31 March 2009

My Long March

2nd: 1,500-word script for a six-page comic about the Boston Massacre up for discussion in a writing group.

7th: Twenty-minute presentation on said Massacre for the Bostonian Society, plus viewing a reenactment based on a script I wrote last year.

12th: 4,000-word story for online critique.

16th: 13,000-word chapter on George Washington's decision to enlist black soldiers in the Continental Army.

19th: Hourlong talk on John Vassall's decision to leave his mansion in Cambridge in 1774.

23rd: Preparing critiques of other writing-group members' work.

24th: 5,900-word book review for The Baum Bugle.

27th: Panel on history blogging at the Organization of American Historians conference.

31st: Home with a cold.

30 March 2009

Just Back from the Emerald City

Yesterday I flew back from Seattle, and, boy, are my arms tired! Actually, my whole body is tired since I took the red-eye flight.

This was my first visit to that city, aside from an unscheduled stop at the airport several years ago. I quite liked Seattle, but it took a little getting used to.

The received wisdom about Seattle and coffee shops is true. One is almost never out of sight of a Starbuck's, Tully's, Seattle's Best Coffee, or independent bakery cafe. I found one three-story mall with a Starbuck's on both the first and second floor.

But that doesn't stop a lot of other funky little restaurants from operating in downtown Seattle near my hotel, offering fish tacos, modern pizzas, sandwiches (each and every one made with red onion), seafood, organic vegetarian dishes, and much more.

And at eight o'clock in the evening, every single one of those eateries is closed.

One restaurant I really liked: Mae Phim Pike, a family-run Thai restaurant on Pike Street. I had the Kuoy Taew Tom Yum, or Hot and Sour Noodle Soup, shown above. I would have gladly gone back several times, but that was my last evening in town.

29 March 2009

Mike W. Barr on Robin

Mike W. Barr was one of the leading Batman writers of the 1980s, scripting Detective Comics and creating the magazine Batman and the Outsiders. In those Batman stories, he wrote stories about two Robins: Dick Grayson, leaving the nest, and Jason Todd, just starting out.

In this interview at Jeffery Klaehn's Pop blog, which also appears in Inside the World of Comic Books, Barr spoke of Robin as one of the elements "vital to a Batman story":

JK: In a perfect world, should Batman stories be infused with sense of adventure and heavy doses of periodic lightness? This seems to have been what Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson hoped to achieve by introducing the character of Robin in Detective Comics #38 (April 1940). Your handling of Robin seemed very much in keeping with what I imagine their original intent was. How did you view Robin, in relation to Batman?

Barr: I'm convinced Robin is a major reason why the Batman strip has had such longevity. Batman is by no means psychotic, but I do think he's emotionally crippled in some respects, and he knows it. He sees with Robin a chance to bring the lad through his emotionally fragile adolescence by giving him an outlet for his rage that Batman didn't have when he was a boy. They're at once father and son, big brother and little brother, and anyone who thinks there's anything untoward in their relationship can go to hell . . .
Given that opinion, it's ironic that some of Barr's highest-profile Batman work came in 1987 in two stories with no Robin in sight: the "Year Two" series and the graphic novel Batman: Son of the Demon. The latter showed Bruce Wayne having a child with longtime antagonist Talia al Ghul. That took place in an alternative universe, but in Batman and Son (2006) Grant Morrison brought such a child into the standard DC continuity under the ominous name of Damian. Now he appears to be the latest Robin.

28 March 2009

Inspiration for the Last Man on Earth

Earlier in the week I posted a couple of panels from Y: The Last Man, an adventure (but not superhero) comic series from Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra.

The premise of Y: The Last Man is that a global plague has killed all the men on Earth save one: a slacker escape artist named Yorick. When I described this to my mother, she said that only men would come up with this scenario. And indeed, when Bill Haley and the Comets sang of the same premise in the song "Thirteen Women," it was clearly male fantasy.

But in the comic, Yorick doesn't enjoy the new world much. Not only does he want to remain true to his girlfriend, who was on the other side of the world when the plague struck, but the female survivors are divided on what to do with him. Not a small number want to turn him into a sex slave, kill him, or dissect him for his Y chromosome.

But Yorick, with the help of a female government agent, a female scientist, his pet monkey, and other helpful folks, keeps chugging along. What in his childhood prepared him for such perseverance? What could inspire him to keep going? One clue might appear in this flashback panel of little Yorick with his big sister, Hero.
And a close-up.
I'm just saying.

27 March 2009

The Reasons Why

From Bookgasm, a few of Alan Mott's "50 Reasons No One Wants to Publish Your First Book":

2. There’s this thing called punctuation. You might want to look into it.
7. It probably wasn’t a good idea to base the main character on yourself, considering how much most people seem to hate you.
15. It’s not technically a novel until you’ve written it down first.
31. There’s a fine line between writing authentic regional dialogue and making all of your characters sound like stroke victims.

26 March 2009

Why There Aren’t More Asian Superheroes?

How come Publishers Weekly's book-publishing articles are so staid while its Comics Week articles are so opinionated and lively (and poorly copyedited)? Take Anne Ishii's review of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology:

A popular question posed in the anthology and at the eponymous discussion panel at the 2009 New York Comic-Con: "Why are there so many Asian-American writers and artists and so few Asian-American characters?" . . .

Gender bias is the elephant in the collection as far as I’m concerned, a greater shadow on character than racism. In fact, gender bias might even be the real answer to why there aren’t more Asian superheroes. . . .

there is plenty of female and Asian representation in the world of comics, namely in manga (original English and otherwise). And far be it from me to say what’s more offensive: American portrayals of Asian women as sexy servants or Asian men as diminutive brainiacs, but I would posit that because the stereotypes of Asian-American women are not antithetical to universally proscribed gender roles, the narratives in the penultimate section of the anthology--"Girl Heroes" (emphasis added)--felt freer, the art felt more buoyant. . . .

Superhero comics in general, are ensconced in a male sexual persona embodying virility and literal largesse (read: compensating for falsely accused deficiencies), so Secret Identities leaves the identity issues of Asian women largely intact. The women in this anthology are smart, no-nonsense people who happen to have super powers and a great sense of humor.
And then the essay goes on to a metaphorical comparison of "a Hummer" and a high gas-mileage Honda Civic." You just don't see that in PW's coverage of prose.

Here's the Secret Identities website and collective blog.

25 March 2009

Interrupting Word Balloons

The panels above come from the first page of the first issue of Y: The Last Man, scripted by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Pia Guerra, and--most important for today's observation--lettered by Clem Robins.

I was struck by how the speech balloons overlap greatly to show the characters interrupting each other. One balloon doesn't just encroach on another's border, which is common, but actually obscures some words inside, which isn't--at least in mainstream American comics.

I'd been thinking about how to use word-balloon graphics to indicate background speech when I read this story, so it was nifty to see such a technique in use.

But then it disappeared from the book. I don't know if editors didn't like it, or readers didn't get it, or the creators decided it was a failed experiment.

In this online discussion about lettering technique, Robins explained how he changes his usual method of working with a digital file as he creates overlapping balloons:

my normal layers are

spare clipping mask
page numbers

but for overlapping dialogue, i add six layers to this, and it becomes

text (top)
balloons (top)
text (middle)
balloons (middle)
text (bottom)
balloons (bottom)
spare clipping mask
page numbers
So that might explain why Vaughan and Robins moved away from the technique. It could have been too much extra work.

24 March 2009

Smells Like...Thompson

A certain smell immediately takes my mind back to reading Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz novels when I was eleven, discovering what crazy concoction of magic, romance, and chase scenes she'd come up with this time.

I think about that smell whenever I hear people claim that readers are so fond of the aesthetics and sensory experience of reading printed books that digital versions will never replace bound hard copies.

But what I smelled wasn't Oz, or children's literature. I was smelling the rotting of paper made with lots of wood fiber, and the glue that Reilly & Lee used on its cheap bindings of the 1930s. People younger than me who took in Thompson's stories through the Del Rey paperbacks of the 1980s no doubt have a different sensory memory of that experience, one that didn't depend on the books eating themselves away from within.

Yet the stories were the same, with all their ups and downs, strengths and flaws. Our reading memories differ because of many personal circumstances, and the physical format of the book is a minor factor at best. When Thompson did her job, we were immersed in the story, paying little attention to the real world. Digital formats convey that just as well as printed ones.

Similarly, people have been taking in the story of the Trojan War for millennia--in oral form, on scrolls, on handwritten codexes, in multiple printed volumes, and so on. In the middle of the 20th century, many readers consumed The Iliad or Troilis and Cressida from cheaply printed, pulpy books. Now readers are coming to the story in graphic form. The saga has lasted because of its inherent drama and tradition, not because of a particular packaging. The Odyssey is still with us; scrolls are not.

I think of this as I listen to my Humanities Major-classmate Jacob Weisberg speaking on NPR's Talk of the Nation about the aesthetics of digital books. His Microsoft colleagues used to tell him that if the smell of paper and glue was an inherent part of the reading experience, e-book readers could supply that smell. But we're quickly learning that rotting pulp is not necessary for an enjoyable read; it's just a side effect that some of our brains have been conditioned to remember fondly.

23 March 2009

Aeroman vs. Bank Robber 15

Earlier this month I received an envelope from London. The note inside said:

"this is for your blog."
It seems Godson's Brother had seen Godson's contribution to the weekly Robin last year, and was offering Oz and Ends his own superhero comic. Ordinarily I don't take requests, but today happens to be Godson's and Godson's Brother's birthday.

So here's a link back to Godson's "Robin the Half-Bat Superhero." And below is the adventure of Aeroman from Godson's Brother. Godson did inking and coloring while Godson's Brother is a penciller, so I had to turn up the contrast on these scans. Neither fellow is quite a letterer yet, so I'll transcribe the words as well.

JT Comics

vs. Bank Robber 15

Plus a joke page and riddle page
The brothers have been subscribers to the end of The DFC, so they understand comics magazines on the British model, with humor sections. (You just don't see those in Batman anymore.) But on with our story!
Bank Robber 15 (identifiable by the number on his chest) has cleverly broken out of his bank-robbing rut by stealing "Jewles." How could anyone suspect him? Unfortunately, he's made a crucial mistake in carrying away his swag in a bag marked, well, "SWAG."

Aeroman swoops down on Bank Robber 15, puts him in jail, returns the swag to the jewelers, and flies home in time to read the joke of the month!

Which is:
Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Justin who?
Justin time for tea!
Did I mention the guys live in London?

This issue of JT Comics is also marked as "Half Price 50% percent off," but I believe I am the fortunate owner of the one and only copy, and I'm not selling.

And that's all until next year!

22 March 2009

Nate Peikos’s Comics Punctuation

Through Laura Koenig's Bib-Laura-graphy (easier to say than it looks), I found letterer Nate Peikos's helpful “Comics Grammar & Tradition” article at Blambot.

I think the topic of this article would be better labeled as American comics punctuation--i.e., the markings around words that silently clue us into how those words should sound and what they mean. But it's still a handy guide to:

  • how American comics have developed their own punctuation system alongside that for prose.
  • how a lot of that system has no stronger justification than "tradition."
Take, for example, the fact that comics are usually lettered in all-capital letters, except that there are two forms of the capital I. Peikos writes:

This is probably the biggest mistake seen amongst amateur letterers. An "I" with the crossbars on top and bottom is virtually only used for the personal pronoun, "I." The only other allowable use of the "crossbar I" is in abbreviations. Any other instance of the letter should just be the vertical stroke version. Although I would debate it, you occasionally see the "crossbar I" used in the first letter of the first word of a sentence, or the first letter of someone's name.
I hadn't noticed this until I read Todd Klein's section of The DC Comics Guide to Coloring and Lettering, but sure enough it's part of the system.

Then there's this rule, which I came across first in the Image Comics guidelines reprinted in Peter David's Writing for Comics:

There is no Em or En dash in comics. It's always a double dash and it's only used when a character's speech is interrupted.

The double dash and the ellipsis are often mistakenly thought to be interchangeable. That's not the case in comics, even though it's rife in comic scripts. For the record, there are only TWO dashes in a double dash. It sounds like common sense, but you'd be surprised.
I heartily agree with Peikos's stickling about the ellipsis mark, as explained at greater length here. However, I also think that comics' adherence for the double-dash instead of the M-dash is an unnecessary relic of the Great Typewriter Squeeze. (I've touched on this aspect of comics punctuation before as well.)

I'm drafting some scripts for comics set during the Revolutionary War, and one of my first decisions was that they would include em-dashes, reflecting the typography of the time.

Peikos's Blambot site also offers a variety of digital fonts for dialogue and sound effects.

21 March 2009

Dick Grayson's Birthday—or Is It?

The weekly Robin comes early because today is Dick Grayson's birthday! Or rather, it's his birthday according to some sources, based on which "continuity" one chooses to follow.

The 1976 DC Super Calendar told us that Dick was born on 11 November. But that was what's now referred to in DC-land as "pre-Crisis," meaning the 1985 revamping of all DC universes.

From that Crisis on Infinite Earths miniseries until 1994, Dick was said to have been born in the week before Halloween, or 24-30 October.

Then came another revamping, called Zero Hour: Crisis in Time. Since then, DC Comics have said that Dick Grayson was born on the first day of spring--specifically, 21 March, according to Nightwing: Year One.

Similarly, the murder of Dick Grayson's parents occurred on either 15 July, Halloween, or 27 June, depending on which era of comics one is reading.

DC gave us Infinite Crisis in 2005-06 and Final Crisis starting last year, but neither was said to have affected the all-important timing of Dick Grayson's birthday. So we should enjoy this date while we can. After all, the symbolic significance of the character of Dick Grayson, the first Robin, is that he grows up.

Top art by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, bottom by Ryan Sook.

20 March 2009

Understanding Obama’s “New” Book Deal

Considering how many newspaper reporters want to land book deals (especially now that those newspaper jobs don't look so secure), it's surprising what a poor job newspapers do at covering the book business. Not that the peculiar publishing industry makes sense, of course, especially from the outside.

The latest evidence for this disconnect is the headlines about Barack Obama signing a "new deal" with his publisher, Crown, shortly before taking office. The UPI said he "secured a $500,000 advance," for example. Except that the same story also said, "the publisher will receive half of the money," which (a) is not how publishing advances usually work, and (b) means Obama has secured only $250,000, no? But many other news outlets said the same thing.

The New York Times, which runs hit or miss on the book business, reported more important details:

When Mr. Obama wrote “Dreams From My Father,” which came out in 1995, he did not sell enough books to pay back the advance of $30,817. [Probably $30,000 to Obama or his agent, and $817 in indexing or typesetting costs charged against royalties.] But when it was reprinted after his speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, sales flourished, which led to another book deal worth $1.9 million.

For that, Mr. Obama agreed to write another nonfiction book and a children’s book. He wrote in his disclosure report that he intended to delay both books until he left office.

Robert B. Barnett, a Washington lawyer who represents Mr. Obama on his publishing work, said Thursday that the $500,000 agreement was not for a new book but rather for a license so the president’s autobiography could be condensed into a book for middle-school students.
So this isn't a "new deal" at all. Obama simply signed off on a subsidiary-rights license that Crown wanted to exercise under his old Dreams From My Father contract, covering the right to adapt that book for young readers. That explains the 50-50 split in the advance; that's the usual split on such rights for first-time unknown authors, as Obama was when he signed that deal.

It's easy to see what Crown was thinking. The firm had a deal with Obama for a book for young people. His visibility can't get any higher. But obviously he's not going to deliver that book for at least four years, possibly eight. So why not approach Obama's people with the suggestion that the firm find someone to adapt his old book for those readers now?

Crown and Barnett probably negotiated a deal that's valued as if an outside company had come to the firm to buy those rights. Crown would charge such a company a $500,000 advance for the license, half of which would go to Obama. Therefore, Crown pays that half to Obama now and shifts the other half on its balance sheets.

Obama has received $250,000, but he still has to wait for the new book to earn $500,000 in royalties before he sees any more payments. In effect, he's getting only half-royalties on this adapted book (and it'll have a cheaper price than the original edition as well). Of course, the President's not doing any of the new work to adapt the text. I'm sure we'd all agree that he has more important tasks right now.

19 March 2009

“Slender green towers, great domed buildings”

This post is a follow-up to my last, about the untenable but popular thesis that L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a parable on the American Populist movement of the 1890s.

First, though that posting mentioned how The Emerald City of Oz described Oz's economic system, I neglected to link to my quotation of that passage two years ago.

Second, Ms. Bird at Fuse #8 turned out to be one of those high-school students who were told about The Wonderful Wizard of Oz's secret message--and no doubt she understands hard-money policy so much better now.

The comments to her comments included this from Gwenda Bond:

One of my favorite John Kessel stories is "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence," which plays with that side of Oz theory. I think it's still online free linked from the Small Beer site for the collection of the same name.
And indeed on tax day last year that press released a free download of John Kessel's collection of the same name. There's an audio version of the story with the text to read along to. And of course folks can buy printed copies of Kessel's book as well.

I'm not sure I see the Populism/silver standard side of the parable in "The Baum Plan...," but perhaps it refers to Ozma's economic system instead. There are clearly Ozzy moments:
The window looked down from a great height on a city unlike any I had ever seen. It was like a picture out of a kid’s book, something Persian about it, and something Japanese. Slender green towers, great domed buildings, long, low structures like warehouses made of jade. The sun beat down pitilessly on citizens who went from street to street between the fine buildings with bowed heads and plodding steps. I saw a team of four men in purple shirts pulling a cart; I saw other men with sticks herd children down to a park; I saw vehicles rumble past tired street workers, kicking up clouds of yellow dust so thick that I could taste it.
The narrator is too noir to be comfortable in such a colorful city.

17 March 2009

Parable? No, Just Full of It

Back in 1964, a social studies teacher named Henry Littlefield stumbled onto a way to teach the turn-of-the-century Populist movement--particularly the argument over whether the US should use silver as well as gold as the basis for its dollars. He tied that long-past debate to L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

That went over so well in the classroom, at least as compared to asking students to read William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech, that Littlefield published his idea in an American Quarterly essay called "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism." Littlefield didn't go quite so far as to suggest that Baum deliberately wrote an allegory on American politics in 1899, but other people grabbed at his hints.

Since then, the idea that the "real" story of The Wizard of Oz is all about monetary policy has popped up in many places. People have proclaimed that characters represent certain people or parts of the American electorate, one schema often contradicting other. Some of the arguments for this interpretation use details found first in the MGM movie, released twenty years after Baum's death.

No one has ever come up with evidence that Baum had Populism in mind. In fact, the evidence that's surfaced since points the other way. In 1964, the only biography of Baum was To Please a Child, which mentioned Baum marching in torchlight parades for Bryan. Research has shown many details of that book to be unreliable. In particular, Baum was a Republican activist in the 1890s, and wrote newspaper verse in favor of William McKinley.

An article about Oz as an economic allegory was what prompted me to write my first cranky letter to a major newspaper, nearly three decades ago. I pointed out that if people really wanted to see Baum's thoughts on the economy they should read The Emerald City of Oz, in which Uncle Henry's farm gets repossessed and Princess Ozma rules over a socialist monarchy.

This week the BBC website covered the Populism angle--accurately, by treating it as a pedagogical aid that some folks decided must be more than that. (I particularly dislike The Historian's Wizard of Oz, which irks me as researcher of both the Oz books and American history. And yet I link to it.)

The BBC story quotes economics professor Bradley Hansen making one of the strongest points against the allegory theory: "Nobody ever suggested it until 1964." Somehow all those obvious parallels that people have spotted in the past forty years went completely past the people of 1900, who were actually immersed in the debate.

Prof. Hansen also goes on to supply the article's money quote:

"While it may have grabbed students' interests, it doesn't really teach them anything about the gold standard and, in particular, the debate about the gold standard."
Exactly. How does walking on a yellow brick road in silver shoes tell us anything about monetary policy?

16 March 2009

Hounding Baskerville

I've been working all day on a document in Baskerville Old Face font, so I figured I'd share this rediscovered specimen of John Baskerville type from the Typefoundry blog. Many of the postings on this blog are far too technical for me, even as a great admirer of fonts and letterforms. But it's good to know it's out there.

(Hat tip to Jeremy Dibbell's PhiloBiblos.)

15 March 2009

New Portraits of Robin

This weekly Robin links to three new looks at the oldest young non-superpowered superhero.

First, The Black Cat has offered several new installments in the "Batman and Sons" parody. I linked to this webcomic last year. Its premise: Batman is raising all three male Robins (Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake) as well as the future Batman of the TV cartoon Batman Beyond (Terry McGinnis). As a father, this Batman depends on Alfred and his own tiny, tiny reserves of emotional intelligence.

Here are a couple of panels from a page in which Tim decides to play Batman and Robin with his baby brother Terry.
I love how Terry's eyes show how well this is going over. Rest of the story.

And here's a new image of a new Robin by Frank Quitely, distributed by DC Comics to promote the upcoming Batman and Robin magazine. All signs point to this Robin being Damian, Bruce Wayne's love-hate child with Talia al Ghul.
The Batman and Robin magazine is being created by Quitely and Grant Morrison, a Scottish team who did wonderful things for All-Star Superman--including delivering it on time, something Frank Miller and Jim Lee had trouble managing with All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.

In an interview at IGN, Morrison (whose earlier thoughts on Dick Grayson I quoted here) dropped this hint about his plans:

This is a very different Batman and Robin team from any that we've seen before. It's almost a reverse of the traditional dynamic, with a more light-hearted and spontaneous Batman and a scowling, badass Robin. Expect fireworks and violence.
Sounds interesting, but let's remember what happened the last time Robin was a willful, impetuous, defiant, and morally challenged young man. That was the second Jason Todd, and it ended (at least for about fifteen years) with him dying--at the request of a majority of voting Batman fans. My "Reasons for Robin" series is leading up to an argument that that was inevitable.

Will Damian have any more appeal than that Jason? Will his Batman be better able to cope? It would be delicious irony if Damian's Batman turns out to be Jason Todd, but Jason is anything but "light-hearted."

Finally, here's a link to an image of Red Robin by Francis Manapul. Red Robin was originally the name adopted by the middle-aged Dick Grayson on Earth-2. Alex Ross then used the name and designed this costume for the middle-aged Dick Grayson in one possible future of the DC Universe in Kingdom Come. Now the company's brought that costume into the DC Universe of today to sell more dolls, and is teasing fans with the mystery of who will be wearing it.

14 March 2009

Fantasy in Very Small Doses

The Institute of Children's Literature has posted an interesting article by Jan Fields on "Magical Magazine Fiction." As to writing for the youngest subscribers:

For preschoolers, magazine fantasy is pretty much limited to talking animal stories (where the animals talk only to other animals). Editors prefer not to see talking inanimate objects (this includes talking teddy bears, talking toasters or talking oak trees) - again, because small children are still learning the difference between what is alive and conscious and what is not.
So, paradoxically, very young children are too quick to believe in magic for them to get much of a charge out of fantasy. Or perhaps the adults in their lives (parents, teachers, magazine editors) recognize that one of their big tasks at this developmental stage is to figure out what's real, and talking toasters would seem to confuse them.

As for older readers, they have a better sense of what defines fantasy. But there's an even bigger major challenge.

Rule #1 in writing fiction for children's magazines is that it has to be short. Shorter than you imagined the story. Shorter than you think you can make it. Even shorter than that.

Rule #1 in writing fantasy is that you have to define the boundaries of the fantastic elements--the rules of magic, the types of creatures, etc.--before they become crucial in the plot. Otherwise, they'll just seem convenient. And rather than lay out those rules explicitly, it's usually better to show them in action in some early episode.

So the first Rule #1 can come into direct conflict with the second, since defining or showing the magic requires a lot more words than are necessary for a story set in the universe readers recognize as their own. As Fields says:
Because all magazine fiction has such tight word counts, stories for intermediates (readers who read) often rely on certain preset reader expectations. A sea adventure may have a sea monster. A castle may be besieged by a dragon. You can play with existing forms such as creating an athletic princess or a bookish knight, but you won't usually see the introduction of totally new creatures or complex societies that need lots of explanation for the reader to understand. . . .

This is why you see so much castle-medieval-fantasy in intermediate short stories, the conventions are part of the culture so we don't need a lot of explanation to grasp the story.
And did I mention the story has to be short as well?

13 March 2009

Go to the Groggery’s Cell

For Poetry Friday, here's some of the deathless verse of Dr. Charles Jewett, as published in the Almanac of the American Temperance Union, for 1842, recently acquired by the Boston Athenaeum.

Ye who have felt the joy
Of childhood's guiltless life,
Pity the drunkard's boy,
And the drunkard's wretched wife.

For through the winter day
He leaves them cold and ill;
The night comes on his way,
But he returns not still.

The fire is getting low,
And o'er the dreary plain
That barefoot boy must go,
To seek for wood again.

He weeps when he is told
That he again must go;
It makes his feet so cold
To tread upon the snow.

But where's the father, where?
Go to the groggery's cell,
And ask the question there:--
The rum-seller could tell.
Jewett died in 1879 at the age of 72 after a lifetime of crusading against alcohol. He was also known for his Holmesian powers of observation. (He's not to be confused with his contemporary Charles Coffin Jewett, one of the founders of American library cataloguing.)

The same imagery survives in an urban setting in Hal Standish's Fred Fearnot series, as published in "an interesting weekly" in 1906. We just don't see children's literature like this anymore.

12 March 2009

Backlist Books Clogging Up the System?

Marion Maneker's article "The Kindle Revolution" on Slate's The Big Money section discusses the current book-publishing business through the lens of the latest book-reading technology:

The risky part of the business--best-sellers-- isn't really the problem. Though how to manage that risk has become a serious problem for several houses. What's eating into publishers' profits is the slowing of backlist sales. . . .

Backlist is slowing because traffic at the bookstore chains is slowing. Barnes & Noble's holiday sales were down nearly 8 percent as measured by same-store comps. Retail was bad everywhere in the fourth quarter, but for the year, those comps were down more than 5 percent.

Ironically, the book chains are falling victim to the same disease that killed the independent bookstore. High-margin sales--big best-sellers that come in the back of the store in a shipping box and leave through the front with a customer in the space of a few hours or days--have migrated to other outlets. When a book is running hot, most sales don't take place in bookstores at all. They're at Costco and newsstands and grocery stores and dozens of other nonbook book outlets.

Meanwhile, back at the Barnes & Noble, the low-margin books--those worthy backlist titles for which the store must pay a lot to store on the shelves for weeks or years just so they'll be waiting for you when you finally come looking for them--are clogging up the system.
So what will the Kindle or other electronic readers linked to the web do to that system?
The important thing here is to recognize that the purchasing decision for a book doesn't take place in the bookstore anymore. You don't need to hold the book, read the flap copy, or weigh the sincerity of the jacket blurbs anymore.
I think that decision already started to migrate out of the bookstore with the arrival of Amazon, but electronic readers can certainly accelerate the change.
Here's where the Kindle comes in. The collapse of bookstores almost ensures that the Kindle will thrive. Not because it's better than a book; that doesn't matter. The nation-within-a-nation that reads for pleasure and to be informed is a small but vibrant republic. Heavy readers make up a large portion of the book-buying public. These are people who read two to three books a week and buy 50 or so books a year. The Kindle will solve a number of problems for the citizens of Biblandia, not the least of which is having to go find a bookstore to get their next read.
But is going to a bookstore really a problem for us Biblandians? Sure, not having to do so would give us more time to read. But just as movie fans like going to movie theaters and visiting movie studios, so book fans enjoy book places. Which gives me an excuse to link to Mirage Bookmark's "Most Interesting Bookstores of the World" and Flickr's "World's Most Beautiful Bookstores" Pool. (Picture above from that pool courtesy of ECV-OnTheRoad.)

Maneker's final paragraphs burrow down into one corner of book publishing--journalism-based non-fiction--and spin it into the whole of the industry. I therefore don't find them as compelling as the remarks above.

11 March 2009

Cover Designs, Shopping, and False Nostalgia

First came, it seems, Spacesick's "I Can Read Movies" series with covers reminiscent of Penguin Classics paperbacks from the 1960s.

How reminiscent? Consistent series design. Two-color printing. Graphics designed to strike the eye at a distance while evoking the story within. And, most powerful of all, the cream cover stock, browning at the edges like lightly toasted bread. The results really do look like volumes one would expect to find squeezed onto a shelf of a college town's used-bookstore.

Inspired with the same admiration for book covers past, M. S. Corley posted new designs in the same style for:

In much the same spirit, Blaze Danielle has posted her interpretation of childhood favorites in another medium: personal-shopping for literary girls after they grow up, in two posts on Storybook Fashion. Danielle appears to have chosen currently available garments, but of course she was looking at past depictions of those characters.

I suspect that Spacesick and Sorley aren't as old as the paperbacks they're using as models. They probably came upon those books after the Penguin Classics had already evolved to orange, blue, or black spines and full-color photos on the front. (Or, in the case of P. G. Wodehouse, delightful Ionicus illustrations.) Like Danielle's largely clothing choices, these retro looks seem to be a form of false nostalgia, not for the things of our own youth but for old things we encountered in our youth.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

(Hat tips to Betsy Bird's Fuse #8, Alison Morris's Shelftalker, and Ryan Wilson's ArtCow.)

10 March 2009

The Admission Price for Authorship

In last week's The Week, Francis Wilkinson asked, "Is writing for the rich?" Which is to say, does writing pay so poorly in today's economy that the only people who can afford to go into the profession will be independently wealthy?

It’s not obvious how young writers without accommodating, well-to-do parents or a trust from gramps make it these days. Surely they can’t spend a year or two blogging without pay until an audience evolves to nurture them. They’ll starve. Meantime, freelance rates for non-fluff magazine writing have barely risen in the past 15 years. And the chances of getting a job at a quality newspaper or a serious magazine are fast approaching zero.

There are exceptions, I know. There always are. But on the whole, the writing game seems likely to become even more a province of the upper middle class and flat-out wealthy than it is already. The offspring of the affluent, branded college degrees in hand, can afford to give it a go.
I've already been contemplating that prospect in regard to what respected children's-book editor Stephen Roxburgh has been saying about his new editorial service, namelos. He told Cynthia Leitich Smith, "The namelos model shifts the initial financial burden to authors and illustrators. Many will deplore this. We lament it, but see it as inevitable."

If the "namelos model" takes hold in publishing, companies will stop paying for the vetting and editing of books, and instead expect new authors to arrive with their manuscripts already professionally shaped and polished for the market. And unless authors have experience or exceptional instincts about those things, they'll have to pay the right people to provide that guidance.

That's an even higher price than what Wilkinson foresees in the journalism world. A new book author would not only have to have enough money to support herself while writing, but also enough to pay an editor: "the initial financial burden," in Roxburgh's words. As Wilkinson suggests, a larger percentage of the people who could break through those barriers will be wealthy to start with.

We've seen a culture like that before. A hundred years ago, most book writers paid many of their costs of publication. Education was largely confined to the top ranks of society, so more writers (and readers) came from those tiers. There were fewer books published, and they reflected the dominant upper-class.

09 March 2009

“All We Had Was Supercar.”

Back here I quoted Neil Gaiman's childhood impressions of America from comic books, particularly pizza, fire hydrants, and superheroes. At the time I didn't realize that he'd put those observations into the mouth of the Alan Moore-created character John Constantine.

Here are the relevant panels from The Books of Magic, this portion illustrated by Scott Hampton.

And here's information on Supercar.

08 March 2009

Scans_Daily No More

Occasionally I've mentioned the LiveJournal group scans_daily as one of my sources of comic-book background knowledge, commentary, and unusual images.

That's no longer available. Last weekend LiveJournal suspended the group due to copyright complaints. This was big news in the comics-discussion community, with reports on the major news websites and various creators being quizzed about their opinions. Brigid Alvorsen provided a good overview of the situation and people's reactions.

The discussion largely boils down to two positions. On one side, scans_daily's defenders argue that it was an enthusiastic fan community, sharing samples of work members liked and disliked. The law allows folks to reproduce a limited amount of copyrighted material in the context of critical commentary.

What's more, those fans argue, comics creators and publishers should welcome such sharing because it publicizes new products. (This is, of course, the same argument people have made about sharing music without payment to its creators.)

The opposing view is that people on scans_daily were using "fair use" and anonymity as a mask for widespread copyright violations. Every Wednesday members uploaded pages and pages of the latest comics, revealing major twists in storylines. The group's guidelines about not scanning too much of any one magazine didn't keep large chunks from appearing, and entire stories from the "Golden Age."

And as for such a community's effect on the market, this view holds, the free availability of that material ultimately makes people less likely to buy it. One of the most vehement voices from this side was Kevin Church at Beaucoup Kevin.

But by the time that debate took place, scans_daily was shut down, its members scattered like refugees from Gotham at the start of the "No Man's Land" arc.
So was scans_daily a large-scale copyright violation, cheating comics copyright-holders? Or was it a community for perceptive, funny, and impassioned discussion of comic books? In my experience, it was both.

When I started looking into American comics again, after a gap of twenty years, scans_daily was one of the most helpful resources I found. It offered glimpses of both the latest developments and stories long out of print. About half the panels illustrating my weekly Robin posts are extracted from scans_daily scans. I learned to spot the icons of knowledgeable Robin fans and follow their postings. (Otherwise, I'd never have been able to use that "No Man's Land" metaphor.)

Furthermore, I bought comics because of what I saw on scans_daily, comics both new (such as Nightwing: Freefall and The Brave and the Bold, #15, which makes the case that Dick Grayson is the most trusted man in the DC Universe) and secondhand (Robin, #10; Impulse, #50; Superboy, #85; etc.). As soon as a member posted panels from Mouse Guard, I put in a request to my library.

At the same time, I was troubled by how often scans_daily postings included many pages from new magazines, frequently with no credits for the writers or artists. As for the critical commentary that excuses reproductions, some members did indeed offer insights on character development, graphic techniques, or creators' careers. There were lots of jokes. But too many of the remarks were of the order of "I hate Dan DiDio cuz he hates Blue Beetle," which makes no sense and hardly justifies scanning half of the latest Blue Beetle magazine.

Given that situation, I agree with the many observers who've said it was only a matter of time before scans_daily got shut down. The copyright doctrine of "fair use" is misty, but many postings were clearly beyond its bounds, and big web services like LiveJournal are antsy.

Some folks blamed comics scripter Peter David for complaining about one post, but he and Marvel Comics were perfectly within their rights to do so. Furthermore, just as my comics research made me appreciate scans_daily, so I'm grateful to David. His Young Justice of a decade ago offered a fun take on Tim Drake as Robin, and his book on comics scripting is a fine how-to guide.

The scans_daily shutdown has produced some interesting commentary. Leigh Walton at Picture Poetry raised the issue of gender:

A friend...grumbled today about the dismissive attitude of certain commenters (”oh well, it was full of bitching and slash anyway”), declaring that reaction to be part of a broader discomfort that many male fans have with the feminine form of fandom. In response, she more or less said “a man in S_D feels like a woman in a comic shop.” . . .

I remember being pretty shocked at the culture of S_D when I first discovered it years ago. It was a thriving community of fans interacting with superhero comics in an entirely different manner than I was used to. But it didn’t feel like “this is how they do it on the internet,” it felt like “this is how they do it when women are in charge.”
Which was the first time I realized that (a) scans_daily had women in charge, or (b) there's such a deep split within comics fandom. Lisa Fortuner at Robot 6 added more remarks while drawing a line between reasons for the shutdown itself and reasons for different fans' responses to it.
Another interesting reaction came from comics scripter Gail Simone, who herself came out of the female fan ranks:
I sympathize with any creators who felt their work was spoiled. I JUST this week had the ending of my latest issue of Wonder Woman spoiled.
Simone laments some comics-sharing on artistic rather than commercial grounds, because it can interfere with readers' enjoyment. I find that attitude very interesting. Even so, Simone makes clear, she's ready to live with spoilers in such communities as scans_daily if they're a reflection of reader enthusiasm.

Everybody acknowledges that LiveJournal's shutdown has simply pushed the same behavior elsewhere. Now there's a noscans_daily on LiveJournal for former members to keep up the conversation, and a reconstituted scans_daily on another service. (I haven't joined because I'm too busy right now to sign up for anything that includes the word "insane." It would be redundant.) And of course the internet contains torrents of files reproducing nearly every comic book ever published, hidden deeper than scans_daily was and thus not available to new fans.

Meanwhile, the comic-book publishers still face shrinking magazine sales, and the pitfalls and potential of new digital formats. How do they please established readers and cultivate new ones? Keep characters fresh yet familiar? Price material economically but profitably? No one knows which challenge to attack first. But scans_daily had its head up.

07 March 2009

Twilight Goes Academic

Melissa Click, Jennifer Stevens Aubrey, and Lissa Behm-Morawitz are soliciting proposals for chapters of 6000 to 8000 words to go into a book tentatively titled Bitten by Twilight: Youth Culture, Media, and the Twilight Saga.

Their call for papers says:

The editors seek essays that explore Stephenie Meyer's wildly popular Twilight series. We are particularly interested in essays that explore the cultural significance of the Twilight phenomenon and its impact on youth culture.

The collection will feature scholarly work from a diversity of theoretical and methodological perspectives, including: analyses of the series' messages, production and marketing processes, and audiences. We welcome work from a wide variety of disciplines, including: communication, sociology, cultural studies, psychology, religious studies, and gender studies.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:
  • Representations of gender, race, class and sexuality
  • Religion, morality, and values
  • Feminist and anti-feminist themes in Twilight
  • Intended and unintended audiences
  • Fans and anti-fans
  • Genre and vampire/werewolf folklore
  • Relationship models (romantic, friendship, and familial)
  • Space and place in Twilight
  • Celebrity culture and Stephenie Meyer, Robert Pattinson, and Kristen Stewart
  • Translation of the series for the screen
  • The Twilight franchise
This collection will be proposed to Peter Lang's "Mediated Youth" series.
People interested in contributing should email a 250-word proposal, short bibliography, brief author's bio, and contact information to Melissa Click by 10 Apr 2009. The editors plan to notify contributors of acceptances by 15 May, and first drafts of chapters will be due in early fall 2009.

(I note that all the titles in the series published by Peter Lang are about girls, despite the more inclusive series title and description. Would this book change that pattern? Probably not.)

05 March 2009

Huffing and Puffing about the Blagojevich Deal

Michael Viner's essay at the Huffington Post about making a deal--supposedly a headline-grabbing six-figure deal--for a book from former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich is a masterpiece in avoiding unflattering facts.

From his high horse, Viner writes:

When Harper Collins decided to pay $3 million to O.J. Simpson there was no public outcry until the book turned out to be a great hoax.
That's selective on several counts. First, there was an outcry as soon as the news got out; eventually Rupert Murdoch canned the book's editor. Second, the book wasn't a hoax--the deal was, with money going to Simpson even though he claimed it wasn't.

More important, in pointing to HarperCollins, Viner manages to avoid mentioning which publisher is most notorious for exploiting the O. J. Simpson trial. That's none other than Michael Viner, who then called his firm Dove Entertainment. He published a book by one victim's sister, a book by dismissed jurors, a parody of Simpson's own book at the time, and more. Viner now argues that we must presume Blagojevich is innocent until proven guilty; he showed little interest in that presumption back in 1996.

Among Dove's other titles were The Private Diary of Lyle Menendez, which wasn't actually a diary by that murderer, and a memoir of Hollywood prostitutes. The latter led to a lawsuit by authors claiming their text had been changed without their approval and that Viner harrassed them sexually. Viner sued Heidi Fleiss for saying he'd slept with two of those women, and the jury returned a verdict in her favor.

Then Viner came up with New Millennium Press. Among its authors was Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who made things up. Viner's strategy for building frontlist titles is to go after people who are already household names because of controversies in the news. He's obviously trying the same strategy with Blagojevich, rushing a manuscript into print to take advantage of public attention during the trial.

Viner is also notorious for packaging books and audiotapes to exploit authors' names with old or minor material. That's produced complaints from such authors as David Baldacci and Stephen Hawking.

The reason Viner's present company is called Phoenix Books is because it was his route out of the bankruptcy of his earlier firm. A jury awarded author/editor Otto Penzler $2.8 million from New Millennium, so Viner put the firm into bankruptcy to avoid paying. He then left the company in the hands of a trustee but returned to buy its assets for this new outfit called Phoenix. Among its titles now is another memoir of Hollywood prostitutes.

All I can say is that Viner and Blagojevich seem like a good match. They have every right to go into business together, at whatever terms they choose. For those of us who dislike such behavior, the best response is not to buy their book.

A Paean to Beautiful Words

AlphaDictionary has just posted Dr. Robert Beard's 100 Most Beautiful Words in English. As is often the case with these sorts of lists, Beard couldn't really stick to his numerical parameter and make the last few cuts, so the list is really 110 words.

"Verisimilitudinous" doesn't make the list, alas. It has all the requisite soft consonants, and is probably as common and more useful for writers than "potamophilous" or "inspissate." But this is Dr. Beard's list, not mine.

For some of the words, the definition is obviously part of the beauty. The list defines "offing" as "That part of the sea between the horizon and the offshore," which sounds lovely and, I suppose, produced the metaphorical phrase "in the offing."

But of course the same word has a practical meaning, as in, "I was interrupted in the middle of offing Jimmy the Frogman, so I ended up offing two other guys and a cat as well." That "offing" doesn't sound nearly as beautiful.

Other words' definitions are apparently obscure enough not to interfere with our enjoyment of their beauty. "Moiety" sounds nice, but its prosaic meaning doesn't match up. "Pyrrhic" can be quite bloody, as in the British military's Pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill. And "surreptitious" and "plethora" overcome their negative connotations with their cascades of soft syllables.

04 March 2009

“What It Is That I’ve Done, What It Is That I Do”

Here are some of Neil Gaiman's thought-provoking remarks about his storytelling and writing process from Roger Sutton's interview of the recent Newbery Medalist for the School Library Journal:

I was in Bologna a few years ago, in 2003, listening to a speech being given at the university about my work. It was an incredibly perceptive speech by a Bolognese professor of children’s literature. What fascinated me and troubled and worried me was I thought that I was so clever. I thought that everything I did was so different. And in this speech, the lady was talking about what it is that I’ve done, what it is that I do. And I realized with a sort of horrible sinking feeling that she was describing my next two books. . . . And it was a really major sinking feeling. It was like, Oh, my God. I’m actually doing the same thing over and over. . . .

The Graveyard Book was the longest in gestation of anything I’ve done. And it also was kind of the book that I was working towards writing for a very long time. It began in 1986, maybe early ’87. . . . I was a working journalist at this point. I’d written a few short stories. And I wrote an attempted first page and then read what I’d written and thought, You know, I’m not good enough for this. This is a really good idea, and it’s much better than I am as a writer. I will put it aside until I’m good enough. And once, maybe twice after that in the intervening years, I would go back and try writing a bit more. I’d definitely given up on it by 1989. . . .

Somewhere in 2004, after I’d finished writing Anansi Boys, it occurred to me that technically I was no longer getting better in terms of, you know, just the sheer skill of putting a sentence together, the ability to say whatever it was that I wanted to say. Whether I was any good or not, I didn’t know. But I was definitely no longer seeing the kinds of year-to-year improvement that I had previously been aware of. I was now going, “OK, this is basically whoever I am.” And I no longer had any excuse for putting off writing the story.

I had a notebook with the words, “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” That was definitely going to be the first line. I had begun and given up on the opening many times, and suddenly I thought, I can start in the middle. So I did.
Whole interview here.

03 March 2009

Passing of a Generation

Clarence Swensen, who played one of the Munchkin soldiers in the MGM Wizard of Oz, died on 25 February at the age of 91. This picture of flowers in his memory on the Munchkins' star in Hollywood's Walk of Fame comes from Karen Owen of Storyland Collectables.

I wrote about Swensen back here:

Those surviving Munchkin performers tend to have been in their late teens in 1938, when they shot their scene. That means they were about twenty years old when the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into World War 2. The young men therefore faced the question of how to serve their country. But because of their height, they were all classified as 4-F, ineligible for military service.

If there's a Q&A session at a convention [about Oz], I ask the men about their experiences of the war, and the answers are usually quite interesting. . . .

Texan Clarence Swenson worked on repairing the radar equipment in planes at airbases in the US. He found that his small size gave him an advantage in reaching inside the nosecones, letting his crew avoid the delay of having another team come out to remove those cowlings and thus to cut the planes' time out of service.
Swensen was the last of the men who played Munchkin soldiers, I believe--certainly the last making public appearances.

02 March 2009

The Pitfalls of Picking an Official State Children’s Book

The Columbus Dispatch is reporting on an Ohio legislator's proposal to make Robert McCloskey's Lentil the official children's book of Ohio. McCloskey was a native of Hamilton, Ohio, and Lentil's fictional setting of Alto, Ohio, rather resembles that town. Which, not by coincidence, is the area that the act's sponsor represents. The town already has a Lentil statue, as I reported back here.

Curiously, this proposal wasn't initiated by a set of schoolkids cajoled into proposing a state symbol as part of a unit on government, the way the "third grade class at the Dean S. Luce Elementary School in Canton" made McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings into Massachusetts's official state children's book. According to StateSymbolsUSA.org, Massachusetts is the only state to have designated an official book of any kind.

Aside from lack of such grass-roots support, the major problem for the Lentil proposal is that Ohio, being a large state, has produced other important children's authors and illustrators: Natalie Babbitt, Virginia Hamilton, Lois Lenski, R. L. Stine. Here in Massachusetts we've addressed that problem by dubbing Dr. Seuss our official state children's author-illustrator so his partisans don't feel left out.

Another problem is that, with all due deference to Lentil, McCloskey's greatest Ohioana are the Homer Price books. Nothing else can compare.

(Thanks to Publishers Weekly for the pointer.)

01 March 2009

Scott Beatty on Robin

Scott Beatty posted his introduction for a new Spanish edition of Robin: Year One, which introduction begins: "Without question, Dick Grayson is the most compelling comic book character ever created."

So naturally the weekly Robin had to link to that. To be sure, Beatty has an interest in putting the first Robin on top of the heap. Beatty and Chuck Dixon scripted that look at Dick Grayson's early days, as well as Batgirl: Year One and Nightwing: Year One. Beatty's also author of Batman: The Ultimate Guide to the Dark Knight and other DC Comics reference titles. And the purpose of such collected-edition introductions is usually to hype the books you've bought, to put you in the proper frame of mind for reading them.

Nonetheless, Beatty makes an interesting case for the drama behind Dick Grayson. Since going to his blog makes your computer play early-'90s pop while slowing down all its other operations, here's the gist:

Now, in the annals of comics, there is no greater loner than the Caped Crusader. . . . Swearing vengeance on not just his parents’ murderer but CRIME itself, Bruce Wayne pledged to wage an unrelenting war against injustice. And in his mind, nothing mattered but THE WAR. Not his personal safety. Not close relationships (except for faithful valet Alfred Pennyworth, of course). Nothing.

And then this kid came along. Yeah, Dick Grayson. . . . Maybe Batman saw something familiar in the stoic face of Dick Grayson, a boy who needed justice also in a cruel and unjust world. And thus, the Dark Knight made one of his best decisions, or worst mistakes--depending on your perspective--particularly where child endangerment issues are concerned. . . .

Here, Chuck Dixon and I write a tale that shows just what it means to be entrusted with the secrets of the World’s Greatest Detective, and what it means when the Boy Wonder finds his wings summarily clipped for failing to live up to the Batman’s sometimes impossible standards.

And that’s what this is all about. Dick Grayson is the best comics character in the world not because he got to live in stately Wayne Manor, nor because he got to play in the Batcave and drive Batmobiles and Batcycles and Batboats. Of all the kids in comics (a veritable schoolyard of orphans and waifs and naifs), Dick Grayson was the first to be given Batman’s TRUST.
Beatty doesn't address Dick's next major passage, leaving Batman for the Titans. Presumably he's saving that for Nightwing: Año Uno.