31 January 2009

Normal Representation of the Body?

From Marjorie Ingall at the Jewish Daily Forward:

“The ‘boobs and boots’ aspect of superhero comics does concern me,” said my friend Julie Holland, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University. “I always think it’s better to have a normal representation of the female body instead of an enhanced kind that can’t be obtained except through surgery.”

She pauses. “I do like the boots, though.”
Of course, superhero comics don't represent the normal male body, either. And nearly everybody gets boots.

(Tip from Brigid Alverson at SLJ's Good Comics for Kids.)

“Everything ‘Against’ It”?

Valerie D'Orazio at Occasional Superheroine weighs in on the launch of the new comic credited to L. Frank Baum, Eric Shanower, and Skottie Young:

Wonderful Wizard of Oz seemingly had everything "against" it (according to conventional wisdom):
1) All-ages book
2) Non-superhero book
3) Female protagonist
4) "Classics" adaptation

So why did the comic book succeed?

1) Parents are hungering for appropriate comic book entertainment for their children.
2) Amazing art.
3) Marvel's giveaway "sketchbook" promotional strategy worked.
4) Perhaps readers are looking for "happier" comic book stories?

Is this a start of a trend? If Wonderful Wizard of Oz continues to sell well, will this encourage Marvel to launch similar projects?

And who is the audience of Wonderful Wizard of Oz? Who is reading this comic book? What is the gender breakdown of the readership? The age of readers? How many issues were bought for other people?

Does Dorothy Gale qualify as a "superheroine?"
The last one I can answer. Dorothy has no special powers or magical training. So she's a superheroine the way Robin's a superhero: less super, thus all the more heroic.

As for the sellout, that always depends on the size of the initial printing, and I wouldn't put it past Marvel to have planned a second printing from the start. But Young reports that the second issue sold out as well.

30 January 2009

“Typically Overconfident Generalization”

Seth Lerer's Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter has been nominated for a National Book Critics Circle award (motto: "Like the National Book Award, except that it sells even fewer books.")

Perry Nodelman isn't happy. To quote:

Towards the end of the book, Lerer refers to Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit in order to announce the typically overconfident generalization that “the boys of much contemporary literature are artists of the game” (315). Lerer goes on to enthuse about the “a vertiginous quality of bullshit, a thrill that the bullshitter gets of making up the details, forming a persona, raising expectations,” and he includes himself among the boys who indulge in it: “we can feel almost an ecstasy in our own imagination” (316). In the light of this book’s wild theorizing woven out of a surprisingly limited number of texts and verifiable facts, I have to conclude that Lerer found putting it together to be a thrilling experience.

29 January 2009

Stinky: Another Kind of Easy Reader?

Among the ALA's honorees this week was Eleanor Davis's Stinky, named a Theodor Seuss Geisel Award Honor Book. That award, named after Dr. Seuss, recognizes "the most distinguished American book for beginning readers." Usually such books have simple prose with standard punctuation, so as not to overburden young kids learning to read on their own.

Stinky is a notable honoree in that it was created in comics format, rather than as a traditional picture book or easy-reader. There's no narrative voice. And compared to prose stories, the comics form asks beginning readers to learn and apply a different manner of reading.

Look at this sample page from Toon Books. Its text includes several items that rarely appear in standard prose, especially in books with very basic, simple text for beginning readers:

  • Oversized, capitalized, and boldfaced letters for emphasis.
  • Different balloon outlines to convey speech, thought, shouts, and whispers.
  • Sound effects, such as the boy's whistling and chomping.
  • Punctuation marks conveying emotion on their own, unconnected to words.
These visual symbols comprise a system of comics punctuation that overlaps the standard prose system, but has its own tools and rules.

Stinky's comics style also requires readers to understand that, for example, the multiple images of Stinky in the right middle panel are all the same character at different moments.

Stinky can work because those "showing the invisible" techniques are standard in many comics, familiar to kids and their adults from newspaper or magazine cartoons. Nevertheless, this easy-reader challenges kids to learn a different way of reading.

28 January 2009

Timing the Moon

The narration in Shooting the Moon traces young Jamie’s thoughts and memories back and forth as she plumbs her thoughts on the Vietnam War and her sense of duty. That meant I had to look carefully for clues about the time setting of Frances O’Roark Dowell’s novel, one of the current Cybils Award nominees for Best Middle-Grade Novel.

Chapter 1 establishes that Jamie’s birthday is 10 December, and that it’s six months away when she starts a summer job at the rec center of Fort Hood. Page 138 states that the year is 1969. So the first scene takes place in June 1969.

In the first line, Jamie tells us that opening scene also occurs “The day after my brother left for Vietnam.” On page 49, she recalls a conversation with her brother “after TJ enlisted” but obviously before he shipped out, which must be early June 1969 at the latest.

In that conversation TJ explains why he likes taking photos of the Moon:

“I think the shadows are interesting. And I like the idea that now there are human footprints on the moon’s surface. There’s something pretty cool about that. And, I don’t know, it’s this place in space that people have actually gone to.”
In the following paragraph Jamie drops the name of Neil Armstrong.

However, Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn’t land on the Moon and leave their footprints until 20 July 1969, or over a month after that fictional conversation.

Once I realized this was indeed an anachronism, it stopped nagging at me. I accepted that Dowell's novel takes place in a slightly alternative past in which Armstrong made it to the Moon in the spring of 1969 instead of the summer. That's not the focus of the book.

But the anachronism may point to an interesting dilemma Dowell faced. On the one hand, she could have adhered to the historical events of 1969. Then she would have written TJ's remarks in the future tense ("And I like the idea that pretty soon there will be human footprints on the moon's surface..."). And the Moon landing would have been a landmark event in the characters' lives, as it was for many people in the summer of 1969. Indeed, Betsy Bird at the Fuse noted how another reader felt the book didn't have enough to say about that first Moon landing:
I do know at least one person who thought it a little odd that the book didn't concentrate more on the moon landing and how that would have affected the characters. The book is called Shooting the Moon after all. But Dowell covers her bases, having TJ speculate at times about "the idea that there are human footprints on the moon's surface." Classrooms of children will someday be asked what the moon signifies to TJ and to Jamie.
But I think that pausing the narrative for the Moon landing, with Jamie wondering if her brother is watching the TV in Vietnam, yadda yadda yadda, could have made too much of that historical moment. The Moon is an important symbol in the story, but it's a symbol shared between the siblings, not with the whole world. In large part the Moon symbolizes being far away, and the landing would emphasize how it came within humans' reach.

On the other hand, Dowell could have shifted the novel's timeframe to 1970, with the Moon landing in the recent past, as the characters describe it. Since Dowell herself is an army brat younger than Jamie, she might well have been inspired by memories of the early 1970s rather than 1969. But that time setting would have made the politics of the Vietnam War different enough to wreak havoc on the plot. And, as I said before, the first Moon landing isn't what matters most in this book.

Another little bit of lunacy: The title Shooting the Moon refers to TJ’s habit of photographing that celestial body. However, it’s also a term from the card game Hearts. Curiously, Jamie and another important character play gin rummy instead.

27 January 2009

You Are the What?

Here's something I have to get off my chest about one of the most honored books of last year.

Yesterday Kadir Nelson's We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball won multiple honors from the American Library Association: the Coretta Scott King Book Award for an author, a King Honor for the illustrations, and the Robert F. Sibert Medal for most distinguished informational book. Good for Nelson.

But that title? The L.A. Times Book Review tried to explain:

The title comes from a quote by Negro Leagues founder Rube Foster: "We are the ship; all else the sea." As it suggests, the Negro Leagues were a self-sufficient, independent enterprise where only the ball was white.
No, "We are the ship" doesn't suggest that at all. It evokes an environment completely removed from the baseball field (even the Davenport, Iowa, minor-league stadium that gets flooded every few years). It brings up historical images of, well, ships, at odds with Nelson's exquisite paintings.

Believe me, that title prompted a lot of discussion with the Marketing and Sales Departments. Yes, it's rooted in the history of the Negro Leagues, but you wouldn't know it until you've read the book. Until then, who would think to ask for a book about baseball with that title?

Obviously, We Are the Ship overcame any objections people raised. And now I look forward to Nelson's upcoming picture book on African-American whalers, Turning the Double Play.

26 January 2009

Fantastic Newberys

It was a good year for fantasy novels at the Newbery awards. The gold medal went to The Graveyard Book, written by Neil Gaiman.

In addition, Newbery Honors went to The Underneath by Kathi Appelt, and Savvy by Ingrid Law. (As well as to two historical novels with political overtones: The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba's Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle, and After Tupac & D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson.)

Two of those three fantasy novels were illustrated: The Graveyard Book by Dave McKean, decades after he started collaborating with Gaiman on the Sandman comics, and The Underneath by David Small. One of the happy results of the stunning success of the Harry Potter novels, I think, is the return of illustration to children's novels, particularly fantasies.

A Valuable Addition to the Team

Just how crazy is Richard Williamson, the schismatic conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier whom Pope Benedict just ex-excommunicated? Here's what Williamson wrote in 1997 about a certain anti-Nazi movie:

As for cleanness, many films may be worse than the Sound of Music, but stop and think - are youth, physical attractiveness and being in love the essence of marriage? Can you imagine this Julie Andrews staying with the Captain if "the romance went out of their marriage"? Would she not divorce him and grab his children from him to be her toys?

Such romance is not actually pornographic but it is virtually so, in other words all the elements of pornography are there, just waiting to break out. One remembers the media sensation when a few years later Julie Andrews appeared topless in another film. That was no sensation, just a natural development for one rolling canine female.
Tip from the Daily Dish.

The Quest for Online Ludic Reading

A long time back, Bonny Becker sent a link to Michael Agger's article in Slate about recent research on how we read online. Agger reported some surprising results:

When you look at early research, it's fascinating to see that even in the days of green phosphorus monitors, studies found that there wasn't a huge difference in speed and comprehension between reading on-screen and reading on paper. Paper was the clear winner only when test subjects were asked to skim the text.
So why isn't online reading for pleasure more popular with more people? One problem is that online readers are almost always skimming the text.

We can get deeply into what we read online, just as with books, but the digital texts from on an internet-wired computer face more competition:
Pleasure reading is also known as "ludic reading." Victor Nell has studied pleasure reading (PDF). Two fascinating notions:
  • When we like a text, we read more slowly.
  • When we're really engaged in a text, it's like being in an effortless trance.
Ludic reading can be achieved on the Web, but the environment works against you. Read a nice sentence, get dinged by IM, never return to the story again.
Perhaps the expert we should heed most on this topic is Jerry Seinfeld. Back when American men's remote-control habits were still seen as fresh fodder for comedians, I recall Seinfeld explaining, "Men aren't interested in what's on television. Men are interested in what else is on television."

25 January 2009

Definitely Un-round

From JoE's Toy-A-Day blog.
Download the PDF. Print out in color. Cut, fold, and paste.

24 January 2009

Pretty Cool for a While

Jon Scieszka's memoir Knucklehead: Tall Tales and Mostly True Stories of Growing Up Scieszka appears to have been designed from the start for reluctant male readers.

The text is written in short snatches, with lots of photographs and other illustrations. There's lots of action, and generous helpings of a certain kind of humor.

What kind? Well, consider this brief passage from pages 54-55:

Then we would swing them around to attack each other.

And that looked pretty cool for a while.

But eventually it just wasn't cool enough.

Which is why we needed to light them on fire.
You might read that extract and think, "What's 'them'? Who's 'we'? Why are they setting anything on fire?" If so, this book isn't for you.

On the other hand, if you think, "I don't care what they're setting on fire or who they are, I just wish I'd be there to see it!" then you're the right audience for Knucklehead.

Though I must say I can't completely recommend a book for this audience that spells Moe Howard's name wrong.

23 January 2009

Newbery Numbers and Nonsense

As the children's-lit world gears up for the announcement of this year's Newbery Medals on Monday morning, there was news coverage earlier in the month about graduate student Anthony Nisse's study "Do You See What I See?: Portrayals of Diversity in Newbery-Medal-Winning Children’s Literature."

A piece from Bloomberg News produced a short squib in the New York Times, but all the attention seems to have stemmed from this opinion piece on the Latina Lista website.

The question of how well a culture's literature reflects its people and how they live is profound and important, with implications for that culture's values. However, if we raise that question on the basis of unreliable data or flawed analysis, then that not only doesn't promote the discussion, but it reflects poorly on efforts to do so.

Kathleen Odean, writing on Child_Lit, noted a lot of quirks and glitches in the reporting on Nisse's study, and dug further. Liz B at A Chair, a Fireplace & a Tea Cozy looked at the books in question and found that she can't make the numbers add up. They're both still working on their findings, and I look forward to their final reports. Meanwhile, Eric Carpenter appears to have not only been the first to track down the study, but also started a Google Worksheet for fuller analysis.

Nisse studied the protagonists and major supporting characters in Newbery Medal-winning books, with a particular emphasis on four qualities:

  • gender
  • ethnicity
  • family structure
  • socioeconomic class
The last variable garnered the least analysis from Nisse, and no attention at all from Bloomberg News.

My first thought is that it's always better to study as large a sample as possible, so I think the study would have benefited from including the Newbery Honor books as well. Eric Carpenter's spreadsheet is set up to do so. It would also be valuable to look at whether the establishment of the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré awards affected the pool of Newbery honorees.

Nisse structured some of his questions to reflect the complex contingencies of fiction, and life. For instance, he has a separate category for books in which a child has a single adult caregiver, but not a parent. That still leaves the question of change over the course of a story. How should one classify books in which one of two parents dies, such as Out of the Dust, or a single parent marries, such as Sarah Plain and Tall--are those single-parent books or two-parent books?

What about books with multiple protagonists, such as The Westing Game? Does the protagonist of The Secret of the Bull, set in Spain, count as Latino? Do readers respond the same way to Asian protagonists as to Asian-American?

And a challenge rarely seen in adult literature: a non-human protagonist. What ethnic group is Despereaux the mouse in The Tale of Despereaux? (And does it matter that in the recent movie he looks considerably whiter than in Tim Ering's artwork?)

On top of all that, both Odean and Liz B raised questions about how accurately the study had classified some titles. And they reported that the news coverage added errors. Nisse's data showed that male protagonists are less common in the last 28 years than the 29 before, but the news reports had that the other way around. Surely this discussion can benefit from a more solid beginning.

22 January 2009

Narrating The London Eye Mystery

On her website, the late Siobhan Dowd wrote this about the release of The London Eye Mystery:

Things got just a tad delayed when Mark Haddon's (wonderful) Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time came out. I was halfway through my own story of a boy with Asperger Syndrome who turns sleuth when Mark's book hit the stands and went instantly stratospheric (to use a Ted-ism). Not that I was jealous or anything...

But it is thrilling to see my own story finally make the light of day and with the same (and much beloved) publisher. How odd life is. But the two books, despite some similarities, are really very different.
Both books face the same narrative challenge, though. Their narrators are also the main detectives in their plots. Each young protagonist consciously tries to reason out a mystery in his life like Sherlock Holmes (another candidate for an Aspergers diagnosis).

Which brings me back to a point about mysteries that I identified as "Reason for Robin #2." (And you thought you could get away with skimming those weekly posts.) When detectives narrate their own stories, often their narrative voices must either skip the moments or their brilliant deductive breakthroughs or risk boring the readership by revealing the solution to the mystery well before the resolution of the plot.

Of course, Raymond Chandler had Philip Marlowe narrate his own cases, but since they don't make sense as puzzles--have you ever tried to fit the pieces of the The Big Sleep together?--that's not a problem. Plus, withholding information fits Marlowe's wise-guy character.

Christopher in Curious Incident and Ted in The London Eye Mystery are different. They have trouble lying, they're attuned to details, and they struggle to understand emotions. It doesn't make sense for their characters to conceal their deductions from readers, either for their ego or for entertainment's sake.

I don't recall noticing Christopher do that in Curious Incident because basic facts about the mystery he's investigating are beyond his comprehension. They involve emotions, and they completely upend his understanding of the world. He can't reveal what he can't understand to begin with.

In contrast, Ted faces a more classical puzzle involving a cousin's disappearance at the London Eye. Early on I noticed how often The London Eye Mystery ended chapters on cliff-hangers. Later its narrative voice skips over Ted's deductions and his explanation to the police. Those artifices in the narration, which would be unremarkable in some mysteries, stood out for me because Ted himself is the narrator. However, that compromise might have been necessary for the book to work.

21 January 2009

Divided by a Common Language in The London Eye

While reading Siobhan Dowd's The London Eye Mystery as a judge for the Cybils middle-grade fiction category, I came across a British term I didn't know. Since I like keeping up with British terms, this both intrigued and annoyed me.

Here's a passage with the word in question. Can you spot it?

Salim slept on the lilo next to my bed that night. I'd hardly ever had to share before. My hand shook itself out. Salim shuffled into a sleeping bag without saying much.
A quick Google search showed me that the word "lilo" has several common meanings--common as far as the internet is concerned: And Wikipedia listed several other possibilities.

None of those was right, obviously. In The London Eye Mystery, the lilo is what teenagers have to sleep on while Aunt Gloria gets a real bed. So it's either a mattress or a cot--but which?

It turns out "lilo" is a British term for what we Americans call an "air mattress." Furthermore, the Brits use the same word to refer to a pool float while we Americans seem to keep those flat inflatable objects in separate mental categories.

So now I'm wondering when the term "lilo" became established--perhaps from the brand name Li-lo. And are there class or regional overtones to its usage that I'm still unaware of?

20 January 2009

The Times Finds a Typo

The New York Times's City Room blog asks, "Is That an Emoticon in 1862?"

The answer is, "No."

Emoticons built with parentheses don't have to be paired with other parentheses, as this parenthesis mark obviously is.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation, part 5

This is the London Eye on the southerly bank of the Thames, as seen from near the Houses of Parliament. The large waterfront building at the right was once London's city offices; now it's a private overpriced Salvador Dali museum and a bunch of other attractions.
When the London Eye was built for the millennium celebrations (remember those?), it was considered a temporary structure. However, like the Eiffel Tower, it's proven so popular and iconic that no one's talking about taking it down anymore.

In 2000, the London Eye was the largest observation wheel in the world. Since then, a larger one has been built in Asia--but that's just a testament to the Eye's popularity. Another sign of its influence: this summer in Britain I spotted two other new observation wheels, at Greenwich and York.
Each of those pods can hold 20-30 people, and the wheel rotates slowly but continuously. Entering or exiting a pod is therefore rather like stepping on or off an escalator.

Having taken a recent "flight" on the London Eye left me in good shape to assess certain details of Siobhan Dowd's The London Eye Mystery, one of the finalists for a Cybils Award for middle-grade fiction.

First of all, as the kids in the book come to realize, there's no way to get on or off the wheel without being noticed. There are security people and other attendants everywhere. There are glass walls on the pods and much of the embarking area.

Secondly, the plot of the book depends on there always being a long line/queue to buy tickets and get on. Based on bitter experience (I can still hear Godson's brother saying sadly, "Toooo crowded"), I was expecting to find a long line when my dad and I arrived at the Eye this summer. It was a warm day in late June, you can see there was no rain or fog, and we weren't arriving at the very start of the morning.

But Dad and I were able to buy tickets and get on with hardly any waiting at all. That would have completely thrown off the London Eye Mystery plotters. Only when my father and I exited did we run into a mass of people--the school groups had arrived at last.

Photographs by Jerry Bell.

19 January 2009

Can the Frog Tapdance?

The October 2008 issue of The Journal of Popular Culture offers the article “The Performance of Noncomformity [sic] on The Muppet Show--or, How Kermit Made Me Queer” by Jordan Schildcrout.

But isn't Kermit supposed to be the relatively normal center of the chaos? (Along with Rowlf, of course.)

As far as I can tell from John Chapman's summary and VULGAR Marxism's response, the queerness Schildcrout highlights actually arises from:

  • Male puppeteers operating exaggerated female characters.
  • Muppets being all different colors and shapes.
  • The Great Gonzo. Who, of course, shows more attachment to Camilla the chicken than Kermit or Fozzie or most other male Muppets to any females.
Overall, this article seems to be proving the point that analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. It doesn't do the frog any good.

Better off watching "Happy Feet" again. [ADDENDUM: Video removed for copyright reasons.]

18 January 2009

Robin! Don’t Jump!

When Peter J. Tomasi took over writing the Nightwing comic books this year, he did what a lot of new scripters apparently do: change the tone, give the character a new base of operations, and de-emphasize or even get rid of the previous writers' supporting casts.

Tomasi also gave Dick Grayson an absorbing new hobby: skydiving. This provided the title and a few non-fight action scenes in the first collection of his issues, Nightwing: Freefall.

When I read about that change on scans_daily, I had trouble seeing what the excitement was about. After all, we've seen Dick parachute out of planes since the 1940s. And often he wasn't even wearing pants.

You can tell Batman's nervous by the way sweat beads burst right through his cowl! (This is an example of what I call "showing the invisible" in comics art; it's a visual symbol of action, emotion, or sound.)

Having taken the new identity of Nightwing in the mid-1980s, Dick started wearing pants. But in jumping out of planes he sometimes eschewed other things.
Those panels come from the Outsiders: Looking for Trouble volume.

And with that history, Tomasi's Dick Grayson is excited about ordinary skydiving?

Well, as I learned after reading the collection, he's trying to break the altitude record for a parachute jump, coming down from about 150,000 feet. So it's something he's never done before.

Still, skydiving. Kind of tame.

17 January 2009

The Dubious Wisdom of “Writing What You Know”

Prompted by Gail Gauthier's remarks on Original Content, here's a round-up of online commentary from authors on a hoary bit of writing advice: "Write what you know."

Shannon Hale:

The most famous instance of this advice is in Anne of Green Gables. Anne writes fanciful romances and is rejected time and again. Then Gilbert advises her to write what she knows. (In the movie anyway--in the books, did anyone advise...this? I can't remember.) So she writes a book about a small town like her own with people a lot like her neighbors, and is published.

Hey, it worked for Anne. It could work for you too! As for me, I get bored easily. I'm not interested in writing my own life. I don't want to write about myself. I already live it, I'm already telling that story in a three-dimensional fashion. When I write, I want to experience something new.
Kelly McCullough:
However, the big problem with "write what you know" is that if we all did that, there'd be a ton of books about sitting in front of a computer typing, with occasional trips to the bathroom and grocery store, and some especially exciting entries on going to science fiction conventions.
Justine Larbalestier:
I especially love learning about the characters I populate my books with. None of them have ever turned out the way I thought they would. They’ve all forced me to stretch as a writer, to learn things I didn’t know--about mathematics, about being an athlete, about being someone other than myself. It’s a gift to get to live in someone else’s head for awhile.
Gail Gauthier:
I realized in a blinding flash of light that writing what you know means writers have the option of turning to their lives for the details they need to describe characters and settings and to come up with plot points. That's dramatically different from having to write only about what has actually happened to you.
[ADDENDUM: Additional original content.]

It's notable that all four of these writers were working in the fantastic mode, to one extent or another.

I'm with the authors who prefer to write what we don't have first-hand experience with: life in a fantasy world, life in the eighteenth century, life apart from typing at a keyboard most of the day with occasional pauses for caffeine and paperwork. As a student, I wondered how to reconcile my real interests with writing what I knew. Especially if I wanted to interest anybody else, too.

Looking back, I think it's extremely valuable for writing students to "write what you know." Sorry, kids! Until you've developed your powers of observation and description by practicing against a tough opponent like your real world, you're not ready to tackle someone else's world.

16 January 2009

Remembering Simple Joe Malarkey

In last weekend's New York Times Book Review, the usually incisive Caleb Crain looks askance at a recent collection of mid-20th-century children's literature from the radical side: Tales for Little Rebels: A Collection of Radical Children’s Literature, edited by Julia L. Mickenberg and Philip Nel. Crain writes:

It is one thing to convince your child that no individual owns the sandbox and that it is better for all children that it is so. It is another to hope that when he grows up he will donate the family home to a workers’ collective. . . .

[Mickenberg and Nel] have nonetheless found 44 texts that attempt to attach children to social justice permanently. As they note in an introduction, the tentacles of the left reach deep. Crockett Johnson, creator of the innocuous-seeming “Harold and the Purple Crayon,” was an editor at The New Masses, a Communist weekly. Syd Hoff, known for “Danny and the Dinosaur,” wrote for The Daily Worker. . . .

In fact, so permeated is children’s literature by progressive ideals that Mickenberg and Nel were forced to narrow their scope by focusing on texts that have fallen out of print. They group their rediscoveries according to such themes as economics, unionization and respect for individual difference.
Crain finds Hoff's Mr. His, published under the name A. Redfield, to be a charming tale of a union-busting plutocrat, who presumably gets his comeuppance and may even learn a valuable lesson about life. He praises some other projects before moving into categories he calls "Insufferable" and "Inappropriate."

In the latter grouping, Crain finds fault with Walt Kelly's adaptation of the nonsensical trial at the end of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. I think the only inappropriate quality there is that Kelly was drawing a political cartoon for adults, not really a book for children. (It was published by Simon & Schuster's adult division, I believe.) What Crain finds inappropriate:
The King of Hearts is drawn as a burly, sinister cat with the face of Senator Joseph McCarthy. To show that the McCarthy cat is evil, Kelly gives its eyes no pupils. It has a 5 o’clock shadow, and there’s hair--fur?--on the backs of its hands. The effect is grotesque, of a feline Tony Soprano brutalizing and carnalizing Carroll’s delicate surrealism. I imagine it would give children nightmares.
I grew up with images of this character, Simple Joe Malarkey, from my uncle's Pogo books and then my own. I never had nightmares. To be sure, the men in my family have hairy arms, and my mother's great-uncle was Joseph Welch, the counsel in the Army-McCarthy hearings who helped take the senator down. But if making a bad guy look bad is "inappropriate," then a lot of cartoonists have a lot to answer for.

15 January 2009

New Pooh?

This report from The Bookseller, a British publishing-industry journal, has already been echoed around the world:

An authorised sequel to A A Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner is to be released by Egmont Publishing in October. The contents of the book are a closely guarded secret but will reflect Milne’s idea that "whatever happens, a little boy and his bear will always be playing," said author David Benedictus.

The forthcoming title, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood, will be published in a similar format to the existing Classic Winnie-the-Pooh books. The text will be illustrated by Mark Burgess who has already illustrated a number of Winnie-the-Pooh titles.
At first I was a little troubled that the Milne and E. H. Shepard estates were chasing more bucks before their lucrative copyrights run out in 1926. We've seen the heirs of Margaret Mitchell, J. M. Barrie, and James Joyce do that in various ways, and the results have been mixed.

I began feeling a little better about the idea when The Bookseller went on to report:
  • Benedictus wrote this new book after working on some Pooh adaptations and then submitted it to the Milne and Shepard estates for their authorization; the estates didn't set out to commission a sequel.
  • The estates had actually turned down some other "suggested sequels."
But then I recalled that the Disney Company bought a lot of the rights to Pooh about ten years ago, paying the heirs a lump sum--which means they won't see more money unless they produce new intellectual property. There has been a long series of lawsuits among those heirs, the Slesinger family who originally licensed the Pooh characters, and Disney, running up lawyers' tabs. So the estate's decision to authorize Benedictus's book might not be based purely on literary merit. We can only hope it is.

I resist an automatic reaction against latter-day sequels. I've enjoyed some of those stories very well. Others not only miss the target, they seem to miss the point of the original.

ADDENDUM: Today's Publishers Weekly report added more food for thought about the genesis of this project:
While working on post-production for those audiobooks--which required the approval of the Trustees of the Pooh Properties--he [Benedictus] decided to write a pair of stories about Pooh and send them to the trustees (the four trustees own the copyright for the text and represent the estate of Pooh illustrator E.H. Shepard).

Eight years passed, according to Benedictus, but in 2006 he got a call from the trustees. Over the years the trustees had seen several proposals for sequels. “We had looked at a number of people, including my own poor efforts,” said Michael Brown, chairman of the trust, adding that the idea for authorizing a sequel had been in his mind “for a very long time.” But he said that the timing of the book’s release this year was a matter of various pieces coming together--including finding the right contributors.
So Benedictus wrote his first Pooh stories in 1998, and the estates started to pursue the idea with him in 2006. How do those years match up to the business timeline?

14 January 2009

Is Our Grownups Reading?

Earlier this week the National Endowment for the Arts, under chairman Dana Gioia released an optimistic report called "Reading on the Rise," available for downloading.

I detect a bit of cynicism in Publishers Marketplace's article on the report: “Outgoing NEA Chairman ‘Proves’ He Helped Raise Reading.” That article went on to say, “Aside from the yeoman efforts of the NEA chairman, what could possibly explain the sudden change? ‘In 2008, the survey introduced new questions about reading preferences and reading on the Internet.’”

And indeed, in small print at the top of page 3, the report says, “In this report, ‘literary’ reading refers to the reading of any novels, short stories, poems, or plays in print or online.”

At the time of the last such report in 2002, I complained (without having Oz and Ends to do so) that defining “literary” to exclude all non-fiction skewed the survey. That meant “literature” excluded complex and well-written histories, autobiographies, political arguments, scientific explorations, philosophical essays, sports books, etc. Having excluded those books from consideration, the surveys have, not surprisingly, found fewer men reading “literature” than women. (That finding remains in this year’s report.)

In 2008 that restriction on “literature” remains, but the survey expanded the definition of “reading” to include online works. I've also complained (this time with the vast resources of Oz and Ends) that saying children spend too much time on the internet to read misses the fact that you basically need to read to get around online. (You just don't need to punctuate or spell.)

Gioia's preface reflects the old view that reading pixels instead of print didn't really count:

A decline in both reading and reading ability was clearly documented in the first generation of teenagers and young adults raised in a society full of videogames, cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other electronic devices.
Yet now this survey does include as "literary" any novels or short stories read via "cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other electronic devices."

So I'm glad the NEA and Census Bureau have added online reading to their question. However, that fudges the data, doesn't it? To see real trends, we have to compare like to like. Since the 2002 survey asked only about “literary” reading in print, what's the comparable data in 2008? Well, I don't see how to extract it from the NEA's published report. There’s no way to compare print-only data for successive years, nor to separate out respondents who read online only.

But we can see some of the effect in finding #4: "Literary reading has increased most rapidly among the youngest adults," aged 18-24. And in the graphic for finding #11: Twenty percent of that age group stated that they read "literature" online. So the biggest rise appeared in the group that does the most online reading. That seems significant.

Hillel Italie's report for the Associated Press zeroed in on the one decline noted among the findings, and that fudged by the emphasis on absolute numbers rather than percentage:
10. Book-readers have grown in absolute numbers but declined slightly as a percentage of the U.S. adult population.
The AP article says:
In a preface to the new report, being released shortly before Gioia steps down after heading the endowment for seven years, he cites a nationwide effort and says the results demonstrate that "our faith in positive social and cultural change was not misplaced."

But the preface does not mention a countertrend: a drop among people not obligated to read. Adults who read books of any kind--fiction or nonfiction, online or on paper--that were not assigned by a teacher or employer dropped from 56.6 percent of adults in 2002 to 54.3 percent last year. The fall was greatest among those younger than 55.

And while the number of adults who say they read a non-required book is 3.5 million higher than in 2002, the report notes that that the total adult population increased by 19 million, meaning an increase in the number of people who didn't voluntarily read books of 15.5 million, a huge disparity confirmed by NEA research director Sunil Iyengar.
And once again I point to something I wrote about the last reading survey: once a study excludes reading “assigned by a teacher or employer,” we're no longer looking at overall reading. An American (especially a student) could be reading literature or other complex books all the time, yet show up on such a survey as a complete non-reader if all that reading is required. In headline form: More Homework Assignments Mean Less Time to Read for Pleasure.

I should say that I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Dana Gioia and hearing him speaking about the poet H. W. Longfellow in 2007. I found him smart and smartly dressed. He also has a background in marketing, and knows how to sell a survey.

13 January 2009

What Were They Thinking?

This Brooklyn-based public art project from Color Me Katie is cute, but I'm posting the link mainly because it uses the phrase "thought bubbles."

What Really Rescued the Caped Crusader

Yesterday I argued that, contrary to what Bob Kane believed and a lot of comic-book historians have written, DC Comics wasn't really planning to cancel Batman in 1963 and 1964. By all other indications, the character was still one of the company's most popular, and the magazines featuring him still among its top sellers.

So why did DC's top brass tell Kane that they were thinking of canceling Batman entirely? I think the answer lies in his unusually expensive 1947 contract. The problem with Batman comics probably lay not in their income but in their costs.

The publisher wanted Kane to give up his high per-page rate and his stultifying creative control. I suspect its head, Irwin Donenfeld, used brinkmanship to open new negotiations, and that tactic worked. DC was able to move the Batman comics in a new direction.

It's notable that the June 1964 issue of Detective, touting the "New Look," also included a two-page autobiographical article from Kane. Was the company mollifying his considerable ego after it had squeezed out contract concessions?

Naturally, the editor and artist involved in creating the "New Look"--Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino--were pleased to think that they had helped to save a classic character. They certainly brought in new creative energy. And once fans got used to the new style, the rescue of Batman became a heroic narrative. But the character had remained relatively popular, and the sales numbers hadn't been that bad to begin with.

Nor did the sales rise that much afterwards. When DC began reporting figures for its hero comics in 1965, after a two-year gap, Batman was once again ranked ninth among all magazines on the list, selling 454,000 copies. Sales had grown slightly over the 1962 figures, but were still behind the numbers from 1961. Superman comics were still solidly in the lead, but Batman books were more popular than those of any other DC character.

There was a huge change in 1966, with the debut of the Batman TV show. Suddenly Batman was the top comic book of all, selling almost 900,000 copies. In late 1964, Batman began to appear more often on the Justice League of America comics; after 1966, he often dwarfed other figures on those covers. The "New Look" of 1964 reversed a sales decline, but television put Batman on top.

And then television took it all away. By 1969, Batman was yesterday's fashion, which is even worse than being old-fashioned. Sales were down to 356,000 per month. (To be fair, DC was issuing ten issues a year instead of eight, as in 1964.) And at that point, the law governing periodicals changed, and DC Comics stopped reporting average sales.

I therefore have no way of knowing how Batman's second revamping in the 1960s affected the comic books' sales. In reaction against the TV show's camp, artist Neal Adams, writer Dennis O'Neil, and their colleagues created a more serious Batman in 1969. Dick Grayson went off to college, as shown here, and Bruce Wayne moved into an apartment in Gotham. Those stories were supposed to be more about solving crimes than chasing goofy criminals--though there was an awful lot of supernatural stuff in the next few years.

We like to believe that new inspiration on the creative side--the "New Look" designed by Infantino, the newer look designed by Adams--leads to increased popularity. I'm not sure it always does. Certainly its effect can't come close to that of a prime-time TV show.

(All images courtesy of Cover Browser.)

12 January 2009

This Looks Like a Job for Ordinary Boy!

Simon & Schuster has chosen Jon Anderson to head its children's division, starting later this month. Publishers Weekly calls this "somewhat of a surprise choice," presumably because Anderson comes from outside the company, and from a smaller publisher: Running Press.

However, Running Press is a pioneer among medium-sized publishers in combining print and online media in its Cathy's Book project. Anderson has experience at the market-oriented Price Stern Sloan imprint at Penguin and as a buyer at Barnes & Noble.

Plus, under the pseudonym William Boniface, he's author of the Ordinary Boy series, So he's seen the business from that side as well.

How Bad Were Batman’s Sales in the Early 1960s?

On Saturday I summarized the standard historical picture of Batman comics in the early 1960s: not good. This is widely accepted. For example, at Captain Comics and the Legion of Super(fluous) Heroes, Commander Benson's essay on the "New Look" begins: "By 1963, the Batman titles were dancing on the edge of cancellation."

But I'm not convinced that DC Comics really thought the Batman character was that unpopular. If that were so, I ask, why did the company keep featuring Batman on the covers of its magazines?

If Batman was no longer popular, why feature him in every issue of World's Finest? The company could have had Superman team up with one of its new superheroes instead. Why give Batman cameo appearances in the Justice League of America stories if he was newsstand poison?

Why not drop Batman from the cover of Detective Comics and move a more popular feature up to the lead? That's what happened in the late 1940s when Tomahawk replaced Robin as the featured character in Star Spangled Comics. Robin continued to have solo adventures, just not as prominently; it took more issues before his stories disappeared altogether.

And if finding a way to save Batman was a dire corporate emergency, why did the DC wait for the 300th issue of Detective Comics featuring Batman to launch the "New Look"?

As I prepared this series of essays, I discovered that in a discussion at The Fifth Branch Pat Curley of the Silver Age Comics blog expressed the same doubts. Except he did it using hard data—DC's reported sales numbers:

If you look at DC’s sales in the early 1960s, while Batman and was slipping relative to the Superman books, they were well ahead of most of DC’s other comics. In 1962, Batman was reportedly the 10th best selling comic, with 410,000 copies per issue sold.

That’s quite a bit more than JLA or Flash, or Green Lantern, or 20 other mags that DC was publishing at the time. It’s almost three times as many copies as DC was selling of Fox & Crow, a title that continued for years afterward. Unfortunately, DC did not publish circulation figures for many of their major mags in 1963 and 1964 (including Batman).

Batman’s circulation was down in 1962 quite substantially from 1961 (485,000) and 1960 (502,000), which is a bad trend, and one which probably led to [editor Jack] Schiff’s eventual reassignment. But I have a hard time believing that it could have dropped so low in 1963 that DC was seriously considering canceling the feature rather than doing what they did, which was restaffing the editor’s desk.
Canceling the Batman comics would have been especially drastic if Gerard Jones's Men of Tomorrow is correct about Bob Kane's 1947 contract. Cancellation would have caused all rights in the character to revert to Kane. DC would have given up what was still its second-biggest property forever. I strongly doubt the company would have done that without trying less drastic options.

TOMORROW: So why in 1963 did DC's top brass tell Bob Kane that they were thinking of canceling Batman entirely?

(All images courtesy of Cover Browser.)

11 January 2009

“Another Bizarre Character with a Fantastic Weapon!”

Yesterday I wrote about the doldrums that the Batman comics seemed to be as the 1960s began. Histories of the character agree that those magazines were in a creative rut, with dire sales, before the visual revamp called the "New Look," which appeared in May 1964.

I have doubts about part of that history, as I'll describe tomorrow. But I won't argue that the creative side of Batman publishing was uninspired as the 1960s began.

Nominal creator Bob Kane was fobbing off his work to ghost artists and focusing on other projects. But there was also a lot of slack in the DC Comics editorial office.

This weekly Robin shows successive issues of Detective magazine, #284 through 287, all on sale in late 1960.

Comic-book editors had the task of designing covers to catch readers' eyeballs and show off the story inside. And the Batman editor of this period, Jack Schiff, appears to have given up on new ideas.

Observe how the acrobatic Batman has only two poses over four covers. Note how three times he exclaims, "Great Scott!" Observe the repeated use of Robin as the readers' stand-in. Covers like these gave rise to the "Shocked Robin" cover generator, which I described back here.

Schiff was apparently a nice man, particularly to writers. This period of Batman stories includes some fine stories, and might be underrated. But there's no doubt Batman comics were starting to look stale as soon as they hit the newsstands.

To be sure, every so often Schiff and his team might shake things up. For instance, on the fourth cover of this run they put Robin on the other side!

Covers courtesy of the Grand Comics Database.

10 January 2009

The Legend of Batman’s “New Look”

In the late 1940s, American comic-book readers moved away from superhero stories to other genres: comics about romance, crime, horror, the western frontier, aliens, monsters, wacky teenagers, and funny ducks, among other types of tales. Batman and Robin were among the few costumed crime-fighters who appeared continuously through the 1940s and 1950s.

In the late 1950s, DC Comics found success with new versions of their old trademarks, starting with the Flash in 1956. By 1960, the company also had new versions of the Green Lantern, the Atom, and Hawkman. It teamed those revamped characters with Wonder Woman and with the Green Arrow, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter, superheroes who'd survived as backup features. But Superman was still the most popular of all.

In 1960 Batman and Robin appeared regularly in three magazines, with the following reported average sales, as legally reported back then by DC Comics and gathered by the Comics Chronicles:

  • Batman, three new stories every other month; 502,000 copies.
  • World's Finest, one team-up story with Superman as the lead feature eight issues a year; 476,000.
  • Detective, lead feature every month; 314,000 copies.
By 1962, however, those sales were slipping. Batman at 410,000 copies had fallen behind World's Finest at 420,000, and Detective was selling only 265,000--all having dropped more than 10%.

DC apparently didn't report figures for the next two years, but insiders' recollections of the time say the situation became dire. The comprehensive but often breathless Dial B for Blog offers this account:
It was late 1963. Sales of the Batman titles were low, and getting lower. “It's this simple: Batman is dying. We're giving you two guys six months to fix it. If not, it's over.” That’s what DC publisher Irwin Donenfeld told editor Julie Schwartz and artist Carmine Infantino. Batman, an American institution, faced cancellation.

"The book was at 32 percent sales,” Infantino recalls. “Which is a heavy loss. [Batman creator] Bob Kane hadn't even been doing the work--he was farming it out to others. He hadn't touched the drawing for years. What he was turning in was too old-fashioned.”
Kane recalled the same crisis in his autobiography, Batman and Me. He's not a reliable source, and in this instance didn't accurately recall the date of the problem, but the emotional shock he felt comes through clearly:
After a quarter century of continuous publication, Batman started to decline in popularity in 1965. My publisher informed me that unless sales picked up the next year, it would mean the demise of the Caped Crusader.

This was one of my darkest periods--I had built my whole life on drawing Batman, and it was only vocation I knew. I felt unqualified to do anything else. I didn't reveal my feelings to my family and friends, but privately I felt very apprehensive about the future.
Facing a choice between lower income from Batman or the prospect of none at all, Kane agreed to a new contract with DC. He gave up his exclusive credit on all Batman stories. Under the new deal, editor Julius Schwartz could make stylistic changes to the character. The result was Batman's "New Look," launched with great fanfare in May 1963.

Here's an artistic analysis of the "New Look." Last November Heritage Auction Galleries sold the splash page from Infantino's first Batman story as an especially significant piece of comics history. The stories starting in May 1964 are seen as so important that DC has issued them in a separate archive series, skipping ahead in time from the 1940s.

According to the standard history of Batman, the "New Look" saved the character. A less cartoony style of illustration, a turn away from science fiction and back toward eccentric criminals, a leaner supporting cast, and a yellow oval behind the bat symbol on his chest were all that Batman needed to become popular again.

I don't believe it.

COMING UP: The real threat to Batman in 1963, and it wasn't sales.

(Comic-book covers courtesy of Cover Browser.)

09 January 2009

Bob Kane’s First and Second Batman Contracts

In 1938 Bob Kane (shown here, courtesy of NNDB.com) started supplying material for Detective Comics. That material was written by Bill Finger, but Kane kept his scripter's contributions quiet for as long as he could. As a hungry young artist, Kane signed some sort of work-for-hire agreement which granted the magazine publisher full ownership of his material and characters in exchange for some compensation.

Seeing the money that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were earning for their Superman character, Kane decided to create his own costumed crimefighter. In 1939 he and Finger came up with Batman. No one knew that the character would still be incredibly lucrative sixty years later. Kane sold the Batman character to the company that would become DC Comics under the same contract as his previous stories.

Soon Batman was more than just the cover feature of Detective magazine. There was a quarterly, then bimonthly, Batman magazine. There was a Batman adventure each season in World's Finest Comics. There was a movie serial. There were appearances on the Superman radio show. And starting in 1942 there was a daily newspaper comic strip.

That added up to more comics material than Kane and his small studio could put out, so DC commissioned other writers and artists to create Batman stories under his name. Meanwhile, Kane hired his own ghost writers and artists. He apparently gave the most attention to the newspaper strip, just as in this period Joe Shuster chose to draw the Superman strip instead of the comic books.

Robert C. Harvey's The Art of the Comic Book offers an economic reason why syndicated strips were more appealing: "The book cartoonist could hope to increase his income only by increasing the number of pages he did...while the strip cartoonist’s income goes up quite independently of the quantity of his output” because it depends on the number of newspapers running the strip.

In 1946, Kane's situation changed in two important ways. First, the Batman and Robin newspaper strip was canceled. That probably hurt his income substantially, even though he had to share the strip's revenue with DC and his ghost writers and artists.

Second, according to Gerard Jones's Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, late in 1946 Siegel and Shuster contacted Kane to suggest they all renegotiate their contracts with DC at the same time. The Superman creators felt they weren't receiving the rewards the company had promised from ancillary products (radio show, movie cartoons, etc.).

Instead of forming a united front, Kane apparently went to the head of DC Comics and told him about Siegel and Shuster's plans. And then Kane started to renegotiate on his own, using a novel approach. He said that he'd been a minor back when he'd signed his original DC contract--which was therefore unenforceable.

It seems clear that Kane was lying about his age. As Comics Should Be Good! pointed out in September, when Kane registered with Social Security, he stated that he'd been born in 1915. His photo appeared in Batman #1 early in 1940 alongside text describing him as age 24. In 1998 his New York Times obituary said both that he died at age 83 (i.e., born in 1915) and that he'd created Batman in 1939 at the age of 18 (i.e., born in 1921).

Other comics creators had met Kane as a fellow high-school student, so they knew he was lying. But DC couldn't prove it. There was no government record of Kane's birth, and his family was backing up his story. Furthermore, with the Superman lawsuit coming up and business going down, the company was eager to nail down rights to the Batman character.

[ADDENDUM: The January 1946 issue of Real Fact Comics included a five-page comics article on “The True Story of Batman and Robin.” It showed Bob Kane working alone to create Batman, Robin, the Joker, and the Penguin--all joint creations. It also strongly implied that he'd brought the idea for Batman to DC Comics while he was still high-school age, as he was then claiming. One panel shows an eyeshade-wearing editor saying, "You've created an exciting character, son." All part of the myth-building.]

Under a new contract signed in 1947, Jones writes:

[DC] reportedly returned partial legal ownership of Batman to Kane, including rights of reversion and permission to veto its sale to any other company, then guaranteed him a certain number of pages per month at a staggering page rate and a percentage of subsidiary rights.
Les Daniels's Batman: A Complete History cites Sheldon Moldoff, Kane's principal ghost artist from 1953 through 1967, as recalling that this contract required Kane to supply 365 pages of Batman comics each year. The "staggering page rate" was high enough that Kane was able to have Moldoff and others do all his work while he played the role of Batman artist.

TOMORROW: Batman's next crisis point, in the early 1960s.

08 January 2009

Captain Marvel, Jr., Meets the Post Hoc Fallacy!

Yesterday I quoted Elaine Dundy’s 1985 book Elvis and Gladys on Elvis Presley's admiration for the comic-book hero Captain Marvel, Jr., one of the Shazam! family. Presley liked that character so much, Dundy wrote, that he adopted Junior's look, his behavior, and his symbols.

What led Dundy to that conclusion? As I noted yesterday, her book didn't quote Presley or his friends speaking of a special connection to Junior, nor point to comic books that Presley had saved featuring the character.

Dundy has since explained how she made the link on her website:

Back in London where I was living at the time I did some sleuthing on my own. Elvis was often quoted as saying that he was the hero of every comic book he'd read. One day I sat down in a Comics bookshop to look at those popular when he was growing up. I looked at all those double identity heroes he must have read from Superman to the Spirit. Then I came across Elvis’ face staring at me from its pages: It was the face of Captain Marvel Jr.
So Dundy started with a general quote from Presley about comics ("hero of every comic book") and her psychological theory about what haunted the singer ("all those double identity heroes"). She then singled out one particular character as Presley's childhood favorite because of his physical resemblance to Presley as an adult--after the man had dyed his hair black, grown sideburns, and started wearing jumpsuits and capes on stage.

Thus, Presley's later appearance was Dundy's evidence that Captain Marvel, Jr., was his favorite, and Captain Marvel, Jr., being his favorite was Dundy's explanation for his later appearance. That's circular reasoning, as well as an example of the common fallacy post hoc, ergo propter hoc. There's still no real evidence of a connection.

In Elvis and Gladys, Dundy didn't lay out that reasoning process. Instead, she simply stated many times, with no hint of doubt, that Junior was Elvis Presley's favorite comic-book hero and model for life. And those statements have been picked up and repeated uncritically by other writers since.

It's very likely that Presley read about Captain Marvel, Jr., as a boy. The Shazam! comics were among the most popular in the country, especially the Midwest, where the Fawcett company was located founded. But he read apparently a lot of other comics, too.

Presley did take to wearing capes in the last years of his career. But so did many other performers of the same period: Jimi Hendrix, Roger Daltrey, James Brown, Rick Wakeman, ? of the Mysterians, and so on. And of course the Shazam! family weren't the only comic-book heroes who wore capes. Many other favorites did as well.

Yet another supposed piece of evidence is how Presley adopted a lightning bolt symbol for his "TCB" crew. The Shazam! family got their powers when lightning bolts struck. However, there are many explanations for Presley's symbol, some with supporting documentation or first-hand memories instead of speculation.

In expounding on Dundy's hypothesis, Robby Reed at Dial B for Blog quoted Presley's cousin and personal assistant Billy Smith on the Shazam! connection:
  • “If you go back and look at a drawing of Captain Marvel Jr., it looks a whole lot like the seventies Elvis--one-piece jumpsuit, wide belt, boots, cape, lightning bolt and all.”
  • “One of the comics Elvis read when he was a kid was Captain Marvel Jr. He went after Captain Nazi during WWII. And he had this dual image--normal, everyday guy and super crime-fighter. Sounds like Elvis, don’t it?”
  • “The lightning bolt came from his army days. It was the insignia of his battalion. Or maybe in the back of his mind, he identified it with Captain Marvel Jr. That’s where he got the idea for the capes. From the comic books.”
The first two quotations are general observations of similarity--the same "evidence" that Dundy relied on. The third actually states another source for Presley's TCB symbol, mentioning comic books only as a possibility, and in an afterthought. Surely if Presley had displayed a particular interest in Junior, then Smith--a cousin who grew up with him and then worked for him--would have more evidence to share than that.

Reed's web essay didn't cite a source for those Smith quotes. I’d like to know whether they predated Dundy’s 1985 book, which has been influential in molding the public's understanding of Presley. Graceland and other tourist sites devoted to him now display comic books featuring Captain Marvel, Jr. Only the curatorial records could say for sure, but I suspect those copies were bought from dealers to reflect what Dundy wrote rather than plucked out of Presley's own collection--that the "evidence" was gathered to support the theory rather than the theory developed from hard evidence.

07 January 2009

False Witness

From today's New York Times:

Neale Donald Walsch, author of the best-selling series “Conversations With God,” recently posted a personal Christmas essay on the spiritual Web site Beliefnet.com about his son’s kindergarten winter pageant. . . .

Mr. Walsch’s story was nearly identical to an essay by a writer named Candy Chand, which was originally published 10 years ago in Clarity, a spiritual magazine, and has been circulating on the Web ever since. Mr. Walsch now says he made a mistake in believing the story was something that had actually come from his personal experience.
I have that same problem all the time!

I keep having to remind myself that I wasn't actually carried off in my house by a cyclone after seeing my parents die because of a sabotaged trapeze. It's a lifelong struggle.

The Elvis Presley-Captain Marvel, Jr., Meme

If you've Googled the names "Elvis Presley" and "Captain Marvel, Jr." together--and who am I to say how you should spend your time?--you've found links to hundreds of webpages repeating the belief that Presley modeled his appearance on that young superhero. The most thorough discussion I've seen is this four-part series at Dial B for Blog.

However, in all those words about Presley and the Shazam! comics, there's no real evidence of a connection between him and Captain Marvel, Jr. Instead, Dial B writer Robby Reed repeats the conclusions of Elaine Dundy's book, Elvis and Gladys (1985). Among Presley biographies, Dundy's is considered one of the more insightful and less exploitative, though still a long way from Peter Guralnick's Last Train to Memphis.

Dundy refers to Captain Marvel, Jr., a lot in her book. Chapter 1 is named after the character. And she makes statements like these:

  • “Elvis was already immersed in the adventures of the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Tarzan, Batman, and Superman when his secret life suddenly took a dramatic new turn. He discovered Freddy Freeman in the comic book series Captain Marvel’s Adventures. There, on page 267, young Freddy made his entrance--and very nearly his exit--fishing off a boat with his grandpa...” [page 3]
  • “Freddy/Marvel, Jr.,...has been obviously and sensitively copied from a most appealing adolescent life-model. He looks in fact exactly like Elvis, from adolescence to the end of his life, strove to make himself look.” [5]
  • “But the Captain Marvel series, and in particular, Captain Marvel, Jr., was Elvis’ unquestioned favorite. Adding greatly to the popularity of the series were the characters that derived and that sprang up from the stories. . . . Elvis’ twin-fusion with Freddy/Captain Marvel, Jr., was total and it was from reading his adventures that the young Elvis secretly began to create himself.” [69]
  • “It was Captain Marvel, Jr., who styled Elvis’ glistening hair, side-parted with the forelock falling over his brow, the sideburns, the hair growing down his neck. Much later would come Elvis’ Captain Marvel, Jr., cape and lightning bolt emblems on the TCB (Taking Care of Business) and TLC (Tender Loving Care) jewelry he would give to his special friends.” [69-70]
But Dundy never cites any interviews or documents as evidence for that connection. She interviewed two of Presley's childhood friends--Wayne Earnest [cited on page 3] and Harold Lloyd [68]--who testified to his love for comic books. But neither of them said anything about Presley's particular fondness for Captain Marvel, Jr.

Dundy quotes Presley's own words, from a 1970s interview: “I was the hero of every comic book I ever read.” [68] He said something similar in a 1970 acceptance speech, quoted at the official Graceland site: “When I was a child, ladies and gentlemen, I was a dreamer. I read comic books, and I was the hero of the comic book.” But those statements don't single out the hero nicknamed Junior. In fact, they imply that Presley had no special favorite.

Lloyd recalled Presley preserving his comic books with unusual care for the 1940s (well before bags and boards). But Dundy doesn't point to any Captain Marvel magazines surviving in his estate. Yes, there are such comics now on display in some museums devoted to him, but they've been put there since Dundy's book was published.

TOMORROW: So what evidence led Dundy to focus on Captain Marvel, Jr.?

06 January 2009

The Most Interesting Street in America

Sampsonia Way in Pittsburgh.

At least it's interesting after the "first-ever artistic intervention in Google Street View."

My favorite tableau is "Narrow Escape."

The Boston Roots of Superman and Batman?

There's a series called "Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed" at Comics Should Be Good! because the comic-book culture seems to pass on legends as freely as old Hollywood publicists.

I plan to spend a few days raising my own questions about some widely accepted lore that's gathered around classic comic books. But first I'll commend other folks' debunkings.

I'll start with Boston's claim to be the birthplace of both Superman and Batman. "What??!!!" you say, in true comics fashion. "Didn't Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster create Superman while living in Cleveland, as described in Marc Tyler Nodelman's Boys of Steel? Weren't Bob Kane and Bill Finger, the creators of Batman, working in New York when they set out to create another costumed hero?"

Well, yes. But men from Boston have disputed those claims and offered evidence for us to weigh.

About 1970 and again about 1997, a man named Mayo Kaan (1914-2002) promoted himself as the inspiration and model for Superman in 1936, two years before the character debuted in Action Comics, #1. He claimed Siegel and Shuster traveled to Boston in that year to sketch him. Kaan showed and sold photos of himself dressed in an unmistakable tight blue costume, such as the one here, courtesy of the Superman Super site.

However, as that site also points out, Kaan's photographs proved to be his debunking. Because some of them show him standing in front of Boston's Hatch Shell, the semihemispherical stage where the Boston Pops perform each Fourth of July. And the Hatch Shell wasn't built until 1940.

When challenged by DC Comics and people looking out for Siegel and Shuster, Kaan passed up the opportunity to explain that as Superman he'd been able to fly into the future. In fact, he apparently didn't offer any explanation at all. But he maintained his claim until he died, and in 2005 his family was still insisting on his role in comic-book history, according to this Boston Globe article.

As for Batman, in 1975 a man named Frank D. Foster II (1909-1995) went to a law firm to set down his recollections of creating Batman. Foster grew up in Arlington and went to art school in Boston before moving to Greenwich Village in the early 1930s. His son has offered a look at that interview and a set of his father's sketches bearing the date 1932 at OriginalBatman.com.

Here I'm relying on Cash Gorman's Hero Goggles blog, which gets this year's special recognition for Batman research from Oz and Ends. In addition to analyzing the Foster claim, Gorman also describes published precursors to Batman, including a rich man dressing up as a bat to take revenge on criminals in 1899. So the notion of a bat-themed crime-fighter wasn't that original to begin with.

Gorman points out how in the 1975 interview Foster spoke of being inspired by comic strips featuring

heroes of the day--such as, flying through the sky during the day and doing good deeds and so forth and so on--and I thought, well why couldn’t that be done at night? Have a good guy do stuff at night.
Foster dated that recollection to the late 1920s. The lawyers weren't able to elicit an explanation for the later date on the sketches.

Whether it was the 1920s or 1932, Foster recalled his creation occurred well before Batman's debut in 1939. But that was also before Superman appeared in 1938, or even Flash Gordon in 1934. Which raises the question of what comics heroes Foster saw “flying through the sky...doing good deeds and so forth.”

The details of Foster's recollection are so vague that it's impossible to disprove them, unlike Kaan's photos. But the fact that he was trying to emulate published comics with a man in a mask and skintight costume suggests that he really created his sketches in the late 1930s, when a lot of other artists were also trying to break into the newly hot comic-book industry.

TOMORROW: Captain Marvel, Jr., and the King.