is interesting rather than jarring.

The only reading problem Grease Monkey posed for me was a tendency for panels to be stacked on the left without clear visual cues to guide the eyes. The online installments from the yet-to-be-printed sequel use word balloons as a visual bridge from one panel to the next in such layouts.

That sequel also provides a dangerous enemy for the spaceship’s crew—a shift back toward traditional adventure now that most of the characters have been established. I worry that the number of years since the end of that saga and now without a printed volume means Grease Monkey isn’t getting the readership it deserves.

27 January 2013

Kyle Higgins’s First Version of Nightwing

Kyle Higgins, current scripter of DC's Nightwing magazine, studied filmmaking at the University of Iowa and Chapman University. Before he got into comics, Higgins and his friend Alec Siegel co-wrote and directed the short film “The League” with a lead character inspired by Nightwing. As its website says, it’s available through iTunes.

“The League” starts in 1946. Chicago’s heroes include the Blue Blaze, the Gray Raven, and the latter’s chirpy teen-aged sidekick Sparrow; any resemblance to the Green Lantern, Batman, and Robin is purely intended. Their nemeses are Cold War villains with scowls and Russian names.

The action then jumps forward to the early 1960s. Sparrow, having been badly wounded, has broken from the Gray Raven and become the Wraith (though I didn’t realize his new crime-fighting name until the closing credits). As the League prepares to go national, someone is killing off the Windy City’s old villains, and the Wraith returns to investigate that mystery.

Like Nightwing in the standard DC mythos, the Wraith is an athletic detective but has no other special powers. His relationship with his old mentor is strained. But, and this is very important in the story, the Wraith isn’t evil.

The film’s special effects are very good, especially considering its $40,000 budget. Higgins’s specialty as a filmmaking student was in sound design and other postproduction skills, so the movie has a gratifyingly professional look and sound. I found the story hard to follow at times, such as the role of the character named Eclipse, but the overall plot is clear.

I learned about “The League” from Higgins’s conversation with Kevin Smith on the Fat Man on Batman podcast, which is also well worth a download. The poster shown above is by artist Eoin Colgan.

26 January 2013

Fast Food and the Caped Crusader

I recently read a study in Pediatric Obesity titled “What would Batman eat?: priming children to make healthier fast food choices.” Unfortunately, it left me with a lot of questions.

The study was small, involving only 22 children. (Interestingly, just six of those were non-Hispanic whites.) During weekly lunches at Burger King the researchers asked the kids, “Do you want apple fries or French fries with your lunch?”—“apple fries” being the chain’s term for apple slices.

At the outset only 9% of the kids chose the fruit. But when shown “12 photos of (6 admirable and 6 less admirable) real and fictional models” and asked what those folks would choose, the kids’ choice of apples went up to 45%. Not even half, but still a significant jump.

Alas, the study doesn’t list all the people in those photos. Two of the admirable figures were Batman and Spider-Man (spelled without the hyphen in the abstract). One of the “less admirable” figures was the Penguin—a villain whom Dick Grayson chuckled at in 1941 (see below) and who has only gotten more roly-poly and villainous since.

The other nine figures remain unknown. Did they include the Hulk, an embodiment of id with no regard for body issues—yet usually on the “admirable” side? What about Bouncing Boy of the Legion of Super Heroes, chubby and heroic? What about Stephen Hawking? What about a villain in excellent physical condition, like Deathstroke?
(One of the early Bruce Wayne’s brief attempts to be mature and parental. Within a few panels he was referring to the Penguin as “that fatty.” But then the man turned out to be a criminal, so it was okay to look down on him.)

25 January 2013

OIP Derangement Syndrome Comes Out of Recess

Today a panel of judges on the US Circuit Court for the District of Columbia ruled that President Barack Obama overstepped his authority in some recess appointments he made a year ago. Ordinarily the Senate would have been in recess at that time, but constitutional maneuvering by the House of Representatives had forced it to remain in pro forma session.

The Senate’s Democratic leaders had in fact come up with that pro forma gambit in the last years of the Bush-Cheney administration as a way to prevent recess appointments. It had never been challenged in court before, so the judges’ decision against President Obama involved a new question without clear guiding precedents.

On the other hand, the judges didn’t just rule against recess appointments while the Senate was in pro forma session. They went beyond that question and also ruled that a President can make such appointments only during a formal recess by the Senate (long ago legally dubbed the “intersession”) and not during any of its shorter breaks during the year (so-called “intrasession” recesses).

That contradicted precedents from the 11th Circuit Court in 2004, the 9th Circuit Court in 1985, and the 2nd Circuit Court in 1962. It also contradicted actual practice by Presidents, supported by Justice Department rulings, going back to the early 1900s.

The DC Circuit judges also stated that President Obama could use his recess appointment power only to fill vacancies that arose during that recess, not those occurring because the Senate (or, in this case, a minority of the Senate using the filibuster) hadn’t acted on nominations. That part of the new decision contradicts practice and rulings going back to 1823.

Personally I think that the recess appointment clause did get stretched, particularly with a ruling in 1884 that officials appointed that way can remain in position even after the Senate formally considers and rejects them. I also think the Senate filibuster, which is inextricably bound up in Obama’s recess appointments, has been increasingly abused and is outside the spirit of the Constitution. But I don’t get to impose my preferences arbitrarily.

The US Fourth Circuit panel can try to do just that. In this case, they decided that President Obama could not operate by the same rules as every other President for the past century. And that looks like OIP Derangement Syndrome.

24 January 2013

“Strong inky lines” and “swift composition”

The Poopsheet Foundation, which reviews indy and small-press comics, has nice things to say about The Greatest of All Times Comics Anthology, and in specific about my contribution:
J.L. Bell & Braden Lamb deliver the greatest spy of all time, and I’d love to see something feature length from these strong inky lines and the swift composition of the storytelling on display.
There are also fine words for many other contributors, especially Line Olsson (“I’d kill for a piece of her original art”).

Braden also featured a page from our story on his Tumblr site. Doesn’t that make you want to obtain a copy from Ninth Art Press?

22 January 2013

Grant Parsley’s Wizard of Oz in Relief

Grant Parsley of Dallas has shared three of his illustrations for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on Behance.net and other sites.
At the Little Chimp Society, Parsley wrote: “The illustrations are executed with a digital relief technique.” Which leaves me just as much in the dark as before.
Parsley’s Tumblr page shows a variety of styles and subjects, and his Deviant Art gallery shows his superhero renderings.

20 January 2013

Reading the Memo on Damian Wayne

One of the most interesting elements of Batman and Robin: Born to Kill, by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason with Mick Gray, is the “story proposal” printed at the end of the book. Of its fourteen paragraphs, all but three are an analysis of the relationship between Bruce and Damian Wayne.

The other paragraphs introduce the story’s villain and his motivation, rooted in his history with Bruce Wayne, but not his powers or working methods. Also missing from the proposal is a storyline with plot points, emotional moments, rising action, and so on. It mentions only one corner of the plot, the climax at the end of what turned out to be issue #7.

Instead, Tomasi’s memo is all about Batman and Robin’s differing symbolism, motives, and approaches to attacking crime. All very important in the superhero genre, but I doubt such a memo would have been enough for DC Comics’s editorial team if it hadn’t come from Tomasi. He was a DC editor himself until a few years ago and a successful utility player since. As the company planned its “New 52” reboot, its honchos probably wanted to keep working with Tomasi. The question was how to make this Batman book different from half a dozen others. His proposal supplied an answer:
Our “A” story, the emotional and psychological backbone of the book[,] will be laser-focused on the relationship between Bruce and Damian.
Eventually the story reaches a common point in superhero comics: the hero appears to face dire consequences unless he compromises his values—in this case, Bruce Wayne’s commitment not to kill. Of course, Damian Wayne has a different approach to that dilemma.

Indeed, Damian is quite the troubled ten-year-old in this volume. He sits at a drawing board sketching gory pictures—a hobby that could lead only to the horror of being a comic-book artist. He crushes small animals. (The story proposal says he kills “a sick bat that’s fallen to the cave floor,” but that’s not how the scene plays out.)

I’ve seen some readers complain that this volume doesn’t show Damian having learned and grown from his training with Dick Grayson. In fact, some of the story’s noteworthy moments echo similar moments from earlier months: Damian insists on going out by himself, the R symbol gets ripped from his chest, another crime-fighter tempts him to change mentor, etc. And at the end, he can’t match his father’s commitment.

But if Damian changes greatly, there would be no story. The difference between the two Waynes isn’t simply the subject of this volume. It’s also the Unresolvable Foundational Conflict of this series. In issue #8 the villain is gone and there’s no trouble for the heroes after page 6—except the trouble they pose for each other. And that’s one of the most compelling chapters of the volume. The relationship really is the “A” story.

Tomasi expresses his theme as “nature versus nurture.” At least as Bruce sees it in issue #2, “I have to find a way to push him past the obscene indoctrination of his early years and hope nurture wins out over nature.” That seems like a misunderstanding of what “nature versus nurture” means, however. The conflict is between the two ways Damian has been nurtured by his two parents. We don’t know how he would have developed normally. We don’t know what his innate qualities are.

Another notable element of Tomasi’s proposal is how he linked his new villain with Grant Morrison’s Batman, Inc. narrative, about a worldwide crime-fighting enterprise led by Bruce Wayne and a worldwide criminal enterprise led by Damian’s mother. The villain had a personal reason to attack Batman, but Tomasi had him resent Batman, Inc. I think Tomasi is still loyal to the pitch he heard from Morrison as an editor years ago. The other main Batman comics seem to be working independently of Morrison’s storyline, but Tomasi is still trying to keep the continuity together.

18 January 2013

The NRA’s OIP Derangement Syndrome

This week the organization that claims to speak for America’s gun fandom, the National Rifle Association, released an online ad calling President Barack Obama an “elitist hypocrite” because of his daughters’ school. As the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column reported, the NRA’s ad was false in multiple ways:

  • It claimed that President Obama opposed having guards in schools. In fact, he supports that idea but doubts, like the overwhelming majority of Americans, that it’s a complete solution.
  • The ad claimed that the “school Obama’s daughters attend has 11 armed guards.” It has a small security staff (eleven people over two campuses), but as a Quaker institution does not arm them.
The NRA managed thus to be doubly wrong on facts and disrespectful of religious principles.

Furthermore, when called on the ad, An NRA spokesperson claimed, “If anyone thinks we’re talking specifically about someone’s children, they’re missing the point completely. This isn’t an issue about comparing the president’s kids.” Except that the ad said, “Are the president’s kids more important than yours?” Of course that’s “comparing the president’s kids”! How stupid does the organization think its audience is?

The Post awarded the NRA’s effort four Pinnochios out of four, the rating it reserves for “whoppers.”

Shortly afterward, gun fans on talk radio, FOX News, and elsewhere then worked themselves into a dudgeon over the fact that some children who had written to President Obama about gun violence were part of his announcement of how the administration will address that problem. How dare he use children as political props? those commenters demanded, though not all in such polite terms.

Never mind that the NRA had just tried to use President Obama’s two daughters. And never mind that those same commenters made no such squawks about President George W. Bush having children all around him when he announced his policy on funding medical research using stem cells.
And when he signed his education bill.

Patently false statements about this President? Applying double standards to his behavior? Intimations that the Obama family is getting above their station? Those are the hallmarks of OIP Derangement Syndrome.

In this case, the right wing’s usual resentment is probably aggravated by some underlying guilt. The national debate over gun safety was invigorated by the horrific massacre in the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The NRA and its allies are desperate to separate children from the debate over gun rights and responsibilities because of the inability to separate children from actual guns.

17 January 2013

Martin Luther King and “A Right Delayed”

An awful lot of websites and books published in the last twenty years quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as saying “A right delayed is a right denied.” Those publications come from both the left and the right, but the citation is currently spreading with people who want to buy more and more guns. (Apparently they can’t see the incongruity of quoting a pacifist murdered by a right-winger with a gun.)

And I don’t think King even said those words. None of those attributions provide a specific article, speech, or book as a source, which is always suspicious. The phrases don’t appear in authorized collections of his work. Instead, the line seems to be a poor rendering of something else King wrote repeatedly: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.” (Which makes sense—“justice” can be delayed, but “a right” either exists or not.)

However, King never claimed to have coined that line. In a December 1961 speech to the AFL-CIO titled “If the Negro Wins, Labor Wins,” he stated: “There is a maxim in the law—justice too long delayed, is justice denied.”

King quoted the line again in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in April 1963. In different versions of this text, King ascribed the quote to “one of our distinguished jurists” and “the distinguished jurist of yesterday.”

In the 9 Mar 1964 Nation, King wrote: “This is the test to which concerned national leaders are put—not by civil rights leaders as such, but by conditions too brutal to be endured, and by justice too long delayed to be justified.”

In “Civil Right No. 1,“ published in the New York Times in March 1965, King wrote: “The delays inherent in test cases, where the U.S. Supreme Court must ultimately rule, make sadly pertinent the comment of Chief Justice Earl Warren in the school desegregation cases: ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’” Clearly King was trying to invoke authority for his side of the argument, just as people try to invoke King’s name for theirs now.

I can’t find Warren writing those words in a desegregation decision, but I found an essay in which the Chief Justice wrote, “Justice delayed is often justice denied.” However, as King initially stated, that was a legal maxim, not Warren’s coinage. Those same words also appeared in an issue of The Outlook in June 1909. And former Colorado governor C. S. Thomas delivered a speech titled “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied” to the Iowa Bar Association in 1910.

So how far back can we go? In March 1868, during debate in Parliament over the disestablishment in Ireland, William Ewart Gladstone said:
But, above all, if we be just men, we shall go forward in the name of truth and right, bearing this in mind—that, when the case is proved and the hour is come, justice delayed is justice denied.
And further back! The British writer Walter Savage Landor used the line “Delay in justice is injustice” in an “Imaginary Conversation” between “Peter Leopold and President Du Paty” published before 1846.

And back still further! On 19 Dec 1825 Condy Roguet, a grumpy American diplomat in Brazil, wrote: “Justice, too long delayed, ceases to be justice.”

On the other hand, if folks want an exact source for “A right delayed is a right denied,” its earliest appearance seems to be the transcript of a Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on the “Czechoslovakian claims fund” in 1957. Much less inspirational than Martin Luther King.

15 January 2013

Become a Munchkinland Mogul

Last fall Spooky Cool Labs released a Warner Bros.–licensed Wizard of Oz game on Facebook. I, of course, haven’t played it. And even though several of my Facebook friends come from the world of Oz scholarship, I haven’t seen a lot of notifications about “Jenny has killed two Kalidahs!” or the like. Maybe I finally figured out how to work my settings correctly.

I therefore turned to Peter Davison’s review at Inside Social Games for more information. The game uses images, sounds, and footage from the 1939 movie, and the sight of Munchkinland above suggests it also owes something to McDonaldland (and thus to Sid & Marty Krofft).

Davison explains the gameplay this way:
Dorothy…meets Glinda the Good Witch of the North and discovers her quest to follow the Yellow Brick Road and make her way to Emerald City. Thus, most players would probably expect some sort of adventure/role-playing game experience, with players taking control of Dorothy (and later her companions) as they attempt to make the perilous but colorful journey.

Instead what we get is a title that is rather similar to CityVille at first glance. A very well-presented CityVille-alike, yes, and one with a few surprises up its sleeve, but a CityVille-alike nonetheless.

The player’s time in The Wizard of Oz is spent primarily rebuilding Munchkinland by constructing houses and resource-gathering buildings. More houses mean a higher population of Munchkins, who can subsequently be assigned to the production buildings in order to generate the resources required to continue building.
That doesn’t seem much in the spirit of either the movie or L. Frank Baum’s books. The latter eventually proclaimed that Oz was a moneyless economy with everything owned by Princess Ozma and distributed free on the basis of need—a system that no doubt works better in a land where bread and shoes grow on trees.

But social-media games have to make money in this world. Not only is the key to success in this Oz harnessing the work of little people, but players can use real money to buy emeralds that work as Ozian currency and speed up the process.

14 January 2013

A Bent for Thrillbent

Yesterday I commented on the content of Insufferable, the online superhero story from Mark Waid, Peter Krause, and team. I was even more interested in Insufferable’s format. Waid and Krause chose to break from the demands of print publication and format their work for the iPad and other computers.

The most obvious difference, also reflected in DC Comics’s digital-first offerings, is that the “page” is aligned horizontally rather than vertically. The lettering is slightly larger than for a print comic book. Even more important is the change in what a “page turn” means. It can be a whole new set of images, as in regular comics. But it can also be the same image with a significant change:

  • more of that image than was in the frame before (as if a camera was pulling back to reveal more).
  • a new panel appearing.
  • a character’s shifting facial reaction or other change within the panel.
  • a word balloon, the “page turn” communicating a pause in the conversation.
  • captions (tweets in the case of Insufferable) filling up the screen.
  • a version of the movies’ “rack focus,” in which the foreground goes out of focus and the background becomes crisp, or vice versa.
Waid conceived of Insufferable as a way to show the potential of that new approach, and it clearly has storytelling potential.

I preferred to download the episodes of Insufferable in PDF form from Thrillbent and then read them on my iPad with the Stanza program. That reader provides a way to switch from one page to the next instantly without the “sliding” function that iPad programmers love to show off. That matters for the new types of “page turns” I list above.

Having the episodes also let me check back, not just on the story but also the underlying technique. Late in the adventure I began to feel that each installment contained less “story” than at the start. Yet each episode remained about 20 screens. That suggests either that Krause and Waid were playing more with the new page turn techniques as they got used to them, or that I was getting impatient.

ComiXology recently started selling issues of Insufferable, each containing a month of the original weekly installments. I don’t know if they differ at all from the experience of reading the Thrillbent PDFs. (ComiXology has a system for guiding the eye from one balloon or panel to the next, useful in the transition from print to digital but not seemingly needed for a comic conceived for a screen to begin with.) Those files include the sort of extras that comics fans have come to expect in collections: early sketches, creator commentary, etc.

The first storyline of Insufferable ends with the heroes once in partnership and some mysteries yet to be solved. However, one of those mysteries seems to be when the next storyline might pick up. In mid-2012, Waid also announced several more stories from other established creators and Top Cow’s “Pilot Season” program of test series would appear on Thrillbent this year. He tweeted that Insufferable would be back after a “short break.”

But as of this evening, Waid’s personal website is down. The last blog entries that appeared there and at Thrillbent in October. Thrillbent has been besieged by hackers before. I’m hoping its small staff is gearing up for a big leap ahead because the format has so much storytelling potential.

13 January 2013

A Duo with an Unhealthy Dynamic

This month Mark Waid, Peter Krause, and team finished the first storyline of their superhero adventure Insufferable on Waid's digital comics site Thrillbent. Since the concept is obviously inspired by the Dynamic Duo, it's an appropriate topic for the weekly Robin.

For BOOM! comics, Waid wrote two linked series called Irredeemable (drawn primarily by Krause) and Incorruptible, which explored what could happen if one of the cornerstones of the Superman mythos was kicked away. What if the alien with powers beyond anyone else on Earth suddenly turned hateful and destructive? And, conversely, what if one of his worst nemeses decides that it’s now up to him to turn his life around and save the planet?

Insufferable starts by remixing some basic ingredients of the Batman and Robin mythos. Nocturnus is a dark, unemotional, technology-driven crusader against crime. Kid Galahad was his young sidekick. But there are two major differences:
  • Nocturnus is Kid Galahad's real father, not a father figure.
  • Kid Galahad is not Dick Grayson; he's just a dick.
In other words, what if Robin is, if not evil, far from a good role model?

Years before this story begins, Kid Galahad broke with his father and blew their secret identity. Since then he’s built a lucrative business around his persona, and Nocturnus has retreated further into the shadows. But a new threat from an old villain forces them to work together again. There are, of course, layers within layers, betrayals, unforeseen allies, and so on. Waid knows how to write superhero stories.

Some aspects of the original Batman and Robin’s relationship are replicated here: Kid Galahad is more emotive, Nocturnus a better planner. As Waid has acknowledged in a summer 2012 interview, the opening chapters were designed to show Galahad’s perspective: “Nocturnus doesn’t seem to get as much play, but that’s only because we’ve made a conscious choice to not look too deeply at his thoughts and to veil him in mystery.” Meanwhile, Galahad just can’t keep his feelings to himself.

Yet the story’s sell line invites readers into Nocturnus’s point of view: “What happens when you’re a crimefighter and your sidekick grows up to be an arrogant, ungrateful douchebag? What on Earth could draw the two of you back together again?” Despite (or because of) his vociferousness, the story strongly implies that Kid Galahad’s big problem is Kid Galahad, and Nocturnus’s big problem is…Kid Galahad. If the kid sidekick is bad, the whole universe goes to pot.

Another theme that Waid explores in Insufferable is the power of social media. Kid Galahad has a big online following. His fans tweet about his latest appearances and exploits. (The Twitter handles of some of those fans match those of real comics fans.) Cameras are everywhere to catch Galahad’s mistakes and boasting. His smartphone plays a role in several scenes. To some extent that reflects the way we live today. But it’s in part also a commentary on online comics discussion, where vitriol goes well beyond what’s merited by fiction about people kicking each other in the face.

TOMORROW: The Thrillbent format.

12 January 2013

“That's impossible! Even for a computer.”

A couple years back, the White House moved our First Amendment right to petition the government onto the web, setting up a site for people to file petitions. I peeked in on the site in November 2011, and already it was becoming a bit of a joke.

After last year’s election, thousands of people who would normally describe themselves as American patriots discovered the site and petitioned for their states to secede from the US. OIP Derangement Syndrome is strong with those. Because the White House promised an answer to every petition signed by 20,000 or more people, its staff has had to explain to people that the Articles of Confederation and Constitution have no exit clauses.

More than 34,000 people petitioned for the government to start a Death Star program by the end of President Obama’s second term. Paul Shawcross, Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the Office of Management and Budget, demonstrated command of the issues with his reply:
The Administration shares your desire for job creation and a strong national defense, but a Death Star isn't on the horizon. Here are a few reasons:
  • The construction of the Death Star has been estimated to cost more than $850,000,000,000,000,000. We're working hard to reduce the deficit, not expand it.
  • The Administration does not support blowing up planets.
  • Why would we spend countless taxpayer dollars on a Death Star with a fundamental flaw that can be exploited by a one-man starship?

11 January 2013

“Most Partisan” Complaint Reveals OIP Derangement Syndrome

One of the memes that Republicans have repeated about President Barack Obama is that he’s “the most partisan President ever.” For example, we heard those words in early 2010 from Rep. Candice Miller of Michigan, in late 2010 from political organizer Karl Rove, and during last year’s campaign from Rep. Paul Ryan.

The Washington Post pointed out a year ago that in fact President George W. Bush had a bigger split in his approval/disapproval from Americans in the two parties during his second term. But actual data doesn’t matter to people with OIP Derangement Syndrome.

Just before last fall’s election Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan wrote of the President:

He misread his Republican opponents from day one. If he had been large-spirited and conciliatory he would have effectively undercut them, and kept them from uniting. (If he'd been large-spirited with Mr. Romney, he would have undercut him, too.) Instead he was toughly partisan, he shut them out, and positions hardened.
As a reader on Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish remembered, Noonan was among the conservatives Obama met with in January 2009 in an attempt at political outreach and reconciliation. But somehow it’s his fault that her party’s “positions hardened.”

At the end of last year President Obama had his former opponent Mitt Romney to lunch at the White House. He did the same with Sen. John McCain after the election in 2008. And that conciliatory tradition goes all the way back to…2008. No one remembers George W. Bush doing that right after the election. Yet people with OIP Derangement Syndrome see this President as “the most partisan.”

Right now the right wing in Washington is upset about President Obama’s nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. That supposedly ultra-partisan politician wants to appoint a Republican to his cabinet, a man whom fellow Republicans praised in the past as Vice Presidential material, a “respected leader in America,” and a “leading voice in foreign affairs.” Regardless of Hagel’s merits, he’s not evidence of Obama being the “most partisan President ever.”

Indeed, it’s valuable to look back at the beginning of 2009 when President Obama was assembling his first cabinet. He offered posts to three Republicans: Robert Gates as a holdover Defense Secretary, Rep. Ray LaHood as Transportation Secretary, and Sen. Judd Gregg as Commerce Secretary. Gregg first accepted the offer, then turned it down after an outcry from fellow Republicans.

Who was the last U.S. President to try to bring three members of the opposing party into his first cabinet? That had never happened since the birth of the modern party system. In other words, Obama was trying to be the least partisan new President in memory. But many Republicans project their own partisanship, fear, and hatred onto this President.

10 January 2013

“Nothing but the great gray prairie on every side”

This year’s Modern Languages Association meeting is barely over, and it’s already time to start planning for next year’s. This call for papers came across the Child_Lit list:
“Deliver Us to Normal: Children’s Literature and the Midwest”

This panel will consider the ways Midwestern children’s literature both reproduces recognizable tropes associated with the region and subverts or challenges them, often within the same text. Like the Midwest itself, child characters and child readers are highly contested constructions, in a state of continual oscillation between adult desires for them and their own developing agencies. Located in a geographic and discursive middle, sometimes outwardly simple and often deceptively complex, the Midwest finds a fitting home in its children’s literature, which mirrors its critical concerns.

Topics prospective panelists might wish to address include, but are not limited to:
  • children’s literature and competing definitions of the Midwest
  • the roles of Chicago, Detroit, and other Midwestern urban centers in works for children
  • children’s authors who live or lived in the Midwest
  • the Midwest as a colony and/or racial and cultural contact zone
  • the relationship between written text and pictures about/of the Midwest in children’s literature
  • museums and other tourist sites in the Midwest with a relationship to children’s literature, such as the Laura Ingalls Wilder museums in Missouri, Kansas, South Dakota, and Wisconsin [There are a lot of ’em, aren’t there?]
  • depictions of agriculture, farming, and rural life for children
Please send 500-word abstracts by March 15, 2013 to Kate Slater.
The 2014 MLA will take place in Chicago, capital of the Midwest, 9-12 January.

09 January 2013

Oz from Oz

You’ll be pleased to know you can get this cartoon as a t-shirt from Mike Jacobsen’s Neato Shop.

Jacobsen is also the creator of this Superman brilliance.

And this warning about the dangers of science going too far.

Jacobsen shares new work regularly from Australia at See Mike Draw.

08 January 2013

Prince Bobo’s Place in Nature

This is the frontispiece from Thomas Huxley’s Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature (1863). It shows the skeletons of four apes and a human being.

Huxley’s point was that these skeletons had so much in common that they showed a common ancestry. However, it was easy for Englishmen, reading left to right, to view this lineup as the track of evolution itself rather than the present state of five parallel species. (In other words, to come away with the understanding that the human was supposed to have evolved from the gorilla rather than the human and gorilla having a common ancestor in the past.)

For an article in progress, I’m wondering whether I can make the case that that illustration inspired this lineup of characters drawn by John R. Neill in Rinkitink in Oz (1916).

These drawings show the series of transformations that Glinda performs to ***SPOILER*** turn Bilbil the Goat back into his rightful form as Prince Bobo of Boboland.

In that scene L. Frank Baum defined the Tottenhot as “a lower form of man,” closest to animals, echoing a racist western belief about the “Hottentots” almost two centuries old by that point. That idea connects to the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being. But did it also link, perhaps by parody, to the late Victorian understanding of human evolution?

07 January 2013

My Authority Record

Last week I received a nice note from a university library:
I’m cataloging your George Washington's headquarters and home. I wish to create an authority record for your name to distinguish it from the other J. L. Bells in our catalog. Would you be willing to provide me with some piece of personal information, such as a birth year (preferably), or what your initials J.L. stand for?

Thank you for considering this odd request.
I was already familiar with that system because it came up when I published my first book nearly twenty years ago. The cataloguing-in-publication system doesn’t like the semi-anonymity of author initials.

I replied:
Thanks for your email. I was born in 1965. I might show up in your system already as the author of SOAP SCIENCE. Yes, that's me.
That’s a collection of science experiments for kids aged 8 to 12 originally published by Kids Can Press.

And the cataloguer replied:
Thanks so much for your reply! Yes, your name has already be set up as “Bell, J. L. (John Leonard), 1965-” . I made the guess that you were not the same person as the author of Soap science, so this information is very much appreciated. I will add the George Washington info to your authority record.
It wasn’t the request that was unusual, you see; it’s my writing output.

I noticed that the cataloguer formats all book titles in the library way, with capital letters only at the start and for proper nouns. How cute.

Anyway, I now have an expanded authority record.

06 January 2013

When Batman and Robin Went Sci-Fi

“The Isle That Time Forgot,” from Batman, #10, is one of the first Batman stories that definitely borrowed from science fiction. Earlier tales of the Caped Crusader had touched on the fantastic, but through the genres of Gothic horror and even fairy tales rather than science-inspired tropes.

That story from April-May 1942 showed the Dynamic Duo landing Dick’s new miniature batplane on an island that appears—to the Boy Wonder at least—to be infested with living dinosaurs. Robin keeps saying he’s seen the giant creatures; Batman keeps telling him to stop talking nonsense. (More specifically, he snaps, “Don’t get gay!”) As shown above, Robin also falls down a bit. I’m not spoiling a good story when I ***SPOILER*** this one: there really are dinosaurs on the island, but they’re mechanical.

In Batman, #24 (Aug-Sept 1944), the Dynamic Duo had their first real time-travel adventure. That is, if we accept that Prof. Carter Nichols could actually send Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson back to ancient Rome through nothing but hypnosis. That story has lately been credited to Dr. Joe Samachson. The Nichols character appeared in several more Batman time-travel adventures as recently as this decade’s “Time and the Batman.”

Joseph Greene is credited with scripting “The Year 3000” in Batman, #26 (Dec 1944–Jan 1945). This is an unabashedly futuristic adventure featuring Bruce Wayne’s distant descendant (and his young pal Ricky!) fighting an invasion from Saturn.

Finally, Batman, #41 (June-July 1947), went all out with Batman and Robin running into real extraterrestrial visitors, and on the cover yet. Gardner Fox is usually credited with writing “Batman, Interplanetary Policeman!” He wrote some of the earliest Batman scripts and continued to work for DC Comics until 1968.

Thus, within a decade of his invention, Batman was involved in science-fiction adventures on top of his usual crime-fighting. The idea of Batman in space is usually associated with the “Silver Age” of DC Comics, starting in 1956. And indeed Pat Curley at Silver Age Comics has mapped the peak of stories in which Batman and Robin meet aliens (not including Superman himself) as from 1958 to 1963. But the tradition goes back to the 1940s.

At that peak time, Julius Schwartz was reinventing DC’s superhero universe with new sci-fi versions of old trademarks like the Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Atom. Superman editor Mort Weisinger was reportedly leaning on Batman editor Jack Schiff to shift toward science fiction. When Schwartz took over the Batman books in 1964 with the “New Look,” he reversed course back to goofy crime stories, but he also integrated Batman and Robin into the larger, now sci-fi-driven DC Universe.

Thus, it was only a matter of time before Dick Grayson would have a hot alien girlfriend.

04 January 2013

Fastest Game in Chestnut Hill

This is a retrospective posting about what I did on Friday. Godson and family were in town, so we all went to the Yale–Boston College hockey game. Godson’s mother took the photo of the rink above. I’m on the left and Godson’s Uncle is on the right.

Toward the back you can see the glow of the Jumbotron. At one point Godson, Godson’s Brother, and their cousins were all on the big screen, jumping around to be noticed—a highlight of the evening.

The Jumbotron also figured into the introduction of Boston College’s team. At the start of the season, it appears, all the varsity players were videotaped in their uniforms, voguing for the cameras with their sticks across their shoulders. I kept thinking that the choreography was developed with the expectation that they would be shirtless. “Big baggy maroon and gold jerseys? Oh, honey, you should have told me! I was thinking little bow ties. Well, it’s too late now.”

Anyhow, Yale won 3-3. Which is to say, the Bulldogs were ranked lower going into the game but dominated the play and outshot the Eagles more than two-to-one. Excellent goalkeeping by BC’s Parker Milner and successful penalty killing meant that the home team lead for most of the way. Then Yale rolled off three straight goals before getting into their own penalty trouble. But in the end, even the BC Hockey Blog agrees, the Eagles were lucky to come out with a tie.

02 January 2013

Who Wrote “The Isle That Time Forgot”?

While researching the last weekly Robin posting, I stumbled across a curious dispute over the question of who wrote “The Isle That Time Forgot,” the story in Batman, #10 (April-May 1942), that showed Dick Grayson turning either eight or thirteen or fourteen, depending on which panel you read and how.

Of course the story was credited to Bob Kane, the artist who had brought Batman to DC Comics and tried to take full credit for the character for years. But by that point DC had hired Kane’s original studio team of Bill Finger, Jerry Robinson, and George Roussos, and employed other freelancers as well. The company didn’t keep records from that period, so it’s hard to link particular stories with their creators.

Both Robinson and Roussos reportedly identified “The Isle That Time Forgot” as their work. For other stories and other details, fans have tried to fill in the gaps, but identifying artists by their visual styles is easier than fingering writers.

In DC’s recent reprints and the Grand Comics Database, “The Isle That Time Forgot” is credited to Joseph Greene. That identification appears to rest on the judgment of Martin O’Hearn, apparently based on “comparing textual styles.” That would make this story Greene’s very first published comics script.

However, in 2002 writer Alvin Schwartz has queried whether some of the Batman stories from that period credited to Greene should really be credited to himself. He definitely wrote for DC at the time, couldn’t recall hearing of Joseph Greene, and spotted some details he didn’t think any other writer (except his own erstwhile writing partner Charley Greene) could have come up with.

Complicating matters, other sources say that Greene later wrote under Grosset’s in-house pen name of “Alvin Schwartz.” As a man actually named Alvin Schwartz, Alvin Schwartz was surprised by that. He was more aware than anybody how mid-century American publishing wanted him to use a name more like, well, “Bob Kane” (born Robert Kahn).

But Schwartz also notes that comics historians defending his place in the early comics industry have credited him with stories he never wrote. It’s all very tangled, and if all we have to go on is subjective judgments of “textual styles,” we must learn to live with uncertainty.

01 January 2013

“Nothing for Dorothy”?

The Daily Ozmapolitan tipped me to this recent profile of Andrew Lloyd Webber in the Toronto Globe and Mail. The occasion was the Toronto opening of Lloyd Webber’s reworking of the MGM Wizard of Oz for the stage as it creeps closer and closer to direct competition with Wicked on Broadway.

The Globe and Mail states:
He’s teamed up with his old writing partner [Tim] Rice to pen a number of new songs to add into this stage version of the 1939 movie, which he admires for having “arguably one of the best songs ever written” but he does not think works as well in the theatre: “It has nothing to set up Dorothy in Kansas; it has nothing for the Wizard; and there’s nothing for either of the witches.”
And here I thought Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow” did set up Dorothy in Kansas. But the article goes on to quote Lloyd Webber explaining: “There’s nothing for Dorothy – she’s supposed to be this feisty little girl who wants to get out of Kansas and we don’t have anything that suggests [this].”

Indeed, that’s not how the MGM moviemakers dared to depict her. When their Dorothy does try to “get out of Kansas,” she’s punished with the cyclone and her nightmare journey to Oz. She ends up promising Glinda that she’ll never look for her heart’s desire any farther than her yard. MGM didn’t want Dorothy to be “feisty” or to be rewarded for being adventurous.

L. Frank Baum’s original Dorothy got carried off to Oz not because she’d been running away but just by chance. While there she learned about her own strengths. And although she finished that book telling Aunt Em it’s good to be home again, the next time we see her she’s on a ship to Australia during a storm. That’s feisty.

The paper also quotes Lloyd Webber as saying Avril Lavigne “would be good. Very, very good” as Dorothy. It’s a sign of my age that I have no idea what that implies.