30 September 2009

Boston 1775 Travels the Road to Revolution!

Over at Boston 1775, I’ve been exploring Road to Revolution!, a graphic novel for kids by Stan Mack and Susan Champlin published by Bloomsbury just in time for the new school year.

This comic novel (in both meanings of the term) uses a lively fictional story with dual protagonists—boy and girl—to relate the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.

My posts included:

And along the way there was a look at Paul Revere’s word balloons.

I hear Mack and Champlin will be based in New York for the rest of the year, and are ready to talk at schools and libraries about researching history and drawing comics.

29 September 2009

The Psychological Distance of Noninteractive Media

Seth Schiesel sat down to review a slam-bang-punch-’em-out videogame for the New York Times. He ended up having to consider the differences in how stories differ from interactive entertainment in the psychological distance they offer consumers.

Schiesel’s review lays out the premise of the game Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2:

In a panic, Congress passes and the president signs the Superhero Registration Act, requiring all heroes to submit to government oversight and monitoring. The fearful public approves.

And so the heroes are split between the pro-registration loyalists led by Iron Man, who believe that submitting to the government will increase security, and the anti-registration rebels led by Captain America, who believe that the act is fundamentally, uh, un-American.

You, the player, must choose a side. . . .

This story arc, known as Civil War, was first explored in a series of print Marvel comic books written by Mark Millar a few years ago. I’m not a comic-book expert, but after playing Ultimate Alliance 2 I read the main Civil War books. What I found was a nuanced, probing examination of the interplay between freedom and security that has always defined Americans’ discussion of civil liberties. . . .

Noninteractive media like books and movies allow the viewer some psychological distance from the characters. That sense of remove is a big part of how linear media can explore complex topics of morality: by depicting characters you are not expected to agree with, but merely understand. Great tragedies, after all, are propelled by characters who believe they are doing the right thing, not those trying to be villains.

For instance, a depiction of the psychological struggle of a Nazi soldier as he tries to reconcile his genuine patriotism with a realization that he is serving an evil regime could make a great novel. Books and films are filled with poignant characters who believe they have to do the wrong thing for the right reason. In a civil liberties plot like Marvel’s Civil War, the noninteractivity of print may allow readers to empathize more easily with the motivations of a character they disagree with.

But a game forces the player to occupy a character. That psychological distance is eliminated. And so the other side must be reduced merely to the Enemy. The story of that Nazi soldier would make a culturally uncomfortable, and politically impossible, video game because the player would probably have not merely to witness but also to act out the killing of Allied soldiers and possibly civilians.
One of the benefits of reading fiction, critics have long said, is that it allows us to experience other people’s lives for a time, increasing our understanding and empathy. But can there be too much empathy? Is that effect overwhelming when we’re not simply reading about someone, even reading that someone’s thoughts, but actually making decisions for him?

28 September 2009

Neal Adams and the New Fall Colors

Yesterday I showed the cover of DC Universe Illustrated by Neal Adams, vol. 1. That frantic artwork isn’t the only new material created for this volume. Adams’s studio also extensively reworked the interior pages starting from his line art. I’d read fans’ debates over what changed from the initial publication in magazine form, but the whole point of comics is that artwork conveys information that words can’t, so I went looking for some actual visual examples.

The following are panels from a larger selection posted by AussieStu at these two pages. First, a look at Ralph and Sue Dibny from Adams’s first superhero assignment. The coloring is obviously improved from an aesthetic point of view. Ralph’s face stands out better from Sue’s sweater, as do other details. The background looks more realistic. Sue’s hair isn’t cut off by the word balloon at top.

Most significantly, modern digital coloring allows for the characters’ faces and other curved surfaces to be “modeled” with shadows and a gradation of flesh tones. Previously, comic-book coloring was basically paint by numbers. The draftsmanship of the time was designed around the limits of the coloring method.

Though Adams wasn’t involved in coloring his drawings then, he had strong feelings about the process. He recalled badgering DC into expanding its palette, for example. So he no doubt was delighted to have the chance to use more sophisticated methods (and, it’s clear from comments on his website, to have DC pay for the new work).

However, sometimes those revisions have come at a cost. Here’s another example from the same book, in a tale of Clark Kent babysitting. The coloring pops more, and the curves of the little boy’s body are softer. But in these panels we can see a bigger change, starting with the word balloons.

Perhaps because the collection has a smaller trim size than the original magazines, perhaps because fanboys’ eyes are aging, Adams’s studio appears to have scanned the lettering and reproduced it slightly bigger, relative to the panel size. That produced new, clumsier line breaks and spacing and, with long speeches, larger balloons. In this panel, the top balloon is so big that it’s crowded Adams’s artwork off the bottom of the panel.

Here’s another comparison from that Clark Kent story. The new coloring is more dramatic. The new lettering is more horsy. There are other changes evident in the DC Universe Illustrated volume. Some sound effects have obviously been recreated digitally. One tale features dinosaurs, and their skin looks like the modern conception of those animals; I suspect the original publication rendered them quite differently, according to the 1960s science.

In sum, this collection doesn’t show Neal Adams’s work as it originally appeared, in the form that made his reputation as a leading comic-book artist. But apparently it shows his artwork as he’d prefer it to be preserved. Which is the definitive version? Well, we can have that debate about lots of artists and writers.

Here are more eye-opening examples of comics that have been recolored:

27 September 2009

The Legend of Jericho and the Teen Titans

This is one of the more dramatic and less flattering Robin images of recent years, drawn specially for the cover of DC Universe Illustrated by Neal Adams, vol. 1, the latest in a series of hardcover reprints of Adams’s artwork for DC Comics in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Earlier volumes covered Adams’s ground-breaking work on Green Lantern/Green Arrow, Deadman, and Batman (including the Batman/Teen Titans crossover, “Punish Not My Evil Son!”, a precursor to today’s storyline of Bruce Wayne suddenly acquiring a son of questionable morals).

In this volume DC leaves no barrel unscraped by assembling a miscellany of Adams’s superhero and war stories, including three issues from the Teen Titans in 1969. The story behind those issues is actually more interesting than the story they tell. The backstage drama appears in Adams’s introduction to this book and in the interviews in The Titans Companion, volume 1, by Glen Cadigan.

At the time, Adams was among the younger creators at DC Comics, pushing the company to make its magazines both technically better and more socially relevant. People came to see him as a mentor and advocate of a couple of even younger writers, Marv Wolfman and Len Wein.

In late 1968 they scripted an issue of Teen Titans that team introduced a not unsympathetic Soviet superhero—a daring move at the time. And they had an even more daring idea for their next assignment.

As Marv Wolfman told Cadigan:

We met with [editor] Dick Giordano, and told him our idea of a gang, a black super-hero, and of a fairly straightforward type of story, closer to what we were seeing in Spider-Man, but with the Teen Titans. We came up with a black character because DC didn't have any at the time. . . .

Dick liked the story concept, but knew that there could be some problems because of the time period, and brought us into Irwin Donenfeld’s [office], who I guess was the Vice-President; I forget the exact title. We met with Irwin for maybe fifteen minutes at most. Irwin said he really wanted us to try to do this, try to make it a multi-parter—which, in itself, was incredibly exciting—to really be powerful and very street and very authentic, and try to get down and dirty, get a lot grittier. . . .

A couple of weeks later we came back, and at that point Irwin had left and there was a new person in charge. Whatever the reasons were, because there are so many differences of opinions on this, the story got dropped. Whether it was actually because it was a bad story, or whether it was because of some other reasons, I don’t know.
Actually, the DC editorial team was aghast at what Wolfman and Wein had delivered. They were probably prepared for Jericho to be DC’s first black hero (as Marvel had already introduced Black Panther and Falcon), but the young writers had gone really “down and dirty.” Giordano recalled:
Len and Marv came back with a story that everyone but me, evidently, thought was too preachy in its approach to the race problem. Carmine [Infantino] brought the lettered pencils that he may have had on his desk to design a cover and threw it on my desk, rejecting it! It was already a tad late and there was no way of my replacing it on time. But for Neal Adams!
And Adams picks up the tale:
Not only was it a black character, but it was a black character who was very aggressively mouthing anti-white [dialogue]. Very, very aggressive black-oriented dialogue, right off the bat. . . .

I started to hear some really hostile reports relative to the script from Carmine. Everybody was just lit up, and I was worried about [them]. Here Len and Marv were trying to make it into the business, and they had just fried their own chicken. So I was concerned about them. I checked into it, and I asked if I could read the script. I thought, maybe just a little doctoring of the script could fix it.
Of course, since people perceived Adams as Wolfman and Wein’s sponsor, a bit of his own reputation was on the line. Here’s how he describes that moment in the DC Universe Illustrated volume:
Len and Marv appealed to me to step in. . . . I went in and made a case. The suits read the dialogue to me...aloud.

I said...just have Len and Marv modify the language.

They didn’t trust them to do it. I volunteered to do it.

They asked did I read the whole script?

I hadn’t. So I did.

Oh. Golly.

Yep, they had done it. It pushed so hard that DC wouldn’t abide it. No amount of dialogue doctoring would turn it around. Len and Marv were ahead of their time. DC wasn’t.
And the deadline for that multi-issue arc was getting tighter. Adams suggested that he could write a similar story without the racial angle, one which probably had to fit the announced title “Titans Fit the Battle of Jericho.” Infantino insisted that Adams needed to pencil the story himself in order to keep the magazine on schedule. The result is a crazy casserole of youth politics, giant robots (as shown at top), masked men, guest stars, crime bosses manipulated by interdimensional monsters, and more.

Adams wasn’t too pleased with his hurried work for Teen Titans, #20-22, in terms of writing or art, but felt that he’d helped preserve Wolfman and Wein’s careers. Giordano saw the whole thing as “my blunder,” and regretted that he and his fellow editors were ordered not to use those young writers. Wolfman recalled, “Len and I didn’t get work for almost two years from DC.”

At least that’s the legend of Jericho. Except that Wein told Cadigan that DC blackballed him and Wolfman over something else, which he didn’t specify:
It was nothing to do with that story. It had to do with an entirely different situation. . . . Something had happened that we were accused of which we were not responsible for. We were sort of blackballed there, and when it was eventually proven that someone else at the company, who had been there for many years, was responsible, they shame-facedly said, “We’re sorry. Never mind,” and we came back to work for them.
That discrepancy is a mystery for comics historians to solve.

In early 1970, longtime DC editor Robert Kanigher (1915-2002) introduced DC’s first black superhero, Mal Duncan, in the pages of Teen Titans. [ADDENDUM: More of that story, and editor Dick Giordano’s use of coloring to minimize complaints about an embrace between Mal and a white girl, at Comic Book Legends Revealed, #229.]

26 September 2009

The Savvy Traveler’s Guide to Oz Allusions

On Thursday I posited that “the closer American children’s books come to Kansas, the more they have to allude to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and/or its sequels.” Today’s example is Savvy, by Ingrid Law.

This contemporary fantasy starts just outside Kansas, strictly speaking—in a patch of magically-made land between that state and Nebraska. But the Oz allusions are inescapable:

  • swirling wind storms that send Mibs Beaumont, her brothers, and their neighbors on their journey of discovery.
  • a town called Emerald.
  • yellow brick.
  • a diner owner referred to as “the great and powerful Ozzie.”
  • another character called a witch.
  • one of Mibs’s brothers called a “mangy, snooping little dog.”
That said, I think the review at Rhapsody in Books stretches a bit when it says, “This book is a rather obvious derivation of The Wizard of Oz,” and tries to analogize each of Mibs’s companions to Dorothy’s. There are simply too many of them to be the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion, even if there’s an obvious candidate for Toto.

25 September 2009

Ideas Are Incombustible

From Ellen Hopkins’s poem “Manifesto,” inspired by a challenge to one of her novels, and made more timely not just by Banned Books Week but also by challenges to two of her other books:

A word to the unwise.
Torch every book.
Char every page.
Burn every word to ash.
Ideas are incombustible.
And therein lies your real fear.
Full poem and downloadable poster from Censorship-Free Libraries.

24 September 2009

“I naturally thought of Oz”

There may even be a rule that the closer American children’s books come to Kansas, the more they have to allude to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and/or its sequels. Case in point: Matt Phelan’s graphic novel The Storm in the Barn, set in Kansas in 1937.

Phelan wasn’t a childhood Oz fan. He told the comics website Newsarama, “I didn’t actually read the first Oz book until I took a college class on children’s literature. I was surprised about how truly weird it is.” But once he decided to tell a story inspired by Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl, Phelan felt a need to bring in the Oz books:

Since the story is set in Kansas, I naturally thought of Oz, so I named his sister Dorothy. I thought that a girl named Dorothy who lived in Kansas at that time would naturally be interested in the Oz stories, so having her read the books seemed natural.
That quotation comes from Kelly R. Fineman’s conversation with Phelan, and she went on to write:
Whereupon I praised Matt’s knowledge of the Oz stories and confessed that I’d only read two, maybe three of the books as a kid, and Matt confessed that he’d pretty much done the same, but that plot summaries on Wikipedia drew his attention to Ozma of Oz because of its reference to a desert.

Initially, Matt read the book “just to read it”, but the references to the Deadly Desert turned out to be perfect for incorporation into The Storm in the Barn, which is set in Dust-Bowl Kansas where it hasn’t rained for years. Add to that the benefit of the Oz books being subject to fair use, and text from Ozma found its way into Jack’s story as well. Says Matt, “I just lucked out that it worked.”
(Actually, all books are subject to fair use, even when they’re under copyright. L. Frank Baum’s Oz books are in the public domain, and thus subject to any use, even “unfair.” Not that this use is unfair. It’s quite a nice use indeed.)

Ironically, the “references to the Deadly Desert” in the Wikipedia article and in The Storm in the Barn itself (Jack’s mother looks at the book and uses the phrase) don’t actually come from Ozma of Oz. That 1907 book refers to “the deadly, life-destroying sands of the desert” around Oz. The phrase “Deadly Desert” appears first in The Road to Oz (1909). The author David Alvin composed Wikipedia’s entry on Ozma of Oz using facts established in subsequent books.

23 September 2009

First They Came for the Guinea Pigs

Jan Gardner’s “Shelf Life” column in last Sunday’s Boston Globe highlighted how Uncle Bobby’s Wedding, by local author-illustrator Sarah S. Brannen, has the unlucky distinction of being among the ten most frequently “challenged” books of 2008. Because it depicts two guinea pigs doing something that’s legal and actually encouraged for people in this state: getting married. Apparently there are a lot of anti-marriage (or anti-guinea pig) people out there.

Printz Award winner Laurie Halse Anderson just learned about new challenges to her novels Twisted and Speak. One of those situations was quickly resolved, but two more are going on. To one committee she’s written:

I suspect the roots of the parental concern about Twisted are the scenes in which teenagers make stupid, dangerous, and occasionally horrifying decisions.

Why on earth would someone like me put things like that in a book?

Because readers who can experience those decisions – by reading about them – and appreciate the consequences of those actions - by seeing those consequences affect the lives of a book’s characters - are less likely to do the stupid, dangerous and occasionally horrifying things themselves.
Verse novelist Ellen Hopkins just got disinvited from a school visit in Oklahoma because one parent challenged one of her young adult books about addiction, Glass. Hopkins wrote that series after helping her own daughter with a drug problem. Already having her plane tickets, Hopkins flew to Norman and spoke in that community last night.

I’ve met all three authors, and many more, through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Obviously, these three were exploring some of our society’s fault lines and tender areas, and that’s made people nervous. But that’s what good authors often do. And even material as seemingly innocuous as Martin Handford’s Where’s Waldo? can produce a challenge (because of this detail in one crowded picture).

All of which is a lead-in to Banned Books Week starting this Saturday, 26 September.

22 September 2009

How Lincoln Lasts

This being the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, I’m not surprised that I took in his Gettysburg Address no fewer than three times this summer.

One was in the form of C. M. Butzer’s Gettysburg: The Graphic Novel. This nonfiction comic that comes in three movements: a brief recounting of the Battle of Gettysburg, the story of how President Lincoln came to the town to help dedicate its military cemetery, and an interpretation of his address in pictures.

The other two times came at Longfellow House, a National Park Service site in Cambridge, where I helped to welcome visitors to events. Once was on Independence Day weekend when a Lincoln impersonator delivered the address. Another was a reading by John Stauffer, author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.

On the first occasion, Johnny Monsarrat of Weird Boston Events had come for the Gettysburg material, but told me he wasn’t familiar with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I rattled off the titles of poet’s long narrative poems: The Song of Hiawatha, Evangeline, Paul Revere’s Ride.

Then I discussed another of Longfellow’s contributions to our language: he was one of America’s top creators of clichés. “Into each life some rain must fall”? Longfellow. “I hear the bells on Christmas Day”? Longfellow. “Excelsior!” Longfellow. (Not Stan Lee.) Phrases ranging from “ships that pass in the night” to “Sail on, oh, ship of state!” originally came from Longfellow, though we’ve forgotten their sources.

Of course, Longfellow didn’t create those phrases to be clichés. They were fresh when he came up with them, and rhythmic enough to stick in the mind. But Longfellow was so popular, so reprinted, so memorized, that his phrases have become too familiar to retain their power. Even within his lifetime he was being parodied, as in Lewis Carroll’s “Hiawatha’s Photographing.”

And yet generations of American schoolchildren have also memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Entire books have been written about it. Like some of Longfellow’s poems, the opening has even been set to music (for the show Hair). So give me the right musical backing, and I can start to recite it myself.

Yet the Gettysburg Address hasn’t become cliché. Its familiar phrases—“dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”; “the last full measure of devotion”; “government of the people, by the people, for the people”—are still resonant and powerful.

21 September 2009


This photograph by Robert Shoemaker was the readers’ choice in the Animals category of Country Magazine’s 2009 photography contest.

Hard to believe, I know.

To see the other category winners and—if you’re so inclined—to vote, visit the Country Magazine website.

I’ve been a subscriber to Country for years, despite living in inner suburbia and not even gardening. I feel it maintains a link to my Midwest heritage.

20 September 2009

Another Time Robin Was Almost Black

The last weekly Robin discussed the report of a proposal to give Batman “a black ghetto kid” as a new sidekick in the early 1980s. In the following decade a different set of Batman storytellers came up with a similar idea.

After the huge box-office success of Batman (1989), Warner Bros, and director Tim Burton planned a sequel. Daniel Waters’s working script from 1991 included “A scruffy Teen” who reads comic books and helps Batman fix the batmobile. Most of the script refers to this character only as “the Kid,” but then we see “an enigmatic R on his [repair-shop] uniform.” Toward the end comes this scene:

Batman squeals his Ski-boat to a stop and vaults off it. The Kid rushes up and flips him the pinwheel object.
Guess I won't be needing to borrow the descrambler anymore. At least not for a while...We save the city or what?

Getting there. I owe you two. Got a name?

Yeah.....but I like to be called...Robin...

Nice name...Oh Robin...
When Batman turns back around, the Kid, ROBIN, is gone. Batman smiles at the utilization of one of his own traits.
This isn’t the Robin we see in the comics, fighting close beside Batman and occasionally tripping over things. But he does fulfill another important “reason for Robin”: he’s a motor-mouth, expressing emotion and pointing out dangers that the stoic, monosyllabic Batman doesn’t deign to mention.

Though the script doesn’t describe the Kid, Burton liked the idea of casting a young African-American in the part. When the name “Robin” would finally be heard, it would carry a charge: why couldn’t Batman’s Robin be a black youth instead of a white teen with dark hair and blue eyes?

The Kid was left out of the final shooting script for Batman Returns, but slotted for the next sequel. That production went far enough that the studio cast young actor Marlon Wayans, with a screen test and costume fitting. Then Burton decided not to make the third movie, reportedly because the studio wanted him to tone down his vision so it would be more suitable for McDonald’s Happy Meal toys.

Director Joel Schumacher came on board for what would become Batman Forever. He preferred a more traditional Robin: white teenager, orphaned circus flyer, you know the drill. Schumacher reportedly considered Leonardo DiCaprio before deciding that he didn’t look like he could stand up to Chris O’Donnell in a fight. (Schumacher also decided to replace Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent/Two-Face after he’d appeared in the first Batman movie.)

Marlon Wayans received what in publishing would be called a kill fee, which was a lifeline for a young actor struggling to make it in Hollywood, as he explained in this 1998 interview. He went on to co-write and star in a series of successful movie parodies. In an interview earlier this year while promoting GI Joe, Wayans joked:
I get why they picked Chris O’Donnell, because it would be messed up to have Batman and you’ve got Robin, and his bulge is somewhat bigger than Batman’s. Batman would have a serious problem with that.
An analysis that recognizes one memorable feature of Schumacher’s Batman and Robin.

19 September 2009

I Was a Rat’s Narrative Voice

Philip Pullman’s short novel I Was a Rat! offers an example of his unusual approach toward narrative voices, which I highlighted last Saturday at Southern New England SCBWI’s “Encore!” session.

Here’s a description of that approach from Laura Miller’s 2005 New Yorker profile, titled “Far From Narnia”:

Pullman is a partisan of the third-person omniscient narrator, which he thinks of as a character in itself—a disembodied “sprite.” This ringmaster of many a nineteenth-century novel can, as he told me, “go anywhere and do anything and see anything, and is both male and female, both old and young, wise and foolish, cynical and credulous, all these contradictory things at once. The narrative voice that tells Middlemarch is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mr. Casaubon.”
Inspired by the Cinderella legend, I Was a Rat! recounts the experiences of a young rat whom a fairy godmother turned into an ersatz princess’s pageboy, and various people he encounters.

Among those people are an elderly couple who take the boy in and call him Roger, the officials and students at a school he briefly attends, a carnival showman who offers him the chance to become a rat-boy again, a gang of young housebreakers—a gamut of Dickensian types.

We also get periodic glimpses of a tabloid newspaper’s coverage of the new princess and the mysterious rat monster. I suspect those might have been the impetus for this book, published in 1999 as Pullman’s His Dark Materials series made him into a public figure in Britain, a spokesperson for both children’s literature and religious skepticism. (He’s been trying to use that prominence to speak out against “age-banding” of books and registering of all adult visitors to British schools.)

Having become a boy only a week or so before, Roger is a total naif, and he has a tendency to revert to rat behavior, such a nibbling on things. [This may be less unusual among boys than I thought when I read the book. This summer, while greeting guests at Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge, I saw a boy about nine years old gnaw a hefty stick into small pieces. He chewed on other sprigs as well, enough that I wondered whether to tell him that the law forbids removing flora from National Park sites.]

I Was a Rat!’s narrative voice scurries from one part of the story to another. Thus, we’re inside Roger’s head when he enters a classroom for the first time, but when the headmaster takes him away we readers stick with the rest of the class and witness what happens next through their eyes. Sometimes we follow the elderly couple, and other times the carnival huckster and his wife, and yet other times we’re detached from any character.

The result is a lively and often funny romp, yet not one that takes us deep into Roger’s experience of having turned from rat to boy. Perhaps that metamorphosis wouldn’t be so funny close up. But I can easily imagine other writers choosing a different narrative approach, focusing more narrowly on Roger’s perceptions and activities and leaving the supporting characters to the side.

18 September 2009

Far From the Great American Superhero Novel

Captain Freedom: A Superhero’s Quest for Truth, Justice, and the Celebrity He So Richly Deserves, by G. Xavier Robillard, is a satirical novel that aspires to do for America’s superhero mythology what Christopher Moore’s You Suck did for vampires or Lamb did for the Jesus legend.

But the book feels more like a minor movie from the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker school of comedy: throw any joke you can think of at the screen, and hope some of it will stick.

Captain Freedom addresses every common aspect or cliché of superhero mythology: sidekicks, arch nemeses, aliens, time travel, love affairs, mother issues, father issues, adopted-son issues, etc.

And for the sake of attempted laughs it swipes at many and varied aspects of modern American culture: celebrity rehab, comic-book censorship, kitchen decorating, color coordination, dinosaur rehabilitation, interventions, file-sharing, etc.

Here from page 136 is a passing bash at one aspect of the culture, which gives a sense of the book’s tone and targeting:

We contract a few secret polls and learn that the best thing I can do to improve my image is to produce a children’s book. . . .

Before long, my children’s book, Brush Away Fear, is published! It contains illustrations by the best artists and the delightful prose of an unknown writer who agreed to take the job after I offered to pay off her gambling debts. True, I did not author this book myself, but it embodies the Captain Freedom spirit, and I answered the very important questions put forth by my creative staff. Should it rhyme? No. Does it have to have a moral? Heavens, yes. To keep the project honest, I write the acknowledgments myself.

The difference between mine and other celebrity kids’ books is that mine is nonfiction. There aren’t enough nonfiction children’s books out there. Fiction itself is a form of lying, and that’s not an appropriate message for youngsters.
Years back I also criticized Perry Moore’s Hero for piling on too many plot points and letting its main story get lost in the swirl. But that book had a valuable and affecting main story of a young man coming to terms with being both gay and super-powered. Captain Freedom and his book don’t come to terms with anything.

As you can tell from that extract, the novel is written in present tense—Robillard even hangs out a lampshade about that choice. Captain Freedom exists in a blissfully ignorant present, and says as much: “People who enjoy history are always appallingly obsessed with it.” But the result is that there’s no real sense of time passing, and thus no narrative arc. Or, for that matter, narrative.

(Captain Freedom was one of three review copies I was offered over a short period that came with comparisons to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Not one of those books was a Southern gothic satire of morals featuring an overeducated, overweight egomaniac. But this one at least had an egomaniac.)

17 September 2009

Removed from Its Mythological Context

I loved Kristopher Reisz’s recollection of shopping for a comic book about 1991 and getting more than he bargained for:

Before I wade in, though, I should explain that there are actually two Sandmen in the comic book world. One Sandman’s real name is William Baker. He is a man made of sand. A supervillan with all the powers of sand is pretty much as useless as he sounds, except to point out the kinds of goofy stories I was enthralled with.
Coincidentally, that Sandman is showing up in this week’s Spider-Man newspaper comic strip.

I’ll resist the fanboy temptation to point out that there was another Sandman in American comics before either of the two Reisz mentions, a “Golden Age” hero with a gas mask and a gas gun. Nope, you won’t hear that from me.
Anyway, when I was thirteen, William Baker briefly turned good and had his own mini-series. That was the book I went into the comic shop to buy. By some divine accident, though, I walked out with a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman instead.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman has thousands of names. He is the god of dreams and the source for every story ever told. He has existed almost since the dawn of time. He has near-infinite powers but serious problems with his siblings, the personifications of destiny, death destruction, desire, despair and delirium.

To sum it up: I was in over my head. . . .

When my mom found Sandman, she sort of freaked. Censoring didn’t come naturally to her. She gave me Twain, Kipling, and Vonnegut, but the pictures disturbed her, for instance this naked and blood-drenched Maenad kissing Orpheus’ severed head, which removed from its mythological context, is pretty twisted.
For that picture from Sandman Special, #1, and the rest of the story, check out Guys Lit Wire.

16 September 2009

Rep. Joe Wilson’s Values, Today’s Republican Values

Let’s put aside, for the sake of argument, the fact that President Barack Obama was telling the truth (as judged by FactCheck.org, Politifact.org, ABC News, and many other neutral sources) about how the House health-insurance reform bill excludes illegal immigrants from its benefits.

Let’s accept for the sake of argument that Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, though he wasn’t telling the truth, really thought he was.

In that case, he faced a choice between two values during the President’s address to Congress: telling the truth versus being polite.

In 2003, Wilson weighed a similar choice of values when Essie Mae Washington-Williams (shown above, courtesy of Talking Points Memo) revealed that Sen. Strom Thurmond—one of Wilson’s early employers—was her father. This was true, Wilson eventually conceded, but he still felt that Washington-Williams should not have made the information public.

Rep. Wilson decided then that being polite to Thurmond’s memory should trump telling the truth, even if the truth was about Thurmond being one’s own father.

This month, however, Wilson faced the same clash of values, and came down the other way. He felt that telling the truth was more important than being polite to the President of the United States as he was in the middle of a speech to both houses of Congress on national television.

What variable explains the difference in what Wilson judged to be proper action? I can’t help but think that he values being polite to the memory of a white man, even a segregationist skirt-chaser, as more important than being polite to a black man, even the elected President.

I’m far from the only observer who has reached this conclusion. On the 10th, the AP reported that “At least three members of Wilson's voluntary, minority advisory committee said they resigned Thursday.” And New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd reluctantly decided, “Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president...convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.”

Wilson’s fellow Republicans in the House (not one of whom is black) have now refused to officially disapprove of his behavior, much less censure it. They voted that way even though, as the New York Times reports:

lawmakers have been cited for personal attacks on a president during routine House debate when the chief executive was not present. House guidelines on the rules of debate say it is impermissible to refer to the president as a liar.
Wilson not only made an impermissible statement, but did so directly to the President during a joint session of Congress.

The Republican House leadership and rank and file chose to ignore their body’s rules and deem it acceptable to call this President a liar. So again I ask, What variable explains the difference?

15 September 2009

Boston 1775 Highlights Tricking the Tallyman

Yesterday at Boston 1775 I wrote about Tricking the Tallyman, a recent story about the first US census written by Jacqueline Davies and illustrated by S. D. Schindler.

It “gets to the core of what it means to live in a democracy: the balance of rights and responsibilities.” And all in a picture book, too.

14 September 2009

Look at the Pretty Pictures

At the Oz Enthusiast, Bill Campbell discusses an illustration that Dale Urey created for a never-published edition of Ozma of Oz. At some point the picture’s original background was whited out, and Campbell had it restored. However, in the end he seems to think that the erasure improved the composition of the picture.

Comixology ran an article by medieval historian and librarian Karen Green on the affinity between medieval narrative art and comics. All the usual sequential-art suspects are here: Trajan’s column (1st century), the Bayeux Tapestry (11th century), banderoles as word balloons (discussed back here). For additional Oz content, Green’s second essay in this online column was whether to add Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls to the Columbia University collection.

Lastly, Tom Tomorrow’s Modern World (published online by Salon and Credo) channeled Goofus and Gallant to show the difference between political protests this year and those of the past, oh, seven or eight years.

13 September 2009

The Legend of Batman and Raven

Robin: Tragedy and Triumph was DC Comics’s second volume of stories about Tim Drake, the fourth (or, by some counts, third) Robin. Editor Dennis O’Neil’s preface on the history of Batman sidekicks begins, somewhat self-congratulatorily, “The third time we got it right.”

O’Neil writes with authority about the role of Robin in the early Batman comics, which I’ll analyze someday alongside my own “Reasons for Robin” series. Today the weekly Robin explores a path that O’Neil says DC didn’t take after the success of the New Teen Titans magazine of 1980 made Robin into the tail wagging the Batman dog.

As O’Neil told the story in 1993, the company decided Dick Grayson should become Nightwing. And as for a sidekick for Batman:

Gerry Conway began seeking a replacement.

Gerry was writing the Batman titles and he felt Robin was a necessary part of the saga. Or, if not Robin, maybe a new sidekick? Gerry suggested that Robin be retired and replaced by Raven, whom Gerry conceived as a black ghetto kid. It was a nifty idea, one that today might very well be adopted, but at the time Gerry’s superiors opted for tradition. They wanted nothing more or less than another Robin—fast.
The result was the first Jason Todd, basically a younger Dick Grayson with red hair—which was quickly dyed black. Other analyses suggest that DC didn’t dare make a big change because it had deals with too many licensees selling the traditional image of Robin as a white teenager with black hair and no pants.

However, there are some inaccuracies in O’Neil’s history. He describes Jason Todd being invented after Dick Grayson became Nightwing, but in fact the new boy appeared in the comics a year before, as Conway’s run on the Batman and Detective magazines culminated with the May 1983 issues.

It’s easy to spot why O’Neil was confused. In the early 1980s he was writing for Marvel (particularly Daredevil and Iron Man), so his knowledge of Robin-replacement conversations was secondhand at best. O’Neil returned to the Batman comics as editor in mid-1986, just in time to deal with the second Jason Todd.

Furthermore, there’s no way DC would have seriously considered giving Batman a sidekick named Raven in the 1980s. The company already had a major character using that name. That Raven was a linchpin of the same popular Titans team that was taking up Dick Grayson’s time. (Read more about her at Titans Tower.)

So did Gerry Conway really propose the new team of “Batman and Raven”? It would be nice to resolve this mystery Annie Hall-style by saying, “I happen to have Gerry Conway right here,” and pulling him out from behind a movie poster to resolve the questions.

Alas, when I raised the question through the weekly Robin Twitter feed, @gerryconway’s quick and gracious reply was: “Hmm. Sounds like something I might have thought of, but I’m not 100% sure.” Which isn’t surprising. Conway’s been coming up with ideas for comics and other formats full-time since 1969. If a quarter-century ago one short-lived idea was “Batman and Raven,” he never had time to dwell on it.

My suspicion is that Conway did propose making Batman’s new sidekick a poor black kid as a way to do something different, possibly even progressive, with the opening created by Dick Grayson‘s impending departure. The phrase “Batman and Raven” might have been a shorthand label for that idea—sounds like “Batman and Robin,” but new.

I suspect O’Neil later heard of that idea during discussions of what to do with Jason Todd, who quickly lost popularity with readers in the late 1980s. Starting in the late 1970s, O’Neil had been part of the cohort that pushed DC into contemporary themes, along with Neal Adams, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, and other young creators.

I suspect the “Batman and Raven” meme stuck in O’Neil’s mind as a slightly revolutionary road not taken. (Revolutionary for superhero comics of that time, that is.) And, knowing that that Raven could never fly, he shared the idea with readers in 1993 to encourage them to consider forgone possibilities.

NEXT WEEK: Another time Robin was black—almost.

12 September 2009

Boston 1775 Considers Johnny Tremain

Yesterday and today at Boston 1775, I’ve written about the Newbery Medal winner for 1944: Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain.

How does the novel reflect its time and the time in which it’s set? How did Forbes deal with her editors? And what scene did she delete from her manuscript at the final stage?

11 September 2009

Fill in the Blank

The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest Book is the first and so far only collection of those captionless comics at the back of the New Yorker magazine, each printed with the three “finalist” options and the winner that appeared in sequential issues of the magazine.

Cartoons editor Robert Mankoff worked hard to fill out the volume with information that hasn’t been published before: remarks on what makes a usable captionless cartoon (a recognizable scene with an anomalous element), commentary from winners and finalists (it’s apparently quite a coup to get your name in the magazine), pie charts of the voting results, and other statistics.

I couldn’t resist crunching one set of numbers. Among the finalist captions, there were 309 from men and only 105 from women (about 3:1). Among winners, the male-female ratio is more even, but still over 2:1—105 men’s captions to 43 women’s. So does this contest favor men over women?

Not really. According to Mankoff, “In general, five times more men than women enter the contest.” So women who send in captions are far more likely to become finalists and to win. To put that another way, men are far more likely to think they’re funny.

Another set of data derives from comparing the entrants’ given names to the most common given names in the country. For example, the name Robert is the third most common among American men (and the name of the book’s editor); it’s therefore not a big surprise that Bob is the top name among men entering the contest. Mary is the most common name among American women, and the fourth most common among entrants.

Certain given names are greatly overrepresented in the New Yorker captain contest, so much so that they seem to be markers of people who think they’re funny (in a New Yorker way, of course):

  • Harold is #40 in the country and Harry is #70. Among the male caption entrants, however, Harold is the second most common name and Harry the fourth.
  • Marge is only the 1,251st most common name in the country but the third most common among women entering the contest.
So now you understand your Uncle Harry and Aunt Marge a little better.

10 September 2009

The Woggle-Bug’s Thorough Command of the Language

One of L. Frank Baum’s creations in his second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz, was H.M. Woggle-Bug, T.E.

The “H.M.” stood for “highly magnified,” because this insect had been expanded (through a school overhead projector of a sort no longer made) to human size. “T.E.” stood for “thoroughly educated,” the degree the Woggle-Bug had conferred on himself after leaving that school.

Like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, the Woggle-Bug felt that to be educated meant to have control over words. Here is a passage shortly after he joins the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and their motley friends:

They soon discovered that the Saw-Horse limped, for his new leg was a trifle too long. So they were obliged to halt while the Tin Woodman chopped it down with his axe, after which the wooden steed paced along more comfortably. But the Saw-Horse was not entirely satisfied, even yet.

"It was a shame that I broke my other leg!" it growled.

"On the contrary," airily remarked the Woggle-Bug, who was walking alongside, "you should consider the accident most fortunate. For a horse is never of much use until he has been broken."

"I beg your pardon," said Tip, rather provoked, for he felt a warm interest in both the Saw-Horse and his man Jack; "but permit me to say that your joke is a poor one, and as old as it is poor."

"Still, it is a Joke," declared the Woggle-Bug; firmly, "and a Joke derived from a play upon words is considered among educated people to be eminently proper."

"What does that mean?" enquired the Pumpkinhead, stupidly.

"It means, my dear friend," explained the Woggle-Bug, "that our language contains many words having a double meaning; and that to pronounce a joke that allows both meanings of a certain word, proves the joker a person of culture and refinement, who has, moreover, a thorough command of the language."

"I don't believe that," said Tip, plainly; "anybody can make a pun."

"Not so," rejoined the Woggle-Bug, stiffly. "It requires education of a high order. Are you educated, young sir?"

"Not especially," admitted Tip.

"Then you cannot judge the matter. I myself am Thoroughly Educated, and I say that puns display genius. For instance, were I to ride upon this Saw-Horse, he would not only be an animal he would become an equipage. For he would then be a horse-and-buggy."

At this the Scarecrow gave a gasp and the Tin Woodman stopped short and looked reproachfully at the Woggle-Bug.
Eventually the Tin Woodman has to twirl his sharp axe meaningfully to make the Woggle-Bug drop this line of argument.

(And eventually Baum began to write of “the Wogglebug” and “the Sawhorse.”)

09 September 2009

Boston 1775 Reviews Unite or Die

Today at Boston 1775 I complete a four-day meditation on the picture book Unite or Die: How Thirteen States Became a Nation, by Jacqueline Jules and Jef Czekaj, and how it fits with our modern understanding of the U.S. Constitution.

It all started here.

08 September 2009

“Set Your Own Goals for Your Education”

Today President Barack Obama delivered an address to schoolchildren, available for national viewing by television. Many other Presidents have made similar speeches or appearances, including George W. Bush’s leisurely visit to a Florida schoolroom on 11 Sept 2001.

But word of Obama’s speech aroused right-wingers to a fury. The chairman of the Florida Republican Party, Jim Greer, called it an attempt to “indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda.” The Republican lieutenant governor of Missouri, Peter Kinder, said, “The distribution of teaching curricula from the White House to the classroom clearly usurps the authority of our local school boards and school administrators”—ignoring how previous administrations and his own state government offer teaching materials. Some Republican parents promised to keep their children home.

Which cements the irony that President Obama’s speech was a non-political exhortation to work hard and stay in school. As garymmorris joked on Twitter, “That back-to-school speech was seditious when Andy delivered it to Opie in 1963 and it’s just as seditious today.”

Some Republicans claimed that the speech would be political. There would be a precedent for that in Ronald Reagan’s televised chat with students in November 1988, when he took the occasion to promote tax cuts. But Obama’s critics offered no evidence whatsoever for their claims—which were, of course, political.

In October 1991 George H. W. Bush made a similar address, asking students “to write him a letter about ways students could help him achieve his goals, strikingly similar to Obama’s messages,” as Politico reported. At that time, Democratic leaders in Congress complained that Bush was using government funds for a political campaign. Of course, there’s an important difference. Bush was running for reelection. Obama, on the other hand, was elected President only a few months ago.

Not that his virulent opponents wish to acknowledge that status. The extreme, irrational response to this event from so many Republicans looks to me like an attempt to deny Obama’s legitimacy as President, at least to themselves. Republican members of Congress have also stated that he’s not constitutionally qualified to be President and that he’s a fascist.

Obama’s major policies have been center-left, not radical, and he’s tried to govern through bipartisan initiatives, only to have Republicans refuse nearly all cooperation. What do those right-wing politicians find so frightening? Well, it’s hard to imagine them treating a white President with so much suspicion and disrespect.

[ADDENDUM: As if to confirm that observation, the next day Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) shouted out “You lie!” during President Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.]

(Photograph by Doug Mills for the New York Times.)

07 September 2009

Yo Ho Ho

Looking for a middle-grade story starter? From historian Larry Cebula’s Northwest History blog:

On a personal note, my 9-year-old son, a bright boy and a fan of Captain Jack Sparrow, became fascinated with these 300 year old directions to pirate treasure [from the Rhode Island Historical Society].

As I write this he is pouring over an atlas map of the Caribbean trying to match up the cryptic “J L” and “B O” to some modern feature. I am impressed by the way he is thinking historically—“Dad! Do we have a map of the Caribbean that was made in 1719? Because the names might be different now!” “Dad! Is there a biography of the guy who wrote the directions? Because then we could see where he went and narrow it down.” The poor kid is ruined.
Historical research is so much like detective work that I think it’s a natural basis for a middle-grade mystery.

06 September 2009

Red Robin vs. Batman?

DC Comics is promoting Red Robin, #4, on sale this Wednesday, with this dramatic cover image of the title character (Tim Drake, who was Robin from 1990 until this year) fighting the current Batman (Dick Grayson, formerly Robin and Nightwing). On Twitter, DC tweeted, “RED ROBIN vs. BATMAN?”

As I responded in the new weekly Robin Twitter feed, “The question mark shows they’re just toying with us.” When a comic-book company can’t muster up even one exclamation point, we know there’s not going to be a “RED ROBIN vs. BATMAN” battle.

I’d be skeptical about a fight between these two characters even if there had been an exclamation point. That’s because, as I’ve written before, their fraternal bond has been an unshakable part of the DC Universe’s bedrock for the past twenty years.

Which is all the more reason, of course, for DC to hint that that bond has broken. Comic-book covers show what’s most dramatic and dire. What could alarm readers into buying comics more powerfully than a fight between these guys?

But by now we should know that comic-book covers lie. They’ve done so almost since the beginning. (In the first Batman story in Detective Comics, #27, for example, Batman never swings down on a rope gripping a man by his neck, as the cover shows.) Just as comic-book superheroes are symbolic characters, readers soon learn that most covers merely symbolize the story to be found within.

DC has played this game with Tim Drake and Dick Grayson several times before. The cover for Robin, #10 (above), shows Tim with another teen dressed as the original Robin looming dangerously behind him. The adventure inside reveals that this is the original Robin, Dick, caught in a temporal warp.

But there’s no looming in the story. The two guys get along famously, even at the start when each thinks the other is an impostor. Which is incredibly rare since comic-book rules say superheroes always have a misunderstanding and fight before teaming up.

The cover for the Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day paperback edition (shown here in a Spanish translation) pictures Robin and Nightwing sparring as their teammates also square off. The book has nothing of the sort. Instead, both teams fight against common foes. Furthermore, while Robin’s teammates are impulsive (one is even named Impulse), and thus at odds with Nightwing’s orders, Robin never is.

The cover for Nightwing, #110, has Nightwing dangling Robin off an apartment building. Not only does that scene never happen in the book, but during the two characters’ conversation Dick Grayson isn’t even wearing his Nightwing costume.

The fiery cover for Robin, #139, depicts Robin and Nightwing at each other’s throats. That story is, to my knowledge, the closest they have come to an actual fight. Dick physically tries to keep Tim from reaching one of Ra’s al Ghul’s Lazarus Pits.

The tussle lasts about a page and a half, during which the fraternal conversation never stops. Then Robin and Nightwing team up against another martial artist. Ultimately, Dick decides to let Tim make his own decision, and the scene ended with the two characters hugging.

The first issue of Red Robin established new tension between Dick as the new Batman, who’s chosen a new Robin, and Tim, feeling cast off. I expect that when the characters meet again in the new magazine, they will argue. There may be sarcasm, and sulking, and refusal to listen. But flying fisticuffs, as shown on the cover? Not a chance.

05 September 2009

The Danger of Blank Pages in Comics

So in The Dream Hunters Neil Gaiman wrote a fictional tale of japanoiserie, and then a secondary fictional tale of finding the first in a book of Japanese folklore, only to find that people accepted the second tale as true and the first, thus, as authentic.

So what lessons can we take from that story behind the story-behind-the-story of The Dream Hunters? Aside from the general gullibility of crowds (myself included at first).

Gaiman himself saw the size of the afterword’s typeface and other design elements as critical to how it was interpreted:

...the afterword was printed in small official-looking type.

Which somehow made it no longer part of the story, and nobody ever doubted that I was telling the truth about this being an old Japanese folktale...
It’s true that the afterword is set at an eye-strainingly small size. But would readers have reacted differently if the same text had appeared on a double-page spread with, say, a photo of Gaiman in his study, examining some unidentified antique volume? Would that really have seemed like part of the story rather than part of the publishing apparatus (acknowledgments, credits, and so on)?

What I find more interesting is the reason Gaiman wrote that afterword at all:
I got a worried call from [editor] Jenny Lee, saying that the book was going to run short and could I do anything to fill a few pages at the end.
Most book publishers don’t get worried about “a few pages at the end” with nothing on them. Novels and other prose books usually have a couple of blanks at the front and back, and sometimes more in between. Indeed, starting every chapter on a right-hand page (recto), thus leaving some of the facing left-hand pages (versos) blank, is one way to pad out a short manuscript.

Of course book publishers don’t want to pay for more paper than they have to, nor to run so many blank pages together that readers notice. There are tricks to avoid those problems:
  • optional pages, such as half-titles (which display the book’s title, but not the author’s name or publisher’s colophon).
  • moving the author’s dedication to the copyright page, or giving it a page on its own with a blank following.
  • including an author bio inside the book, or leaving it out.
  • a section title page and blank before the notes, index, or other backmatter.
  • the ever-popular note on typography!
If, after all available tricks, a book over 100 pages long still has two or three blanks at the front or back, a traditional prose publisher doesn’t sweat it.

Comics publishing must be different. The Dream Hunters came in at 128 pages, every spread illustrated in full color on glossy paper. But apparently readers would have felt cheated if the volume had contained only 125 pages with content. Comics readers seem to expect every page of a volume to hold words or art.

And indeed, I’ve seen complaints about collected editions that include a black page inserted between chapters to ensure two-page spreads fall appropriately. Some readers prefer images reprinted from elsewhere in the book to any sort of blank. Which is how we, and Gaiman, got into this mess.

04 September 2009

Dreaming Down a Hunt

Yesterday I offered a lengthy quotation from Neil Gaiman’s afterword to The Dream Hunters, explaining how he had come to rewrite a Japanese folktale into a Sandman volume for DC Comics.

Or had he? In Prince of Stories, an admiring book about Gaiman by Hank Wagner, Christopher Golden, and Stephen R. Bissette, the now-Newbery-winning author explained the story behind that story-behind-the-story:

So Amano was illustrating Dream Hunters and I got a worried call from [editor] Jenny Lee, saying that the book was going to run short and could I do anything to fill a few pages at the end. So I wrote an afterword, about how this really was an old Japanese folktale, and [I] expected it to be treated with as much respect as my claims on the box of the first Sandman statue, that [artist] Kelly Jones and [sculptor] Randy Bowen and I had been allowed into the vaults beneath the British Museum to copy it.

And then it turned out that we didn’t have the pages to fill after all, and the afterword was printed in small official-looking type.

Which somehow made it no longer part of the story, and nobody ever doubted that I was telling the truth about this being an old Japanese folktale which happened to have Morpheus, a raven, and even Cain and Abel in it.
So in The Dream Hunters, Gaiman wasn’t rewriting a Japanese folktale at all. But he was hitching a ride on outsider images of Japanese culture—was that cultural appropriation and misrepresentation? To complicate matters, Gaiman’s secondhand and ersatz Japanese images were then turned into graphics by the actual Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano.

Perhaps in describing “the Rev. B. W. Ashton’s Fairy Tales of Old Japan” Gaiman really appropriated an aspect of stereotypical British culture: the earnest Victorian clergyman engaged in amateur scholarship, creating leather-bound books that no one will read for decades.

Complicating matters further, on 25 Dec 2007 Gaiman was presented with the news that someone had written on Wikipedia that he’d borrowed elements of the tale from from Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, which he’d never read.

TOMORROW: What this strange tale really tells us.

03 September 2009

Hunting Down a Dream

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the launch of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman magazine [the twentieth is upon us now], DC Comics invited him to pen a new volume. He came up with a prose story titled The Dream Hunters, illustrated in color on every spread by Yoshitaka Amano.

The Dream Hunters is set in a mythological Japan, and at the back of the book Gaiman’s one-page, small-type afterword describes how he developed the story:

[For another project] I read all the books I could lay my hands upon that dealt with Japanese history and mythology, and it was in the Rev. B. W. Ashton’s Fairy Tales of Old Japan that I encountered the tale that Mr. Ashton called “The Fox, the Monk, and the Mikado of All Night’s Dreaming” and was struck by the similarities—some of them almost disquieting, between the Japanese tale and my own Sandman series. . . .

I asked Mr. Amano and his sterling lieutenants, Ann Yamamoto and Maya Shioya, to see if they could find me any other versions of the story in English translation.

The version they found for me (in photocopy form) is from one of Y. T. Ozaki’s collections of Japanese tales, a strange version in which the King of Dreams is a shadowy figure, barely mentioned, who appears to be some sort of dragon, and in which the central character is the Onmyoji, the Master of Yin-Yang. (I am indebted to this work for much of Chapter Three, and some of the final chapter.) They also found me a Buddhist text in which the tale is alluded to, and in which the old man upon the road is explicitly identified as Binzuru Harada.

For the rest, I am indebted to the good reverend. As I write this I have my copy of Fairy Tales of Old Japan on the table in front of me. The leather binding is flaking and discoloured, the pages are ragged, spotted, and slightly water-stained. I felt strangely honoured to realize that, despite the battered condition of the book, I was still the first person ever to read it: many of the book’s pages were still uncut. At first I cut them open with a letter-opened, then realized that they separated more easily if I simply parted them with my fingers.

I haave tried to amplify, to expand and to retell the story as best I could, while taking as few liberties as possible. Most elements of the old story were close enough to their Sandman analogues that I would not have dared to put them in, had they not been there already. . . . students of folklore must simply find it in their hearts to forgive me for, at one stroke of my pen and my heart, changing Ashton’s Hototogisu bird into a raven.

In my efforts to retell the story I made a number of errors (and in several cases, I discovered I had compounded several of Ashton’s errors). Steve Alpert, from Studio Ghibli, was kind enough to catch and correct some of these. . . . Other, I am sure, remain in the text, for the sharp-eyed to discover.
With the requisite apology for “errors,” Gaiman is apparently comfortable with appropriating a Japanese folktale with religious overtones and not only rewriting it, but changing its characters to better match the intellectual property of DC Comics. That raven comes from Gaiman’s Sandman series. A pair of men not named in the story are obviously Cain and Abel from the House of Mystery and House of Secrets comics, whom Gaiman had further developed in Sandman.

TOMORROW: Or is that really what happened?

02 September 2009

It’s Hard Out There

This is an Espresso Book Machine—the future of literature?

I enjoyed reading an anonymous book sales professional’s advice on publishing one’s own book at Pimp My Novel, particularly the bad reasons for self-publishing:

I consider the following reasons for self-publishing to be very bad:
  • Your book has been rejected by every agent and his/her mom, so now you're going to show them/the world/your own mom/&c that you really are a published writer. . . .
  • You say you have no interest in selling your work and merely want to disseminate it widely on the Internet, but secretly believe as soon as it's out there you'll start getting phone calls from all those silly agents and editors, offering seven figure advances and instant literary stardom. Later, Brad Pitt will call to politely ask if he might be considered for the role of your protagonist once the details of the movie deal(s) are all hammered out.
  • You believe your book is too literary for 99.9999% of agents/publishers and won't sell within the traditional publishing framework because you and your book are just too darn smart. . . .
You might argue that most traditionally published books are crap, too, and if that's the case, you could very well be that guy who believes he and his book are too smart for the entire world. Whether or not this is true, it is a sad and inescapable fact that the market for your book is a subset of all the people in the entire world, so you're S.O.L. even if you and your book really are that smart, which is unlikely.
P.M.N. also provides a link to How Publishing Really Works’s analysis of self-publishing sales numbers.

I disagree, however, with P.M.N.’s statement that self-publishing makes sense only if an author is targeting “an extraordinarily small ‘market,’ i.e. your family.” I think that the technology can also make sense if an author is writing for an easily-targeted niche market, such as people devoted to a particular hobby. The problem is that novels rarely fit that publishing model.