31 May 2009

The Last Times We Saw Dick Grayson as Batman

As the weekly Robin has traced, in the Batman comic books Dick Grayson has now taken over the mantle of the Caped Crusader while his mentor, Bruce Wayne, is temporarily dead. Last week I discussed my theory that one of scripter Grant Morrison's inspirations for this plot was a friendly rivalry with Frank Miller, who's been exploring the dynamic of the Dynamic Duo in the All-Star Batman and Robin series.

At Newsarama, a commenter named roshow suggested another source: a series of six "imaginary" stories from the early 1960s showing Dick Grayson as a future Batman and Bruce Wayne's son as a future Robin.
The first of those tales appeared in Batman: From the ’30s to the ’70s, which Morrison read as a child (as did I). He's acknowledged drawing inspiration from "Golden Age" Batman stories.

However, Robin II was quite a different personality from the boy taking over as Robin now. Bruce Wayne, Jr., was the imaginary future son of the billionaire and Kathy Kane, that era's Batwoman.

The new Robin is Damian, who may be Bruce Wayne's child with antagonist Talia al-Ghul. He's already a well trained fighter, and the new series will be about Dick trying to rein in the boy's killer impulses and teach him to be a better person.

In contrast, the earlier stories were about a decent kid learning to fight crooks better. As Dick was doing in the "real" stories of the time, Bruce, Jr., fell down a lot. He wasn't sure he could live up to the expectations of either his father or "Uncle Dick."

The Silver Age blog points out that many of those "Batman II" tales ended with Bruce Wayne, Sr., dressing up in his old costume and saving the day. Which didn't make Dick look any more competent than Junior. After all, the name of the magazine was still Batman, not Batman II!

The saga of Batman II and Robin II was the fictional creation of Alfred the butler. Those stories disappeared from the magazines after Batman's "New Look" removed Batwoman and even Alfred (for a time). But perhaps they stuck in Morrison's memory.

Within the current continuity, Dick Grayson took over as Batman for three months of comics in 1994-95. A villain had broken Bruce Wayne's back. His first choice of a replacement had proved even crazier than he is, tossing Tim Drake out of the cave (which opened the door for the separate Robin series).

Eventually Bruce defeated his first successor in the most difficult intervention ever, then decided that he needed to retrain. Meanwhile, Dick had left the Titans because of declining sales, so he was available to take over the Batman role. He gave up his Nightwing identity and hid his ponytail under the cowl.

Those stories were collected in Batman: Prodigal, now out of print. (I bought my copy from an English church thrift shop.) Because Tim Drake remained Robin, that book reflects a very different team dynamic from what Miller and Morrison are exploring.

I see that dynamic in this moment, one of my favorites in Batman literature (truncated from Shadow of the Bat, #33, script by Alan Grant and art by Bret Blevins). Dick and Tim are up on a skyscraper, preparing to hang-glide across the harbor. Tim does an exceedingly rare thing for a superhero, deciding that he's not up for some feat. And Dick supports him. As this exchange shows, they get along. They like and respect each other. They can communicate, decide what's best, and not carry around resentments. Thus, there's little chance of them generating the ongoing conflict that fuels long storylines.

Since Prodigal, Dick has dressed as Batman again at least once, for a moment at the start of Batman, #588. Wearing the Batman costume (and elevator boots), Dick walks into a bar and roughs up a hood named "Matches" Malone. The other thugs therefore accept "Matches" as one of them--but he's really Bruce in disguise. Right after this encounter, Bruce gives Dick notes about how he should have played Batman better. Plenty of tension and resentment there.

30 May 2009

Restimulating Old Neurons with The Brave and the Bold

On a whim, I picked up my public library's copy of Mark Waid and George Pérez's The Brave and the Bold: The Lords of Luck, the first collection from DC Comics's revived team-up magazine. And I was so happy I did.

Pérez was the artist on New Teen Titans, the last comic book I read regularly as an adolescent. I'd forgotten what a pleasure it is to look at his artwork: the panels crowded with characters and emotions, the way he draws many types of faces instead of just a few, the imaginative panel shapes and transitions, the luminous clarity of line.

Having been a Marvel fanboy instead of a DC one, I'm sure I missed half of Mark Waid's in-jokes in this saga. I still don't care about the Rann-Thanagar War, and I still can't tell members of the Legion of Super-heroes one from another. But the sprawling story was great fun nonetheless.

This Brave and the Bold collection also helped me solve a mystery that had nibbled at the back of my mind for decades. One of the first comic books I can recall reading included a science-fiction story featuring three protagonists--two white men of different ages and one young white woman. Each received a medal.

In discussing their separate experiences, each described how he or she had survived because of something learned from one of the others. Thus, man #1 recalled hearing how man #2 had won some interplanetary pentathlon, and therefore pole-vaulted out of trouble. Man #2 recalled hearing how the woman had won a target-shooting contest, and so on.

I must have read that comic about thirty-five years ago, and never seen it since. I think what made it stick in my brain was how the story was obviously an artificial construction, and yet embodied what we like in a narrative. It had unity, logic, symmetry, and--dare I say it?--a moral.

Toward the end of this volume, Batman is pulled across time, and Pérez illustrated that with a montage of DC's futuristic characters. One tiny picture showed three characters--two white men and a white woman. Waid's note at the back of the book sent me to look up "Star Rovers" on Wikipedia. And sure enough, those are the adventurers I'd read about; their names are Homer Gint, Karel Sorensen, and Rick Purvis. There seem to have been all of thirteen Star Rovers tales published before 1990. Their creator, Gardner Fox, is better known for some of the early Batman, Flash, and Hawkman stories.

Further searching brought me to Mike's DC Database, and I can now identify the particular story I read as "Who Saved the Earth?", first published in Mystery in Space, #80, Dec 1962, and later reprinted. (This Brave and the Bold volume kicks off with Green Lantern contacting Batman about a "mystery in space"--now I get it.)

That Star Rovers adventure is ten pages, too short to fill a comic book, so I must have seen another story or two at the same time. But only the Space Rovers, with their interlocking tales snapping tight as a purse, stuck in my mind.

29 May 2009

Judge Hand in the Land of Superheroes

I was intrigued by the opening of an essay by Peter Coogan in A Comics Studies Reader, just published by the University Press of Mississippi. The book says this article was excerpted from Coogan's book Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre, which is less widely available--perhaps because it comes from a publisher called Monkeybrain Books. (Just a hunch.)

The essay starts this way (at least as the Reader presents it):

In his 1952 ruling that Wonder Man copied and infringed upon Superman, Judge Learned Hand provided a succinct definition for the superhero. The characteristics of mission, powers, and identity are central to Hand's determination that Wonder Man copied Superman.
Legal scholars often call Hand the greatest American jurist never to serve on the Supreme Court. He was especially influential in defining the law of intellectual property, a topic that came up a lot in his New York circuit. The thought that Hand had a hand in providing a legal definition of a superhero--on the level of circuit-court precedent--was intriguing.

But the date nagged at me; the Wonder Man lawsuit, I recalled, occurred early in the history of superhero comics. And when I looked into this statement further, it turned out to be wrong in other ways. It mixes up two separate suits involving Superman, misstates Hand's role, and reads too much into the pertinent ruling.

The first suit was filed in 1939 by DC Comics soon after Fox Comics published the first Wonder Man story, commissioned from Will Eisner and his studio. DC claimed that the story infringed on its copyrights for the early Superman stories. Fox responded that both characters were based on older, more general heroic archetypes, so there was no copyright. Don Markstein's Toonopedia describes the proceedings this way: "Fox carefully instructed Eisner on how to testify. Instead, Eisner told the truth," which was that Fox had indeed asked him to come up with a hero as much like Superman as possible.

Judge John M. Woolsey ruled in favor of DC, and Fox appealed. In 1940, a panel of three judges upheld the decision. One of those circuit-court judges was Learned Hand. But the judge who wrote that 1940 decision was actually Learned's cousin, Augustus Noble Hand.

Learned Hand returned to the field of superhero law in 1952, at the end of a lawsuit between DC and Fawcett over whether a more successful comic-book hero, Captain Marvel, infringed on the Superman copyright. A lower court had ruled that the Big Cheese would have done so except that DC had made a legal blunder in not registering some Superman comic strips with the US Copyright Office. Hand reversed that decision to declare that Captain Marvel was a copyright infringement anyway.

So, to return to the quotation above, the Wonder Man suit was in 1939-40, not 1952, and Learned Hand didn't write the decision. Which brings me to the final point: that decision really didn't address what defines a superhero.

The judges were ruling on a narrow question: Was the Wonder Man story in Wonder Comics, #1, an infringement on DC's copyrights for Action Comics, #1-12, featuring the Man of Steel? They saw several points of similarity:
The attributes and antics of "Superman" and "Wonderman" are closely similar. Each at times conceals his strength beneath ordinary clothing but after removing his cloak stands revealed in full panoply in a skintight acrobatic costume. The only real difference between them is that "Superman" wears a blue uniform and "Wonderman" a red one.

Each is termed the champion of the oppressed. Each is shown running toward a full moon "off into the night", and each is shown crushing a gun in his powerful hands. "Superman" is pictured as stopping a bullet with his person and "Wonderman" as arresting and throwing back shells. Each is depicted as shot at by three men, yet as wholly impervious to the missiles that strike him.

"Superman" is shown as leaping over a twenty story building, and "Wonderman" as leaping from building to building. "Superman" and "Wonderman" are each endowed with sufficient strength to rip open a steel door. Each is described as being the strongest man in the world and each as battling against "evil and injustice."
If those traits actually defined a superhero, then comic-book heroes who don't run toward a full moon, who are shot at by more or less than three men, or who have powers other than being the strongest man in the world wouldn't qualify. And the ruling didn't touch on other qualities Coogan's essay says are distinctive ingredients of a superhero, such as a "codename and iconic costume, which typically express his biography, characters, powers, or origin."

So the essay opening that intrigued me instead reinforced my feeling that research in this field needs to be more rigorous and less wishful. Learned Hand's contribution to the definition of a superhero is as much a myth as Elvis Presley's imitation of Captain Marvel, Jr., or DC planning to cancel Batman in the early 1960s.

28 May 2009

Greek Myth Graphics as a Gateway

At the Graphic Classroom, Chris Wilson wrote recently about using comics about Greek mythology as a way of buttering up elementary-school students for Rick Riordan's first Percy Jackson novel, based on that mythology. The strategy worked--for some students:

I introduced my comics to the students in my student teaching class early in the semester. I had an entire box filled with Greek mythology from Lerner Publishing [Graphic Legends and Myths series].

At first, only one fourth grade student--a boy in the gifted program--picked them up. It was on my recommendation and I thought he would enjoy them. . . . It was not long until I had a group of nearly 10 boys reading Greek myth. The girls, except one, were uninterested.

When we finished our daily read-aloud book, I introduced The Lightning Thief to the class. Instantly, the boys became so excited when the story mentioned Perseus, the Minotaur, Medusa, Zeus and other Greek characters. So excited in fact, that they would often interrupt the read-aloud to share what they knew about the characters. There were times when they would stand up and shout and flap their hands.

Fourth grade boys
About literature

I could not keep my Greek myth comics in stock. They were in backpacks and on desks and in hands, some even read during recess.

I soon left the classroom to begin my rotations. When I came back four weeks later, I discovered the kids had finished The Lightning Thief. Many of the boys had gone on to check out the next book from the library or purchased it from the Scholastic book fair.

I sat down with the students and asked them about it. The boys were almost uncontrollable in their excitement over both the comics and the novel. The girls, on the other hand, were not. I asked them about it.

They were confused.

The girls, you see, had not picked up the comics so they were very unfamiliar with the characters or the back-story. Thus, they were so-so on the book.
Just as the girls had been, for the most part, so-so on the comics. But might that have been because Greek myths--or at least those about heroes and monsters and gods hitting each other--hold more appeal for American boys no matter what format they come in?

Rick Riordan started the Percy Jackson stories to appeal to a boy--specifically, one of his sons. And according to this interview, that young Riordan already enjoyed Greek mythology.

Maybe someone could run Chris Wilson's experiment using comics and a novel thought to have more appeal for American girls, and see if the students' responses are reversed.

This anecdote also reminded me of a moment last summer when I was visiting Godson and his family in upstate New York. I had ended up with the largest bedroom in the house, more real estate than I could use, and I came back to that room one day to find all the kids playing inside. Godson's Brother had found the latest volume of Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze comics among my books and was intently studying the vast family tree at the front. The comics pages didn't draw him in as much as all those polysyllabic names.

(Pointer from Good Comics for Kids.)

27 May 2009

Neil Gaiman on Robin (well, a little—but not enough for Sunday)

DC Comics persuaded Neil Gaiman to write the script for a two-part Batman story called "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" Wired interviewed Gaiman about his inspiration:

When I was 5, I was in a car with my dad and he mentioned that there was this Batman TV show in America about a man who dressed up in a costume and fought crime. The only bat I ever knew was a cricket bat, so what I thought he looked like was rather odd, based on that.

Months later, the series hit the U.K., and I remember watching and being affected by it. Really worrying, genuinely worrying, on a deep primal level, "Will he be OK?" That is the way it was with every deathtrap. If I missed the end of an episode, I’d get my friends to tell me he was OK.

Because of the Batman TV show, my dad picked up Smash! comics for me, which reprinted a Batman cartoon strip, which were much more about continuity than the television program. Those were my gateway drugs into Batman. . . .

I wanted my comic to contain all of that, from the story to the art. I wanted it to have that love in there. I wanted to write the last Batman with honor and love. . . . The joy of this Batman story is that there were 70 years of Batman and I wanted to try and talk about all of it.
And as for working with artist Andy Kubert:
I kept asking Andy to do things that are impossible, and because no one told him they were impossible, he did them. Normally someone asks him to draw three panels, but doesn’t ask him to draw those three panels in the style of Brian Bolland or Jerry Robinson. I loved the fact that I could ask Andy for Robin when he’s 17, off to college and still wearing the costume, the Speedo and everything, which looks kind of stupid. But I still want it to be moving. And he did it.
DC will release Gaiman's Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? in a hardcover volume with his other Gotham City stories this July.

(Pointer from Batman Obviously.)

26 May 2009

Fleep Fleep

A long while back, Publishers Weekly ran a rather extraordinary interview with Jason Shiga, library employee and cartoonist. His most recent milestone then seemed to be an Ignatz nomination for Bookhunter, a "library crime procedural."

Shiga told the magazine:

I get pegged as the math cartoonist, but to be honest, I don’t think there’s anything in Fleep that someone who’s passed all their math courses in high school couldn’t figure out. Certainly nothing past freshman calculus anyway. Maybe a little group theory and combinatorial analysis. But mostly my comics are just extremely rigorous and analytical. Also, there’s a little graph theory in my last two comics.
You know, Mr. Shiga--I think that makes you a math cartoonist.

Shiga's Fleep is an episodic comic about a fellow trapped inside a phone booth, applying logic to each decision point--without, however, getting any closer to the outside.

Shiga also has comics whose narratives are variable, based on reader choices. He told PW:
I’ve always loved Choose Your Own Adventure books since I was a child. I think part of the allure of the genre is that as a child, you don’t get to make any choices in your life. As an adult, however, one aspect I really love is the idea of collaborating on a story with the writer. I like to use my imagination when I’m reading and I’ve noticed that seems to be the direction a lot of narrative is heading. . . .

I only sell [those comics] at conventions. They’re basically too heavy, and I get killed in the shipping. Hello World is the world’s first programmable comic. The story centers around a mother who gets to pack items into her children’s lunchboxes. The children pull out the items that can cause other items to go in or remaining items to get switched around in various ways. So essentially, the comic works as a very basic three-line stack program.
Okay, remember what I was saying about "math cartoonist"?
Knock Knock is another choose your own adventure comic except instead of two or three choices, the reader gets to choose from over a dozen choices at each node. The only thing is, after the reader makes three choices, a crazed gunman bursts through the door and shoots you. There are over 250 ways to die and only one way to survive. The reader must in his three moves pick up enough clues about his identity, the identity of the killer and why he wants to kill him to formulate some sort of survival strategy.
Figuring out the reasoning of a "crazed killer." Perhaps there are some things beyond logical analysis.

25 May 2009

Single-Sheet Comics

From the Stumptown Trade Review's article and podcast, I learned about Kenan Rubenstein's single-sheet "oubliette" comics.

That word seems to be the artist's own coinage for this Fibonaccian form. It's a comic on a single sheet of paper, 8x11 in the US, folded four times. Each unfolding produces a surface twice as large as the one before, providing space for the next panels. The pages thus double in size, allowing the panels to grow as well, and the final panel can be as large as the full sheet.

Rubenstein notes that Jon Chad's Whaletowne unfolds (both physically and narratively) much the same way as his oubliettes.

While looking to see if other artists are working in this form, perhaps calling it by other names, I found Mimi's instructions for a different type of single-sheet comic, using folding and cutting. In this case, the pages are all the same size and shape.

And of course in Andrew Clements's Lunch Money, the kids make comics by folding, cutting, and stapling single sheets of paper into the traditional codex form. Richard Bryan has pictures of that format. But I like the elegance and Rubenstein's folding.

(The same Stumptown Trade Review podcast ends with an interview with Bone creator Jeff Smith.)

24 May 2009

Competing Portrayals of Batman and Robin

In September 2005, DC Comics launched a magazine called All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, written by Frank Miller and drawn by Jim Lee--two of the very biggest names in American comics. Its first story arc retold the origin of the Batman and Robin team: vengeance-driven billionaire Bruce Wayne takes suddenly orphaned young acrobat Dick Grayson under his webbed wing.

Two months later, the companion magazine All-Star Superman took off, featuring words by Grant Morrison and art by Frank Quitely. The first six issues were collected in a book in 2007, the next six earlier this year. They're just a whole lot of fun.

Meanwhile, Miller and Lee's All-Star Batman and Robin trundled on in fits and starts. It became notorious for production delays; after three years, there were just enough issues to fill one book. And Miller's script became even more notorious for its portrayal of Batman as a borderline psychopath.
Both All-Star titles sold big, but All-Star Superman got universally good reviews while All-Star Batman and Robin has been lambasted. Some people love it, to be sure, but part of what they enjoy is how much it ticks so many other people off. DC assured readers that these stories weren't in "regular continuity"--i.e., readers could treat them as imaginary. (As opposed to other Batman and Superman stories, which are real.)

For weekly Robin purposes, all that matters is that at the center of All-Star Batman and Robin is the relationship between the Boy Wonder and the Caped Crusader. At the end of the first story arc, "the goddamn Batman" finally realizes that he's pushed Robin too far toward his own madness.

This year, DC Comics will launch a new magazine called Batman and Robin, by Morrison and Quitely. (Last week we learned about a variant cover by J. G. Jones.) This story is "in continuity" as a follow-up to the "Batman RIP" arc in which Bruce Wayne died, sort of. To the surprise of few, the Batman in these stories will be Dick Grayson, grown up. (He took on that role in 1994 as well.) And the Robin of this magazine will be Damian Wayne.

Who? Back in 2006--i.e., soon after Miller's All-Star Batman and Robin started--Morrison introduced this character into issues of Batman magazine that have been collected as Batman and Son. Damian was supposedly Bruce Wayne's child by Talia al Ghul, an old nemesis. He fights well above his weight, having been raised in the League of Assassins, but has no moral sense and a big chip on his little shoulder.

A new interview at IGN confirms implicitly that Morrison was planning to make Damian Wayne a new Robin ever since he invented the character. And from that start, Damian has insisted that he--not Tim Drake--was Bruce Wayne's rightful partner and heir.

Morrison has said he was inspired by the Son of the Demon graphic novel, written by 1987 in Mike W. Barr. Bruce and Talia's child in that story has a different fate, but it was always "out of continuity."

I wonder if an unacknowledged source of inspiration for Morrison was Miller's concurrent take on the Batman and Robin team. This new Batman and Robin magazine seems to reverse the All-Star premise. Instead of a humorless, violent "goddamn Batman" finding Robin as his inspiration to remain sane, we'll see a more solidly grounded Batman trying to rein in and teach "the goddamn Robin."

This wouldn't the first time that Morrison drew inspiration from Miller, and perhaps tried to outdo him. Back in early 1986, Miller published The Dark Knight Returns, arguably the most important Batman story since 1940. Months later, Morrison pitched DC the idea that in 1989 became Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth. It took the notion that Batman was as crazy as his enemies about as far as it could go. In a reissue of that book Morrison wrote:

The repressed, armoured, uncertain and sexually frozen man in ARKHAM ASYLUM was intended as a critique of the '80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven and borderline psychotic.
What "’80s interpretation of Batman as violent, driven and borderline psychotic" could that be? None other than Miller's depiction in The Dark Knight Returns, of course.

How will the response to Morrison's Batman and Robin compare to the response to Miller's? Fans will hate Damian as Robin, at least for a while, because Robin's supposed to be the good cop. (That's coming up in my "Reasons for Robin" series.) DC tried to shake up the Dynamic Duo's dynamic the same way in the late 1980s, and it ended with the reader-voted death of the second Jason Todd. Whose costume, I can't help but note, Damian Wayne put on in Batman and Son.

(This analogy between the Miller and Morrison Batman and Robin magazines has been discussed elsewhere, such as The Big Smoke and the new scans_daily, but not to my knowledge at this verbose length. Batman and Son must not be confused with the delightful parody webcomic "Batman and Sons.")

23 May 2009

“Pondering Some Recent Myths About Books”

In the Guardian, Robert McCrum (also author of an excellent biography of P. G. Wodehouse) takes issue with "some recent myths about books." Such as that they're not manufactured well anymore, or that publishing used to have less hype.

Which is all well and good--I agree with all his conclusions, especially his skepticism about any sort of "Golden Age." But McCrum doesn't address the biggest anxieties (and perhaps myths) in publishing today: competition from other storytelling and information media, and new digital formats changing how people take in stories and information.

McCrum's essay equates "literary culture" with printed books. It treats sturdiness of binding and number of pages as useful measurements for assessing literature, but doesn't explore whether those yardsticks may matter in twenty years. And in that case looking back at books one accumulated twenty years ago isn't helpful.

I apply John Siracusa's horse analogy. It would certainly be a myth to say that horses are in poorer shape today than a hundred years ago. Equine veterinary medicine is much better, the average horse better cared for. The species certainly isn't extinct. And yet very few of us rely on horses these days.

(Link thanks to Nathan Bransford.)

22 May 2009

The High Cost of Relettering

Like movie studios and music companies, comic-book publishers reissue their most popular material in "boxed sets" with a little extra material and a much bigger price. DC Comics has a series it calls Absolute, as in Watchmen: The Absolute Edition and the Absolute Sandman series. The comics' pages are reproduced larger than originally printed, on better paper, with extras.

The reissue process required extra work for one spin-off from Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Absolute Death. (Death is the Sandman's sister, and just the cutest thing.) As letterer Todd Klein explained on his blog: "Neil and the DC staffers involved felt the lettering on these issues reproduced so badly when enlarged it was worth having me redo it."

So like a movie being remastered or an album being remixed, the Death: The High Cost of Living miniseries is being spruced up with the latest technology. While relettering the whole story on his computer, Klein has improved line breaks, reshaped a balloon that had been rendered asymmetric, and made other small changes.

This project also required Klein to create a new variant font:

In his script, Neil directed: “The Eremite’s lettering style should be just a little smaller and skinnier than normal: try and give the impression that he always talks very, very quietly.” To get that, I made the letterforms very narrow, with thin strokes. Unfortunately, some of them were just beyond the limits of the printing process, and not helped by poor pencil clean-ups before being photostatted by DC.

Now, the rest of the issues used standard Klein lettering, for which I’ve long had computer fonts, but this style is one I’ve never needed to do on the computer until now. So, yesterday I spent about eight hours making new fonts: TKondensed in Roman, Italic and Bold Italic faces.
The result is supposed to be an improved book--but at the same time unnoticeably so.

21 May 2009

And You’ll Know at a Glance

Newsarama’s regular interviews with DC Comics Editor-in-Chief Dan DiDio usually end up being scrabbles over tiny breadcrumbs of information about upcoming issues--as if the whole pleasure of serialized fiction isn't the mystery of what's going to happen next.

But this exchange over clues about the eventual resurrection of Batman hit a new, subatomic level of clue-seeking:

NRAMA: Batman’s death--there’s no question about it, no mystery about it from the point of view of the DCU. Is that playing along the lines of the “Batman as an urban legend” idea, that people weren’t 100% sure he even existed in the first place, or is it something different?

DD: The Batman story as it’s established--we have two different perspectives here: the story perspective and the fan perspective. From the story perspective, the DC Universe believes Batman to be dead--the heroes know he is dead, but they have kept that secret away from the world, because of what they feel might happen. The events of Battle for the Cowl shows when heroes and villains start to realize that Batman may be dead--Gotham City falls into, or tumbles towards anarchy. That’s the story there.

From the fan perspective, we all know that there’s something going on with Bruce Wayne. So therefore, we’re going to see reflections of the Bruce Wayne story, the Batman story as it plays out in the DC Universe in all of the Batman books and reflections of it in Blackest Night. The fan knows--or the fans might guess--that was not Batman’s body that was recovered as a skeleton in Final Crisis #6, but nobody else knows that. Part of the year we have coming ahead of us is the exploration of what that means to the DC Universe--what that body represents, and more importantly, what actually happened to Bruce Wayne, and the mystery surrounding him.

NRAMA: Wait--that wasn’t Bruce Wayne’s skeleton?

DD: Did I say that?

NRAMA: You said that.

DD: Did I?


DD: Dammit. Then who was the guy in the cave if that wasn’t Bruce Wayne’s skeleton?

NRAMA: That’s a very good question, but so is: Did Superman find a body, take that dead body’s clothes off, and put a Batman costume on a dead body, just to carry it outside? That puts Superman into a creepy new light...

DD: See, I know I didn’t say that. Now you’re starting to suppose something else. I’m saying that there was a skeleton. It did have a Batman costume on it, but whose skeleton that is, where it came from, who is the man in the cave, where is the man in the cave--those are all stories we’ll be exploring in the course of the coming year.

NRAMA: But both the man in the cave and the skeleton had pants on...

DD: Now that, I completely agree with and can support. [laughs] Both of them did have pants on.

NRAMA: So it’s the two sets of pants, isn’t it--the two sets of Bat-pants. That’s the key, that’s the Rosebud of this whole thing, isn’t it?

DD: [laughs] It’s just like the old days--when you bought a suit, it always came with two pairs of pants.

NRAMA: It did?

DD: Yeah--it did.

NRAMA: How old are you?
I haven't read any of the stories in question, even the ones that have already been published, so I have only the slightest clue as to what this is all about. But I do know that tailored suits used to come with two pairs of pants.

20 May 2009

The Latest Miracle Tech

When L. Frank Baum wrote The Master Key (1901) and The Boy Fortune Hunters in Yucatan (1910, using the pseudonym Floyd Akers), the answer to almost every technical problem his characters faced was that burgeoning technology: electricity!

Guns that stun instead of kill? The ability to fly? Pills that fill all your nutritional needs? Boxes that allow you to look at anything happening anywhere in the world? Those books took advantage of how readers were ready to believe that a hard-working inventor might soon come up with just that device, harnessing the infinite potential of electricity.

In the same era, the Stratemeyer syndicate gave us Tom Swift and His Electric Runabout, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle, and Tom Swift and His Electric Locomotive.

Half a century later, the new technology with unlimited reach was: atomic power! So it's no surprise that the Tom Swift, Jr., series (1954-1971) featured titles like Tom Swift and His Atomic Earth Blaster and Tom Swift and His Triphibian Atomicar.

So what is today's equivalent? Judging by a reading copy of Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom, by Tim Byrd, it's: nanotechnology! Do you as an author need your characters to breathe (and, apparently, see) while swimming through an underground stream? To coat an airplane with impervious armor? To heal all wounds and kill all bacteria? Nanotechnology is the answer for you!

19 May 2009

Speaking English, I Think

To the left is a map of English accents collected in the online audio collection of the British Library. If you don't have a copy of the Redwall full-cast audiobooks on hand, then this website is a fine way to enjoy a wide range of English speech modes.

Some of these recordings were made in the 1950s, others for the millennium. That can make for interesting contrasts, as between this London woman describing her experiences as a teen-aged domestic servant in the 1930s, and this fifteen-year-old from East Yorkshire describing her life in 1999.

But most of the tapes, and the most baffling, are old provincial men talking about vanished ways of life. Here are recollections of working as a pageboy at a manor house in Yorkshire, running errands in Lancashire, and doing something that sounds dreadful with straw in Buckinghamshire. Most the interviewees seem to agree that young people today wouldn't understand their experiences. Heck, I barely understand their words.

(Thanks to Northwest History for the link.)

18 May 2009

“New England Voices” for 2009

Tomorrow night--that's Tuesday, 19 May--I'll once again be moderating the Foundation for Children's Books "New England Voices" evening at Boston College.

This year the FCB has invited these four creative folks from the region to talk about their latest work:

The fun starts at 7:30 PM at Walsh Hall on the BC campus. This reading is free and open to the public, and there will be books to buy and have autographed.

17 May 2009

Robin Goes Up Against Crazy Quilt One More Time

The Cartoon Network's Batman: The Brave and the Bold takes its subtitle and theme from the comic book that each month for much of its run teamed Batman up with a different DC hero. In the episode to air at the end of this week, the cartoon's Batman works with a very special guest star: Robin!

Why is Robin a guest rather than Batman's regular partner? This cartoon takes place after Dick Grayson has grown up. But he hasn't taken on the role of Nightwing, as in the regular comics (and other recent Batman TV shows).

Rather, the Dick Grayson who returns in Batman: The Brave and the Bold wears one variant of the costume of the grown-up Robin on Earth-2. (However, in a bit of cross-pollination, he appears to work in Blüdhaven, the crime-riddled city near Gotham that Chuck Dixon invented for the Nightwing magazine in 1996.)

Batman: The Brave and the Bold promises a more cheery milieu than the current Batman comics, supposedly suitable for kids. We'll see whether that light-heartedness extends to how this grown-up Dick Grayson feels about working with Bruce Wayne again.

ComicVine hosts no-dialogue previews of three action scenes:

I like the fact that Dick's acrobatics look superior to Bruce's; despite the story's Golden Age roots and tone, we see no falling down at inconvenient times.

And as for Crazy Quilt, Jack Kirby created this villain for Boy Commandos in 1946. He was an artist who had damaged his vision during a crime and could see only bright colors. Crazy Quilt goes up against Robin in Star-Spangled Comics, #123, in 1951, which seems like a natural antagonism: Crazy Quilt with his limited vision against the DC hero who dresses like a stoplight.

But the character had a long lay-off until the Oct 1979 issue of Batman. That story added a personal resentment to the saga of Crazy Quilt v. Robin: the Boy Wonder has accidentally destroyed the rest of the artist's vision. So now Crazy Quilt is obsessed with getting revenge. Alone among Batman's villains, he hates Robin more than the Caped Crusader.

That set the stage for Crazy Quilt's reappearance during the first Jason Todd's first outing as Robin in 1984. Oh, the irony!--the villain stalks Jason for what Dick had done. Apparently Crazy Quilt's vision problems mean that he can't tell that Robin is suddenly a foot shorter than when they last met.

Most recently, we get a glimpse of Crazy Quilt in Nightwing Annual, #2, as Dick and Barbara Gordon (formerly Batgirl) reminisce about their first date. Somehow Crazy Quilt locked them in a safe. We never see how, and I suspect writer Marc Andreyko realized that it would have been hard to convince readers that the man could actually do that.

After all, being obsessed with Robin is kind of pathetic for a supervillain. (Present company excluded.) As is being a blind painter, or trying to look threatening while dressed in rainbow colors. Despite his half-century of villainy, despite his accumulation of a laser-beam "color helmet" and then hypnotic powers, the character of Crazy Quilt never seems dangerous. He belongs in a cheery cartoon.

It looks like the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode will follow the same general arc as Crazy Quilt's comics career: young Robin bests and inadvertently blinds the criminal artist, so he returns years later with a Robin obsession. How obsessed? Here's another preview image from Warner Bros. Animation.
Airings in the US on the Cartoon Network:
  • Friday, 22 May, at 8:30 PM
  • Saturday, 23 May, at 10:30 AM
  • Wednesday, 27 May, at 7:00 PM

16 May 2009

Wolverine Meets Wimpy Kid—Who Would Win?

A while back, Graphic Novel Reporter ran a preview of Wolverine: Worst Day Ever, written by Barry Lyga and illustrated by various Marvel Comics artists.

The website called the book a “graphic novel,” which prompted a visitor [okay, it was me] to comment:

I'm glad to see Barry Lyga getting work. But why is Wolverine: Worst Day Ever being described as a “a YA graphic novel”? It's an illustrated story which uses very little of the comics format. And are the illustrations original to this project or repurposed?
When GNR went back to review the book, it answered those questions:
Wolverine: Worst Day Ever is close to being a prose work itself. It uses the blog format to advance its story, combined with archive images of Wolverine that have appeared in comics throughout the years. So while not technically a graphic novel per se, it has several of the elements (not least of which is one of the most popular characters to ever appear in comics).
And the book was scheduled, I suspect, to appear alongside this spring's Wolverine movie.

Lyga, former employee of the Diamond comics distribution monopoly and award-winning YA novelist, seems like a good choice to bridge the worlds of superheroes and YA prose fiction. And he understands that Wolverine: Worst Day Ever isn't a graphic novel. In an interview at Comic Book Resources Lyga discussed how his text interacts with the artwork:
In the Wimpy Kid books [by Jeff Kinney], the artwork is sort of seamlessly integrated into the text as an essential part of the story. You can't remove the art and have a coherent story, really. In that sense, they are sort of prototype graphic novels, in a way, with the art conveying story points.

With Worst Day Ever, my original thought was that the artwork would stand alone, on separate pages, like a traditional illustrated novel. But a couple of things happened. First of all, some of the art just SCREAMED for snarky captions in [the narrator] Eric's voice, and I got carried away. Next thing you knew, I was writing captions for every piece of art, not just a few.

And then, secondly, Marvel's designer made the artwork blend with the text in a very natural way, not on separate pages, but actually with the text, so that the art sort of comments on the text. Which actually makes sense--the book is supposed to be a blog, and on blogs, art co-exists with text. So it's a very organic and sensible decision. Her name is Spring [Hoteling], and she's done a great job designing the book.

That said, unlike in Wimpy Kid, if you removed the art, you would still have a complete story. It might not be quite as funny, but it would still be a complete story. I'm not 100% sure that's the case with Wimpy Kid--I think you'd lose more than mood or atmosphere if you yanked the art.
I wasn't so sure; Wimpy Kid was first written with much less art. But at least everyone agrees that just because a book contains lots of pictures--even cartoons or drawings of superheroes--that doesn't make it a "graphic novel."

15 May 2009

The Myth of the Fall of the American Comic Book

Last July, Jim Henley at Tor took issue with a standard history of American comics publishing.

The medium of comics has a Myth of the Fall that [Douglas Wolk's Reading Comics] touches on, and that one finds elsewhere among critics, advocates and certain practitioners, and goes something like this:

Once upon a time, the comic-book industry offered a stupefying variety of material. From the late 1930s through the late 1960s you could buy monster comics, romance comics, humor comics, crime comics, horror comics, and, yes, superhero comics. Alas, as the 1970s turned to the 1980s, the two major corporate publishers, Marvel and DC, turned their backs on the general audience--especially children--to saturate the emerging (adult) fan market flocking to comics specialty stores, and since the fan market wanted superheroes and more superheroes, that's what the Big Two, and a remora-school of wannabes, gave them.

As a result, circulations plummeted, the mass audience tuned out, and "pop" comic books lost their general-issue appeal, becoming the preoccupation of a dwindling audience of aging fanboys. Only once the independent comics (aka "comix") movement gathered steam from the late 1980s to early in the new millennium did at least a portion of the industry dare to provide the variety of sequential-art narratives that would appeal to a large audience.

This myth is very nearly completely backwards.

When I think of the 1970s, I think of the major comics publishers trying like hell to stay viable in the general-interest market and failing. The long-term trends in comic-book circulation. from the 1940s to the 2000s, move almost inexorably downward, except for a speculator-driven bubble for a few years around 1990.
The top-selling comic books of the 1940s and early 1950s (Captain Marvel, Disney) had circulations of well over 1,000,000 copies each month. But the data I pointed to in my discussion of the legend of the "New Look" Batman show that in the 1960s the top magazines were selling under a million, even with the boost of the Batman TV show. Henley had found the same data source:
By 1969, the top two comics, Archie and Superman, barely break the half-million-copy mark per issue, and the average circulation is about a quarter million.

In the 1970s, Marvel Comics tried publishing sword & sorcery titles (licensed from the estate of Robert E. Howard), monster titles (Wolk offers a lengthy appreciation of the Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan Tomb of Dracula in Reading Comics), war comics (Combat Kelly seems to have failed in 1972), jungle adventure (Shanna the She-Devil sputtered out after two attempts), even Romance--Millie the Model lasted until 1973.

DC tried science fiction (Kamandi), horror (House of Mystery and House of Secrets), war (as late as 1979 they debuted All-Out War, which appears to have lasted six issues). Marvel tried an entire line of black & white full-trim magazines, tending towards horror and science fiction.

None of it worked, except--sort of--the superheroes. . . .

Newsstand distributors and retailers gave up on comics because the low price points made them unprofitable compared to other things they could be selling--one reason Marvel tried to become a magazine publisher. The comic-book industry fled to the direct market just ahead of a cave-in. They took refuge in superhero comics because nothing else worked. . . .

Why did the superhero pamphlet-sized comic die more slowly than other genres?

I think it's because superheroes really did remain comic books' competitive advantage: they were the kind of genre story that comics could tell effectively that other media couldn't.
But now digital imaging allows superheroics to appear on the movie, TV, or videogame screens. And the latest comic-book sales figures say that in March no magazine sold more than 100,000 copies through the Diamond distributorship, even DC and Marvel's heavily promoted "event" titles.

Comics publishing is therefore becoming more like prose-book publishing. There's a wide range of styles, genres, subjects, and reading levels on the market, from a variety of creators and publishers--few of whom are very profitable, or profitable at all. Even so, the medium's biggest long-term potential seems to lie outside monthly magazine publishing, in some combination of digital and book formats.

14 May 2009

Thoughts on Review Copies and Reviewing

Periodically the literature blogosphere goes through a discussion of what obligations book-bloggers have to publishers who send them review copies for free. Here, for instance, are some of Liz B's thoughts at the Tea Cozy, and some more. And here are mine.

1) Should bloggers post only positive reviews?

Well, what fun would that be?

2) Should bloggers review every book they receive from publishers?

I've never asked for a review copy for Oz and Ends. (I have invited publishers to send books for my more specialized blog.) So a publisher has to initiate the process by offering me a copy. And that offer is, like any other marketing effort, part of a game of chance, not a contract. The publisher sends out lots of review copies, hoping a few produce positive results.

Some pitches are more compelling than others. In recent months, publicists at one large firm have contacted me three times about three different humorous novels for adults. All three pitches compared the novel in question to A Confederacy of Dunces. That would have been more impressive if my memory didn't go back longer than two months. And if I hadn't read A Confederacy of Dunces, and know that it has almost nothing in common with the books on offer. But at least I'm down on some list somewhere as the sort of reader who probably liked A Confederacy of Dunces--not a bad place to be.

Finally, the book itself deserves reviewing, of course. These are my notes on one review copy I started to read last year:

2 - Tonstant Weader twowed up.
8 - middle ¶ - what?!
I never finished that book or posted remarks about it. And frankly, I think the publisher and author should be grateful.

3) What should bloggers do with review copies?

Most book-reviewing bloggers will eventually accumulate more review copies than they could possibly read and/or keep. (Though not as many copies as book reviewers at newspapers and magazines--remember them?)

I try to pass the review copies I'm done with to someone in the target audience. When I give an advance copy to a young reader, there's usually a wide-eyed moment as she takes in the cover's strict instructions about misuse and wonders if we're all going to jail. But then she decides that she's getting something special.

Which may be more effective at spreading the word about books to the right readers than anything I write here.

13 May 2009

Quizzing “Horrified Teenage Boys”

Having started to think out a novel from a male teenager's point of view, author Garret Freymann-Weyr realized she had to do more research. So, as she described on Publishers Weekly, she talked to some male contemporaries and to some "brave, horrified teenage boys whose mothers pushed them my way."

Freymann-Weyr was surprised to learn that teen-aged boys:

  • think about sex. Even when they've just had sex.
  • think about cars. Even when they were just in cars.
  • really like cars and sex.
I can't believe that Freymann-Weyr hadn't heard those mentioned as traits of the male teenager. Perhaps what surprised her is that they hold true even for thoughtful teenaged boys of the type she planned to write about. Perhaps she hoped that we thoughtful boys were different.

The novel is After the Moment. And, judging by that jacket design, it's not going to be promoted to teen-aged boys. Maybe if there was a car on it.

12 May 2009

Voices from the “World Voices” Festival

Last week Publishers Weekly ran several reports from the PEN "World Voices" literary festival in New York. I've gleaned bits that struck me, starting with a remark from a a session on “Visual Storytelling”:

The use of comics illustration, [Israeli artist David] Polonsky explained, to depict the narrative was apt because the “ability to show things that don’t have any material existence” corresponds to the volatility of memories.
Or, as I've been calling it, "showing the invisible."

And in another panel, on the future of children's books:
[Francine] Prose also recounted a story of speaking before a group of New York University students who questioned the need for reading when there are so many good interactive video games that let you “become the character.” In response, Prose said she told them, “The whole point of literature is reading about people who are not you, to get into someone else’s head.”
Indeed, while videogames let players experience many unusual situations, no matter where you go--there you are.

Finally, in a discussion of growing up, Shaun Tan recalled one influential book from his childhood:
Shaun Tan, who was raised in an Australian community that he fondly described as “idyllic yet boring,” explained how his mother, who wanted her two sons who receive a better education than she did, read Animal Farm aloud to Shaun and his brother, thinking that it was a children’s book. Tan said that he and his brother loved the story, as “it related to everything that went on at the playground every day”...

11 May 2009

The Passing of a Munchkin

Mickey Carroll, who appeared as a Munchkin in the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie, died last week at the age of 89.

Born Michael Finocchiaro, Carroll had entered show business before being cast in the movie, singing and dancing in regional theaters. His website says, “He was the warm-up for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman as they campaigned across the country in the Presidential race,” which would have been in 1944--apparently answering my usual question to men who played Munchkins about what they did during World War 2.

In the late 1940s, Carroll settled in St. Louis and entered the family business--"making and selling cemetery headstones." As the MGM movie became more famous, he became a local celebrity, with more and more public appearances.

Carroll's recent years, however, were dogged by complaints that he'd exaggerated his activities in Hollywood and elsewhere. For example, he claimed to have played the Munchkin coroner (actually Meinhardt Raabe) or recorded that character's voice (all the Munchkin voices were ordinary actors sped up). Oz movie experts agree that Carroll was in the movie, but not as prominently as he might have wished.

10 May 2009

Fabian Nicieza on Robin

Last month Newsarama offered a somewhat elegiac summary of the character Tim Drake's career as Robin, followed by an interview with Fabian Nicieza, the final scripter of the Robin magazine (at least for now).

Nicieza had the unenviable assignment of picking up that magazine on the fly after DC Comics's sudden break with Chuck Dixon. Dixon developed the Tim Drake character more than any other writer, and his return to the magazine in early 2008 had come with great fanfare. Adding to the challenge, Nicieza had to work around the company's big plans for Batman, including Bruce Wayne's madness and apparent death.

When Nicieza took on that job, the comics press focused on the big plans ahead and who would succeed Wayne as Batman (at least for now), as in this article from Comic Book Resources. There were encouraging hints that he saw the importance of the assignment, such as Nicieza's admission that:

I am feeble enough to have a Robin shelf in my office filled with Robin collectibles, not the least of which is the picture of me dressed as Robin before leaving for a Halloween party in college. Trust me, it’s there, but I don’t think I’ll let anyone see it unless I see some big bucks.
Nicieza's issues received generally good reviews, though of course internet comics fandom is never fully satisfied. Now that the run is done and he has no more issues to pump or plot twists to conceal, he can look backward instead of forward.

I think the Newsarama interview shows how well Nicieza understood the symbolic place of Robin in the Batman saga and the DC Universe. In other words, his ideas agree with mine:
Newsarama: In a single sentence--if you can--summarize Tim Drake’s journey from amateur detective discovering Batman’s identity to his role as a potential successor to Batman in Battle for the Cowl.

Fabian Nicieza: Tim Drake's journey from adolescence to young adulthood has shown the evolution of an individual who has gone from wanting to do the right [thing] with his life to an individual who is living his life in order to do the right thing.

Now, I could say a million things that build on that sentence, but you do have your rules and I must respect them. . . .

Tim's initial desire to become involved in the Bat-verse was never motivated by a need to balance the scales of his own life, it was to help balance the scales in someone else's life, namely Batman.

Though his mother died soon after his journey began, even then, his motivation was never really about balancing those scales and certainly not about revenge.

Tim was simply interested in doing the right thing, making a difference and righting wrongs. I also feel there was a little bit of cocky ego involved too, just a teeny bit, considering here's a kid who figured out Batman and Robin's identities. . . .

NRAMA: Tim Drake’s character was introduced with the premise that Batman needs Robin. After more than a decade of Tim filling that role, does Batman still need Robin?

FN: In my opinion, yes. Others will argue against the point, but I think the role of Batman, as depicted since the post-TV show era of the late 60's, requires a temperance for the character's obsession, or he would drive himself nuts. That doesn't mean that Robin needs to be in every Batman story, just that the character, the concept, needs to be a presence in Bruce Wayne's life.

Robin provides a light to Batman's dark, along with a need to teach and parent. This helps humanize Bruce, which to me, makes for a far more interesting Batman than the obsessive gravelly voiced guy who hides in his cave until it's time to beat someone up. . . .

we also know that the Robin concept is just as vital to the foundation of the DC Universe and has been a bedrock of the mythology since its inception.

The concept of Robin defines the nature of the legacy in the DCU and with that, implies hope for the future, stability coming from the next generation of hero, and on a societal level, it harkens to the need for proper parenting, education and stimulation to help guide the next generation to fruition.
Nicieza also discusses what sets Tim Drake apart from his major predecessor as Robin, Dick Grayson, despite how their characters have occupied the same symbolic space. Those final (at least for now) Robin issues will be published in paperback this summer as Robin: Search for a Hero.

09 May 2009

Looking at Picture Books from a Comics Vantage Point

Folks outside the comic-book world (as I was myself when I started Oz and Ends) probably don't grasp the full implications of the name of J. Caleb Mozzocco's blog, Every Day Is Like Wednesday.

Wednesday is when new comic books go on sale, just as the music industry has seized on Tuesdays to release new albums and the movie industry counts down the days to Friday. Some industry analysts have suggested that book publishers should calls dibs on some other day of the week in order to focus attention on their projects, but that seems unlikely.

Moving on, therefore, in a couple of blog postings Mozzocco noted some picture books that use some of the basic storytelling techniques of comics. First, Noah's Ark, by Peter Spier, published in 1977 and winner of the Caldecott Medal the following year. Mozzocco writes:

Noah's Ark falls into that overlap of the comics and children's books circles on a hypothetical Venn diagram. . . . whatever Spier, Doubleday or Noah's Ark itself may think, it's a book told in sequential images, most of its pages divided into various grid shapes like a comic book page (there are no square blank ink borders around the "panels," but they're set apart from one another with gutters of white space.
That multitude of images in front of the eye at once is indeed one way comics differentiate themselves from traditional picture books.

This book doesn't contain any words, however--neither narrative text blocks nor word balloons. That means we don't know how Spier would have treated those words--as part of the art or separate from it. I also don't see sound effects, motion lines, emoticons, or other ways that comics "show the invisible." So Noah's Ark never floats into full comics mode.

Mozzocco also discusses Melanie Watt's Scaredy Squirrel, though on this picture book he spends more time on Scaredy's diagnosis than on the use of multitple images on the same page spread.

(Thanks to Tegan at Bloggity-Blog-Blog-Blog for the initial link.)

08 May 2009

The Blue Fairy Would Be So Proud

From Van Jensen's preview of his comic Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer, drawn by Dusty Higgins, to be issued in print this fall by SLG Publishing.

(Link thanks to Comics Ought to Be Good.)

07 May 2009

Onion Sauce! Onion Sauce!

In Sunday's Boston Globe, Katherine A. Powers elegantly dissects the two competing annotated editions of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows out now--Seth Lerer's from Norton and Annie Gauger's from the Belknap Press.

And, like a surgical dissection, the patients don't survive the procedure that well. Powers writes:

neither editor seems really at home in the world that gave rise to "The Wind in the Willows." Though they are forever supplying definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary, neither appears to have looked up "metalled," both believing that a "metalled road" has something to do with metal (rather than broken stone).

Lerer, clearly no student of Mrs. Beeton (who recommends onion sauce as the best accompaniment for rabbit dishes), believes that Mole's taunting the rabbits who annoy him with "Onion Sauce! Onion sauce!" is the equivalent of his saying "hogwash," going on to say, apropos of nothing in the story, that "By the nineteenth century, onion-sauce had come to represent the simplicity of home cooking, in contrast to the fancy cuisine of court or the Continent."

For her part, Gauger does not recognize vegetable marrows, once a staple of the British table (alas), speculating that those shown in an illustration by Arthur Rackham could be "water-melon sized cucumbers or giant leeks."

In possibly my favorite part of the book, the animal friends surge forth to retake Toad Hall from the weasels, stoats, and ferrets. Mild-mannered, home-loving Mole, now "black and grim, brandishing his stick," shouts "his awful war-cry, 'A Mole! A Mole!'"--echoing Scottish warriors of yore whose battle cry was their clan name.

For Gauger, however, "This odd war cry resembles one of the most famous lines in Shakespeare's Richard III . . . 'A horse! a horse! My kingdom for a horse!'" This makes no sense at all and, worse, misses a very good joke.
For another complaint that Lerer hasn't done his homework in the field of children's literature, see Perry Nodelman's remarks quoted in this post.

06 May 2009

The Best of the Dead End Kids

Last week I noted in passing that Angels with Dirty Faces was the Dead End Kids' finest film. That deserves some elaboration.

The Dead End Kids were young actors assembled for the 1935 Broadway play Dead End. Samuel Goldwyn hired them to play the same characters in his movie version of 1937, and they stayed in Hollywood for decades. The group was billed under a variety of names, depending on the studio where they had a contract: Dead End Kids, Crime School Kids, Little Tough Guys, East Side Kids, Bowery Boys. The core ended up being Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey (top and left in the photo above).

The group's best films came early in their career:

1) Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). James Cagney plays a gangster the teens admire, Pat O'Brien his childhood friend who's become a priest, and Humphrey Bogart a lawyer who's cheated Cagney out of his take. It's a moralistic melodrama with fast wisecracks, but Cagney's final scene jolts the whole experience to another level.

2) Dead End (1937). Slice of life in a New York slum, with Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sidney as noble lovers trying to get out. This time the gangster returning to his old neighborhood is played by Humphrey Bogart, and he grabs the movie in a scene when he meets his ex. Another moralistic melodrama, fewer wisecracks. Watch the whole thing at Hulu.com.

3) They Made Me a Criminal (1939). John Garfield plays a boxer fleeing a murder charge who ends up at a ranch for juvenile delinquents. Claude Rains is Garfield's Javert. You can take the kids out of the city, but you can't take the city out of the kids.

In the 1940s the young actors started making quickie formula comedies, like Abbott and Costello but less lovable. Some ended up in the stereotypical child-star cycle: typecast, turning to alcohol or drugs, dying or getting sober, and scrounging out character work in middle age. But one of the six guys above got out of show biz and became a happy and successful California physician.