Showing posts with label editing other people's books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label editing other people's books. Show all posts

20 October 2014

02 October 2014

No Need to Complicate Things

Sarah Lyall of the New York Times noted some oddities in her advance reading copy of Moriarty, a latter-day Sherlock Holmes novel by Anthony Horowitz:
In the reader’s edition, some copies of which were sent to The New York Times, “Moriarty’s” narrator, an American detective named Frederick Chase, is laying out the background to the story – how Holmes and Moriarty came to be at Reichenbach Falls and what is believed to have happened next. All of a sudden he switches to capitals. “NO NEED TO COMPLICATE THINGS HERE, I THINK,” the text announces. “WHAT I’VE WRITTEN IS BROADLY TRUE.”

Can the narrator be offering some meta-commentary on his own text? At first it seems so. But then it happens again. In a spot where Chase and a Scotland Yard inspector have found an important clue that seems to be an excerpt from a previous Holmes story written by Dr. Watson, things suddenly veer off-piste again. “IT MAKES NO SENSE FOR FREDERICK CHASE TO HAVE READ THE SIGN OF FOUR,” the text declares.

There are at least six of these capitalized interjections, and sadly, they turn out to have nothing to do with anything so exciting as postmodern cleverness. They are instead Mr. Horowitz’s notes to a copy editor or, as Mr. Horowitz’s agent in London, Jonathan Lloyd, said, some “mild author reaction to some copy-editing points.”
It seem that the book’s British publisher sent the wrong file to its American counterpart, and folks in the US didn’t catch those interjections while putting that file into proof form.

None of Horowitz’s comments, Lyall reports, is rude, profane, or otherwise embarrassing—and authors responding to copyediting can become heated. These are simply the sort of “stet” instructions that every published author has sent back at some point. Such copyedits and responses to them used to be confined to colored pencil on paper, but now they’re in the form of electrons like the rest of a manuscript, and it’s harder to keep them sorted out.

Those capitalized comments also indicate that Horowitz doesn’t use or trust “Track Changes” and “Comments” in a Word document, and I’m fully in sympathy with him on that.

18 February 2014

Illustrating Picture Books versus Drawing Comics

Toward the end of his conversation with Skottie Young on the Stuff Said podcast, artist Gregg Schigiel asks about Young’s experience illustrating his first picture book, Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman. (A lot of Schigiel’s interviews seem to be digging for career counseling, but that’s another story.)

Young sounds almost amazed as he reports how much easier illustrating a picture book was compared to drawing a comic. Jef Czekaj said the same thing on a panel I moderated a while back. I wouldn’t be surprised if other artists who’ve worked in both fields feel the same way. That’s not to say picture-book illustration is easy; but relatively it seems to be a more pleasant experience.

For one thing, picture books don’t require so many pictures. A 32-page picture book might require 20 separate images, which could fill as few as four pages of standard comics. True, those images have to be bigger and more detailed so that they reward multiple readings. On the other hand, they don’t have to be so tightly squeezed together on a page with captions and word balloons impinging on them.

More important, however, is how picture-book publishers treat artists. Editors and art directors choose an artist based on his or her past work and reputation, and they see their job as assisting the writer’s and artist’s visions come to fruition, not to move the corporation’s larger story along. They don’t try to exercise so much editorial control. They set more generous deadlines.

Schigiel’s book experience has come with licensed titles (i.e., those that are part of a corporation’s larger story). So he starts out asking Young what his Art Director told him. But Art Directors for picture books are far more hands-off than people with the same title in other parts of publishing. Young found himself surprised at how few “notes” he received back on his sketches.

The biggest difference between the mainstream book business and other forms of publishing is visible on the covers. On a book, the author’s and illustrator’s names are almost always the biggest; on Fortunately, the Milk, Gaiman’s name is huge, Young’s rather small. But the publisher’s name is usually smallest of all, slipped onto the bottom of the spine and the back. In a comic book or other magazine, the magazine’s name is the biggest; its employees are in charge, and its intellectual property and reputation is what mainly drives the sales.

30 December 2013

Profit and Loss

Last week the New York Times published book editor Gerald Howard’s essay reminiscing about editorial tasks in the early 1980s:

I had the idea that we should reissue two early novels by the fine writer Alice Adams. In order to clear the sum of money necessary to do so, I had to generate, by myself, calculator and production cost sheets in hand, a profit-and-loss statement, or P. & L., which would then be signed off on by various departments. My last hurdle in executing this modest financial transaction of maybe $7,500 was to secure the initials of our chief financial officer. A numbers guy. Not much of a reader.

Like all publishing P. & L.’s, ours factored in typesetting, cover art and printing costs, marketing, overhead, the cost of money and the revenue from projected sales and subsidiary rights to spit out a percentage figure on the bottom line that indicated the likely return on investment. (When I first was confronted with one of these forms, I thought, so that’s what a “bottom line” is. Interesting.) We were theoretically required at that time to have our P. & L.’s yield a return of at least 8 percent, and I had become adept in ways to make or exceed that number. You could shave on the cover art. You could shave on marketing and advertising. You could basically lie about projected sales and hope no one called you on it. The techniques I had developed in college to make my ham-handed chem lab experiments yield the proper results found a practical new use.

So there I was in our C.F.O.’s office with a P. & L. that just eked out a 7 percent return. He looked at that piece of paper dubiously. He looked at me dubiously. I made some weak noises about literary excellence, backlist sales, commitment to authors. He continued to look at me dubiously. Then, with that wry and sad expression with which financial people have regarded liberal arts people since at least the invention of movable type and perhaps even written language, he signed off on my shortfallen P. & L. and said to me, “You know, we could make more money by just putting this advance into a certificate of deposit.”

I produced the properly crestfallen face because I knew he was right. Inflation was rampant and C.D.’s were paying 10 percent per annum or more. What a drag I was on the corporation. But I grabbed the P. & L. before he could have second thoughts, thanked him and backed out of his office.
Note, however, that the CFO did sign off on the investment.

I interviewed for a job with Gerry Howard a couple of years after this must have taken place. One of my first tasks on the editorial job I did get was running a P&L on one of the two desktop computers the Editorial Department then owned. I guess I should be pleased I wasn’t doing the calculations by hand.

12 December 2013

The Remains

Rebecca Mead and George Prochnik’s essay “Book-Club Guide to a Remaindered Book” has got to be the least-sympathetic-to-authors article on publishing that I’ve read for a long time. Even if it’s mercilessly accurate:

1. When the author’s agent initially asked the author who he thought the readers of his proposed book would be and he defensively replied, “Everyone,” do you think the author should have immediately realized that there is a thin line between everyone and no one?

2. Did the agent’s pitch that the proposed book “brilliantly bridges genres” give the author license that caused him to, in the later words of his agent, “miss the boat” completely, by failing to inhabit any genre whatsoever?

3. Did the negligible advance justify the author’s contention that he could “write what I liked,” without regard to the book’s marketability, plausibility, or legibility?

4. Why do you think the agent stopped returning the author’s phone calls?
I mean damn.

07 November 2013

Fresh Music on Fresh Air

I remember discovering Terri Gross and her Fresh Air radio interviews soon after I started work in publishing. I thought they were terrific, and of course my firm wanted to get our authors booked on that show. I don’t recall if we ever did.

Last week my old friend Steve Young sat down to talk with Terri Gross, so now I’m jealous. He was in the studio along with lyricist Sheldon Harnick and performer John Russell to discuss “industrial musicals” of the late twentieth century: musical shows written and performed at a professional level for big American corporations’ sales conferences and trade shows.

Steve just co-wrote a book documenting that little-known art form: Everything’s Coming Up Profits. He’s assembled a website that shares some of the surviving recordings. The songs are both catchy and hilarious, and it’s clear in the lively radio conversation that Terri Gross loved hearing and learning about them. If only we’d known what would catch her attention.

31 August 2013

I Was Expecting Someone Much Older, Too

I enjoyed Publishers Weekly’s roundup of publishing industry veterans’ memories of their early days on the job in days of electric typewriters, fax machines with rolls of shiny paper, mechanical paste-ups, smokers in the office, and even elevator operators.

Here’s a story from Howard Reeves of Abrams Books for Young Readers:
I calmly left the lobby, and ran to [editor] Martha Kaplan’s office. “I just asked Gloria Vanderbilt who she was,” I said.

Martha rolled her eyes and dropped her head in her hands.

“I was expecting someone much older.”

She lifted her head slightly. “Perfect.”

Martha came and fetched Ms. Vanderbilt. Before they disappeared down the hall, I heard Martha say, “Of course he knew you were coming, but he says he was expecting a much older woman.”

I swear Ms. Vanderbilt’s lips twitched ever so slightly.
Dinah Stevenson of Clarion Books:
Old-fashioned crafts like spinning and blacksmithing are being revived. I bet pre-separating artwork won’t be among them.
Ginee Seo of Chronicle Books:
I would sometimes curse the day I told any agent I liked fantasy because those manuscripts were always long, and carrying them plus other submissions for weekend reading made for an incredibly heavy haul.
But my enjoyment was tempered by seeing some of those veterans date their hoary tales to “back in the ’80s,” “in the mid 1980s,” and even “in 1992.” I myself started work in publishing in 1987 (a year earlier if you count a summer job). And I suppose my stories of maintaining the department’s email connection to the Soviet Union would seem unfathomably antique to many professionals today. But still, I’d prefer not to be older than any of the industry’s old-timers.

22 August 2013

The Visual Display of Edward Tufte

About a quarter-century ago, I was a young Editorial Assistant at a publishing company, and someone handed me a copy of Edward Tufte’s The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

I already had a copy of that book, a holiday present from my mother. (I think I’d entered a “hard to shop for” period after years of easily identified obsessions.) I’d found The Visual Display of Quantitative Information quite interesting, both in its content and in its backstory: Tufte had self-published the book back when desktop-publishing programs were new and Amazon and print-on-demand barely conceived of. I read that he was making big money from the book and/or speeches and consulting contracts based on it.

That success evidently caught the attention of higher-ups at my employer. One of them sent a copy of the book down to the editors on my floor along with a memo to look into this and do something about it. I saw one of those editors carrying around the book and naively piped up that I was familiar with it already. That was how I came into possession of a second copy of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

I was too new to realize that corporate activity around the book wasn’t really driven by a wish to start publishing oversized volumes on quantitative displays. Rather, it was driven by a wish to satisfy the higher-ups’ desire to have someone handle this matter. The book was like the monkey in the old Harvard Business School analogy: passed off from one desk to another within the organization until someone figures out a way to toss it back outside.

I don’t clearly recall how the episode ended. I think I was still wrestling with how best to explain “We can’t afford him” when word arrived that our department’s higher-up had passed along the book because an even higher higher-up had given it to her, so she wasn’t really pushing for any action. Tufte went on to self-publish more volumes without being bothered by us.

All of which leads up to the news that for several years Edward Tufte has been working on large-scale sculptural installations, sometimes in collaboration with stone worker Dan Snow. Three that caught my eye are:
Tufte’s website says the next open-house viewing at Hogpen Hill Farms in Woodbury, Connecticut, will be on 5 Oct 2013.

18 August 2013

Spotting a Familiar Name

A few months back there were a lot of pictures of Damian Wayne with Death from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, but I don’t recall having seen this one in my feeds. (Of course, there were a lot.)

This picture comes from Luciano Vecchio, an artist from Argentina. I first saw his work when I was editing the International Wizard of Oz Club’s Oziana fiction magazine, and art director Marcus Mébès recruited him to illustrate some stories. When I contacted him directly a while later, Luciano told me he’d gotten too busy with paying jobs to do more volunteer fan work, and I told him that was the best news an aspiring professional artist could share.

I ran across Luciano’s name in the second collection of comics spun off the Young Justice TV show. He drew a couple of issues of that magazine, as well as cartoon-style comics about the Avengers and Green Lantern. Earlier work includes the Sentinels, about a second-generation superhero team, from Drumfish. Here’s Luciano’s Deviant Art page.

Starting soon, Luciano will be the regular artist on the new Beware the Batman! magazine written by Ivan Cohen, which DC promoted this spring with a free preview comic scripted by Scott Beatty.

25 July 2013

Editing Dahl

From Stephen Roxburgh’s recollections of editing Roald Dahl’s The Witches thirty years ago, just published in Publishers Weekly:
On May 16, I sent Roald our American copyeditor’s queries, three closely typed pages of minutiae, most of it involving using American English rather than British English. Roald wrote, “I don’t approve of some of your Americanisms. This is an English book with an English flavour and so it should remain.” Here are a few examples:

“elevator vs. lift: I agree elevator for ‘lift’ because most American children simply won’t know what ‘lift’ means.

“candy vs. sweets: I do not agree ‘candy’ for ‘sweet.’ Your children will know what sweets are and anyway it’s important for the witch to say “Sveet-shop.” So no candy or candy-shops, please.

“tuna fish vs. fish-paste: I won’t have ‘tuna fish’ for “fish-paste.’ Please keep this Anglicism. It’s a curiosity even over here.”
I’m pleased that even though Dahl began with a broad statement about “Americanisms,” he made his actual choices based on how well the text would communicate to young American readers.

Also notable in this article is that Dahl originally thought The Witches needed a more conventional ending, as forecast in its original beginning: “I myself escaped twice from the clutches of witches before I was eight years old, and for that I have to thank my grandmother.”

10 July 2013

“Have the end in sight”

The Guardian asked five children’s-book editors with books up for an award [that I’ve never heard of—“Branford Boase”?] for their advice for new authors.

David Fickling of The Phoenix magazine and many books included this in his answer:
People always say that a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. If that is true then by far the most important part is the end. Before you set off on a writing project it saves a lot of time to have the end in sight.

That doesn't mean you have to know exactly what is going to happen at the end of your story, but you should have a sense of the ending note in mind. This may also help tell you how long your text is going to be.

And you don't need to tell the editor or publisher what will happen or what it's about either, that's your business. All the editor or publisher really needs is the reassurance that there is an ending and that the narrative will be good. Editing is all about trust.
The last part of Fickling’s comment runs directly counter to what American agents and editors say about synopses: you have to divulge the ending. Otherwise, they won’t trust you to supply a good one. But perhaps Fickling is now used to working with authors who’ve built up trust with him.

13 March 2013

Powers that Comics Editors Need

Comic Book Resources carried an interesting dialogue between Louise Simonson and Ann Nocenti, two comics writers who first edited superhero comics for Marvel in the 1980s.

It included this discussion of editing methods:

Nocenti: I worked with Jim Shooter first and, whatever ill things you want to say about him, he was obsessed with basic Aristotelian plot structure: introduce a character visually, introduce a conflict, what’s the theme? He had a really good grounding in how to tell a story.

Then I worked with Al Milgrom, and what was great about Milgrom was, he’d take the pages that came in and put a piece of tracing paper over them and physically scribble over and re-do the artist’s layouts to show how you could do them better.

Then, when I worked with Weezie, I learned—this is one of the biggest things I learned from you, Weezie—how to get what you want from the writers and artists and have them leave the office with their tails wagging, not realizing they had to re-do everything!

Simonson: [Laughs] I think that's just a legend. I can’t believe I actually did that!

Nocenti: You did! You would sit there and say, “This is really great, this plot is great, but maybe you should make sure this happens,” and they would be like, “Oh yeah!” And then they’d go home and rewrite! We used to say that Weezie’s superpower was she had the power to cloud men’s minds.
Did Simonson’s kindness toward creators grow from her upbringing as a woman at a particular time in the twentieth century? Certainly there were male editors notorious for treating creators badly.

Later Nocenti talks about the different experiences of editing comic books for one of the big companies and creating them for pay:
As an editor, you just have to get something to the printer. You have to make tough decisions, you have to fire people, it has to sell. Then, as a freelancer, you’re at home and you’re lonely and you’re writing by yourself. You’re scared and you don’t know what’s going on with all the corporate people above you. So if you’ve been on both sides, you’re a better editor and a freelancer.
That’s one way to develop empathy if you don’t have it already.

23 September 2012

There, I Fixed It: Tim in Batman, #0

This month’s Batman, #0, contains a story scripted by James Tynion IV and drawn by Andy Clarke which shows the new DC Universe’s Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake before they came Bruce Wayne’s sidekicks.

Some readers complained that the story makes young Jason a killer or a legal accessory to murder. His distinct symbolic value remains having been the Robin on the moral edge, so that doesn’t seem like such a big change to me.

I agree with another set of complaints about that story, however: that Tim Drake comes across as arrogant. He boasts that he’s “the best student in the school,” and tells his antagonist, “you made it ridiculously easy,” and, “how stupid does a man have to be…?” Perhaps this is a new characterization of Tim as intellectually snobbish. Stories about him overcoming that flaw could be interesting, though I think they’d undermine some of his appeal for readers. (Shall we see what Teen Titans, #0, brings?) [ADDENDUM: It brings significant new information that undercuts the basis of this posting.]

But I also found the dialogue on Tim’s two pages to be heavy-handed and wordy, with revelations in odd places and occasional vagueness. So I did a rewrite reflecting my understanding of Tim’s character and the scene’s important revelations while sticking to letterer Patrick Brosseau’s balloons.

My lettering is in the Smack Attack font by Nate Peikos of Blambot. Click on the thumbnails below for full-page images.

29 September 2010

Pitches Low and Outside

In the ten years I’ve been helping to organize writers’ conferences, I’ve seen a trend toward “pitch” sessions in which writers give editors and agents brief oral descriptions of their projects, as screenwriters have long done for Hollywood producers. And I don’t like it.

I understand the forces behind this trend. Hollywood is, after all, where the biggest storytelling money is (as long as we combine movies and television so they outearn videogames). A pitch session requires less time, particularly prep time by the professional, than a critique of a written manuscript sample. And in the case of SCBWI, that organization is based in Los Angeles, and its co-founder Lin Oliver works in television and film as well as books, so pitches are more familiar to her.

The problems with pitches are that:

  • They’re not how most book editors and agents evaluate manuscripts.
  • They don’t play to most writers’ best skills.
  • An agent or publisher buys into a manuscript, not an idea that they hire lots of other people to develop.
Editors and agents know that it’s valuable to be able to boil down a book’s appeal into a short pitch, for sales calls, marketing, and jacket copy. But they also know that the execution of the core idea matters.

At one writers’ conference I had to facilitate a pitch session with Michael Stearn, then editing books at one of the H publishers before alighting at the Upstart Crow Literary Agency. And his response to nearly every idea had to be about the same: “Okay, I can see that idea working, but I’d have to see the writing.” He was game, and the attendees were eager, but the session seemed like a waste of time instead of an efficient use of it.

Mary Kole of the Andrea Brown agency just explained at why she doesn’t like pitches, either:
In most cases, I will request a writing sample — 10 pages and a query, our standard submission request on the ABLit website — after a pitch. Because I need to see the writing. Sometimes, I know that a project is just not for me. . . . But in most cases, I will give the writer what they’re hoping to get: the request for more. That’s the first reason I dislike pitches: most writers are just focused on the request and don’t know that they’ll likely get one.

The second reason I dislike pitches? The bundle of nerves on the other side of the table. Writers freak out, thinking that their two minute pitch will make or break their career, or they act like robots who have memorized a query and are now regurgitating it. A lot of writers read from actual cue cards, their hands shaking, their eyes glued to the page and never rising to meet mine. They’re so focused on the pitch that they’ll get completely frazzled if I ask a question or interrupt them for clarification. It’s a very one-sided conversation.
People go into book publishing—as writers, editors, and agents—because we like the written word. We hone our skills in communicating that way. We take on the long labor of creating books because we like long stories. Asking us to abandon the written word in favor of an oral pitch is just asking for trouble.

(Cover above for No Cream Puffs, by Karen Day, a tween novel about a baseball pitcher that’s easy to pitch but hard to encapsulate.)

15 February 2010

Looking Back on American Virtue

Today’s New York Times offers Janet Maslin’s review of The Death of American Virtue, a history of the Clinton impeachment debacle by Duquesne Law School professor Ken Gormley.

The review calls the book “tough, labyrinthine,” and sometimes in its detail “impressive but not entirely necessary. . . . But by and large Mr. Gormley has packed his narrative with intense, overdue and definitive testimony about the still-surprising investigation of Mr. Clinton’s activities spearheaded by Kenneth W. Starr.”

I edited Ken’s previous big book, Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation, which also offered a very detailed account of an impeachment—in that case, of Richard Nixon for abusing the powers of the presidency. The Watergate controversy was the first national news I remember paying attention to, and I was honored to work on that book and meet Cox.

Somewhere back then Ken told me about his idea for this new book, and I was skeptical. Not of the importance of delving into how a failed development in Arkansas became a constitutional crisis that ended in offers of free plastic surgery. Rather, I thought it was too soon: sources might not be ready to talk, and the public certainly wasn’t ready to read more about the controversy.

But that was ten years ago, before the Supreme Court assigned George W. Bush the presidency, before the terrorist attack on New York, before the Iraq War and Guantànamo prison. Now we can even feel nostalgia for the days when Congressional Republicans wanted to impeach the President for lying about an affair.

You remember those defenders of American virtue: Rep. Newt Gingrich, Rep. Bob Livingston, Rep. Henry Hyde, Rep. Bob Barr, Rep. John Ensign, Rep. Mark Sanford, Rep. Joe Scarborough, Rep. Dan Burton, Rep. Vito Fossella, Rep. Helen Chenoweth, Rep. Bill Thomas, Sen. Strom Thurmond, Sen. Larry Craig, Sen. John McCain,…

22 January 2010

Faces on Book Covers and the Lack of Market Research

Back when I was a book editor, one of my projects was the reissue of a book about business presentations. The art director brought me a set of stock photos of people giving presentations, and I chose the image that best reflected how we were repositioning the book. The model was young, energetic, confident. He was also black.

I knew there weren’t a lot of business books with a single black person on the cover, so I wondered if this was a daring choice. I also wondered if using this photo would play into one of American culture’s varied stereotypes of black men—the hyper-articulate public speaker. But book covers have to push buttons in the customers’ minds, so would playing on a recognizable positive image be a bad thing? In the end, I didn’t want to make race a factor in the choice, and that image’s energy won the day.

We sent an image of the new cover to the author, and he called to ask if putting a black man on the cover would affect sales. (He used the grating phrase “politically correct” in his question.) I told him that photo was clearly the best choice, and we didn’t anticipate problems.

Of course, I had no market research to back up that belief. General-interest, retail-based publishing never has market research. The industry doesn’t have the resources for focus groups, test marketing, or gathering systematic feedback on specific books. There are general studies on the bookstore customer base, but with stores carrying tens of thousands of products, each competing with all the others for readers’ time and yet each in some way unique, it’s impossible to apply those findings to the nuances of individual titles.

Our Sales Department never told me of any complaints about our new cover. But yesterday I quoted two children’s book professionals on seeing some white people silently pass over books about non-white children. So would booksellers have told our reps that they were ordering fewer copies of this one title because its cover showed a black man? Would customers have told bookstore clerks why they chose another title on business presentations? Would people even be conscious of prejudices affecting their choices?

Lack of definite answers might be a good thing because math and economics aren’t necessarily on the side of inclusion. In the US today, there are six non-Latino white people for every one African-American; the ratio among bookstore customers might be even higher for a variety of factors (disposable income, store locations, etc.). Let’s imagine that the image of a black man on that business book cut sales to white customers by only 10%. The same cover would have had to increase the book’s appeal to black customers by 60% to cancel out our loss.

And the American book industry is capitalist and market-driven. These days, even the biggest trade publishers are relatively small divisions of massive media corporations. Corporations are set up to make their employees care about revenue and profits, not politics (except insofar as they affect revenue and profits) or inclusiveness (except insofar…). From my employer’s point of view, if I’d knowingly chosen a photo that promised to limit sales, I wouldn’t have been doing my job. Lack of definite answers let me decide according to my values and tastes rather than by the numbers.

I just found that edition of the book still on sale, with the same photo (and my smoooooth cover copy on the back). Does that mean the reissue was so successful that it’s lasted on store shelves for more than a decade? Did the photo actually help the book keep looking up-to-date? Or was the book so unsuccessful that the company hasn’t bothered to reissue it again? Did the cover image have any effect whatsoever?

I doubt anyone knows. There are 100,000 stories in every big bookstore, and the industry doesn’t have the resources to track them all.

TOMORROW: Can advertising change the market?

02 January 2010

There, I Fixed It: Blue Beetle, #1

This is a panel from the first issue of the latest Blue Beetle comic book, published from 2006 to 2009. It’s introducing Jaime, the teenager who becomes the third and more extraterrestrial Blue Beetle, and his friends Brenda and Paco. Friendship is a major theme in this magazine, making the interplay of these three characters especially important—as well as a major source of comic relief.

At the Savage Critics, Abhay Khosla just completed a long, discursive, occasionally scatological essay about why the long story arc of Blue Beetle, #1-25, didn’t work at all, except at the end when he had to admit that it worked just fine.

I think Khozia’s overall judgment is wrong: those issues, collected in four slim paperback volumes, are the most entertaining and satisfying superhero coming-of-age story that DC Comics published in the last five years. (Robin and Teen Titans have struggled and languished.) One of the issues Khosla singles out for criticism contains the most surprising and incisive scene in the series. And even when it’s positive, the critique misses the point of the last volume’s “magic words.”

But on many details Khosla is correct. The creators struggle to cross superheroics with working-class life along the US-Mexico border and not fall into clichés and stereotypes. (Yet the company deserves credit for trying to expand its cast of Latino American heroes beyond El Dragón from The Super Dictionary.)

The Blue Beetle series undoubtedly shows all the drawbacks of deadline-driven, mass-market comics storytelling. For example, the panels that follow the one above look like this:
They provoked this entertaining rant from Abhay:

Everything about these three panels is wrong.

First, it turns a comedy scene into an afterschool special.

Second, we’ve known the main character for all of two pages at this point, and the first thing they’re telling us about him is that he doesn’t care if his friend is getting physically abused by her father. “Oh, your dad savagely beats you? Does he molest you too? That's nice. Well, I’m going to just stand over here and pop my collar and quote The Game lyrics to the sidewalk.” Let’s read about that guy every month. Look at him—“my father beats me”—and he’s rolling his eyes!
Yes, that’s what the second panel looks like, but everything else in the issue and everything shown about Jaime in his earlier appearance in the more widely read Infinite Crisis indicates that he’s a Good Guy. Maybe he’s not a Save the Planet Guy—but that’s the question behind this series.

In that context, it’s obvious that Cully Hammer drew Jaime’s eye-rolling as a response to his friends’ bickering, not to Brenda’s remark. And it would have taken only a little tweaking by the editor (usually the person in charge of placing word balloons) to make the conversation and the characters’ reactions flow right. So now we’ve got that out of the way. Go read the first four volumes of Blue Beetle, okay?

18 December 2009

Writing Advice on Responding to Criticism

There’s the wrong way, as in the recent case study dissected by Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Making Light. And there’s the right way, from an anecdote the poet Alexander Pope told about himself and the first Earl of Halifax, who actually did a spot of writing himself, what what:

When I had finished the two or three first books of my translation of the Iliad, that Lord desired to have the pleasure of hearing them read at his house. Addison, Congreve, and Garth were there at the reading.

In four or five places Lord Halifax stopped me very civilly, and with a speech each time of much the same kind, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Pope, but there is something in that passage that does not quite please me. Be so good as to mark the place, and consider it a little more at your leisure: I am sure you can give it a better turn.”

I returned from Lord Halifax’s with Dr. Garth, in his chariot; and as we were going along, was saying to the Doctor, that my lord had laid me under a good deal of difficulty, by such loose and general observations; that I had been thinking over the passages ever since, and could not guess what it was that offended his lordship in either of them.

Garth laughed heartily at my embarrassment; said I had not been long enough acquainted with Lord Halifax to know his way yet; that I need not puzzle myself in looking those places over and over again when I got home. “All you need do,” said he, “is to leave them just as they are; call on Lord Halifax two or three months hence; thank him for his kind observations on those passages; and then read them to him as if altered. I have known him much longer than you have, and will be answerable for the event.”

I followed his advice; waited on Lord Halifax some time after; said I hoped he would find his objections to those passages removed, and read them to him exactly as they were at first. His lordship was extremely pleased with them, and cried out, “Ay, now, Mr. Pope, they are perfectly right; nothing can be better.”
Of course, the famously thin-skinned Pope was probably a lot more emotional during the reading and the chariot ride than this story suggests. But Pope was also entirely dependent on rich patrons, so he had to grit his teeth. In 1714 he gave the same earl the first volume of his Iliad translation and wrote a fawning letter that said, in part: “It is indeed a high strain of generosity in you, to think of making me easie all my life, only because I have been so happy as to divert you an [h]our or two…”

22 November 2009

Reviewing The Black Casebook

Batman: The Black Casebook is marketed as the stories that inspired Grant Morrison’s issues of Batman magazine, and the direction he’s driven DC’s leading character since 2006. But really it’s the best collection of weird-ass Batman and Robin adventures from the 1950s and late 1960s now on the market.

There’s some overlap with Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told (“Robin Dies at Dawn”), Batman in the Fifties (“Batman: The Superman of Planet X”), and other, less widely available collections. But half of these tales haven’t been reprinted before. Indeed, these stories—of interdimensional travel, inexplicable monsters, and alternate Batmans—have had a bad reputation in comics fandom since the overly hyped “New Look” of 1964 wiped them out of continuity.

A little over half of these tales were written by Bill Finger, the Dynamic Duo’s co-creator. Edmund Hamilton scripted the two adventures of Batman’s counterparts from other countries, and France Herron told the tales of Batman filling in for other crimefighters in other lands. Almost all the pages were penciled by Sheldon Moldoff, Bob Kane’s usual ghost artist in this period. But the big name on the cover is Morrison’s—though all he wrote is the introduction.
It would be nice if the collection had been edited better. One might think it hard to mishandle a book that consists simply of reprints with a new introduction from a practiced writer. But let’s look at that introduction.

It begins, “Back in 1995 when editor Peter Tomasi approached me about writing the monthly BATMAN comic…” Actually, Tomasi approached Morrison in 2005. DC Comics obviously didn’t fact-check its own recent corporate history.

Later Morrison writes of two stories in the collection:

I’ve only ever seen the cover images for these stories and haven’t actually read them, so I hope I’m in for a treat.
Since the covers were more influential than the stories themselves, it would also be nice if we could see those covers in this volume. But they don’t appear, even in the little space at the ends of stories, which are instead filled with the Batman logo. As a public service I’ve included the images here, courtesy of the Grand Comic-Book Database.
The Black Casebook cover might be yet more evidence that this volume was hastily assembled. Rather than showing an evocative new image of Batman and Robin, or a historic one, it’s made to look like a leatherbound notebook—a design assembled from type, texture, and that Batman logo again. On the plus side, that plain cover means you can carry The Black Casebook to the office without anyone outside the fandom tumbling to the fact that you enjoy weird-ass Batman adventures.

These stories were originally published for a young audience when the Comics Code was in effect. They thus lack things that we expect in comics today, such as significant female characters and psychological consistency. On the other hand, they’re perfectly appropriate for kids of all ages who appreciate the oddball side of comics. And, strange as they are, they hang together better than Morrison’s Batman R.I.P.

19 November 2009

Wisest Thing I’ve Read Today

Publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin posted some thoughts on “What it will mean when the ebook comes first”—i.e., before the printed version. Some of these wrinkles I’d thought of, and some are making me think now:

1. “Space” will no longer be scarce. That means that nothing of value should be discarded; the question becomes how to best employ any thoughts, writing, or images, not whether to include them. (Warning of a likely unintended consequence: putting mediocre material in the finished product can become a temptation and that does not achieve desired effects.)

2. Background material of any kind will become useful. For fiction, that might mean more in-depth character descriptions or “biographies”. For non-fiction, that might mean source material.

3. Multiple media are desireable. Anything that is relevant to the book in video or audio form or art of any kind should be included. . . .

4. Linking is essential. The author should be recording deeplink information for every useful resource tapped during the book’s creation.

5. New editorial decisions abound. Should the reader be given the option to turn links off (to avoid the distractions)? Does it “work” if linked or multiple-media elements become essential to the narrative of the book? And, if that becomes the case, what are the work-arounds for the static print edition? Should “summary” material be added, such as a precis of every chapter than can be a substitute for reading the whole chapter? . . .

6. How should all of this complexity flow? Books are pretty straightforward: you start at the beginning and turn pages until you get to the end. But ebooks can allow different sequencing if that becomes useful. Can we have beginner, intermediary, and expert material all in one ebook that “selects” what you see by what you tell the book you are?

7. When is the book “finished”? An ebook that is continually being enhanced and updated by the author, perhaps even by the addition of relevant blog posts (to imagine a situation which would be very easy to execute) is a great antidote to digital piracy. But it would surely separate the ebook from the print, which couldn’t keep up with that kind of change.
Thanks to PhiloBiblos for the tip.