28 February 2009

Titans Killed in Implosion?

Yesterday I wrote about my memories of New England’s infamous “Blizzard of ’78.” I wasn’t yet reading comic books then, but I’ve since learned that that meteorological event had a major effect on DC Comics.

In the mid-1970s DC was losing ground in the marketplace. Marvel’s comic books were hipper, attracting more college kids and fewer elementary-school kids. Even with constant turnover in the editor-in-chief's office, Marvel kept growing. So Warner Bros., which had become DC's parent company, fired editorial director Carmine Infantino and hired young Jenette Kahn, founder of Kids and Dynamite! magazines.

Kahn responded to economic pressures by raising prices—to fifty cents!—while also expanding the magazines. Issues grew from 17 pages to 25, meaning there were longer stories or backup stories. The company also put out “giant-sized” magazines for a whole dollar. Kahn sought to build more links between DC's magazines and kids' TV shows and movies.

DC and Marvel were then in a “newsstand war,” vying for space at news racks, drugstores, and other traditional retail outlets. Kahn’s strategy was a plethora of new titles to increase visibility, promoted to readers as the “DC Explosion.” Kirk Kimball’s Dial B for Blog website ran over the stats:

DC launched 16 new titles in 1975, 21 in 1976, 12 in 1977, and 8 in 1978—a total of 57 new titles in four years. New superhero books included Firestorm, Black Lightning, Shade the Changing Man, and Steel. There were also relaunches of older books such as Jack Kirby's New Gods and Mister Miracle.
And among the relaunched books was The Teen Titans.

fiddlerThat title, featuring a team of superhero sidekicks led by Robin, had started in 1966, with scripts by Bob Haney. (His attempts at teen-aged slang are unintentionally their most entertaining feature.) That series ended with a whimper in 1973. But it began again with issue #44 in late 1976 under new scripter Bob Rozakis, who'd started as a prominent comics fan and broken into the business by supplying puzzles on superhero themes.

Then came a force stronger than Wonder Girl. Here's more from Dial B:
In late 1977, America was frozen stiff as horrendous winter weather swept much of the nation, with one blizzard raging on for as long as 25 hours, and wind chills reaching 60 below zero. Seven western New York counties were declared national disaster areas, and in Buffalo, 29 people died of exposure. Then, in February 1978, the "Blizzard of 1978” battered the entire East Coast, claiming 54 lives and causing an estimated billion dollars in damage.
DC's distribution system was crippled. And each of its magazines had a date right on the cover, meaning that they looked like old goods even before they got out of the warehouses.

The sales numbers looked awful, and Warner Bros. insisted that DC cut its line back. That required canceling sixty-five titles, a move that insiders sardonically called "the DC Implosion." Basically, the corporation threw in the towel and chose to focus on milking its core legacy properties, like Superman and Batman, rather than creating new characters. Marvel had won.

In an interview published in Glen Cadigan's The Titans Companion and here at titanstower.com, Rozakis recalled that the "DC Implosion" killed his Teen Titans run. He had enough warning to write a farewell issue, which told the origin of the team (Haney had never bothered to explain) and then showed the sidekicks disbanding.

But here’s the thing. The last issue of Rozakis’s run was #53, with a cover date of February 1978. That means it was supposed to reach newsstands a month or two earlier, and he’d scripted it a month or two before that. DC must have called off the Teen Titans even before the winter of 1977-78 began. As Dial B’s stats show, the company was still introducing new titles in 1978, and didn’t cut back until late that year.

So why did DC kill the title? According to Cadigan’s Titans Companion interview with comics editor Len Wein, Kahn told him, “it was making a profit when we cancelled it, one of the few occasions in history that we cancelled a successful book because we were so embarrassed by the creative content.” Ooh.

I suspect that Rozakis, looking back after twenty years, amalgamated his memory of the Teen Titans cancellation with the “DC Implosion” that followed several months later. It's also possible that DC insiders' understanding of the “Implosion,” the basis of the description above, might be too simplistic; the real problem might have been lots of mediocre comics that were shut down gradually, but people preferred to blame it all on the weather.

Ironically, the Teen Titans cancellation and DC Implosion set up the company for three major developments of the next decade. First, the summer of 1978 brought the first Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve, a huge hit for Warner Bros. That made the corporation very happy about its DC Comics line, and bolstered Kahn’s strategy of tying comics to other media.

Second, Wein, Marv Wolfman, and George Pérez had a clear playing-field when they came up with The New Teen Titans in 1980. That series’ combination of gorgeous art and relatively mature, emotional stories made the sidekicks team into DC’s best and best-selling comic book of the new decade.

And third, the market for comics moved away from those newsstands and drugstores into specialized comics shops, where the staff and clientele sought out quality. The New Teen Titans were one of the first new hits in that marketplace. With an eye on the new playing field, in the early 1980s Kahn and her editors took the bold step of going to Britain to recruit talented writers and artists. They brought back contracts with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and many others, part of a true explosion in American comics.

27 February 2009

Remembering the Blizzard of ’78

As February departs, I'm shoveling through my memories of New England's famous "Blizzard of '78." This was one of the milestone events of my childhood, mostly because it comes with a handy year attached to it, so I can figure out exactly how old I was and my grade in school.

I was attending junior high school, far enough away that I took an MBTA bus most of the way home. And that Monday afternoon, the bus didn't come. The snow was already falling with a heavy determination, and the bus didn't come.

So finally I set out on foot. There was really only one turn to make between the bus stop and my house, and the route took me straight through a village of shops and offices, so I had no chance of being lost and frozen in the woods. Still, the snow was falling thick and fast.

Yes, though I may sound like a generational stereotype saying it, I walked a mile and a half home from school through the worst blizzard in decades. And yes, there really was a very steep hill at the end. But I knew that going in. What ticked me off, as I recall, was the bus letting me down. Once I warmed up inside, all was well.

Except the snow kept falling. And falling. My parents and brother all made it home, and the snow kept falling. As we went to bed that night, it was obvious that Tuesday would be a snow day off of school.

As it turned out, school was canceled for something like eleven days. Scores of cars had stalled on the highways, and some of their drivers either froze to death or died of carbon monoxide poisoning as they left their engines running and the snow covered their exhaust pipes. But all that seemed remote, somewhere inside the black and white TV.

That hill where I lived became impassable for cars, and so was the street at the bottom, so we kids made it into a sledding run. One TV channel even took pictures of my neighbors going down for the news.

The Blizzard of '78 wasn't the last storm of the year, either. If I recall right, in the first week of May we had a sudden heavy snowfall that did a lot of damage to the budding trees. My town lost so many days of school that the school department came up with a horribly complex plan to shorten class sessions but add more to each day. That in turn prompted a student walkout. It was quite a year.

TOMORROW: Did the Blizzard of '78 kill the Teen Titans? No, seriously. It's an interesting publishing story. Come back!

26 February 2009

Books as Tickets to Adventure

Ammon Shea's Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages is a collection of twenty-six linked personal essays about reading the Oxford English Dictionary straight through, or about dictionaries and reading in general. Each lettered chapter is followed by a series of unusual words beginning with that letter, words which Shea finds pleasing for one reason or another.

Shea's comments on those words make me think he's trying to do David Sedaris, though he never achieves those heights. And so far Reading the OED hasn't transcended the description above. It hasn't turned out to contain hidden depths, as Alexander Frater's Chasing the Monsoon or Joe Kane's Running the Amazon did, to choose two participial equivalents.

But if you like reading and words, Reading the OED is quite pleasant entertainment. Along the way Shea shares this childhood memory:

I bought my first book for myself when I was ten. Stuck at a beach somewhere near the end of Cape Cod one summer, and eventually bored by the normal pursuits of summer, I happened into the clapboard shack by the parking lot that served as a combination of hot dog stand and purveyor of cheap souvenirs, In the back of the store was a shaky wire carousel full of aged paperbacks. They weren't secondhand, just books from twenty years earlier that had never managed to be sold, and the store was letting them go for their original cover prices, twenty-five cents each.

At that age I thought anything that cost a quarter must be a bargain, and I grabbed the first book that caught my eye--Three Tickets to Adventure by Gerald Durrell. It was a memoir of sorts, recounting the trials and travails of being an animal collector for zoos in the 1950s.

It was instantly the most transporting experience I could imagine. I had been an avid reader, prone to spending more time while at school in the library than in the classroom, but this was somehow different. Here, fully realized, was the idea that one could just go and find a book that one wanted to read, buy it, and get joyfully and irretrievably lost in its pages. . . .

At some point my parents became concerned with the amount of time I spent reading. When I was twelve my father began kicking me out of the house on weekends so that I wouldn't lie on the couch all day with my nose in a book.

All this accomplished was to give me the impetus to go out and find new volumes to read. I would walk several miles downtown, to Fifty-fifth Street and Fifth Avenue, where Doubleday had its flagship store [1961-1997]. I was more than content to perch on an uncomfortable stool reading all day and then walk home, pretending that I'd been out and about and performing energetic childhood activities for hours.

25 February 2009

Baum and the Bad Guys

One of the highlights of last year's International Wizard of Oz Club convention in Fayetteville, New York, was a concert performance of L. Frank Baum's first successful play, The Maid of Arran. It debuted in 1882, eighteen years before Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The performers were an impressive collection of singers and VIPs from greater Fayetteville, and everyone in the hall had a grand time.

Baum based The Maid of Arran on William Black's novel A Princess of Thule, so he wasn't responsible for the whole story, but he added elements that struck me as particularly Baumian. (I should acknowledge that I'm basing these comments on my memory of a show boiled down from Baum's longer script. I may not therefore get every detail right. But back to the show.)

At the center of the play is Shiela, the young, pretty, and rural but acceptably upper-class Irish maiden of the title. She's wooed by two men, who also happen to be friends of each other:

  • Hugh Holcomb, a young artist with a history of falling in and out of love with many women, living off money from his rich aunt.
  • John Ingram, a middle-aged Navy captain who's carried a torch for Shiela for years.
The artist becomes infatuated with this island lass and, despite his friend's reminder about his habits, marries her and brings her to London. There Holcomb discovers that his new bride is far from urbane. He tires of her, and Shiela returns in tears to Arran.

So with whom do you want Shiela to end up? Before placing your bets, consider that young Baum wrote the part of Hugh Holcomb for himself. That's him above, looking ever so artistic.

In the play, Shiela's departure shocks Holcomb into recognizing how much she means to him, and he resolves to change. He decides the best way to do this is to enlist in the Royal Navy, and ends up on Ingram's ship. Ingram, revealing a side of his personality that he's hidden completely so far, claps Holcomb in the brig and vows to break him. The artist must escape in order to make his way back to Arran, his bride, and a happy ending.

So the play's hero is deeply flawed, not an easy man to root for. The villain isn't immediately apparent, and perhaps wouldn't even become villainous if he hadn't seen the woman he loves go off with a deeply flawed young man.

(Hungry Tiger Press's website features some images from The Maid of Arran and a MIDI download of Holcomb's song "A Rollicking Irish Boy.")

Another highlight of the convention was a screening of what remains of The Last Egyptian, a silent movie that Baum's Oz Film Manufacturing Company made in 1914 as a desperate attempt for adult audiences, based on a novel he'd published anonymously. (Again, I'm basing this summary on my memory of an incomplete presentation.) It too has several major male characters:
  • Kara, an Egyptian man of ancient lineage. The grandmother who raised him in poverty was married and abandoned by the British aristocrat Lord Roane. Kara discovers an ancient treasure, riches that give him entry into Cairo's wealthy society.
  • Winston Bey, a somewhat doughy archeologist from England.
  • Lord Roane, now living in Cairo, a racist embezzler.
  • Viscount Consinor, Lord Roane's dissolute son, who cheats at cards.
  • Tadros, a dragoman, whom we first see smoking a cigarette and twirling his moustache. Later he steals papyri and kidnaps a girl for a harem.
So who's the hero of The Last Egyptian? Who's the villain? Who wins the hand of Lord Roane's granddaughter Aneth? Whose swift action saves the day?

Highlight this space for the answer: Lord Roane and Viscount Consinor are villains. But Kara is also a villain after a promising start as an antihero. Winston wins Aneth, but the person who makes everything work out in the end is Tadros the dragoman.

As the Yellowback Library has said of Baum, “At his best, his novels are tinged with a certain amount of cynicism--you weren't always sure at first who the good guys were.” At his best, Baum wrote about characters' points of views and values with equal investment in each one. At his worst, he played into the prejudices and expectations of his audiences. These two convention presentations showed those traits of Baum's storytelling style colliding, producing plots that, if they weren't entirely understandable or satisfying, at least kept me guessing.

24 February 2009

Comics Publishers Don’t Make It Easy for Cataloguers

Yesterday I nattered about some frustrations in how libraries, especially mine, shelve their comics collections. But today I want to acknowledge that comics publishers, particularly those that issue series, don't make this process easy.

Those companies' comic books are usually produced by a team: scripter, penciller, inker, letterer, colorist, and sometimes others. A single bound volume often contains issues from several different teams. And then the companies add their whole masthead of managers and executives, which traditional book publishers just don't do.

The result is a list of names that looks like movie credits. Which should be the principal author for cataloguing purposes? Usually it's the first credited scripter. But, as with movies, companies can give credit on those volumes according to marketing clout rather than who wrote what.

DC Comics credits Chuck Dixon as primary author of Nightwing: Year One on the front cover and spine, but lists the less celebrated Scott Beatty first on the credits page inside. Different libraries in my regional network now file that important work under different author names.

Batman: The Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul is a recent collection of issues from Batman, Nightwing, and Robin magazines, all telling a single story--a "crossover event," in the parlance of superhero comics. The front cover credits two men: Grant Morrison and Paul Dini. The title-page spread lists five writers, eight pencillers, six inkers, four letterers, and four colorists, one of them "Studio F." Not to mention the contractually obligated line "Batman created by Bob Kane." And it really doesn't mention cover artist Andy Kubert, or the several "variant cover" artists represented in the book.

Furthermore, of the book's ten chapters, three were written by Peter Milligan while Morrison and Dini wrote only two apiece. Why isn't Milligan on the front cover? Morrison's been a star scripter since the late 1980s, when he did weird and wonderful things with DC's fourth-tier hero Animal Man. Dini is beloved by Batman fans for overseeing the animated cartoons of the 1990s. Milligan was part of the same 1980s "British invasion" of superhero comics writers as Morrison, but he hasn't gained the same name recognition.

Of course, we might deem that Batman: The Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul should simply be shelved and listed in the Batman series. Its storyline was, after all, planned by committee, and its major characters were created before any of those writers came of age: Batman in 1939, Dick Grayson and Alfred Pennyworth in the 1940s, and Talia and Ra's al Ghul in 1971. Thus, DC Comics is the primary "creator" of this book, though it passes on credit and royalties to individual writers and artists.

But that simply leads us to another aspect of these collections which must drive cataloguers batty. Formally they all have the same main title: Batman This, Nightwing That. Sometimes such volumes get catalogued under the main title, sometimes under what's technically the subtitle. It looks like a nightmare. My library system's catalogue includes volumes of Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze series under the main titles A Thousand Ships; Age of Bronze. Vol. 2, Sacrifice; Sacrifice; Betrayal; and Betrayal. One. (Okay, it doesn't help that volume three of the epic is coming to us in two volumes.)

And then there's the challenge of lining up a series in order. If a company is issuing collections of every issue in a series, as DC's Vertigo and Wildstorm imprints are doing with Fables and Ex Machina, then it can number those titles sequentially. (Giving libraries a chance to put a sticker right over the volume number, but that's another issue.)

But there are no numbers on Batman volumes because there are simply too many of them. And no one knows what order they go in, anyway; some are "in continuity" and others aren't. Even for a series with smaller and simpler output, such as Robin, the volumes aren't numbered. Why? DC collected the magazine's first few issues in Robin: Flying Solo, then skipped over about a hundred issues and started collecting again in this millennium. So the company eschews volume numbers altogether and lets readers and reference librarians have the fun of figuring out which collection comes next.

23 February 2009

How Libraries Shelve Their Comics

I find it interesting that both the Foundation for Children's Books panel on graphic novels at Boston College last month and the Graphic Novel Reporter's roundtable of librarians spent a fair amount of time on the burning question of how to file comics volumes in the library so readers can find them.

When I want to browse the books in comics form at my local library, I have five different places to look:

  • special shelves near adult fiction, but separated from them.
  • a nearby special shelf that's deemed part of the young adult section.
  • a special shelf in the children's room. (Easier to wrestle the last volume of Bone away from a much smaller patron.)
  • 741.5 in adult nonfiction--the Dewey decimal classification for sequential art, encompassing Calvin and Hobbes collections, coffee-table books on collecting, critical works, and biographies of comics creators.
  • 741.5 in the new books room.
In addition, the children's librarians have responded to demand by posting a list of books in comics form that they'd shelved normally before the craze hit.

On those special comics graphic-novel shelves, the books are filed alphabetically, usually by the name of the first writer credited on the book. That works great when one is working one's way through the output of a respected scripter, such as Neil Gaiman (as one might well be).

But putting the writer first can cause problems. Wildstorm credited Alé Garza as the primary creator of Ninja Boy: Faded Dreams; his name appears first on the cover. But in my library (and most others) the book's filed under W for scripter Allen Warner.

On the other hand, adaptations of prose works, such as P. Craig Russell's Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, aren't filed under the original storyteller's name. I've found some Manga Shakespeare volumes credited to the scripter, some to the artist, none to Shakespeare.

There's no distinction on my library's shelves between fictional and non-fiction comics work. I think there should be, though that might mean non-fiction comics get less attention. Matt Madden's 99 Ways to Tell a Story, a brilliant exploration of the medium, and Sharon Rudahl's Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman shouldn't be treated like fiction just because they're in comics form.

My library makes no distinction between anthologies of short stories by various creators (e.g, Kazu Kubuishi's Flight, DC's Crisis on Multiple Earths) and volumes created to stand alone (Michel Rabagliati's Paul Has a Summer Job).

But none of those distinctions are the biggest problem readers find with the usual shelving, according to librarians at those forums. We comics fans like to read all of a series. That's not a problem with most Japanese series, which are created by a consistent person or team. That's not a problem with the work of auteurs like Eric Shanower (Age of Bronze), Hergé (Tintin), or Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man). Filing by writer's last name keeps all those volumes together.

But it's a problem when readers want to read all X-Men, or (heaven help us) all Batman. Over the decades those corporate-owned comics have been scripted by so many people that, alphabetically by author, the volumes end up all over the place. Both Robin Brenner at the FCB and Eva Volin in the GNR roundtable made the same basic point:
Libraries, if they want to be customer-friendly, need to adopt a bookstore model shelving system for their GN collections.
In other words, keep the series together.

TOMORROW: How the big American comics publishers make life hard for librarians.

22 February 2009

Robin—She’s No Lady!

Bruce Wayne, secretly the Batman, was established early in his comics as a master of disguise. Nevertheless, there were some roles that a muscular man over six feet tall simply couldn't fade into. The last weekly Robin documented how in the 1940s Dick Grayson often disguised himself as a young worker to gather information for Batman.

In addition, on rare occasions--three in the 1940s "Golden Age" of superhero comics, according to the sharp-eyed subscribers to scans_daily--Dick Grayson disguised himself as a female.

I find it striking that two of those three stories appeared first not in the comic books, but in the Batman newspaper strip. The panel at top is from a daily strip, the one to the left from a Sunday installment.

Reportedly that newspaper strip was written for a wider audience than the comics magazines. It was intended to entertain adults as well as kids. So what adult middle-America wanted in the mid-1940s, it seems, was the hilarity of a teenager in drag.

A common element of all of Robin's appearances in female disguise is that they show the character objecting to his outfit in almost violent terms. And of course they all contain the big reveal when he throws off his wig and dress and throws himself into a fight--but superheroes were always throwing themselves into fights.

The chest-beating insistence that dressing as a female is an awful fate seems so imperative that it resurfaces in the one time Tim Drake, the current Robin, has dressed as a young woman. As printed in the collection Batman: As the Crow Flies, published in 2004, Tim pretends to be a medical student in order to peek at certain files. Why a female medical student? That's explained in the dialogue transcribed here.

Afterwards this Robin asks Batman, “I don’t have to dress up as a chick again, do I?” This is the same character who once assured us readers, “I hate that demeaning word, ‘chicks’”. But feeling he has to to reassert his masculinity can do strange things to a teen-aged boy.

21 February 2009

Bookselling Notes from All Ov—well, from Around Here

Earlier in the month I mentioned Kids Heart Authors Day, and wondered if the publishing industry would put pay attention to the same event next year, when it would no longer be a novelty. Even better, would marketers put resources behind it, and help to set up more events with more authors and illustrators at more stores, rather than benefiting from hard-working volunteers?

Kids Heart Authors Day sure looks like it has potential, according to comments from some of the participating booksellers collected on the effort's website:

  • "Sales increases far exceeded marketing costs, and the million-dollar karma in mid-February was the BEST."--Carol Chittenden, Eight Cousins bookstore, Falmouth, MA
  • "It was by far the most successful children's event we've had!"--Donna Kirk, River Run Bookstore, Portsmouth, NH
  • "Sold lots of books and hope to repeat the event again in the future."--Skylight Books, Los Angeles, CA
In other bookselling news, the Harvard Book Store, which recently came under new ownership, is offering a "Green Delivery" service by pedal-powered van. My house is a bit outside the delivery zone, so I won't be able to report on how this works.

Even in bibliophilic, densely-populated Cambridge, book delivery seems like it will have as much value to the store as marketing as actual service. In other words, more people will hear about the delivery option and think it's special than will actually use it. But still, it's an interesting idea.

Meanwhile, the book industry is slowly moving toward delivering books by computer download, which will make this delivery service seem as quaint as the iceman.

20 February 2009

To Care About What Happens

From Lois Lowry's blog earlier this week:

I often receive emails from kids, usually for school assignments, with questions like "What did you intend for readers to get out of (title)?" or "What is the message of this book?"

And sometimes I sigh and try to reply with an answer that they can use in their term paper or exam. But what I really want to say is: I simply wanted the reader to enjoy the story. To love the characters. To care about what happens. To be scared, or sad, or angry, and to worry. To be excited in the middle of the book, and relieved at the end.
Discuss, with particular reference to the end of The Giver. Did you feel relieved? Did you feel a sense of hope?

(Tip from Jan Fields at the ICL.)

19 February 2009

Superman Keeps Us Out of War

Thirteen months ago, I wrote about Ultra-Man as one superhero of the early 1940s who appeared to promote two-fisted isolationism rather than early defense against the Nazis and imperial Japan.

Here's another, more familiar superhero staying neutral in the fight.

These panels are from "How Superman Would End the War," commissioned by Look magazine and published on 27 Feb 1940. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster wrote and drew it themselves. It's reprinted in Superman in the Forties.

This was when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was in effect (Aug 1939-June 1941), thus handily putting the world's worst dictators on the same side of the war. Shuster and Siegel had nothing to say about Nazi Germany's war against the democratic powers of France and Britain, which at that point was in the "Phoney War" quiescence. Nor about what Germany's allies were doing in China, Ethiopia, and Spain.

By the time the US actually entered World War 2, of course, Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, making Stalin leader of one of the Allies. Then things wouldn't have been so clear-cut for Superman.

18 February 2009

Old Ladies Applying Brown Paint to Acetate

Todd Klein's blog offers an craftsman's look at how comic books used to be colored. Artist Kevin Nowlan expresses nostalgia for the old ways at Comics Comics.

But the most intriguing aspect of the comics-coloring process, to my eyes, is explained in his coauthor Mark Chiarello's part of The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering, the larger half of the book that covers coloring:

Originally, the colorist only had 63 colors to choose from, but in the 1970s the list was expanded to 124 colors. The actual coloring was fun, because it was a lot like filling in a coloring book when you were a kid, only you got paid for it (remember, that's very important!).

Then came the tedious and somewhat baffling part: In order for the separator to discern exactly what colors the colorist wanted, he had to write down short codes for every color on the guides. If he chose a specific green, for example, that was the only way to make sure that exact shade of green made it onto the printed comic page. Each color on the chart had a corresponding code, and the coloring wasn't complete until the colorist coded the stack of photocopies. . . .

At this point, the colorist handed in these color guides to the editor and got paid for the work. A few months later, the colorist got to see the fruits of his or her labor when the printed comic hit the stands. Most colorists had very little idea of how their painted and coded guides got from that stage to the final publication.

Here's how it worked: The comic book company's production department would send out the coloring guides and original art boards to their separator, where a group of old ladies would sit around applying dark brown paint to acetate copies of the artwork. I swear, it's true!

A room full of women who were making minimum wage would darken in four sheets of acetate for each comic book page. Using the colorist's original color guides as a roadmap, they would apply varying shades of the dark brown paint to the clear acetate, making camera-ready film that could then be photographed onto four metal printing plates. The four sheets would correspond to the four colors required for printing: one each for yellow, magenta, cyan, and black.
Nowadays colorists work on computers with digital files, and can produce a much wider range of colors and various atmospheric effects. Look at, for instance, the work of Paolo Lamanna in the Artemis Fowl graphic novel, one of last year's Cybils winners.

Separations are still an important technical step before printing, but that process too is handled on computers. More fine jobs lost to technology.

17 February 2009

And the Book You Rode In On

John Siracusa has worked as an ebook editor, which gives him a natural bias toward digital publishing, but be makes an undeniably strong point about the inevitability of that trend in this article at Ars Technica. In particular, Siracusa addresses some favorite counterarguments in favor of the codex this way:

Take all of your arguments against the inevitability of e-books and substitute the word "horse" for "book" and the word "car" for "e-book." Here are a few examples to whet your appetite for the (really) inevitable debate in the discussion section at the end of this article.

"Books will never go away." True! Horses have not gone away either.

"Books have advantages over e-books that will never be overcome." True! Horses can travel over rough terrain that no car can navigate. Paved roads don't go everywhere, nor should they.

"Books provide sensory/sentimental/sensual experiences that e-books can't match." True! Cars just can't match the experience of caring for and riding a horse: the smells, the textures, the sensations, the companionship with another living being.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Did you ride a horse to work today? I didn't. I'm sure plenty of people swore they would never ride in or operate a "horseless carriage"--and they never did! And then they died.
That analogy might push us to consider further implications of digital publishing. The horse economy required an infrastructure of hitching posts, watering troughs and ponds, livery stables, and of course manure-removal systems. That was eventually replaced with a completely different infrastructure of paved roads, parking lots, gasoline stations, and smog alerts.

The infrastructure of the printed book includes bookstores, libraries, magazine stands, bookshelves and bookbags, and paper-recycling depots. What will the infrastructure of digital publishing look like? Or will it be indistinguishable from the infrastructure of digital communication?

(Tip about Siracusa's article from the Daily Dish.)

16 February 2009

Thanks to the Cybils Middle Grade Fiction Team

Here's a thank-you to all the folks who worked on this year's Cybils Middle Grade Fiction award, starting with the Cybils organizers.

These Middle Grade Fiction Panelists read the nominated titles--far more in total than us judges--and produced a very interesting set of finalists.

My fellow Middle Grade Fiction Judges battled viruses, weather, and frustrating book-distribution systems to read all the finalists with care and reach a consensus by deadline. The discussion was very interesting, both on what folks thought about the individual books and what we thought a Cybils-winning book should be.
Finally, thanks to all the nominated authors (and, in one case, illustrator) for creating their books for kids to enjoy.

15 February 2009

Reason for Robin, #7

My last weekly Robin installment acknowledged fan complaints that it doesn't make practical sense for Bruce Wayne to keep recruiting teenagers to fight crime alongside him, especially when they have a tendency to be taken hostage. Of course, that objection assumes that it makes sense for Bruce Wayne to fight crime dressed as a giant bat in the first place.

In fact, the Batman comics of the 1940s show that Dick Grayson's youth provided a practical benefit for the Dynamic Duo. Which brings me to...

Reason for Robin, #7: Under age and undercover!

Dick Grayson was a child worker from the beginning, as a star in his family's trapeze act. But he also took jobs after he went to live with millionaire Bruce Wayne.

Those jobs were undercover work that let Dick spy on gangsters without attracting attention or appearing to be a threat. In his very first adventure with Batman, bringing to justice the small-town crime boss who killed his parents, Dick worked as a newsboy and, if I recall it right, a bowling alley pin-setter.

Sometimes Dick wore a work uniform as a disguise. For poorer jobs, a member of the scans_daily has pointed out, he almost always wore a cloth cap, a turtleneck, and dirt on his cheeks. Since Dick rarely wore such working-class clothing in his "regular" life, that helped readers to distinguish at a glance when he was undercover.

(I should acknowledge that in Batman, #22, Dick took a job delivering telegraphs because he'd spent all his allowance on war bonds. Simpler times.)

These days, a boy in his mid-teens would probably attract attention in most workplaces rather than deflect it. But Dick's ability to go undercover made more sense in the 1940s, when the character was created. Far more teen-aged boys were then at work in offices, stores, and workshops.

Not surprisingly, the comic-book industry attracted young workers, both because of their interest in the product and because they came cheap. In 1939, the year when Bob Kane invented Batman, the DC Comics/Independent News staff included Irwin Donenfeld, the thirteen-year-old son of owner Harry Donenfeld, working after school. That fall Kane hired incoming college freshman Jerry Robinson as his assistant, and they soon co-created Robin.

Other examples of youthful work in that first generation of comic-book creators:

  • Bill Gaines worked at his father's Educational Comics as a teenager after school.
  • Johnny Craig took a job as artist Harry Lampert's assistant soon after seeing his first comic books at age thirteen in 1939; within a short time he was working at All-American and EC.
  • Stan Lee started work at Timely Comics in 1940 at age seventeen.
  • Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Carmine Infantino were all urban newsboys as children.
  • Kirby left high school to work at the Max Fleischer animation studio.
  • Gil Kane started work on comics about age sixteen, assisting other artists, including Kirby.
This trend didn't completely die off, either. DC Comics's current president, Paul Levitz, took his first job at the company at age sixteen, according to the New York Times (fourteen, according to Gerard Jones's Men of Tomorrow). Former Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter sold his first scripts to DC at age thirteen, though editors didn't know his age at the time.

COMING UP: Robin's very special disguises, and why he hated them.

14 February 2009

2009 Cybils Winners

The winners of the 2009 Cybils were announced today, and in the category of Middle-Grade Fiction published last year our choice was:

The London Eye Mystery
written by Siobhan Dowd
David Fickling Books

Brother and sister, Ted and Kat, take their cousin Salim to see the London Eye, the city's gigantic Ferris wheel. While Ted and Kat watch, Salim gets into one of the glass pods, but thirty minutes later he doesn't get off. So the siblings set out to find their cousin.

Complicating the situation, Ted's brain "runs on a different operating system" from other people's, which makes him a lot better at facts and figures than he is at reading people. Narrated in Ted's voice, this is a page-turner that brings London to life and takes readers inside a powerfully rational mind.

The London Eye Mystery shows off kids' natural ingenuity and proves that difference can be a strength, as Ted and Kat work to solve the irresistible riddle of their cousin's disappearance.
One of the challenges of this evaluation was that the five nominated books are so diverse: in reading level, in genre, in narrative approaches, in settings, in protagonists. Each book had unique strengths. As I told the other judges at one point, it wasn't like comparing apples and oranges. It was more like comparing apples, grapefruit, tractor tires, pocket lint, and a shade of orange.

Visit the Cybils website for the complete list of winners.

13 February 2009

Just Enough Adventure

I own thousands of books. However, I'm close to 100% certain that Hsu and Chan: Too Much Adventure is the only one with this blurb on the front cover: "from the pages of Electronic Gaming Monthly." (I'd have to dig out that copy of Turgenev's Fathers and Children to be completely sure.)

Norm Scott's comic is about two brothers from eastern Ohio who produce shoddy videogames. When, that is, they aren't fighting off ancient demons, the Russian mafia, or rival game lords.

I don't play videogames, shoddy or not; they've never held much interest for me. As I understand it, the short Hsu and Chan comics that appear in Electronic Gaming Monthly have much more videogame content than this volume.

On the other hand, I haven't fought demons or Russians, peddled movie merchandise, or liberated carnival freaks, either. So I shouldn't relate to these adventures any more than the videogames. But this book had me quaking with laughter.

I first got a taste of Hsu and Chan in a "best graphic novels of the year (okay, the last eighteen months--so sue us)" volume from the library. Then I spent a couple of months asking comic-shop owners if they carried Hsu and Chan, which meant a couple of months of spelling out "Hsu." Finally I used the internets.

And I'm delighted I did. I won't claim that Norm Scott's sense of humor is a match for everyone, but it sure hit a chord with me. The only problem is that his lettering is small. Like, smaller than Laika.

There's a five-page preview of Hsu and Chan's next comical adventure here. A smaller-scale story here. A Hsu and Chan adventure from "2003, 2004-ish" here. Turgenev's Fathers and Children here.

12 February 2009

Penderwicks Under the Influence

Page 1 of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women: “‘Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.”

Page 1 of Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks: “...what is summer without a trip to somewhere special?”

And thus begins the story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, who live with their mother--or rather the story of Rosalind, Skye, Jane, and Batty, along with their father.

They meet a delightful and rich boy next door, Laurie Jeffrey, and deal with the difficulties of being so poor that they can only have a large warm house and lots of books and clothes but not a huge house with loyal servants like Laurie Jeffrey.

As you might guess, I found it impossible not to think of Alcott's March sisters when reading The Penderwicks. The oldest of the four girls is loving, responsible Rosalind instead of loving, responsible Meg. At bottom is baby Batty, who dreams of marrying the boy next door, instead of Amy, who eventually does. In the middle, noble dying Beth isn't an acceptable role model in today's culture, so there's no equivalent to her. Instead, Jo has been split into two sisters: Skye gets the spit-in-their-eye spunk, and Jane gets the novelistic ambitions.

Of course, Birdsall hasn't been shy about acknowledging her influences. The book itself name-checks Alcott, Patricia MacLachlan, E. Nesbit's Bastables, Edward Eager, and a certain tornado in Kansas. The author went further in this interview with Little Willow:

When I was 10 or so, I learned that Edward Eager wrote his wonderful set of books (Half Magic, Knight's Castle, Magic by the Lake, etc.) partly in tribute to the great E. Nesbit (Five Children and It, The Enchanted Castle, The Adventures of the Treasure Seekers, etc.). Since I loved these authors, I vowed that, when I grew up, I would try to write books that would be tributes to both of them. And though I didn't start writing until I was very grown up (in my 40s), I did go back to Eager and Nesbit for inspiration, with a lot of Louisa May Alcott and some Frances Hodgson Burnett thrown in, plus a bunch of others.
On her website Birdsall says:
I also borrow from other books, especially the ones I loved best when I was young. The idea of four sisters came from Little Women. Batty’s adventure with the bull came from Emily of New Moon. There are other examples, but that would be giving too much away!
Paradoxically, that would be giving away what the book has already borrowed.

Reviewers noted the many influences on The Penderwicks. Some asked whether the book holds more appeal for adults who recall reading those books than for kids. For example, here's the Common Sense review:
it's a book calculated to warm the hearts of aging Boomers, and remind them of the books they read when they were kids. Whether it will warm the hearts of many of today's children remains to be seen. It will be loved by the kind of kids, if there are any left, who go into a trance over Little Women, The Moffats, and others...
In an interview with Publishers Weekly, Birdsall herself said: “the independents had really gotten behind it. It was a book they could hand to every adult who walked in, needing a book for a child.” And of course it won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature.

The Penderwicks struck me as the literary equivalent of a Freddie Bartholomew movie, beloved of aunts everywhere. Of course, some young readers enjoy it very much as well. But many of its most enthusiastic fans seem to be those adults, "needing a book for a child" that reminded them of the books they remembered from childhood.

In particular, I wonder how The Penderwicks got such a buoyant critical reception when other books have been criticized for borrowing too much. I Googled the words "derivative" and "Eragon" and came up with 23,200 hits; in fact, there are 200 hits for "Eragon" and "hopelessly derivative" alone. Yet when I Googled "derivative" and "Penderwicks," I found just over 100 webpages.

Is that difference because Birdsall was transparent about her influences, thus making The Penderwicks an homage rather than an imitation? Because her prose style is quite good? Because she personally didn't seem so callow as teen-aged author Christopher Paolini? Because he had more sales and a movie deal, and thus became a larger target? Or because Birdsall chose to replicate what's perceived as a higher class of literature, particularly beloved for children's-book reviewers?

11 February 2009

The Fantasy Element in Diamond Willow

Cybils Middle-Grade Fiction nominee Diamond Willow, by Helen Frost, takes place in central Alaska. The heroine Willow’s mother is from the Upper Kuskokwim people, whose language is part of the larger Northern Athabascan grouping: she’s studying Dinak’i, or “our words.” Her father’s family came from Europe through Canada. Willow has a younger sister Zanna, and her mother’s parents live a dogsled-ride away.

Willow also lives among the spirits of her dead ancestors, as reincarnated in various animals around her: mouse, spruce hen, lynx, and so on. This aspect of the story was apparently inspired by a Northern Athabascan belief. In American Indian Religious Traditions: An Encyclopedia, edited by Suzanne J. Crawford and Dennis F. Kelley (2005), Phyllis Ann Fast writes:

some northern Athabascan traditions include a belief in the reemergence or reincarnation of the spirits of humans and other creatures after death.
Those ancestral animals narrate sections of the book. They look after Willow and her friends, sometimes calling the youngsters’ attention to crucial information. Eventually the link between Willow’s family and animals turns out to be a crucial revelation for readers, though the characters never fully tumble to it.

Diamond Willow presents this form of reincarnation not as the characters’ belief system, but as the way the world works. On her website Frost has written:
The spruce hen and the other animals are a protective presence in the story, and are especially helpful when the characters are attentive to their surroundings. They do not represent anyone's spiritual or religious beliefs.
It’s not necessary for a character to believe in that form of reincarnation or belong to the Upper Kuskokwim ethnic group to return as an animal. Willow’s paternal ancestors show up just like her maternal ancestors; people who died as infants are reincarnated alongside people who died after decades of life in central Alaska.

I therefore classify Diamond Willow as a fantasy, like any other story set in a universe of supernatural forces. That label seems especially apt after a little mouse/great-grandfather guides Willow to a piece of paper with crucial writing on it--the supernatural element clearly affects the plot. (That said, this book wasn’t nominated in the Cybils Fantasy and Science Fiction category.)

As far as I noted, Diamond Willow doesn’t depict its characters--even the Upper Kuskokwim grandparents--as talking or thinking about the form of reincarnation its story depends on. When Willow’s family discusses how to treat an injured sled dog or how to get rid of mice, they don’t wonder if those animals hold the spirits of their relatives.

It appears, therefore, that Frost was inspired by the Upper Kuskokwim people’s understanding of how spirits work, and showed readers how such a universe might play out, but didn’t portray those people as sharing in that understanding.

10 February 2009

Every Bit as Strange

In Arie Kaplan's Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed!, the profile/interview of Neil Gaiman includes an rumination on growing up in Britain reading American comic books. Gaiman told Kaplan those magazine were like "postcards from Oz."

He elaborated:

There were all these cultural assumptions that were being made that meant nothing, and thus were really, really, really cool. For example, I remember to this day a comic in which Superman has gone into some kind of alternate universe. Perry White's now a pizza chef and Superman is staring at him, x-ray vision or whatever, staring through a wall. And Perry White is throwing something round and sort of doughy into the air, and he's tossing the pizza dough.

There were no pizzas in England in 1967. And they really didn't turn up until 1979-1980. So, pizza was something that you simply didn't see, and the idea of somebody tossing dough and wearing a funny hat was every bit as strange as the idea of somebody using their x-ray vision to look through a wall and see this thing.

There were no fire hydrants in England. So [in Superman] there are all these fire hydrants everywhere, and I was never able to quite figure out what a fire hydrant--what are they? They squirt water and no fire comes out of them, and what's the deal with them? Everything was as unlikely as everything else.
This passage came back to me toward the end of Gaiman's Coraline, when the young heroine's modern British parents welcome her home with a dinner of...homemade pizza.

Of course, it's a British misundersanding of American pizza, with pineapple.

09 February 2009

And the Consequences Were Dreadful

In my taxonomy of narrative voices, the one Jeanne Birdsall chose for The Penderwicks is omniscient. The Point of View shifts among the four Penderwick sisters as needed. But that’s not all: the narrator even tells us their dog's thoughts, and assures us he has “his own peculiar brand of ESP.”

This narrator also editorializes, developing an intrusive Presence (not that that's necessarily a bad thing). For instance, the text asks, "Is there such a thing as a perfect week?" At another point it intones:

Mrs. Tifton caught Batty all by herself, and the consequences were dreadful.
Actually, the consequences are a lost rabbit. Which doesn’t stay lost long.

And that brings me to the quality of The Penderwicks’s narrative that I found hardest to get over. Throughout the book one little problem after another arises and gets resolved within a couple of paragraphs after the whole family realizes what's wrong. The only anxious moments are when people don't realize there's trouble, or one character is trying to keep a secret.

Thus, at the beginning of a long paragraph on page 138, the children set off to find the lost rabbit; twelve lines later, eldest sister Rosalind has found it. Similarly, when baby sister Batty gets lost, that psychic dog finds her as soon as he gets out of his cage.

In effect, The Penderwicks recreates the stop-start rhythm of books written decades ago as magazine serials, with each installment a self-contained episode. Except many of those episodes are very, very short.

One potential source of overarching tension is the sisters’ encounters with that most challenging of creatures, boys. But the two boys they meet are paragons for these girls. One is into gardening, Civil War history, baseball, and long walks in the moonlight. The other likes music, soccer, and To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck. Both are nice to four-year-olds and at ease with adults. I'm not saying I disagree with these boys' tastes. But I don't see them lighting things on fire or, aside from a briefly embarrassing crush, causing the girls any trouble.

That leaves only one tough conflict running through the book: the disagreement between younger paragon Jeffrey and his mother over her boyfriend, military school, and having friends who are merely from the upper middle class. In the end, those two characters resolve their differences by talking to each other off stage. The Penderwick girls end up as mere bystanders in their own book.

COMING UP: The anxiety of influences? No, just influences.

08 February 2009

Not a Reason for Robin

I quote from Gone and Forgotten's "Batman Is a Stinking Coward":

One of the most iconic images of Batman and Robin involves the spotlight hitting the Dynamic Duo as they rear back in surprise. It's a weird image, they both very clearly look utterly worried, and I guess mostly they didn't expect anyone to be carrying around a spotlight.

You know what stands out most for me, as far as goes this image? It's how ROBIN stands out most - Batman has ducked behind his cape, obscuring his outline. . . . most importantly he's chosen to STAND BEHIND THE CHILD. "Shoot the boy, but leave me alone," his body language seems to be screaming, "Can't you see his exposed limbs and garishly colored costume? Get the boy target!"
As G&A goes on to point out, this image was reused many times in the "Golden Age." More recently it's been repainted by Alex Ross, as captured by Wikipedia.

I'm quoting that analysis because it's funny, but not as one of my storytelling "Reasons for Robin." (If anyone's worried about Robin's safety, just recall that very shortly he'll slip on a pebble and fall down out of range.)

However, today's comics readers don't suspend their disbelief about such things as easily as those of the 1940s. Some fans have cheekily suggested that the only logical reason Batman would encourage Robin to dress up in red and green is to create a distracting target.

So scripter Adam Beechen addressed the issue in Robin, #152. After a quarrel with the second Batgirl (or third, if we count Bat-Girl), Tim Drake confronts Bruce Wayne with the notion that Robin's just a way for Batman to catch the crooks' attention.

And Bruce insists he's never do that. Which is of course what he'd say. Endangering a teenager doesn't make sense for the logic of Batman's character, as Ross himself has argued.

But who said Batman is logical?

07 February 2009

Tikki-tikki-tembo No sa rembo Hari bari brooshki Peri pen do Hiki pon pom Nichi no miano Dom boriko

The death of illustrator Blair Lent earlier this week brought new attention to what's probably his best known book, Arlene Mosel's Tikki Tikki Tembo. I have fond memories of that book myself, perhaps because I was a second son with a monosyllabic name.

Many of Lent's obituaries, such as that in the New York Times, identified Tikki Tikki Tembo as a "Chinese folk tale." That's how the book identifies itself. However, a discussion on Child_Lit eleven years back, archived here, revealed that it's actually a retold Japanese tale. Ariko Kawabata wrote:

This kind of a story, of a child who has a long long absurd name, is a Japanese old folk tale. We are very much familiar with this funny story, which is made into a "Rakugo", the traditional story telling by a professional to make people laugh.
Karen Ulric reported:
A different version of Tikki Tikki Tembo also appears in The Frog's Saddle Horse and Other Tales, selected by Jeanne B. Hardendorff, published in 1968. (Same year as Mosel's book). . . .

This version begins "A long time ago, in old Japan..." and the name is slightly different (and even longer!): "Tikki-tikki-tembo No sa rembo Hari bari brooshki Peri pen do Hiki pon pom Nichi no miano Dom boriko"
The archived discussion preserves many perspectives on whether the book was (a) insensitive to Japanese culture; (b) insensitive to Chinese culture; (c) insensitive to North American readers; (d) just a joke; (e) all of the above; (f) some of the above; (g) none of the above.

06 February 2009

Penderwicks in the Past

Jeanne Birdsall’s The Penderwicks is nominally set in the present day. Yet the omniscient narrator starts: “For a long time after that summer...” In my taxonomy of narrative voices, I call the distance between event and narration Perspective, and this sets up a “long” Perspective--meaning the events are in a distant past.

How old-fashioned is The Penderwicks? The kids play soccer, a relatively recent touch for Americans. There's a computer owned by the girls’ father. Yet I don't recall any mention of video games. Not only do the girls not have cell phones, but they rarely use the land line. Television is just something the boy next door looks at when he has nothing better to do, and what he likes most is "this great old black-and-white movie on television called To Kill a Mockingbird."

But the old-fashioned quality is much more than a matter of technology. It's in the diction of that narrative voice, which says things like, "And laugh they would," and, "and the consequences were dreadful." And it's in the story's milieu.

This 2005 novel includes cheerful servants! Churchie, the cook/housekeeper next door, alters and sews four dresses in a week, on top of her other work. (She also shares her employer's deepest gossip.) There's Cagney, a young gardener who's also a dreamboat. And the vegetable seller, as far as I recall, never actually sells any vegetables; he just happily gives them away.

On the other side of the class scale, an actual British knight appears to judge a garden contest--in the Berkshires. The girls’ father drops phrases in Latin. Yes, he’s a professor, but a professor of botany; Latin hasn’t been the language of science for over a century.

But the clearest sign that this book is a throwback is when baby sister Batty is menaced by a bull in a field. I haven’t seen that plot point used since Song of the South (1946), and that was supposedly set half a century before. Birdsall herself acknowledges that she borrowed the moment from Emily of New Moon (1923).

COMING UP: The Penderwicks's all-knowing narrator and all-is-well plotting.

05 February 2009

How Diary of a Wimpy Kid Found Its Audience

As Jeff Kinney has described in interviews, he started writing Diary of a Wimpy Kid without expecting it to be categorized as a graphic novel. Indeed, he wasn't thinking of it as a book for kids. It was simply a story he had to tell. (There's a little autobiography in Greg Heffley's adventures.)

Kinney was working for an online education site called FunBrain.com, managing content for its website. FunBrain is part of a company called the Family Education Network, which is turn was a small wing of the multinational publishing conglomerate which will remain Pearson.

Kinney's boss, Jess Brallier, had been involved in marketing many bestselling books: William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways, Bailey White's Mama Makes Up Her Mind, Sylvia Branzei's Grossology, and his own Lawyers and Other Reptiles, among others.

When Brallier saw Kinney's manuscript, he thought the material could work well on the FunBrain site, doled out in daily installments. That online format would require Kinney to draw more art--illustrations for each day's entry. And just maybe it would draw enough of an audience to interest a book publisher, since Kinney still wanted to see Wimpy Kid published as a novel.

Jess Brallier is a publishing friend of mine, so he clued me into Wimpy Kid early on. Even before I had broadband, I was looking at the daily installments. And so were a growing number of other folks. (Nobody from book-publishing was biting, though.) In the summer of 2004 Jess proudly sent me some of the feature's early online reviews. On 9 July--I just looked it up--I emailed back:

One observation: the jengajam.com comments are filed in the category "animation."

And this [Pottsville] library site refers to "the ever popular Diary of a Wimpy Kid cartoon."

So at least some of Jeff's audience don't see his creation as a book, but as something in a different art/storytelling form.
Not that there was anything wrong with that.

Wimpy Kid was emerging in readers' eyes as something other than a traditional novel. The combination of text and art, and the short daily installments, made people classify Kinney's work as a sort of cartoon, even though his text drives his story. That categorization might have produced a mental block that prevented traditional book editors from seeing the potential for a Wimpy Kid book. (Not to mention that FunBrain was already giving away the content for free.) Meanwhile, the site was getting thousands of hits a day.

Two years later, Kinney finally connected with the man who became his print editor at the New York Comic-Con, a convention on comics. Charlie Kochman of Abrams was open to work in the comics format--that's why he was there. And thus graphic-novel history was made. (This year's New York Comic-Con starts on Friday.)

Jess Brallier is now recommending people take a look at Talia Rivera's blog about being a parent: "I think this wonderfully captures a mother/wife who represents a population segment from who we otherwise don’t hear. Talia is somebody we should publish; with pride, enthusiasm, and anticipation."

04 February 2009

And the Wimpy Kid Backlash Begins

Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series has dominated Publishers Weekly's list of bestselling books in comics form for so long that folks are whispering that maybe it doesn't belong there at all. Which may not be a bad thing; that's how we got separate New York Times Book Review bestseller lists for kids' books, to keep Harry Potter books from snatching the opportunities of publishers of adult fiction to say their books were New York Times bestsellers.

Esther Keller at Good Comics for Kids recently made the case that Wimpy Kid isn't a comic:

The pictures add a lot to the story, but by no means are they [and the text] interdependent and this was definitely my feeling when I read the first volume a year or so ago. The pictures make me laugh. They make me pause – but often the pictures pull me out of the writing (not the story). I could enjoy the pictures on a page of Time Magazine or I could enjoy them within the book. I could read the story without the pictures, and still laugh out loud.
Okay, it's not a harsh backlash.

I think Keller is absolutely right that the Wimpy Kid books aren't in comics form. They're closer to traditional illustrated novels, in that the text can be read without the art.

Indeed, what I think is ground-breaking about Kinney's approach to illustration is how the cartoons often comment on the text rather than simply depict it. Like Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the Wimpy Kid books combine pictures and text differently from traditional illustrated novels--but nonetheless also different from comics.

Yet another voice from that position is none other than author-artist Jeff Kinney himself. As he told the New York Times:
“I go to book conferences and cartooning conferences now and I don’t feel comfortable in either setting,” said the man whose text-and-cartoon books have been on best-seller lists for nearly two years. “I’m not a real author and not a real cartoonist. I’m a failed cartoonist.”
And USA Today quoted Kinney as calling his books "novels in cartoons." (The release of third volume The Last Straw has brought him out for publicity interviews.)

The truth is that when Kinney wrote Wimpy Kid, the pictures were a small part of his vision. The project took a lot of twists and turns before it was placed in the questionable category of "comics."

TOMORROW: Back at the beginning, or how I met Jeff Kinney before he was a best-selling failed cartoonist.

03 February 2009

Putting Their Heart into Marketing

On the morning of this 14th of February, at least 40 New England bookstores and 160 New England children's authors are teaming up to create a huge book-signing called "Kids {Heart} Authors."

This event was the brainchild of my writing-group colleague and friend Mitali Perkins (The Secret Keeper), with the input and cooperation of many other authors, illustrators, booksellers, and publishing pros. Gail Gauthier (A Girl, a Boy, and Three Robbers) wrote about her efforts here.

Among the many other folks participating are Laya Steinberg (All Around Me I See), Sarah Brannen (Uncle Bobby's Wedding), ACE Bauer (No Castles Here), Kay Kudlinski (Boy, Were We Wrong about the Solar System!) Pegi Dietz Shea (Patience Wright), Mark Tyler Nobleman (Boys of Steel), Susannah Reich (Painting the Wild Frontier), Nancy Werlin (Impossible), Susan Goodman (All in Just One Cookie), Melissa Stewart (A Place for Butterflies), Val Giogas (In My Backyard), Mary Brigid Barrett (Our White House), Nicole Tadgell (No Mush Today), Ed and Barbara Emberley (Drummer Hoff), Denise Ortakales (The Legend of the Old Man of the Mountain), and Linda Crotta Brennan (The Black Regiment of the American Revolution).

So far the joint marketing effort has attracted attention from Publishers Weekly, the American Booksellers Association, the Boston Globe book section, and of course Oz and Ends.

It's a curious sort of press attention, prompted by the novelty of the marketing effort itself, before it's had time to work. I saw the same thing happen when another of my writing-group friends, Greg R. Fishbone (The Penguins of Doom), launched the Class of 2K7 with a bunch of other debut novelists, including Karen L. Day (No Cream Puffs).

Other examples include Mark Peter Hughes's cross-country drive with his family to promote Lemonade Mouth, and Brian Lies's customized bat-mobile for Bats at the Beach. (See, I know all these people, so I remember their marketing, and I'm going to grab this opportunity to bring up their names again.)

Unfortunately, the book industry is a lot better at celebrating authors' own marketing initiatives that measuring how well they worked. There just isn't enough money or time in book-publishing to do what other industries would consider rudimentary market research. A company eventually knows how many copies of a book it's sold, but very little about what made people buy it.

And, alas, once an author has done something new to market a book, then the next author who does the same thing gets much less attention--sometimes none. Even if it really worked the first time. All that wonderful industry attention for the novelty fades away.