18 October 2019

The Late Storm

On Wednesday night and Thursday morning a northeaster blew through the Boston area. A little after midnight, I heard a loud thump outside my house, and the lights went out.

A large branch of a tree in the front yard had fallen onto the wires from the utility pole to the house. I walked around, making sure the branch hadn’t hit the roof as well or done other damage. As I did, I realized that, while most of the lights were out, some rooms at the front of the house were still getting power. I plugged all the devices that need recharging into those outlets and went to bed.

In the morning, I found the same situation: no lights or power in some rooms, perfectly normal in the rest. The tree branch had dragged the power line to the ground, yanking it and the electric meter off the front of the house, but that line was still connected and conducting electricity. The wire for telephone and internet service, in contrast, was well and truly snapped.

Thursday was therefore awkward but not debilitating. I used cell service and went to the library to connect to the internet. I ate lunch out while keeping the refrigerator closed and contacting utility companies. And as I prepared to go to an event in the evening, I tested the power in the kitchen by flipping on one burner of the electric stove.

The overhead light went on. So did lots of other lights in the house. I flipped the burner off. All those lights turned off.

For a second it felt like I was in the Buster Keaton short “One Week,” the one when he assembles a kit house out of order and the systems are all mixed up. An electrician might have a better explanation for what was happening, but I’m sticking with the “Sherlock, Jr.” theory of being briefly stuck inside a silent movie.

I put a big pot of water on a small burner turned as low as it could go without being off. Electricity flowed freely through the house. The refrigerator hummed. The digital clocks blinked happily. Still no phone or broadband internet, but cell service still worked and life went on.

Then today the electric company showed up. Because there was the little matter of live wires under tree debris in the front yard, coming dangerously close to the sidewalk. The line workers unhooked the wire. They ran a new wire from the pole to the house. And then, because of their mandate not to deal with electric meters and indoor wiring, they left. Leaving the house totally without power for the first time.

So now I’m in a coffee shop, typing till they shut off the Wifi and close. I’ve got a hotel room with a change of clothes in it. I’ve got a car. I’ve got an appointment with an electrician (and, next week, with a phone technician). Fingers crossed for the food in the freezer.

14 October 2019

Casting Aspersions

In The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, Hugh Lofting (in the voice of Tommy Stubbins, the shoemaker’s boy) described Dr. John Dolittle as “a little round man with a very kind face.”

Lofting’s own sketches for the books show a short, plump man with curly hair receding from his forehead.

As of 2020, according to a trailer released today, this character will have been played in the movies by:
  • Rex Harrison
  • Eddie Murphy
  • Robert Downey, Jr.

05 October 2019

Big News

The Atlas of Boston History is a big book. I just got my copy, and it’s 14 inches tall and 11 inches wide, 224 full-color pages of maps, charts, and other illustrations of Boston history.

I got a copy because I worked with editor Nancy S. Seasholes on the page spread about Revolutionary Boston. You can see the whole list of topics and contributors, and several sample spreads, at the website for the book. Needless to say, a project this big has been several years in the making.

The Atlas of Boston History will be officially launched at the Boston Public Library’s central building on Thursday, 24 October, at 6:30 P.M. Nancy will speak about the project, and there will be a question-and-answer session with her and contributors. (I hope to participate, but I’ll have to come from another event in Cambridge.)

Other Atlas events include:
  • Wednesday, 30 October, 7:00 P.M.: Porter Square Books, Cambridge, author talk
  • Thursday, 14 November, 5:30 P.M.: Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, author talk and panel

03 October 2019

Hard to Read

One reason the Waukegan Public Library may have chosen not to portray native son Ray Bradbury as a little boy (as I discussed yesterday) is that the site is already chock full of metal kids with books.

The library’s Stimson Sculpture Garden contains no fewer than seven bronze sculptures depicting ten little kids reading, along with a few fairy-tale animals.

There used to be two more children reading, but in 2012 they were stolen and melted down as scrap. Since those statues were bronze, other castings survive, such as Jane Rankin’s “Little Scholar” shown here.

Last time I checked, my public library has two such bronze statues of little kids with books. It looks like this is a genre with solid demand, and artists like Gary Lee Price, Randolph Rose, and Rankin are happy to supply the market.

Someday art historians will write monographs on this form and the studios and patrons behind it, like the studies of Civil War statuary.

02 October 2019

Ray Bradbury’s Rocket

I am not taken with the Ray Bradbury sculpture erected in his native town of Waukegan, Illinois, and unveiled this summer.

Zachary Oxman sculpted the figure of a young Bradbury riding the outline of a rocket, steampunk gears inside. The steel figure waves a copy of Fahrenheit 451.

The design is deliberately “retro” to fit with the mid-20th-century library building nearby, where Bradbury bequeathed his book collection. But the result strikes me as cheesy, diminishing the themes he wrote about instead of celebrating them. “I send my rockets forth between my ears,” Bradbury wrote in a poem, and this turns that metaphor into something solid and heavy again.

I also wouldn’t recognize Bradbury from this statue. I picture him from photos and TV appearances in my youth as a somewhat rounded bespectacled middle-aged man, a chatty dean of American science fiction.

It would make sense for a Bradbury statue in Waukegan to depict him as he looked when he was living in Waukegan. That would be a little kid since the family moved to Arizona when he was six. A young boy dreaming of the future could be iconic but not recognizable. Here’s Bradbury at age three, from the Knopf collection of the Harry Ransom Center. Here he is again, said to be in 1923 but probably a couple of years later.

By age 14, Bradbury was a working writer in LA with hints of how he’d appear as an adult. But I haven’t found any photo of Bradbury looking like the young man in that sculpture. He didn’t wear his glasses for photos in the 1940s, and he had a crew cut through the 1950s. The statue’s combination of spectacles, floppy hair, and svelteness seems like a composite. (Or perhaps Oxman worked from family photos I haven’t seen.)

Lastly, I have to admit, when I see someone clinging to a rocket like that, I can’t help but think of Bucky Barnes about to be blown up by Baron Zemo.

21 September 2019

Amazon and Authors’ Rights

I’m old enough to remember how ten years ago the publishing industry was up in arms against Amazon for encroaching on audiobook rights.

Amazon’s second-generation Kindle had a “Read Aloud” feature that could produce an audio version of any given text. Not a good audio version, to be sure, but a free one, as long as the text was available.

Publishers and the Authors Guild insisted that any such reading required a grant of the book’s audio rights. Amazon insisted there was no rival recording, simply a reader turning on a feature that produced one word at a time. Eventually Amazon backed down, and publishers could have the “Read Aloud” feature disabled for designated texts.

Meanwhile, Amazon bought Audible, a leading company in the small but growing business of producing consumer audiobooks. In the last decade, with the help of smartphones and fast downloads, audiobooks have become a big moneymaker. Amazon made Audible by far the leading distributor.

This year Audible started to promote a feature called “Captions,” which would convert spoken words into written text. Again, it’s not always accurate, but it shows how far software engineering has come.

And once again, publishers and authors are pointing out that the resulting text is the equivalent of an ebook, and thus an infringement on rights they hold and exercise elsewhere. After an industry outcry, Audible offered to let audiobook publishers disable “Captions” for some books—for now.

This is of course the same story told twice, once in audio form and once in text. The part about Amazon pushing new technology and pushing into new territory, that doesn’t change.

10 September 2019

Mid-Century Modern in the Emerald City

After the original publisher of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz went bankrupt, Bobbs-Merrill became the book’s one and only US publisher.

At first Bobbs-Merrill included W. W. Denslow’s illustrations, though not in the original ground-breaking multi-color design that integrated text and art. The company kept the book in print until the World War 2 paper shortages. As the war wound down, it looked for a way to reintroduce the title.

In 1944, Bobbs-Merrill commissioned entirely new art by Evelyn Copelman (1919-2003, also known as Evelyn Campbell and Evelyn Copelman Baker). She created black-and-white art on scratchboard and painted several color plates.

The title page of that new edition stated that Copelman’s art was “adapted from the famous pictures by W. W. Denslow.” Obviously those pictures weren’t the only source. Copelman’s Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Wizard are clearly designed like the characters in the 1939 MGM movie, and her Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion look like hybrids.

Bobbs-Merrill had asked Copelman to create an edition that matched the movie, but it didn’t have rights to the MGM designs. It did own the rights to Denslow’s art, however. The title page claim apparently provided legal cover.

In 1949 MGM re-released its movie into cinemas. Not coincidentally, Bobbs-Merrill gave the book a new push. Copelman reworked her line art and added more plates.

With the book still under copyright, Bobbs-Merrill was the exclusive producer of new copies of The Wizard of Oz. Thus, for over a decade in the middle of the century, Evelyn Copelman’s artwork introduced young readers to Oz.

Then the copyright lapsed in 1956. Reilly and Lee, the publisher of the rest of the Oz series, created an edition with black-and-white reproductions of Denslow’s art in a trim that matched its other titles. Other publishers commissioned their own illustrations. As the years passed, Copelman’s art disappeared from bookstore shelves.

Archive.org, working with the San Francisco and other public library systems, has made a digital copy of a Copelman edition available for borrowing. This is a 1994 Illustrated Junior Library edition, with cover artwork by Michael Zimmer but Copelman’s line art and five plates inside. It’s worth a virtual thumb-through, especially if that’s the edition you remember.

02 September 2019

The Rise of the “Oxford Comma“

A weekend Twitter conversation with editor Harold Underdown and picture book creator Debbie Ridpath Ohi set me digging for the origin of the phrase Oxford comma.”

That’s the currently popular term for the comma before “and” or “or” in a series of three or more, as in “Tom, Dick, or Harry.” The more established term is “serial comma.” Some people are trained to use that comma, others not to.

Punctuation in the eighteenth century was haphazard to the point of being hazardous. In contrast, the Victorians were prescriptivists, and the spread of print culture meant there was a lot to prescribe.

Around the turn of the twentieth century Horace Hart (1840-1916), controller of the Oxford University Press, issued a set of guidelines for that organization’s type compositors and proof readers. His examples show he expected to see the serial comma, but he never pointed it out or prescribed it.

Around the same time, the polymath Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) wrote to F. Howard Collins (1857-1910) about why the serial comma mattered, stating:

whether to write “black, white, and green,” with the comma after white, or to leave out the comma and write “black, white and green”—I very positively decide in favour of the first. To me the comma is of value as marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of components of a thought are of equal value, they should be punctuated in printing and in speech equally: Evidently therefore in this case, inasmuch as when enumerating these colours black, white, and green, the white is just as much to be emphasized as the other two, it needs the pause after it just as much as the black does.
Collins quoted Spencer in a footnote of his 1905 book Author and Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists. Collins wrote that book in part because he felt Hart’s guide didn’t have enough practical advice for authors.

The Inland Printer magazine, published in Chicago, quoted Collins’s footnote in a review of recent references for compositors. By the end of 1905, therefore, Spencer’s argument for serial commas was spreading on both sides of the Atlantic. For decades the serial comma has been a standard put forward by The Chicago Manual of Style, the main style guide of the American book publishing industry.

However, some areas of publishing resisted that rule. One was daily newspaper journalism in the US. A serial comma might be little more than a flyspeck, but if we total up all such commas in a week of newspapers, eliminating it might save a significant amount of ink, paper, and time. For decades, therefore, The Associated Press Stylebook has prescribed not using the serial comma unless it was necessary to avoid confusion.

Americans in different fields can thus train themselves either to use the serial comma or not to, in the firm belief that they’re following the most authoritative writing guide. It’s all a matter of which sort of writing they’ve undertaken.

Meanwhile, after World War 2 Britain went through a great punctuation contraction. I’ve written about this before. Double-quote marks became single-quote marks. Periods disappeared from many abbreviations. Newspapers stopped setting off titles with italics or quote marks. And the serial comma was shooed away.

Except at Oxford University Press. As at the University of Chicago Press, scholarly editors continued to see value in the clarity of the serial comma. Posthumously expanded editions of Horace Hart’s rules made that mark of punctuation a standard even as much of British publishing disagreed.

Because the serial comma had become a hallmark of the Oxford University Press, Peter Sutcliffe dubbed it the “Oxford comma” in his 1978 history of the publisher. He credited Collins with establishing the rule, but his own book established a new term for the mark.

“Oxford comma” is thus a retronym, a term coined for something that was once so standard it didn’t need a special designation (e.g., analog watch, prose novel). At one point all British publishers put commas into series of three or more. Now that most don’t, that comma is notable enough to need a name, and “Oxford comma” has a touch of class. It’s quite possible that “serial comma” is also a retronym, forced by journalism developing a different standard.

Harold and I agreed that “Oxford comma” seems like a parvenu synonym for what we’d learned as the “serial comma.” Indeed, Google Books Ngram confirms that authors used “serial comma” and “series comma” starting around 1920. For a long time the terms appeared at about the same rate, but “serial comma” took off in the late 1970s.

Not until this century did “Oxford comma” spread, perhaps pushed by international internet debate. In the Google Books Ngram database (which stops in 2008), “Oxford comma” has overtaken “series comma” and cut into the dominance of “serial comma.” It has not, however, returned to being standard punctuation in Britain.

29 August 2019

Thundering Herds

The Thundering Herd was another Zane Grey novel made into a movie by Paramount, and then remade by the same studio with the young Randolph Scott. (Later still it was retitled for television as Buffalo Stampede.)

In this case, the reason for the remake was the advent of sound pictures. The first version was a silent made in 1925.

The 1933 sound version slipped into cinemas before the Hays Code took real effect. We thus get to see that the villain has unmistakably lascivious aims on his stepdaughter. We get to see a morally ambiguous older woman do away with three men.

As with The Fighting Caravans/Wagon Wheels, footage from the earlier movie was reused and became some of the best material in the new film. The screen shows us actual thundering herds of stampeding buffalo! Stage coaches and wagons chasing across the plains! Scores of Native Americans and European settlers riding into a fight!

The main disadvantage of reusing the old footage is that Randolph Scott had to wear a thin mustache to match the star of the earlier movie. Other players such as Noah Beery, Sr., and Raymond Hatton simply had to look a little younger since they played the same role in both versions.

Among the supporting cast were Buster Crabbe, then on his way up to stardom, and Harry Carey, who was descending back into supporting roles as he aged. Like Beery, Carey had a namesake son who would also go into pictures and eventually costar with Randolph Scott.

26 August 2019

Billy Lee: “one of the heaps magnificent young actor”

Last week I mentioned Billy Lee, Hollywood child actor of the 1930s and early 1940s.

I really can’t improve on the profile of him from this site:
Billy Lee, whose not clear moniker be William Schlenaker, was born bordered by Nelson, Indiana. As a baby, infantile William lived a serene occurrence against his family's dairy farm, but that all changed when he turned three years infirm. Billy and his parents moved to California nigh on 1933.

Billy's parents enrol him, at age 3, in The Meglin School For Kiddies in Los Angeles. The administrator of the seminary, Ethel Meglin, take a outstanding zest in Billy Lee, note, in locate of his parents enjoy, that Billy was a severely magnificent and cooperative youth, fast to swot yawning awake and complete of anticipation. Mrs. Meglin, who was Billy's personal rumba instructor, get Billy Lee started in films via age 4, solely a few months after he was enrolled at the school.

Billy's opening role was in a "Little Rascals" squat, "Mike Fright", as himself (as a slap dancer), and he give relatively an gleaming case in spike of his talent. From at hand it was on to Billy's first fact motion effort of art, "Wagon Wheels" (1934), wherein Billy land his first acting role, which his dance instructor, believe in his talent, had him audition in favour of. Billy also have a solo singing cog in the the flicks. This take place when the primary template, plus Randolph Scott, takes turn singing front on the movie's focus ode. So it was that, at age four, young William go from anyone a young Indiana farm boy to Billy Lee, young Hollywood actress.

In 1937, Billy Lee appear near familiar child lead singer Bobby Breen in _Make a Wish (1937)_ (qv), playing Breen's dictation advantageous forces camp buddy, "Pee Wee". The two boy recite "Polly Wolly Doodle" as a duet. Billy may be best certain for his starring role in the very exciting 1940 movie _The Biscuit Eater (1940)_ (qv). He unremitting acting through the 1930s, appear in complete 30 movies and method alongside more than a few of Hollywood's finest, including Lon Chaney Jr., Roy Rogers, Charles Boyer, Randolph Scott, Olivia DeHavilland, and Broderick Crawford, to name a short time ago a few.

Billy also appeared in a few short subject. One Hal Roach short in individual cast Billy, immediately age 11, in the starring role of "Pinhead" in the 1941 cadenced wit film _Reg'lar Fellers (1941)_ (qv) along with Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer as "Bump". The characters here film be base on the desirable "Reg'lar Fellers" slapstick comedian discard. This film not only provide Billy with a indiscriminate to skip in a lead comedic role but also allowed him to broadcast departed its sell-by date his hitting skill during one musical cipher that had be record by "Billy Lee's Band" according to the credit. In the film, Billy be the only real musician when he is lead by the other kids performing as Pinhead's trimming. Billy also sing the closing song of the film, "Hooray For Fun".

Another short where on earth Billy landed the lead was call _War Dogs (1942)_ (qv) (aka "Unsung Heroes"). Billy drama the doting son of his aging, decked out military officer dad, who has turned to bash after his claim to rejoin the resource to assistance in the time of war oblige (WW2) is turned fuzz by the military.

Billy's final film disguise come in 1943, when he was 13 (surprise, surprise) in a movie called, _Eyes of the Underworld (1942)_ (qv) in the role of Mickey Bryan, dyed-in-the-wool son of police chief Richard Bryan, play by Richard Dix. After this film, Billy Lee become one of the heaps magnificent young actor who, once reaching his teens, found that leaving from film making was something that was just allotted for you.

Billy Lee lived until 1989; he die eight months after his 60th centenary of a quick heart bridle.
Actually, Reg’lar Fellers is a feature, not a short. It was based on a popular comic strip. Ethel Meglin was an associate producer; Hal Roach wasn’t involved, though it was “Alfalfa” Switzer’s first movie after leaving the Our Gang series.

24 August 2019

The Journey from Fighting Caravans to Wagon Wheels

In 1929 Zane Grey published The Fighting Caravans, a novel about a scout who leads wagon trains across Native American lands to the Oregon Territory. Grey was already a best-selling, brand-name novelist with a deal at Paramount, and that studio came out with a movie version of the book in 1931.

Aside from the basic situation, however, the Fighting Caravans film had little to do with Grey’s novel. The book follows hero Clint Belmet from childhood to a career as a cross-country “freighter” driving wagons. He loses his mother, childhood sweetheart, father, best friend, dog, childhood sweetheart’s adoptive father, and childhood sweetheart turned fiancée to various groups of Indians. At the end [SPOILER] he finds his childhood sweetheart again.

In contrast, the movie focuses on the movement of a single wagon train. Gary Cooper plays Clint Belmet, a scout rather than a freighter. Orphaned as a child, he’s been raised by two grizzled scouts; those characters come not from the novel but from a previous Paramount western, The Covered Wagon (1923). At the start of the story, Belmet and a French woman meet cute in Independence, Missouri. They pretend to be married, he to get out of jail and she because she thinks single women aren’t allowed in the wagon train.

A lot of the movie’s comedy involves Belmet trying to enjoy the benefits of that sham marriage. Meanwhile, his two dads try to keep him away from women. Also along on the journey is a wagon of what are obviously, if not explicitly, prostitutes. [SPOILER: Those women all marry men from the wagon train at the end of their journey.]

The most striking parts of The Fighting Caravans come from the second unit, which filmed an actual long train of wagons moving up and down hills, across snowy plains, and over rivers. Those long shots show where the movie’s budget of close to a million dollars went. I assume the men moving the wagons in those scenes had actually done that work as a living not too long before.

In 1933 Paramount released a second adaptation of Grey’s novel, this time titled Wagon Wheels. Why so soon? Evidently because of the Hays Code. Though the major Hollywood studios officially adopted that set of moral guidelines in 1930, the first couple of years of enforcement were a joke. Indeed, in 1931 The Hollywood Reporter quoted a screenwriter saying, “The Hays moral code is not even a joke any more; it’s just a memory.” But more public pressure forced the studios to strengthen the system, and by 1934 it had become a rigid set of rules. The Fighting Caravans had no chance to get past the censors into theaters again.

Wagon Wheels was just as far from Grey’s novel as The Fighting Caravans was, but it was almost as far from its cinematic predecessor. The hero was still scout Clint Belmet, now played by Randolph Scott. He was still working with two grizzled older scouts, but there’s no suggestion those men constituted a family. And the new movie had an entirely different attitude toward marriage.

The female lead was Gail Patrick, not yet typecast as the overly respectable other woman in screwball comedies but respectable enough. She played a young widow with a little boy—actual four-year-old Billy Lee, enjoying himself immensely. There’s no fake marriage. Instead, she and Belmet start out at odds and become close over time. The old scouts don’t try to get in the way of that relationship; in fact, one of them marries another woman in the train. There’s no wagon full of ladies of the evening, to be redeemed or not. What’s more, there are multiple musical numbers.

The major overlap between The Fighting Caravans and Wagon Wheels is the footage of the wagons on the move. And that’s because it’s the same footage, simply recycled and redubbed into the new movie. That’s why Paramount could make Wagon Wheels for only a quarter of the cost of the earlier picture. And, now that the Hays Code was in force, it could play in theaters and later on TV.

20 August 2019

Television the Great and Terrible

The MGM Wizard of Oz has gone through three stages defined by how we the public got to watch it.

First was the reception that the filmmakers envisioned: exhibition in 1939 as a “prestige picture” in movie palaces, mostly owned by Loew’s Theatres. The movie was then moved to smaller venues and eventually taken out of circulation. MGM re-released the film in the same way in 1949 as the Hollywood studio system was under legal and financial siege.

That cinematic run was successful, if not immediately profitable. Even with reduced admission prices for children, The Wizard of Oz earned $3 million in its first release, enough to make it the second highest-grossing movie of 1939. It gained five nominations for Academy Awards, winning two. It established Judy Garland as a box-office star and enabled associate producer Arthur Freed to oversee many more movie musicals over the next two decades. Though most of the songs were novelty numbers, “Over the Rainbow” became a standard.

The next stage of the movie’s history started when MGM licensed the television rights to CBS in 1956. News reports about that deal marveled at how young Garland, Ray Bolger, and Bert Lahr had been when they made the picture—they were all major stars almost two decades later. In 1959 CBS took a further step and launched an annual showing, which the network touted as a major event for families to share.

The medium of television didn’t serve The Wizard of Oz well artistically. With more than 90% of American households in 1966 still watching TV in black and white, the movie’s shift to color as Dorothy arrives in Oz was invisible to most of the audience. Likewise, the nostalgic sepia tone of the Kansas scenes was printed in standard grays, and a bit of the opening was trimmed to free more time for commercials.

Culturally, however, television did wonders for The Wizard of Oz. Watching it once a year became almost required for American children, a common national experience. “Munchkin” entered the language, denoting small children and donut holes. Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers not only supplanted the book’s Silver Shoes in the public imagination but were enshrined in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In Marvel’s The Avengers, the Flying Monkeys are the one pop-culture reference that WW2 veteran Steve Rogers shares with his Gen-X colleagues and the audience. To be sure, there were American children who grew up without seeing The Wizard of Oz, or who didn’t like it enough to watch year after year, but most of them still knew its main points.

The third and current stage of the MGM movie’s life started with its release on VHS tape in 1980. It sped up as VCRs became standard household equipment and continues into today’s world of DVDs and streaming video. Now anyone ready to make an initial investment can watch The Wizard of Oz anytime they want to. No more waiting years for MGM to re-release the fabled movie into theaters, no more waiting months for the annual television airing.

Artistically, today’s media serve the movie much better than the last stage. Though we’re not watching the picture on giant movie screens as in 1939, the film has been restored to its pristine appearance and full length. What’s more, we can study scenes and frames and edited footage, and multiple behind-the-scenes books tell us about what went into this piece of popular art.

On the other hand, the MGM Wizard of Oz is no longer the cultural colossus it once was. The audience for popular entertainment has splintered, so families rarely gather around one screen to watch one channel. When one can watch the movie anytime, it no longer feels as urgent to watch it tonight. While the live-action recreations of the movie on stage and ice can provide families with a special shared experience as the movie itself once did, those productions are pale projections of the celluloid.

As a result, the fan base of the MGM movie appears to be shrinking and aging. The highest-profile works it inspired in the last three decades—Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked, the subsequent Broadway musical, and and the movie Oz the Great and Terrible—were created for adult audiences, with sexual content and hardly any child characters. We once thought of The Wizard of Oz as a near-universal part of growing up in America. Now we see that only a couple of cohorts of Americans shared that experience.

Fortunately, the same abundance of entertainment media that swamps the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz offers many other ways to enjoy the Oz mythos. The original books, new books and comics inspired by them, virtually all the Oz movies and TV cartoons ever made—they’re all available for children to try. There are more doorways into Oz fandom now, not one big door that nearly all American children were funneled through to see if they liked it. But will more variety make up for smaller numbers?

[This essay was written at the behest of Michael Booth, to be published on his Facebook page in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz on 25 August.

The picture above is PhotoShop art by LunaC, hosted on FreakingNews.com. The challenge was to slip a cathode ray TV into an old painting. LunaC chose Joseph Wright of Derby’s depictions of science in the eighteenth century.]

19 August 2019

Rethinking a Decision at Sundown

I thought I’d watched all seven movies in the “Ranown Cycle” of westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, most produced by Scott and Harry Joe Brown and written by Burt Kennedy. But I’d missed Decision at Sundown—until last week.

As in most of the cycle, Scott (almost sixty years old in 1957) plays an experienced westerner on a mission of revenge. In this case, he comes to the town of Sundown to call out a man he holds responsible for his wife’s suicide.

A hallmark of these westerns is that their villains can be as charismatic and more rounded than Scott’s protagonists. Indeed, sometimes the villain in one movie even echoes the lines of the hero in another. They’re all men who refuse to change, heading for a collision.

Decision at Sundown takes that mirroring to its furthest point. Scott’s character first appears stopping a stagecoach at pistol point. Meanwhile, his antagonist, played by John Carroll, is treating the whole town to drinks to celebrate his wedding.

Of course, that antagonist is a crooked town boss. He’s throwing over his long-time lover for this advantageous marriage. Yet he’s also in love with his new bride. Most striking, he doesn’t hide his past or his methods—he’s one of the movie’s truth-tellers.

Scott’s character interrupts the wedding and winds up besieged in a livery stable. The boss sends his hand-picked sheriff and deputized gunmen after the interloper as the cowed townspeople wait out the conflict in the saloon.

As the action rises, however, the main characters decline. Of course, in this sort of story we expect the villain to be cut down. But the action reveals Scott’s character as more petty than principled, and he gets his only friend killed to preserve a delusion. In the end, both main characters ride out of Sundown diminished.

Boetticher considered Decision at Sundown to be a failure. Certainly other films he made with Scott and Brown, such as Seven Men from Now and Ride Lonesome, are more stirring. But this one is an effective, character-driven story, not to be missed in the bunch.

17 August 2019

Only Two Plots?

The two prose stories about Jex and Ticca exemplify the adage that “there are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and A man goes on a journey.”

In “Relief,” the young narrator flies to other planets in Jex’s spaceship. In “Just,” the narrator finds Jex has arrived on her moon and gotten caught in a murder investigation.

Quote Investigator looked into the origin of that adage, which has been attributed to many authors in recent years. It found that:
  • Credit most commonly goes to John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction.
  • He never wrote that, though he wrote an exercise in starting a novel in omniscient voice that could be stretched and misconstrued into that statement.
  • Gardner was being credited with making that pronouncement as early as 1986, four years after his death.
Therefore, if you find wisdom in the adage, give Gardner the credit. If you think it’s far too reductive and at best it’s a rubric for starting a story, be pleased there’s no proof he said it.

15 August 2019

“Just” Another Adventure with Jex and Ticca

Last fall I shared news of my story “Relief: A Tale of the Jitney” being published in volume 5 of the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide anthologies.

Now I’m happy to report that another prose story about Jex and Ticca is now slated for volume 6 of that series. “Just: A Tale of the Jitney” begins like this:


Mama doesn’t usually bring prisoners home.

As magistrate here on Chamulna, Mama keeps prisoners in jail until trial season. Even with all the zirnium miners making trouble on this moon, the jail wing of the Magistracy isn’t full. But I guess she figured this prisoner was too small to stay with the rest.

“I think he’s young,” she told me.

“But he’s a different species,” I said. “We don’t know how his people age.”

Most of Mama’s prisoners are normal Polatians, but this one had smooth, doughy, mahogany skin. His little fern-green eyes were sunk into his face, and his cornsilk hair covered the whole round top of his head. “If he were a Polatian girl like you,” Mama told me, “his crest would be turning light twell—”

“Mama!” I’m sure she could see my cheeks shine.

She wiggled one eye to signal she was joking. “That’ll remind you, Yari, not to assume your mother’s forgotten how alien species work.”

Mama steered the boy into a spare room on the second floor of the Magistracy with a hand on the back of his neck. Half that space was filled with old, mismatched furniture from the squad room downstairs. I moved a broken screen off a crimson sofa, and Jex sat down, his little eyes moving in tandem to take in the mess. On his left wrist, just past his ragged navy shirtsleeve, I spotted a saffron-orange detainment bracelet.

Mama turned to me. “You know how you’re always asking to help with the Magistracy cases?”

“Only a thousand times!” I wanted so much to be an investigator, the way Mama had started out. But she never let me.

“You can help me right now. This boy’s a witness to a crime. I need to question him, and he doesn’t speak Polatian—only Stelpidge.”

Stelpidge was one of the courses I’d chosen from teleschool, but I didn’t think it would come in handy this fast. “Of course I’ll help investigate!” I said.

“Translate,” Mama said.

I let that go and asked, “What are your questions?”

“Let’s start by finding out his basics.”

I’d watched enough investigatory dramas to know what that meant. I pushed a chrome chair in front of the boy and sat down. “Greetings,” I said in Stelpidge. “My name is Yarilotta. This is my mother, Magistrate Squoryvotta. What is your name?”

He said, “Jex.”

“Just Jex?”

He nodded his head. I repeated the name to Mama.

She tapped the name into her handscreen. “We’ll ask Interstel if he has a record. Keep going.”

I asked the boy, “Where do you live?”

“On that space flyer your mother made me park outside.”

“How old are you?”

His narrow eyes peered warily through his fringe of tawny hair. “How young do I have to be to go free?”



Dreaming Robot Press is gathering preorders for this volume through Kickstarter. The higher funding levels bring not only this book in digital and/or print form, but also the previous volumes, so you can own both prose stories of Jex and his jitney and dozens more besides. The press also likes to seed the fondness for science fiction by making its books available to schools and libraries.

11 August 2019

Robin and Gender Shifts in American Naming

Last year the Life of Words blog discussed how over time many American names have flipped from being predominantly male to predominantly female—and, in a few cases such as Stacey and Lacey, flipped back.

Here’s the prevalence graph for the name Robin, based on US Census and Social Security data.

As you can see, until 1850 basically all Americans named Robin were male. Gradually more women named Robin appeared and then around 1930 there was a sudden shift and Robin became a predominantly, though not exclusively, female name.

The character Robin made his debut in 1940 shortly after that shift to a female name. However, the men who created him—Jerry Robinson with Bill Finger and Bob Kane—came from a generation that knew Robin even more predominantly as a male name.

In 1970 the trend of Robin being a female name in America peaked. As of 2000, we were heading back to the range in which the shift happened back around 1930. Was there another sudden change?

03 August 2019

Catching Bob le flambeur at Last

In my mid-teens I saw a bunch of movies at the now-closed Nickelodeon cinema, the type of theater that flourished in college towns before the art films they showed became available on VHS.

In front of every damn one of those movies, the cinema showed a preview of Bob le flambeur, a 1956 film by Jean-Pierre Melville that’s often pegged as the start of the French new wave. I saw that preview so many times that I could recite its voiceover: “…the story of a man who moves like a prince through the dark streets of Paris, gambling in back rooms until dawn. Then one day, down on his luck, he masterminds the biggest gamble of his life: the robbery of the Deauville casino…”

Almost forty years later, through my local library’s Kanopy subscription, I finally watched Bob le flambeur. I was expecting a heist film, but it’s really a character portrait with a heist attached. Bob doesn’t even come up with the robbery scheme until halfway through the movie, after we explore his relationships with a protégé, a young demimondaine, and a police inspector.

There are scenes of Bob walking his confederates through his robbery plan on a floor outline painted on a field, and of a safecracker at work. But to anyone who knows the rules of good storytelling, those scenes are a tip-off that we’ll never see the plan come off that way, and we don’t.

Instead, the movie is an homage to American gangster movies and what Melville’s colleagues dubbed film noir. Roger Duchesne has a ducal George Raft vibe at the center. Women, and the men who love them too much, prove to be the weak spots in the conspiracy. But in the end, it’s Bob’s character that matters.

30 July 2019

Sea Fairies and Sea Sirens

Sea Sirens is a new middle-grade graphic novel by Amy Chu and Janet K. Lee. It’s subtitled A Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventure, and the back cover says it was “inspired by L. Frank Baum’s classic adventure The Sea Fairies, the ‘underwater Wizard of Oz.’” The story’s last page promises more Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventures.

However, this is not a story about Trot and Cap’n Bill from The Sea Fairies and Sky Island, whom Baum settled in the Emerald City in The Scarecrow of Oz. It’s a remix of elements from The Sea Fairies including the names of major characters, the setting in and off the coast of southern California, and the general idea of being able to breathe underwater to visit mermaids.

Baum’s Sea Fairies is one of his weaker fantasies, though it introduces some of his most winning characters and one of his scariest villains. As in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a lot of pages are taken up by underwater tourism with little plot (but, in Baum’s case, plenty of puns). Though Trot is a winning personality already distinct from Dorothy Gale, she functions mostly as an observer; she becomes more of a plot driver in Sky Island.

Lee, who created the striking Return of the Dapper Men, had the idea to pull from The Sea Fairies to create a modern adventure. Like Trot, the Trot* in Sea Sirens lives along the southern California coast with her mother and a disabled older man—not a one-legged sailor but her grandfather, who suffers from intermittent dementia. The new Cap’n Bill* is one-eyed cat.

Trot* is a Vietnamese-American surfer. About twenty years ago I wrote an Oz novel featuring a Vietnamese-American surfer as the child who travels to the Emerald City. I’m therefore particularly intrigued by Trot*. Both stories hinge on the powerful allure of surfing, particularly as a respite from domestic tensions.

In The Sea Fairies, Trot and Cap’n Bill are boating off the coast when the mermaids of the title appear and invite them to visit. They want to disabuse Cap’n Bill of his superstitious ideas about mermaids luring sailors to their deaths. Once underwater, Trot and Cap’n Bill meet many creatures, culminating in a gigantic, ancient sea serpent named King Anko, who presides over the Pacific. Then they get captured by the villainous Zog.

Sea Sirens strives for more conflict from the start. (Perforce this paragraph and the following contain SPOILERS.) Trot* is at odds with her mother over whether it’s safe to leave her wandering grandfather to go surfing. Trot* and Cap’n Bill* almost drown before a mermaid princess with her own mother issues rescues them and empowers them to breathe underwater. The mermaid queen Aquareine* is imperious instead of just friendly. The mermaids are close to war with a nation of underwater serpents, and Trot*’s grandfather wanders into their possession.

However, in the end that conflict washes away in a few pages. The King Anko* in Sea Sirens is a former cabin boy with more than a little resemblance to Maurice Sendak’s Max, Mikey, Jack, and Guy, who in turn harken back to Winsor McCay’s Nemo. Anko* is delighted to find other humans underwater at last. Trot* asks him and Aquareine* to pull back their armies, and they do. Problem solved.

Even Trot*’s fear of her mother worrying that she and her grandfather have drowned evaporates quickly. It turns out the entire underwater adventure takes only an hour in surface time. (In The Sea Fairies, Baum had the mermaids cast a spell on Trot’s mother so that she slept peacefully through her daughter’s absence.) There’s a final fear that Cap’n Bill* has drowned, but he hasn’t.

In sum, Sea Sirens ends up being even slighter than The Sea Fairies. The pictures are lovely, and the graphic storytelling successful on a page-by-page, moment-by-moment basis. The character-based jokes land, especially when Trot* learns there’s more to Cap’n Bill* than she thought. Jimmy Gownley, creator of the Amelia Rules! series, provides fine lettering. Now that the characters are established, we can hope the next graphic Trot & Cap’n Bill Adventure is more of an adventure.