31 July 2009

A Field of Poppies

This is an illustration by Lisbeth Zwerger from her 1996 edition of The Wizard of Oz.

Illustrator Paul Schmid wrote about it:

One of the greatest challenges an illustrator has is taking an inherently busy subject and controlling the chaos so that the piece powerfully communicates the essence of the story to the viewer.

A field of poppies could result in a nearly unreadable cacophony as an illustration. A riot of pointless color at the very least, overwhelming the eye.

Besides, red poppies are cheerful, this scene needs to be frightening. So what’s an illustrator to do?

Selections must be made! Choices! Manipulation! Power wielded!!
Schmid's goes on to analyze Zwerger's choices. He wrote about another of Zwerger's illustrations here

30 July 2009

No Escape

One of the major themes in Michael Chabon's sprawling Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is how most early American comic-book creators didn't control the copyrights of the characters and stories they created, and thus never made big money.

Like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (described in Marc Tyler Nobleman's Boys of Steel), Chabon's fictional Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay co-create a popular comic-book superhero. But their Escapist never wins them royalties, a big share of the radio and movie revenue, or job security. 

(The novel has a lot more going on than that, including flight from the Third Reich, Greenwich Village bohemianism, stage magic and escape acts, closeted homosexuality, WW2, the Empire State Building, and Levittown. We even see Chabon's interest in polar regions, which resurfaces in Summerland and The Yiddish Policeman's Union.)

The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay became so popular in comic-book circles that it inspired its own sequels in comics form. One set of follow-up consists of the comic-book adventures of the Escapist as supposedly told by Kavalier and Clay. I haven't read those books, and note only that they show the comics world's unabashed happiness with adaptations and spin-offs of other people's work, an enterprise that the world of literary fiction tends to look down on (unless, of course, it's an exercise in postmodernism).

Another Kavalier and Clay comics spin-off was written by ace scripter Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by a team of top artists, primarily Steve Rolston, Philip Bond, Jason Shawn Alexander, and Eduardo Barreto. It shows three young people setting out to update the character of the Escapist for the 21st century, eventually losing the rights to a corporation subtly named Omnigrip. Chabon added a short story about a meeting between Clay and a young version of Vaughan outside a comics convention in the 1970s. All that material has been collected into a single volume called The Escapists.

Given the copyright theme of both the original novel and that Escapists follow-up, I was struck by this notice in the back of the latter book: "Introduction, text, and illustrations © 2007 Michael Chabon."

29 July 2009

In New Book, Frog and Toad Aren’t Friends

I’m always suspicious about breathless announcements of newly discovered manuscripts by popular authors long after their deaths. Those authors had the market clout to interest publishers in almost any work they were proud of. Their unpublished manuscripts are therefore usually discards, as with the two “new” Agatha Christie stories announced earlier this year.

This month brought news of a “new Frog and Toad book” from Arnold Lobel, continuing the easy-reader series that started with Frog and Toad Are Friends in 1970. Different titles in that series won a Newbery Honor and a Caldecott Honor.

However, the most detailed report on the find, in the Los Angeles Times, reveals that the book about to be published is quite a different animal. The paper gamely tries to convince us that we’ll see “another facet of Frog and Toad in The Frogs and Toads All Sang.” But in fact:

The text was written some 10 years before the Frog and Toad books. . . .

The ten poems in the new book don't yet have the particular characters of Frog and Toad that readers came to know later. . . .

Lobel had not yet developed the friendship between Frog and Toad. . . .
So in this book frogs and toads aren’t friends. The text isn’t an easy-reader style. And we won’t see Frog and Toad.

What, therefore, besides Lobel’s authorship makes this book a new one in the series? The LA Times credulously points to these similarities:
  • ”Frog and Toad are never seen without their jackets unless they are hibernating, in which case it's gentlemanly pajamas. In the title poem...there is a party at which
    ”The ladies wore long dresses
    And the gentlemen wore pants.”
    I believe the convention of children’s-book animals dressed up in human clothing predates Lobel by quite a bit.
  • “Part of the gentle humor in the ‘Frog and Toad’ stories is that while the friends are highly civilized, they are also children...” Again, that’s standard in children’s books featuring anthropomorphic animals.
  • “Readers can see the beginnings of Toad's melancholy in the poem ‘Bright Green Frog’. . . . The frog plays his violin ‘with skill and grace’ but wears ‘a frown upon his face’.” So we see the roots of Toad’s grumpiness, which is a contrast to Frog’s sunniness, in...a frog?
The Frogs and Toads All Sang wasn’t even a manuscript that Lobel had in his drawer, awaiting the moment when the world might appreciate it. Rather, it was a booklet he made by hand for family friend Crosby Bonsall. There’s no indication that Lobel meant it for a wider audience, or would be pleased to see the text published as is. (His sketches were completed and colored by his daughter.)

That booklet and two more like it came into the hands of a book dealer, who offered it back to Adrianne Lobel. She and HarperCollins saw the manuscript’s potential in today’s publishing world. And indeed these early, private manuscripts might provide an interesting lens for viewing Lobel’s later Frog and Toad books. But they're not really an addition to the series. 

28 July 2009

Spelling Rules!: The Whole Edition’s Crazy

When I sat down to read Amelia Rules!: The Whole World’s Crazy!, I didn't have the 2006 reprint from Renaissance Press, nor the new edition from Atheneum (shown here).

No, I looked at the first edition, which cartoonist Jimmy Gownley issued himself through ibooks.net. (That Byron Preiss start-up was distributed by Simon & Schuster, owner of Atheneum; so the corporation eventually bought rights to something that was once in its catalogue.) And here are my thoughts during that reading.

On the Amelia Rules! website, Gownley describes his wish not to make his heroine a perpetual kid.

Amelia would not be about childhood; it would be about growing up. To me, this gave the strip a dynamic tension that was not present in other kid comics. The friction between the adult and kid worlds provided many story ideas and made Amelia unique. Amelia Rules! is not about being something; it’s about becoming something, which is really the heart of all great storytelling.
This seems to translate into valuable lessons about life that she shares with readers, but those don't come along so thumpingly as to be annoying.

[comma! comma!]

The characters are broadly drawn, but not one-dimensional. Amelia herself is the most rounded, likable but flawed, open to temptation but kind at heart. After her parents' separation, she has moved with her mom to a small town and needs new friends. Among the lessons she learns is that her new life isn't that bad.

[“viciously” has only one s]

Amelia's buddy Reggie is enamored of superheroes, one of many ways Amelia Rules! nods to the American comics tradition it grows from. He insists that he has a secret identity as Captain Amazing, which requires him to wear his boxers over his pants. And he's the most appealing boy around, at least in this volume.


Of course, Amelia's female playmate Rhonda Bleenie is equally caricatured as her "arch nemesis." Why they're always hanging out together isn't clear, but it has something to do with Reggie. And comic tension.

[that’s “you’re,” not “your”]

Her divorcing parents are weak reeds, at least in this volume, but they're doing their best; the most reliable adult guidance comes from her aunt Tanner. The teachers are standard adult antagonists. The cast doesn't really expand until later volumes.

[actually, that spot doesn't need a comma]

Gownley uses some interesting comics techniques, such as the changing icons on the wordless character Pajamaman's chest to indicate his emotions. The requisite bullies have special lettering. But I was most taken with Gownley's frames within panel frames, which he uses to highlight action, show time passing, or emphasize distance between characters. Those deserve more study; see an example at the bottom of this page.

[“nickel” is not spelled like “pickle”]

Finally, I'm pleased to report that the punctuation and spelling errors of the first, self-published edition don't appear in the latest reprint. There are some advantages to working with other people.

26 July 2009

Weekly Robin Extra: Search Function

On Thursday, Google saluted DC Comics by running a version of its logo staffed by five of the company's most notable characters. Among them, of course, was Robin. Art by draftsman Jim Lee, inker Scott Williams, and colorist Alex Sinclair.

Don’t You Hate When This Happens?

It turns out to be all Alfred's fault. Well, the living batarang part, as explained here at Silver Age Comics. The gawky throwing stance is Robin's own problem.

24 July 2009

No More Tears

Dear Johnson & Johnson,

I'm not a regular user of Johnson's Baby Shampoo, but when I needed a small travel bottle I chose your product because I recognized the brand and its good reputation.

I was surprised on unscrewing the bottle's lid to find a foil seal across the opening. Much of my surprise came from being in the shower at the time. Finding that I did not have my pen knife, I had to scratch a hole in the seal with my fingernails.

I then tried to squeeze out some shampoo. A golden droplet bulged out of the opening, but I found no shampoo in my hand. After two or three such attempts, I realized that the foil had in fact been a light gilding on a clear plastic seal.

A plastic seal that was stronger and more flexible than foil would have been, spanning an opening smaller than my little finger and therefore impossible to poke through from the outside.

I finally managed to squeeze the bottle hard enough to break the plastic seal--an act which also deposited a larger than necessary portion of shampoo in my hand.

In conclusion, although I appreciate the corporation's efforts to reassure me about the purity and authenticity of my little travel bottle of Johnson's Baby Shampoo, I would be just as content if it had a less vigorous security system.

Best regards,
J. L. Bell

23 July 2009

This One Was That One or That One Was This One

People know that Dr. Seuss viewed Yertle the Turtle as a metaphor for Hitler (who'd been dead for a decade before the book appeared). The Lorax is a heavy-handed environmental fable. Horton the elephant and Bartholomew Cubbins are heroes, each in his own way, and the Cat in the Hat a figure of misrule. But the Dr. Seuss story that has long struck me as holding the most lessons for the real world is “The Sneetches.”

Some of the story's morals are pretty clear: caste systems are powerful but ultimately pointless, fashion is merely a way to enforce caste systems, and we're all the same under our furry (or is it feathery?) skins.

But underneath those unimpeachable bromides is a more useful and frightening message: A salesman like Sylvester McMonkey McBean will sell you anything. His sales pitch for one product will contradict his sales pitch for another. He'll sell you product A to solve one problem, and then product B to solve a problem created by product A. Despite his patter, McBean doesn't care about you; he cares about the sale.

For a long time, my favorite example of this behavior in the real world came from the telephone companies. They sold us telephone directories, and then they sold us unlisted numbers. They sold us caller ID, and they sold us caller-ID blocking.

The mortgage-industry meltdown has brought even better examples. Executives from companies that plugged subprime mortgages to homeowners who couldn't afford them are now making money by promising to help clean up the messes those loans produced.

In the Wall Street Journal:

The number of former mortgage lenders and brokers finding ways to make a living from the foreclosure crisis continues to mount.

Andrew "Drew" Gissinger III, formerly an executive managing director of Countrywide Financial Corp., has formed a firm in San Diego to act as a broker for banks selling foreclosed homes.
In the New York Times:
From the ninth floor of a downtown office building on Wilshire Boulevard, Jack Soussana delivered staggering numbers of mortgages to homeowners during the real estate boom, amassing a fortune.

By Mr. Soussana’s own account, his customers fared less happily. He specialized in the exotic mortgages that have proved most prone to sliding into foreclosure, leaving many now scrambling to save their homes.

Yet the dangers assailing Mr. Soussana’s clients have yielded fresh business for him: Late last year, he and his team — ensconced in the same office where they used to broker mortgages — began working for a loan modification company. For fees reaching $3,495, with most of the money collected upfront, they promised to negotiate with lenders to lower payments on the now-delinquent mortgages they and their counterparts had sprinkled liberally across Southern California.

“We just changed the script and changed the product we were selling,” said Mr. Soussana...
The Times article reports that Soussana's company is now being sued by the FTC for false claims.

In “The Sneetches,” McBean departs with all the sneetches' money, convinced that the creatures will never learn anything.

22 July 2009

How Come They Can’t Find Any Boy Books?

Diantha McBride's article for School Library Journal described several disparate things she as a school librarian would like to see from publishers, including:

I need more books for boys--as do most librarians who work with young people. I've noticed that lots of books with female characters aren't really about being female. In fact, in many cases, the main characters could just as easily have been males--and that would make my job a lot easier.

Our young guys love Anthony Horowitz's “Alex Rider” series (Philomel), Dav Pilkey's stuff, and Jonathan London and Frank Remkiewicz's “Froggy” books (Viking). But a novel like Ann Halam's Siberia (Random House, 2005) could have included a male protagonist. (Sorry, Ann, but it's true.) And Gloria Whelan's The Impossible Journey (HarperCollins, 2003) could have featured an older brother and a younger sister--instead of 13-year-old Marya and her younger brother, Georgi.

Am I being silly? Probably, but some of our boys have never read a complete book in their lives. It's important to offer them good, appealing stories, and, sad to say, that means stories with prominent male characters.
Martha Brockenbrough at MSN Movie News, of all places, replied to McBride with an essay titled "Are We Letting Boys Be Book Bigots?" Her main point:
the problem isn't the books, it's the way we're raising our boys. If they aren't willing to read about girls, and if we're indulging that sort of nonsense, then we are raising boys who will have a hard time functioning in a world where girls play serious roles. In other words, the real world. . . .

We need to teach them to take an interest in all sorts of stories, not just the ones that feature kids like them. This means exposing them to a lot of different stuff. We should, of course, encourage kids to find themselves in books. That's a wonderful and powerful thing. But we should help them find people who are different, too, so they learn to value other ways of being in the world.
I agreed with that sentiment, but as I considered my response to the discussion I felt something nag at me. It took a while before I realized what it was. McBride's complaint is based on a false premise: that we're drastically undersupplied with books about boys.

There are hundreds of new children's books published each month. And older books don't expire at the end of the year; they're still on shelves, too. Plus, the internet has made more books more widely available than ever in the history of literature. Surely among all those thousands of books there are enough with male protagonists for a boy with that requirement to read for an entire year. He just needs to know about them. But publishers aren't hiding that information.

Furthermore, McBride works at the American School of Madrid, which is hardly representative of American school libraries. I suspect the boys there come largely from the upper and upper-middle classes, with cosmopolitan parents who value education and have the means to provide it. If those boys "have never read a complete book in their lives," even when their librarian knows about Pilkey and Horowitz, then they must be making an effort to resist.

McBride is apparently willing to spend her budget on new, unproven books with male protagonists because her male students tell her they can't find anything interesting to read. Those are probably the same boys who stand in front of an open refrigerator complaining that they can't find any food.

21 July 2009

Wanting It Both Ways for $.99

The latest Amazon brouhaha really started when the store's Kindle section offered George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm for $.99. The usual price for an electronic book through Amazon (including an edition of the latter title) is $9.99, a price that many in the publishing industry think is much too low.

Kindle users therefore had to know that buying one of these modern (i.e., copyrighted) classics for 90% off the usual price was a tremendous bargain. Perhaps they thought they were taking advantage of a loss-leader promotion. Perhaps they thought they were just taking advantage. Perhaps they just didn't think. But the basic technique of a con artist is always to make the mark think he's getting away with something.

It turned out that the company which had served as a conduit for those digital texts didn't actually have the right to offer them. In other words, they were pirated editions, with no compensation to Orwell's estate or publisher. No wonder they came so cheap!

When alerted to the situation, Amazon deleted the 1984 and Animal Farm files from its servers, which caused copies to vanish from people's Kindle readers. The company also refunded all those customers their full $.99.

The reaction, as reported by Publishers Weekly, was all too predictable: many Kindle users complained that Amazon should have let them keep the files they hadn't actually been entitled to buy. After all, they didn't know those books were pirated. (They just knew they were getting a tremendous bargain.) Of course, people who wind up in possession of physical stolen goods, even inadvertently, don't get to keep the stuff, and they don't get their money back.

Some Kindle owners expressed resentment about how Amazon's software removed the file from their devices without their explicit consent. Yet the highly touted advantage of the Kindle over other electronic-book readers is that it has a speedy connection to Amazon's servers. ("Auto-delivered wirelessly," the webpages promise.) Apparently these folks wanted that connection to work only one way, and only to their advantage.

In the discussion of this situation on Amazon's Kindle forum, my eye was caught by M. Francis's early comment:

Consider how many posts there have been here where people rant and rave because Amazon doesn't do enough to help owners of lost or stolen Kindles get them back. Now there are complaints because Amazon does make the effort to get stolen (and that's what unauthorized books are) books "returned" to the copyright holders. Talk about a no-win situation. . .
But such perspective doesn't stop the sputtering.

Here's a simple rule: If we stand on principle only when it benefits us, then we're not really standing on principle at all.

20 July 2009

Jules Feiffer’s Secret Origin

My favorite detail of GraphicNYC's interview with author, playwright, and cartoonist Jules Feiffer is the revelation of who was responsible for his pioneering history of superhero comics: future National Book Award-winning novelist E. L. Doctorow.

“Doctorow was the senior editor at Dial Press, and we were friends,” Jules remembers. “He called me up one day and said ‘I want to do a book called The Great Comic Book Heroes, and I can’t think of anyone else but you to write it. Are you interested?’

“I said ‘Where do I sign?’

“We worked it out, and I told him from the beginning that I didn’t want to make it a work of scholarship, because I didn’t do homework. I didn’t do it in school, so why should I do it as a grown-up? I wanted it to be my reminiscences of comic books, and since I was there from the beginning in 1938, I was nine when Superman came out.”
The interview also spends significant time on Feiffer's "semiautobiographical novel" for young readers, The Man in the Ceiling. Feiffer is now working on an unabashed memoir of growing up, so he really warmed up to that theme:
“School [was] impossibly difficult on every level, and expectations from grown-ups were beyond what I could meet, but something I could fake and faked all the time,” Jules says. “I faked my way through school and the approval of family. Childhood was the act of being a CIA agent in enemy territory, waiting to get back home. Getting back home was where I could run my own life, and my own life was represented by what I read in newspaper strips and particularly comic books, which were home turf to me. . . .

“I was just doing time. The sense was that I was the prisoner of these grown-ups and other peoples’ opinions and priorities. Through some miracle, I had a mother who allowed me to act out my ambition and dreams and that was my out. That was the straw [with] which I breathed through underwater.”
The man has a way with metaphors, doesn't he?

19 July 2009

168,604 Copies?!

That's the number that the Diamond comics distributor reported as its estimated sale of the first issue of Batman and Robin, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, according to icv2.

To put that number into context, in two months this spring no American comic book sold 100,000 copies--the worst high-water marks on record. The runner-up in June sales was the 600th issue of Captain America, and that sold fewer than 113,000. (It was $2.00 more expensive, however, and thus earned more revenue.) The only hero who's sold more comics this year is Barack Obama, appearing in January's Amazing Spider-Man.

Obviously, Batman and Robin had a lot going for it: a celebrated team of creators, a #1 label, lots of promotion, and a truly eye-catching cover. Plus, of course, a new Robin, and a new role for the original Robin.

June also saw the first issue of Red Robin, following intermediary Robin Tim Drake as he does DC Comics's best Jason Bourne imitation (surprising people on rooftops all over Europe). It sold over 64,000 copies, a considerable jump over the recent sales level of the Robin magazine. But the real test of the decision to shake things up for the character will come in the next few issues. Will people continue to buy Red Robin after #1?

That issue did answer one question the weekly Robin raised last year: What will happen to the Robin logo, which changed little between 1991 and 2009? Tim got custody of a modified version of it. The letters have been squeezed and arched, and the O was replaced with the symbol that Alex Ross created years ago for Red Robin's breastplate (which looks an awful lot like Hawkman's, actually).

18 July 2009

Learning to Speak Fannish

At noscans_daily, a poll has asked members what types of fan activity they participate in besides discussing comic books in that forum. After asking about other things people might be fans of, the survey queries:

What fanworks do you make? What fan activities do you participate in?
  • Fanfic
  • Fanart
  • Cosplay
  • Filk
  • Vidding
  • Remixing
  • Vidblogging
  • Podcasting
  • Machinima
  • Con-going
  • Blogging (not everyone here uses their journal [i.e., their LiveJournal account], or uses it for fannish purposes)
  • RPing
  • None
Which necessitated a trip to Urban Dictionary. I was pretty sure I'd never filked or machinima'ed, but if I had I'd want to know about it. I inserted links above for the terms I didn't know, or didn't know a couple of years ago.

Then I got to the comments on this survey, which added even more to my vocabulary:
  • "I mostly just watch fandom from f_w, to be honest."
  • "I do game translations but I also do game playthroughs on Youtube."
  • "And fangirl/boy, and write bandom RPF, and include the term 'selling out' in their vocabulary?"
Oh, there's so much to learn.

17 July 2009

Another Way that Travel Broadens the Mind

How many ways must one person learn to turn on the water in a bathroom? 

Traditionalist that I am, I prefer the classic approach. You turn the knob. Left is hot, right is cold. Lefty loosy (more water), righty tighty. 

But I'm familiar with the option of swiveling the lever. Left is hot, right is cold. Up is more, down is off. 

Or you twist the two separate levers, colored red and blue. 

Or you tip the knob. Back is hot, forward is cold. Down is more, up is less.

Or you punch back the buttons. Or perhaps you push down the buttons. And punch or push again when the water stops after five seconds.

Or you wave your hand under the spigot.

And then there are the shower controls. And the drain plugs.

As you might be able to tell, I've spent the last week using bathrooms in various hotels, restaurants, airports, and friends' guest rooms. And I'm very glad to be home.

16 July 2009

To Tread the Jewelled Thrones of Earth Under Her Feet

From Kristopher Reisz at the Guys Lit Wire:

Conan the Barbarian in one of those iconic characters--like Sherlock Holmes or Dorothy Gale--that people think they know without bothering to read the actual stories they appeared in.
A fine comparison indeed.

Cimmerian versus Kansan, I'm putting my money on the blonde.

14 July 2009

Batting .666

Today I played my first game of pick-up softball in about twelve years. (It's hard to form a company team when you're self-employed.) I learned that regaining softball skills is proverbially like riding as bicycle. The moves come back quickly enough, and the legs last only about half an hour.

Because of the paucity of players, we were playing with three teams of three and no far right field. That meant for a very quick rotation through the batting order.

In my first at-bat, I had an inside-the-park home run to the opposite field. In my next up during the same inning, the outfield shifted right, so I hit a double to far left. Ha!

The next inning, I hit a couple of singles. While in the field, I lost a throw in the sun, and found it when it bounced up and hit my forehead.

The final inning I flied out to second and struck out. On about eight straight swings. (Pick-up rules.) So obviously those old skills had hit a cliff. And goodness knows how my body will feel tomorrow.

12 July 2009

Why We Quip

This weekly Robin installment is a follow-on to the preceding essays about the Boy Wonder as comic relief, and DC's collective effort to develop established aspects of superhero characters into meaningful personality traits. In this case, it's about an unnecessary step in the same direction.

From the very beginning of American superhero comics, the heroes and villains have conversed while fighting. Usually the villain lobs threats and the hero makes jokes. We often see panels that contain both punches and a long word balloon--or two.

Some readers find that unrealistic. Obviously the punch takes place in less time than the speech. Folks can accept people with superhuman powers and/or outrageous costumes, but not those same characters puffing out witticisms during a fight.

Judd Winick is among the comic-book scripters who have tried to provide a logical explanation for that habit, as in this panel from The Outsiders.
And below is another explanation, based on personality rather than fighting tactics, from Dick Grayson to Damian Wayne in the latest issue of Batman--also scripted by Winick.

Such efforts strike me as both futile and unnecessary. Futile because no explanation really covers all the circumstances in which superheroes observe this convention. Plus, the notion that quipping offers an advantage in a fight would mean vigilantes would need gag writers as well as costume and weapons designers. ("Okay, so you start with a few 'Your mother's so ugly' jokes, and--What? Starro is an alien species with no mother?")

And unnecessary because the essence of all comics is words and pictures together--two types of visual information stimulating different parts of the brain. The words make superheroes and supervillains distinct, and add the symbolic weight which makes the better stories more than people in costumes hitting each other.

I figure superhero comics are unrealistic enough already that they can do stuff that doesn't make sense, that's in the story just because it's fun.

10 July 2009

Dorothy Meets Her Match

From L. Frank Baum's The Road to Oz, the focus of the Winkie Convention that starts today in California. While on a hike that will eventually take her to Oz, Dorothy meets a younger child.

In the shade sat a little boy dressed in sailor clothes, who was digging a hole in the earth with a bit of wood. He must have been digging some time, because the hole was already big enough to drop a football into.

Dorothy and Toto and the shaggy man came to a halt before the little boy, who kept on digging in a sober and persistent fashion.

"Who are you?" asked the girl.

He looked up at her calmly. His face was round and chubby and his eyes were big, blue and earnest.

"I'm Button-Bright," said he.

"But what's your real name?" she inquired.


"That isn't a really-truly name!" she exclaimed.

"Isn't it?" he asked, still digging.

"'Course not. It's just a--a thing to call you by. You must have a name."

"Must I?"

"To be sure. What does your mama call you?"

He paused in his digging and tried to think.

"Papa always said I was bright as a button; so mama always called me Button-Bright," he said.

"What is your papa's name?"

"Just Papa."

"What else?"

"Don't know."

"Never mind," said the shaggy man, smiling. "We'll call the boy Button-Bright, as his mama does. That name is as good as any, and better than some."

Dorothy watched the boy dig. . . . "What are you going to do?" she inquired.

"Dig," said he.

"But you can't dig forever; and what are you going to do then?" she persisted.

"Don't know," said the boy.

"But you must know something," declared Dorothy, getting provoked.

"Must I?" he asked, looking up in surprise.

"Of course you must."

"What must I know?"

"What's going to become of you, for one thing," she answered.

"Do you know what's going to become of me?" he asked.

"Not--not 'zactly," she admitted.

"Do you know what's going to become of you?" he continued, earnestly.

"I can't say I do," replied Dorothy, remembering her present difficulties.

The shaggy man laughed.

"No one knows everything, Dorothy," he said.

"But Button-Bright doesn't seem to know anything," she declared. "Do you, Button-Bright?"

He shook his head, which had pretty curls all over it, and replied with perfect calmness:

"Don't know."
And by the end of the book, we still don't know Button-Bright's real name, home, or how he came to be by the side of that road.

09 July 2009

For Added Body

Travel broadens the mind, especially in regard to what substances manufacturers have decided to put into shampoos.

I favor a shampoo whose main ingredient appears to be...shampoo. I know, however, that there's a healthy market for shampoos built around things we usually consider edible, floral, or medicinal.

Even so, I wouldn't have thought that pine tar would be high on the list of substances one should put in one's hair. Who would think of that?

Oh, Edgar Cayce.

08 July 2009

The Comeback of Vanished Fictional Forms

I'm typing this in the San Francisco Bay Area, America's technology heartland, so it makes sense to consider how our new world of digital media might change the forms in which we tell and consume verbal stories. (In other words, what we used to call "books.")

Last month thriller writer J. A. Konrath opined about how one form of digital publishing might change the forms in which we tell verbal stories:

I believe novellas are where e-book self-publishing really has an advantage over print. A 15,000 word book doesn't cost much less than a 70,000 word book to produce, so it has to be priced comparably, and people don't want to pay full price for something so short. But in a digital world, you can lower the price of shorter work.
I agree. In another fifty years literary critics might look back and see a reflowering of the novella in the early 21st century, and wonder about its artistic roots. I suspect the real impetus will be economic.

Looking at the offerings on Scribd, Lulu, or other electronic publishing sites show that already many of their most popular items are shorter works. That's probably fits with how people read digitally, in snatches of time. Konrath is correct that readers want more for a "book price" than a mere novella, but online a novella's relative brevity and cheapness could be a plus.

Another form I think is likely to make a return is the serialized story--again, distributed digitally direct to subscribers (or web visitors) rather than on paper.

In the last half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, this was the dominant form. Only after stories were completely told in popular magazines was the same text put between book covers.

We can still see the effects of that economic model in the novels of such authors as Charles Dickens and E. Nesbit. They laid down their stories in serialized installments, like layers of sedimentary rock. Often those stories work best when one reads from one installment to the next, as the original consumers did.

In the mid-twentieth century, general-interest magazines like The Saturday Evening Post shrank, physically and in number. With them went their serialized stories. Magazine fiction became synonymous with short stories coming out of MFA programs. When Rolling Stone serialized Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities in the 1980s, it seemed like a rare novelty.

Already we've seen one massive bestseller grow out of online "serialization": Diary of a Wimpy Kid. More will come.

06 July 2009

Gerald and the Ugly-Wuglies

This spring Eva's Book Addiction offered an insightful review of E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle, with particular attention to the Ugly-Wuglies:

those creatures created out of coats and hangers and pillows and blankets and broom handles and hockey sticks and gloves to fill out the seats for the children's home theatrical performance. They come alive accidentally due to an unwise wish, and scare the dickens out of everyone when they start applauding at the end.

It's horrible when these scarecrow-like figures get up and stump down the hall on their odd and unwieldy legs but worse yet when one of them tries to talk. A long string of vowels comes out of its painted mouth, vivid against its white pillow-case face, and it says the same thing over and over - "Aa oo re o me me oo a oo ho el?" - until finally Gerald understands. And what horror did this Ugly-Wugly utter?

"Can you recommend me to a good hotel?"
The Ugly-Wuglies are, it turns out, empty versions of middle-class Victorian Englishmen and women. And nothing's scarier than that.

05 July 2009

What’s So Funny About Batman?

As I discussed in the last weekly Robin installment, starting in the early 1980s DC Comics writers began to treat Dick Grayson's sense of humor as more than a long-established character trait to entertain readers. It was a long-established character trait with meaning. Dick's puns (1940-c. 1970) were presented as a manifestation of his boyishness.

During the 1990s, the character of Batman became more grim, moving closer to the driven character in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Batman became known in the DC Universe for not making jokes--or at least every time he does so, it's cause for comment.

That of course makes a big contrast with Dick Grayson's usually light-hearted attitude. To build on Douglas Wolk's argument in Reading Comics that superheroes symbolize different ideas, Bruce and Dick show us different approaches to life, bound up in how willing each man is to joke.

Does Batman have to be grim? (Well, he wasn't grim from 1940 to 1965 or so, but that's another story.) DC is exploring that question now that Bruce has temporarily died and Dick has taken on the cowl. In the upcoming issue of Batman, characters and preview readers observe that the Caped Crusader is actually smiling.
And that's not all. Over the past twenty years, DC's writers have presented Dick's sense of humor as having important meaning for Bruce Wayne. Despite his dark personality and pessimism, Bruce enjoyed Dick's jokes and happy attitude. Seeing Dick have fun kept Bruce level.

Thus, Robin's puns, which started in 1940 as simple comic relief during fight scenes, have developed into a trait that illuminates not just his character but other characters around him.

This isn't an individual scripter's portrayal, but the collective vision of many writers and editors riffing off what's come before. The two major comic-book universes are the creations of hundreds of people, most of whom grew up visiting earlier versions and trying to figure them out.

Why did the original Batman have a "laughing young daredevil" at his side? Why was Robin always cracking jokes? Those things couldn't be in the magazines just to entertain us--not if the DC Universe were to have internal coherence and logic. By putting together two logic-defying aspects of the Dynamic Duo, DC's creators found their way to portraying a more complex relationship between the two icons.

04 July 2009

Interviewing an Author on Interviewing Characters

Something to chew on from the Institute of Children's Literature's online interview and chat with Cynthia Leitich Smith on her preparation for writing her novels:

seasplash: How do you interview your characters?

Cynthia: I tend to do a Q&A of each one especially the protagonist and antagonist. I think writers tend to underestimate the complexity and importance of the antagonist. I ask them a lot of questions about themselves, but also the other characters. Sometimes the character's best friend or worst enemy will reveal something that they won't.

COCOA: When you start to write a story, how much of the plot do you have to set in your head? Is it all plotted out or do you sort of figure it out as you go along?

Cynthia: I usually have an opening line. Sometimes, but not always a whole scene. But I have a good idea of what the protagonist thinks he/she wants. Usually, it takes a lot of drafts before he/she (for that matter I) figure out what the deeper, true goal is.
Which is, of course, something that interviewing the character can't answer because he or she doesn't know yet.

And of course everyone in children's books should know about Smith's Cynsations website.

03 July 2009

“The Nearby Explosions”

In anticipation of Independence Day, here's a quick extract from Steve Macone's Boston Globe essay about the temptation and dangers of illegal fireworks (illegal in Massachusetts, that is):

As an adolescent, fireworks were a kind of currency. You’d take them out of a backpack while your friends perched nearby on bikes and set them off in a spending spree.

Once, my father walked by and caught us. Just happened to be walking by, he said at the time. How unfortunate, I thought at age 12, to have my father be out taking a stroll, which he had never done before, and have him stumble upon us. It wasn’t, of course, the fact that he found troubling the combination of my not being home and the nearby explosions. . . .

We all know what’s good about fireworks. There’s something of the American ideal in their upward trajectory and beauty on the backdrop of open space. The fingers of the explosions, shooting off in exponential pathways, are a sort of Manifest Destiny writ large across the sky. And each beach organization always trying to improve upon last year’s show is like pyrotechnics as a sign of progress.

But that’s where fireworks belong: in the sky, not in kids’ hands--reflected in a child’s glimmering eyes, not lodged there. No one ever watches the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and thinks, “You know, I would like to orchestrate a smaller yet more dangerous version of that in my backyard.”
And that was true even before the Macy's balloons started crippling people.

02 July 2009

It Turns Out He Can Write

Shaun Tan is best known in the US for The Arrival, his wordless picture book in comics form. His Tales from Outer Suburbia is a collection of surreal vignettes told, for the most part, in a more traditional illustrated-book format. There are a couple of spreads with art and text mixed together, but more often we see narrative prose matched with full-page illustration.

Almost like a real picture book, one might say. Except that the reading level is higher, and the sensibility much higher, probably even adult. Yes, most of the vignettes include a child's point of view and are perfectly readable, but I suspect it requires more perspective to appreciate them fully.

Tan's illustrations come in a variety of styles--some color, some grayscale or sepia; some sketchy and others rendered in detail; some heavy with lines and cross-hatching, others painted in splots of color. Yet they share a common visual style that links them to The Arrival.

Similarly, Tan's prose has hallmarks that extend through most of these pieces. Even though some of the anecdotes take place at specific times and others are general descriptions of Life (or How It Used to Be), they share a sense of absolutes. Such words as "always," "never," and "everyone" appear a lot.

We don't get a chance to know many individual characters; the pieces are too short, and I also feel a sense of distance or disconnect between people on top of the surrealism. But we do get a sense of this suburban society--or is it societies? In other words, we do get a sense of everyone.

To my tastes, nothing in the book surpasses the first two vignettes, "The Water Buffalo" and "Eric." But all together Tales from Outer Suburbia adds up to an experience as well as a book.

[ADDENDUM: And it turns out Tan can speak, too. But I need time to tune into his Australian accent. Graphic Novel Reporter is featuring three videos of Tan drawing and talking about the friendly creature from The Arrival. At least I think that's what he's talking about.]

01 July 2009

A True Story That Will Never Become a Picture Book

In the comments to yesterday's posting, one Oz and Ends reader asked, "So inquiring minds want to know: what was your favorite phallosymbolic school-age anecdote of the last five years?"

This story starts two summers ago when I was visiting a friend's house in the country. Between that house and others nearby, there were a great many children underfoot, all related by blood, marriage, adoption, or simple proximity.

One little boy (who, I should note for the record, was neither Godson nor Godson's Brother) was about to go into kindergarten. As a consequence, his parents were working hard to discourage his habit of absently clutching his genitals through his shorts.

This little boy, whom I'll call L, held himself tight only when he was anxious or upset. However, since he was four or five, those occasions were not infrequent. L had learned not to clutch himself in public, but soon I and other guests had become familiar enough that we didn't count as the public. He was more successful at remembering not to hold himself when he was outside.

But one afternoon L's father set up some simple model rockets in the big back yard. We all gathered to watch. After the first couple of launches, the dad started inviting different children to come and help him press the launch button. "This is E's rocket. . . . Now we'll try K's rocket. . . . And now it's L's turn."

L's rocket failed to launch. His father worked furiously to fix the problem. The other children ran around offering advice. But L's only consolation was clutching his genitals more firmly then we'd ever seen. L didn't let go until, as Freud would have told us, his rocket successfully shot into the sky.

But that's only my third-favorite phallosymbolic school-age anecdote of the last five years. I tell it because it's necessary to set up my top choice, which comes from the following summer.

A year in school matured L tremendously. There were fewer anxious moments, and he handled them better. His speech now differentiated the sounds of R and W. He no longer clutched his private parts, even in the privacy of the home.

Except once. When I had to break the news that there were no hot dogs left for lunch.