30 November 2008

Reason for Robin, #4, continued

As I discussed in the weekly Robin of a fortnight ago, adding Dick Grayson/Robin the Boy Wonder to Batman's stories gave Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, and the comic's other early writers a broader emotional palette to work with.

Mid-century ideals of American manhood constricted how much Bruce Wayne/Batman could emote. He could be momentarily puzzled, but not flummoxed. Proud, but not gloating. Regretful, but not tearful. Joking, but not straining for a pun. Robin, as a youngster, could show those "weaknesses," and in doing so raise the emotional timbre of the comic books.

From the 1940s through the 1970s, Batman had the emotional range expected of a male paragon. He was usually happy, occasionally angry, and never out of control for long. Robin handled the extremes, and also expressed aspects of his mentor's private life that Batman wouldn't say out loud. The Batman TV show of the mid-1960s mirrored this dynamic, with Adam West performing to a different tempo from Burt Ward and everyone else in the cast.

Then came DC's Crisis in 1985-86, followed by the death of the second Jason Todd as Robin in 1988. In the same decade, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns showed the artistic and commercial appeal of a Batman who wasn't just out to scare criminals, but was just plain scary. Michael Keaton picked up on that personality in the 1989 movie blockbuster. And that produced a darker emotional dynamic for the Dynamic Duo.

This image is from DC's online introduction to the character of Dick Grayson (art by George Pérez, words by Mark Waid). The "laughing young daredevil" matches how Robin was introduced back in 1940. But note also the unsmiling visage of his mentor, in contrast to his 1940 grin. This was the new face of Batman.

Since 1990 or so, Batman hasn't just been heroically stoic. He's psychologically shut down and closed off. He has terrible social skills, though Bruce Wayne can be suavely charming if he puts his mind to it. Batman has trouble expressing his feelings to even his closest companions. For all his physical and intellectual development, the modern Batman/Bruce Wayne is emotionally stunted.

Today's Batman stories use this character in different ways. The TV cartoons and the magazines based on them (the "DC Animated Universe," or DCAU) are the lightest in tone. They play the emotional contrast between Batman and the rest of the world for laughs.

Other Batman stories follow the old dynamic: Robin shows the emotions that Batman can't, as in the panel to the right, from the Knightfall story of the early 1990s. But now it's no longer admirable for Batman to keep his feelings bottled up. Instead, the biggest ongoing challenge for Dick Grayson and the current Robin, Tim Drake, as traced in their soon-to-end solo magazines, has been to avoid becoming as grim as their mentor.

At the most extreme, several story arcs in the last fifteen years have shown Batman/Bruce Wayne on the verge of madness. Or even beyond it, as in the current "Batman RIP" arc that's made headlines around the world (just as DC Comics had hoped).

And what do the comic books repeatedly say has forced Batman to maintain his sanity? Having Robin at his side. Caring for young Dick Grayson, responding to his emotions, has supposedly helped Bruce Wayne since his third year of fighting crime. Tim Drake took up the mantle of Robin precisely because he saw Batman going crazy without a Boy Wonder. When Batman has shut himself down, as in the Bruce Wayne: Murderer arc, Dick and Tim challenge him to reconnect with the people around him.
In sum, DC's writers have taken the emotional contrast between Batman and Robin established in the comic's first three decades, a contrast largely driven by the gender stereotypes of the time, and have developed deeper meaning from it.

29 November 2008

“Customized Classic Children’s Books”

A firm called SharedBook is offering “customized classic children's books” through its website and retailing partners, most notably Tattered Cover in Denver. Folks can have a photo and short note printed on a page at the front of a book, and that copy will be shipped out to your beloved child. Who will love this so much more than if you, say, wrote the same note inside the book in your own handwriting.

According to Bookselling This Week, users can also add their chosen photo to the back cover, and on certain titles “users can customize entire sections of their book with personal memories and photos.” I just wasn’t able to find any of those titles or options.

The titles available now are mostly “classics”--i.e., in the public domain, or work-for-hire titles from Golden. But there are also three Beverly Cleary books, a Star Wars novel, and the recent Bad Dog, Marley! Another notable option is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with Scott McKowen's illustrations, originally commissioned by Sterling.

I remember an early version of this "personalized book" concept from my childhood: full-color picture books with rudimentary stories into which a computer could drop the name of a birthday child and personal facts. "Did you know that Cindy shares her birthday with Ralph Bunche? Perhaps the two of them will celebrate together by skateboarding." The type was as good as computer-printer technology of the time allowed, which meant the result didn't look like a real book; it looked like a book someone had typed in.

Unfortunately, SharedBook doesn't go as far as I'd hoped when I first saw “customized classic children's books.” You can personalize only that one page. But you can't improve the final act of Huckleberry Finn, write yourself into Oz alongside Dorothy, or give a name to The Poky Little Puppy.

28 November 2008

The Synoptic Gospel

Earlier this year I helped a friend polish the synopsis of his first novel for a literary agent. That got me thinking about synopses, a singular literary genre with a very small audience but a great deal of potential value locked up inside. Of course, the full manuscript still has to deliver, but a good synopsis really is worth all the effort it requires.

I think a strong synopsis can do three important things for an author:

  • crystallize what your book's really about, which is more than a little useful when revising.
  • show an agent or editor how your novel has a plot to excite and eventually satisfy readers through the requisite mix of surprises, emotional tugs, and logical connections.
  • show those publishing pros that you understand how your plot works, leading them to think that you might just be able to do that again.
Editorial Anonymous has tackled the synoptic topic by inviting people to try synopsizing a well-known, published book for practice, and then submitting the result for feedback. EA's guidelines reminded prospective entrants:
Don't forget to include:
  • What makes it all appealing. If you've summarized everything except the reason readers will be drawn through the plot, you've failed.
  • The ending. I don't care if it's a surprise. Tell me how it fricking ends.
The world breathlessly awaits the results.

Meanwhile, for more examples to learn from, there's Miss Snark's Crapometer-synopsis thread. Evil Editor's Face-Lifts are more focused on query letters, but also offer useful advice on expressing the essence of a story. Cynthea Liu takes a more formulaic approach to synopses, seemingly based on the five-paragraph essay, but that's okay; as a genre, synopses are all about content, not form.

27 November 2008

Getting Ready for the Party

It seemed a little unfair that Sotheby’s estimate for this E. H. Shepard illustration of Piglet is only £7,000-9,000 when pictures of Pooh and others are £20,000-70,000. Yes, Piglet's small, but is that a fair determinant of his value?

Then I realized from the auction’s catalog that this is actually a sketch that Shepard created in 1958, based on his earlier, published drawing. And that’s probably the reason for the lower price. Sotheby's estimates for Shepard drawings not connected to Winnie the Pooh at all are even less, though still in the four figures.

Incidentally, the malls will be so crowded tomorrow. Why not shop for me online? I'm only trying to make it easier for you.

26 November 2008

Lasting Legacy

News from Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, via Playbill:

A "Grand Reopening Celebration" will be held Feb. 11 during which filmmaker George Lucas will receive the Lincoln Medal in honor of his accomplishments, which "exemplify the character and lasting legacy of President Abraham Lincoln."
Lucas/Lincoln. Lincoln/Lucas. Hmmm. Well, they both:
  • have beards.
  • championed the Old Republic.
  • created a multimillion-dollar entertainment conglomerate.
Oh wait, only one of them did that last thing. And the other one led the fight against a rebel alliance and didn't create Jar Jar Binks. So I'm having a little trouble seeing the resemblance.

I suspect that one important point of similarity between Lincoln and Lucas is that they both were willing to go to Ford's Theatre. So awkward to give a medal to someone who won't be there to receive it.

25 November 2008

British and American Favorites

Charles Bayless at Through the Magic Door has correlated two newspaper articles on readers’ favorite childhood books: one article from Britain and one from America. This produced four different lists because some respondents had named books or series, and some had named authors.

Bayless summarizes the overlap:

There are four titles that show up on both the UK and the US lists: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Charlotte's Web. There are also four cross-over authors: Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, Enid Blyton and Isaac Asimov.
While that's "two quintessentially American and two quintessentially English authors," as Bayless says, Seuss and Asimov are the only American authors on the British list. A Greek and a Dane rank fairly high, but everyone else is British. In contrast, the American list has Dahl at #2, Verne, Blyton, Montgomery, Milne, and Christie.

Among titles, the American list includes five books from authors outside the USA, plus two by British expatriates writing stories set in their homeland (Burnett's Secret Garden and Lofting's Doctor Doolittle). Charlotte's Web is the only American title to appear on the British list, and it's at the bottom.

Thus, for the generations of readers who responded to these polls, British children's literature was still disproportionately popular in America, and American literature secondary in Britain.

24 November 2008

I Guess That Lady Can Have Her Trademark Back

A few weeks back, DC Comics announced it was folding its Minx imprint of graphic novels for teenage girls. Why, it seems like less than two years since DC issued the first books from this imprint--and indeed it was.

I collected a couple of responses from bloggers and other industry observers on Minx's end. Then I saw some more, and then some more, and they kept coming. Finally I found Good Comics for Kids' round-up of opinions, and decided to start by simply pointing to that.

So my first conclusion is that if the Internet is for porn, as Trekkie Monster declared in Avenue Q, and Wikipedia is for cataloging Japanese trading-card characters, then the blogosphere is for discussing comic books.

The de-Minxing reaction that struck me hardest at first came from former Borders employee Shannon Smith. While some observers said the books hadn't received enough marketing, Smith insisted that wasn't the problem.

I was an inventory manager at Borders during the time Minx was being hyped and when it rolled out and I can tell you lack of marketing was not an issue. It was the most marketed venture I saw during my 7 years with Borders other than the monthly marketing rolled out by manga publishers. (DC and Marvel don’t touch in a year the displays, shelve talkers, flyers, book marks, etc. etc. that manga publishers dump on bookstores in a week). . . .

As soon as the first boxes came in and I saw that the thin little books would be shelved in graphic novels I knew it was going to fail. The books are small YA format and are totally lost in the GN section. Plus, they just can’t compete with manga.

I tried. I created end caps for them but they were in the wrong part of the store. Could I have put them in YA? Sure. But it would have gone against the shelving code on the sticker and would have conflicted with the title look up computers so, no, not really an option.
Smith felt that the Minx titles needed to go among YA prose books, not on the comics shelf, and that Borders would have moved the books there if Random House had asked.

On the other hand, Valerie D'Orazio at Occasional Superheroine wrote:
As of two weeks ago, I saw Minx titles kept in the "teen novel" section of Barnes and Noble--some distance, perhaps a whole floor or two, away from the graphic novel section. Would there be that crossover readership from the teen novel crowd?
If that was a typical B&N, then the Minx books did get a shot in YA lit. And D'Orazio was wondering if they failed by being too far from the comics.

I guess I'd put myself in the group that suspects Minx died because of mediocre product. I liked The Re-Gifters, but wasn't bowled over by the line's flagship, The Plain Janes, and even less impressed by Clubbing--so guess which two of those titles were getting sequels? In addition, DC pulled the plug remarkably fast, which might indicate unrealistic expectations going in.

The winner in all this? I'd say Andrea Grant, who was publishing comics about a heroine she called Minx (and making appearances as that character) back when DC launched its imprint. There was a small legal contretemps. Now she's posting self-congratulatory comments, and I guess no one deserves them more.

23 November 2008

Weakly Robin

I launched the weekly Robin series on 17 Nov 2007, meaning there have been a full year of Oz and Ends postings on that weighty pop-culture topic. Seems longer, doesn't it?

So this week the weekly Robin is taking a rest. But you might find something of interest at Boston 1775, which has been discussing Revolutionary War comics.

22 November 2008

Queen Zixi Rides Again

Golden Age Comic Book Stories has a tendency to sway far afield of its nominal topic. (Which reminds me, I might need to update that descriptive line above, mightn't I?) This month, that blog featured many nice scans of the illustrations for L. Frank Baum's Queen Zixi of Ix, drawn by Frederick Richardson in 1905. Click on the pictures there for bigger views.

That site spells Richardson's first name without the final K, and gives his dates as 1855-1934. Most other websites say he lived from 1862 to 1937, and I'm inclined to believe them.

Richardson was commissioned to illustrate Baum's story by St. Nicholas magazine, the most prestigious American periodical for children. The novel was then called The Magic Cloak, and indeed its action revolves around a magic cloak.

But that title didn't sound so much like Baum's most famous fairy tale, The Wizard of Oz. So when the Century company republished the text and illustrations in book form, it chose a title focused on the ruler of a two-letter country. No matter that most of the story takes place in Noland, not Ix, or that Queen Zixi is the story's antagonist for a significant spell.

Queen Zixi is one of Baum's best fairy tales, perhaps because the St. Nicholas editors demanded his best work. Though episodic (it was originally a serial, after all), it's well structured and thematically unified. The young protagonists are a bit bland, but the supporting characters' humor is delightful.

Thanks to Fuse #8 for the pointer to that site. Here are some more Richardson illustration links:

21 November 2008

“But I Have to Drop the Name ‘Bud’ in There!”

"Otherwise, how will everyone know that we're dear, dear friends?"

In today's New York Times, Michiko Kakutani reviewed Calvin Trillin's book of verse about the recent US election with rhymes of her own:

There once was a poet named Bud Trillin,
Who cast George Bush as his villain.
He sounded like a new Ogden Nash,
Writing doggerel with real panache,
Chronicling the reign of Bush Two,
And Rove’s quest to wipe out the blue.
Which illustrates my primary rule for writing verse: rhyme is easy, rhythm is hard.

My secondary rule is that you shouldn't write verse at all if you can't understand rule #1.

Reviewing Sons of Liberty

Over at Boston 1775, I've just posted some thoughts on Sons of Liberty, a historical-fiction graphic novel scripted by Marshall Poe and drawn by Leland Purvis.

I commented on how it fits all too well into the American canon of Revolutionary War fiction, its historical inaccuracy, and Purvis's interesting use of a graphic technique to display the ambiguities of history--in a different comic.

David Elzey noted the first point from a literary perspective in his Sons of Liberty review at at the Excelsior File. Colleen Mondor in Bookslut also noted the story's similarity to Esther Forbes's great Johnny Tremain.

20 November 2008

Let’s Bypass the Elite in Book Design, Too

Showing his continued grasp of his best interests, Samuel J. "Joe The Plumber" Wurzelbacher has chosen to issue his short-awaited book through the PearlGate Publishing website that Thomas Tabback set up to publish his own novel.

Here's Tabback's description of that novel, Things Forgotten:

After a traumatic experience, Bronx Police Officer Paul Kelly awakens in a hospital with no memory. His life and loved ones are all lost to him, but a specter from the past awakens him to an identity more than 3200 years ago. In a time when the heavens still touched the earth and man witnessed the might of God with plain eyes, there lived Nahar, son of Nahath, son of Reuel. Through Nahar's eyes, Paul is about to recall events that would forever change the world, for he dwelt in the Jordan Valley of Canaan, as a chosen people prepared to cross the river into their Promised Land.
Wurzelbacher and Tabback also designed a website with the title SecureOurFreedom.com. Unfortunately, that URL had been claimed by someone else by the time they went live, so they had to go with SecureOurDream.com. Dream, freedom--same thing.

Joe The Plumber explained his choice of publishing partner as "spreading the wealth," though this method will probably spread most of the wealth to Lightning Source, the print-on-demand company. He also told Fox News, "I am not going to a conglomerate," apparently distrusting large monied interests--yet as I recall Joe The Plumber brought himself to media attention as a courageous voice for people earning more than $250,000 per year.

I support Joe The Plumber's freedom/dream to make any publishing or political decision he chooses, disregarding all expert information. After all, he does fine without a professional license. But I do really wish Joe The Plumber would stop supporting "Title Case."

19 November 2008

Editors’ Biggest Peeves

Here's another fruit from last weekend's SCBWI New England ENCORE! session in Rhode Island. This spring editor Sarah Shumway, now with Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins, had polled her Dutton Children's Books colleagues about what sort of authors irritated them most.

In this purely non-scientific survey, Shumway reported, those editors' biggest peeves were:

  • Authors who leave typos in their query letters.
  • Authors who leave typos in their manuscripts.
  • Authors who pester editors unreasonably about manuscripts.
The first two items confirm what I wrote back in May: for editors, punctuation becomes a moral issue.

As for those pestering authors, part of the editors' resentment is, they'd probably admit, a little guilt. Editors know they're behind on their tasks. Editors want to be nice to authors. But editors also know they usually can't afford to put off many tasks in order to consider or respond to projects that have little chance of earning money for their firms.

Editors have too much to do already on books that look like they'll make money. When their publishing firms conduct performance reviews, they don't consider how well an editor responds to unwanted, unagented manuscripts. That activity almost never has an impact on the bottom line.

So putting editors on the spot about a manuscript brings up a mix of feelings: guilt ("Oh, gee, I'm so far behind on the slush!"), overwork ("But I've got sixty things to do this week!"), confusion ("Which manuscript was that? Which Debbie is this?"). No wonder editors dislike that experience.

And if the author is a pest--asking for a quick answer over the phone, contacting over and over in a short time, seeking detailed feedback, not taking a polite no, sending an extra 2¢ stamp because postage rates have gone up and you know your manuscript is easily found at the top of the pile--then all those bad feelings get focused on her.

All that said, authors still have an obligation to themselves to follow up on solicited submissions, late payments, and other business obligations. One just has to be careful to understand the editor's workload, and the number of other manuscripts she sees. And in a world of voicemail and email, there are ways to send a gentle nudge instead of a shove.

This is one part of Tor's slush pile in 2006, recorded by SF Revu.

18 November 2008

Tracking the Baby-killers

Last Saturday I delivered my "Punch Up Your Plotting" workshop at SCBWI New England's ENCORE! session in Providence. Among the plot troubleshooting tips I listed for the attendees was: "Be ready to kill your babies."

The next day's New York Times Book Review included Jack Shafer's comments on Alphabet Juice, by Roy Blount, Jr., which discusses that rule in the form of "Murder your darlings," attributed to various writers. Blount noted the source as Arthur Quiller-Couch, in On the Art of Writing:

You remember, may be, the Persian lover whom I quoted to you out of [John Henry Cardinal] Newman: how to convey his passion he sought a professional letter-writer and purchased a vocabulary charged with ornament, wherewith to attract the fair one as with a basket of jewels.

Well, in this extraneous, professional, purchased ornamentation, you have something which Style is not: and if you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it--whole-heartedly--and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings."
That is, however, a more florid restatement of advice that James Boswell heard from Dr. Samuel Johnson, quoting an unidentified college tutor:
"[Oliver] Goldsmith tells you shortly all you want to know: [William] Robertson detains vou a great deal too long. No man will read Robertson's cumbrous detail a second time; but Goldsmith's plain narrative will please again and again. I would say to Robertson what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: 'Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.'"
So if we trust Boswell's memory and Johnson's attribution, we can't name the individual who deserves credit for this writing rule; it's been passed along for too long.

Both forms of that remark involve writing style, when a particularly striking phrase might stand out and distract from the overall piece. But "kill your babies" is also useful in other parts of writing, when the one aspect of a story that you love the most might be throwing everything else off.

17 November 2008

“The Cardinal Rule of Writing for Young Adults”

Last week Publishers Weekly ran a guest column by thirteen-year-old Max Leone on what teen-aged boys want to read. Young Mr. Leone actually has less experience as a teenager than Sarah Palin has as a governor, but he confidently tells us:

  • “To all writers of books aimed at teenage boys, I beg you: please use only modern language, no matter what time period or universe your book takes place in.”
  • Avoid “whatever urge compels writers to clumsily smash morals about fairness or honor or other cornball crap onto otherwise fine stories.”
  • “The vampire...as a menacing badass. That is the kind of book teenage boys want to read. Also good: books with videogame-style plots involving zombie attacks, alien attacks, robot attacks or any excuse to shoot something.”
  • “Finally, here is what I consider the cardinal rule of writing for young adults: Do Not Underestimate Your Audience.”
Except, it appears, if you’re asking that audience to read period or futuristic language, or plots much different from videogames. Got it.

Yeah, I'm being snarky. It's actually an interesting essay written with energy and fervor. And adolescence is large. It contains multitudes. Does it contradict itself? Very well then it contradicts itself.

(The picture above, from the New York Times, shows the young reader/gamer discussed here.)

16 November 2008

Weekly Robin Holiday Extra

Godson (right) and Godson's Brother last month on Halloween.

I swear I had nothing to do with Godson's choice to dress as Robin. Absolutely nothing. If asked, I could have made the case that Robin's the most heroic of the household-name superheroes because he's the least super. But my godfatherly advice was not sought. Which, I now posit, confirms the character's inherent appeal for some kids.

Godson's Brother chose Superman, and explained to me that he didn't need the version of the costume with the fake chest muscles. None of us could figure out why all the normally-red parts of his Superman outfit were brown. Though I can't rule out the possibility that that's an Earth-16 Superman uniform or something, I suspect the explanation is lack of quality control in some east Asian sweatshop.

Reason for Robin, #4

It's been over a month since my last Reason for Robin: the Boy Wonder as a character younger readers can identify with. My next analysis of what Robin brought to the Batman mythos is closely related.

Reason for Robin #4: Robin displays a broad range of emotions.

In the first “Bat-Man” story in Detective Comics, #27, the costumed crime-fighter showed basically one emotion: grim determination.

Later writer Bill Finger gave Batman some sarcastic wisecracks as he fought, but they still came from a deep well of grim determination. When things went well for Batman, he was grimly determined. When things went badly, he was determinedly grim.

By adding Robin, the creative team brought in a character who could show more emotions. Half of Batman's face is covered, while most of Robin's is visible, and the eyeholes in his mask can apparently change shape to express different feelings. (Of course, Batman's eyebrows have been known to show through his cowl when they're needed.)

Robin's wide range of moods didn't just provide variety. The young readers who identified with Robin could take their emotional cues from him. He made the high points of each story higher, the low points lower.
Thus, while Batman occasionally allowed himself some grim, determined pleasure, Robin expressed great joy in besting the bad guys. Even a little too much, as in the panel at top, from the first issue he appeared in. By the mid-1940s, Batman was grinning and cracking jokes during fight scenes as well, so the contrast between him and Robin on the pleasure side wasn't that big. But it remained wide when it came to other emotions.

Batman could reproach himself for making a mistake, but the comics couldn't show him breaking down without lessening his status as a manly hero. In contrast, the Boy Wonder could fall to pieces for a while, and most readers would accept that because they knew he was still growing, like themselves.

Batman could be stymied by some villain, but only temporarily. Robin could be totally flummoxed, and by showing his puzzlement alert readers to the story's baffling twists.

In some stories Robin even expressed Batman's troubled emotions for the reader since the Caped Crusader was too stoic to emote himself. And of course that amplified the dire nature of their situation.

The combination of Reasons for Robin #3 and #4 helps to explain the vast quantity of "shocked Robin" covers that DC Comics put out in the 1950s, occasionally on issues of both Detective and Batman magazines at the same time. Like Robin, young readers were supposed to be watching Batman's predicament. Like Robin, they were supposed to be emotionally affected by what they saw. And then, of course, they were supposed to buy the comic book.

COMING UP: How this emotional dynamic evolved in the last two decades of Batman stories.

15 November 2008

Gaiman on Milne on Grahame

With the twentieth anniversary of The Sandman comics, new novels coming out, an upcoming gig on the last days of Batman, and a movie adaptation of Coraline under way, Neil Gaiman is on a roll. But this 2001 interview with the online magazine January shows he has a keen sense of how popular authors can be forgotten:

1930. Probably the most prominent English essayist was A. A. Milne: the editor of Punch, famed for his comedic essays, and a man with several plays running in the West End concurrently. A man who had bestselling books with titles like The Daily Round and hilarious collections of essays and sketches. One of the funniest writers of his generation and an accomplished playwright.

I did an Amazon search several months ago just out of interest to see just what of his was actually in print. And it listed 700 books: all of which, as I went down page after page, were variant editions of the two Winnie the Pooh books and the two books of comic verse for children that he wrote. And that's all that we have left of A. A. Milne, and he's in better shape than most of his contemporaries whose names we do not remember at all. . . .

There's one other thing we remember [Milne] for. His attempt to revive something forgotten which, again, worked brilliantly. To the point now where we didn't even know that it ever was forgotten. He wrote Toad of Toad Hall as a stage play, because he loved--and was furious that it had been forgotten--The Wind in the Willows.

And Kenneth Grahame's book came out [in 1908] and was a huge dud. Kenneth Grahame's other two books--Dream Days [1898] and The Golden Age [1895]--now completely forgotten. Portraits of sort of being a child in early Edwardian, Victorian days--were seized on and loved by the Edwardians as these beautiful, sentimental portraits of childhood. These were Grahame's bestselling books.

And The Wind in the Willows was a dud: it was completely forgotten to the point where A.A. Milne wound up writing an essay in the 1920s saying: Let me tell you about one of the best books in the world, and you have never heard of it. It was called The Wind in the Willows, and [Milne] went on and did Toad of Toad Hall, the theatrical adaptation, which then revived the book to the point where it's now considered one of the great children's classics.
Actually, I own Grahame's Dream Days and The Golden Age, with Maxfield Parrish illustrations. Gaiman is right that the text hasn't survived as well. The same sentimentality plays better with water rats and moles.

14 November 2008

“If books on the Kindle were $1...”

Here's Seth Godin, author of Tribes, in an interview at The 26th Story:

What's the most important lesson the book publishing industry can learn from the music industry?

The market doesn't care a whit about maintaining your industry. The lesson from Napster and iTunes is that there's even MORE music than there was before. What got hurt was Tower and the guys in the suits and the unlimited budgets for groupies and drugs. The music will keep coming.

Same thing is true with books. So you can decide to hassle your readers (oh, I mean your customers) and you can decide that a book on a Kindle SHOULD cost $15 because it replaces a $15 book, and if you do, we (the readers) will just walk away. Or, you could say, "if books on the Kindle were $1, perhaps we could create a vast audience of people who buy books like candy, all the time, and read more and don't pirate stuff cause it's convenient and cheap..."

I'm a pessimist that the book industry will learn from music. How are you betting?
I like the words, but not the numbers. The current online music sales model is $1/song, $10-13/album. A book isn't the equivalent of a song; it's an album. The pricing model shouldn't be $1/chapter, but if you're selling a whole day's worth of entertainment or information, you can charge more than a buck.

Indication that The 26th Story might actually be serious about this, and not just trying to sell us something: This blog comes from HarperStudio, an imprint at HarperCollins. Godin's book comes from Portfolio, an imprint at Penguin.

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the pointer.

13 November 2008

Nodelman on the Picture Book Form

In a recent discussion on Child_Lit, Winnipeg professor Perry Nodelman, author of The Hidden Adult: Defining Children's Literature as well as middle-grade novels, discoursed on the intricacies of the picture book form, particularly in comparison to formal poetry:

A picture book text is indeed something like a poem, I think--like a sonnet or a villanelle, maybe, because the constrictions of the form are so firm and so complicated.

There are very few words--usually 300 to 600 or so?--to tell a story in. They have to be spread out fairly evenly throughout the book--you don't usually have 500 words on one page and then one each on the rest of the pages. . . . the story itself occupies about ten double-paged spreads. Typically, each one of those spreads contains one discrete section of the text--or possibly two sections, one for each page, dependent upon the shape of the story.

Each of these sections must be discrete and separate enough to stand at least momentarily on its own (as readers stop to look at the picture). But also, each must be incomplete enough to drive a reader onwards--create the suspense that makes someone want to turn the page to find out what happens next.

Furthermore, each must be illustratable--describe something, an action or a person, that a reader might want to see or gain pleasure or information from seeing. And each must be separately visualizable, so that the pictures don’t all look exactly alike. . . .

But--and here’s the key thing that, I suspect, most distinguishes picture books texts from poetry despite their constraints and intricacies--while each section of the text must be visualizable, they must not obviously convey visual info themselves. If they did, they'd render the pictures that are going to accompany them pointless.

So the writer needs to leave space for visuals which are nevertheless going to be a necessary part of the story. And, since in conventional publishing practice illustrators and writers don’t usually work together, it’s the text itself that must convey to the illustrator what the illustrations need to show.

So the text has to suggest to someone prepared to receive it in that way what kind of picture might need to go with it. . . . But on its own, a picture book text is not completely anything yet, any more than a playscript is complete before its performance.

I'd say, then, that a picture book text is more like a playscript than like a poem. Like a poem, a good text is deceptively simple, but complex, intricate, exact and exacting. But unlike a poem, it's not complete without its accompanying pictures. It's an incomplete part of a collaboration.
Feel free to pass this on to any celebrities or new parents who mention they really should take an afternoon and write a picture book for kids.

(Thanks to Chicken Spaghetti for preserving this posting and saving me the trouble of digging into the Child_Lit archives when I found myself thinking about these ideas again a week later.)

12 November 2008

Robot Nightmares

Robot Dreams, author-illustrator Sara Varon, was a nominee for a 2007 Cybils Award as a Graphic Novel for Elementary/Middle Grade Readers. Its publisher has said that it “definitely appears very young at first glance, but then many of the reviews caught on that it has strange, unexpected depth to it.” Indeed, I think Robot Dreams is deep water indeed.

As this New York Magazine excerpt shows, Varon draws simple, uncluttered pictures using a thick, curvy line (cartoony!). She draws anthropomorphized animals and robots with big round eyes (cute!). She uses very few words (though Robot Dreams isn't truly a "wordless" book, as I discussed back here). And she tells her story in comics form (comics!). Therefore, this is a book for younger readers, right?

Wrong. Robot Dreams is the story of a dysfunctional, asymmetric relationship between Dog, who makes impossible demands on all his friends, and Robot, who suffers horribly because of Dog's thoughtlessness yet can't stop yearning to please him.

The story starts with Dog building Robot from a kit and taking Robot to a dog beach. Dog doesn't realize that playing in the water is not good for Robot. Robot lies on the sand, paralyzed with rust. Night falls. Dog doesn't know what to do, and so goes home. When Dog returns the next day, the beach is closed for the season.

Dog tries to make other friends. Duck is useful for getting a kite out of a tree, but then flies south for the winter. The Anteaters are fun for sledding, but they, well, eat ants. The Snowman whom Dog builds is pleasant, and even brings Dog into acquaintance with Penguin, but come spring Snowman melts, and Dog feels nothing in common with Penguin anymore. Not one of Dog's friends is perfect!

Meanwhile, Robot is lying on the beach, fantasizing about being rescued by Dog, then about being rescued by anybody. These are the "robot dreams" of the title. In reality, Rabbits break off one of Robot's legs, Robins build a nest in Robot's chest, and Monkey gathers up Robot's pieces and sells them to a scrapyard.

In June, a month after Monkey has been over the beach, Dog returns and can't find Robot. Dog ends up buying and building Second Robot to be a perfect friend.

Meanwhile, Raccoon has bought the scraps of original Robot and built them into Robot Radio. Raccoon and Robot Radio dance together in comradeship and joy. Yet when Robot Radio sees Dog walking on the street with Second Robot, Robot can't help but play music for its old friend. Dog hears the music, not turning to notice the source, and whistles a happy tune.

I'm not saying that Dog doesn't feel horrible about what happened to original Robot. Dog really does feel guilty. And Dog is careful to stop Second Robot from going into the water and rusting. But I don't think Dog ever learns that being a good friend means compromising sometimes.

Publishers Weekly called Robot Dreams an "elegiac and lovely graphic novel about friendship," and said in particular that "Robot is an avatar for all children who wonder why they aren't receiving the love they think they deserve."

To those children I'd say: Give up on Dog. You deserve much better.

11 November 2008

Great Divides in the Comics World

I recently ran across Tom Spurgeon's report on Comic-Con in 2008 at The Comics Reporter. (Comic-Con, as I knew only dimly until a coupla years ago, is the huge annual comics and pop-culture convention in San Diego.) Spurgeon wrote:

I moderated one panel about The World of Graphic Novels on Friday afternoon. Alex Robinson, Nick Abadzis, Eddie Campbell, Rutu Modan and Adrian Tomine. As I joked too many times for it to be funny, it was one of those panels where they put a bunch of smart guests together with a generic title and you have no idea what the audience may be looking for. It was a good panel with a lot of back and forth between the participants, which is rarer than you might think, and several smart questions.

...although in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have asked for the question from the guy dressed as Robin. Apparently, there's a great divide in the comics world between alternative comics and hero books. . . .

there was an army of people dressed as Robin at this show. I'm not kidding you. Either that, or I have some sort of connection to the character that make me see him everywhere. Either option is slightly depressing.
Spurgeon, former editor of The Comics Journal and writer of its "Cape Fear" column on "corporate superhero comics," surely knew about that "great divide" beforehand. (It's also the tension in the webcomic ComicCritics, caricaturing different kinds of comics fans.)

Spurgeon was evidently hoping this Boy Wonder would be able to swing across the gap. I wish I knew what question was actually asked of those comics creators, but Journalista's recording of that panel was taken down before I read this.

So I'm left with Eddie Campbell's reiterated main point from that discussion:
librarians and to some extent the book trade have decided that the graphic novel is a young readers' genre. A librarian in the audience made the case that this is a good thing.

But here is the sequence of events: circa 1980 it was decided that comics had grown up and the grown-up version would be called 'the graphic novel.' This has been forgotten and a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor (June 27) declares: "Graphic novels, all grown up".
So the cultural assumption that comics are for kids is so strong that it's overwhelmed a new label adopted to mean "comics not just for kids." This is especially ironic given how until recently, as discussed back here, comics for preteens were hard to find in comics stores.

10 November 2008

Jones Conference in Bristol

Through the Child_Lit email list came an announcement that there will be a scholarly and critical conference on Diana Wynne Jones at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, on 3-5 July 2009.

Jones herself lives in Bristol and hopes to attend on Saturday, which is the 4th. Presumably her American fans will simply have to figure out their priorities.

The conference issued this Call for Papers:

On any and all aspects of the writing of Diana Wynne Jones, on her influence and influences. Papers on fan activity and scholarship, TV and film adaptations also welcome. Deadline: 31 January 2009.
The organisers [sic] add that they'll entertain papers on closely related topics, and invite any and all queries about applicability. Those folks:
  • Chris Bell has been involved at committee level in running Eastercon, the annual British Science Fiction Convention for more than fifteen years. She lives in Bristol.
  • Charles Butler writes fantasy for children and is a well known scholar in the field (his book Four British Fantasists was nominated for a Mythopoeic Award). He is a Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol.
  • Farah Mendlesohn has organised and co-organised several academic conferences and been on the committee of an Eastercon. She is currently organising the programme for the 2009 Worldcon. In 2005 she published Diana Wynne Jones, Children's Literature and the Fantastic Tradition. She is a Reader at Middlesex University.
Email addresses for queries to be found on the latter two organisers' websites.

09 November 2008

Robin: A Logo to Be Reborn?

Confirming rumors discussed back here, DC Comics has announced that the issues of Robin and Nightwing to ship in February 2009 will be the last. For a while. Most fans are sure that those magazines will be relaunched at some point in the future, perhaps with new #1 (collectible!) issues.

As I noted earlier, those magazines' sales fall in the middle of the pack for DC superheroes--perhaps disappointing given that "Robin" and "Dick Grayson" are household names. Newsarama reported that sales were 32,000 for Robin and a bit over 50,000 copies for Nightwing in September--but that was during a highly hyped crossover called "Batman RIP."

To shake up the Batman stories, it appears that in 2009 Dick Grayson and Tim Drake may give up their Nightwing and Robin roles, possibly taking on others (even that of Batman?). But eventually Bruce Wayne will return, and the DC universe will be whole once more.

A more likely casualty than any of the Robin characters is the Robin logo. Originally developed for the first Robin miniseries published back in 1991 (and collected in Robin: A Hero Reborn), it's remained basically unchanged. In 2007, DC dropped the oval behind the R on some issues, but the letters are the same.

That's quite unusual, as master letterer and logo-designer Todd Klein acknowledged on his blog last year:

Having the same R on the logo and the [Robin] costume makes it a good “brand” logo, useful for character recognition and marketing, so that’s one reason why it’s still around, though I don’t know if it’s still on the costume. [The R on Robin's chest changed when Tim changed to a mostly red costume, as shown to the right, but the logo's spiky R stayed the same.]

It’s a logo that continues to look contemporary to me, not dated at all. One reason logos change is to bring in a more modern style. Another common reason these days is to herald a new direction for the character, a new creative team, a new number one issue. This logo really seems a good fit for the character, some characters never find one. (Aquaman comes to mind.)

Robin’s logo meets the four basic criteria I think are crucial for a good comics logo: READABILITY, STRENGTH, APPROPRIATENESS and ORIGINALITY.
Klein's study of the Batman logo through the decades came in five parts to cover all the changes. In fact, there have been at least five variations for Batman since the Robin logo appeared. Klein's comments on those changes and his other logo studies go into great detail; after all, he wrote the book on comics lettering and logo design (well, he wrote the half of the DC book that covers those topics).

08 November 2008

A Comics Reading and Reading Comics

Today in New York, Neil Gaiman will appear at a reading of his Sandman comics on the occasion of their twentieth anniversary. The event benefits the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. No, I'm not going to be there, and most likely neither are you since it's a reservations-only event.

I bring this up because it touches on a topic that teachers and parents are probably facing more and more as stories in comics form become accepted as literature.

How, one might ask, does one do a public reading of a comics story? "Okay, we turn the page, and up in this corner we see Jodie looking kind of nervous, and she says, 'What do you mean?' And then the next panel we see--you guys in back might want to come a little closer--we see the whole group from above, and..."

The Sandman event is a dramatic reading, featuring voice actors. And that approach might offer some guidance about how teachers and parents can share graphic novels with children. Because traditional reading-aloud doesn't work well without a narrative voice. The words in comics are more like a script than like a prose story.

The Graphic Classroom has suggested a couple of ways of sharing comics with a whole classroom, including a projector and assigning parts to different students. (This blog also recommends Tiny Titans, featuring a version of Robin. Just in case you thought I'd miss that.)

Comics in the Classroom takes a different approach, finding some comics more suited to the classroom than others:

There are three criteria I judge a book on when bringing into my classroom (honestly, I'll take any appropriate book that I can get my hands on, but only certain ones get the spotlight). The criteria are: Is it visually appealing, is it well written, and can it be read out loud to a group of children? The first two apply to comics, but the third isn't really fair. The Pigeon books [by Mo Willems] are fine for read-a-louds, because there is very little use of panels and the word balloons seem to be written with whole class readings in mind, but the other books in this discussion seem to be written more for the one on one, small group read.
Jim Trelease of The Read-Aloud Handbook has recommended the Tintin books for reading aloud with one or two children at a time ("Because of the size of the pictures"). Hergé's graphics are clear, and his adventures active. I imagine some young readers might like to be responsible for reading certain parts or sound effects while an adult handles the rest of the cast.

07 November 2008

Humbug on the World Stage

The BBC has detected fakery in a recently released photograph of Kim Jong Il, hereditary dictator (we used to call that "king") of North Korea. Either that, or the Dear Leader casts shadows differently from ordinary men.

Maguire Talks Lions

CNN interviewed Gregory Maguire on the publication of his latest latter-day Oz book, A Lion Among Men.

I would describe [my books] as being, not quite allegories, but commentaries on contemporary society--and indeed politics to some extent--enshrouded in, and disguised by, the guise of children's stories.

In other words, I use children's stories as kind of a snare and temptation and illusion to draw in readers who say this is going to be easy...and it's going to be fun. And indeed I hope it is fun. But once I get people involved in the plot, I hope to also communicate some of the questions I have about the way we live our lives in the 21st century.
Gregory's take on Oz has always been colored by the MGM movie (literally so, in the case of Elphaba the green-skinned Witch of the West). And the Cowardly Lion is no exception:
His character arises in the hollow space in our perceptions between that giant roaring lion at the MGM logo...the ideal lion, and the kind of sad, sacked, out of work, vaudeville performer in lion pajamas that we see when Dorothy actually runs into the lion on the Yellow Brick Road.

In other words, there's a huge disconnect between the image we project of ourselves--the best we might ever hope to possibly be--and the way we feel about ourselves at our absolute worst--when we're the most down in the dumps. There's a huge space in between there. So the novel's really in some ways about character and taking control of the destiny of your own character.
And on the challenge of writing for children, as opposed to adults:
Well, for one thing children are intensely more impatient than adults. So you have to start out active, you have to start out strong and you cannot be, for a moment, self-indulgent.

Everything has to be a sound bite or something that the children can visualize as if they're running a little Super 8 projector in their mind. Now I date myself with ancient technology, but you know what I mean...write the scene that you want Steven Spielberg to film, which means every sentence has to give us something to see. Make it intensely visual and this is, I think, the main rule for writing for children.

But in no way do I make it less thoughtful. I just actually have to work harder.
Thanks to Dr. Amberyl Malkovich for the link.

06 November 2008

Laika: One-Way Ticket

In March, icv2 ran an interview with Mark Siegel, the head of the First Second comics book publisher. He talked about a couple of his company's big titles of last fall:

Laika and Robot Dreams have had all sorts of interesting things happen for them. . . . It's kind of interesting that these are both sort of on the young side; Laika is getting shelved a lot in the teen sections but it's not necessarily meant that way. And Robot Dreams definitely appears very young at first glance, but then many of the reviews caught on that it has strange, unexpected depth to it.
I believe that by "sort of on the young side," Siegel meant that Laika and Robot Dreams were being recommended for younger readers than many other titles on his list. And he thought that people might be underestimating the ideal age for Robot Dreams, as I'll discuss soon as I finally finish reviewing the books I read for the 2007 Cybils Awards in the Graphic Novels category.

I have the same thought about Laika, a Cybils nominee in the Young Adult Graphic Novels category, even after the book received an Eisner Award for Best Publication for Teens this year. Aside from the comics format, what makes this a Young Adult book?

Laika is about a cute little dog. At the start there's also a cute little girl who tries to look after that dog. But most of the story takes place within the Soviet space bureaucracy without a teenager in sight; the heroine is a fictional young woman named Yelena Dubrovsky. If Abadzis had published the same well researched, fictionalized account of the first animal to go into orbit in prose form, we'd probably take it as a book for adults. (Abadzis's website about the book shows more about his research.)

That's not to say teens can't get nearly everything out of Laika as older readers can. Rather, it's just another piece of evidence that in our culture the comics format lowers the perceived age of a book's readership.

Laika is, necessarily, a dead-dog story. First Second's front flap compares it to Old Yeller, Shiloh, and Because of Winn-Dixie. But all those books about children losing beloved pets show the main characters learning valuable lessons about life in the bosom of their family. Laika's drama plays out in a workplace, and in the end Yelena no longer feels she can continue working for the space program.

And that's not all! Laika is a dead-dog story set in the old Soviet Union, mostly in the 1950s. We get to see Yelena's crowded apartment and the stultifying bureaucracy around her. As in real life, chief engineer Korolev was imprisoned in the Soviet gulag from 1938 to 1944, and the totalitarian shadow hangs over the whole enterprise.

Even the look of the book is Cold-War dreary. Aside from one or two sunlit pages (one of which showed up in this New York magazine preview, naturally), the palette is drab. James Vining's First in Space, about the chimpanzee that NASA sent into space after Laika, looks more cheery despite having no interior color at all. (Then again, the chimp survived.)

Abadzis's artwork fits his story, though I can't say I found the draftsmanship attractive. Technically, there were interesting touches. For instance, he gives Laika and other dogs their own word balloons as Yelena gets to know them; those balloons appear in color, unlike the humans'.

The small pages are usually filled with lots of small panels, with interesting variations in panel shapes every so often--again as shown in that preview. The lettering squeezed inside those panels was also necessarily small, sometimes at the edge of comfort for my eyes. So maybe that's what makes Laika a book for Young Adults after all.

05 November 2008

All a Clever Plot

On Saturday, 15 November, I'll be the opening act on a bill of speakers at Rhode Island College in Providence. It's part of a program on writing for young people sponsored by SCBWI New England and the Alliance for the Study and Teaching of Adolescent Literature (ASTAL).

I'll lead a workshop on "Punch Up Your Plotting," which I also gave at the SCBWI New England conference this spring. The official description:

Having trouble with plotting? J. L. Bell will offer some principles and tricks for getting around plot roadblocks. He will cover troubleshooting, rules for finding solutions to the nastiest plot problems, and tips on presenting your plot in the most exciting way.
The other speakers will be: Lunch is included in the registration fee, and I understand there are still slots available because the room is large. [ADDENDUM: Whoops! Looks like the assigned room has changed, and the event's now sold out.]

04 November 2008

The Real Roots of Political Attitudes?

The New York Times and other news outlets are touting a new Brookings Institution publication which casts doubt on the right-wing talking point that university professors sway their students' political ideas. Most people's political leanings appear by their mid-teens, researchers found, well before college. This is hardly a surprise to folks who make their own observations. The biggest influence on a person's politics is, and always was, one's family.

More intriguing was Eve LaPlante's article in the Sunday Boston Globe about recent research showing a biological, perhaps genetic, basis for conservative or liberal leanings.

[Political scientist John] Hibbing, a leading figure in the new field, said a turning point was a Rice University study of identical and fraternal twins, published three years ago in the American Political Science Review. Using data from a large-scale study of thousands of sets of twins, researchers discovered that identical twins are far more likely than fraternal twins to share political attitudes on busing, foreign aid, school prayer, gay rights, pacifism, nuclear power, and many other issues. "Political and social attitudes" are "40-50 percent heritable," the study reported. . . .

Inside the political physiology laboratory at the University of Nebraska, researchers project a series of 30 images on the wall. Some images are threatening--a gruesome wound, a spider on someone's face. Other images, such as a bunny or a bowl of fruit, are not. Now and then a machine emits a loud sound like a gunshot. . . .

As the images and noises are presented, a machine records the subject's physical responses. An electrode above her eye measures automatic muscle movements that make up the "blink startle" response. A lead attached to her finger measures "skin conductance," the amount of perspiration on the skin, another physiological sign of stress.

After examining 46 such subjects, researchers found a strong correlation between subjects' political attitudes and their physiological responses to threat. People who showed more "blink startle" and perspiration after a threatening stimulus tended to cluster on the right politically. They advocated capital punishment, school prayer, and defense spending, and they supported the Iraq war.

In contrast, liberals--who supported "less protectionist" policies such as gun control, open immigration, and increased foreign aid--showed significantly less physical response to the threatening stimuli. While education had some effect on the results, subjects' blink and skin-conductance responses were much better predictors of their political attitudes. And the degree to which a person was startled by threatening stimuli indicated how much he or she advocated policies that protect society from external and internal threats such as wars and crime. [Hibbing and his colleagues published their results in the 19 Sept 2008 issue of Science.] . . .

Meanwhile, other researchers are using brain-wave studies to pursue the physiological correlates of political orientation. A group at New York University and UCLA recently reported they found significant, measurable differences between the brain waves of liberals and conservatives. In the experiment, researchers attached electrodes to the scalps of 43 subjects who had answered a questionnaire of political attitudes. Subjects were asked to perform a simple task: press a button whenever the letter "M" appears on a screen, but do nothing when anything else appears on the screen. The letter "M" appeared 80 percent of the time, so the occasional appearance of a "W" caused subjects to experience "conflict monitoring"--a neural mechanism for detecting that a habitual response is not desired.

Liberals and conservatives performed similarly on the habitual task, which is "super easy," according to lead researcher David Amodio, a psychologist at New York University. However, liberals performed much better than conservatives on the unexpected responses. Whenever the unexpected "W" appeared, electroencephalogram (EEG) records showed greater "conflict-related neural activity" in liberals. This brain activity, localized to the limbic system, underlies the ability to "detect that something's wrong with an ongoing pattern of behavior and then change it," according to Amodio, who linked "greater liberalism" to this region of the brain. [Amodio's study appeared in Nature Neuroscience in 2007.]
Time reported on Hibbing's study in September. The National Science Foundation has a video interview with him.

03 November 2008

Stylometry for Fun and Profit

At the recent Oz Club convention in Fayetteville, New York, there was a discussion of whether stylometry (I remembered the word with the help of my PDA) could identify certain anonymous newspaper articles as the writing of L. Frank Baum.

Stylometry is the systematic analysis of writing style, based on the notion that we all have unique and unconscious quirks, preferences, and patterns in our prose. Though people have been using various stylometric techniques for centuries, the field has really taken off with computers.

Don Foster is probably the best-known stylometrist now, as he was glad to explain in his book Author Unknown (2000). But other practitioners have their own methods, based on other stylistic details and differences.

Stylometry has even been applied to Baum's writing already. In 2003, José Binongo used software to analyze The Royal Book of Oz, which was published under Baum's name but for the last fifty years been identified as Ruth Plumly Thompson's work. To no one's surprise, the book's prose turned out to have much more in common with Thompson's other novels than with Baum's. (I suspect this paper was really meant to validate that stylometric method rather than to solve the "mystery.")

On Sunday the Times of London reported on a Republican attempt to use stylometry to affect tomorrow's US election:

Dr Peter Millican, a philosophy don at Hertford College, Oxford, has devised a computer software program that can detect when works are by the same author by comparing favourite words and phrases.

He was contacted last weekend and offered $10,000 (£6,200) to assess alleged similarities between [Barack] Obama’s bestseller, Dreams from My Father, and Fugitive Days, a memoir by William Ayers. . . .

The offer to Millican to prove that Ayers wrote Obama’s book was made by Robert Fox, a California businessman and brother-in-law of Chris Cannon, a Republican congressman from Utah. He hoped to corroborate a theory advanced by Jack Cashill, an American writer.

Fox and Cannon each suggested to The Sunday Times that the other had taken the initiative.

Cannon said that he merely recommended computer testing of the books. He doubted whether Obama wrote his autobiography, adding: “If Ayers was the author, that would be interesting.”

Fox said he had hoped that Cannon would raise the $10,000 to run a computer test. “It was Congressman Cannon who initially pointed me in that direction and, from our conversation, I thought he might be able to find someone [to raise the $10,000].”

He believed that if “proof” of Ayers’s involvement was provided by an Oxford academic it would be political dynamite.

Fox contacted Millican, who said: “He was entirely upfront about this. He offered me $10,000 and sent me electronic versions of the text from both books.”

Millican took a preliminary look and found the charges “very implausible”. A deal was agreed for more detailed research but when Millican said the results had to be made public, even if no link to Ayers was proved, interest waned.

Millican said: “I thought it was extremely unlikely that we would get a positive result. It is the sort of thing where people make claims after seeing a few crude similarities and go overboard on them.” He said Fox gave him the impression that Cannon had got “cold feet about it being seen to be funded by the Republicans”.
Which, of course, it would have been.

Millican also described the experience on his website, and explained how Cashill used his Signature software crudely to produce a false positive result. Anyone can download the program for educational purposes, and no doubt use it for better purposes.

Cashill is a right-wing writer known until last year for his TWA 800 and Clinton conspiracy theories. As for Rep. Cannon, he lost his Republican primary this summer and will leave Congress shortly.

Why would those two men and Fox believe that Sen. Obama couldn't have written his own autobiography? He has been, after all, a law review editor, a law school professor, and a politician known for his speeches even before he could afford speechwriters. What about Obama could make those men doubt that he could write? I wonder.

02 November 2008

The Weekly Robin: Election Special

This is from the popular webcomic Shortpacked, by David Willis.

Ethan describes the break-up of the first Batman and Robin team on Batman: The Animated Series, not the versions in the comic books (pre- and post-Crisis). Some fans have objected to seeing the word "torture" applied to the TV Batman's methods, but Willis is clearly trying to highlights parallels between Dick Grayson's principled stand and McCain's almost-always-close relationship with the Bush-Cheney administration.

Here's CNN's actual report on Barack Obama's comment. And the Guardian on Rully Dasaad's memories of enjoying American superhero comics with Barry Obama when they were kids growing up in Indonesia.

Thanks to scans_daily for all the references.

01 November 2008

Strangest Comic of the Month

Blotchmen, by Kevin Cannon, is a parodic mash-up of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen, William Carlos Williams's "This Is Just to Say," Crockett Johnson's Harold and the Purple Crayon, and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.


As a bonus, this page throws in unnecessary action labels from Japanese comics.

Thanks to Matthew Holm for the pointer. I think.