31 December 2009

What the New World of Publishing Still Needs

From Locus in March, author Cory Doctorow considers the one part of publishing that is hardest for big firms to outsource, and hardest for authors to replicate for themselves through digital services: the sales force.

There are plenty of “little” publishers out there, dotted around the country, figuring out how to fill in the gaps that the big guys won’t stoop to conquer: short story collections, quirky titles, books of essays, art books, experimental titles, and anthologies. These are often fabulous books with somewhat respectable numbers, but they lag the majors in one key area: physical distribution.

For though it’s easy to find an outsource firm that’ll get your books from Warehouse (A) to Store (B), it’s a lot harder to find the cost-effective firm that will convince Store (B) to order the book from You (C).

That’s shoe-leather business, the slow, messy human-factor business of getting to know thousands of key people around the country, people who will introduce your book to readers who haven’t heard of you and don’t know why they should be reading you (good bookselling is fractal: the sales rep knows what the clerk will like, and the clerk knows what the reader will like).
Because the whole point of publishing is selling books to the public—i.e., people who don’t already know you. While, of course, keeping some time to write.

30 December 2009

Rocketeer Relaunched with “Rendering”

The publication of The Rocketeer: The Complete Collection, by Dave Stevens, has provided a new example for the debate over recoloring old comics with new digital techniques (as I discussed back here).

After Chris Sims praised the new coloring by Laura Martin on his Invincible Super-Blog, some commenters politely disagreed. For instance, Adam Russo wrote:

The older, limited-palette, ‘pop art’ kind of look appeals to me and I think it meshes better with the art. Whereas the newer colors are well picked and the scene in particularly is well laid out (the way all the dark blues surround the warm colored centerpiece is a nice and effective way of drawing the eye in), it doesn’t seem the same for some reason.

Like I said, I think it’s a style thing. The older colors are easily recognizable as an old pulp style story. The newer ones, though wonderful to look at, give it a different feel all together. Way more modern in both good and bad ways.
Greg Burgas then wrote of the new pages, while showing some examples:
Martin adds depth to the scenes, a very nice 1930s pulp sheen to the book (which, from what I’ve seen of the original, is lacking) and really gives the book a sense of place - New York is very different from Los Angeles, for instance.

From what I’ve seen of the original (this is the first time I’ve ever read the comic), it had much more of a bright, cartoony feel to it, and although that works for comics, Stevens obviously had a more pulp vibe going on, and Martin helps create this. The characters look real, too - in the original, they looked more like comic book characters and Cliff’s outfit looked a bit more like spandex, while Martin makes the people - even Betty - more real, and Cliff is obviously wearing actual clothing.
Back when IDW announced this reissue, the publisher made much of the fact that before his death Stevens had chosen Laura Martin to do the new coloring job using today’s technology. She described her approach for Comic Book Resources:
“The art style and the story’s tone are two major leads in the search for a coloring solution. Every colorist should consider these two concepts first when choosing a rendering technique and a palette,” Martin said of her approach to “The Rocketeer.”

“My first consideration will be Dave’s own painted pieces. One can only assume that he likes his own coloring the best, so I’m starting there. Is his work brushy or blocky? How does he handle different surface textures? Does he limit his palette, or open it up? What's his favorite tool — airbrush, brush, marker, etc.?

“Once I get a feel for that, I’ll look at the pulp and strip art from the 1940’s, to see what influenced Dave while he drew these pages. Of course, the fact that ’The Rocketeer’ was previously colored is a major advantage. I can visualize the page in color, and I can use it as a starting point for my own interpretation.”

She said there were challenges particular to this project, as well. “The first challenge is to interpret Dave’s intent through the filter of the the colorists’ final work, while overlaying my own aesthetic. The second is to introduce digital techniques that weren’t available in the 1980s, without it looking too ‘digital.’”
I think one key to this discussion is Burgas’s remark that “this is the first time I’ve ever read the comic.” He’s therefore free of the question of whether rereading this comic feels just like the first time. Of course, rereading rarely feels just like the first time—all the more so because for many people comics are escapist reading during youth, and therefore beyond full recovery.

Me, I never read The Rocketeer, either. But I liked the movie.

29 December 2009

Serious Comics and Talking Animals

Matt Phelan’s The Storm in the Barn is showing up on a number of “year’s best” lists, but my feelings on its magical plot machinations match those expressed by Jessica Bruder in the New York Times Book Review:

Jack finds himself face to face with the Storm King, an evil spirit who withheld the rain to win power. . . . Jack finally wins a climactic battle on top of a windmill, and it starts to rain. He’s saved everyone. Unless you go with a possibility suggested earlier in the book: Jack has “dust dementia” and has imagined the whole thing. Either way, the fight doesn’t feel all that redemptive.
Both this book and David Small’s Stitches allude to classic works of Victorian children’s literature, and that’s another way that the latter seems much stronger to me.

In The Storm in the Barn, Jack’s sister reads descriptions of a desert from L. Frank Baum’s Ozma of Oz. As I noted earlier, Phelan found those passages through Wikipedia, and his quotes are anachronistic—the kids’ mother couldn’t find the phrase “Deadly Desert” in that book because it didn’t appear till a later one. That’s just a symptom of how that literary allusion feels nailed on rather than organic to the story.

In contrast, David Small’s use of Alice in Wonderland in Stitches has clearly grown from his own childhood love of that book. Allusions are integrated throughout the story. First he shows himself as a young boy playing as Alice, getting to escape “to a land of talking animals, singing flowers and dancing teapots.”

Later, Alice’s nightmarish shrinking and growing informs one of the adolescent David’s recurring nightmares (shown through stat panels) as he struggles to escape from a confining house.

Finally, the White Rabbit comes on the scene as a therapist who provides the book’s breakthrough—without, of course, ever losing track of the time. It turns out David was in the nonsense world all along. Unlike The Storm in the Barn, Small’s Stitches is about sorting out the real nightmares from the fantastic ones, not mixing them up.

28 December 2009

Stitches and Scars

David Small’s Stitches may or may not be “Young People’s Literature,” the category of National Book Award for which it was a finalist. But it certainly deserves that level of critical accolade.

Stitches is an emotionally powerful memoir in comics form of growing up in a difficult family. As many reviews have reported, as an adolescent Small developed a cancer in his neck, quite possibly caused by his radiologist-father’s overly optimistic X-ray treatments for sinus troubles. Removing the cancer cost Small half his vocal cords. More importantly, his parents didn’t tell him about his illness or the extent of the operation beforehand.

But that’s not the more emotionally wrenching part of this memoir. Small’s parents withheld a great deal more. The book starts with the family landscape, and the first chapters are memories from early childhood, seemingly disconnected and almost inconsequential. Gradually the narrative builds into a portrait of a troubled teenager, with scenes from family lore, dreams, cartoons, and real life that seems more baffling than the rest.

The story has several dramatic turning points that coincide gracefully with when the reader turns a page: the discovery of the “growth” on Small’s neck, his discovery of family secrets. But Small works with the graphic form on a more subtle level as well.

For instance, one of those page turns reveals Small’s scar after an operation, a long line of stitches stuck to his neck like a millipede. As dramatic as that full-page image is, I was struck just as hard by the panels on the spreads that follow.

As shown here, suddenly the whole setting is full of arrays of parallel line, mirroring those stitches—his home has become one big scar. The preceding pages, in contrast, were full of misty gray washes, reflecting Small’s post-operative fog.

My mother, who like Small grew up in postwar Detroit, reports that Stitches gets that culture right as well: the giant cars, the cocktail parties, the auto show in the Ford Rotunda. She’s also been sharing the book’s emotional moments with friends who don’t read comics. (That surprised me so much that when Mom reported how one friend had “cried after hearing about Stitches,” I thought she meant the intense knitting marketplace.)

27 December 2009

If Your Brain Is Slow…

Looking back on 2009, I realized that it’s been over two years since Oz and Ends last published an Akkordionspieler Carnival posting to celebrate German (and other) kids playing accordions in tents (and elsewhere).

And yet, this is the day for the weekly Robin. Oh, what to do?

Dick Grayson to the rescue!
This panel comes from Star Spangled Comics, #80, published in 1948 and republished in The Robin Archives, vol. 1. Is there no problem the Boy Wonder cannot solve?

26 December 2009

When Superman Was a Leftist, part 2

Scripter Dennis O’Neil and artist Neal Adams are often credited with bringing socially-conscious political themes into superhero comics (or at least into DC Comics’ magazines) with their Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories of the early 1970s. But in this conversation for The Comics Journal, O’Neil noted an important forerunner:

I will disabuse anybody of the notion that Neal and I were the first. There are some Superman stories that are socially conscious — in the way that Warner Bros. movies were back then. . . .

…the last year I had an editorial job, I was living here in Nyack and it’s an hour and 15 minute drive [to New York City], so I listened to a lot of old radio shows and the Superman radio show was remarkable. The writer in me responded to it: “Wow! They establish everything you need to know every day without slowing down the story.” There were also a number of them that were really socially conscious.

My own memory of my first glimmering of social consciousness was hearing — as maybe a 6-year-old or 7-year-old — Superman on the radio telling me that the difference in skin color was only because of a chemical called melanin and people were all the same. I had never heard anything like that.
And that eye-opening fact eventually led to these famous panels from Green Lantern, #76. (When Superman Was a Leftist, Part 1.)

25 December 2009

Denslow’s Santa Claus in Green and Brown

At right is the cover of The Night Before Christmas as illustrated by W. W. Denslow in 1902. This Santa is wearing a red hat, but no red suit. As in the interior illustrations, Denlow’s Santa dresses primarily in green and brown.

It took a while for Santa’s red suit to become an immutable part of his image. Thomas Nast’s drawings of Santa for Harper’s Weekly from 1863 on popularized the character. In these engravings Santa always wore a fur suit, usually with a wide belt, short fur boots, and a fur hat trimmed with holly.

In 1886 the publishing firm McLaughlin Bros., who pioneered the use of color printing in children’s books, hired Nast to adapt his Santa art for a new book, Santa Claus and His Works. In The Santa Claus Book, E. Willis Jones writes:

This posed a problem for the artist, because he had always thought of the Santas he drew in black ink as wearing a tannish fur suit, which certainly would not contribute to colorful illustrations. The simple solution was to make Santa’s suit in a bright red, and to add a little contrast he trimmed it with white ermine fur.
Nast’s first red-suited Santa was still a way from our modern image. The character is short, and wears fur, not woven cloth; his garment’s cut is like a set of pajamas with feet, and the ermine trim is slight, running around his waist in place of a belt.

In 1890 the McLaughlins published Nast’s Christmas Drawings for the Human Race, which put Santa in buckled shoes and a wide belt. But his ermine piping went down the front of his fur coat only. And the firm issued some copies of The Night Before Christmas showing Santa’s suit as green.

Maxfield Parrish’s 1896 portrait of Santa shows two rows of big buttons on his chest. Mary Cowles Clark’s illustrations for L. Frank Baum’s Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1902) dress Claus alternately in green and red.

Thus, when Denslow drew this Santa, the character hadn’t become completely standardized. In December 1904 his Scarecrow and the Tinman comics page showed the Tinman dressing up as Santa in a red coat—with bristly brown trim.

After World War 1, the standard image of Santa settled down, with magazine cover artists showing him in a red coat with lots of white fur trim—a choice largely determined by how those magazines were printed in black and red on white paper. The Saturday Evening Post and Country Gentlemen commissioned holiday images from Norman Rockwell (in 1920 and 1921, for example) and N. C. Wyeth (“Old Kris” in 1925) under those technical restrictions. And thus we stopped seeing Santa in green.

24 December 2009

Derivative Works—the Sequel

Yesterday I noted how the American comics world treats adaptations of retold stories with more apparent respect than the world of literary fiction does.

In that regard, children’s literature is more like comics than like adult literature. We celebrate picture books illustrating old tales like Snow White. We enjoy reinterpretations of those stories, as in Donna Jo Napoli’s Beast, and modernizations, such as Sarah Beth Durst’s Into the Wild. Those books get treated as serious work, not postmodernist play or slumming.

That may apply only to very old stories, however. Sequels and rewrites of works published in the past century or so, and linked to a particular originator, still seem a bit iffy. I’m thinking of the latter-day sequels and rewrites of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (which was itself derived from his play, of course), A. A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. They can be entertaining, but they rarely win awards. I suppose that’s a variation on the rule that ”If you steal from one person, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”

In that respect, children’s literature reflects adult literature’s preference for the entirely new over the reworked. Critics and critical readers value originality for its own sake. In some fields, the dominant artistic values elevate a half-baked story we’ve never heard before over an old story executed in a completely entertaining way.

For the past century in the visual arts, the presentation of a new concept has gotten more respect than illustrations that bring a literary or historical moment to life because the concept is more original, even if that concept is “a square on a rectangle.” For much of the twentieth century, in fact, illustrations were seen as so derivative that their copyrights remained with the words unless the artist had an explicit agreement otherwise.

But in cogitating about the history of various arts, I’ve come to this conclusion:

Originality is overrated.

Or, rather, our literary and artistic culture has, probably since the Romantic period in literature and for over a century in the visual arts, valued originality more than highly competent reworkings. If we look back on the art and literature of previous centuries, we see artists and writers unabashedly exploring the same topics and tales. The competition among artists over the same ground fueled both technique and creativity.

Consider how many centuries people have been entertained by stories of the Trojan War. The tradition of retelling that legend is older than literature itself. It takes in Dante and Shakespeare and and all them other high-falutin’ Greeks. Dryden and Pope took translating Homer’s epics as the best way to demonstrate their prowess as English poets.

The rediscovery of the “Laocoön and His Sons” marble in 1506 inspired El Greco a century later to paint the same subject (shown above, courtesy of the National Gallery in London). Two and a half centuries later, sculptors were still borrowing from it. But in the early 20th century, critics like Irving Babbitt and Clement Greenberg used the Laocoön as a metaphor for an outdated standard artists should leave behind.

So how are storytellers exploring the Trojan War legend today? Not in “literary fiction”; most novels about it are published as genre fiction. The most publicized recent retelling has been the movie Troy, and the most critically acclaimed is Eric Shanower’s comics saga, Age of Bronze.

23 December 2009

Derivative Works

The latest New York Times bestseller list for hardcover comics includes adaptations of the Book of Genesis (#1), The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (#2), and Pride and Prejudice (#5). The seven “original” books are all about Batman and the Joker (four titles), the X-Men (two), and Green Lantern (one)—additions to superhero sagas that have been running for decades.

That leaves all the original comics stories on the paperback bestseller list. Even there, however, there are two more Batman titles, Bill Willingham’s mashup of traditional fairy tales and the modern world in Fables, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen, originally inspired by the Charlton superheroes.

The number of adaptations and sequels reflects yet another difference I’ve noticed separating prose literature from similar books in comics form: the comics world is more respectful toward derivative works. Publishers Weekly just ran a whole story about adaptations of literary classics into comics form, along with a list of recent and upcoming titles.

Thus, in the comics world, people praise Jon J. Muth’s adaptation of Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang's screenplay for M as a graphic novel, and it is quite striking. Critics don’t respect prose “novelizations” of movies the same way—even novelizations that do a good job of storytelling.

Artist P. Craig Russell just adapted Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: The Dream Hunters into comics form. No one seemed to ask what’s significant about adapting a story written just ten years ago and published with many illustrations into a graphic novel. Rather, the review site IGN praised it as “as faithful an adaptation as one could ever hope for.”

In contrast, when novelists with literary ambitions rewrite older stories or obviously build on them, they usually present themselves as not just adapting the material for a new form or audience, but reworking it to make a new statement. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea is a post-colonialist prequel to Jane Eyre. Marianne Wiggins’s John Dollar is a feminist version of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (which in turn had traveled to the same territory as Jules Verne’s Deux Ans de Vacances, but dystopically).

Occasionally a literary novelist will build on popular culture, but almost always with post-modern distance and irony, as in Donald Barthelme’s fanfiction. Frederic Tuten’s Tintin in the New World brings Hergé’s cartoon hero together with characters from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain in a postmodernist mashup. It’s not just a Tintin story, we readers must understand; it’s about a Tintin story. In contrast, Isabel Allende wrote a sincere swashbuckler in Zorro (2005)—and has her literary reputation recovered, even though that book got good reviews?

TOMORROW: So what?

22 December 2009

That’s No Moon—It’s a Space Battleship

Joseph Shoer recently wrote about the physics of battles in outer space, an essay that came to my attention via Joni Sensel at the Spectacle and Gizmodo. It’s a long essay, but a rewarding one for people who want to think ahead.

Shoer wrote:

Explosions are basically a waste of energy in space. On the ground, these are devastating because of the shock wave that goes along with them. But in the vacuum of space, an explosion just creates some tenuous, expanding gases that would be easily dissipated by a hull.

No, to damage spacecraft systems, you can’t hit them with gas unless it’s really, really concentrated and energetic. So unless you want to just wait till your enemy is close enough that you can point your engines at him, the best bets for ranged weapons are kinetic impactors and radiation.
Good to know.

As for military spaceship design, Shoer added:
I think the small fighter craft would be nearly spherical, with a single main engine and a few guns or missiles facing generally forward. . . . Basically, picture a bigger, armored version of the lunar module.

The larger warships would also probably be nearly spherical, with a small cluster of main engines facing generally backward and a few smaller engines facing forward or sideways for maneuvering.
Well, that’s not nearly phallic enough, is it?

21 December 2009

What We Learned from Pedro and Me

In a look back at the last decade of children’s publishing at Fuse #8, Betsy Bird wrote of graphic novels as one major trend, stating at the outset:

I’m not saying there weren’t graphic novels in libraries in 1999. What I’m saying is that there weren’t half as many as you might find now. The reason for the change? I’m still trying to figure that out.
Here’s a hypothesis to test.

The breakthrough “graphic novel” in libraries’ teen collections was Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss and What I Learned, by Judd Winick, published in 2000. Of course, it wasn’t a novel. It was, like many other top examples of the form, a memoir. And at that moment in publishing it was unstoppable.

To start with, because Pedro and Me had its roots in MTV’s The Real World series, it came with a mass audience. Though that season of the show had first aired six years earlier, the network had rerun the episodes, and millions of people remembered Pedro Zamora. Probably young librarians remembered Pedro Zamora. Many teens wanted to read his story.

More important, traditional objections to literature in comics form didn’t apply to Pedro and Me. It wasn’t escapist fantasy, the form that has dominated mass-market American comics. (Winick hadn’t yet started writing for DC Comics, where among other things he’s brought the third Robin back to life.)

In fact, the story of Pedro and Me was all too real. It carried serious and important messages of tolerance, safer sex (without being sexually explicit), and dealing with death. As Publishers Weekly reported in 2000, the book is “both a heartfelt account of Winick’s friendship with Zamora and also a source of frank and accurate AIDS awareness information.” How could any librarian or educator stand between that book and teens simply because it was in comics form?

Pedro and Me came through editor Marc Aronson, already respected as a champion and practitioner of good nonfiction for young people. It was published by an old and established press, Henry Holt, rather than part of the strange, separate comics industry. Aronson was candid about the struggle to figure out how to edit and publish the book, as in this article in Publishers Weekly:
Aronson cited Pedro and Me by Judd Winick, a graphic-novel/memoir released last month that discusses AIDS, as an example of a YA title that is crossing the typical genre boundaries. . . . “Right down to sales conference our sales force could not decide where to sell Judd’s book, in the adult catalogue or the children’s,” he said. “We felt strongly that it should be marketed as an older YA title,” as it was.
That helped position Pedro and Me as an exceptional book in comics form—the one “graphic novel” a collection needed to have, the one comic that serious people had to pay attention to even though it was full of pictures.

Pedro and Me came out with starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and School Library Journal. It started racking up listings, nominations, and awards:
  • Publishers Weekly Best Book
  • Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Best in Children’s Literature
  • Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Honor Award (the winner that year was Aronson himself for Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado)
  • Notable Children’s Book Selection, American Library Association
  • YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers
  • Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books Blue Ribbon Award
I’m leaving out the “special interest” awards for books in comics form, books on Latino subjects, and books on gay subjects not because they aren’t important but because this is all about how Pedro and Me became a necessary choice for the mainstream.

And once the field recognized Winick’s Pedro and Me as a powerful, important book that spoke to readers in a new way, people were eager to look at other books in the comics form.

20 December 2009

Weekly Robin Holiday Edition: Someone Laid an Egg

A while back, a Twitter posting from author Neil Gaiman sent me to this academic analysis of the following immortal verse:

Jingle bells!
Batman smells!
Robin laid an egg!
The Batmobile
Has lost a wheel,
And the Joker got away!
The analysis appears on the Children and Youth in History website, created at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, which I quite admire. I even have the tote bag and flash drive from last spring’s Organization of American Historians conference to show that.

I therefore regret that the essay is deficient in Batman history. It states, “it is certain that ‘Batman Smells’ has been sung continuously by generations of children (and adults) since the first Batman comic appeared in 1939.” Robin and the Joker first appeared in 1940, and the term “Batmobile” in 1941. (Detective Comics, #48, as long as we’re being scholarly about things.)

I do appreciate the author’s mention of alternative versions of the verse that use less daring rhymes than “egg/away.” Namely, “And the Commiss’ner broke his leg,” and something about “ballet.” And it’s useful to see the words “grosslore” and “fartlore” used in their natural setting.

Nonetheless, there’s something missing here, and it’s a matter of context. I shared the link with author M. T. Anderson, who alluded to this verse in an email to me last year. He responded thusly:
When I was a kid, I remember my friends singing this song not so much as a Bakhtinian (Jokerian?) inversion of adult marketing per se, but as a specific attack on a DC character who had a washed-up television series that seemed, to the blunt elementary-school minds of the late ’70s, “badly acted” and “kind of weird.”

I was always a sole voice for DC (and Batman) among friends who showed off by embracing the more morally chaotic world of Marvel’s heroes. To many kids, as I remember it, Batman seemed the perfect example of a hero who was too ethically safe, too incorruptible, too uncomplicated ... and the fact that the live-action Batman show's brilliant camp was incomprehensible to us kids—and read merely as outdated—underscored that assessment. I’m sure that this is why DC reinvented the character in the ’80s, accentuating his outsider status, etc.
The wheels really did come off the Batmobile for a while, it seems, in terms of connecting with the character’s target audience, and this rhyme might have been a sign of that breakdown.

Since then, of course, the Batman mythos has resurged. At some point it has swallowed up this verse without suffering the least indigestion, and what was once needling parody of an American icon has become as harmlessly institutionalized as “Be kind to our web-footed friends…” The first couplet has even been used in the title of a Junie B. Jones book.

Certain characters make much the same argument about “Jingle bells! Batman smells!” in the “Batman and Sons” parody webcomic. Click on the panels for the whole page.

19 December 2009

Writing Advice That Overturns the World

I’m finishing off what ended up being “Writing Advice Week” at Oz and Ends with a look ahead from publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

…selling content as a publisher is a business that is going to just get harder and harder until it won’t really be much of a business anymore.

This has nothing to do with piracy or DRM [digital rights management] or Amazon’s promotional ebook pricing. It has to do with the most basic of economic laws: supply and demand.

Until the digital age, content was scarce. It wasn’t scarce because people didn’t create it; it was scarce because it required an investment to distribute it. That’s no longer true. Anybody with an Internet connection can make anything they write (or snap or video or sing) available to anybody else with an Internet connection. For just about free. That’s just one reason — among many — why the amount of content choices available to everybody has mushroomed in the past 15 years.

When the supply of something goes up faster than demand, the price of the something drops. Or, put another way, money flows to scarcity. And content is anything but scarce. . . .

What is the new scarce item that will attract the dollars if IP [intellectual property] is so common that it becomes hard to sell? The answer is the attention of people: eyeballs.
Many writers are already working in media that make most of their money by selling eyeballs: anything advertising-supported, such as most periodicals, most websites, and commercial broadcasting. Of course, some of those media aren’t really making money.

Book authors aren’t working within that model. In fact, book publishing has developed an anti-commercial ideology. That doesn’t mean publishers and authors don’t want to sell books. Of course we want to sell books. But we don’t want to sell other stuff in our books. Advertising in books? Tacky. Product placement? Even tackier! Those eyeballs are meant for us alone!

Which would still work fine as long as people with eyeballs are looking for our stuff. But it would be harder for new writers to establish themselves in the content-saturated future Shatzkin sees.

The good news is that this model would still reward writers who entertain and inform the most readers; indeed, they could be more in demand than ever. The bad news is that there would probably be a long and awkward transitional period to the new model.

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…”

17 December 2009

Writing Advice That Assembled Be Must

Over at Fomagrams, Dave Elzey shared some thoughts on the end of the linear narrative in fiction, and particularly how that might mean something different for boys:

male readers prefer non-fiction to fiction and respond well to non-linear narratives. All those boys who struggle reading novels for school but could spend hours with The Guinness Book of World Records do so because they like the puzzle of putting a narrative together in their heads. It’s why boys take things apart to figure out how they work. It’s how their brains understand the world.
I agree that a lot of boys read nonfiction avidly as a way to understand the world—or, rather, to master one exciting, possibly scary, and well defined part of it: dinosaurs, sports, automotive vehicles, collectible Japanese cartoon monsters, Marvel superheroes, what have you.

I’m not sure I agree that such Guinness Book readers are assembling narratives. Rather, mastering a pool of impressive facts and immersing oneself in a cause-and-effect, conflict-and-resolution story are different ways to mentally organize life into understandable, ordered form. (That said, conquering a realm of knowledge is a heroic narrative that a reader of the male persuasion can tell about himself.)

Dave goes on to further discussion on the limits of linear narratives and the potential for non-linear ones, stories that require readers to do more work putting events together:
Linear narratives are a way to tell stories but we tend to think they are the only way. It fits our natural sense of order, our understanding of time being forward-moving, our progression shuffling from point A to B. But movies have shown us there are ways to tell a story that bend time with flashbacks and fast-forwards that are accepted without jarring our sense of order.
There are older examples of such stories, starting with Tristram Shandy and including such Modernist experiments as Hopscotch and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The approach may have come to young people’s literature relatively recently with the sorts of books discussed in Eliza T. Dresang’s Radical Change.

Or, as Dave hints, that non-linear approach might have been available for kids all along, just not treated as part of traditionally plotted fiction. The Encyclopedia Brown books, for example, have a gaping hole at the end of each story that readers must fill in through their mastery of facts and observation; few adult mysteries make their readers turn to the back to assemble the complete narrative. Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? creates a world through snippets of story and lots of information, not a linear narrative.

But are boys more attracted to those books than girls? The most prominent recent example of the to-be-assembled form is the Cathy’s Book series, by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman. Those books have a teenaged girl at their center and, I thought, a predominantly female readership. Of course, by that age, the book industry may have given up on winning over more male readers.

16 December 2009

Writing Advice with Health Implications

Any guide to good writing says that specific phrasing is stronger than vague generalities. Rich vocabularies can express more than narrow lexicons. Some repeated phrases might be poetic, but using the same words or phrases or constructions over and over is a good way to bore readers.

Specific terms and varied phrasing aren’t just the hallmarks of lively writing. They’re also markers of a healthy mind.

Psychologists have long known that there’s a link between how people write and the probability that they will develop Alzheimer’s disease. Some of the important work on this question was part of the ongoing nun study.

Researchers examined autobiographies that women wrote decades earlier when they joined a religious order, and then looked at who developed Alzheimer’s. Since those women shared living quarters and lifestyles for many years, they had generally equal exposure to environmental factors, giving more weight to genetics, early upbringing, and habits.

As the New York Times reported: “nuns who packed more ideas into the sentences of their early autobiographies were less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease six decades later.”

In particular, some of the prose markers of incipient Alzheimer’s disease are:

  • use of indefinite words, such as “thing” and “anything.”
  • breadth of vocabulary.
  • repeated phrases, such as “all sorts of.”
Earlier this year, as reported in McLean’s, professors of English and Computer Sciences at the University of Toronto collaborated to measure those elements in fourteen mystery novels that Agatha Christie wrote over her career. This study found a 31% drop in vocabulary between novels Christie wrote at 63—when she was already a facile, best-selling author, able to publish nearly anything—and the last she completed, at 81. Vague and repetitive phrasing went up.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that developing a livelier writing style staves off Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. But it can’t hurt.

15 December 2009

Writing Advice That Goes Deep

Earlier this month the Editorrent blog discussed the challenges of “Deep POV”, explaining:

Deep POV is a variety of single POV, where an entire scene (or chapter, or book) is told through the perspective (or point of view) of one of the characters in the scene. Deep POV takes this further—the narration is done not just in the perspective but in the voice of the POV character. It’s meant to establish almost no distance between the narrator and the reader—rather like a first-person feel with third-person pronouns.
I hadn’t come across this term, and Google Books hadn’t picked up on it, either, so I figured it’s relatively recent. Indeed, it appears to be a coinage of author Suzanne Brockmann, who explained it this way in a 2005 interview with Writers Write:
Deep Point of View was a phrase that I came up with when I was trying to explain my writing style. Point of view can be subjective (picture a hand-held camera on top of a character’s head) or objective (picture something like a security camera, bolted into place in the corner of a room).

In my books, I use subjective point of view, but I’m not satisfied with merely showing the reader what that camera sees from its perch atop a character’s head. I bring the camera down, inside of that character’s head, so we see the world through that character’s eyes. We hear things through his ears. We smell what he smells, feel what he feels, think what he think. With deep POV, I write using words that that character would use. I tell the story with that character’s voice.

Deep POV is very similar to writing first person. (I, me, mine...) Except it’s third person. (Sam’s, He, him, his...) When I use deep POV (which is pretty much all the time!), I don’t need to write “he thought,” or “he felt”—it’s understood that the words I’m writing are this character’s thoughts and feelings. This makes for tighter pacing and a livelier voice.
Brockmann works in the romance genre, and no doubt as a result most of the other websites discussing “deep POV” are also focused on romance. Editorrent’s write-up suggests a lot of writers are trying it, not all successfully. But there are no doubt examples from other types of novels as well.

But what I really cared about was how this approach to narration fits into my “Six Parameters of Narrative Voice.” Does it require a new parameter? Which would be a bother since I’ve run out of P-words to label them.

But I decided that deep POV fits in just fine; it’s just a relatively uncommon combination of these parameters:
  • Point of View, which we can define through that camera analogy as well as anything else: Tight single.
  • Person, a grammatical measure: Third.
  • Perspective, my term for the amount of time that passes between events and narration: Immediate, totally in the moment.
  • Past and Present, another grammatical choice: Either.
  • Presence of author: None at all.
  • Paper Trail, or the presentation of the story through documentary forms: None.

14 December 2009

Writing Advice That Packs a Punch

After you’ve read two or three books about writing novels, they start to seem familiar. You read two or three more, and they’re really familiar.

Of course, there are still stand-outs, like E. M. Forster’s Aspects of a Novel and Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird. But part of what makes those books stand out (and what makes them not for everybody) is that they concentrate on particular aspects of writing, with a personal point of view. They don’t try to be comprehensive from the ground up. Books that do usually end up sounding pretty much the same because the author’s quirks get diluted in everything else that’s not so quirky.

So I was tickled when I came across a writing-advice website that offered tips on “Common Problems with Psychic Heroes,” a “Questionnaire for Nonhuman Characters,” and guidance on “How to Give Your Superhero a Day Job.”

Folks, meet Superhero Nation, which offers advice on writing superhero comics and novels. Oh, sure, it also gives advice on manuscript formatting, communicating with agents and editors, showing not telling, and the other usual stuff. And to be frank, I’m not sure how successfully website creator B. Mac has been able to put his advice into practice.

But by golly this writing advice has a point of view. Many critics have noted how superhero comics often have trouble depicting realistic and multidimensional women in a respectful way. Only Superhero Nation tackles the complementary challenge of how female writers can write more realistic men. (Cataloguing details of another guy’s body? Wrong. Genuinely caring about sports? Hell, yes!)

13 December 2009

“That’s Potent Stuff, Kid! Like as Not to Give You Bad Dreams…”

Some Batman histories, such as the From the ’30s to the ’70s volume I read as a lad, say that Dick Grayson’s departure for college allowed the Caped Crusader to return to his detective roots. Indeed, the first story that followed, “One Bullet Too Many,” was a forensic procedural. But a lot of that era’s stories featured vampires, ghosts, and Man-Bat. They belonged to the gothic or horror mode rather than the detective genre.

Of course, those stories were a return to Batman’s roots. His earliest adventures in Detective Comics, before Robin arrived, also involved vampires, mutated monsters, mad monks, and other elements of gothic horror. Which isn’t that big a shift when you start with a millionaire dressed as a giant bat.

Those fantastic elements didn’t go away when Robin arrived, as Batman’s pistol did. In fact, the arrival of a young character opened the door for a new sort of story, even more fantastic—indeed, unreal.

Detective, #44, half a year after Robin’s debut, offered “The Land Behind the Light.” It showed the Dynamic Duo passing through a scientist’s strange light into “the 4th Dimsension,” a world wracked by war between giants and dwarfs! That fantastic mode played to Bob Kane’s strengths as an illustrator; he was better at comically exaggerated figures than realistic ones.

For more detail of this adventure, see Vintage Spandex. But I’m spoiling the ending: Yes, it was the Batman saga’s first use of the “It was all a dream” escape hatch when a writer—in this case Bill Finger—couldn’t finish or explain his tale. Eventually comics publishers realized that their readers would sit for “imaginary” stories, parallel universes, “What If?” alternatives, possible futures, “Elseworlds,” and other justifications for stories that don’t take place in their heroes’ “real” lives. Even in the real lives of Batman and Robin, stories broadened to feature time travel by hypnosis (don’t ask) and trips into outer space.

I don’t think Kane and Finger could have used the “all a dream” exit without Robin. Batman is supposed to be a physical and mental paragon; in those early years, he was also an emotional paragon. He wouldn’t get lost in a book of fables and be unable, even for a minute, to tell dream from reality. But because Robin is still a child, he can get lost in a nightmare. His arrival on the scene in 1940 widened the team’s storytelling possibilities to include fantasy sequences.

In contrast, a later story told us that Batman hasn’t had nightmares since his childhood. (It also showed us that he sleeps in his full costume and cowl, so we can debate how well adjusted he really is.)

12 December 2009

Story Museum Tells Half of the Story?

Fuse #8 offered a link to the Story Museum, devoted to Oxford, England’s rich tradition of children’s literature. The website calls the city “A world centre of language and learning, home to some of the best-loved children’s writers and illustrators in the world – from Lewis Carroll, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis to Philip Pullman.” A July 2009 handout from the museum also mentions Kenneth Grahame, who attended school at Oxford but wasn’t allowed by his guardian to go to the university.

Right now the Story Museum is its website, handouts, and school visits program, “taking lively storytelling performances, hands on exhibitions and creative activities to schools and family venues and offering training and resources for teachers and parents.”

On my first visit to England, I stayed with friends in Christ Church College at Oxford. And by that I mean I stayed in the college, with a view of Alice Liddell’s garden from the window above my bed. I was thrilled. So I appreciate the city’s heritage of children’s literature.

But right now the Story Museum gives short shrift to part of that heritage: the female side. Though the organization has many female supporters, its literature emphasizes the male, donnish aspect of British children’s literature and gives little attention to women’s historic contributions.

The museum website doesn’t mention Beatrix Potter, Kate Greenaway, Edith Nesbit, Enid Blyton, or Lucy M. Boston, as far as Google can tell. None has a strong Oxford connection, but of course as women they didn’t have the same university opportunities as their male contemporaries. (Similarly, I suspect that female dons at the women’s colleges in the mid-1900s would have suffered worse harm to their scholarly stature if they’d written children’s books than Tolkien and Lewis did.)

But what about female authors who did attend Oxford? Susan Cooper went to Somerville College and received an MA from the university; she was the first woman to edit the university’s newspaper. Diana Wynne Jones graduated from St. Anne’s College at Oxford. Their names don’t appear on the Story Museum website, either.

(I’m not bringing up women like Philippa Pearce of Cambridge or J. K. Rowling of Exeter. I understand how choosing to go to another university might be unforgivable.)

11 December 2009

They Grow Up So Fast

Remember the incredibly cute puppy in a sweater with snow on her nose, whose picture was part of Country magazine’s 2009 photo contest?

I wasn’t surprised to learn that that photo, by Robert Shoemaker, won the readers’ vote. It turns out that golden retriever’s name is Sadie.

The magazine’s announcement was accompanied by ten-year-old Morgan Shoemaker’s recent photo of her father and Sadie, taken only about a year after the first.

10 December 2009

Attack of the Giant Lobsters?

The big science experiment of the month seems to come from Prof. Justin B. Ries at the University of North Carolina, who raised various forms of shellfish in water with high concentrations of carbon dioxide. The concentrations that climate scientists predict will come about as carbon dioxide continues to build up in our atmosphere.

The result: lobsters, blue crabs, and five other tested species grew significantly bigger.
But pencil urchins and nine other species grew smaller. Mussels didn’t seem to notice.

When I read this finding, I couldn’t help remembering the 1978 Saturday Night Live episode that ended with giant lobsters attacking the studio. Originally Michael O’Donoghue and colleagues wrote that script for guest host Buck Henry, but it was shelved. Bits surfaced in the first SNL book, published in 1977.

Then on 24 Jan 1978 a Soviet satellite with a radioactive power source crashed in northern Canada. SNL pulled out the old script for that week’s show, hosted by Robert Klein. And the attack of the atomic lobsters was on! (Never mind that the satellite came down far from the ocean.) Here’s more of the behind-the-scenes story from writer Tom Davis.

09 December 2009

What’s Happening to My Body?

Joni Sensel at The Spectacle pointed me to Karen Healey’s essay “Becoming New: Young Adult SFF and the Adolescent Body” at Strange Horizons. Its main thesis:

some of my favourite young adult reading, then and now, is that which deals metaphorically with the tumultuous changes of puberty and adolescence.

It's not hard to divine the fears and hopes bound into a story about a girl changing herself into a new, magical being at the same time she becomes aware of her sexuality, or a boy trying to cope with superstrength, or a group of teenagers who discover that their parents are all supervillains. But such metaphors make those hopes and fears one step removed, allowing them to be sympathetically explored in all their complexity, without beating the reader over the head with ideas they may shy from if presented up front. . . .

All in all, I think I prefer YA where the protagonists aren't ever totally satisfied with their transformations. I like fiction that acknowledges the difficulty and terror of acquiring new bodies and new attitudes, but promises that change is not only inevitable, but can be a mindful and ongoing process of self-making, aiming for better days ahead.
This lack of total satisfaction is what I’ve heard author Ellen Howard call “the price of fantasy”—a story shouldn’t offer unalloyed wish-fulfillment, but a trade-off, not unlike growing up itself.

Adolescence isn’t only a matter of physical transformation, of course. It’s usually accompanied by a social transformation, and that too has its reflection in fantasy literature for young people. Sometimes it takes the form of a first job assignment (The Giver, City of Ember, the first volume of Monster Blood Tattoo). Sometimes it’s a forced departure from home (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, The Homeward Bounders). And of course sometimes all manifestations of adulthood—new bodies, urges, responsibilities, and relationships—occur at once.

08 December 2009

Five Favorite Useful Quotations from Time Bandits

From the Time Bandits screenplay by Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin.

RANDALL (David Rappaport):
You never start at one! Whoever heard of anybody starting at one!

Do you want to be leader of this gang?
STRUTTER (Malcolm Dixon):
No, we agreed: No leader!
Right. So shut up and do as I say.

FIDGIT (Kenny Baker):
Oh, so that’s what an invisible barrier looks like.

EVIL GENIUS (David Warner):
Dear Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence.

SUPREME BEING (Sir Ralph Richardson):
I am the Supreme Being. I’m not entirely dim.

One of these lines wasn’t actually in the original shooting script. The encounter with the invisible barrier replaced a longer scene that was at least partially shot, involving murderous spider-women and a scary forest. As for things never shot, in 1996 Gilliam’s collaborator Charles McKeown drafted a sequel.

07 December 2009

Upcoming Auction of the Patrick McInally Collection

This image appears in the catalogue (PDF download) of Profiles in History’s auction of material from the Patrick McInally Collection of Children’s Literature, to be sold on Wednesday, 16 Dec 2009. It’s from MGM’s promotional material for the 1939 Wizard of Oz, telling potential business partners how they can exploit the property.

Among the other items for sale are a first edition of L. Frank Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz, letters by Lewis Carroll, an unpublished dialogue by A. A. Milne, and more, up through first editions of The Princess Bride and the Harry Potter books signed by the authors.

My birthday is coming up, and I wouldn’t be averse to receiving John Tenniel’s pencil drawing of the sleeping Gryphon from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (estimated price $60-80,000). I’d even act surprised. I promise.

06 December 2009

Robin Never Kills

As a follow-up to my “Reason for Robin, #9,” the weekly Robin will spend a couple of weeks exploring how Dick Grayson’s youth changed the nature of Batman stories after he made his entrance in 1940.

In the first year of Batman adventures, the Dark Knight sometimes carried a gun. He wore a pistol in a holster in some panels of Detective, #33 (though not in other panels on the same page). Detective, #35, opens with an image of him holding a smoking gun, and in #36 he fires into the air to summon the police.

Batman shot at his foes only twice, and both times they were no longer human: vampires in Detective, #32, and “man-monsters” in Batman, #1, as shown here. Of course, in those early stories he left a lot of villains dead in other ways.

Robin arrived in Detective, #38. Putting a kid at Batman’s side meant the adventures had to become more gentle, right? Well, not right away. These panels are from Robin’s first fight. I doubt that gunman has a happy landing. The end of this tale turns on another death: a mob boss knocks another henchman off that same unfinished building. The Dynamic Duo is more interested in capturing photographic evidence of that murder than in stopping it.

According to the Grand Comics Database, Whitney Ellsworth took over as editor of Detective Comics with that issue #38. And he brought new ideas for how Batman should behave. Writer Bill Finger later recalled in an interview:

I had Batman use a gun to shoot a villain, and I was called on the carpet by Whit Ellsworth. He said, “Never let us have Batman carry a gun again.” He was right.
I don’t believe Finger started working directly for Ellsworth at DC (then National) Comics until late 1940, so that conversation was probably prompted by a script he’d turned in, not by a published comic.

Bob Kane’s autobiography, Batman and Me, says that Ellsworth’s objection arose from that “man-monsters” tale in Batman, #1. I suspect that book’s coauthor, Tom Andrae, was trying to make Kane’s self-aggrandizing anecdotes match up to the historic record. The “man-monsters” story was originally supposed to run in Detective, #38, but got bumped, so it had probably originated under the previous editor, Vincent Sullivan. Ellsworth applied his new rule going forward.

Kane’s book also claimed that the same Batman story “resulted in DC preparing its own comics code which every artist and writer had to follow.” But that code wasn’t instituted until the summer of 1941, over a year after Robin had arrived and Batman had stopped carrying a gun.

Of course, guns and killing didn’t disappear from the Batman comics, even after the more stringent Comics Code of 1954. Only the magazines’ heroes refrained from using guns or any other sort of deadly force. Villains still tried to kill, and that’s how we knew they were villains. (World War 2 allowed for some exceptions, like the cover of Batman, #15, from 1943.)

Those rules stayed in effect even after superhero comics became grim, gritty, and aimed at a smaller audience of adults. In Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon (2000), Will Brooker quotes from the “Bat-Bible” in use under editor Dennis O’Neil:
Wayne/Batman is not insane...and he never kills. Let’s repeat that for the folks in the balcony: Batman never kills.
The editorial edict against Batman killing actually turned out to be a blessing for the writers. It offers an easy explanation of why the Joker and other unrepentant villains stay around for future stories. It provides an additional source of pressure on Batman and the young men he’s trained: not only do they have to subdue the bad guys, but they have to do it without compromising their values by using lethal force.

Writers now present Bruce Wayne’s insistence on never using guns as rooted in seeing his parents murdered with one, drawing psychological depth from an editorial edict.

In superhero comics’ never-ending debates about the nature of heroism, the bat-family’s values are a topic of explicit discussion. Tim Drake protests and even cries when he thinks Bruce Wayne has broken his no-killing vow. Dick Grayson spends months feeling guilty about not doing enough to stop his girlfriend from killing his arch-enemy. The second Jason Todd, the second Huntress, and even Wonder Woman argue with Batman about the ethics of killing criminals.

In the past two years, writer Grant Morrison has tested Batman’s no-killing rule in two ways:
  • In Final Crisis the most powerful bad guy in the DC Universe pushes Bruce Wayne to the limit, and he responds by using some sort of cosmic gun. Morrison told Wizard magazine, “the root of the Batman mythos is the gun and the bullet that created Batman. So, Batman himself is finally standing there to complete that big mythical circle and to have the image of Batman up against the actual personification of evil, and now he's got the gun and he's got the bullet.”
  • In Batman and Robin Dick Grayson, having taken on the Batman role, is trying to instill his mentor’s values in the new Robin, who was reared by the League of Assassins. Can a boy who’s already killed be Robin?
All those conflicts and stories arise because in 1940 Whitney Ellsworth thought it was inappropriate to show guns and killing in a comic book featuring a kid. After all, that would just look wrong.

05 December 2009

Deck the Halls…with Science!

Last year the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences’ “Beyond Bones” blog offered some chemistry-based ways to decorate handmade holiday ornaments. And since that time of year has come around again, here are some links to check out:

Color paper butterflies using chromatography.

Add marbled colors to a dinosaur (or other) shape with watercolors and shaving cream.

Grow crystals on pipe cleaners with borax. (Even when I was a kid, I never knew anyone to use pipe cleaners to actually clean pipes.)

04 December 2009

Before Bert Lahr

Bill Campbell at The Oz Enthusiast unearthed some new images from the 1902 stage extravaganza The Wizard of Oz—the first blockbuster adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s saga. Where were these photos? In the New York Public Library’s collection of theatrical items, filed under the title of the most memorable follow-up to the Wizard of 1902, Babes in Toyland.

03 December 2009

Bone on a Phone

I flagged two items that Brigid Alverson highlighted at Good Comics for Kids, showing two ways of reading Bone by Jeff Smith that appear to be on a collision course with each other.

Back in January, Josiah Leighton discussed the movement depicted in two pages of Out from Boneville, as part of a discussion of how drawing for animation differs from drawing for comics. I’ll quote a bit of his analysis, but I recommend reading the whole thing alongside the pages:

Notice first how Smith expertly subdivides the action by tiers. Each horizontal is a distinct set piece of the ongoing chase. This is a great way to start laying out the page.

Notice also the big climax, the shift of the action that sends it down rather than across, is placed on the page turn. This is also the best method for deciding where one page ends and the next begins within a continuous scene, NOT the oft used oh-crud-I-ran-out-of-space-I-guess-it’s-time-to-start-drawing-on-the-next-piece-of-bristol method.
(That same sequence also shows Smith’s success in scripting dialogue. The phrase “Stupid, stupid rat creatures!” became the series’ first catch phrase, and proves useful in many situations.)

This month, Eric Federspiel discussed “Mobile Comics Apps in the Classroom,” at Graphic Novel Reporter. He makes the case for having students read comics—specifically, the same volume of Bone—on a smartphone, a format that shows only one panel at a time:
There are obvious shortcomings of such apps, including the relatively small size of the screen, splicing of large panels or two-page spreads into multiple viewable pages, oversimplification of page layouts, etc.

However, the comics nerd in me has to admit that as much as I enjoy seeing how an artist organizes his/her storytelling in terms of varied and unique page layouts, the truth is that my students have great difficulty with such organization. Considering how much emphasis traditional reading and writing instruction places on consistency and structure, it’s been my experience that seventh graders are not necessarily impressed by this kind of creativity. Most are purely seeking fun, simple storytelling.

Viewing one panel at a time, my students do not need to focus their attention on decoding the organization of multiple images on one page. Instead, they can focus on the simple relationships between text and images within each panel.
But viewing Bone one panel at a time means that the formatting Leighton discusses above—the tiers, the page turn—gets wiped away. Readers can see how panel shapes and scales change, but not how they relate to each other. It seems like the equivalent of reading a classic novel in an abridged version with all the hard vocabulary replaced with “fun, simple” synonyms.

02 December 2009

The 2010 National Oz Conference Call for Papers

The Arne Nixon Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at California State University, Fresno, will host a national Oz conference, co-sponsored by the International Wizard of Oz Club, on 14-16 May 2010.

Featured speakers will include:

The conference will include a performance of Time Again in Oz, a musical adapted from Ozma of Oz by Suzan L. Zeder. There’s more about this show at the website of composer Richard Gray.

The conference has issued a call for papers on the theme of “Oz: The Books.” Organizers invite people to submit ideas for fifteen-minute presentations for breakout sessions on 14 May. There are slots for up to 48 papers. Possible topics include: Send proposals to Allison Cowgill, chair of the paper review committee, on or before 15 Jan 2010. The proposal emails should have the subject heading “Oz conference proposal.” The first page should state the workshop title and presenter’s name, address, phone number, and email. The following page should have the workshop title again, whether it will require a PowerPoint setup (no other audiovisual equipment can be provided), and an abstract of 300-500 words—but not the presenter’s name and contact information.

Organizers will confirm receipt of proposals by email, evaluate proposals through a blind review process, and notify authors of accepted proposals by 1 Feb 2010. Presenters must register for the conference. Information about the conference, including events schedule, registration fee, housing, and transportation, will be available at the Arne Nixon Center website or by calling 559-278-8116.

I’m sorry that I’ll miss this event because I’m booked to speak at SCBWI New England’s annual conference that same weekend. (My workshop topics will be on what it means to write within genres and on the differences between writing picture books and writing scripts for comics.)